For someone like me, who writes factually inspired fiction based in the Ancient world, it strikes me, not how much we know of our ancient ancestors, but how little we know about so much of them, and never more so when considering the enigmatic Spartans, famed throughout the ancient world, yet, even to their contemporaries, they were as mysterious as the gods themselves. To modern historians and Archaeologists, the Spartans present a whole field of science and study in itself, to which a person could – and have dedicated their entire lives and still not scratch the surface, and what we do know, from our Twenty-First Century perspectives. No other culture in Europe at that time endured. It was a culture of contradiction and irony, stuck in an archaic past that endured for centuries. Rising to become the most prominent and feared military power in the Ancient world. Even today, the very word Spartan invokes hardship, chronic minimalism, violence, and big blokes in bronzer armour you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, or an open field.
The victor’s get to write the history, right? Wrong. In the case of the Spartans, it was the vanquished and defeated who wrote about them in the main, with a few later exceptions, the Spartans had no time for written history, but they were literate, contrary to the opinions of their Athenian contemporaries. And they were far from the warmongers many of their contemporaries would have us believe. The Spartan male trained and prepared for wall all of his life, but war was always last resort and true enough, it was rarely shunned. We should also bear in mind, that in their hegemony, Sparta had the only standing army in Ancient Greece with every male between around 18 to 60 a fighting component of a formidable war machine. That was the work of the periokoi (dwellers about) Helots (the conquered indigenous populations of Lakedaemonia, Messenia and Kynuria. Spartan men did not till or harvest crops, tend livestock, spin pots, smith bronze or craft stone, he was an engine of war. He was the ancient world’s equivalent to a nuclear deterrent – at least to any land forces that might seek to plant colonies in the fertile Eurotas valley, or the bountiful “Big Happy” (fertile plains) of Messenia.
As superpowers go, their hegemony was short-lived by modern scholastic estimates, barely a hundred years as the premium superpower of Greece, but in their own Peloponnesian enclave, their power endured for several hundred years. and their decline was rapid and unexpected after the old self-deluded arrogance of: “I’m a superpower and I’m invincible” Sparta met its match, symbolically at least, against the Thebans at the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BCE, when the Theban army under the leadership of Pelopidas came up against a numerically much larger force of Spartan hoplites. With guile and tactical superiority, and the formidable Sacred Band of Thebes, 300 gay lovers, routed the Spartans, marking the first time in written history that Spartan hoplites had been defeated by a numerically inferior enemy in a set battle. In historical terms, it was a minor battle over trivial matters, but for the Spartans, it was a devastating blow, from which they never recovered. But this was a symptom of much old cracks that appeared in the Spartan system over a century before.
Following the Greco-Persian Wars – 499-449 BCE, the mind-set of the Greeks began to change in very different directions – at least they did beyond the Eurotas Valley. Athens, whose city had been sacked and destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE, emerged from the war with an empire and a league of contributory allies and colonies in Greece and Asia Minor, which became the Delian League. Sparta, which held command of the Greek allies during the Greco-Persian war until the Persian threat was dealt with, remained outside of this league, and withdrew from the idea of empire and expansionism when the Athenians wanted to press on with the war despite the Persians being soundly defeated by the Greek coalition forces.
Sparta wasn’t so hot about pursuing imperialistic policies of conquest and had very few overseas colonies, or interest in anything or anyone outside of their insulated bubble. Sparta’s only territories beyond the Eurotas were Kynuria on the Gulf of Argolis, Messene in the west and tenuously, Taranto in Puglia Italy. Sparta’s main overseas ally was the powerful state of Syracuse on Sicily, founded by Corinth around 734 and 733 BCE.
Like Athens with her Delian League, the Spartans had their own complicated system of alliances, primarily among the Dorian Greeks of the Peloponnesus. The alliances were very different from that in the Delian League. Athens’ allies were tributary, taxed in food supplies and other essentials, wine, olive oil, war ships, men to man them, and men in times of war to fight, raw materials such as iron ore, copper ore, tin, gold, silver, marble and so forth. Consequently, Athens became a very wealthy city state and extremely powerful, especially with her navy, as Thucydides tell us through the words of the Spartan King Archidamos, the Athenians “have an extraordinary familiarity with the sea…” A familiarity no other [Greek] state could match.
In essence and simply put, if you wanted to belong to the happy chappies club of the Delian League, you had to pay for it. Sparta had no tributary allies as such. It was a hostile world out there, and the Eurotas was vulnerable in these days of high tech triremes and sophisticated soldiering, and it pays to have loyal friends who can come and give you some muscle when you need it. The Spartan League was based more on promise than substance, though when it did have substance, it was awesome and impressive. The Spartan system of alliances were created individually, tailor measured you might say with each state they had alliances with, mostly localised to the Peloponnesian peninsular. Simply put, the alliances were this. Should any ally of Sparta be attacked by a foreign power, Sparta would come to their aid, should the tables be turned, and Sparta be attacked by an enemy, she could call upon all her allies to come to her aid. There were no tributes paid to Sparta as a condition to her alliances. Just mutual assistance and preferential trading alliances such as we have with trading blocs today.
It wasn’t just the outside world the Spartans feared, it was the internal world they inhabited that worried them most – the enslaved indigenous populations of Messene, Lakedaemonia and Kynuria known by the Spartans as Helots (Prisoners of war) who were subjugated and reduced to serfdom by the invading (migrating) Dorians, possibly from Crete and other islands in the Mediterranean known as the Return of the Herakleidae in the Ancient Dark ages that followed the Trojan War, way back before Homer was glint in his daddies eyes. There are a number of theories about how Doric Greeks came to inhabit the Peloponnese, some theories have it as an invasion of military conquest, though any evidence of this is sketchy at best. Many historians now believe that the Dorian migration took place over a number of decades and centuries, rather than through a war of conquest. A creep rather than a run.
Archeological evidence suggests that the Dorians first settle the Eurotas valley between 1000 and 900 BCE, some two hundred years after the estimated date of the Trojan War and collapse of the Mycenaean kingdom, which in itself was likely a slow demise as with all empires and superpowers, before and since and to come. It is possible that the decline of the Mycenaeans left the void into which the Dorians flowed and flourished.
It was in the 730’s BCE when Lykurgos (Lat. Lycurgus) the Lawgiver arrived on the scene and transformed the farming communities of Sparta into a military state, an institution which lasted until the Roman invasion in 146 BCE, and some of its institutions, such as the infamous education system Agōgē endured, albeit with a couple of periods when it was abolished and reestablished with radical reforms, the Agōgē survived well into the Christian era.
The city of Sparta grew from a cluster of five villages – Pilane, Selakia (Selacia) Aigitida, Phari, Amyclae (Amikles) following years of squabbling, warring and lawlessness, around 8th Century BCE, and it is likely that the non-mythological origins of the dual monarchy of Agiad and Eurypontid dynasties came out of the political settlements when the villages merged into the un-walled sprawl of Sparta.
The Spartan citizen polis was divided into four strata, beginning at the top with the Spartan kings and aristocrats, then, what we would today call the middle class, ordinary Spartans of modest means (the Homoioi, the Equals, a term that equally applies to aristocrats, but for the sake of avoiding confusion, I will refer to this group as the Homoioi. After this group came the Mothakes, (singular mothax) meaning stepbrother/s. This group were either impoverished Spartans, or Spartans of mixed heritage, for example a Spartan father and a helot mother. After them came the non-citizen groups: Helots, (prisoners of war) Perioikoi non-citizen (Dwellers about)
The Aristocrats: were as the name implies, the political and commanding elites, usually inherently wealthy through the ownership of land, livestock, crop yields etc. (I said they didn’t work the fields, I didn’t say they didn’t own then). They may have had monetary wealth as well, though strictly speaking coined money was “officially” considered an unclean and corrupting influence and no coins were struck in Lakedaemonia consequently until the reign of Areus I of the Agiad dynasty 309 – 265 BCE, the official Spartan currency being iron spits known as obol, (pleural oboloi) literally spit/s of iron, which took the form of short iron rods. The ancient Greek coin obol comes from this pre-coinage Greek system of bartering. It is also known that strips of silver, gold and other metals and ores were used as currency in Hellenic and Classical Sparta, though law forbade the hoarding of money, coined or otherwise, but I think we can safely assume this may have been the law, but not the practice, and I believe it was probably something the state may have turned a blind eye to, providing the citizen maintaining the outward façade at least of uniform frugality and self-disciplined austerity. There was a telling saying at Sparta: “where the threshold begins, Sparta ends.” Ostentation and luxury was just a prevalent in Sparta as it was at Athens, especially in aristocratic houses, possibly through the auspices of their wives (See Spartan girls & women below). Indeed, many contemporaneous outside sources say that the Spartans behaved quite differently when they were abroad, than how they did when in Lakedaemonia, wearing luxurious robes, and indulging in extravagances expected more of Periclean Athenian aristocrats than those of austere Sparta. It is likely, in order to indulge in these extravagances, that Spartans hoarded material wealth in coined and uncoined metals of value.
The Homoioi: may not have been born into the privileged upper echelon, it did not exclude them from entering it if they met the wealth conditions, as I said earlier, wealth was measured in land and the chattel thereof, not how much gold you’ve got tucked under your bed. Your ordinary Jo Sparta would have received exactly the same state education as their aristocratic counterparts, with the exception of the grammata, which was privately funded for the academic education of boys of the Rearing.
The Mothakes: The Mothakes (stepbrothers) were a more clearly defined group, though there is a great deal of ambiguity as to just who qualified as a Mothax, Mothakes and Neodamodeis (see below), the Mothakes, singular mothax, were possibly of impure blood, that his one of their parents was not Spartiate, a foreigner, helot or perioikoi (dwellers about). Or they may have been of pure blood, but too poor to pay their fees, and one theory put across regarding Gylippos, is that he was reduced to the status of mothax following the treachery of his father Kleandridas, thus disenfranchised to some degree, leaving them dependent upon the sponsorship of wealthy Spartiates who would pay their schooling fees and mess bills, and make them the stepbrothers of their sons to pass through the education system. There are some very famous Spartan commanders who were from this socio-political group of Spartiates, Lysander and, as mentioned above, Gylippos to name but two acolytes of the Peloponnesian War.
There has been some argument among modern scholars, as to whether or not, once released from the charge of the Paedonomos (the magistrate in charge of the Rearing/Agōgē) at the age of 21, (see education below) the mothakes became citizen Spartiates – others think it was only granted later, possibly by vote at his syssition (common mess) (see Syssition below) if he was considered worthy enough, and his eating and drinking companions would be the best to know his character, but I do not agree. I believe the Mothakes, upon completion of their education, had earned the right in the eyes of their contemporaries to become full Spartiates upon admission into one of the common messes.
The Neodamodeis: (new demos men) were manumitted helots who served in Sparta’s army as heavy and light infantry, and appear to have been well trained, though not reared in the education system, but possibly in their own equivalent, which might account for the wildly varying estimates to the manpower of the Spartan army. The Neodamodeis first appear in the record in 420 BCE in the written accounts of Thucydides in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” as the helot army inaugurated by the Spartan military and tactical genius Brasidas, from the helot population to serve as hoplites and an expedition force in the Second Peloponnesian War. This helot army earned a formidable reputation and the respected title of being “Brasadians” a place of great honour. The Neodamodeis were probably chosen from the most loyal helots to Sparta, probably the helots of Lakedaemonia rather than from Messene or Kynouria.
Sparta’s new-borns v Athenian new-borns
Okay, here’s where you have to be ready to gasp and recoil in revulsion. But I ask you to remember, in the ancient world, they were not as sentimental about children as we are. Oh, they loved and doted on their kids sure enough, that’s coded DNA. But no ancient society can hold up a mirror and say it treated its children well on a wider sociological level. And let me just conclude by saying, if a Spartan boy could survive the Deposits, he was thereafter, among the moist protected and cherished children of any society on earth at that time, and so too were girls, which makes Sparta unique among its contemporaries, as we shall see below.
Before the sciences of sociology, anthropology and psychiatry were ever conceived of in any way, shape or form, the Spartans “may” have practiced a cruel form of eugenics on a disturbing scale. (I say may have tentatively, as new archaeological evidence brings some of what I am going to tell you regarding the judging of infants into question). And killing infants in the ancient worlds was more common than you might like to believe. So take off the Hollywood specs and have a look at reality.
There would have been many reasons not to want a child in the ancient world, mostly dependant on your ability to pay in short. There were roughly four main classes of people in the ancient world (beyond Lakedaemonia). The aristocracy, made up of olds money; the merchant classes, often richer than the aristocrats; the hoi-poloi, the free masses, the working classes, who had their own social echelons, much as today, with lowers and uppers, depending how much you earned. These accounted for small businesses – bakers, butchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, innkeepers, pimps etc. after them the employed workers. For them work was difficult with long hours and for soul-destroying little reward. Below the hoi-poloi were the slaves, the absolute bottom of the social order, slaves had no rights in the main, and were politically considered on a par with beasts and farm animals. Disenfranchised and unprotected by law. A master could do pretty much whatever he liked with his slaves, and many masters did just that. Of course, there were as many, if not more people who treated their slaves well, both because it made commercial good sense to keep your slaves healthy and even happy, and because the ancients were every bit as human as we like to think of ourselves today, close bonds and relationships often developed between slaves and masters/mistresses, and manumission was a possible and is attested to many times in contemporaneous literature, grave markers and graffiti. Slavery was not based on race, in fact, Racism is a new post-Christian phenomena. You could be any colour or creed and be a slave in the ancient world, it didn’t matter a fig where you came from, up the road or across the sea. Most slaves were prisoners or the descendants of prisoners of war.
So, looking at these social strata from top to bottom, it is unlikely an aristocrat would reject a child, unless he thought he was not the father, the child was sickly or disabled, or he had a daughter when he wanted a son. In short, aristocrats could afford to raise children. We might say the same of the merchant classes, at least the successful ones, but as with the aristocrats, there would be occasions they would reject a baby or child.
According to the majority of archaeological evidence and current thinking, most rejected children would have come from the bottom strata of society, the low paid or unemployed hoi-poloi and the slaves for very rational reasons – at least to societies which had no orphanages or social welfare. Babies were expensive then as they are now, and if you were eking a living of just a few obol or a few drachma a month, then you barely had enough to keep yourself and the family you already had alive. So there would have been economic reasons for rejecting an infant. Now back then, there were no lines of people wanting to adopt babies either, to the contrary, adoption would have been as rare as rocking-horse poo. You couldn’t sell your baby into slavery either, who wants a slave who can’t sweep the courtyard or serve wine or plough a field? No-one, that’s who. So there you are, as poor as poor can get, a brood of kids already, (contraception was very crude and certainly no guarantee of not getting pregnant. So what do you do with this unwanted child? Well, you take your baby out of the city, to some hillside, or the city dump, you cry your eyes out all the way most likely, you even string some religious talismans together and put it round his or her neck and you leave them out to the elements to expose them, putting them at the mercy of predatory animals like foxes, rats, wild dogs and wolves, but there’s nothing else to be done, and you can tell yourself or hope to yourself, that some kindly stranger happened on your baby and took it home to care for and love it. It was a sad end to an unfulfilled beginning, and I do not think the ancients took such decisions lightly. We are, when all is said and done, the children of our own times.
Girls presented two big problems to Ancient Greek society. Firstly, they were disenfranchised and utterly subservient to their menfolk, and there was very little a woman was permitted to do. Many Aristocratic women at Athens and other places, were even forbidden to ever leave the house, and lived in a certain part of the house away from hubby with the children and female companions if they were lucky enough to have companions, and they wore veils and long robes – yes, Hollywood has it completely wrong about women in the Ancient world. Sure, there were some strong and charismatic women, women who had influence over powerful husbands, but these were very few and far between and usually came from very powerful families. On the whole, Greek society, like most others at the time would have made a modern misogynist seem like a saints, but, as we shall see, Sparta was the absolute exception when it came to their womenfolk.
With the exception of Sparta, a husband could beat his women, he could even kill them, sell them or prostitute them for money. They were forbidden from owning property or engaging in business activities. In the lower classes, women were largely ignored and did servile jobs and often prostituted themselves to feed the family, and they prostituted their children too – male and female.
The Athenians and others beyond the Eurotas Valley may have self-righteously judged and bewailed the cruelty of the Spartans, who dropped their unwanted babies off the side of a mountain, or into an underground chasm. But is it this act of infanticide that instils horror in the ancient Greeks beyond the Eurotas, who left their unwanted babes to be exposed to die slowly and be eaten alive by some wild animal outside the city? Or is it the fact that it was male children the Spartans so callously hurled off of their sacred mountain?
Sons, unlike daughters were valuable, both socially and economically. A son was almost a long term investment. For the son of a freeborn Greek, the world was his oyster, and the close bonds of family also meant he would one day contribute to the family and inherit the family wealth. He might marry well, in which case, daddy will get a nice dowry from the daughter’s family, yes, you really did have to pay to get someone to marry your daughter, a custom still carried on in the West today in some traditions. No dowry, no marriage.
Having a son in the ancient world was also a status symbol, if I can coin the phrase. Sons are handsome, and strong. The athletes who so titillated the Greeks at the gymnasia.
Now you may be thinking the ancients were heartless sonsofbitches, devoid of love and compassion. As I said above, I do not believe this is so.
Killing your child was not an easy option, nor would it have been a preferred option, and without the help of any sort of welfare, it was often, the only option. Let that be a warning to us all in our age of greed and welfare cuts.
Let’s say bye-bye to Athens for now, and go back to those mysterious and vilified Lakedaemonians, brooding menacingly beyond their rugged mountains, locked into their long narrow valley named for the River nymph Eurotas. It is a land famed in mythology for heroes and demigods, a land where men are suckled on iron and blood, and raised on a whip’s end.
So, you’re a Spartan, and your wife, who you only see once or twice a year, and only then by going AWOL and risking a flogging for irt, has given you a baby son. Okay, well, as at Athens, the preferred gender is male, especially among the Spartans, who are born to serve in the Spartan army. But just for the moment, let’s say the gods did not favour you, and you have been given a daughter – what are you thinking, off the mountain with her? – Get out of here! The Spartans did not expose or kill their daughters without a damn good reason. Illness, infirmity, disability, yes, they would have exposed her, or possibly hurled her into the “deposits” AKA “Apothetae?” (Place of Rejection) but if she is healthy, then she will be raised in her own school with other girls, educated and indoctrinated with her duty to Sparta by bearing strong sons. A woman who gave birth to a son was highly regarded by the citizenry. And for strong sons to be made, both mum and dad had to be fit and strong, so a great deal of emphasis was placed on physical exercise, and indeed, Spartan women were considered strong, tall and beautiful – well, we are talking of the land of Helen. So if you had a daughter, her odds of survival as a Spartan girl were a heck of a lot better than they were for an Athenian girl, or any other girl in any other place anywhere in the known world at that time. And when your daughter grows up, she can do what she wants and say what she wants, when she wants. She can make money, own businesses, land, even merchant ships, but she can’t vote. Nowhere in the ancient world were women franchised to vote. But by the standards of the day, your daughter is among the freest, most liberated women on earth, when the rest of the ancient world mocked you and vilified you for allowing a woman such freedoms. So little Helen or Penelope going to be fine.
Now let’s suppose the gods were generous and gave you a son. At Sparta there was no greater joy than the birth of a son. It was a community thing, and though you may not have had the cooing and soppy smiles, the man and woman on the streets would have congratulated you and patted you on the back and wished all the favours the gods could give to your fit and healthy son, and they might give you food or cloth, because the little feller’s going to be formidable warrior one day, and you would’ve been the proudest dad in town.
But, before you can take your little sprog out in public, he must first undergo three tests, tests which will have his life hanging on fate’s fine thread.
First, after he is born, he will be bathed in wine, possibly undiluted wine, which is many times stronger than modern bottled plonk we get today, and acidic. Prayers would have been chanted in thanksgiving. Once the wine bathing was over, the baby was laid on the threshold of the house – which maybe a residual of a time when the Spartans exposed children, before they became a militaristic superpower.
So, you’ve done all this, and the next morning, your son has survived the night without getting eaten by wolves or freezing to death. So, far so good then. But now comes the third and most dangerous test, the tests of the Deposits, which lies some distance up in the Eurotas Mountains and is a deep and spectacularly beautiful gorge/or a chasm where criminals were hurled off the mountain into the Deposits.
Once the 5 Elders possibly the ephors, (annually elected magistrates who had extraordinary powers). Your son is either considered worthy, or unworthy to undergo the education. If he was considered unworthy through infirmity, or weakness, he was thrown over the chasm to certain death. If he was deemed worthy, he was given back to his father, and ordered that the baby be raised for seven years at home, and in the seventh year of life, the child would be inducted into the educational system, which is another blog.
Thanks for reading.