Also known as Lacedaemon, Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state located mainly in the present day area of southern Greece called Laconia. The population of Sparta consisted of three major groups: the Spartiates, or Spartans, who were full citizens; the slaves/serfs, or Helots; and the Perioeci, who were neither citizens nor slaves. The Perioeci (“dwellers-around”) worked as traders and craftsmen, and built weapons for the Spartans.
Every healthy male Spartan took part in the mandatory state-sponsored education system, the Agoge, which focused on endurance, obedience, self-control and courage. Spartan men dedicated their lives to military service, and lived communally well into adulthood. Spartans were taught that loyalty to the state came before everything else, even one’s family.
The helots (“captives”) were fellow Greeks, originally from Messenia and Laconia, who had been defeated by Sparta and turned into slaves. Without the Helots, the way of life of the Spartans would not have been possible. The Helots handled all the everyday tasks and unskilled labour needed to keep society functioning: They were military attendants, nurses, farmers and domestic servants.
Outnumbered by the Helots, Spartans frequently treated them oppressively and brutally in an attempt to hinder uprisings. Spartans would humiliate the Helots by forcing them to get extremely drunk on wine and then publicly make fools of themselves. (This practice was also meant to show young people how an adult Spartan should never act, as self-control was a valued trait.) Spartans were permitted to kill Helots for being too fit or too smart, among other reasons.
The Spartan Military
Sparta was centred on a warrior culture, unlike such Greek city-states as Athens – a centre for philosophy, learning and arts. Male Spartan citizens were permitted only one occupation: soldier. Moulding into this lifestyle started early. Spartan military boys began their military training at the age of seven, when they left home and entered the Agoge. The boys lived communally under severe conditions. They were subjected to constant physical competitions (which could involve violence), received meager rations and expected to become skilled at survival skills such as stealing food.
The teenage Spartan boys who showed the most leadership potential were chosen to take part in the Crypteia, which acted as a secret police force whose main goal was to terrorize the general Helot population and kill those who were troublemakers. At the age of 20, Spartan males became full-time soldiers, and stayed on active duty until the age of 60.
The Spartan’s continual military discipline and drilling made them skilled at the ancient Greek style of fighting in phalanx formation in which the army worked as a unit in a deep, close formation, and made coordinated mass movements. No soldier was considered superior to another. A Spartan soldier, or hoplite, wore ankle guards, a breastplate and large bronze helmet, and carried a round shield made of wood and bronze, as well as a long spear and sword. Spartan warriors were also famous for their red cloaks and long hair.
Spartan Women and Marriage
Women from Sparta enjoyed more power and freedoms than their counterparts throughout ancient Greece, and had a reputation for being independent-minded. Although they played no role in the military, female Spartans frequently received a formal education, not at boarding schools and separate from the boys. Females engaged in athletic competitions, partly to attract males, including wresting and javelin, and also danced and sang competitively. Spartan women were permitted to manage and own property as adults. Domestic responsibilities such as cleaning and cooking were handled by the helots.
Marriage was important to the Spartans, because the state put pressure on Spartans to have male children who would become warriors, and replace those who perished in battle. Men who postponed marriage were publically shamed, while those who had several sons could be rewarded.
Spartan women had their heads shaved in preparation for marriage; their hair remained short after they wed. Married couples tended to live apart, because men under the age of 30 had to continue living in communal barracks. Husbands had to sneak away at night in order to see their wives during this time.
Decline of the Spartans
Sparta suffered a disastrous defeat in 371 B.C at the Battle of Leuctra at the hands of the Thebans. Late the following year, in a further blow, Theban general Epaminondas led an invasion into the territory of Sparta and organized the liberation of the Messenian Helots, who had been enslaved in Sparta for many centuries. The Spartans would remain, although as a second-rate power in a drawn-out period of decline. In 1834, the king of Greece, Otto, ordered the founding of the modern day town of Spartion on the site of ancient Sparta.