Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Spartans were the indisputable military power in Greece.
by Patrick Garner
No city had warriors as fierce, disciplined, and proud.
Unlike other Greeks, they did not live as individuals but as parts of a hive, or in the Spartan’s case, a war machine. But their glory lasted only a few centuries.
The fate of Sparta
Sparta began its existence as early as 1200 B.C. Spartans attributed their name to a naiad-nymph named Sparte. She was a daughter of the river god, Eurotas, and married the mortal Lakedaimon. He was the city’s king and named the region after himself.
For years, the Spartans called themselves Lakedaimons. Only many centuries later were they referred to as Spartans. To enhance their origin story; the Spartans claimed they were descended from two of the sons of Heracles.
They prospered thanks to the area’s rich soils, but its prosperity was due to other factors, as well. Around 735 B.C. the Spartans attacked and enslaved the Messenians, their neighbors to the west.
Their conquest was so complete that the losers lost their name and were called helots.
Helot labor was the underbelly of Spartan society and allowed the Spartans to constantly train for war.
Even though the Spartans were far outnumbered by their slaves, they maintained control by keeping the helots in a constant state of terror. Once a year, young Spartan men were allowed to run wild, killing helots at will.
The whole of Spartan society was structured to support the professional army—the only one in the ancient Greek world. From the age of seven, all Spartan boys began their military training.
Their lives shifted from the comforts of home to a barracks-style austerity.
Their parents no longer raised them. Instead, the boys lived communally with other boys to learn how to fight, harden their bodies, and take pain. Their father was replaced by an older Spartan warrior. He was typically in his twenties and was responsible for creating a new, fierce, and unquestioning, patriotic soldier.
The boy’s education would go on until at least age eighteen. Over time, they learned that nothing was more important than sacrificing themselves to the military goal. Morality was redefined in Sparta. The boys were purposely underfed and encouraged to steal. This was believed to teach them pluck and resilience.
Bravery and courage were mandatory. A boy who showed the slightest sign of fear was shunned. Any aversion to combat caused him to be ostracized.
By the time they fought their first battle, they were as hard as the bronze armor they wore for protection, and so the Spartan system created courageous soldiers who gladly gave their lives in battle The more worldly Athenians even joked about it, saying that living conditions in Sparta were so bad that of course they’d sacrifice themselves!
In other Greek cities, individualism was celebrated. In Sparta, the individual was obliterated.
Other Greeks thought the city was strange, particularly since there was no art, sculpture, theatre, or philosophy.
Who created this new culture?
The Spartans said that a Lakedaimon named Lycurgus created the rigid system that fueled their military success. Historians have found no evidence that Lycurgus existed and suspect Apollo’s priests may have been involved.
The name Lycurgus means Wolf-worker, or Wolfish. These were common titles for the god, not men. The name Lycurgus was rarely given to a mortal.
Regardless, Lycurgus is credited not only with inventing the Spartan’s unique military machine…but with creating a new political system. Plato lauded parts of it in The Republic as an ideal society.
The Spartans’ use of blunt force spread fear throughout Greece. Even Spartan mothers bought in to this culture. Sons were told to return home after battle behind their shield or on top of it. When rare defeat occurred, Spartan women were not allowed to mourn but were taught to react with placidity and smiles.
The Spartans’ reputation as a unique society carried over to women’s legal rights. Unlike the rest of Greece, Spartan women could own property, including land. Girls had a similar education to that of boys.
They were celebrated for their choral performances and gymnastic prowess, performing publicly completely naked—which was true for all Spartan youth.
Some scholars question whether the nakedness ever occurred; others speculate that it allowed potential suitors to choose their future wives.
Spartan females had a reputation for being the most beautiful of all Greek women.
Remember that Helen of Troy was originally Helen of Sparta and known as the most beautiful woman in the world.
With helots to perform menial chores, Spartan women were free to think, debate, and acquire wealth. Further, a married woman was encouraged to take a partner other than her husband if there were greater assurance of healthy offspring who would be turned into soldiers.
Defining moments for the Spartans
Combat, more than anything else, defined the Spartans. In 480 B.C. they sealed their reputation forever, pitting 300 of their champions against tens of thousands of Persian soldiers at Thermopylae.
They were defeated after three days but took 20,000 Persian soldiers down with them due to utter bravery and skill.
The Spartans reached the height of their power when they defeated the Athenians in 404 B.C., ending the Peloponnesian War. Still, Sparta’s glory was brief.
A mere 35 years later, they suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Thebans. Then, the Thebans invaded Sparta and liberated the helots. The once mighty Spartan war machine never recovered.
Spartan dominance had lasted 300 years. Before long, the Macedonians swept in, followed by the Romans. As a regional power, the Spartans were through.
Ultimately, Sparta paid an extraordinary price for its success. Their entire society was based on preparing for war. They had no ideology to fall back on once they were defeated.
Much of today’s world thinks of Spartans as the ultimate warriors—unrelenting, brave, and willing to give their lives for a greater good.
Hence, in the eyes of history, perhaps they won after all.
Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. See Amazon. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology, with listeners in 148 countries.