Sparta, also called Lacedaemon, was a city in ancient Greece, and one of the most famous ancient Greek cities of the Peloponnesus. Found in the hills of Mount Taygetus many would consider was a brutal group of militaristic people. Although, this to some extent may be true most of the written information was derived from the ancient city-state of Athens, who were great enemies of the Spartan society. After the Messenian war the Spartan people moved into the Taygetus mountains and there they would set up what would eventually become the military government of Sparta.
Almost defeated, but maintaining the control of the territory the Spartans invented a new political system by turning their state into a military state. By making this dramatic change it in essence changed the everyday living styles of each individual living in the Spartan society. There were three classes of people in Sparta. Spartan citizens or Spartiate, or Native Spartan, who could trace is ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. Who lived in the city-state itself and, who alone had full political and legal rights and also having a voice in government, devoted their entire time to the military training.
The peroikoi, or “dwellers-round,” who lived in the surrounding village, were free but had no political rights. These were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the helots. They were tradesmen and mechanics because occupations of the Spartans were forbidden. Because of their vital function in society, they were allotted a great deal of freedom. Most of the trade and commerce carried out in Sparta were preformed by the Perioeci. At the bottom was the lowest class that they called the helots.
They were agricultural serfs not much better than slaves. They worked small plots of land on estates owned by the Spartans, part of their produce went to the master of the estate, and the remainder was to the helot and his family. The helots lived a miserable life for they were laboring hard and treated poorly. The helots, whose marriages and children were not so strictly controlled by the state, were the largest class and hated their masters. The only reason that the helots stayed under the control of the Spartans was due to their strong military government that discouraged any rebellion.
The Spartan government was an odd type of government, but it overwhelmingly was one of stability. The Spartans, in fact, had the most stable government in the history of ancient Greece. Two kings who ruled jointly as a dual monarchy headed the Spartan government. They serve as high priests and leaders in war. Each king acted as a check on the other. There was something comparable to a cabinet composed of five Ephors, or overseers, who exercised general guardianship over law and custom and in later times came to have an even greater power.
The legislative power was established in the assembly of Spartan citizens and in a senate, or counsel, of thirty elders consisting of the two kings and twenty-eight other men chosen from the citizens who had passed the age of sixty. Because the Spartan land system was another equally unconventional system. The Spartan homoios devoted themselves to the military, in return the government gave pay and rations a certain amount of land and enough helots to cultivate the land.
The government also provided a lord that was allotted a sufficient amount of natural products to support him and his family and to make the monthly contributions back to the government. It was the right of a citizen to obtain this land although he was not the absolute owner of the land, but he and the government owned the land. The Spartan government was founded on the principle that the life of every individual, from the moment of birth, belonged absolutely to the state. Due to the new government the society of Spartan changed in every aspect from the smallest baby to the eldest citizen.
The military and the city-state became the center of the Spartan existence. The state determined everything in Spartan citizens lives, including who would live and who would die. From the time that an infant was born the government decided their fate. At birth the child was inspected, both male and female, by a committee of the elders of the city-state. If the infant appeared weak or sickly the babies they ordered the infant to be left in the hills to die of exposure. By this practice Sparta hoped to ensure that only those who were physically fit would survive.
Exposing weak and sickly children was a common practice in the Greek world, but Sparta institutionalized it as a state activity rather than a domestic activity. Those babies that did survive were brought up in an odd way. The women did not bath babies with water, but instead with wine, making it a test of strength. They believed that the epileptic or sickly babies would lose control and go into convulsions, but the healthy ones were toughened and became stronger. They did not swaddle the babies, instead they would leave them free.
They insisted on the babies not being fussy about their food, and they were not allowed to be afraid of the dark and was often left alone in the dark. They were not allowed to whine or be unpleasant. At the young age of seven years old the male Spartan was removed from their homes and parental controls and came into direct control of the city-state and was sent to the military and athletic schools to live. These schools taught toughness, discipline and endurance, often the endurance of severe pain, and survival skills. The strongest and most courageous youths were made captains.
The boys slept in dormitories of hard beds of rushes. The boys daily food was deliberately rationed and consisted of no more than black broth and coarse food. They wore the simplest and meager clothing. Much different from the boys in neighboring Athens, they spent little time being educated in music and literature, they learned reading and writing only for basic needs. Instead, they were drilled daily in gymnastics and military exercises. They were taught that retreat and surrender in battle were a disgrace. They learned to endure pain and hardship without complaint and to absolutely obey orders without questioning authority.
They were made to feel hunger and were encouraged to supplement their small portions of food by stealing for themselves. This was not done to cultivate dishonesty but to develop artfulness and initiative. If they were caught, they were whipped and beaten for their stupidity. The young girls were also educated in the same fashion as well as made to exercise their bodies in running, wrestling and throwing the discuss or javelin, so when they had children, it was believed if the mother’s body was strong, the infant would be strong also, this also was supposed to make the child-labor easier to manage pain.
When the boys reached the age of twelve, they no longer had tunics to wear, but instead received one cloak per year. Their bodies were tough and unused to taking baths. They slept, in packs, on beds which they got together on their own, made of rushes that they had obtained in the rivers and broken off with their bare hands. The boys were often matched against each other in violent games with a ball and in all out brawls. The life of a Spartan male was a life of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or recreational opportunities.
This discipline continued into young adulthood. The discipline that the young adult male experienced was much more intense than even that of the young boy. They were taught to live and to die for their state. As they approached the age of 20, the training grew more militaristic and severe. All male Spartan citizens between the age of 20 and 60 served in the army. Although Spartan men were allowed to marry, they lived in the barracks, they had to belong to a men’s dining club and eat and sleet in the barracks. They were forbidden to possess gold and silver, and their money consisted of iron bars.
War songs were the only music allowed and their knowledge of literature was almost nonexistent. Even in their speech, luxury was not allowed, they spoke short and to the point. When the Spartan did decide to marry, the marriage ritual was somewhat unusual. The man carried his wife off as if he were taking her by force, although the women were held in a much higher status than that of other societies. Marriage was supposed to be by capture. The groom would take his bride to her new home and the bridesmaids would cut her hair short and dress her in a man’s cloak and sandals.
The idea of this ritual was to avoid the evil spirits by fooling them of the outward appearance of the bride. Trial marriages were also a practice of the Spartan society. If the bride became pregnant then the marriage was permanent, if not then the relationship was severed. There were several other strange marriage practices including all the young men and women were shut in a dark room. Whichever girl the man commandeered he brought home and married, as dowries were illegal, that was not an issue. Another common practice was wife sharing, and this was found only in the Spartan society.
It became honorable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom they should find fit, so that they may also have children for themselves. Childbearing was of great importance to the Spartan society. A woman who could produce large families was looked upon highly. Many times the only time a man came home from the barracks was for the sole purpose of increasing the population. The adult life of the man’s life became most critical upon reaching twenty. He tried to get elected to one of the dining clubs “or military mess halls. There were generally about fifteen members.
In the ballot each member would drop a pellet of bread into a jar, and if a single man squeezed his pellet flat, then the candidate would be rejected. To fail to win the election meant becoming a social outcast. Members of the club ate all their meals together, and each man had to provide a monthly quota of barley, wine, cheese and figs. The diet was plain and included a type of “black” broth or porridge, which was known to be nasty. With military training continuing through adulthood, no one was free to live like they wanted. The city was like a military camp, and they had a set way of life and a routine to public service.
They were convinced that they were the sole property of the city-state. If they had no duty assigned to them, they would watch the boys, by teaching either them something useful, or learning from their elders. Oddly, The soldier-centered state of Sparta was the most liberal state in regards to the status of women. While women did not go through military training, they were required ti be educated along similar lines. The Spartans were the only Greeks not only to take the education of its women seriously, and they instituted it into state policy.
This was not, however, academic education. This was physical education which was tough. The same with infant girls as with infant boys, they were exposed to infanticide if the elders judged them to be weak. In childhood the girls were exposed to physical and gymnastic training. This education also involved teaching women that their lives should be dedicated to the state. In most Greek city-states, women were required to stay indoors at all times, however, the upper class was the only class that could afford to observe this custom.
Spartan women, however, were free to move about, and had an unusual amount of domestic freedom due to the fact that their husbands did not live at home. However, there were some things that were strictly prohibited for the Spartan women. They were not allowed to wear jewelry, cosmetics or perfumes, or attractive clothing. The hair was cut extremely short and their bodies were masculine compared to a young boy. This was all to ensure the simplistic lifestyles expected from the Spartan society.
Not until the age of sixty was the Spartan male free to go home and live and to leave the barracks. At which time many elders concentrated on governmental duties. So, then with a society that was supposed to have been so strong and so well managed it is not really clear what happened. Only that Sparta’s leaders were aware of issues pertaining to the state, one being, the declining numbers of citizens. They tried to counteract the declining birthrate in a variety of ways. First, the institutional control upon male marriage was altered.
In the fourth century it was normal for males in their twenties to marry, but until age thirty they were severely restricted in performing the normal roles of husbands. They could not reside with their wives, meetings were limited, and they were not permitted to go into the marketplace to obtain their family necessities. Second, incentives were established to encourage a greater number of sons. A father of three sons was given exemption from military service and fathers of four exceptions from all public duties. In addition, older men with younger wives were permitted, and encouraged.
The one big aspect of Sparta’s decline was failure of Sparta’s leaders to deal with extreme economic difficulties facing poorer families. The problem required radical solutions such as redistribution of land or a restructuring of the economic base. The Spartan leaders never bothered taking on the task of fixing these problems. For these reasons, leading Spartans ignored the economic problems of poorer citizens, and the compromise over landownership, The rich became richer and the poor became poorer, This caused poor families to lose their citizen status and Spartan number continued to decline.
The tyranny of the Spartans aroused hatred and rebellion among those who had been conquered, and the jealous limitations on citizenship gradually reduced the number of specially trained warriors until only a few hundred remained. Along with their monetary and financial system was too primitive to incorporate with other societies. They shut themselves out from all other societies and in the end, they shut themselves down because of this. After about thirty years of Spartan domination, the Thebans defeated Sparta in 371 BC and ended its power. The long war with Athens had weakened many of the city-states.
Their weakness and disunity left them prey to a greater power that was emerging in Macedonia and King Phillip II. With the expansion of King Phillips territories he gained control of Sparta and Sparta was finally absorbed into the Roman Legion. Finally the ancient city of Sparta was destroyed by the Visgoths is AD 396. It became quite clear in the end that although the Spartan civilization was a very unique society and strong government, the limitations that the Spartan government imposed upon its society eventually became its greatest downfall.