Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Spartan Character

As W.G. Forrest astutely points out in his book, The History of Sparta 950-192 B.C, the three great Spartan characteristics were equality, military fitness and efficiency, and austerity.

The 9,000 or so Spartiates were equals -- equal to each other and superior to all other men. They got there by passing through the Agoge: twenty three years of military training starting at age seven. The years before age twenty were brutal and made up of long and increasing difficult military training. Beaten by their elders, the young would train in teams with a watchful eye of an elder looking to identify the best of them. Then from age twenty to thirty the victims became the punishers, as they achieved senior cadet status. They learned to read and write; to sing and dance, but all of this was window dressing around the fine tuning their ability to fight. Everywhere there was rivalry -- boy against boy within a team, and team against team. Admission to the sussition (mess) was the end point, but not without a unanimous vote in favor – a single no vote and a man became an outcast.

After graduation, the soldier could marry, but still he ate the evening meal with his 288 man Lochos. Each soldier took his turn finding food for the meal which usually featured the Spartan “black” broth, made of pig’s blood, pork, and vinegar. No Spartan soldier worked; work was for the helots. The soldiers needed only to train, socialize with their peers, and go to war. It was agreed that war was a relief from having to train, and much easier.

Aristotle was critical of the Spartan system, saying, “The Spartans turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of a city’s life, end up making them inferior to even that”. True enough, but Aristotle was looking through the lens of his own time rather than the past when an army was the foundation of the polis. It’s interesting that the Spartans built their political system when the military was most important to the state, but then never evolved because their system was so stable.

And austerity – in spades! Spartan youth were allotted one cloak per year and slept on a bed of rushes gathered from the riverbank. All had to find their own food or steal it, whatever was required. And no alcohol -- only the helots could drink, so they could set an example of bad behavior.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike. Was just wondering if you could give me a reference for line where Frorest outlines the three Spartan characteristics please?


Mike Anderson said...


Chapter Excursus I, The Lykourgan Reforms.

Page 50 in the paragraph beginning with - The rhetra is a constitutional document..

Last sentence of that paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Great thanks a lot!!!