Sparta; the enigma; the myth, and the reality.
What is invoked when we consider the ancient Greek civilisation that was Sparta? When we talk of Sparta we must not only deal with the history, but the city state’s cultural make-up, influence, and not least the myth
This post will be concerned with a modicum of introductory material, as is necessary for the sake of historical lucidity, coherence and context. And as a consequence will touch upon the unique nature of Spartan society including their intriguing and stout political system. The second post will focus on Sparta's history proper. Whilst the third, in the series, will examine the myth and lore that is Sparta together with a sideways glance at Sparta's cultural legacy and modern perception. This will help us to understand why Sparta's perceived tradition became so alluring, not only to the modern eye but also to their ancient contemporaries. Arse
The Dorian folk came from the 'north' and made Greece their home, in about 1100 BC. They displaced, enslaved or enserfed the folk they found there according to will and local expediency. Apparently, the indigenous population and the usurpers were akin racially but differed in dialect. The Spartans were part of this Dorian migration and finally settled in the southeast of Peloponnese Greece. When they arrived they reduced the native population to serfdom (helots). Whilst the land belonged to the Spartans, it twas the helots who tilled the sod and the ‘fruit’ of their labours was bestowed to their masters. As to be imagined the helots were none too pleased with this arrangement but were kept in check by the force of Spartan arms. In addition, the Spartans would declare war on the helots for one day of the year. This allowed the Spartan men to kill any helots who were considered troublesome without incurring the heinous crime of murder; how convenient.
The land of the Spartans was called Laconia and in the 8th century, they conquered the neighbouring lands of Messenia thus increasing both land and helots for their avaricious lifestyle. The whole intention of the Spartan system was to free Spartan men from any labour, or business, in order that they be free to train and engage in warfare. This was to be the sole preoccupation of Sparta’s free male citizens. Male children, at birth, were examined by the elders and those deemed sickly were quietly done away with. The Spartans were not soft. Unto the age of 20, all boys were trained together in one large school. The training was geared to produce, fit, tough men, inured to pain and attuned to strict discipline. Science and philosophy had no part in the curriculum. Unlike their bitter rival, Athens, Sparta did not produce any men of extraordinary intellect. Once the Spartan male attained 20 his military service began. After 30 he became a citizen and between 20 to 30, he lived in a barracks with his peers. Although allowed to marry at 20, it was discouraged, and the man and wife lived apart. Life was simple and no one was allowed to own silver or gold; their ‘coins’ were of iron. So confident were the Spartans in their armed prowess that the city of Sparta was unwalled.
Girls also underwent rigorous physical training with the boys, in the nude. This must have proved a joy and an excrucible frustration to adolescent males during training. The Spartans believed in Lamarckian evolutionary theory and thought that strong and lusty women would give rise to majestic warriors. In modern terms, they envisioned that environmental factors would influence the children they were to bear. Today, we know that their hypothesis wasn’t entirely incorrect. It was considered a great shame if a woman or man was infertile. Fruitfulness was encouraged by law.
Sparta’s unique military system produced a society unmatched in war. Effectively, every able-bodied male adult was a professional soldier of unmatched focus and devotion. Consequently, Sparta became preeminent in armed conflict for hundreds of years until their defeat by Thebes (371 BC). After which Sparta’s spell of invincibility was broken and her days of military greatness were no more.
Sparta throughout its history was obsessed with maintaining a large population in order to ensure enough men to support its military ambition. Ultimately the Spartan population could not be sustained and Sparta's prohibitive policy eventually contributed to her downfall. Unlike Rome, which was happy to accept non-Roman folk unto their armies, the Spartans were rabidly exclusive and only Spartan citizens could enrol into the military. Tis no good producing an elite solder, of scant number, when your foe puts forth many.
With a certain glance, Sparta appears as the perfect totalitarian state. Something akin to Nazi Germany if it had evolved into the ‘1,000-year Reich’. There is no doubt that the citizens of Sparta had been trained and indoctrinated from birth to be obedient, structured and solely built for war. In this regard, we can be assured. We might therefore conclude, and expect, the state to be rigidly ruled by one man, otherwise known as the ‘Ein Reich, Ein volk, Ein fuhrer’, principle. And yet we would be wrong. In fact, the Spartan constitution was complex and imbued, nay endowed, with an elaborate system of checks and balances that could be found only in the most politically enlightened societies of the ancient world. Twas the envy of lesser endowed states and thusly, Sparta endured a degree of political stability, over several hundreds of years, unknown to Athens and many other ancient Greek states. It makes you wonder what would have occurred if the Greeks could have forgone their corrosive internecine quarrels and achieved unity- with Sparta at the military helm. Then they would have conquered the world. In a roundabout way they did, but that would have to wait for the rise of Macedonia. And in this case, ‘unity’ would be imposed, by force, by the despised, semi-barbarous Macedonians. Ironically, Sparta had no part in this pan-Hellenic expansion.
Sparta had two kings, the role was deemed hereditary and thrust upon the State from the most noble of families (what a fucking surprise). Their power was absolute in war and subject to absolute check in peace. A council of 30 men formed the legislative structure and included the kings. The none regnal participants of the council were formed exclusively from men of aristocratic sensibilities, over 60. It was considered that old age brought forth wisdom. However, there is a well-trodden/tired adage that states: ‘Wisdom is a gift not endowed to all men in their elder years’. But as stated in more prosaic terms- ‘There is no fool like an old fool’. In addition, to their governmental duties, the council tried criminal cases involving citizens and introduced laws worthy of deliberation. Proposals so engendered were put forth unto all citizens who had the power to vote yea or nay on these matters. However, said citizens were not empowered to propose laws for deliberation. As an accretion, there was a fourth tier of governance, the ephors. In an otherwise sensible political set-up, the ephoric (not a real word) system detracted from the otherwise prudent political constitution. These five magistrates were chosen, by lot, from all citizens regardless of social strata, rank or status. Not only did ephors have jurisdiction over civil court matters, but they also, rather paradoxically, exercised criminal jurisdiction over kings. As time travelled (as it is wont to do), it has been written that the power of the ephors increased, thus leaving them susceptible to bribes. This contradicts the assertion that Spartans did not avail themselves of material gain but were nonetheless well provided for. However, this statement contradicts human nature, which is generally acquisitive and prone to avarice. I will leave it to my readers to ponder upon this conundrum of doom.
It has been whispered in the wind that the constitution with all its trappings, safeguards and downright strangeness was the mind of one great man, Lycurgus, the lawgiver (885 BC). This is, however, not historically accurate. In fact, the constitution of Sparta evolved over time in response to the usual forces and factors affecting all nations.
The next chapter in this thrilling saga will concentrate on the history of this singular ancient nation. And finally, the third post will concern the Myth that is Sparta. In many ways a more interesting and enthralling story than mere truth.