The resurgence of classical Sparta in popular media notwithstanding, the city-state has long been looked down on by the chattering classes and academia. In comparison to Athens, the eminent city-state of classical Greece, Sparta has often been stereotyped as its antithesis: brutish, and proto-fascist. To be sure, Sparta lacked the sophistication, the high culture, and the intellectual achievements of Athens. Very few written records have survived to tell us what Spartans thought, felt and wondered in their own words. There were no Spartan playwrights, no philosophers and no scientists; every Spartiate man was a warrior. These were men of action, not words, but there is still much to admire about, and learn from, the society that they built.
Admittedly, the Spartans themselves did not do much in the way of ‘public relations.’ The term ‘laconic’ is an apt one, for the Laconians valued brevity, and concise expression. Their disdain (at least outwardly) for wealth, and their ascetic values have not left grandiose ruins which inspire the imagination. Theirs was a closed society on many levels, and an exposition of its secrets would have been frowned upon, if not punished. Yet we know enough about them to deconstruct the modern stereotype which fails to take into account the nuances of classical Greece, as well as some obvious, but neglected truths.
Classical Sparta deserves a prominent place in the history of western civilization for its many strengths and achievements. It was a remarkable society, an outlier for its time, and an admired outlier in some respects. The Spartans were different. Its failures have perhaps been exaggerated in comparison to those of others. No history of classical Greece would be complete without Sparta, and without Sparta, classical Greece as we know it would not have survived and prospered. Credit must be given where it is due.
An often-heard criticism of Sparta is that they were slave masters and warmongers, but this criticism relies on a false standard, for the Spartans were neither exceptionally cruel nor excessive in either domain in comparison to others. On the contrary, Spartan militarism and power demonstrated its virtue when it played a crucial role in saving Greece from Persian domination.
Born of long wars against the Messenians, the Laconian socio-economic structure relied on the subjugation of the helot class for its agricultural production. In effect, the majority of those who lived under Spartan rule in the southern Peloponnese were slaves. There is evidence that at an early point, Sparta even sought to subjugate some of its northern Peloponnesian neighbors as well. Anthropologically speaking, it seems the pastoralist heritage of the Dorian Spartans prevented them from embracing agricultural labor themselves; that was simply not how they saw and understood themselves. They were warriors, and the more they fought, the more militaristic their society became.
The Spartan warrior ethos was perfectly natural, and does not deserve to be maligned. Human history is replete with examples of warrior peoples – from the Maori to the Native Americans, from some of the Amazonian tribes to the pastoralists of the sub-Sahara, and from the Celts and Vikings to the Scythians. With mastery of warfare came power, and in many cases, the taking of slaves and the institutionalization of slavery. Other Greeks owned slaves as well, perhaps not in the same numbers, but indentured slavery was practiced across Greece and the ancient world. And the pursuit of war for greater dominion was by no means unique to Sparta, as the rise of the Athenian empire after 480 BC readily testifies to (see for example the crushing of the rebellion on Thasos ca. 465 BC). It should be noted that Sparta did repeatedly free its helots through acts of manumission for their military service.
Sparta excelled in its militarism, and it made a social virtue of it. A good Spartiate was a skilled, competent hoplite, and a loyal citizen-warrior. The Spartiate hoplites were both the ruling class of Sparta, and its highest servants. They were expected to risk all, and die if need be, for their city. The agoge, the public education system, explicitly prepared the youth for their roles: service to the state. This dyed-in-the-wool militarism laid the foundation for Sparta’s prowess on the battlefield, and by 500 BC it had become the preeminent land power in southern and central Greece. The significance of the militarism lay in the leadership role that it bestowed upon Sparta in pan-Hellenic matters.
When the second Persian invasion came in 480 BC, it was to Sparta that all eyes turned; the powerful Lacedaemonians would either lead the resistance to Xerxes, or Greece, politically divided, would fall. Even Athens with its newly-built, powerful navy had to consent to Spartan leadership of the Hellenic League – the alliance that would fight the invaders and ultimately defeat them. To say that Spartan militarism played a pivotal role in this epic struggle would be an understatement. Spartan power and militarism made it the only city-state with the leadership status needed to unite the Greek resistance. Without Sparta, Xerxes would have made Greece his westernmost satrapy, and the golden age of Greece would have been lost, forever changing western civilization.
Besides its military prowess, Sparta was known for its stability – both political and social. Eunomia was the Greek term for good order, and the Laconians compared very favorably with the Athenians on this point. Athens was frequently riven by dissent, conspiracies and political revolution. While Athenian leaders are heralded for their political achievements, the price for the citizens was considerable: recurring turbulence as the growing city lurched from one set of rules and rulers, to another set. To its credit, Sparta had done away with, or at least partially resolved the tension between its political classes through the reforms of Lycurgus.
The reforms of Lycurgus, known as the Great Rhetra, established a well-thought out and stable balance of power between three institutions: the dual kingships, the Gerousia, and the Assembly. Respectively, these institutions represented the interests of the kings, the wealthy landowners and the hoplite class in such a way that for centuries there was little revolt or revolution in Sparta – at least in comparison to Athens, Thebes, Corinth and other leading city-states. To be sure, the Lacedaemonians lacked not for intrigue and power struggles, and the kings were not infrequently subject to sanctions such as exile, but full-scale civil strife was largely absent. The threat of helot revolt was the main exception to the eunomia (a large revolt occurred after the devastating earthquake in 464 BC), and the potential for further revolts was likely at the forefront of Spartan political concerns. Yet overall, life in Sparta was relatively peaceful for most of the two centuries spanning from them mid-sixth to the mid-fourth century BC.
Stability did come with a price however: Sparta, it must be admitted, was a totalitarian state which set certain hard limits on individual freedom. A person was born into a class and hierarchy with a predetermined occupation and status, and there was strictly limited social mobility. In this sense, the wishes of the individual were quashed by society. Most social mobility was probably downwards as the Spartiate class shrunk over time. Spartiate young men would be warriors, and a failure to attain or retain the Spartiate status meant the ignoble loss of that status, permanently, for them and their offspring. A similar fate, perhaps, awaited Spartiate women who did not find a Spartiate spouse… There are a few examples of outsiders entering the Spartiate class, but membership was highly exclusive. Upward social mobility did occur from time to time. As noted above, there were cases were helots were freed and attained outdweller status, but only after prolonged military service. Duty to the state trumped individual choice in classical Sparta.
The level of freedom that Sparta did grant its Spartiate women was exceptional in classical Greece. Typically, Greek women were homebound, unschooled, ineligible to vote or own land and did not participate in public affairs. They lived under the protection and control of their male relatives. In contrast, the lifestyle of Spartiate women was shockingly liberal and drew scorn at times from non-Spartan commentators. Like the men, the young Spartan girls passed through a state education system which, presumably, served to inculcate them with the loyalty, values and physicality necessary to become valued citizens. Spartan women were raised to believe that their husbands, offspring and they themselves owed their service to the state first and foremost. They had to be strong in order that they manage childbirth and give birth to strong offspring. And so they took their exercise in public, and were not conservatively dressed. They were de facto heads of their households, given the long absences of the men, and the women had to be judicious in matters of economics and investment. They managed the helots which served their household. And crucially, they inherited land from their parents; some of them amassed great wealth thereby. Even though they had no formal vote, Spartiate women had to be decisive and deliberate, and they would have been much more vocal in their opinions than was typical of Greek women. It is ironic, and to its credit that Sparta, frequently depicted as a society of macho men, actually had the strongest women too.
Another overlooked, and perhaps underappreciated, aspect of Spartan society was its economic egalitarianism. Every Spartiate was allotted land, meals were taken communally by the men, and an ascetic lifestyle was expected of all. There was no abdication of individual responsibility though: each Spartiate had to produce food on his land, and had to contribute rations and meals to his mess-group. Sparta was, in a fashion, a commune of warrior-landowners. Such an approach was radical for the time; almost anywhere else in Greece and beyond, wealth and its trappings were prized, but the Lacedaemonians made a virtue of their simple lives. While socialism and communism have been relegated to the dustbin of history, the idea of economic egalitarianism lives on strongly today, and though the ‘experiment’ eventually failed in Sparta (as it has in many other places), Sparta deserves recognition as a ‘groundbreaker.’
In summary, classical Sparta is to be credited for its military power and expertise, and its leadership, which were crucial to saving Greece from the Persian invasion. It should be recognized that the society had a remarkable stability through a well-constructed constitution, and offered unparalleled freedom to its women. In recorded history, Spartans were amongst the earliest practitioners of economic egalitarianism, an idea that has carried forward to this day. Sparta was a totalitarian state too, however, and its citizens paid the price by the loss of individual freedoms. Let it not be said that Sparta does not have much to teach us.