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History of Sparta

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  1. 0:06 The Problem in Sparta
  2. 1:45 The Agoge
  3. 4:22 Life of a Spartan Warrior
  4. 5:52 Spartan Society Structure
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Taught by

Lydia Neptune

In this lesson, you'll examine forces that shaped a Spartan society of elite warriors. We'll also explore the stratified caste system created by Lycurgus.

The Problem in Sparta

Sparta has a problem. In a frenzy of ambition, it has conquered and enslaved its neighbors in Messenia and Lakonia. These slaves, called helots, outnumber the Spartans at least ten to one. To keep this massive slave population under control, every Spartan must be a warrior. In Greece, that meant a Spartan must be a hoplite and fight in a phalanx.

As we saw in our lecture on the phalanx, this extremely organized style of warfare was as demanding as it was effective. To maintain this formation required rigorous discipline. To hold one's position in this crushing scrum of bronze took nerves of steel. The entire phalanx system flies in the face of fight-or-flight instincts of self-preservation. It was the most terrifying form of warfare discovered thus far.

While citizens of every Greek city-state were expected to go through this nightmare, for most, it was a nightmare from which they would soon wake and return to their normal lives. They were farmers, merchants, potters and masons, who donned their armor maybe once or twice a year to teach those damn Corinthians whose pasture that was.

For the Spartans, the nightmare of phalanx warfare was never-ending. With enemies abroad and a massive population of enslaved helots at home, a Spartan man lived a life of near-constant warfare. This was the Spartans' problem: how to turn their entire population into fearless cogs in a synchronized killing machine.

The Agoge

The solution to this problem came from a fellow name Lycurgus. Lycurgus came up with the agoge. The agoge was many things. It was a series of trials that would cull the weak and cowardly from the Spartan stock. It was a system of education that would take the strong and make them stronger, and take the brave and make them braver. Finally, the agoge was a society that would forge these powerful individuals into a single deadly unit.

Through eugenics, education and training, Lycurgus sought to make Spartans the ultimate warriors. Let us follow the journey of a Spartan boy through this agoge. Meet Brasidas. At his birth, Brasidas' mother bathed him in wine. For the skin of a newborn, this is essentially the same as pouring rubbing alcohol on an open wound. At his first breath, Brasidas knew that the world he was entering was hard and cruel. Many babies did not survive this first shock and were discarded.

After this bath, the Spartan Council of Elders examined Brasidas closely. If he seemed sickly, deformed, weak or slow, he would be cast off a cliff and forgotten. Past this first hurdle, Brasidas enjoyed a semi-normal childhood until age seven, when he was torn from his mother's arms and thrown into an agela, or herd of boys around his age. This broke down the bonds of family, and got young Brasidas to consider his comrades his family. These boys were barely fed. This got them used to hunger, and encouraged them to hunt, forage or steal to feed themselves. Stealing was not forbidden, but getting caught was severely punished.

Around age 12, Brasidas faced a strange rite of passage. He and the other boys of his agela had to steal honey cakes from an altar of Artemis. Protecting the altar were older boys with whips. To meet his goal, Brasidas would have to overcome his fear and face the flails. Centuries later, Romans would travel hundreds of miles just to witness this strange event.

After this rite of passage, Brasidas was given the only article of clothing he'd have for one whole year, a blood red cape called a phoinikos. At around the same time, Brasidas was expected to choose one of the older boys who'd just whipped him to complete his education. This older boy introduced Brasidas to his warrior society, with whom he would eat, sleep, practice and fight. He served as a mentor, a teacher, a comrade and a lover, binding Brasidas ever more tightly to his phalanx cohort.

Life of a Spartan Warrior

At age 18, Brasidas graduated to a paidiskos. As a paidiskos, he would serve as a military reserve force. To keep his blood thirst keen, the Spartans made him a member of the Krypteia, or secret police. These young men would spy on the helots, occasionally murdering them to keep them cowed.

At age 20, Brasidas was considered a man, and entered full military service. He was encouraged to find a wife and start making babies, but he was still required to live in the barracks among his cohort. Only at age 30 was Brasidas released from active military service, though he would still serve as a reserve fighter in time of need. He was allowed to leave the barracks and live with his wife and children. He was also given a vote on the Spartan Assembly. This assembly had the final say on all matters of state.

If he lived to 60, Brasidas could be elected to a seat among the Council of Elders, a panel of 28 judges who served for life. This council decided on the measures that the Assembly voted on, and thus held the most power in Sparta, though there were also two kings who served as the military and religious leaders of the land. This was not a monarchy or even an oligarchy. The activities of the kings and Council were subject to Ephors, a panel of men elected annually by the Assembly to oversee the government.

Like Brasidas, every Spartan spent the first half of his life training and fighting, and spent the second half ruling. With the entire population doing nothing but training, fighting and ruling, we must wonder how the Spartans managed to feed themselves.

Structure of Spartan Society

To support this warrior society, Lycurgus created a caste system. At the top of this system were the Spartiates: the warrior class, and the only class with rights of citizenship and political power.

At the bottom of the system were the helots: the labor class. The helots were spread about the countryside, and were not so much slaves as serfs, bound to their land and trade in service of the Spartans. This freed the Spartiates from the need to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, allowing them to focus on war. Yet even helots had some rights. They could earn money, and could even buy their freedom, but they could not serve in the military, and therefore held no political power, despite comprising the majority of the population.

Between slave labor and ruling there's still a lot of business to be done. A slave cannot be a merchant, because merchants need to travel. A slave would never return. At the same time, Lycurgus did not want his noble Spartiate warriors engaging in the piddly stuff of trade and commerce, as he thought the pursuit of wealth and comfort would soften them.

Thus Lycurgus created a third class, the perioikoi: the merchant class. Though the perioikoi were free men and served as reserve forces, they were not considered citizens of Sparta, and could not marry a Spartan. Besides acting as merchants, the perioikoi served as a buffer. Located in semi-autonomous cities around the perimeter of the Spartan state, the free perioikoi kept the enslaved helots in. More importantly, they kept new or foreign ideas out. The perioikoi were the only members of Spartan society allowed to visit other city-states or conduct business with foreigners. Even the Spartiates required special permission to leave Sparta.

This dual function of the perioikoi, to keep the helots in, and to keep dangerous ideas out, highlights the fragility of the Spartan system. The Spartans needed to hold the helots in, because without their slave-labor class, the Spartiates could not dedicate their lives to military and civic service. The Spartans also needed to keep foreign ideas out, because the Spartan way of life and ethos was as artificial as it was brutal. A new idea could undermine and destroy the Spartan way of life more effectively than any enemy. Thus the Spartans, the fiercest warriors of the time, who feared neither wound nor death, were terrified of new ideas.

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