Hollywood always had a love affair with the Spartans – so much so that they even went the fantastical route (read ‘300‘) to endow these ancient warriors with mythical prowess. However, beyond fictional hyperbole and flattering depictions, the Spartans (or more accurately Lakedaimonians) for all intents-and-purposes belonged to a warrior culture – and a quite rigorous one at that. So, without further ado, let us check out ten interesting facts about the Spartans that might pervade (or strengthen) many of the myths surrounding them.
1) Yes, Spartan infants were truly inspected, and even known to be discarded!
When a Spartan boy was born, he was immediately inspected by the so-called council of elders from the tribe for any physical deformities. And, if the infant did fail the test, there were instances when the baby was left abandoned on hillsides (according to Herodotus’s version – they were shoved off the edges of Mount Taygetus). This merciless action either led to the starvation of the baby or (fortunately) led to its adoption by neighboring people.
Moreover, before the age of five, the child was taught to be content with frugal food, bathed in wine (for ‘adjusting’ his body), and discouraged from crying – an action which often instigated silent treatment from the parents. This ambit of self-sufficiency was further strengthened when the child was encouraged to deal with both loneliness and darkness. Such ‘tough love’ tactics were actually admired by outsider Greeks, and so they regularly employed nannies from the Spartan homeland.
2) Spartan military and ‘dancing’ training started from the age of five –
The young Spartan male was called a ‘boy’ (paidion) from the age of 5 to 11; and as such his military training (known as agoge) started effectively from this juvenile period of his life. During this time, he was sent from home to reside in communal barracks. And oddly enough, one of the first exercises he needed to learn was the pyrriche – a dance involving the carrying and maneuvering of weapons. Suffice it to say, such dexterous moves allowed the young warrior to be nimble-footed while also giving them experience in carrying actual armaments.
Additionally, the child was coached on reading and writing, and had to learn most of the battle songs that were sang on Spartan military campaigns. He was also encouraged to join groups, who then widely competed against each other in various sports (much like in Hogwarts). Finally, on his tenth year, he was required to give his competitive demonstration in the fields of athletics, dancing and music.
3) The Spartan was taught to ‘survive’ from the age of twelve –
Till the age of 11, the platform for the Spartan child was set to have a military-inspired lifestyle. And, from the age of 12, when he was known as a ‘youth’ (meirakion), the state administered exercises were tailored to hone his military and survival skills. This rigorous scope entailed – his discarding of any type of footwear, as barefoot marching toughened his legs and feet for actual battles; his renouncing of any type of warm clothing (sometimes being forced to even sleep naked), with just a thin cloak inducing fortitude in both hot summers and cold winters; and his partaking of a minimal, intentionally-frugal (and less than adequate) diet that was believed to make him grow both tall and slim. As a matter of fact, overweight citizens were often looked down upon in Spartan society, with few of them even being officially banished from the city state.
Along with these activities, the physical and fighting exercises were increased with every passing age. These included vicious fights and bouts between the participating teenagers, often instigated by the trainers themselves. And interestingly, even Spartan girls were specifically chosen to incite and ridicule certain Spartan male trainees – so as to rouse their aptitude for better performance in military-exercise demonstrations. Moreover, the Spartan youth was also encouraged to steal food to keep his hunger pangs away; and on being caught, he was severely punished for getting caught, not stealing!
4) Some Spartan trainees were expected to have male ‘lovers’ –
Most historians generally concur that significant numbers of Sparta’s adult male population were actively homosexuals, and between them the practice of pederasty (homosexual relationship between an adult male and a pubescent male) was not unheard of. However, it should be noted that these relationships went beyond just the physical basis. So the adult male intently acted as the younger trainee’s guardian, and thus was responsible for the teenager’s conduct and courage in the agoge. According to Xenophon, purely physical relationships between males could be officially banned from the state.
Such condemnation from the official level had a practical side to it, since unmarried men (after the age of 30) were looked down upon and even publicly humiliated by the Spartan society during religious festivals. In essence, heterosexual marriage was the only way to sire future Spartans – and such societal bonds were in turn supported by the free citizens. And, if the man proved to be impotent, he was expected to choose a virile substitute who could ‘practically’ impregnate his wife. Moreover, the Spartan man was also not allowed inside the marketplace to converse with other men till the age of 30.
5) Spartans hunted down their slaves to prove their own worthiness –
The Spartan was considered as a true soldier from the age of 18 when he was called the eiren or ‘adult citizen’. However, the Spartan secret service (known as krypteia) only took members who were generally above a certain age threshold (but below 30 years). This ‘krypteia‘ branch of the military practiced a cruel form of training for its initiates that required them to kill innocent ‘helots’ (the subjugated populace of Sparta which provided the free Lakedaimonians with slaves).
The atrocious process was started off when an ephor (an elected Spartan leader) upon entering his office, often declared war on the helots with the casus belli of fake revolts. This executive decision for all intents-and-purposes made the act of killing a helot completely legal from the perspective of state’s judicial system. And, when the order was passed, young Spartan men armed with just daggers and rations were let loose into the countryside populated by such slaves. These men regularly used bandit-like tactics and ambushed unsuspecting helots to kill them during night times. Sometimes, the strongest helot was targeted first, so as to make their case for Spartan manliness in taking down bigger enemies.
…continued on next page.