What We Do Know About Ancient Sparta
Even before the movie “300”, Spartans were already held in high regards as some of the greatest warriors ever. They were one of the most efficient and strongest of the Greek city-states during their time. They had a highly organized land-based army that would conquer and enslave their enemies. Their battle skills and mastery of warfare was unmatched for its time. They are so famously remembered that the word Spartan is still used today to define an exception warrior ready for battle. But how does an entire civilization become such amazing warriors you may ask. Below we look at some of the barbaric facts about Spartan life that still surprise us today.
A Spartan Must Prove Their Fitness Even As An Infant
Spartan selection started from Day One. Although infanticide was an extremely common act in the ancient world, in Sparta it was managed and organized by the state. A council of inspectors would review every newborn Spartan for physical defects. Any child born with illness or disability had their life ended right there and then. Popular myths suggest that they would be thrown off the mountain side, although this has been recently debunked. Instead, Spartan babies who were then deemed unfit to serve as future soldiers would be left abandoned by the hillside. Here they would either die from the elements or be adopted by nearby strangers if they were lucky.
Passing the inspection did not make life any easier. Spartan babies were constantly bathed in wine instead of water and were left alone to cry often. They were to be taught that they could not fear darkness or solitude. Foreigners would be so impressed by this tough love attitude, that Spartan woman started to become admired. Many foreigners would offer great sums to have a Spartan woman serve them as a nurse or nanny.
Children Placed In Military Styled Educational Program Called Agoge
The Spartan Warrior training began at the age of 7. At this age, the young boys will leave their parents home to begin the Agoge. The Agoge was essentially a state-sponsored training regime who’s goal was to mold all spartan boys into skilled warriors. While at the barracks they were housed in, they would be trained in the following arts: Socialistic warfare, hunting, athletics, and stealth. At the age of 12, they would have all clothing removed except for a red cloak. They would have to sleep outside and make their own beds out of weeds. To prepare for a life in the field, the boy soldiers were encouraged to scavenge or even steal their food. However, if they were caught stealing the punishment would be brutal, as they would receive floggings.
This isn’t the only time floggings occur. It was common practice to have all the boys lined up to receive floggings. The last boy standing from the floggings was the most honored and respected. After the age of 12, the child warriors would be handed over to a male mentor. Typically it was would be a young man who is not married, who will serve as a substitute father figure and role model for the junior trainee. At the age of 18, these boys would become reserve members of the Spartan Army. After leaving the Agoge, these soldiers would be sorted into groups and sent into the countryside with just a knife. They were to survive with the skills and training they had received throughout their lifetime. This practice was called the Crypteia, and the immediate objective was for them to kill as many Helots as possible in the Greek countryside. This allowed them to dominate the Helot population by terrorizing them with intimidation.
As the boys were expected to become fierce fighters, the girl’s purpose was to bear children. The girls were allowed to stay with their parents but also followed a rigorous education routine. They would practice dance, gymnastics, javelin, and discus throwing. All these exercises were believed to make them physically fit for motherhood. This would actually make Sparta stand out from the rest of the city-states in Ancient Greece. None of the other city-states would provide formal education to girls, not even Athens or Macedonia.
Spartan Men Were Not Allowed To Live With Their Wives Until The Age Of 30
Spartan society did not discourage romantic love, however, marriage and childbearing were subject to governmental restraint. Men shouldn’t marry until 30, and women shouldn’t marry until 20. This made sense since the men were required to live in the barracks until the age of 30. Those who choose to get married prior to the age of 30, had to live separate from their wives until they completed their active duty military service. In Spartan culture, marriage was viewed primarily as a means to achieve new soldiers. Citizens were encouraged to consider the health and fitness of their mate prior to getting married. Men who were unable to impregnate their wives were responsible for finding a substitute to temporarily get their wife pregnant. Due to this, bachelors were viewed as neglecting their duties, and often mocked and humiliated at religious festivals.
Spartan Men Had A Lifelong Commitment To The Army & It Was Illegal To Pursue Any Other Occupation
If you were thinking that Spartans put down their spears and shields at the age of 30, you were dead wrong. Spartan men remained on reserve duty up until the age of 60. Spartan men were unable to acquire any other occupation other than soldier by state law. Manufacturing and agriculture were left to the lower class slaves that surrounded Sparta, which was the Helots. Skilled laborers, traders, and craftsmen were free but not citizens of Sparta. Due to constant fear of a Helot uprising, the Sparta focused on a strong standing army at all times to keep the Helots in check.
Surrender In Battle Was The Ultimate Disgrace
Spartans were expected to fight until the last man. Surrender in battle was viewed as the ultimate disgrace. To lay down your weapon in combat meant cowardice. Men who surrendered during battle would eventually commit suicide from the shame they would experience back home. It is said that two Spartans that missed the famous fight of Thermopylae eventually went back home in such shame that one of them committed suicide. The other only redeemed himself after dying in combat in an engagement that took place later on. Even Spartan mothers were known to be tough in regards to sending their sons off to war. They would often tell their sons to “return with their shield or on it”. Dying in battle was the ultimate honor for a Spartan. In fact, your name could only be inscribed on your tomb if you died in battle. If you were a woman, you would have to die in childbirth to have your name on your tombstones.