The Way Of Ancient Sparta

By | October 8, 2019

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Greek hoplite reenactment. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

When most people think of the historic Spartans, they think of Frank Miller’s 300 in which bare-chested Spartans hold off the advance of endless hordes of Persians. While the historicity of the Spartans of Miller’s imagination has many flaws, one thing is certain about the Spartans, they were outstanding warriors.

There are many examples today of “Spartan” training methods, or at least methods inspired by the Spartans of antiquity. The truth of the matter is that their entire society was geared to create skilled warriors. Spartan life was entirely different than anything in existence today and is a subject that entices the historical curiosity of armchair warriors to ironman triathletes.

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Statue of Lycurgus, Lawgiver of Sparta, at the Law Courts of Brussels, Belgium on December 30, 2013. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Structure of Spartan Society

Sparta, sometimes Lacedaemon, was a city-state in southern Greece in the region of Laconia. The story of the Spartans as history knows them begins with Lycurgus, a semi-mythical figure who in the seventh century B.C. He instituted a new constitution for the city-state in order to bring order out of a period of unspecified chaos.

Lycurgus brought to Sparta a militant society divided into three classes. First were the Spartans who were full citizens with full rights. The second class was the Perioeci who were neither citizens nor slaves but worked as craftsmen and traders. The third class was the helots, a slave class of conquered peoples that outnumbered the Spartans seven to one. They farmed and did all the other manual labor that the Spartan citizens did not want to do.

Fear of a helot revolt was one of the main reasons why Sparta had a society that became so militant. It was geared for the violent oppression of the helots.

The basis of the new constitution was summed up best by the ancient Greek writer, Xenophon who noted, “Lycurgus made it clear that happiness was the reward of the brave, misery the reward of cowards.”

The Spartan system would endure for centuries and drew admiration from many other Greek city-states.