Sparta, an ancient Greek city-state, was renowned for its military strength and unique societal structure. The Spartan hoplites, recognized by their red cloaks and long hair, were widely regarded as the greatest and most feared warriors of ancient Greece.
The population of Sparta was divided into three distinct groups. First, we have the Spartans, who held the esteemed status of full citizenship. As citizens, it was their duty to devote themselves to physical training, military preparedness, and active participation in politics. Male citizens were limited to only one occupation: soldier.
Next, we have the Helots, who were unfortunate slaves. Originating from Laconia and Messenia, they were conquered by the Spartans and thrust into lives of servitude. The Spartans heavily relied on the Helots for their way of life. They were responsible for performing all the essential daily tasks and unskilled labor required to keep Spartan society functioning smoothly.
Lastly, there were the Perioeci, a group that didn’t fit neatly into the categories of slaves or citizens. The Perioeci, known as “dwellers-around,” held occupations as craftsmen and traders. They played a crucial role in crafting weapons for the Spartans.
The territory of ancient Sparta
The Spartan political system stood out for having not just one, but two hereditary kings from different noble families. This unique setup proved to be highly beneficial, especially when one of the kings led the army into battle. Kings also held the esteemed position of priests of Zeus, the chief god, and were esteemed members of the council of elders.
The council consisted of 28 men who were over the age of 60. They played a key role in the citizen assembly, where they proposed crucial matters up for a vote. Additionally, the council served as the highest court in all of Sparta, making them the ultimate arbiters of justice.
The citizen assembly, a monthly gathering eagerly anticipated by all Spartans, was the heart of Spartan democracy. It gives citizens a platform to express their opinions and make their voices heard. And how did they do it? Shouting!
The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy but where are they.
From the age of seven, all Spartan boys had to attend the compulsory education system known as the agōgē. The agōgē taught them important qualities like physical and mental strength, obedience, endurance, courage, and self-control. According to Xenophon, the instructors in the agōgē carried whips, and the boys wore the same shoes and clothes throughout the year. They were also given limited food to encourage them to endure hardship and learn to keep going even when food was scarce.
This demanding training regimen resulted in the formation of a professional army capable of executing complex battle maneuvers. Spartan reputation for military prowess extended throughout Greece, as evidenced by Sparta’s notable lack of fortifications for a significant portion of its history.
Spartan women had greater freedoms and power compared to women in other parts of ancient Greece. They had the right to own property, often acquired through dowries and inheritances. As a result, they became some of the wealthiest individuals in society, especially since many men lost their lives in the numerous wars. Eventually, Spartan women controlled around 2/5th of the land in Sparta.
The king Leonidas sculpture, 5th century B.C. Archaeological Museum of Sparta, Greece.
Religion held significant importance. The Spartans prioritized matters of the gods above those of men, as described by Herodotus. While pre- and post-battle sacrifices were common in Greek warfare, the Spartans took it a step further. They performed sacrifices before crossing rivers and even refrained from mobilizing their army during important religious festivals.
In the Battle of Marathon, the Spartan soldiers arrived too late to assist the other Greek cities due to their adherence to religious rituals. During the Battle of Thermopylae, they mobilized only a symbolic force as they felt compelled to celebrate the Karneia festival, dedicated to Apollo, before engaging fully in battle.
The story of Sparta is truly captivating. From its humble beginnings, the city grew to become one of the most formidable and influential in ancient Greece and beyond. Spartan culture has gained widespread recognition for their disciplined lifestyle, rigorous education, and unwavering commitment to the ideals of duty, honor, and sacrifice. While some aspects of Spartan life may have been exaggerated over time, the significance of Sparta in ancient history and its impact on world culture cannot be overstated.
Words of Wisdom
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
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