The Spartans were the most formidable warriors in all of history. They dedicated their entire lives to warfare. They were taught to endure cold, hunger, pain; their courage on the battlefield was second to none. The Spartan code was to fight hard, follow orders without question and to die rather than retreat or surrender. To achieve all this, Sparta sacrificed everything; the arts, culture, and other things that make life worthwhile. I believe the price was to high they went too far and shut off all that was creative and human in Sparta. A culture that can’t change or adapt doesn’t survive. This is exactly what happened, after a single major defeat in 360 B.C Sparta was no longer a significant factor in the region (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 178).
The original founders of “modern” Sparta were the Dorians. At around 1100 B.C these savages came from the north into what is today Greece. They attacked the Mycenean civilization thriving there and quickly defeated them. The secret behind the remarkable victories against the Myceneans was iron, the Dorians knew how to forge iron weapons which completely outclassed the bronze weaponry of the Myceneans (Carl Roebuck, 1966, p. 119).
In Mycenean times Sparta had been a important city, but after Dorian conquest it sank to insignificance. Over the next three hundred years it recovered and began to prosper. By 800 B.C it ruled over the region called Lacedonia.
Up to about 650 B.C Sparta was pretty much like every other Greek state. They had music, art and poetry. During the seventh century, a musician named Terpander came to Sparta and established himself there. He is called the “father of Greek music,” he’s also supposed to off improved the lyre (a harp like instrument). The most widely known Spartan musician was Tyrtaeus. He lived during the Second Messenian War and his music inspired many Spartan soldiers to new heights of bravery (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 53).
But then something happened, a war with the Messinians. The First Messenian War broke out in 730 B.C, when the Spartans marched into Messenia eager for more land. After 20 long years of war the Messenians were forced to surrender. They were made into helots (slave/workers with no rights) and ruthlessly oppressed. In 685 B.C they rose in revolt, it took 17 years of brutal fighting they were finally put down (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 50).
These wars were the turning point of Spartan history; nearly half a century of conflict had made the Spartans very warlike. It seemed to them if they ever relaxed their guard even a bit, the helots would rise again.
The Spartans went to excessively great extremes in order to make sure this wouldn’t happen. At age seven a boy would be taken from his family and given military training., his true home was his barracks, his family, his unit. They hardened their bodies with countless drills and savage games, they were taught to steal and live of off the land. A young soldier was whipped as punishment or to make him more resistant to pain. At age 20 he was finally allowed to marry but was still in military service. Only when he was 60 was he allowed to retire from the army (National Geographic Society, 1968, p. 178).
To a Spartan warrior surrender was unthinkable, even death was preferable. To flee a soldier had to throw down his heavy shield (which would slow him down), if he died he would be carried home, with honor, on his shield. For this reason Spartan mothers instructed their sons to return form a battle “with their shield or on them” (V.M Hillyer, E.G Huey, 1966, p. 27)
One of the functions of the Spartan system was to rid the state of weaklings. At birth each child was inspected by a board of inspectors. If the child was feeble or deformed it was left on a hill side to die. Spartan women were told to exercise and keep in shape so that they could have healthy offspring.
A true Spartan’s purpose in life was war, their entire lives were centered around it. They left agriculture, manufacturing to their slave/workers, the helots. As a result their culture suffered, it was almost non-existent. For example after 600 B.C the import of luxury goods such as ivory or spices ceased. Obviously the taste for such indulgences was denied when the Spartans became warriors. They disliked trade so much that instead of coins they used heavy iron rods for money. These rods were difficult to carry and discouraged commerce and idle shopping (National Geographic Society, 1968, p. 177).
The food at a typical Spartan barracks was designed to fill a person and keep him alive, but nothing more. An ancient story tells the tale of two outsiders who were invited to eat in a Spartan barracks. One of the two took sip of the black broth from a bowl and putting down his spoon, whispered “now I know why the Spartans do not fear death” (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 52)
Even normal conversation stopped (most Greeks like to talk, from ancient times to today). Spartans spoke very briefly and to the point. They were all business. In fact the word “laconic” (form Laconia, another word for Sparta) means to speak in a concise manner (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 53).
For a while it seemed like all these sacrifices were worthwhile. Indeed the Spartans were impressive warriors, even when outnumbered. In 480 B.C a force of 300 Spartans held Thermopylae, a vital pass during the war against Persia. They held the pass for two days, until a traitor showed the Persians another way through. The Spartans refused to retreat and fought to the bitter end, until everyman was killed. However they held the Persians off long enough for the remaining Greek armies to escape(V.M Hillyer, E.G Huey, 1966, p. 27). Unfortunately military strength is never enough to keep a culture going, other things are essential, such as music or literature. At the same time in history the other Greek peoples were very active in the arts, science and philosophy. In particular Athens was in it’s “Golden Age.” Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens reached the height of it’s power and glory.
During this age the Parthenon was built, it is perhaps the most perfect structure ever constructed and easily the most famous. Phidias, the genius behind the Parthenon also carved the statue of Zeus at Olympia., located at the stadium in which the Olympic games (another Greek accomplishment) were held. This statue was listed by later Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The people of Athens were good sculptors and created many fine statues of people, animals and objects (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 133).
The Athenians produced arguably the most important literary figures between the time of Homer and Shakespeare. These three men Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides helped advance the art of drama. They were first to make use of costumes, masks, props and other paraphernalia to make actors more visible to the audience. Together these writers produced over 280 plays, some of which survive today (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 134).
Science was another field in which the “normal” Greeks excelled at. Men such as Anaxagoras believed that the stars were no more special or magical then the earth was. The sun, stars and planets he said were flaming rocks. Lecippus, who lived around 450 B.C is supposed to be the first to suggest that matter wasn’t composed of substances that could be divided endlessly, but instead consisted of tiny particles (atoms). Hippocrates was born in 460 B.C on a island off the coast of Asia Minor. He was the earliest person to establish a reasonable theory of medicine, one that didn’t depend demons or spirits. For this reason many call him the “father of medicine.” Today the “Hippocratic Oath” is still taken by medical students after the completion of their training (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 135).
Many famous ancient philosophers were Greek, these people tried to teach how people should lead their lives. Easily the most widely know is Socrates, who lived during the “Golden Age” of Athens. Socrates believed we each had a conscience that tells us what is right and wrong. He is considered by many to be the wisest man who ever lived. We owe a great deal to these ancient Greeks who founded the basis of so much that we know today.
Keep in mind that while the Greeks were accomplishing all this, that even at the height of its power, the city of Sparta was very drab and lacked walls. One historian noted “the ramparts (walls) are her men.” It was basically a collection of five villages, which looked pitiful when compared to Athens (National Geographic Society, 1968, p. 177). Today little remains of Sparta.
Sparta finally fell after a battle against the combined forces of Athens and Thebes in 362 BC. This defeat destroyed Sparta’s armies and left her exposed. Epaninondas the leader of the Thebean army won a total victory and was soon at the gates of Sparta. After this loss Sparta would never return to its former self (Isaac Asimov, 1965, p. 178).
In order to achieve military glory the Spartans gave up nearly everything. Later on Greeks from other city states admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so noble. They were wrong to think this way, to art, music, literature and other such pursuits they donated nothing.
She only had a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a barbaric slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue. Before long the Spartan way of life was more show then substance, Sparta seemed strong as long she was victorious, but other states could survive defeat and rise again. After a single major defeat (against Thebes) Sparta lost her domination of Greece. This catastrophic loss exposed the Spartan fraud and disposed of her.
– Asimov, Issac. (1965). The Greeks A Great Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
– Hillyer V.M, E.G Huey. (1966). Ancient World 500 BC – 500 AD. New York: Meredith Press
– National Georgraphic Society. (1968). Greece and Rome Builders of Our World. Washington D.C: Author
– Roebuck, Carl. (1966). The World of Ancient Times. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons