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PostEngineer_Joseph on Mon 12 Dec 2016, 8:30 am

Who were the Spartans?

Sparta was one of the ancient Greek city states. By ‘ancient’ we are referring to the era before the present epoch, especially the period before the birth of Christ some two thousand years ago. During the periods we are referring to, Greece as it exists today as a country did not really exist. Rather, there were several city states, most of them rising to cultural and/or
military prominence. Among them were Sparta and Athens, two contiguous cities, but vastly different from each other in several ways as we shall see from this and the next units. 

Specifically, the era we are referring to is about 8 or 7 centuries BC, which was the period that Sparta really reached the height of her glory as a military force. Sparta believed so much in military exploits and cared less for beauty and culture. There is a saying that Spartan parents owed their male children one thing: the shield, and that on handling over this military tool, they usually accompanied the act with the saying, ‘Go, and return with it, or on it.’ What does this terse saying mean? It signifies that the parent is sending off the son into the wide world with the shield to defend himself against all sorts of attack, and that he should either return in victory with it, or die and be brought home on it.

Such was the military disposition of Sparta that it soon became a force among other states. Sparta subdued one after the other of the other states. First it was its neighbour, Messenia, which lost its independence to Sparta in the 8th century BC and did not regain it until the 360s. Historians have asserted that it was this factor, of subjugating Messenia, ‘that determined the peculiar development of Sparta, because it forced Spartans to adjust their institutions to deal with a permanently hostile subject population’. Before long, Sparta sprang out to other states, conquering one after the other including Athens too. 

However, it was just this military might for which it was noted, but not for much else. So, there is not much of poetry, drama, sculpture, etc., that we can learn from Sparta. What we can learn is the type of education that prepared the citizens for warfare rather than for the arts, science, governance, etc. So, what is this type of education?


Education in Sparta began from age 7 to 20 years. Before then, mothers brought up children, ‘in an atmosphere of severity and harshness’. Throughout life, girls were given a type of education that prepared them for their role as wives and mothers; howbeit in an atmosphere of severe discipline. Sickly or deformed children were eliminated through death or by simply
throwing them away, since they would not be useful for the type of life that Sparta wanted.

Although in the beginning of the state, Sparta encouraged some form of arts, music and culture as part of the education of children, these gave way almost totally to a type of education appropriate to a warrior state.

Boys in Sparta were enrolled into formations corresponding to successive age grade. These were divided into smaller units under the authority of comrades of their own age or of young officers. It was a collective education, which progressively removed them from the family and subjected them to garrison life. Everything was organised with a view to preparation for
military service. Thus they were lightly clothed, had to sleep on the bare ground, and poorly fed. They were told to steal to supplement their rations, and subjected to rigorous discipline. 

Hardening them to blows developed their virility and combativeness. Besides, they were sent on nocturnal expeditions designed to train the future fighter in ambushes and the ruses of warfare. They were also directly apprenticed to the military craft, using arms and maneuvering in close formation. The sole norm of this puritanical education, proceeding in a climate of austerity, was the interest of the state. The Spartan was trained under a strict discipline to obey blindly the orders of his superiors. Curiously, the child was at the same time trained to lying, to theft, and to dissimulation, (i.e. to conceal one’s real feelings, e.g. pretending to be happy and contented when in actual fact one was acutely sad and in discomfort). All these were virtues when directed toward the foreigner, toward whom distrust and Machiavellianism (i.e. cunning, deceit, and duplicity) were encouraged.

This type of ruged education enabled Sparta to remain for long the most powerful city, militarily and diplomatically, of the entire Greek world and to triumph over its rival Athens after the long struggle of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). However, this did not prevent Sparta’s decadence. It was not that Sparta ever relaxed its tension. On the contrary,
in the course of centuries, the rigour and ferocity were accentuated even as such behaviour became more and more unnecessary and out of date and without real use. Rites of initiation were transformed into barbarous tests of endurance, the boys undergoing flagellation and competing in enduring it, sometimes to the very death, under the eyes of tourists attracted by the sadistic spectacle. This occurred in times of complete peace when, under the Roman Empire, Sparta was nothing but a little provincial city with neither independence nor army.

What to learn from Spartan education?

Education in Sparta promoted the city state to a position of military prominence. It was a type of education that promoted discipline, both of the body and of the mind. Citizens were brought up not to expect any life of opulence and of pleasure. In the process, the state grew in prominence and was able to dominate others. To this extent, we can say that if any country
wants to make progress and achieve greatness, it has to train youths to undergo and imbibe a life of discipline and indeed some degree of severity. Even today, countries which have achieved military and/industrial greatness are known to engage their youths in a sort of training that hardens the body and the mind.

But then, there is very little to show for all the sagacity of Sparta today. While we have a lot of poems and drama pieces from ancient Rome and Athens, there is hardly any such thing from Sparta. Indeed, archaeology cannot find anything of substance from the ruins of ancient Sparta. We should learn from this that a nation that trains its citizens solely for war and for nothing else can hardly survive. Certainly, we need military greatness if our borders are to be secure against external aggression and internal dissension, but then, we need a calm atmosphere in which to settle down, think of development, inventions and manufacturing.

These today are what make a truly great nation. Better a nation of thinkers and inventors than one of boxers and assassins.

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