by Gildas the Monk
Note: The Spartans beat Athens because the Athenians overstretched themselves and didn’t realise till it was too late that the Persians would throw a ton of gold into the scales against them. The first time the Spartans had to fight a set battle, at Leuctra, against something like a professional army, they lost, and then lost again. After that, they sank into complete insignificance. Torturing boys so they grow up into thieves and murderers isn’t a recipe for long term national success. Indeed, the real significance of Thermopylae wasn’t that the Spartans were brave – but that they bought time for the Athenians to pull themselves into fighting shape. Take Athens out of that war, and my own sympathies would be largely Persian. They weren’t bad overlords, let’s face it. SIG
It has been a very serious week here at the Raccoon Arms, but our learned editor Anna kindly agreed to let your humble scribe burble on with one of my historical rambles, which are of no consequence, but hopefully just divert and inform. So, in the words of our learned editor, where was I? Oh yes, in my first blog on this topic I tried to outline how Sparta came to be, and how it was established as a slave state, in which the Spartiates ruled the roost over the conquered fellow Greeks, whom they named “Helots”, a serf class who would rise up from time to time against their conquerors and masters.
My editor rightly has cautioned me against rambling on too long (and driving people out of the virtual pub) so I will leave interesting topics such as the renowned beauty and athleticism of Spartan women, their rights and somewhat liberated attitude to sex for another day. I shall instead write about the training and education of a Spartiate citizen.
Now, as I mentioned the “Helot” serfs upon which the state depended outnumbered their Spartan masters by up to seven or eight to one; reason enough for the Spartans to feel insecure in their beds.
After the Helots rose up in a twenty year plus campaign of rebellion the Spartans must have felt even more insecure about whether they might have their throats cut in the night. Some historians have suggested that Sparta was a truly paranoid State. At the very least it was extremely watchful and strictly apartheid in nature. At the beginning of each year in the Spartan Assembly the first resolution was always the same: a formal declaration of war on the Helots, thus making it lawful for any Spartan to kill any Helot.
Some historians venture to suggest that the Spartan quest to create the perfect warrior cast was an aspect of this paranoia, and perhaps that is so. So, after my dry introduction to the psychology of Sparta, let me see if I can introduce some interesting detail about how the Spartan warrior was trained.
It is worth starting by observing that Sparta was perhaps the only Greek City with no defensive walls. This was deliberate, because Sparta relied not on walls for its defence, but on its “super soldiers”.
We begin, of course, at birth. As is probably well known the Spartans practiced eugenics. That is, rather crudely put, the careful weeding out of the weak with the aim of creating a better and better biological gene pool. At birth any Spartan child was inspected by the Elders of the Spartan State. If the child was weak or deformed in any way, it was taken by the officials to a ravine some two or three miles from the City (the so called “depositary) and hurled naked into it. There was no chance of survival.
If the child survived the appraisal, it was given a form of baptism using not water, but wine. It was in itself as statement. Sparta was a City only for the strong.
After that if you were a Spartan boy child then things would be pretty much as normal for a while, although you might see less of your father than others for reasons that appear below. However, at the age seven things changed. You were taken from your family and inducted into the State “Agōgē” (Greek: ἀγωγή in Attic Greek, or ἀγωγά, agōgá in Doric Greek) education and training system.
It was almost as if you were being selected for modern Special Forces training – but aged seven. The first stage was to condition you to hardship, cold and hunger. You were assigned to an “agelai” meaning “pack” or “herd” at a military school under the control of a magistrate.
The children were given no shoes, and perhaps no clothes save for one red cloak. One cloak is not enough in the Laconian winter. They lived in a barracks with no comforts. They slept on a mattress made of reeds fashioned by themselves, without the aid of any tool. Plucking and tying the reeds by hand would have been hard on the hands.
Although placed under the overall control of a magistrate, all the way though the system older boys are placed in the charge of older boys acting as prefects. Who will, one supposes, have behaved the way boys have always done and have indulged in bullying and no little cruelty. This seems to have been intended as part if the toughening up process.
There was plenty of training athletics, gymnastics and rough team games, as well as a lot of dance (more on this below) with the emphasis on standing out for excellence. Whilst all this was going on a Spartan boy child was given enough food to be healthy, but not enough to be full. He was expected to steal to supplement his rations. If the boy was caught he would be beaten as a punishment by the victim of the theft, and then by his tutors as a punishment for getting caught. Plutarch recounts the well known story of the Spartan child who stole a polecat or ferret to supplement his rations, only to be called to parade in formation. Knowing he would be severely beaten if his “crime” was discovered, he hid the animal under his cloak on parade, only to have it gnaw its his way into his body as he stood there. Eventually it reached a vital organ and he collapsed, silently, and died. An apocryphal story perhaps, but indicative of the rigour of the system.
There was a certain amount of poetry and song, but it was all good moral stuff – think Nazi marching songs. In fact poetry and other arts such as pottery making slowly died out in Sparta. Children were taught writing, but only so far as “necessary” and “useful”. Even the style of speech was regulated; short, dry and to the point. From the correct name of the “Spartan” state, Laconia ,we derive the modern word, “laconic”.
At the age of 12 or 13 you faced an initiation into the more senior ranks, with the delightful ritual of diamastogisis, or flogging ordeal. Plenty of cheeses were placed on the High Altar of the temple. Remember that competition was inculcated into Spartan children The goal of the initiates was to race up to the Altar as many times as possible and steal a cheese. The winner was doubtless the one with the most cheeses at the end. But in doing so they had to run a gauntlet of older youths, all armed with whips, and in the Spartan way, all trying to impress. Children were beaten mercilessly, suffering terrible wounds, and even death.
Assuming you survived you now entered military training proper….
A Spartan Hoplite was a killing machine. Hoplite’s all carried a heavy round shield, the Hoplon, roughly three feet wide. It was made of an inner oak wood lined with leather, and an outer facing of bronze. It weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, and was not merely defensive; it was a weapon used to beat down on and crush opponents. There were a variety of other weapons. There was the long spear, between 7 and 9 feet long with a broad leaf blade. There was also an iron or bronze spike at the other end, handy for finishing off the wounded as the phalanx trundled over them like a human tank. Unlike the “Speedo” swimming trunks worn by the Spartans in “The 300”, they were trained to fight in heavy bronze body armour, greaves and helmets weighing in total about 60 pounds.
The Spartan long sword, the Kopis, was a rather space age looking piece of kit, rather like an elongated Kukri is style with its bronze or iron blade perfect for slashing at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. But you would probably spend more time mastering the Laconian short sword. This was a singularly nasty, very heavy thick knife weighing as much as 3 or 4 pounds (as much if not more than a medieval sword) perhaps with at least one serrated blade, designed for one use only; butchery in the confined space of the crush of close quarter battle as the phalanx pressed together and crashed into the enemy. You were also trained in the Greek system of unarmed combat, or “Pankration”. The story goes that when a Pankration event was included in the Olympic Games, the Spartans were the only state prohibited from entering; Spartans were trained to kill, not to wrestle. In the heat of the contest they could not be trusted not to put their opponent’s eyes out and snap his neck.
Spartan youths were given endless training in marching and moving in close drill order and, although this may seem odd – dancing. There were day long dance contests in which the naked young men writhed about and contorted themselves. If that sound a bit of fun, even homo erotic fun, it is well worth remembering that the Greek word for these contest was “agon”, from which we derive the modern word “agony”. The emphasis of dance was, I think, utilitarian. I suspect the aim was to make the youths highly coordinated and able to move with extreme precision and agility in the phalanx formation.
There is one feature of the Spartan education system which seems to divide scholars and indeed even ancient sources, namely; did the Spartans practice compulsory homosexuality? It is quite clear that teenage Spartans were expected to form a special bond with an older man. This has excited a great deal of controversy at the time and now. There was no doubt that this special bond existed, and it was expressed and described in words which suggest eroticism. However, even at the time, this was the subject of debate. There was probably institutional homosexuality in other Greek City States, but (forgive me for not citing chapter and verse, but my best text on Sparta has vanished into a void, along with various pairs of socks and my driving licence and wine gums) but to cut to the chase even reasonably contemporary writers were divided on what this really meant. Some suggested that anything like that was considered repugnant. Xenephon, an Athenian writer, says this was purely a spiritual association. And archeologists note, for example, that whereas in other parts of Greece there is pottery and other artwork which expresses or celebrates homosexuality, nothing like that has ever been found in Sparta. On the other hand, the Spartans were not that big on pottery, poetry or soft comfy furnishings. My sense of it – and it is no more than a sense – is that the Spartans (and indeed other Greeks) valued comradeship and male bonding amongst their soldiers above all, and if that expressed itself in physical love, then so what. What they certainly would not tolerate, however, was epheminacy. A Spartan soldier was expected in due course to marry and have children. So they were looking at matters from a very different and much more subtle perspective than we may do today. My sense is that they had no problem with physical “affection”, but did not regard that in the same way we do today – perhaps as more of a bonding than a lifestyle choice.
By the end of the process, at the age of about 18, the young Spartiate male had been turned into a pretty efficient killer. At that point there is the spectre of the Cypteia emerges. There are various translations, but perhaps the best is “Special Ops Brigade”. There is debate about whether everyone joined or just the most promising young men, and its scope. Some writers paint a picture of psychotic young men let loose to kill and terrorise the enslaved Helots at will. That seems unlikely to me, Others say that the best students were enrolled in a sort of Secret Police, spying on the Helots and assassinating any who showed signs of leadership or the potential for rebellion. Whatever the detail, it seems quite clear that the system institutionalized the murder of Helots by some sort of Death Squad.
In Sparta, the army and citizenship were inextricably linked. Even at 20, the process of bonding continued. Assuming you were regarded as a decent bloke, you were inducted the army proper. You were allowed to marry, but you still had to live in a barracks until the age of 30. So if you wanted to have fun with your new and probably very athletic and sexy Spartan bride, you had to sneak off for secret assignations. The Spartan wedding ceremony was decidedly odd by the way. This involved the bride having her head roughly shaved and awaiting her husband in a darkened room. Perhaps to look like a boy? I don’t know.
Finally, if you gained acceptance at 30 you were given full citizenship. But you never had dinner at home with your wife or children. Every night you had dinner with your all male dining club, about 15 in total.
What was going on here? Social engineering on an extraordinary style. Everything was devised to promote loyalty to the Spartan Army and State, above personal concerns. Wives and children were necessary for the continuation of the State, but the bond between soldiers seems to have been the overwhelming drive. The aim was to produce a class of warrior citizens who termed themselves at the end of this process “the Homoioi”. This does not mean, as some suggest, “the Equals”, but rather “the Similars” or “the ones who are all the same” – doubtless from which we draw the modern word “homogenous”.
In researching this piece, I found myself much more repelled than I expected. I had not realised that Sparta was a parasitic Slave State, and its treatment of the Helots was appalling to my modern eyes. In particular there is one small story that is not often reported is the so called Massacre at Taenarus. There were not that many full Spartan citizen soldiers. From time to time they were compelled in times of crisis to augment their ranks from the Helots. Having done so, and the Helots having acquitted themselves well, the Spartans invited any Helots who considered they were worthy of honour to step forward from the ranks. Perhaps a couple of thousand did so – marking themselves out as potentially getting above their station. They were garlanded with flowers and led away to a Special Ceremony at the local Temple. What the Special Ceremony entailed we can only guess, because they were never seen again. Nasty, that.
I hope my little ramble has been of some interest. Not really controversial or topical! But have a good day.
©Gildas the Monk