Did Sparta Have the Best Lifestyle for Its Citizens?
In the 8th-7th centuries BC, a new state emerged in the southern part of the Peloponnese peninsula, which immediately opposed itself to all its neighbors with efficient militarization. In my opinion, this state seemed to have been established just to fight.
Young Greeks were strengthening their muscles, demonstrating them at the Olympics, and competing against each other in sports. These activities were alien to Spartans.
This is how the poet of ancient Sparta Tyrtaeus imagined the standard of human virtue to be:
Let a man learn how to fight by first daring to perform mighty deeds,
Not where the missiles won’t reach, if he is armed with a shield,
But getting in close where fighting is hand to hand, inflicting a wound
With his long spear or his sword, taking the enemy’s life,
With his foot planted alongside a foot and his shield pressed against shield,
And his crest up against crest and his helm up against helm
And breast against breast, embroiled in the action — let him fight man to man,
Holding secure in his grasp haft of his sword or his spear! (Barron and Easterling, 132)
We know from school the history of the ancient world and how weak babies were killed in Sparta. But why? Where were their mothers at that time? There was no family in the life of a young man, and it was even out of the question. Every new-born child immediately became the “cog-wheel” of the state. Therefore, it was only up to the state to decide whether there would be any use of such a child, or whether it would be a burden to society.
Until the age of seven, a boy would remain under the protection of the mother. Breastfeeding was the healthiest and most economical type of feeding. However, from the age of seven, the child was away from the family and enrolled at a public school. At the same time, the child would start training hard as well.
What were the young Spartans taught? They were learning basic reading and writing, but mainly gymnastics and singing in choir. Of course, children were singing military hymns, something like the aforementioned Tyrtaeus. In their free time from military exploits, the same former pupils, young people of 20-30 years old, were engaged in general upbringing and training.
The New Year for young Spartans was a rather peculiar holiday: they were flogged in the temple of Artemis. Furthermore, it was an honour for the participants by not admitting a weakness to not move a single muscle.
The age of 20 was for a Spartan their start in life. At that age, the young Spartan had equal rights with adults. This means participation in military campaigns and ritual military meals. For that honor, every Spartan started paying the state a certain amount of money monthly and donating food. The main dish at feasts was black stew. Pork was boiled in blood and seasoned with salt and vinegar. Sparta also admitted foreigners, calmly received guests, and listened to poets and musicians from other Greek states. Later, xenelasia was practiced, which is the mass expulsion of aliens for national and political reasons.
During peacetime, the Spartans lived in camps and tents. They engaged in training and hunting, and work was done by numerous slaves and captives. At the time, there were so many slaves that it became dangerous. In order to reduce their number, the Crypt, a ritual, was conceived, involving mass killings of slaves at night.
Such a harsh life required very serious ideological nourishment and protection. Comfort, excess, and personal value were declared to be illegal. Golden coins were replaced by iron coins, circulating only in Sparta. Stone buildings were prohibited, and only buildings made of wood were allowed. Uniformity was enforced even in clothing. Regardless of social status and affluence, men wore a short cloak.
It amazes me how readily humanity recalls Sparta’s way of life and how often it is used by dictatorships.
Barron, J. P., and Easterling, P. E. “Elegy and Iambus.” The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Greek Literature, eds. Easterling P. E. and Knox B., Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 132.
Plutarch. Moralia. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. Vol. III, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1931, pp. 423-429.
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