The Culture of the
Spartan Warrior


Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece, located on the River Eurotas in the southern part of the Peloponnese. It became the dominant military power in the region, in part because of its geography. Sparta was a fertile valley, which was much desired. Sparta needed no protective wall because it was shielded by mountains and the sea and guarded by its brave soldiers. Sparta owed its military efficiency to its social structure, which was quite unique in ancient Greece. All free Spartan males were full-time soldiers. Unskilled labor was performed by a much larger, heavily controlled slave population known as Helots (meaning "captives"), while skilled labor was provided by another group, the Perioikoi (meaning "those who live round about"). Both groups were ritually humiliated and could be killed by a Spartan citizen every autumn.

Between 431 and 404 BC Sparta was the main enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. But by the year 362 BC Sparta's role as the dominant military power in Greece was over. However, Laconophilia (admiration of Sparta) continues to fascinate Western culture.

Role of Men in Spartan culture:
  • Male citizens had one duty and goal in life -- to fight and die for Sparta.

The Process of Becoming a Spartan Warrior:

The process of becoming a warrior was very grueling. Healthy boys started military and athletic training at age 7. At this age they were taken from their families and became wards of the state. The brutal training programs were intended to develop physical strength, military endurance, communal bonds, discipline and obedience. The Spartan culture put great emphasis on team work. The believed power came from the group, not the individual. To enforce this, boys lived in communal messes and were deliberately underfed, to encourage them to master the skill of stealing food. Those who were caught stealing would be beaten, not for stealing itself, but for getting caught. Boys were taught physical and weapons training, as well as reading, writing, music and dancing. Special punishments were imposed if boys failed to answer questions briefly and wittily.

At the age of twelve, the Spartan boys were required to take an older male mentor. The older man functioned as a kind of substitute father and role model to his partner.

At the age of eighteen, Spartan boys became reserve members of the Spartan army. On leaving the training program they were sorted into groups. Some boys were sent into the countryside with only a knife and forced to survive on their skills and cunning. The intent of this was to seek out and kill any helots as part of the larger program of terrorizing and intimidating the helot population.

Spartan girls seem to have gone through a fairly extensive educational process too. It was similar to the training of boys, but there was less emphasis on military training. No other city-state formally educated their women in any way.

A Statue of King Leonidas in Sparta

Military Life:
At age twenty, the boy became part of a mess. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartan exercised the full rights and duties of a citizen at the age of thirty. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens and were required to undergo the training as set by law, as well as participate in and contribute financially to one of the messes.
Spartan men remained in the active reserve until age sixty. Men were supposed to marry at age twenty but could not live with their families until they left their active military service at age thirty. They called themselves "homoioi" (equals), pointing to their common lifestyle and the discipline of the phalanx, which demanded that no soldier be superior to his comrades.
When Spartan men went to war, their wives would customarily present them with their shield and say, "With this, or upon this.” It was believed that true Spartans could only return to Sparta either victorious (with their shield in hand) or dead (carried upon it).
If a Spartan soldier were to return to Sparta alive and without his shield, it was assumed that he threw his shield at the enemy in an effort to flee. This was an act punishable by death or banishment. A soldier losing his helmet, breastplate or leg armor was not similarly punished because these items were personal pieces of armor designed to protect one man. The shield not only protected the individual soldier but in the Spartan phalanx also protected the soldier to his left. Thus the shield was symbolic of the individual soldier's devotion to his unit, his part in its success, and his responsibility to his messmates.
Even mothers enforced the militaristic lifestyle that Spartan men endured. There is a legend of a Spartan warrior who ran away from battle back to his mother. He expected his mother to welcome him back and protect him. Instead of shielding her son from the shame of the state, she and her friends chased him around the streets, beating him with sticks. Afterwards, he was forced to run up and down the hills of Sparta yelling his cowardliness and inferiority.

Role of Women in Spartan culture:
· The purpose of the women was to breed more Spartan men who would eventually become soldiers.

spartan_big.jpg A Scultpure of a Spartan Warrior

Equal Rights of Women
Spartan women held power and respect, unseen in the rest of the world. They had equal rights as men. They were able to control their own properties and the properties of any male relative who were deployed with the army. In fact, Spartan women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property throughout Sparta. They were also allowed to divorce in the same manner a man would be allowed to. Unlike women in Athens, if a Spartan woman became the heiress of her father she was not required to divorce her husband in order to marry her nearest paternal relative.
Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20. They wore short dresses and went where they pleased. Both girls and boys exercised nude and young women as well as young men participated in the Gymnopaedia ("Festival of Nude Youths"). This was unheard of in other cultures, such as Athens, where women wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house.
Women played a significant role in the history of Sparta. One influential and well-documented figure was Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas. She was once asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men. She replied, "Because we are the only women who are mothers of men.”

Sparta was a militarist state and military fitness began as soon as the baby was born. Shortly after birth, the mother of the child bathed it in wine to see if the child was strong. If the child survived, it was brought before the Gerousia by the child's father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to become a Spartan or not. If they considered it "puny and deformed", the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known as the Apothetae (meaning “deposits”.)

When Spartans died, marked headstones were only given to soldiers who died in combat during a victorious battle or to women who died either in childbirth or in service of a divine office.

Impact on Present Day:

  • Today, the word Spartan is synonymous with simplicity and the avoidance of luxury and comfort. It is also used with strength and a refusal to ever give up.
  • The Elizabethan English constitutionalist John Aylmer commended it as a model for England.
  • The Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau compared Sparta with Athens in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, arguing that its “austere constitution was preferable to the more cultured nature of Athenian life.”
  • Sparta was also used as a model for social structure by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
  • Adolf Hitler praised the Spartans, recommending that Germany should copy them by limiting "the number allowed to live".
  • Western culture seems to be fascinated with Spartan culture. There are many movies, such as “300”, that depict the bravery and sacrifices of the Spartan society.

In-depth videos on Sparta:

Ancient Warriors – The Spartans 1-3

Fun Facts:
· Spartan warriors enjoyed eating "melas zomos", or black soup, made from boiled pigs' blood, pork and vinegar.

· Spartans warriors often wore helmets with horsehair on the top. This served a decorative and psychological purpose because it made the Spartans seem taller than their enemies.

· Sparta had slaves who farmed and performed everyday tasks, allowing Spartans to focus on being warriors. The slaves were held under control using fear tactics, such as random executions, which were performed by the Spartan warriors.

a_spartan_soldier.jpgA Spartan Soldier