Ancient Spartans


The ancient Spartans were citizen-warriors who dominated the polis (city-state) of Sparta in the territory of Laconia in southern Greece. The Spartans apparently arrived in Greece in about 1200 bc. By about 700 bc the Spartans dominated the other Laconians, who were divided into hereditary classes of serflike Helots (captives) and quasi-independent Periocci (the "dwellers-around").

By about 650 bc the Spartans had conquered the neighboring Messenians, who were forced into helotry. At about the same time they adopted the "Laws of Lycurgus" (named after their legendary lawgiver); the strict code of education and social behavior that governed every Spartan's life, from infancy to old age. Spartans were renowned among the Greeks for their fanatical adherence to their Laws, an austere and standardized mode of life, "laconic" brevity in public speech, intolerance of foreigners and foreign ways, and military prowess.

The Spartans perfected the craft of hoplite warfare (eight deep shield formations, which bulldozed the enemy as a team unit). They called themselves Homoioi (Similars or Equals), pointing both to their homogeneous lifestyle and to the discipline of the phalanx, which demanded that no soldier be superior or inferior to his comrades. Spartan education (beginning at age seven and continuing through to age thirty) emphasised physical toughness, steadfastness in military ranks and absolute obedience to orders. Each Spartan man inherited the use of a plot of state land (Kleros) and the Helot labour to till it. This allowed him to be a full-time, professional soldier, with ample time to practise and perfect his skills. Being a Spartan meant being both a sturdy warrior and effective manager of Helot labour. The Spartan who flinched in battle, or whose Kleros failed to produce, was ejected from the ranks of the citizens. This harsh system worked well at first: by 500 bc some eight thousand Spartans dominated a League that encompassed the entire Peloponnesian region (Greece south of the Isthmus of Corinth).

The life of a Spartan male was a life of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of the Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. This is the key to understanding the Spartans. While the Athenians and many others thought the Spartans were insane, the life of the Spartans seemed to hark back to a more basic way of life. Discipline, simplicity, and self-denial always remained ideals in the Greek and Roman worlds; civilization was often seen as bringing disorder, ennervation, weakness, and a decline in moral values. The Spartan, however, could point to Spartan society and argue that moral values and human courage and strength was as great as it was before civilization. Spartan society, then, exercised a profound pull on the surrounding city-states who admired the simplicity, discipline, and order of Spartan life.

The ideology of Sparta was oriented around the state. The individual lived (and died) for the state. Their lives were designed to serve the state from their birth to the age of sixty. The combination of this ideology, the education of Spartan males and the disciplined maintenance of a standing army gave the Spartans the stability that they needed to dominate their environs and fear no-one.

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