“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
(This is the first, introductory installment in a multi-part series on history’s greatest soldiers, the Spartans of ancient Greece!)
Around 1000 B.C. a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas River in the southern region of the Peloponnese called Laconia (or Lacedaemon); joined to form a single city-state (“polis”), called Sparta. In time Sparta became the leading Dorian city in Greece. By the 7th century BC Sparta had developed into a unique political entity, one entirely devoted to the arts of war.
The changes that turned Sparta into such a uniquely warlike society are attributed to its legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos; who created their constitution.
THE SPARTAN CONSTITUTION
Under the Spartan constitution, called the “Great Rhetra”, all males were trained to one purpose: to become the finest soldiers in the world. While others worked their land, every Spartan male had but one profession, the practice of arms. The Great Rhetra, was more than a set of laws or penal codes. It encompassed all aspects of the Spartan life. It not only established the various branches of the Spartan government and enumerated the powers of each, it told the Spartans how to conduct their lives.
These laws dictated the education of boys and girls; they told the Spartans the proper way to speak (in short, pithy, sarcastic sentences, which style of speech came to be called “Laconic”); even how they must wear their beards (without mustaches) and their hair (long, it being said that long hair made a handsome man handsomer, and made an ugly man look fierce).
Stature of Lycourgos the Lawgiver in modern Sparta
The Rhetra was designed to produce by age 20 a Spartan citizen ready to take his place in this unique warrior society, to look and act as “similar” as all other Spartans. The history of Sparta is an experiment in utopia; a perfect society composed of supermen and women.
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 of the Spartan government were two royal families. The senior was the Agiad, the junior the Eurypontid. Both the Spartan royal houses traced their lineage back to the semi-mythical hero, Heracles. One or the other of these two kings was expected to lead the army in time of war while the other remained back in Sparta, maintaining stability.
The two kings of Sparta, armed for war. Behind them is the Dokana, the standard of the city and symbolic of the Immortal Twins (Dioscuri), Castor and Polydeuces, patron-heroes of Sparta. To the right is a member of the 300-man Royal Guard, the Hippias
While commanders of the army in battle, within Spartan society the king’s played a role both religious and symbolic. They were figure-heads politically, treated with great respect but with no direct power. Though they could propose laws, the kings had no executive authority: that was reserved to the Ephors.
The Ephors were five annually elected magistrates. They could only stand for one term, and were forbidden to stand for reelection. They provided a balance against the potential power of the two kings, who they rarely cooperated with. They could, and on occasion did, bring the kings up on charges of malfeasance.
Legislatively, the Spartan “parliament” was broken into an upper and lower house. The senior law-making branch was the council of elders, a “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 by the people it deemed ill-conceived (or “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 a popular assembly of all Spartan males 30 years of age or older. They could not propose new laws on their own, but were required to pass or deny all laws proposed in the Gerousia.
So each had a role in leading the state: 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 nearly all other Greek city-states the Spartan system endured in largely this fashion, with little civil strife, throughout the Classical Age.
THE UPBRINGING OF SPARTAN BOYS
Throughout his life, a Spartan was tested to see if he had “the right stuff” to be considered one of these elite supermen. The first test of a Spartan citizen started at the child’s birth; when the newborn was inspected by the Ephors.
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 not be permitted to live: only perfect specimens were fit to become Spartans. A baby found wanting was taken to a spur of Mount Taygetos, and cast into a gorge. (In recent years scholars debated the fate of these infants and the practice of infanticide. Instead, it has been proposed 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 (“the rearing“). For the next thirteen years, the boys were systematically trained to be Spartans. Only royal princes in direct line to inherit one of the two Spartan throne were exempt from the Agoge.
During “the rearing” the boys were under the direction of an official called the Paidonomos (literally, the “Boy-Herder”) 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 did the citizens of any other Greek city-state.
Boys enrolled in the Agoge slept all year out-doors, by the banks of the Eurotas. Cut-reeds were their only bed. Each boy was allowed a single woolen cloak, issued at the start of the year, to keep them warm in all weather; both garment and bedding. For food they were expected to forage in the countryside, stealing what they couldn’t hunt, a valuable skill for soldiers on campaign in foreign lands. 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 operate in close-order with other warriors, as a single unit; invaluable in phalanx warfare.
The Pyrrhic Dance, the war dance used by the Spartans and other Greeks to teach footwork
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 ancient Hellenes the Spartans had no nudity taboo, and these dances gave boys and girls both the means to perfect their physical forms, and the forum in which 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 force 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. In many ways they were actually more a combination of the modern college fraternity with the Victorian Age’s “Gentleman’s Clubs”. 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 gain acceptance 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 of a Spartan citizen.
At age 30 a Spartan male was finally counted among 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 once he’d attained this rank a Spartan took his place in the assembly of the people, the “Apella”. There he met with his fellow “Similars” (Homoioi ), other full-fledged Spartiates, to vote “yay” or “nay” to all measures proposed by the Gerousia.
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 (see below).
THE SPARTAN ARMY
The Spartan Army (Stratos) was the finest fighting force in the Greek world for three hundred years. It was composed of 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 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 these words:
“With this, or upon it!”
By this his mother meant for him to come back with his shield, victorious; or carried home upon it, dead (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!
Spartan hoplite and panoply, circa 650 BC
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 arms and thighs so well that armor for these areas was considered unnecessary.
The Greek offensive weapon par excellence was the spear (“dory”). This spear was made from a hardwood shaft, varying in length between seven and nine feet. Its iron head and sturdy shaft made it an excellent weapon for inflicting a deep and mortal wounds. The favorite targets were the exposed throat and thighs of enemy hoplites, and the dory could even penetrate the cuirass and helmet’s face-plate 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. In the Greek world, this varied in type, some shorter or longer, for cutting or thrusting. The two chief types were the Xiphos, the double-edged strait sword, and the kopis, the forward-curving hacking sword. The Spartans used a very short version of the xiphos, not much more than a broad dagger. In the very close-in combat of phalanx warfare, where hoplites stood toe-to-toe, pushing with 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 Lacedaemon emphasized the need for lighter gear. Pitched battles were few, and for these the shield provided most of the hoplite’s 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 a 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, 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 whole of the southwestern region of the Peloponnese, called Messenia. In a series of long and bitter wars, the Spartans subjugated the Messenians, reducing the bulk of them to helotry (a small portion fled Greece entirely and established the city of Messenia in Sicily where they could live in freedom).
View of “Hollow Lacedaemon” from the north near Sellasia. Modern Sparta can be seen in the distant middle-left, with snow-capped Mount Taygetos on the upper-right
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. These were called perioikoi, or “dwellers around” (meaning “around” Sparta). These villages 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 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 each year ritually “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. Only a docile helot was acceptable to the power-that-be in Sparta.
But murder was not in-and-of-itself the main purpose of the Krypteia as an institution. For that, any group of Spartan hoplites would have been sufficient. No, the real purpose for the Krypteia was to prepare the best of Sparta’s 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, later in life, 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.
NEXT: THE PERSIAN WARS
- Such descendants of Heracles were referred to in ancient Greek as Heraclidae.
- Leonidas, who as a younger brother was not in the line of succession, went through the Agoge and so shared the same training as every other Spartan. As such he was a rarity among Spartan kings.