28th April 2010
Plutarch on Sparta:
Sparta set up a strictly militarist system of government in which each citizen was a servant of the state.
This extract describes the Spartan system setup by lawmaker Lycurgus after 650BCE. The description comes from the writings of Plutarch (c. 54-125BCE) in a biography of Lycurgus.
The Spartans, known as the Lacedemonians controlled the Peloponessos. They are attributed to being fathered by Lycurgus around 800 BC and were known for their militaristic society. Earlier records reveal that they had not always lived in such a society but, had produced art, poetry and music and seemed to follow the same direction as the rest of Greek civilization. (Upshur, 2005, p. 111) Had this earlier direction of development continued they possibly would have contributed to some of the famous names that have been passed down through history.
In Sparta, life had one purpose, to defend the state. The ideology of Sparta was oriented around the state. Their lives were designed to serve the state from birth to the age of sixty. Spartans lived and died for the state. The combination of this ideology, the education of Spartan citizens, and the disciplined maintenance of a standing army gave the Spartans the stability that had been threatened so dramatically in the Messenean revolt.
According to testimony given in the biography of Lycurgus by Plutarch it could be argued that the proper education of the young is paramount. Lycurgus felt that, if each citizen was trained to fight and endure as a soldier from birth that Sparta would have an army that no other power could conquer. (MacGregor, 2006, pp119) He didn’t just start and finish by simply describing the education of the child but rather he began at the very beginning, with the marriages that produced the children that were to be educated, effectually creating a lifelong learning loop and the entire system of values that life is based upon. These values were in turn passes from one generation to the next as part of this “loop”.
Girls were required to run and exercise so that their babies would grow in strong and healthy mothers. To make them brave, Lycurgus ordered that occasionally the girls had to dance and sing naked in front of all the young men. (Grote, 1846, p.509) In their songs, the girls praised the men who were brave and strong, and they made fun of those who were weak and cowardly, enhancing the men’s desire for glory and fear of shame. Thus the women of Sparta got “a taste of higher feeling, admitted as they thus were to the field of noble action and glory.”(Sterns, 2009)
Marriages most often took place in secret. The bride and her family held a private, simple ceremony, after which the brides hair was cut off and she was dressed in male clothes. After dinner, the bridegroom stealthily came and lay with the bride, before hurrying back to “barracks” to sleep with his companions, fearful of anyone finding out. Until the age of thirty, the husband and wife schemed to find ways of meeting. When the man reached thirty, the couple was permitted to establish a household and live together openly.
Jealousy was forbidden. It is said that, if several men fancied the same woman, it was a reason for the beginning of intimate friendships. (Stevenson, 1994) With certain limitations, Lycurgus made it honorable for a man to lend his wife to another man so as to get good seed from him. He wanted the children of Sparta to be produced by the best men, so that their good qualities might be passed on. In Lycurgus’ opinion, children were not the property of their parents but members of the society.
…the laws of other nations seemed to him very absurd and inconsistent, where people would be so solicitous for their dogs and horses as to exert interest and to pay money to procure fine breeding, and yet kept their wives shut up, to be made mothers only by themselves. (Stevenson, 1994)
It seemed obvious to him, the possibility of bad qualities being passed from the father to child and that the children of good men would be a blessing rather than a curse to those giving them a home.
Whenever a child was born, it was taken to a council of elders for examination. If the baby was strong and healthy it was given back to its parents, if it was in any way defective, it was left alone on a hill top to die from hunger and cold. By Spartan standards, such a child, should not be permitted to live. New-born children were washed with wine so they would be strong. They grew up free and active. They were not afraid of the dark, or selective about diet.
From the age of seven, Spartan boys left home and went to live under military discipline and to live their entire lives in public. (Grote, 1846, p.505) Those who showed the most skill and courage were appointed to be leaders, with authority to order the other boys and the power to punish disobedience.
This strict discipline continued into adulthood where no man was allowed to live to their own choosing. “The city was a sort of camp, in which every man had his share of provisions and business set out, and looked after himself not so much born to serve his own ends as the interest of his country.” (Sterns, 2009)
Although Letters were taught, they were for use rather than for ornament, the main subject studied was command and obedience. (Worcester, 1851, p.21) Spartan boys learned enough reading and writing to be literate, but learning how to endure pain and conquer their opponent in battle was considered more important. The old men kept a close eye on them, and often tested them to find out who might turn out to be a good man in a real fight. Not until the age of sixty were Spartan men allowed to live and take meals in their own home. In this way almost the entire life of a Spartan was given to the state.
The life of a Spartan was a life of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of the Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. This excerpt perhaps exhibits one of the primary keys in understanding the Spartans.
Duiker, William J. & Jackson J. Spielvogel 2007, World History, 5th edn, Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA
Grote, G. Esq., 1846, A history of Greece, Volume 2, Richard and John E. Taylor, London, UK
MacGregor, M, 2006, The Story of Greece, Yesterday’s Classics, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Stevenson, D.S, (ed.) 1994, Lycurgus by Plutarch 75 A.C.E., Translation by Dryden, J, [Online] Accesses 18 Apr 2010 21:12, http://classics.mit.edu/
Taylor, J, 1998, Ancient Greek Civilizations, Minnesota State University [Online] Accessed 18 Apr 2010 21:27, http://www.mnsu.edu/
Thucydides, ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, in Peter N. Stearns, Stephen S. Gosch, and Erwin P. Grieshaber, eds, Documents in World History: The Great Traditions, From Ancient Times to 1500, New York, Pearson Longman, 2009, p. 78
Upshur, JHL, Terry, J, Goff, R & Cassar, G 2005, World History, 4th edn, Thompson Learning/Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA
Worcester, J.E, 1851, Elements of history, ancient and modern, New edn, William J Reynolds and Co., Boston, USA