10 Fearless Facts About Sparta that Tell Us what it Was Really Like

by Heer Khant4 years ago

6 Sparta was ruled by two kings who rarely co-operated with each other. A council of five elderly men known as “ephors” who were re-elected every year, would maintain the balance between the kings.

Sparta Kings
Image credit: metmuseum.org

Ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, Sparta was once an oligarchy. Both the kings who were descendants of Heracles had religious, judicial, and military duties. They had equal powers and communicated with the Delphian sanctuary that had a great influence on Spartan politics. The kings did not co-operate with each other much which disrupted the balance in Sparta. This balance was maintained by a council of five elected men known as ephors.

The ephors decided on most civil and criminal cases along with another council of elders known as gerousia, while the kings only dealt with selected cases. They were the ones who made policy decisions and had real power. They also had the power to indict and try kings. Over the period of time, the kings of Sparta lost most of their power including the power to declare war. They became figureheads and served as dignified generals. By 7th century BCE, the ephors had become extremely powerful. (1, 2)

7 In ancient Sparta, elections were decided not by voting but by shouting. The candidate for whom the shouting was the loudest won.

Sparta elections
Image credit: Warner Bros via giphy

Gerousia, or the council of elders, presided over Sparta. The members of the council were elected by voting. But unlike how voting happens today, in Sparta, voting happened by shouting. The “tellers” who were “chosen men” to vote for the candidates were shut in a building nearby the Spartan assembly. Then, the candidates were introduced to the assembly by an order decided by lot and each of them was given a number. The “tellers” would begin shouting out a number, without knowing which candidate it belonged to. The candidate for whom the shouting was the loudest, would win and get elected. Aristotle called this practice of voting as “childish.”

The practice of voting by shouting also applied to other yes-or-no decisions like a time when a decision about going to war was to be made. People would scream “yes” and “no.” The presiding ephor would decide the yes-or-no question depending upon which side would scream the loudest. The Spartans believed that voting by shouting represented the intensity of a person’s preference. The stronger the belief, the louder the shout would be they thought. Shouting held a special significance in the ancient times. A war-cry before the onset of fighting, for example, was thought to strengthen the morale of the soldiers. (source)

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8 Spartans discouraged the hoarding of wealth. This is why they used long and heavy iron rods as currency which would sometimes need to be carried by oxen.

Spartans Currency
Image for representational purpose only. Image credit: brooklynmuseum.org

Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta, introduced iron bars as currency, as reported by Plutarch around 825 BCE. This was known as “iron currency” which was used in other parts of ancient Greece too. Each bar weighed a Euboean mina and carrying even a small amount of money would require a cart and two oxen. The use of such austere currency was to develop a strong Spartan character and discourage the hoarding of wealth. Due to its weight, it must have dissuaded the Spartans to further their financial ambitions. It was a way to not let greed create a weak Spartan society. When iron currency was used, it was the sole currency.

Some argue that at that time iron was an extremely valuable metal governed by the State. So, it could be that the use of iron currency was only because it was valuable and Sparta was a producer of iron and did not want to import other metals like copper or silver which were not produced within the country. (source)

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9 The Spartans are credited to be the first recorded users of chemical warfare in the Peloponnesian War. They made use of a poisonous gas to weaken the Athenians.

Peloponnesian War
Image credit: Harvard Library via Wikimedia

The earliest recorded use of gas in warfare was during the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BCE. This war was fought between Athens and Sparta in three phases. The Spartans had plans to besiege an Athenian city, and they got innovative. They placed a lighted mixture of wood, sulfur, and pitch which produced a poisonous smoke to incapacitate the Athenians. This was done so that when the Spartans attacked, the ability of the Athenians to resist the attack would have been drastically decreased. Sparta ultimately won the war and replaced the Athenian empire with a Spartan one.

Around 590 BCE, Solon, a statesman in Athens, used hellebore roots to poison the water in an aqueduct that led to the River Pleistos that flowed through central Greece during the siege of Kirrha, Delphi’s harbor. (source)

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10 Only women who died in childbirth and men who died fighting could have their names inscribed on their tombstones in Sparta.

Tombstones in Sparta
Image credit: Image for representational purpose only. Image credit: livius.org

Women enjoyed great freedom in Sparta and had more power than their male counterparts. A female Spartan was revered for giving birth to future soldiers. They were known for their do-or-die approach. They often told their sons to “return with the shield or on it.” Those who surrendered in battle were an ultimate disgrace. On one hand, dying in battle was considered to be a great honor for the men, and on the other hand, a woman who died giving birth to a child was considered to have done a great sacrifice for Sparta. That is why only these two classes of people could have their names inscribed on their tombstones according to Plutarch. It was said that they had completed their duty as a true citizen. Another interpretation of Plutarch’s manuscript states that only the women who held religious office could have their graves inscribed. This was supported by the evidence provided by the two surviving inscriptions on the graves of Spartan women. Scholars have argued that this was possible as women who died in childbirth made no contribution to the Spartan society and religion played a very important role. Nevertheless, the former interpretation is the most widely accepted one. (1, 2)

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