Sunday, October 12, 2008

Meet the Spartans, Part I

Nearly three millennia ago -- somewhere between 776 BC (also the year of the first Olympic Games) and 710 BC, five little towns on the bank of the Eurotas River on the beautiful and fertile Laconian plain in Western Greece organized themselves into one of the most extraordinary societies in the history of mankind.

They called themselves Dorians (a tribal or quasi-ethnic distinction), Lacedaemonians (the proper name of their "city state"), or Homoioi (translated as "Similars." We know them as Spartans.

Democracy, philosophy, engineering, trade and the arts -- as well as slavery and military conquest -- provided many ordinary Greek citizens with something historically rare -- leisure time, personal freedom and plenty to eat.

Although many Greeks lived happy and fulfilling lives, the threat of war and slavery was ever present. The external threat to Greeks was real and palpable -- defeat in war could mean slavery for the citizenry and the permanent destruction of their beloved culture.

The internal threat from this life of ease -- decadence, laziness, enervation -- was less terrifying but still very real.

Among the many independent but culturally similar Greek city-states, Sparta more than all others linked the internal with the external threats.

The Spartans decided that they would never allow wealth, ease and privilege to weaken them militarily. Freedom for themselves, they reasoned, required victory in battle and control of their entire region.

And victory required physical and mental strength, military skill and supreme discipline. In other words, they understood that their ability to defend themselves against external threats depended on their ability to defend against the internal threat of decadence, excess, laziness and soft living in general.

Unlike their classical contemporaries, the Athenians, the Spartans avoided the building of monuments, temples, grand houses, statues or the cultivation of written works or other records. (In fact, fancy, well-built houses were forbidden by law as a way to enforce equality.) As a result, we know little about ancient Sparta. And most of what we do know comes from rare observation by outsiders.

Sparta is often referred to as "militaristic," probably because non-Spartans were largely banned from observing everyday Spartan life. Outsiders saw Spartans mostly on the field of battle, impressive in their discipline, professionalism and ferocity, and usually victorious.

If you visit modern Sparta, you'll find a few sites where the stone remains of their culture lay scattered about, unprotected and unimpressive. When you compare Sparta's few modest classical-era ruins with the grand spectacle that stills exists in Athens -- the Athenian acropolis alone holds structures that by any measure far exceed the quantity or quality of all known Spartan ruins -- you may be forgiven for incredulity to learn that at its height, Sparta controlled more than three times the territory of Athens.