This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens. We will have a test next week on Early Greece.
We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography. They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea. We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria. Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare. One historian commented
When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians. The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain. The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.
Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C. According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians. But they quickly faced a problem. The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt. It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.
The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else. But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me. They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master. All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.” No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on. By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food. Herodotus records one Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that
Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether. They too serve a master in the shape of Law. They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength. Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.
They sacrificed everything to make this happen. Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest. But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious. Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on. Spartan society ‘stopped’ in sense. But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.
This ideal impacted their marriages. They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons. If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere. Women bought into this ideal as well. They spent their time training their bodies to have children.
Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet. Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application. The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc. Truly, you are what you worship.
Was it worth it? Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans. It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married. Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better? The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery. The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.
Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,
Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience. For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests. Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.
Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,
The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.