This is Sparta

When we think about the culture of ancient Greece we often think of Athens, but Ancient Greece was in fact a tapestry of thousands of individual city-states who were incredibly different. One of the more famous of these states was Sparta, located in the south-eastern Peloponnese region of ancient Greece. Sparta has become more familiar in recent years due to its frequent portrayal in pop culture, most notably the (awful) movie 300. Despite the shocking inaccuracies of many of these depictions, the overall suggestion of Sparta as a city centred around war and filled with highly skilled warriors is seemingly accurate. In around 650 BCE, Sparta rose to become the dominant military land power in Ancient Greece, they are certainly most famous for their part in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE and for their role as the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BCE. Sparta’s discipline and culture likely played a large part in their impressive level of military success and fame. The perfect example of this was the Spartan education system, from age 7 boys were put into a continual military training academy which they did not emerge from until they were 30. In this way, Spartans were fine-tuned, crucially, not as people who would follow orders without question, but instead self-disciplined, elite warriors who privileged the community above themselves or any other individuals. In addition, a male spartan citizen was banned by law from occupying any other profession than a soldier. Due to this law, to keep the society functioning, Sparta invaded and conquered neighbouring territories, subjugating the population. The spartan society subsequently consisted of three main groups: the Spartans, who were full citizens; the Helots who were serfs/slaves and the engine room of Sparta; and finally, the Perioikoi (meaning people who live about the place), who were neither slaves nor citizens and worked as craftsmen and traders, building weapons for the Spartans; enabling them to spend the majority of their time training and fighting. Another vital section of Spartan society was of course its women, who had significantly more freedoms in comparison, for instance, to the women of Athens (who were effectively shut inside the whole time!). Spartan women were educated, were active and physical, did not get forced into marriage and motherhood at the earliest chance but instead married at the same time as the men – at around 18 –, and were given considerable power and influence when men were absent during times of war. Women were also valued highly for their ability to promote male martial success, the importance of this is illustrated in Spartan gravestones. When one died in Sparta, a man only had their name put on a gravestone if he had died in battle, and a woman, if she had died in childbirth. This clearly expresses the values of Spartan society: glory through battle or glory through the continuation of the Spartan race. One particularly amusing source is the collection, “sayings of Spartan women” by Plutarch, which details, for example, a mother telling her son who was being tried for an offence, “My child, either rid yourself of the charges or rid yourself of life”. Plutarch even describes Spartan mothers killing their sons on return from battle if they had been cowardly and fleed (Girl boss moment?). These sayings suggest Spartan women had a vast amount of agency for the time and were strong, determined, and opinionated people in their own right. A vital aspect to consider when studying Spartan history is that we know almost nothing of the Spartans from their own hand, most of our knowledge in fact comes from people outside of the city-state. Consequentially the image of Sparta as a place of immense military prowess and warriors was readily accepted, until archaeologists began digging in Sparta, adding more depth to their history. Now the “Spartan mirage” is often discussed by scholars, who tend to question the disparity between the Spartans’ own preferred portrayal, versus perhaps what the reality was truly like on the inside (it seems that glamorising one’s existence in the eyes of others, despite this contrasting reality, is not a new concept unique to social media!). By Ariya

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