society was unique in that the needs of the family were wholly subordinated
to the requirements of the state. It was a militaristic society, whose
primary objective from the seventh century B.C, onward was to foster a
high degree of conformity and discipline. It therefore differed radically
from Athenian society, to which it is unflatteringly contrasted in Perikles'
Funeral Speech (Thukydides 2.37-39). Perikles' view notwithstanding, there
were a good many Greeks who admired the Spartan system. Xenophon (Constitution
of the Spartans 10.4), for instance, an Athenian who was born a generation
later than Perikles, has this to say about it: "The state of Sparta with
good reason outshines all other states in virtue, since she alone has
made the attainment of a high standard of nobility a public duty" (line
be extremely difficult to write a detailed account of Spartan daily life,
since its people have left behind so few traces of themselves. Most of
what we know about their society comes from philosophers and historians,
and they were hardly concerned with the practicalities of daily life.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that Sparta was extremely conservative,
as we know from the fact that its constitution remained unchanged for
hundreds of years. Virtually from birth onward, the obligation to the
state overrode any duty to self or family. Appropriately, therefore, the
only two types of Spartans who were accorded the distinction of being
honored with tombstones that recorded their names were soldiers who died
in battle and women who died in labor.
home was hardly a home in our sense of the Upbringing word, since children
spent most of their time with their peers. Even the first years of a boy's
life were not completely free of discipline, as Plutarch informs us: "Spartan
nurses taught Spartan babies to avoid any fussiness in their diet, not
to be afraid of the dark, not to cry or scream, and not to throw any other
kind of tantrum" (Life of Lykourgos 16.3).
the age of six onward boys were removed from the care of their parents
and subjected to a tough system of state education known as the agôgê,
or training. The aim of the agôgê, which had something of
the character of a Victorian boarding school, was to instill obedience,
discipline, and resourcefulness. It probably had the further consequence
of turning the child first into a brat, then into a bully. Boys were divided
into packs and placed under the general control of an educational director
known as a paidonomos. The boys were whipped for minor offenses and never
given enough food in order to encourage them to thieve. Plutarch describes
the process as follows:
Learning how to
read and write was not considered important. Mainly their education
consisted in learning how to carry out orders, how to test themselves
to the limits of their endurance, and how to succeed at wrestling. So
their training got tougher and tougher as they got older. Their heads
were close-shaved, and they learnt how to march barefoot and go naked
when training. (Life of Lykourgos 16.6)
The courage that
this kind of training was designed to produce is indicated by the well-known
story of a boy who was apprehended with a stolen fox under his cloak.
Rather than admit his crime to his captors and undergo the humiliation
of punishment, the boy vehemently denied the charge. His courage cost
him his life because the fox gnawed through his entrails while he was
being interrogated. Although physically weak babies were exposed at birth
there must have been a number of perfectly fit and healthy children who
were bullied mercilessly and who found this brutal system quite intolerable.
When a youth reached
the age of sixteen (or possibly eighteen), he became a member of the krypteia.
This, as its name from the Greek verb krypt, meaning "conceal," indicates,
was a kind of secret police force. Its purpose was to intimidate the subjected
helot population. During this period he lived out in the wilds and had
to fend for himself.
age of twenty a youth's education came to an end and he graduated to the
eirênes, a word of uncertain etymology. He was now liable for military
service, though he did not yet possess full rights of citizenship. Even
now, however, he was still required to lead a communal life, eating with
his peers and sleeping in army barracks. Only occasionally would he be
allowed to sleep with his wife. Even on his wedding night a Spartan bridegroom
was permitted to spend only a short time with his bride; he was required
to return to his army barracks before dawn.
On reaching thirty
a Spartan finally became a full citizen, or homoios, which means "Peer."
He now enjoyed something resembling a home life, though he was still required
to take a number of his meals away from home. Qualification for Spartan
citizenship, in fact, depended on membership in a syssition, or dining
club. Each syssitos, or member of a syssition, made a monthly contribution
to his dining club. He would not only regularly dine and relax in the
company of his fellow syssitoi, but also fight alongside them in time
of war. The size of a syssition is not known. Plutarch (Life of Lykourgos
12) suggests that the number was as low as fifteen, but modem estimates
put it much higher, perhaps as high as three hundred. Only when he attained
sixty was a Spartan finally released from military obligations, though,
like many other retired servicemen, he probably continued to feel as much
at home in the army as he did at home.
Spartan home life was extremely restricted, women actually enjoyed more
freedom than their counterparts in many other parts of the Greek world.
Girls were allowed to mix freely with boys. They also underwent an intensive
physical training program, which included discus and javelin throwing,
and wrestling. The purpose of this training program was to ensure that
they became fit breeders of Spartan babies. The extreme value that was
put on child rearing in Spartan society is indicated by the fact that
wives could be "loaned" to an interested third party with the agreement
of the husband, presumably in order to exploit their fecundity in cases
where the husband was elderly or infertile. Another unique feature of
Spartan society is that women were permitted to own their own property.
the Spartans conquered Lakonia and Messenia, they re duced the entire
population to servile status. Known as heilôtai, Helots or helots,
a word that is probably connected with a verb meaning "to capture," Spartan
slaves were required to till the land and pay half their produce to their
masters, who were thus freed to discharge their military duties. We have
no means of estimating the size of the helot population, but it almost
certainly outnumbered that of the citizen body. Such was the animosity
felt toward the helots that the Spartan ephors annually declared war on
them. Helots had no political or legal rights and could be executed without
trial. They could be freed only by a decision of the Spartan assembly.
Their condition was so wretched that the poet Tyrtaios describes them
as "asses worn down with great burdens." They were the property of the
state and assigned by it to individual citizens, who did not have the
right to dispose of them. Since, perhaps uniquely among slave populations,
they were allowed to propagate without restriction, helots were racially
homogeneous. For this reason the Spartans were constantly fearful of helot
revolts and took extreme measures to safeguard against them, as this chilling
incident reported by Thukydides indicates.
On one occasion [in
424 B.C.] the Spartans issued a proclamation to their helots offering
freedom to those who judged themselves to have shown the most bravery
in war. Their purpose was to make test of them, since they believed that
those who came forward first to claim their freedom would also be the
ones who were most likely to give them trouble. Two thousand were selected.
They were crowned and did the rounds of the temples, thinking that they
had been liberated. Not long afterwards, however, the Spartans eliminated
them. To this day nobody knows exactly how any of them perished. (4.80.3-5)
of Spartans seem to have been content to lead lives of the utmost frugality
and simplicity. They had virtually no means of acquiring wealth, since
the Spartan economy was wholly agrarian. Though we do not know whether
every citizen possessed a klêros or holding assigned to him by the
state at birth, most of the population were no doubt at the same point
in the economic scale. When abroad and off the leash, however, Spartan
generals were as greedy as the rest. A common, though no doubt occasionally
trumped up, charge leveled against them was that of accepting bribes from
was not the only polis that put a premium on military discipline, but
it was the one that did so to an extreme degree. Since the lives of all
its members were dominated by warfare, there can have been little time
for relaxation and pleasure. How the Spartans occupied themselves when
they were not either exercising or fighting remains a mystery. Perhaps
they were simply too exhausted to bother. From the sixth century B.C.
onward, they had little interest in cultivating the arts. Clearly the
pursuit of happiness was not a recognized Spartan ideal. The austerity
of their lifestyle gives us our word "Spartan." Hardly surprisingly, the
Spartans also had a reputation for extreme economy in the use of language,
and the term "laconic" derives from the Spartan aversion to long speeches.
In the hands of the Spartans, however, brevity could be put to good effect.
When Philip II of Macedon sent the Spartans a letter threatening to raze
Sparta if he captured the city, the ephors are said to have sent him back
just one word in reply: "if".