Spartan boys were all brought up to be soldiers, to die heroically for their country. The whole country were trained like Roman gladiators. They weren’t fed quite enough and had to steal to fill their bellies; yet they were beaten if they were caught. They walked around barefoot even in winter and slept with a single blanket—all to make them tough. They didn’t bathe. They were whipped and beaten with the only aim of teaching them to endure pain; and they were not allowed to open their mouths or cry out. All day they practiced with their swords and their spears. They heard nothing but stories of heroism (nobody read anything). They ridiculed the softie and the coward. They all looked forward to real battle, where they would have an opportunity to show off.
Preparing for battle was a time of great excitement. Everyone was in the best of humors: the great day had come. For once, discipline was slackened and the lads were allowed to curl their hair and put on fine clothes. Their best weapons were brought out and shined up. The old men loved to see them neighing like proud horses and pressing to the course, says Plutarch.
Once the boys were in the field, their exercises were more moderate than usual. They were the only people in the world for whom war meant a kind of relaxation. When the army was drawn up in battle array, and the enemy was in sight, the Spartan general sacrificed a goat and then gave the order for everyone to put garlands on his head and for the pipers to start up the tune to Castor that was the war-hymn they had all sung from the time they were little and which sent shivers down their spines. The king himself started the song as he gave the sign to advance. “Ah,” says Plutarch with a knot in his throat, “it was at once a magnificent and a terrible sight to see them march on to the tune of their flutes, without any disorder in their ranks, any discomposure in their minds, or change in their countenances, calmly and cheerfully moving with the music to the deadly fight.” (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus)
“Those were the days,” thought Polybius. “Then a man was a man and a state was a state. Not like now.” The best years of Sparta were at least two hundred years before his time and its history had become a beautiful story. How true was it all?
Some of it must have been so. In the fifth century B.C. an Athenian general named Xenophon spent twenty years there and wrote a book called The Lacedaemonian Republic, which is still read for translation in Ancient Greek classes. Then Sparta was in its heyday. Xenophon saw its laws and customs up close and wrote about them right there in Sparta, so it is hard to balk at what he says. He couldn’t stop praising them, the old general. He wasn’t an armchair general, either, as you can see by reading his book called Anabasis or Coming Home. That is about how he led a mercenary army of ten thousand men through the mountains of Armenia and back home to Greece after their generals had been murdered by the Persians. Xenophon was particularly impressed by the approved but disapproved stealing. “The boys would steal cheeses from the temple of Artemis Orthia,” he wrote, “and Lycurgus thought that was fine; but if they were caught he ordered them to be whipped. ‘For it is better to endure pain for a short while,’ he used to say, ‘and to be honored for a long one’.”
And even Plutarch, writing four hundred years later actually visited Sparta and saw those famous laws and customs in action. “So seriously,” he says, “did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hidden it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws and died upon the place, rather than let it be seen. What is practised to this very day in Sparta is enough to gain credit to this story, for I myself have seen several of the youths endure whipping to death at the foot of the altar of Diana surnamed Orthia [for stealing cheeses?]” (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus)
Whatever the truth of all this, it’s time for a word of caution. Says Dr. Kinchin Smith, the author of an old Greek primer:
“The rigorous discipline, hard training, scanty fare and frequent floggings were all directed towards producing in the Spartans a military race of invincible soldiers. The educational theory underlying such training was not altogether unknown in some of our [British] public schools in the last [nineteenth] century. It failed, of course, as more recently it has failed in National Socialist Germany. History has yet to produce an example of the success of this brutal form of specialized training.” (Greek, by Kinchin Smith, Melluish p. 162. )
But Polybius had no Dr. Kinchin Smith to warn him—and he wouldn’t have listened to him anyway. “It seems to me that from the point of view of ensuring harmony among the citizens, keeping Spartan territory intact, and preserving the liberty of his country, Lycurgus’ legislation and the foresight he displayed were so admirable that one can only regard his wisdom as something divine rather than human.
“I will say, however,” Polybius adds, “that though Lycurgus’s laws were good for their purpose, to guard a little country’s [Sparta] territory and safeguard its liberty, they weren’t adequate for bigger designs.” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, Polybius, Penguin Classics, p. 342)
Bigger designs? Yes, says Polybius—world dominion. For the attainment of power the Roman constitution was superior.
That is the mind of the man who went to Rome to see its famous republic a hundred years before Caesar was born; at a time when Rome after its long struggle to survive had decided to go on the offensive and get themselves some Lebensraum by conquering other countries, some of them distant. As he watched the Roman soldiers beat to death one of their own comrades because he had fallen asleep on the watch, he thought of Sparta and nodded approval. That was the way things ought to be, doggone it. Rome had more than a touch of the old “divine wisdom” of Lycurgus. In fact, when you came right down to it, he thought, Rome was doing things even better.
Don’t you try to buck them, however. They overran Polybius’ own country, took him prisoner as a suspected anti-Roman, shipped him to Italy and kept him there for sixteen years without a trial.
But Rome is another story.
Go back to The Legend of Sparta (Part 1)