Sparta: ‘We Bow Down Before No Man’

Statue of Spartan King Leonidas I who fell at Thermopylae in the famous “Last Stand”

Lecture by Dr. Donald Kagan / 10.02.2007
Sterling Professor of Classics & History
Yale University

An Introduction to Sparta and Its Roots

Ancient Lacedaemon / Wikimedia Commons

Now, we come to the polis — just to use its proper name in Greek, Lacedaemon, and that is the proper Greek name for it, but the capital city of it was Sparta and its people were called Spartans. So, it’s okay to keep talking about Sparta and Spartans. Now, when you come to Sparta you are coming to a polis that you almost want to spell it in capital letters with stars between them. It’s like the polis lifted to a new level in the sense of all the sort of theoretical elements and psychological elements that go into creating a polis is intensified in Sparta to such a degree that it seems to be almost a different thing. And it’s important to remember that the other Greeks felt that way too. Sparta had a special place in their minds, in their imaginations. They admired the Spartans very, very much, because the Spartans carried to this extreme degree the feeling that the polis was the center of a Greek man’s life, and that it had the virtues that were associated with the polis to an extraordinary degree. Now, they admired it very, very much but they didn’t admire it so much they were ready to live like the Spartans, because the price was very high indeed.

One other thing to remember as we take a look at the way the Spartans lived was that they became a sort of a model for the philosophers who came along in the late fifth and into the fourth century. I mean especially Plato and Aristotle, who certainly had some criticisms of the real Sparta that existed, but who modeled their notions of ideal poleis on Sparta with the variations that they wished to introduce. So, it’s worthwhile, and of course — it’s added to these ideas and feelings about the Spartans, there is the fact that Sparta would emerge in the sixth century as the most powerful of the poleis and the first leader of a lasting alliance of states with the Spartans as the leading power among them, the first international organization you might say if you were speaking loosely, so that there is a practical aspect to it. The Spartans became the most powerful and most important state in Greece, right down to and including, the Persian Wars.

Well, first I guess, we ought to take a look at how Sparta got to be what it ultimately became and once again I have to say that all we can do is to reason from very limited evidence, better than what we’ve had up to now, but still mostly from written evidence that comes from a time after the facts we are talking about, practically no contemporary evidence, although we do have a bit and the archaeological remains that we do have and then reason from that. Well, of course, that kind of reasoning leads to controversy and there are different opinions about all these things. Again, what I will be attempting to pass on to you is the most widely accepted set of opinions about these things, but one cannot be sure that other evidence might not emerge or new ways of seeing things might change the picture somewhat. As you will see, or have seen in your problems book, on one question there really is no consensus, but again just a majority opinion as to the question of how and when Sparta got to be what it was. So here’s the most common interpretation I’ll be giving you now.

The story is you come into the Peloponnesus at the beginning of the Dark Ages and it’s before the Dorians have taken over, so that the people inhabiting that area are Greeks who are of the branch of the family who speak an Achaean kind of Greek, meaning the language the Greeks spoke in the Mycenaean Period. But that’s not what they’re doing when we first see them historically and when they emerge in the form of the people who will make the poIlis. By then they are Dorians who have come into the Peloponnesus at some point after the fall of the Mycenaean world and in most places, almost all places, have become the dominant people in the Peloponnesus. So, when you first see anything that is Sparta, we see Dorians running it, and we see subordinate Greek peoples in different degrees of subordination, who are presumably Achaean Greeks who have lost out in the competition and who are under the Spartans. It looks like from a very early time — you hear about people called helots and how to define a helot is not simple.

Helots in a certain sense are slaves, but they are not the kind of slaves we are accustomed to think about who belong to a particular master. They are slaves who belong to the state, to the polis as a whole and then to further complicate matters when we come upon them functioning, although they work and they belong to the state they are assigned to a particular part of the farmland of the region occupied by Sparta, which is called Laconia. They are assigned to that piece of land, which piece of land, will also be assigned to a particular Spartan citizen so de facto the helots are working the plot that provides the food for a particular Spartan, not for the Spartans in general. So, that’s moderately complicated, but the helots are going to be a very critical part of the story and of understanding what makes Sparta tick.

Now, there are also, from the first time we hear of the Spartans, there are people living in Laconia, some of them in the neighborhood of Sparta, but one of their fundamental defining characteristics is that they do not live in the city of Sparta, they are not citizens of Sparta, they are not what the citizens of Sparta are called, Spartiates. It looks as though they’re probably Dorians, although we can’t be sure about that, but it looks as though they are. These people are calledperioikoi and their name means people who live around Sparta, that means anywhere in the territory controlled by the Spartans, but not in the city and as we shall see they are free. They are not slaves or serfs or helots. Each perioikoi, presumably, has a farm that he works for himself. The perioikoi also are engaged in trade such as it is in Sparta, which is very, very small relatively speaking and also in industry again which is not a big deal, but somebody has to be working the bronze and the iron and making the pots, and these people would be perioikoi, because the Spartans, when we finally see them in the developed state of Sparta, won’t be doing any of that stuff. When Sparta is Sparta, the Spartiates do only one thing. Well, I guess not, they do two things; they fight and they prepare to fight. That’s it; they are soldiers. They do nothing else. They have no economic function whatsoever.

Now, it wasn’t always so, there is — well, before I tell you the story as we tell it today based on modern interpretations, let me tell you what the Greeks and the Spartans said about it. They said at one point back there in those early days, there was a man called Lycurgus, who brought laws to Sparta and set up the regime of Sparta as we will know it in the sixth and the fifth centuries. And he did it, and there’s a lot of arguing about what his date was, but if you take the ancient Greek sources seriously, maybe in the ninth century B.C., this was done and so it was forever thereafter. Well, not only is this date not widely believed, hardly any scholar would take that seriously, and then people do argue about when would the changes have taken place, and if there was a Lycurgus, when he would have introduced these laws. A skeptic of nineteenth-century historian put it this way, he said, Lycurgus was not a man he was only a god. That is to say, he was somebody invented by the Spartans as somebody who put together this. I myself — you know me. I’m credulous by trade and I believe in the higher naiveté. I think there might have been a guy named Lycurgus, and I think there’s a pretty clear — if there was such a man he probably proposed some laws which became important to the Spartans. But I am not so completely credulous as to believe the system was established by one man, way back when, and it didn’t change, because there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest the contrary that there are developments that happened that make Sparta what it will be ultimately.

The first sort of historical event that we know about, and we think we know about Sparta was towards the end of the eighth century, perhaps in the years between 725 and 700. There was a war in which the Spartans conquered the neighboring territory to the west of Laconia, which is called Mycenae. I hope you’re becoming familiar; I hope you’re looking at maps a lot and becoming familiar with the geography of Greece and the Peloponnesus. You can notice to the west there is a kind of a promontory that comes out and it’s on that extreme western side of the Peloponnesus that Mycenae is located and it looks like it’s right next to Sparta, and it is, but there’s an important thing that you have to be aware of. There’s a mountain range that separates Sparta from Mycenae, the Taygetus range and it is striking. If you go to Sparta and come up from the Spartan port of Gythium and head up for the town itself, pretty soon if you look to your left there is this really serious range of mountains that makes it clear it was a barrier; it was not something that you could just think away. It meant they were very separated. So, if a Spartan wants go to Mycenae he doesn’t just head west, he has to go north and then hang a left when the mountains have stopped and go around and come on back down. That’s going to be a very important part of the story of why Sparta is the way it is.

But the conquest of Mycenae in the first Mycenaean War, as this is called, is very important, because now the Spartans conquer a very large number of people whom they turn into helots. These are not just like all the other people that were living around Sparta, who the Spartans happened to make helots at an early stage; this is a whole people with a sense of themselves, who think of themselves as Mycenaeans. They are conquered and enslaved and they become a critical part of the Spartan population from the standpoint of the Spartan economy, essential for the kind of state Sparta becomes, and they are permanently dissatisfied. They are permanently angry, they are permanently thinking about somehow getting free and permanently, therefore, presenting a threat to whatever the Spartan regime is at the time. So, that’s a very, very important development.

Now, probably before that happened, the Spartans like some of the other states, send out colonies, only two. One of them is out west in the southern Italy at a place called Taras, that town becomes under the Romans becomes Tarentum. It’s Taranto in modern Italy. And in the Aegean Sea the Island of Melos is colonized by the Spartans. And so my guess is they did that as a way of handling that population growth problem that was beginning to be felt around Greece before they conquered Mycenae and that settled their problem forever. Thereafter, they didn’t need anymore land; they had all the land they needed to feed themselves and take care of what they needed, and to be farmed by these captive helots.

Yet, if we imagine ourselves let’s say for the sake of argument in the year 675, it looks as though Sparta has certainly not yet become the kind of place we will see in its fully developed state. For instance, it is still engaging in the kinds of cultural activities that are characteristic of the other states, which will not be true when we get to the Classical Period. Two striking examples are in the area of pottery where we find Spartan made pottery, painted pottery of the same kind of quality, but of its own unique style, as we find in the other Greek city states. When you get to the late sixth and into the fifth century, that’s over. There isn’t like that anymore, and so that’s a change. But the other thing that’s striking is that in the period before the final, or I should say the major change in Spartan life, we discover poets, fragments of whose poems remain. There are two famous Spartan poets of this early period, Terpander and Alcman, and they wrote beautiful poetry of the same kind as the other Greeks. That will stop by the time we get to the period we’re talking about.

Ruins of the Citadel of Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons

So, the next great historical event that makes a difference in Sparta is the second Mycenaean War, which occurs in the years, of course these are approximate, somewhere between 650 and 625 this happens. Notice in each case, first and second war, our guess is a whole quarter of a century of fighting; that’s very important to realize. These were not your typical Greek war of later years. This was not one day we’d have a battle and we’d go home. This was a campaign that lasted a generation, that’s how hard it was to conquer Mycenae, and then in the second Mycenaean War, how hard it was to put down the tremendous rebellion that brought about the second Mycenaean War. It was a helot rebellion. The helots could not have succeeded in making this such a hard fight had they not been assisted by some of the neighbors of Sparta. Argos, you will remember, from the time of Pheidon, they have been an enemy and a competitor of the Spartans, and so the Argives are quick to join and help the helots in their rebellion against Sparta, but so too do a number of cities to the north of Sparta, from the region called Arcadia, also join in with the helots and even so far as the northwestern corner of the Peloponnesus, a town called Pisa near Olympia also joins the coalition against the Spartans. So you can imagine that the Spartans push forward created opposition and the helots took advantage of that, and joined with the other states to put Sparta in danger.

The ancient tradition says the Spartans really were in terrible danger and it was a very, very hard fight and what happened was going to turn out to be the first of a pattern. When the helots were defeated in battle they didn’t quit, they didn’t stop fighting, they retreated to the safest place they could find and there in Mycenae there is very rugged mountain called Ithome which is a kind of a natural fortress and which the helots fortified still more. So, they could stay up there on that mountain and fight off Spartan attacks for quite a long time. Remember, the Spartans are hampered in this war by having to cope with neighboring cities battling them as well. By the time that is over, you move towards the ultimate arrangement of life in the Sparta that we will come to know.

One set of scholars, they probably are as numerous as any, would suggest that it’s only after the second Mycenaean War that the Spartan constitution that I will describe for you comes into being. Probably we shouldn’t even imagine that it was all the laws were laid out, all the customs were established in one fell swoop, but rather that there was a basic set of things that was laid out and then over time other changes were made that produced what we’re talking about. So, that’s why I think we can’t accept the traditional Lycurgus story; that he came down, set up the laws, even if we do accept that Lycurgus who was a kind of a law giver. Now, before I describe it in detail, let me make a general statement about it.

Understanding Spartan Slavery and Its Implications

Depiction of helots working trees and farm / Vase in Beazley Collection

What is established in this constitutional ultimate reform is to make Sparta like no other state in the Greek world, and then perhaps — well, like hardly any other state in all of history, and to make it the subject of attention and interest, and of usual admiration, although not always, throughout the millennia. You will find when people know about the Greeks and they know about Sparta, I’m talking about of course in the West, philosophers and others are struck just as Plato and Aristotle were by certain things about the Spartan way of life that make them take it seriously and admire it. Rousseau was a great admirer of Sparta for a variety of reasons. But one of the things that I don’t want you to lose sight of is that Sparta becomes a slave holding state like no other Greek state. Now, there was slavery all over the ancient world. There was no society that we know of in the ancient world that was without slavery and Greece was no different, but in the period we’re talking about there were not very many slaves among the Greek states as a whole, and there was certainly nothing like what the Spartans did. To have a system of life that allowed the Spartan citizens not to work in order to live; no other Greek state would have that. If you want to think about Greek slavery in the seventh century B.C., think about what I told you about Hanson’s reconstruction of the development of the polis. Think about farmers who themselves worked the fields, and are assisted in their work in the fields by one or two slaves that they owned. That’s not the Spartan system.

The Spartan system will be Spartans at home, training constantly for their military purposes, never working any fields, never engaging in trade or industry, others doing that for them. Something that in a small way begins to resemble slavery as we think of it in the antebellum south in the United States, where great armies of slaves are doing all the work and where the plantation owners, the Spartans don’t do any work at all, but in the south to maintain the kind of a military aristocracy of a certain kind. Please don’t push that analogy too far and I hope I haven’t misled you by suggesting it. But why I do is because it may help us understand the Spartans a little bit better. I remember my old colleague who taught history of American slavery and so on, John Blassingame, said to me at one point, he said when the emancipation came, the slaves were freed and so were the masters and I think that’s a very perceptive thing to say. They were sitting on a powder keg, those southern plantation owners.

They were in terror constantly that if everything didn’t go just right something like Nat Turner’s rebellion would take place, and they’d come home and find their wives and children with their throats cut. They were in constant terror and they had to live a life that required all sorts of things that they might not have liked to do, in order to repress the slave population on which they relied, and that is what I want to communicate. The Spartans, after the two Mycenaean Wars, were in constant fear. I think it’s not too strong a word of helot rebellions, which might then be assisted by neighboring states that were jealous or disliked the Spartans. Thucydides says flat out that, that’s what the spring is to understanding Spartan policy and Spartan thinking, it is their fear of the helots. Most scholars would have accepted that without question; lately, some scholars have come up and wanted to question it. I must say I’m not at all persuaded by the new interpretation. I do think to understand the Spartans we have to comprehend the continuing permanent concern about the helots, as we’ll make clear as we talk about some of the details of their lives. All right, let’s take a look now at the way the Spartan constitution looked fully developed.

The Training and Education of a Spartan Boy

Little boys started Spartan training as early as five years old. First they were moved away from their mother and father and placed into an agoge, where a “warden” would take care of them. Unsurprisingly, life in the agoge was rough. The warden, who was sort of a combination of a teacher and commander, carried a whip and beat the boys if they misbehaved. Additionally, the children were often encouraged to fight with one another over basic necessities like food.

We begin with the training and education of the young; the treatment of the young indeed from the time that they are born. The Spartans and the Greeks referred to this system of training and education as agoge. To begin with, a Spartan — let’s start with the men. A Spartan boy is born. Already from the very beginning this is not merely a matter that concerns his family, his father and his mother. The decision as to whether or not he should be allowed to live is made by the elders of the Spartan community who examine the child. What are they examining him for? Mainly, almost entirely, for his physical condition. If he is crippled, if he is deformed in any way, they will have him put to death. The child, the infant, brand new baby will be killed. The reason for that was that they had a clue about eugenics. They understood that healthy children grow up to be healthy adults, who grow up typically to have healthy children and vice versa.

They could not afford, was their thinking, to have men grow up who would not make good soldiers, because that’s what Spartans — and worst of all who would then sire boys who were not good material for soldiers. So, there you see already something that was totally different from any other Greek state. It’s not that other Greeks did not engage in infanticide; they clearly did, but that decision was made by each family and it was usually made by poor families — I mean, the bad decision to kill a child was made by poor families who just simply couldn’t afford to raise the child. But in any case, it was as it would be, in almost any society you ever heard of a family decision. Not in Sparta, it was a state decision as to whether you should live or not.

Well now, suppose the child made it through that first ordeal, now he has six years of more or less normal life. He lives at home like any other little boy with his mother mostly, and with his father I suppose too, not so much. You’ll see why I say not so much in a bit. Finally, at the age of seven, he is taken away from home, put into a word in Greek that really means pack, just like the — don’t the Cub Scouts call them, their little groups packs? Is that right? So, there they are and they’re taken away from home and they live in a military school, which is the only school there is for boys in Sparta. The school is governed by a magistrate and it is run by the older boys. In many respects, when I think about it, it strikes me as being like an upper class British — what they call public school, which means of course private school. The descriptions of Eton and Harrow, and even more harrowing places than that; surely, you must have read novels by Englishmen talking about their school days and each one sounds like a torture chamber. Well, that’s what we’ve got here.

Boys had to deal with the “contest of endurance.” During the contest, Spartans were lined up in front of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. During the practice, the boys were beaten and flogged in the name of spiritual ritual and devotion. The ritual was meant to test both their bravery and pain, and once Sparta was taken over by the Roman Empire, the contest of endurance became a full-blown blood sport for tourists.

But the worst part about those schools so far as I could tell were the other boys. Because they were allowed, the older boys were allowed to deal with younger boys the way older boys deal with younger boys, badly. They are bullies, they push them around, they mistreat them; it’s tough to grow up in a place like that. That was what they were up to; tough is one of the critical words that you need to understand if you’re thinking about a Spartan education. But they made it now to the age of 12, they live in these barracks, they have a communal life, they have nothing resembling luxuries available to them — more and more it sounds like an English public school of the nineteenth century. They don’t have shoes, they are given one cloak. Now, whatever you may think about the sunny Mediterranean and Greece; go to Sparta in the middle of the winter. It’s damn cold, so that one cloak isn’t enough, and that’s intentional. The idea is for them to learn how to bear cold. They are fed enough, of course, to keep them healthy and going, but no more, not to satisfy their appetite. This is meant to make them, first of all, to make them lean and tough but also to accustom them to the hardships of a campaign and basically to make them tough. They, therefore, are constantly on the hunt for food and the funny thing is that the ethos of the situation was this, that it was understood they would try to steal whatever they could. It’s hard for me to know where they would find things to steal and how to steal it, but kids are very ingenious.

So, anyway they would be encouraged to do that but they would be punished severely if they were caught. So the trick was to steal but not to get caught; that was also part of the training. But I always thought that some wonderful focus of what it was like to be a kid in one of those Spartan schools is revealed by the story that Plutarch tells and it doesn’t really matter if the story is true or not, because it tells something real in the telling. The story is that one Spartan boy had succeeded in hunting an animal that he could eat and the animal he caught was a ferret, and he would have killed it and eaten it, except that at just at that point the call was for them to get into formation and so he had to immediately get into formation, it would have been deadly not to do that, but he didn’t want to lose the ferret so he tucked it under his cloak. So there he is, standing with the other boys at complete attention, meanwhile, the ferret is gradually eating his way into the boy’s side. Naturally, he doesn’t even blink, because if he lets on that he did he would be severely punished for being caught stealing the ferret. So finally, the ferret finds its way to a vital organ, and the boy without saying a word, drops dead right there in the ranks.

Now, of course, the point of that story is to show how brave the boys were, and how tough they were and how rigorous was the Spartan training. I was always struck by how hungry do you have to be to want to eat a ferret? But however you see the story; you see what the message is. It might be exaggerated and all that, but that’s the picture that comes out of Sparta. Now, they are also in addition given physical training. They’re already beginning to get physical training, the use of weapons, formations and so on, but at the same time they are taught what the Greeks called, I think I mentioned in an earlier talk, musikae, music. What we call — the translation is music, but it means poetry. It means poems that are accompanied by musical instruments and sung, but the words are what matter more than anything else. The kind of things that they are taught are moral lessons that are meant to be the things that they live by, that they are raised by, and in a few moments I’ll read to you an example of the kind of thing that was part of that musical training; of course, gymnastics and military training I mentioned before.

The boys until the age of 20 are trained by older boys, or I should say young men between the ages of 20 and 30. So this educational element will consist of boys from the age of seven to men at the age of 30, but the guys between 20 and 30 will be the teachers, and the boys below them will be their pupils. Now, other elements involved in this picture, there was as you always find in systems where boys are packed together, and there are older and younger boys, hazing is part of this game, all part of the business of being tough and manly and so on and so forth. But for the Spartans, that wasn’t enough. As we will see, what they are shooting for is not merely developing individuals who have the qualities that are desired. They are interested in developing people, young men who are so closely intertwined with each other as to be tighter, even I would argue, than a family, and one aspect of this was very clearly sexual.

The typical arrangement was a young teenage boy would be associated with an older man, but could be one of the men between the ages of 20 and 30, it could be an older man, and they had a formal arrangement. The older man was what the Greeks called an erotes, a lover and the boy was the eromenos and that means the beloved. Xenophon who is an Athenian but who spent a good deal of his life in Sparta and knew the Spartans very well is very, very eager to tell us that there was no physical side to this association, that it was purely spiritual and it was between teacher and pupil, between mentor and the boy that he provides mentorship for, but that’s all. Forget it. I mean, these were very much homosexual relationships. But the extraordinary thing to remember is this was a phase, a passing phase, that is this relationship started when one was a boy, and one was a man, and when the boy reached manhood himself, then he was no longer in that relationship and he himself could become an erotes and find himself an eromenos, although it would be surprising if he didn’t continue to have a very close friendship and association with the older man who had been his erotes.

Krater relief of Spartan hoplite, c.510 BCE, from the Vix Hoard now in the Châtillon-sur-Seine / Photo by Michael Greenhalgh, Wikimedia Commons

This is the other thing. Every Spartan went on, thereafter, I’ll come to it in a minute, was married and was supposed to produce children, most desirably male children who would serve as soldiers for them. So, we should think of this as being all part of a state system of training and education to produce fighting men, who would also be practically all a single family, as close and tight with one another as they could be, because of the quality it would give to the Spartan phalanx made up such men. I was going to say the Spartan man when he reaches 20, the guys that were there between the ages of 20 and 30, are allowed to marry, but they are not allowed to live with their wives. They continue to live in the barracks. Talk about strange and peculiar arrangements. On the other hand, of course, they had a natural desire to visit their wives, which they could do if they weren’t caught. So, you had to sneak away to be with your wife, but if you were caught you were punished. Now, what’s that all about? Well, it shows you one of the main — many conflicts that exist in the Spartan system. On the one hand, you have to do that because you need children to perpetuate Spartans, but also to provide soldiers. So, you have to have that much normality in the system. On the other hand, you want to resist as much as you can, building a family in the traditional sense because loyalty to the family might be in conflict with the loyalty to the polis.

The polis wins that argument, because the separation takes place. I don’t know whether the Spartans understood this or not, but it seems to me there’s a psychological element in here that might even have physical consequences for all I know. I’m thinking about, imagine what it was like when a wife and a young husband and a wife actually got together all that time. I mean, there’s an argument for quality as being at the opposite end of quantity. Never mind. In any case, those are some of the strange arrangements that were — now, when the man gets to be 30 he stops being an instructor in the school. Now he has his own home, he lives at home with his wife, and if he has young children below seven they’d be there, and the situation looks more normal, except that these Spartan men did not eat dinner at home.

They had their meals together at a common mess, each one of which was called a syssition, that words means having food, having grain, having bread together and there were 15 men to each one of these syssitia, this mess, and they ate together, had their meals together for the rest of their lives. There again, you have a sense of tremendous community building, unit building. What is that? About the size of a platoon isn’t it, or is it a squad? The size of a squad. Everything in this thing is military. Now, think about the kind of a loyalty to one another, which we have learned and is so critical to success in warfare that came from people who had come through that system and were fighting, as they did, right next to the guys that they saw everyday at meals. So, that was part of that game. So, even when there are grown men and living at home, they are still maintaining their close quasi familial association with their fellow fighting men.

What are the qualities that are supposed to be produced by this system? Discipline, first and foremost. Every aspect of your life is governed by the laws and the customs of the community. You better conform; there is nothing else for you. Self reliance, strangely enough, because all of these encouragements to theft and discouragements to getting caught have to do with building the ability to do things like that. Social cohesion. Who can imagine a system more constructed to bring about such a goal? Loyalty to one another, whatever group we’re talking about, but of course beyond that loyalty to the community at large is implicit in all of that. Obedience to your superiors. Physical and moral endurance. Courage, and another quality that is important, and again, something that appealed very powerfully to other Greeks, uniformity. You are all just like one another, you go through exactly the same experiences; there’s no distinction among you.

Sameness, Contradiction and Inequality

On the other hand, and this is another one of the interesting contradictions about Spartan system. Every one of those boys and the young men, and the older men is in competition for honor. Every one of them wants to be recognized by himself, by his peers, and by his superiors as having been better than the others, the best, if possible. All of them in this situation of being friends, being associates, being close pals, being all those things, being part of a unit and yet competing within that group for personal recognition and honor and that is a contradiction, and it’s a very interesting kind of tug. I think you know this — you have to understand that the Spartans are living in a condition of strain, it seems to me, much greater than most societies impose on people. But it’s obviously arranged so effectively that it works; we don’t have an evidence sort of mass insanity or great need for psychiatrists or anything like that. If it was an insane society they were all insane in the same way and they didn’t know it, and I think that we have to face that fact.

This business of sameness I think is important. They referred to one another and they were referred to, that is, the men who had grown and become full citizens, as homoioi. Sometimes people translate this as equals. No, that’s not right. It is similar; they are all like one another. I think they wouldn’t have called themselves equals, because there was this constant sense that they are vying to be the best, even as they are so similar to one another. The legend has it that when Lycurgus established the system, he divided all of the land controlled by the Spartans into 9,000 patches of land. The Greek work is kleroi, singular is kleros. That was the theoretical thing, again they were all — in this case, they were all equal in their economic resources, because each one had a kleros whose food, the product of that kleros was his to deal with, and of course, that amount, we’re talking about, that food was being produced on that kleros.

So, in theory, there’s all of this similarity and quasi equality, but age was another important distinction among the Spartans, as is true in most primitive societies, and the older the society I think the truer it is, age is given tremendous respect. Just by being older than somebody you are treated as, in some sense, better than a younger person. But it wasn’t pure age, because it’s also true that the honor that you had gained in your life would also produce respect in proportion to how great had been your contribution to the state. I don’t think they had formal ways of indicating that. I don’t think there’s a question of medals or anything like that. Everybody knew in a state of this size, everybody knew who was who and treated them accordingly.

Now, there were also over time, there grew up to be inequalities not only of age and of honor but also of wealth. It’s a little bit hard to know how all this came about, but at different times in Spartan history you see there are people who have managed to lose their kleros and when you don’t have a kleros you don’t have the necessary wherewithal to make your contribution to the syssition, the mess at which you all dine, and when that happens you have dropped out of the Spartan citizen body. You are no longer a Spartiate, you are something lesser and that is a very tough kind of thing for a man to have to live in as a Spartan. So poverty could keep you out of the system, and if for any reason, you had not gone through the agoge from beginning to end, you were not a regular full Spartan. Also, if anybody had been declared to be cowardly in fighting in the war, that person could be stricken from the roles of Spartan citizens and yet they had no place else to go, and so as we will see they lived a rather wretched life in Sparta after that situation.

Similarly, if people were thought not to be the children of two Spartans, Spartan father, a Spartan mother then they were not Spartiates, they held an inferior place in that society and in a society so riddled with issues of honor and respect, you can imagine that was a very big deal. Keep that in the back of your mind because as we move on in the course and as we get into the fifth century especially, we will be running into Spartans who fit these categories, who are not 100% Spartans, and yet, some of them become tremendously important and powerful figures in Sparta and we’ll want to ask how that happened, but even more we’ll want to ask how that shaped the way they behaved once they became important people.

Women’s Roles in Spartan Society

Bronze statuette of a Spartan girl in a tunic / Photo by Judith Swaddling, British Museum

Now, up to now, I’ve been talking about men, but it’s important to talk about Spartan women too, because they were different from other Greek women, just as the men were different. Just to make that clear, let me make it plain that the rest of the Greeks treated women very, very differently from men, and one thing that was very striking and the difference was that the men engaged in physical exercise, especially in these competitions that were part of the great games, and those were always carried out in the nude. Women did not engage in these sports activities and it would have been the greatest conceivable shame for a woman to be seen in the nude, it was just absolutely unthinkable for the ordinary Greeks. But the Spartans do things their own way, and their women engage in dancing and athletics, and in competition and they did so in the nude, just as the boys did, and so they were not shut away from the boys all the time in the way that Greek girls were kept away from the boys.

I don’t mean to say they were allowed to mingle socially, but that is to say, if the boys were exercising here the girls might be exercising there, someplace else. They would not be kept so far apart from one another, and again, think about all this — all of the things that normal human desires think, how that would get exciting and this kind of stuff that I’ve been describing and yet they would never have a crack at them until they got to be 20 years old. It all reminds me of a wonderful footnote in a book about English History from 1914 to 1945 by A.J.P. Taylor. Some of the best stuff was in his footnotes and this one says — he was telling about the drop of the birth rate in England, late nineteenth, early twentieth century, and he says, that it was not accompanied by a growth of knowledge of or use of contraceptive devices, and he concludes anybody who studies in England in this period must realize that he is dealing with a deeply frustrated people. Well, if that’s true of the British, I mean think of what life in Sparta was like for a young man and a young woman.

So, on the one hand, you have women who are treated more like men in Sparta than in other places and indeed they even had greater legal rights than they did in other states. And I think all of that plays a part in the notion of degrading the family as it is usually understood in the Greek world, and elevating the notion of a male dominated, a male centered society for the purpose of producing warriors. Why are the women given this special status? Because of the recognition that women play a critical role in producing the same kinds of warriors and that’s what they’re about. One aspect of this, to show you that it’s all for the polis and it’s all for the business of producing good fighting men — there were actually in a sense group rights with the women. For instance, if a man found that his wife couldn’t bear children it was legal and proper, and normal for a man who was his friend to lend him his wife and that the child who came from that union would belong to the man who had been childless.

Again, think. I mean, what is happening to all the normal feelings about people have for one another and the central role that family plays in almost every society you can think of. On the other hand, we should not imagine that women had a role in Spartan society that was anything equal to the men. Like in every other part of the Greek world, the women were excluded from political life entirely, and yet — there’s all this conflicting stuff. Let me tell you the next thing I want to tell you about. The marriage ceremony in Sparta shows you a very odd kind of a thing. First of all, it happens — these are all ritual activities, but you ritually seize the girl you’re going to marry. It’s as though you’re saying that the fundamental basic way you find a family is you grab a woman and she becomes yours. Then the marriage ceremony itself, the girl has her head shaved and she is dressed as a man, and sits in a darkened room awaiting her groom and it seems to me that they’re trying to make her as much like a boy as they possibly can at this moment of the consummation of the marriage for the first time. Well, whatever my interpretation, you’ve got to accept the weirdness of the world that I have been describing to you.

Well, all of this you know had this interesting impact. One other thing, I haven’t told you, my last thing I want to tell you about women — when a Spartan woman was a mother she — Pericles in this funeral oration ends the funeral oration and is saying, now as to the wives and mothers of these great men who have just died, just shut up and go home, because the highest thing that can be said about a woman is that she is never spoken of for good or for ill. This is democratic Athens we’re talking about. Well, nobody ever told a Spartan mother to shut her mouth, because Greek literature is filled with quotations from Spartan mothers telling people stuff, like telling their son to go out to battle and come back with your shield or on it. You know what the shields were like? You could use them as — what do you take bodies out with now? Stretchers. And so, her message was you come back, but if I heard you threw your shield away and ran, don’t come home, and there are all kinds of tales.

So, Spartan women obviously — I’ll give you one other. One time, late in their history when things are going bad for the Spartans, a hostile army actually gets into Sparta and the women are up there on the roofs of their houses, throwing roof tiles as projectiles against the enemy army. So Spartan women were really something else and there they are.

The Importance of the Polis and Its Needs

Bronze Spartan shield conquered, as the inscription punched on it reveals, from the Spartans at the victory of Pylos in 425 BC. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto Ancient Agora Museum in Athens

Tyrtaeus’s poetry often advises Spartans how to handle their weapons and armour but, like the shield here, only a small portion survives today. Ancient Athenians claimed that Tyrtaeus was actually Athenian by birth. Some modern scholars also believe the poetry was composed by Athenians, probably in the 5th or 4th century BC.

But if you take the whole picture, what is it? It is, as I say, the degradation of the family in favor of the importance of thepolis as a whole, its needs, and its structure. It is a warrior ethic, it is based upon the principle of the hoplite phalanx and I want to read to you a piece of poetry written by this Spartan poet, Tyrtaeus, who is dated somewhere in the seventh century that gets at a number of the topics I’ve been talking about so far.

I would not say anything for a man, nor take account of him for any speed of his feet, or wrestling skill he might have. Not if he had the size of a Cyclops and the strength to go with it. Not if he could outrun Boreas the north wind. Not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tythonius or had more riches than Midas had, or Cenarius too. Not if he were more of a king than Tantalus or Pelops, or had the power of speech and persuasion that Adrastas had.” That is a catalog of all the things that people admire and want for themselves, and regard as important in Homer; everything, those are the characteristics that every hero wants, and he says, I don’t give a damn for all that says Tyrtaeus for no man — I’m sorry I skipped an important line. “I don’t care about any of those things not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit. For no man ever proves himself a good man in war unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter, to go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.

Here is arête, which my translator translates as courage, which is fair; that’s the most fundamental meaning of it, but anyway, it is the word arête. “Mankind’s finest possession, here is the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win. It is a good thing his city and all the people share with him, when a man plants his feet and stands firm among the foremost spears relentlessly. All thought of foul flight completely forgotten and as well trained his heart to be steadfast and endure, and with words encourages the man who is stationed besides him. Here is a man who proves himself valiant in war. With a sudden rush he turns to fight the rugged battalions of the enemy and sustains the beating wave of assault.” I don’t care about any of those things that you read about in the Iliad and the Odyssey, all I care about is how do you fight when you’re in the phalanx? If you don’t have it there you’re nothing.

To continue, he’s now going to examine the question of what happens if you die. I mean, that happens doesn’t it? Here’s what he says, “And he who so falls among the champions and loses his sweet life.” Notice that here he is telling — he’s going to tell you in a moment how good it is to die in this way, but he’s not kidding himself; life is sweet. You’ve lost it. Here is that wonderful Greek realism that I told you about. “And loses his sweet life so blessing with honor, his polis, his father, and all his people with wounds in his chest where the spear that he was facing has transfixed the massive guard of his shield and gone through his breastplate as well. Why such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders, and all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss. His tomb is pointed to with pride and so are his children, and his children’s children, and afterward all the race that is his. His shining glory is never forgotten. His name is remembered, and he becomes an immortal though he lies under the ground, when one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious war god, standing his ground, and fighting hard for his children and his land.”

I hope you noticed all of the things we’ve been talking about that are contained in that statement. All of those are reasons why you should be willing to risk your life for your polis, because thereby, you can win yourself immortality, one of the few ways that you can do that as a Greek. Okay, but there is another — what if things go well? What if you don’t get killed? “But if he escapes the doom of that death, the destroyer of bodies and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear, all men give place to him alike. The youth and the elders, and much joy comes his way before he goes down to the dead. Aging, he has reputation among his citizens. No one tries to interfere with his honors or all he deserves. All men withdraw before his presence and yield their seats to him, the youth and the men his age, and even those older than he. Thus, a man should endeavor to reach this place of courage with all his heart, and so trying never be backward in war. “So it pays off for you to be brave and a good soldier in the phalanx whether you live or die; both of them are good ends. Notice how slyly he makes the point about, even if things go well for you before you die, meaning don’t imagine if you don’t get killed in this battle you’re going to live forever; you’re going to die anyway.

Now, there was yet another element in — the songs of Tyrtaeus would have been the songs that the boys would have been learned and would have been taught in school and they would have been marching along to the music of that poem. But then Xenophon who wrote late in the fifth, early fourth centuries, an Athenian who knew the Spartans well, as I say, tells us about how the Spartans dealt with this problem of instilling courage in their soldiers and avoid the opposite. Here’s what he says, “In other states when a man proves a coward, the only consequence is that he is called a coward. He goes to the same market as the brave man and sits beside him. He attends the same gymnasium if he chooses. But in Sparta everyone would be ashamed to have a coward with him at the mess or to be matched with him in a wrestling bout. Often when sides are picked for a game of ball he is the odd man left out. In a chorus he is banished to the ignominious place. In the streets he is bound to make way when he occupies a seat; he must give it up even to a younger man. He must support his spinster relatives at home and he must explain to them why they are old maids.” Nobody’s going to marry the sister of a coward. Think of the joy of meeting your sister at home everyday as she looks at you and realizes she’s not going to have a husband because of you.

“He must make the best of a fireside without a wife, because who would marry such a man? Yet, pay forfeit for that. He may not stroll about with a cheerful countenance.” If he walks around with a smile on his face somebody’s going to knock it off. “Now behave as though he were a man of unsullied fame or else he must submit to be beaten by his betters.” “Small wonder,” I think says Xenophon, “that where such a load of dishonor is laid on the coward, death seems preferable to a life so dishonored, so ignominious.” Now the truth is, I think, Xenophon is exaggerating. I don’t think it would be fun to come home after behaving like a coward in any Greek city, but I do think it’s fair to say that it would have been intolerable if you’re talking about Sparta.

The Formal Spartan Constitution

Constitutional organization of Sparta / Wikimedia Commons (Click Image to Enlarge)

Yeah, we have some time. Let me turn now to the more formal constitution of the state as we would use the term today. It is unique in Greek life. It is a mixed constitution. It is not democracy, it’s not a monarchy, it’s not an oligarchy, it’s not an aristocracy; it contains elements of every one of those more normal constitutions. There are kings. Notice I say plural, because there are two kings at any one time, each descending from a different royal family. These kings have priestly responsibilities. They serve — and this is very important — as generals who lead the Spartan army. They are judges in all sorts of cases. At any gathering of a public nature they hold a seat of honor. At banquets they get a double portion; I don’t think we should understand that to mean that you get very big fat kings who eat twice as much as anybody else. I think this gives them an opportunity to share that with their friends and to hand out honors, and to be thanked for that.

When the Spartans appoint somebody to be their representative in another state — that’s their form of diplomatic relations, the man who appoints the proxenos, that’s the Greek word, the kings make that appointment. When the Spartans have to consult a Delphic Oracle, men called the pythioi, are the ones who are sent to make the inquiry and bring back the answer, the kings select them. Well, these are, of course, the enormously honorific activities. So the kings are in a position to hand out very important honors to their fellow Spartans, and that I think is another one of the important privileges they have. If there is an heiress who does not have a husband, this could be typically a woman whose husband has died, and now she needs to be married to somebody else — that assignment is made by the kings. They tell that woman whom she’s going to marry. The reason behind it is that she has no brothers, no uncles who could inherit her father’s kleros and other wealth that now goes with her. She has to be assigned to somebody on behalf of the Spartan state.

Likewise, if there are adoptions of children from one family to another, it is the kings who make these decisions. The kings also sit on the council that is the dominant advisory consulting element in the whole Spartan state; it is called thegerousia, which would be translated into Latin as senatus, our word Senate. It is a council of elders. It consists of twenty eight men over the age of sixty who are elected by the Spartans and the two kings who sit with them to produce a council of 30. The kingship is hereditary in each line, with this little bump in it, and that is it’s necessarily the first son of the previous king. It’s the first son born after the king has become king. So, if there’s any question about that, that’s the determining element. The kings are the only Spartans who are not required to go through the agoge. I think the idea was it would be demeaning for the royal figure to have to be beaten up by older boys, that’s probably what’s behind it.

On the other hand, I think we should be aware that these are even less than the — you remember we spoke of the Greekbasileus in the early days as perhaps having some kind of a royal function, but never a real one. Well, the Spartans have the power, but the Spartan kings have that power that I’ve just described, but another thing that reduces their kingly character is that there are two of them. That means one can always veto the other, and that means they never can have the kind of power that a true king, in our sense, would have. Two other things. One is the gerousia, this council of elders has very important powers and some of them relating to the kings. There is another group of Spartans, another council — I should have told you that the gerousia, once the men are chosen they serve for life, but there’s another council in Sparta of men, five of them, called ephors.

These ephors are ordinary Spartans who come just from anybody who is a Spartan. One of the powers they have vis à vis the kings, is they can bring charges against the kings, if they believe that either of the kings has done wrong, violated the law, done something improper and then the kings are tried by the gerousia. If you think that’s just pro forma activity, Spartan history is filled with kings who have been convicted of some crime or other and are driven off into exile and removed from the kingship. So these are very powerful limitations.

The Spartan Assembly

Illustration of Spartan Assembly / Alyson Verga, Wikimedia Commons

So we have been examining Sparta, the most important, I think, of the early poleis, certainly once you get into the seventh and sixth centuries. And I was describing the formal constitution of the Spartans, having mentioned the kings and the gerousia, the council of elders consisting of twenty-eight elected men over sixty and the two kings to create a body of thirty. Then there is the Spartan Assembly which consists of all the adult male Spartan citizens, and as in most states, it really originated from the idea of having the fighting men participate in decisions and they’re the kinds of decisions that undoubtedly were the first decisions the assemblies made. And in the case of Sparta, I would guess almost the only decisions they made were questions of whether to go to war, whether to make peace, whether to make alliances and so forth.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that that assembly — you want to distinguish that assembly from what I’ll describe shortly about the Athenian Assembly. In this assembly, it is true that all adult male Spartans were participants, and let me also say that they came to the meeting dressed in their military uniform, apparently including their shields, because when a question was put to the Spartans, the way they responded was by shouting and banging on their shields. Whereupon, the presiding official would try to determine which side had the loudest noise. It’s like a voice vote in one of our own meetings, only a little bit more colorful. And only, of course, if the presiding official decided that he couldn’t tell which side had the most noise, would they resort to a separation like the British Parliament, those in favor over on that side, those opposed on the other side, and he would count and out would come the result.

It looks as though the debates in the assembly were probably infrequent, because as best we can figure it out, we would guess that most issues that came before the assembly — let me back up and say probably not very many issues came before the assembly, but those that did, if there was an agreement on the part of the gerousia and the kings, in other words, the upper groups in society, if they agreed there would be no need to go, there might be some legal need to go to the assembly, but there would be no debate and the matter would simply go forward. However, some scholars go far too far in suggesting that there never was a debate in the assembly. There are debates reported to us in Thucydides, which make it perfectly clear that they did, but it is worth pointing out that so far as our information goes, the only people who spoke at those assemblies were the kings, the gerousia, or a group of people I haven’t mentioned to you yet, the ephors, the five ephors. I’ll describe their situation for you, but for the moment they are annually elected officials of the state. In short, the average Spartan did not ever speak in the assembly, it appears. So it’s not a democratic assembly, even though every single citizen is there, if he wants to be. So, that’s part of the mixed and rather confusing aspect of the assembly.

Let me turn now to the ephors. These, according to Spartan tradition, were invented somewhat late in the development of the Spartan constitution. The word ephor comes from the word which means to oversee, to oversee what’s going on. They were, in a certain sense, the overseers. One of their duties was to keep watch on the kings and to see that the kings didn’t do anything improper, illegal, irreligious, or anything of that kind, and some scholars have focused on that and suggested that, at least originally, that was what their main function was: to protect the Spartans from excessive power, excessive behavior by the kings, and that their sort of watching the king’s thing was always their chief function. That, I think, is not right.

I think by the time the Spartans appear to us in history, let us say late in the sixth century and fifth century, the ephorsdon’t do that. I mean, they still have the technical constitutional requirement to do that, but that’s not what they’re up too. When we see them they are usually engaged in dealing with foreign policy. So, if a neighboring state wanted to communicate something to the Spartans, either it might be an offer of an alliance or it might be an order to do something or else war would follow, or a negotiation for peace, any of those things, first they would come to the ephors, of which there were five and the ephors would then decide what should be done.

I would say, in most cases, they would, unless it was very, very serious, they would be able to give some sort of answer to it, but when it involved something fundamental like war and peace or alliances, then they would have to go to the assembly to get their approval. But my guess is that it would have been wildly reckless and therefore never done for theephors not to go to the gerousia first, because the gerousia was, by far, the most significant council in the state, most able to have the necessary prestige and yet to be small enough truly to discuss what needed to be done. And since thegerousia included the kings, it involved the most important people in the state. So, if the ephors wanted to do something, it would be damn foolish not to clear it with the gerousia first; although if they wished to be reckless, they could do otherwise.

Now, another thing about the ephors is that they’re very different. The people who are elected to the gerousia are old men who have proven themselves, they are truly elected by a process in which their individual qualities are relevant, and so they have tremendous prestige in the Spartan state. This is not true necessarily and typically of the ephors. Aristotle tells us that they in fact were just any Joe Spartan, that they were ordinary people, not distinguished in any way. Although we don’t have a clear picture of the way in which they were chosen, it is clear that they were — it looked it was some kind of a combination of election and sortition; there’s a strong element of chance involved in selecting who was going to be an ephor. So, you must think of them, not as distinguished people who have some clout in their own person, but ordinary people who only achieve what clout they’re going to have by virtue of being chosen as ephors. They’re only there for a year.

Now, the kings are there for life and the gerousia is there for life, and I suppose the assembly is there for life, but theephors are only going to be ephors for a year and only once in their life. These are not politically powerful people. I think the idea was to sort of have a representation of the ordinary Spartan to carry on the functions that I have talked about. On the other hand, they were given the responsibility of seeing that the kings were in line and they had various techniques or various policies and processes which had them make judgments as to whether the kings were doing anything wrong, and if they did, they could make that point. They could go to Delphi and ask the god, if they were right in thinking something was wrong, and if they came back the kings would be put on trial. The ephors would be the accusers, the trial would be held in the gerousia, and don’t imagine that that didn’t matter. Kings were brought to trial in this way frequently in the history of Sparta and very often they were convicted, and often exiled, and in other ways punished. So, there’s nothing just theoretical about this capacity to control them and something rather important about this accidental element in who becomes an ephor.

All right, those are the elements of the Spartan constitution and I think it’s self evident that it deserves a title of a mixed constitution. At the same time, you don’t want to lose sight of something even more basic than that. Remember that all the Spartiates that there are, whether they are ordinary citizens, all the way up through king, are a small minority of all the people who are under the control of the Spartans. People try to guess from the evidence that we have what percentage of the entire population of the Peloponnesus or of their own part of the Peloponnesus the Spartans were — well, it looks as though the number of Helots may have been something like seven Helots to every Spartan. Then you have to add to that the number of perioikoi who were also not Spartiates.

The Spartan Alliance

Wikimedia Commons

So, whatever the mixed character of the constitution was, when you look at the whole of Laconia and its possessions, it is very much an oligarchy. The Spartans normally will like to see other states oligarchically governed. They will not like to see either extreme. They won’t like democracies and they won’t like any form of autocracy which in Greece typically took the form of tyranny. So, the Spartans gain a reputation of being — because they often fight against tyrants — they gain a reputation of being hostile to tyranny, which brings our attention to the subject of foreign policy, very important for Sparta and for the Greek world, because as I think I mentioned before, the Spartans became the first state to be in command, or in control, or to be the leaders of a coalition of states. Not for a specific purpose only, but a permanent coalition of states which the ancient Greeks referred to as the Spartans and their allies, which modern scholars have come to call the Peloponnesian League, and I guess I will use that term and you’ll see it all over the place.

It’s an imprecise term because some of the members of the — let me say a better term for it would be the Spartan alliance, which is what pretty much the Greeks called it, because not everybody in the Peloponnese was a member of the Peloponnesian League and not every member of the league was in the Peloponnesus, but still we all will know what we’re talking about when we speak of the Peloponnesian League. I shall try to remember to speak of the Spartan alliance most of the time.

Well, how did it come to exist? Again, as in most things in Greek history, the beginnings are shrouded in legend and are not absolutely clear, but perhaps the place to start is to say maybe around 570 B.C. The Spartans who had been successful apparently in turning around, to some considerable degree their defeat back in the seventh century in fight with Argos and were expanding their influence and power in the Peloponnesus, suffered a defeat in the region of Arcadia to the north of Laconia — that by the way is mountainous country and poor typically, relatively speaking and it provided some of the toughest warriors in the Greek world. So, it’s no miracle that the Spartans had a hard time up there. It looks as though at that point, that somebody in Sparta came up with a bright idea which changed the nature of the Spartan situation, and also introduced something new into the Greek world at the same time.

They defeated the town of Tegea, which is located just to the north of Laconia. It’s a very important state for the Spartans, not just because it’s the neighbor right to the north of them, but because remember what I told you, if you want to get to Mycenae from Sparta you can’t go across those mountains, you got to go up north and then go left, go west into Mycenae. Tegea is right there where the road turns west. So, its strategic importance is very great. The Spartans got into this war with Tegea and they gained control of Tegea where they claimed to have discovered the bones of the great Homeric hero, Orestes and taken it away from Tegea, the bones I mean, and buried them at Sparta.

Also, there was a legend that maybe they propagated that showed up in some poetry we have, that Agamemnon had moved from his home base in Mycenae to Sparta, an attempt, in other words, to connect these Dorian Spartans with the legends of the great men of the Achaean world described by Homer. Finally, we are told late in the sixth century, King Cleomenes who was one of the aggressive Spartan rulers who expanded the power of Sparta, said on one occasion, “I am no Dorian, I am an Achaean.” What’s this all about? Well, it looks like as the Spartans begin to extend this league that I will be telling you about in a minute, they want to reduce the amount of resistance that they’re going to get into. Dorian’s versus Achaeans still seems to have some meaning to the Greeks. Remember the business about what happened in Sicyon when the tyrants of Sicyon made this sharp distinction in favor of Achaeans against Dorians. It suggests that that division among the Greek peoples hadn’t died down yet and I think that’s what’s going on here. Spartans are trying to claim union with the Achaeans not dominance over them.

Anyway, nonetheless, the Spartans start taking on other Greek states trying to establish their domination and are very successful. They defeated the powerful and important state of Argos. And in the process they took away a piece of land that is between the area of Argos and Sparta, the name of it is Cynuria and they took it away, next to their own state. That’s interesting, because the Argives never forgave that and never gave up on the idea of getting it back. You find the Argives and the Spartans fighting each other at least once a century and what they’re fighting about is gaining control of Cynuria. Its common people referred to Cynuria as the Alsace-Lorraine of the Peloponnesus. Everybody who doesn’t have it and wants it back between these two states. Finally, the Spartans also take the island just off the southeastern edge of the Peloponnesus called Cythera, which gives them a good strategic base there as well, so they are expanding.

Now, what happens — I’ll go back to Tegea for a moment because that’s the first case we hear and it’s the model. When they defeat the Tegeans, instead of simply annexing their territory, subordinating the people, or subjecting the people to Spartan rule, they do something different. They offer the Tegeans an alliance. The character of the alliance, certainly in the full fledged history of the Spartan alliance — we can’t be sure whether the words I’m going to speak to you now were all there in the original oath that the Spartans made their allies swear, but it was there by the end of the fifth century anyway. I think something like it, either was in the oath or was understood, and that is: the state that was defeated said, agreed to accept the leadership of Sparta, and the word that’s involved here is hegemonia and the leader is called ahegemon and that is something different from being your master here, your despotes. It’s a little bit less, or at least you want it to seem that way and to have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans had, and to follow them wherever the Spartans should lead.

A short way of saying it was that they turned their foreign policy over to the Spartans and accepted their leadership in war. What do they get in exchange? One, the Spartans didn’t take away their land, destroy their houses, make them slaves or anything like that. Besides that, they also provided them, promised them and provided them protection against attack from somebody else. When the Peloponnesian League is in place, one of its consequences for most of the time, is the end of warfare between the states inside the Peloponnesus, at least that was the theoretical situation. As we shall see, it will be broken from time to time, but still it’s generally true. So now, what does this mean? The Spartans have done something that is similar to what the Romans would do centuries later and really an enormous achievement if you can do it.

When you conquer people, one of the problems you have, is every state you conquer is potentially a problem. You have to rule it, and that’s going to take more soldiers and you will have to do something with them. You acquire responsibilities that are greater than they used to be, but the point is, normally you don’t gain any fighting men. Spartan way of doing it means you gain more troops for your army. When the Spartans go to their allies, and they want to go war, they tell them send your allotment of troops to the place we tell you, on the day we tell you. That allotment could well be two-thirds of their army. They will go to where the Spartans want to go and the general of the army overall will be a Spartan, and they will be fighting for Spartan purposes, unless the Spartans have chosen to fight for their allies’ purposes. But the Spartans now have increased their military strength enormously by the invention of this new thing, the Spartan Alliance.

Spartan (purple) and Athenian (orange) alliances in 435 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Now, the debate continues to exist as to just what that alliance was really like. Were the Spartans free to do anything that they liked in foreign affairs or did they need to have the approval of their allies before going to war? I’m talking now about a constitutional question rather than reality question. Scholars bat it around both ways; my prejudices are that the leagues’ constitution, whatever it may have been, was less important than reality. That is to say, not all states in the Spartan Alliance were equal. Some were large and numerous, and strong militarily. Some were also wealth, and some were at some distance from Sparta. Others were small, weak, poor, and close to Sparta. I would say, and I think the evidence will support this as a fact, whatever the theory may have been, that the closer you were to Sparta the smaller you were, the weaker you were, the more you did what the Spartans told you. How’s that for a shock? And vice versa. The stronger, the more distant, the wealthier you were, the more independent you were of the Spartans.

I would say much of the time, most of the time, people did what the Spartans wanted them to do. But we have many occasions in which states refused to do so and even get in the way of the Spartans. Now, I think the Spartans very often when they had to do something called a meeting of the Spartan Alliance, consulted their allies, but it’s not necessary true that they took a vote as to what the allies thought; sometimes they did. I think sometimes they didn’t; it all depended on the situation. If you want your allies to come and fight with you it’s better to have them to do so willingly than under orders, and so that will explain, in my opinion, some of the reasons for calling it a Peloponnesian League meeting, not necessarily that they were required to do so. But I’ve given you a mixed and rather vague picture, and I think that’s the real picture.

I think you can’t be very sure, either because this evidence doesn’t allow us to be sure how the league was supposed to work and how it really did work, but I also think nobody could tell in advance how it was going to work, whatever the understood constitution was. After all, one of the most important things that is involved in membership in the league, is that when the Spartans say, I want you to come and fight with me for these purposes, you come and you bring your army to do it, but we have a period in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War in which important states like Corinth and Thebes, among others, simply say “no.” And when the Spartans say, why aren’t you doing what you’re supposed to do, they come up with a very nice cock-and-bull story supported by theoretically religious motives why they can’t do what they’re supposed to do and the Spartans have to put up with it; there’s nothing they can do about it.

So I think, now that I’ve mentioned the constitutional technicalities, I think the real thing to ask in each case is what are the realities of the situation, and by which I mean mainly, questions of power that determine what’s going to happen. All right, but by the end of the sixth century there is this Spartan alliance and Sparta alone, among the Greek states, is a hegemonal power and able to use, by Greek standards, a much vaster military force than the Greeks have ever known, so that when the Persian Wars come upon them, there will be no hesitation and no doubt; the Greek league that will fight the Persians, will be led by the Spartans. So great was their respect in which they were held that not only did they command the armies, even though they had no navy and no naval tradition, they were even put in charge of the fleet, although they often had the brains to use other people who had more experience to do the actual leading. But Sparta is in this position and I think that’s important.

Motivations for Sparta’s Foreign Policy

Bust of Thucydides, Roman copy (c. 100 CE) of an early 4th Century BCE Greek original / Holkham Hall , Norfolk

Well, let’s step back a moment and take a look at the Spartan state as we’ve been describing it and ask what is it that motivates the Spartans as a state, first of all, in its foreign policy? Because, as we shall see, there’s this remarkable thing that even though they are by far the strongest military force among the Greeks, they are more than usual reluctant to fight, and they don’t like to fight wars if they can avoid them, especially they don’t like to go any great distance to fight a war away from home and they don’t like to fight for any long period of time if they have to be away from home. The reasons for that are really what I want to make you see.

At the core of it all, according to Thucydides, it was the fear of the Helots. It’s not just that the Helots were so numerous compared to the Spartans, but I want to remind you again of their tremendous dissatisfaction with their situation, their backs may have been broken, but their spirits were not. They always were hoping to have a rebellion in which they could undue this extraordinarily heavy burden that they carried, and somehow in spite of the hundreds of years in which this has been going on, they did not lose sight of their nationality, of the fact that they were Mycenaeans and that they were a people, and that they had to throw off Spartan control of them if they could possible could.

Their feelings towards the Spartans were as you might expect. There’s a story of a rebellion I think I mentioned this to you earlier, early in the fourth century in Sparta, somebody is trying to stir up the people against the Spartan government and he mentions to the people he’s trying to enlist in his side the Helots, he says, who would gladly eat the Spartans raw. I think that’s what you have to have in your mind, if you want to understand what the Spartans think. If we take our whole army, leave town, go three days march away, how do we know we’ll find anybody alive when we get back? That’s always on their minds and Helot rebellions, although they don’t take place every day, take place very sparsely, but they keep happening so that the fear is never irrational.

To that is added the permanent enmity of Argos, which never gives up the idea of returning to the great days of Pheidon with Argos as the dominant state in the Peloponnesus and that means that the Spartans have to be defeated for that to happen and so the Argives come back to the Spartans time after time, good stretches in between, because the Spartans always beat them and do great harm so that it takes a long time for them to come back. But they’re there, they don’t go away; it’s a problem. So, the Spartans, of course, have a need of a collection of states that stand between them and their potential enemies of whom the Argives are the most important. So, you can look at the Peloponnesian league in general as the way in which the Spartans dealt with the danger they felt internally and externally.

Another element that the Spartans always worry about — remember why are the Spartans so successful? Numerically they aren’t many, enough to actually just defeat anybody by numbers. It is, because they are the best. Why are they the best? It’s because of this training system, these values, this way of life that is the purely Spartan way. So, there are always, I would argue, likely to be a majority at least of Spartans who are suspicious of and hostile to any kind of change internally certainly, and externally, because external things have internal implications. They’re always worried about corruption seeping into the Spartan system. Corruption normally has the concept of money, wealth behind it. If money comes into the picture and people start being bought by it, they will cease to be thinking the way good Spartans should think, only of the state, but they will think of themselves and their wealth and so on.

Another thing that corrupts is the search for power beyond what is appropriate in the Spartan system. Remember that incredible contradiction where everybody is a similar, almost an equal, but each one isn’t vying for honor, which is not available universally to all, and so that means if you are a conservative Spartan, and the two words are practically the same, you’re going to be worrying about that. That leads to conservatism in foreign policy. War, if you win, you are going to have booty; loot of some kind will come back into Sparta. Moreover, some people will gain reputations because of their fighting in the battle will bring them excessive honor, will fill their heads with a sense of their own greatness, and again, threaten the stability of the Spartan state. So, all of that is going to explain the paradox of the greatest military power in the Greek world, reluctant to fight and their power is not used to acquire economic benefits. What they focus on is discipline and the state versus freedom, individuality, and even family.

There you have this strange society, a closed society that does not normally permit people to come and visit Sparta, and even those that it permits to come to Sparta during one period of the year, they actually force all foreigners out of town and do whatever strange things they do. Now, when we’re talking about the fully developed Spartan state there are no exercises of the arts, such as existed before this system was created. There are no luxuries legally in Sparta. There are few creature comforts. Again, I suspect at some fairly early time, there were violations of these things, as individuals who had the power to do so, might well try to enjoy these things in spite of their being barred. But the main thing is, if you had them you couldn’t really show them, you couldn’t flaunt it, because that would be disastrous. Why? Because in a way, necessity becomes a virtue.

We human beings — that’s one of our typical ways of dealing with things. That is, we need to do something, we have to and so one way we cope is to do it and say it’s the greatest thing in the world to do, and doing anything else is no good. That’s what the Spartans did. Their way of life was imposed upon them by the decision to maintain their command of the Helots, after that it all makes perfect sense. Look what they had to give up, to do it. They said, of course, we gave that up, because that’s what makes us the great people we are and that’s the system that was the Spartan way of life.