The story of Sparta (now Sparti) and Spartans has been one that sounds really cool every time we hear it. What most of us know about Sparta is about King Leonidas and his battle with the 300. Actually, that Battle of Thermopylae was not fought with 300 soldiers. It was fought with 7,000 soldiers against an army of over a million.
Did you know that during the battle King Leonidas was 60 years old? There is more to Sparta. Once Philip II of Macedon wanted to conquer Sparta. He sent a warning to the Spartans that read, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.” The Spartans replied with just one word, “If…” Their boldness paid off and Philip II left Sparta alone. Here are more such interesting facts about Sparta.
1. Babies in Sparta would be bathed in wine instead of water when they were born. Then they were taken to the council of elders to judge their fitness for rearing. Their cries were frequently ignored and they were commanded not to fear anything.
Spartans followed the eugenics doctrine of selective breeding where the strong lived and the weak died. As soon as a baby was born, the mother would bathe the baby in wine to see how strong it was. If the baby survived, the council of elders in Sparta would examine the child for any physical defects. The child’s father would bring the baby to them and they would declare if the child was fit for rearing and, in the future, fit to be a Spartan soldier. If the council felt that the child was unfit or deformed, many sources state that the child would be thrown into a chasm of Mount Taygetos.
However, this has been disputed. Some other sources state that if the council found the child to be unfit, the baby would be abandoned and left to either die or to be rescued by strangers. Any kind of weakness was not tolerated in ancient Sparta. (1, 2)
2. Schools in ancient Sparta underfed boys to force them to steal food. If caught, they were punished severely. This was done to toughen them up and prepare them for going days without food during battles. Those boys who did not answer questions wittily or bravely were also punished.
From the day a Spartan child was born, their military training began. When the male Spartans turned seven they began an education system called the “Agoge.” They lived in communal messes where they were given the right amount of food to not let them become sluggish and that taught them what it meant to not have enough. They were trained to survive in starvation. They were underfed and forced to steal food. When they stole, they were punished. Special punishments were also imparted when the boys did not answer questions laconically (derived from another name for Sparta – Lacedaemonia) which meant wittily and bravely. Apart from this, they also learned reading, writing, and other things.
The Spartan girls too went through education which was similar to that of the boys with less emphasis on military training. Sparta was the only city-state where women received formal education in ancient Greece. They were also trained in sports, gymnastics, music, poetry, and war-education. (1, 2)
3. To demonstrate to the youth how not to act and to give a lesson of self-control, the Spartans would force their slaves to get drunk on wine and make a fool of themselves in public.
The helots, or the slaves, were a constant threat to the Spartans as they outnumbered them. To prevent uprisings, the Spartans devised various methods. Essentially a military society, Sparta needed their youth to be epitomes of self-control and self-discipline. And to do this, they made them learn through example. It was like killing two birds with one stone.
The Spartans would make the helots get drunk on wine on purpose and then show their young boys how the slaves behaved foolishly. The youth were told that they should never act the way the helots did, and the helots felt humiliated. At an early age of 20, Spartan youth became soldiers and served in the army until they were 60. These boys were taught to fight in a phalanx formation where coordination and discipline were extremely necessary. (source)
4. At the height of its power in 479 BCE, the number of slaves in Sparta was seven times the number of its free citizens. Some 250 years later, 6,000 slaves earned enough wealth to buy their own freedom.
We have heard of the Spartans, but we have not heard much about the others who lived among them. The helots, or the slaves of Sparta, did everything that was too low a task for a Spartan. They plowed fields, cleaned, cooked, built structures, worked as artisans, made wine, and did other such things. Per every free citizen of Sparta, there were seven helots. The Spartans were largely dependent on their slaves. Some Spartan men would breed with helot women to increase the population of the helots. These children were known as “nothoi.” The Spartans distrusted the helots and every year, there would be mass murders carried out so the helots would not rebel.
But the helots were not exactly poor even though they did not have voting rights. They could retain 50% of the fruits of their labor, get married, and were allowed to practice religious rites. They could till their own lands and earn enough to make themselves rich. Some 6,000 helots collected enough wealth to buy their freedom in 227 BCE. (1, 2)
5. The founder of Sparta, Lycurgus, made the people vow to follow his laws until he returned from his trip to Delphi. He voluntarily exiled himself and never returned.
Various historians and philosophers like Herodotus, Plato, and Plutarch talk about Lycurgus. He is known to be the lawgiver of Sparta and the founding father. His laws promoted the three Spartan virtues of equality, austerity, and military fitness. After the death of his older brother, he became the king of Sparta, but his efficient way of handling the affairs in Sparta made his older brother’s widow jealous who then accused him of plotting his brother’s death. Lycurgus transferred his kingship to his nephew, his older brother’s son, and left Sparta and traveled far and wide. When the Spartans begged him to return, he did and enforced a system of laws bringing about massive change. He also sought guidance from the Oracle at Delphi who reassured him that what he was doing was right for Sparta.
After some time passed and when Lycurgus was confident that his reforms had worked, he assembled the people and made everyone vow that they would follow his laws until he returned. He said he was going to Delphi to sacrifice to the god Apollo. In another version, it is stated that he told the Spartans that something of importance had to be done, and therefore he had to go to Delphi. He left and voluntarily exiled himself, ultimately sacrificing his life at Delphi by starving himself to death. For the next five hundred years, his laws strengthened Sparta until the rule of Agis when greed ruined the country. (1, 2)