Thucidides asked, "How will the men of the future realize the glory of Sparta from its Ruins?" The answer to that question turns out to be: through reputation.
Famous battles, including the Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans (and a few hundred allies and slaves) held off the mighty Persian invasion for an entire week, and killed some 22,000 in the process, helped build Sparta's awesome reputation, which lives on to this day.
When we think about the Spartans, we think of military prowess. But this is an outsider's view. It's true that the whole of Spartan society was mobilized for winning battles. But why? What were they fighting for?
A useful way to understand Spartan culture is to focus on the radical transformation of Spartan culture that resulted from radical reforms enacted during the 7th century BC -- new laws and rules created to eliminate corrupting influences that were thought to weaken Spartan citizens. This historically unprecedented innovation was followed by centuries of conservation -- rigidity to maintain the innovations that was the Spartan system.
Most of these rules are attributed to a man named Lycurgus (whose name means "He who brings into being the works of a wolf"), the Father of Classical Sparta, and whose very existence is a point of controversy among historians. Lycurgus appears as one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-relief in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol Building and also on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
Lycurgus' rules for Sparta were codified in a kind of constitution called the Great Rhetra, which served the same broad purposes of the American Constitution: to limit the powers of government, identify the powers of each component of government and build "checks and balances" that would prevent any "branch" from taking over and ruling arbitrarily.
Sparta had two hereditary Kings, both of whom were believed to be direct descendents of Heracles (Hercules), who ruled simultaneously. In an age of absolute monarchy, these Kings were weakened and shackled by institutions and laws that divided real power between citizens and Sparta's elite.
The most powerful institution in Sparta was a group of five Ephors, or "overseers," one representing each of Sparta's five villages. What was unique at the time of the formation of the Spartan system was that these powerful men were elected directly by citizens, and could hold office for one term of one year. The Ephors were so powerful they could actually arrest Kings who broke the law during war. They also controlled a kind of "secret police" called the Krypteia, made up of young Spartan men whose main purpose was to control the massive slave population through the murder of upstarts.
The citizens (defined as adult males in good standing) formed the Assembly, which had the power to approve or reject all major laws proposed by a "Council of Elders" called the Gerousia. This Gerousia contained 28 members over the age of 60, plus the two Spartan kings.
This system of elections, checks and balances, and the degree to which the monarchy was subjected to limitations, was unheard of in the ancient world in the 7th century BC. Lycurgus's government was just one of the many unique features of Spartan society.
Lycurgus decreed that all male children should be taken from their families and placed into a regimented school system designed to teach them military excellence, loyalty, citizenship, hunting, dancing, singing and overall Spartan citizenship and culture. Agoge training started at the age of seven, and didn't end until 29.
One goal of the agoge was to disassociate the child's loyalty from his biological family, and re-associate it with a group formed around the communal dining system, called syssitia or pheiditia. These dining clubs formed the foundation of Spartan cultural life.
In addition to rigorous training, suffering and hardship were deliberately built into the agoge system. Young Spartans were banned from wearing shoes, to toughen their feet. They had to wear one item of clothing all year, which guaranteed they would be too hot in summer and too cold in winter. They slept on reeds from the Eurotas River, which they gathered themselves by hand.
Spartan youth weren't given enough food to survive. If they wanted to avoid starvation, they had to steal. This tradition reveals much about the Spartan mindset. The purpose of starving the young into stealing was above all military preparedness. Stealing food required youths to act in groups, moving silently at night using stealth and cunning, the ability to navigate in the dark and other skills useful in espionage and warfare.
Of course, the Spartans considered theft abhorrent and unethical just like everybody else, but they viewed failure to prepare Spartans for warfare the greater evil. Forcing the young to steal was simply the realization of Spartan priorities.
Spartans believed not only that hunger makes children grow taller, but that familiarity with hunger might someday prove useful during war, and enable soldiers to continue fighting for days without food, while the enemy might give up the fight. In other words, they viewed familiarity with hunger as a strategic advantage. They viewed hunger as one of a whole range of discomforts to be psychologically mastered in the development of soldiers. Others included pain, fear, fatigue and confusion.
If youths were caught stealing, they were publicly whipped -- not for theft, but for failure. Theft was mandatory. But a lack of tactical skill was unforgivable. The punishment itself was interesting. It continued until the boy chose to stop it. So powerful was the Spartan culture of strength and endurance that some boys collapsed or even died because they wanted to demonstrate full "Spartanness," the ability to endure pain and suffering.
The institution of stealing food as military training was so central to Spartan culture that they even held a regular festival to commemorate it. This event, called the festival of Artemis Ortheia, featured Spartan youths making their way through whip-wielding guards in order to steal as many cheeses from an alter as possible.
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