10 intriguing facts you probably didn’t know about the Spartans

6) The Spartans themselves endured ritualistic flogging –


Known as ‘diamastigosis‘, the nigh inhumane ritual involved the annual flogging of adolescents in front of the an altar at the temple of Artemis Orthia. Underneath its pseudo-religious veneer, the practice often tested the endurance level and courage of the young Spartans under military training. But in spite of its seemingly arduous nature, the ritual did result in deaths – with the fatality frequency increasing more by the latter part of the Spartan state (especially during Roman rule). There are even evidences of a 3rd century AD amphitheater which was specifically used for such bloody events with a spectator base.

7) Spartans considered their crimson robes less womanly and more war-like –


Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, had supposedly prescribed the wearing of crimson robes by Lakedaimonians – as this color was considered less womanly (according to Xenophon’s writings). Plutarch later on added that the color crimson was most likely to induce terror in enemies, while also disguising the blood wounds of the Spartan soldier. This hypothesis certainly seems to have its merit, since most Greek armies adopted the crimson dress by 4th century BC.

However, beyond just battle-inspired practicality, there is also a symbolic side to the crimson robe. To that end, given the pride of the mothers and the wives in their Spartan menfolk, the women often wanted to create the finest clothing for the battle-hardened soldiers. In essence, there was a regal air to the crimson hue, with the dye being mostly expensive to acquire. And, as time passed, the uniformity of such crimson cloaks probably influenced the state to pass legislation requiring each Lakedaimonian soldier to wear the same reddish color. Later on (after 4th century), many such maroon-tinted robes were even officially issued by the commander of the company.

8) The Spartans more often than not wore body armors, as opposed to their ‘bare chested’ movie counterparts –


Before the period of the 5th century, Spartan armor mainly comprised of the so-called bell cuirass, with its name coming from the armor’s resemblance to the mouth of a bell in its bottom section (above the waist). However, by the first half of the 5th century, the bell cuirass made way for the famed muscled cuirass that was closely modeled on the ‘chiseled’ musculature of an idealized body. This particular period coincided with King Leonidas and the legendary (and often embellished) Battle of Thermopylae. However, by late 5th century body armors were altogether discarded in favor of enhanced mobility. This trend more-or-less continued till 360 BC, after which heavy Spartan armors were adopted once again due to changing military tactics.

Beyond the body, another significant part of the Spartan armor was the shield. In fact, the shield was given far more value than any type of armor or weaponry – and Spartan warriors who threw away their shields were rigorously punished. When asked why, the Spartan king Demaratos made a succinct reply – “because the latter [other armors] they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the whole line.”

9) Sparta was ruled by two kings, and they were subject to most of the common civilian laws –


The two kings generally came from the ‘royal’ families of the Agiads and the Eurypontids, and by 6th century BC this dual arrangement (diarchy) allowed one king to go on a military campaign while the other king could rule from his home base. For example, Leonidas hailed from the Agiad family, while his most probable contemporary was Leotychidas, a successful military general in his own right, who came from the Eurypontid family.

However, in spite of their royal blood, the kings were often judged based on common civilian laws and social conventions of Sparta. Some of these doled out judgments were intentionally petty – as was the case with a heavy fine heaped upon King Archidamus, who committed the ‘crime’ of marrying a thin, petite woman. According to the lawgivers, their union could only produce ‘kinglets’, not kings.

10) ‘Laconic’ comes from Laconia – the homeland of Spartans


The Laconic phrase implies a concise statement that still manages to drive home its point; and as such the scope entails the use of very few words (by a person or speech). This term itself comes from the geographical region of Laconia, which comprised of the city state of Sparta. In fact, the Spartans were known for their terse replies and pithy remarks, alongside their austerely disciplined lifestyles. Many of such concise yet blunt retorts can be seen in the otherwise historically inaccurate movie ‘300‘, with the notable example being when Xerxes offered to spare 7,000 Greek soldiers who were defending the strategic mountain pass. However, the emperor’s condition was that Leonidas’ men had to willingly lay down their arms. In reply, Leonidas simply uttered ‘Molon labe‘ which translates to ‘come and get them’.

In another interesting example, Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) sent a message to Sparta that read – “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.”. The Spartan leader (ephor) only replied – “If”.

Sources: The Spartan Army by Nick Sekunda and Richard Hook (Osprey Publishing) / TUFTS / PBS / Britannica Encyclopedia / HistoryWiz / CSUN / Mlahanas

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