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

Facts about sparta

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.

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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.

Sparta babies
Image source: sammlung.pinakothek.de

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.

Childrens of sparta
Image credits: Warner Bros. Pictures

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)

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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.

Spartans slave
Image credit: Fernand Sabatté/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Slaves in Sparta
Image credit: Philipp von Foltz/Wikimedia

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.

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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.

Lycurgus
Image credits: USCapitol/flickr, Mattpopovich/flickr

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)

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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.”

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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)

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)

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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