March 11, 2007


Ancient heroism re-examined: The mother of all battles: For nearly 2,500 years, Thermopylae has been a symbol of heroic resistance in the name of freedom. But was it really as simple as that? As a new film celebrates the courage of the Spartans who defied impossible odds (Paul Vallely, 03 March 2007, Independent)

Today spartan is a byword for a lifestyle that is sparse, austere, even harsh. But there was a lot more to it then than that. The Spartans, who believed they were the descendants of Heracles, were a nation of warrior-citizens whose emphasis on military fitness began at birth. Babies were brought before the elders to see if they were strong. Those who were weak or with defects were put out on the mountain to die.

The survivors left home aged seven to be trained in hard physical exercises, dancing, gymnastics and ball-games. At the age of 12 they were made to run a gauntlet of group of older children, who would flog them continually with whips, sometimes to death. Later in life there would be contests to see who could take the most severe flogging, an ordeal known as diamastigosis. One story tells of a Spartan youth, who had stolen a fox and concealed it inside his tunic, who stood silently and answered his superior's questions while the animal gnawed away at his intestines.

From the age of 13 they underwent an initiation known as the krypteia in which they were sent into the countryside to forage for themselves and kill slaves considered troublesome to the state. They then joined the army, and though they could marry at 20, had to live in barracks until the age of 30. Only after that were they discharged into the active reserve - but barred from trade or manufacture. At 60 they could be elected a member of the national council.

The women were tough too. They presented their adolescent boys with a shield with the words "with this, or upon this" - indicating that a Spartan could only return from war victorious or dead. To drop the shield to run was considered the ultimate disgrace. The story was of the Spartan woman who, after hearing that she has lost her five sons in battle, "runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods". Men who died in battle, like women who died in childbirth, were among the few given the honour of a headstone in burial.

There is much about the Spartans that historians dispute. Aristotle insisted they were heterosexuals, but other writers said they favoured pederasty. We know they had a dual hereditary kingship but no one can agree why; some suggest it was to prevent absolutism, others to prevent a feud between the two main families. Some say that power rested mainly with the kings, others with a council of elders. Either way the rule was totalitarian; laws prescribed everything down to the length of a warrior's hair. What is clear was that the army which opposed the Persians was one of the most formidable in military history.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2007 9:21 AM

Nice little article , good for those whose hearts, in their youth were not touched by the gates of fire.

There was a time when we learned classics in elementary school. I can remember those little blue paperback text books, and their pages about the Spartans, very clearly, after all those years.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 11, 2007 1:59 PM