“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.
Sometime around 1000 B.C., a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas river, in the southern region of Greece known as the Peloponnese, joined to form a single city-state (“polis”); called Sparta. In time, Sparta became the leading Dorian center Greece.
For a variety of reasons, by the 7th century B.C., Sparta had developed into a unique political entity, its people and institutions devoted to the arts of war.
THE SPARTAN CONSTITUTION
Under the constitution established by the legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos, all Spartan males were trained for one thing: to be soldiers. While others worked their land for them, every Spartan male had but that one profession.
These laws, the “Great Rhetra”, encompassed all aspects of the Spartan society. They established the various branches of the Spartan government, and enumerated the powers of each.
They dictated the education of boys and girls. They even told the Spartans how to talk (in short, pithy, sarcastic sentences; the style of which came to be called “Laconic”) and how they must wear their beards (without mustaches) and their hair (long, it being said that long hair made a handsome man handsomer; and an ugly man look fierce!).
The rhetra was designed to produce, by 20 years of age, a Spartan citizen ready to take his place in this unique society. This shaping started with the child’s birth.
THE SPARTAN GOVERNMENT
Sparta was the world’s first constitutional government; composed of separate branches, each placing checks-and-balances upon the other.
At the top were two royal families. The senior was the Agiad, the junior the Eurypontid; both of which traced their lineage back to Hercules. One or the other was expected to lead the army in time of war; while the other remained back in Sparta.
The role of the kings was both religious and symbolic. They were figure-heads politically, though treated with great respect. Though they could propose laws, the Spartan kings had no executive authority: that was reserved to the Ephors.
The Ephors were five annually elected magistrates; and were forbidden to be reelected. They provided a balance for the two kings, who they rarely cooperated with. They could, in fact, bring the kings up on charges of malfeasance.
The senior law-making “house” was the council of elders, the “senate”, called the Gerousia. It consisted of 30 members in total: the two kings plus 28 respected elders, 60 years of age or older. It could propose laws or lay aside those laws passed the people it deemed “crooked”.
“If the people speak crookedly, the kings and the
elders shall be setters-aside.” –The Great Rhetra
The junior “house” of the Spartan legislature was the “Apella“. This was the popular assembly of all Spartan males 30 years of age or older. They could not propose new laws; but were required to pass or deny all laws proposed in the Gerousia.
In this fashion, the Kings led Sparta in war; the Ephors ran the day-to-day affairs of Sparta, and acted as a check the power of the kings; the Gerousia proposed laws and acted as a check on the ephors; and the Apella represented the will of the Spartan people, and checked the power of the Gerousia.
This system proved incredibly durable and stable. Unlike all other Greek city-states, the Spartan system indured in largely this fashion with little civil strife throughout the Classical Age.
UPBRINGING OF THE SPARTAN BOYS
When a Spartan mother gave birth, the father called the Ephors to examine the child. If it were found to have any deformities, the child would be cast into a gorge of nearby Mount Taygetos: only perfect specimens were fit to become Spartans. (Though some scholars believe that such infants were merely left on the mountainside, with the possibility of adoption by passing shepherds or peasant families.)
At the age of seven years, Spartan boys were taken from their mothers, and enrolled in the Spartan military education system, called the Agoge. For the next thirteen years, the boys were systematically trained to be Spartan. Only royal princes in line to inherit one of the two Spartan throne were exempt from training in the Agoge.
The boys were under the direction of an official called the Paidonomos (literally, the “Boy-Herd!), whose job it was to oversee the Agoge. This education focused on discipline, endurance, and on inuring the boys to all forms of privation and suffering. They were taught wrestling and weapons-handling; to throw javelin and discus, racing and leaping! Trained from boyhood, the Spartans won more laurels in the ancient Olympic games than citizens of any other Greek city-state.
On winter nights, the boys slept outdoors, by the banks of the Eurotas, cut-reeds their only bed. Each had a single woolen cloak, issued each year, to keep them warm in all weather. For food they were expected to forage in the countryside, stealing what they couldn’t hunt; a skill soldiers in the ancient world needed. However, while successfully stealing food was rewarded, a boy who was caught in the act was whipped: only failure was unforgivable in Sparta.
The boys also learned music and dance, which had military applications. (It was said that the Spartans were the most musical people in Greece). Spartans perfected the so-called “Pyrrhic Dance“, the armed dance of the Greek warrior! Performed in tight formation, this dance taught the Spartans foot work and to operated in close-order with other warriors, as a single unit; invaluable in phalanx warfare.
Along with the girls, Spartan boys performed complicated corral dances during the frequent religious festivals (the Spartans were a pious people), and for these even the maidens danced nude. Like all Greeks, the Spartans had no nudity taboo, and these dances gave boys and girls both the means to perfect their physical forms, and the forum to show them off!
By the time a boy graduated from this unbelievably harsh training, at 20 years old, he was ready to take his place amongst the toughest and most disciplined fighting men the world has ever known.
However, before he could call himself a Spartan, he had to overcome one more hurdle: acceptance into a military mess (“sussition”). These military messes were more than a dining facility. They were both barracks and mess-hall, in the modern military sense. But they were actually more akin to the college Fraternity. In fact, it is thought that they developed from the more ancient Greek institution of the phratra, or “Brotherhood”; which in Latin is translated as “Fraternity”.
A Spartan youth who failed to be accepted into a sussition could never become a full-fledged Spartan.
Once graduated from the Agoge, and accepted into a military mess, a young Spartan took his place in the ranks of the Spartan army. However, he would have to wait another decade before gaining the full rights a Spartan citizen.
He had to wait till age 30, when the young Spartan male was finally able to enter the ranks of the “Spartiates”, the fully enfranchised Spartan warriors.
These Spartiates were an elite few (never more than 5,000 at Sparta’s greatest period of prosperity), and as one a Spartan man took his place in the Assembly of the People (the “Apella”, or “Ecclesia”). There he met with his fellow “Equals”, other full-fledged Spartiates, to vote yes or no to all measures proposed by the kings or the Ephors.
As an “Equal”, every Spartan male was allotted a portion of land upon which to support himself and his mess. These plots, called kleroi, were actually granted to the Spartan whilst still a child by the elders of his phratry (this from Plutarch, implying that the phratrys, or Brotherhoods, inducted members at a very young age; likely upon a hereditary basis.). The Spartans did not actually work their own kleroi, however, as their time was devoted to learning and practicing the arts of war. Instead, the land was worked by a slave/serf class called helots.
THE SPARTAN ARMY
The Spartan Army (Stratos) was the finest fighting force in the Greek world for three hundred years. It comprised all adult Spartan males, organized into companies (Enomotia), battalions (Lochoi), and regiments (Mora). At the peak of their power, the Spartan army was composed of six such regiments/mora.
In their companies and battalions, the Spartan hoplites formed a dense, compact battle formation called a phalanx. The phalanx was drawn up in files of 6 to 12 men deep. Each man stood close enough to his neighbors to overlap their shields, presenting their enemies with an unassailable front of brazen shields and thrusting spears.
One of Sparta’s two kings always commanded the Spartan army on campaign; though on occasion smaller expeditions could be commanded by one of the senior officers commanding the moras, the polemarchs.
Such was the reputation of the Spartans when it came to war, that other cities would petition Sparta to send them a single Spartan, to lead their own forces as their general!
During the Peloponnesian War, in response to appeals from the Sicilian city of Syracuse for help against the besieging Athenians, Sparta sent but one Spartiate: Gylippus. . He quickly took charge of the Syracusan defenses, and in short order completely turned the tide of war against the hitherto successful Athenians. The siege of Syracuse ended in utter disaster for Athens and triumph for the Syracusans; in no small part because of the leadership provided by a single Spartan!
SPARTAN ARMS AND ARMOR
Every Spartan was trained to fight as a heavily armored infantryman, called a hoplite (“man-at-arms”).
The heavy equipment of the hoplite weighed between 40 and 60 pounds. Shield, armor, and weapons were collectively known as a panoply.
The first piece of a Spartan hoplite’s panoply was his large, deeply dished round shield, called an aspis. This shield was made of wood and covered with a thin sheet of bronze. It covered the hoplite from chin to thigh. The young Spartan, upon entering service in the Spartan phalanx, was given his first shield by his mother; with the words, “With this, or upon it!” By this his mother meant for him to come back with his shield victorious; or carried home dead upon it (Spartans used their shields as stretchers, to transport the wounded or dead).
The Spartans put maximum importance on team work and maintaining their phalanx formation in battle. Therefore, the shield was considered the premiere piece of hoplite equipment; as a shield protected both the bearer and those around him. To abandon his shield in battle was the most shameful thing a Spartan could do!
The hoplites defensive equipment was augmented with a bronze helmet; a set of bronze greaves (shin and knee protection); and a cuirass (torso protection) made either of glued layers of linen (or leather covered in linen) or of bronze. The hoplite’s large aspis covered his legs and arms so well that armor for these areas was considered unnecessary.
The Greek offensive weapon par excellence was the spear (“dori”). The hoplite’s spear was made from a hardwood shaft, varying in length between seven and nine feet. Its iron head and heavy shaft made it an excellent weapon for inflicting a deep and mortal would on the exposed throat and thighs of enemy hoplites; and could even penetrate the cuirass and helmet’s faceplate on occasion. Against the lighter shields and armor of foreign, non-Greek foes the hoplite spear proved even deadlier; easily penetrating the wicker shields of the Persian infantry Immortals during the Persian Wars.
As a backup weapon, the hoplite also carried a sword. This varied in type, some shorter or longer, for cutting or thrusting. The Spartans used a very short thrusting sword,
not much more than a broad dagger. In the very close-in combat of phalanx warfare, where hoplites stood toe-to-toe, shoving shield against shield, a shorter sword was both handier and deadlier. (When a Spartan youth complained to his mother about the shortness of his sword, she replied, “Add a step to it!”)
By the late 5th century B.C., the Spartans had largely abandoned both greaves and cuirass: the exigencies of long campaigns far a field from Sparta emphasized the need for lighter gear. Pitched battles were few and seldom, and for these the shield provided most of the hoplites protection in any case.
HELOTS and PERIOIKOI
Some time around the 8th century B.C., Sparta began to expand, conquering many of its neighbors. Within a century, much of Southern Greece, the Peloponnese, had become either Spartan territory or allies of the Spartans.
Those people who were subjugated outright by the Spartans during this period were reduced in status to that of serf; or, in the Doric dialect, helots (from “Hel”, implying seizure or capture). These helots lived in their own agrarian villages, working the land for their Spartan masters, and giving half of whatever was produced to the Spartans.
The population of Spartan helots was quite large, encompassing many villages in Laconia (the greater Eurotas river valley) and the
View of “Hollow Lacedaemon” from the north near Sellasia; modern Sparta can be seen in the distant middle-left, with Mount Taygetos snow-capped on the upper-right (taken by author 1997)
whole of the southwestern region of the Peloponnese. This region, called Messenia, was home to the people of that name. In a series of long and bitter wars, the Spartans subjugated the Messenians, reducing the bulk of them to slavery (a small portion fled Greece proper and established the city of Messenia, in Sicily; where they could live in freedom).
Not all towns and villages around Sparta were reduced to servitude. Another class of sub-citizen existed in Lacedaemon (the “Land of the Spartans”), with a high degree of local autonomy. This class of people were called perioikoi; or “dwellers around” (meaning “around” Sparta). These were villages that had thrown their lot in with Sparta as friends and allies early in the city’s history; guaranteeing in the process their safety from Spartan aggression.
Perioikoi lived in relative freedom from day-to-day interference by the Spartan government. They were allowed, however, no independent foreign policy.
When Sparta went to war, the perioikoi were expected to contribute their own hoplites to the Spartan army. In fact, as Sparta’s population dwindled dangerously in the 4th century B.C., perioikoi hoplites were included into the Spartan phalanx proper; serving under and beside the elite full Spartiates.
At age 18, Spartan youths underwent a selection process. Those who during their years within the Agoge had shown the greatest promise were chosen for membership in an elite group: The Krypteia.
Though the name means something akin to Secret Service, this instrument of the Spartan government is best thought of as a Special Operations Command.
The overt mission of the Krypteia was to spy out and eliminate covert threats to the Spartan state. Particularly, the young men were to identify and then eliminate any threat of helot revolt.
Even the possibility of revolution among their serfs had to be squelched before it could become reality. To this end, the Spartan government would yearly “Declare War” against its own helots; thus sanctioning the Krypteia to kill any helot it thought necessary without incurring the guilt of murder.
Young Spartans of the Krypteia would routinely spy on the helots in their towns and villages. Troublemakers were marked down for later liquidation. Even helots who showed enough leadership qualities to constitute a future threat were likewise assassinated.
But murder was not in-and-of-itself the main purpose for the Krypteia. For that, any group of Spartan hoplites would have been sufficient. No, the real purpose for the Krypteia was to prepare the best of Spartan youths for the cold-blooded realities of Spartan leadership; to ready them for command and the highest offices in a state devoted to war and, in the final analysis, oppression!
Only Spartans who had been selected for service in the Krypteia could expect to rise to the highest ranks and offices in the Spartan Army and state. Only those who at a young age had spilled the blood of Sparta’s enemies were deemed fit to eventually lead her.