Sparta through the eyes of an Athenian.

April 23, 2007 by aaron

_Note to Reader:_Specifically Xenophon write about the Lacedaemonians who lived in the principle region of Sparta, and credited Lycurgus (their legendary lawgiver) with their achievements. For simplicity, I will be referring to the people and state as Sparta or Spartans, and rather than referencing Lycurgus by name, I will just say the Spartans in general.

Xenophon was an Athenian born around 831 BC and was eventually exiled from Athens because of his support of the Spartans and their way of life. He wrote a rather kind review of the Spartan’s way of life, and contrasted it with life in other Greek polies’. He begins by by saying, It occurred to me…that Sparta, though…thinly populated…was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece[.] [I wondered how this could be until] I considered the institutions of the Spartans.” He continues to say that, “by devising a system utterly different from [other city-states the Spartans] made [their] country pre-eminently prosperous.” While Xenophon gives many individual ways that Sparta differs from other Greek poleis, the overreaching theme of these is that Sparta puts far more emphasis on the good of the poleis over the good of the individual, and they do this in all circumstances–not even the king is above the group mentality.

Xenophon begins by saying that the behavior of adults (male and female alike) is controlled in such a way as to create the best possible offspring. Women are not forced to stay in back rooms as in other Greek poleis, but are given the same fitness training as men to ensure they are fit for childbirth. Marriages are used solely to produce healthy offspring, but the emphasis is placed on having healthy offspring. Astonishingly the Spartans went so far that if an old man married a much younger wife he was required to “introduce into his house some man whose physical and moral qualities he admired, in order to beget children”, and that if a man did not wish to wed, but was of prime child rearing age he could “choose a woman who was the mother of a fine family and of high birth and (if he obtained her husband’s consent) make her the mother of his children.” Furthermore, wives could have two different husbands and run two different households allowing the children from the different fathers to be raised as siblings, but not have a stake in the other’s money. These last examples show just how much the Spartans valued future generations.

The Spartans believed that parents, by themselves, could not turn children into warriors, so children were placed into groups under the supervision of a warden where they would learn to be Spartans. Furthermore, because the Spartans believed that people should never lack a ruler, every adult in the community had authority over the children to the point that “[i]f a boy tells his father [that he had] been whipped by another father, [the boy’s father] give his son another whipping…so completely do they trust one another.” This “had the effect of making the boys more respectful”, and he is prepared to eventually take his place of authority in the community. The training of children was specifically geared to make them into warriors: they were not permitted sandals (to toughen the feet), owned only one kind of garment (to become used to both heat and cold), and were only provided with enough food to survive but never enough to entirely fill them. However, “lest they should feel too much the pinch of hunger…[they were] allowed to alleviate their hunger by stealing[ because ] a man who intends to take to thieving must spend sleepless nights and play the deceiver and lie in ambush by day, [encouraging] the boys [to be] more resourceful in getting supplies, and [made them] better fighting men.” However, if the boy was caught stealing he was punished for being caught, and beyond that they “made it a point of honor to steal as many cheeses…from the altar of Artemis Orthia [as possible]…but appointed others to scourge the thieves, meaning to show thereby that by enduring pain for a short time one may win lasting fame and felicity” Even though only children are under the watchful eye of the warden, older boys (lads) were given jobs that while menial, were required to be successful in the future, and were required to “keep their hands under their cloaks[,] walk in silence[ and ]fix their eyes on the ground…to prove that even in…decorum the male is stronger than the female.” These techniques produced warriors that were more (theoretically) cunning and stronger than those other poleis’, and created an atmosphere of respect from the other poleis.

As said before, even adults lives were controlled to promote the well being of the community. According to Xenophon, all Spartans ate at “public messes outside in the open [because] in other states the company usually consists of men of the same age [, but] introduced mixed companies at Sparta, so that the experience of the elders might contribute largely to the education of the juniors[, and] the conversation at the public meals turns on the great deeds wrought in the state, and so there is little room for insolence or drunken uproar, for unseemly conduct or indecent talk., and [people] must…walk home after the meal, and, of course, must take good care not to stumble under the influence of drink.” Not only was a man’s habits controlled, but a Spartan male was not even allowed to have or run a business. This forced them to spend their energies on “activities that make for civic freedom.” Even the king himself was not above the population, although in death the kings were regarded as demigods, in life their privileges were only slightly greater than that of others. The kings supped in the public mess tents, but received a double portion of the meal — in typical Spartan fashion the king could not eat the second portion, but was expected to give it to someone he wished to honor.

Overall, the Spartans were a proud and competitive people who were for large portions of their history the most powerful of the Greek states. In fact, they were so highly regarded that in the Olympics they would not compete in all but one event. They claimed they did this because it would be unfair to the other polies since they were far better at everything; such was their reputation that the other polies believed this giving the Spartans an almost god-like reputation. This reputation kept the Spartans safe from attack from other polies, so of course the would never risk it by losing a foot race or wrestling match. Oh and the one competition they did compete in? Dancing because their military training emphasized moving as a single entity, and was so well ingrained that it made them unbeatable in dancing competitions.

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