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Sparta had the wildest society you never heard of – The Straight Dope

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Sparta has always been this mystical warrior city, and it turns out to be for good reason. The Spartans left no legacy: not paintings, not writings, not monuments or cultural achievements. No one recorded its glories in books, scrolls or stories. This is the first clue as to how odd Sparta really was.

What little we know is legendary, contradictory, and error-prone. Now Andrew Bayliss has written The Spartans with extraordinary care. He has weighed the ancient Greek writers, looked for nuance in word choice, and rejected the fake news. The result is revealing, and not necessarily in a good way.

Sparta was actually a group of small villages around a tiny town core. It was about 60 miles southwest of Athens, in the hills of Laconia, and landlocked. It claimed to be founded by invading Dorians and everything about life in Sparta was battle. The book goes to remarkable lengths to describe the men, women, boys, girls and slaves and how they lived their lives, which were unlike any others in history.

Boys were taken from their families and raised together, to be warriors. They learned pride and nationalism and self-sacrifice. To die for Sparta was the goal, and there were always opportunities. Boys were beaten regularly, just for the sake of beatings, and also when they transgressed. The sexual abuse of boys is well known. As they got into adolescence they were allowed to have hair, and finally by age 30 they were deemed trained enough and responsible enough to have things like mustaches and wives. Growing up, they did not have enough to eat, which forced them to learn to steal, and critically, not be caught. These were the values Sparta instilled in its males.

Girls stayed home, but spent all their time outdoors, becoming athletic, tanned, large women, who ate a diet with 50% more calories than modern women. They competed with boys as equals, with one winning the Olympic Gold in chariot racing — twice. They also learned to raise warriors, and seemed to have no problem giving up their own children for Sparta. If one came back from battle alive, it was almost shameful. Men married by grabbing a woman and carrying her off, first come, first served. Dowries were accounted for later. When women married, they cut off their hair, so as not to distract their husbands from the business of war, but good enough to produce new Spartans. They wore unattractive manly clothes, as compared to when they were girls and wore skimpy, open and short tunics and played or performed naked. The men shared the women, so women had many lovers, openly. In these social aspects, Sparta was a kind of commune.

Men were all about physique. They exercised and competed, often naked, played sports and were in general, bros. Their military uniform was a simple, blood red cloak and they were naked beneath. The red served to make them fiercer-looking and also served to hide the blood from hand to hand combat. Because all they had were a short sword, an easily broken spear/staff, and a shield. In Sparta, they ate together in messes. They had to provide a huge amount of food annually to the mess (3000 kg), a boring, monotonous menu of barley, olives, pork, wine and cheese. In order to produce this required bounty, they had to have a lot of property, and numerous slaves to work it.

The Helots were the slaves. They were other Greeks, captured during wars and enslaved. Their owners kept them underfed, lest one should grow as big and strong as a Spartan. They could be killed just for being big and strong, and their masters fined for it. Helots needed to be weak and submissive. They were beaten savagely, and every year the leadership would declare war on the Helots, so that murdering them was legal, and would not result in punishment or even shame. Helots were murdered for any reason and no reason. They were hunted down for sport or killed for crimes such as being out at night, so there was always need for more. The population of Sparta never exceeded 20,000, but there were between seven and fifteen times as many Helots that kept the system working.

The political structure was bizarre. There were co-kings, who were followed and monitored by ephors, kind of prefects. The five ephors were elected by adult males. They were elected by cheering. The loudest cheer determined who won. Kings could be fined, deposed or exiled, and had to be sworn in monthly. Finally, a council called the gerousia was where the laws were made and changed. The gerousia declared the wars and the kings led them.

Above all else, every man was a soldier. It was a high pressure society, where superficial traits counted more than substance. Being overweight would bring shame and fines. Being lame brought shame and ostracism. Babies judged to be weaklings, lame or diseased were tossed out and left to die; there was no place for them in Spartan society. Those who proved unequal to battle were called tremblers. They were made to shave off half their beards and humiliated all day and in every aspect of their lives. No one wanted them at their mess, on their team, and certainly not in their family. The best thing a trembler could possibly do was plunge into battle for Sparta, and be killed.

Sparta was constantly at war. It was forever attacking and enslaving, or being beaten back, making and breaking alliances, backstabbing partners, and watching their own backs among their slaves and their so-called allies. So Spartans had no time for culture or luxury. They buried their soldiers on the battlefields, not at home. Everyone had to be fit and ready for the call, which came often. They even spoke little, making few words go far. This is where our word laconic comes from; Sparta was in Laconia.

Altogether, it made for an enormously rigid and tense society, with everyone always having to be “on”, while also looking back at their slaves and out to the city for demands that they fight. It is remarkable that it lasted the few hundred years that it did.

No examination of the Spartans would be complete without the telling of the martyrs of Thermopylae. King Leonidas was supposed to lead an allied army, but only his own 300 men showed up. They held off the invading Persians, killing possibly 20,000 of them because they were safely in the hillside that overlooked the access from the sea. On the third day they were betrayed and Xerxes’ men took the goat path around and behind the Spartans, killing all of them. The story has been twisted many ways by Hollywood and novels, making the Spartans heroes and Leonidas on a suicide mission totally foretold by oracles, so that he knew his fate and that of all his men well in advance. It was with great pride that he carried on regardless. It’s the only full-fledged Sparta story that survived the ages. And that is what made the Sparta legend.

Today, Sparta is an international brand, as Bayliss points out in his closing chapter. There are innumerable towns, sports teams and endurance tests named for Sparta, worldwide. The most in thrall seemed to have been the Nazis, who actively implemented similar programs, philosophies and regimens for the good Aryan burghers of Germany. Everyone had to be fit, trained, armed, inspired and ready to die for the Fatherland, from the Hitler Youth to the massive political rallies, and turning all radios on towards the street to broadcast Hitler’s instructions so that everyone was always on the same page. Sparta still has terrific right-wing appeal. In Greece itself, the extreme right Golden Dawn party takes its ideals from Sparta as being the true and pure Greek way, even though the Spartans claimed to be an invasive species.

As with anything, the details of the Sparta legend make it out to be a far different society than we pretend. Bayliss has done a terrific job in a compact and jam-packed book putting the scene together for all to understand at long last. Sparta is both much less and far more than the name alone implies.

David Wineberg

(The Spartans, Andrew Bayliss, August 2020)

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