Spartan Hoplites. Illustration by Richard Hook.
There are two rather curious impediments to writing an account of early Spartan history—in addition, that is, to the paucity and unreliability of our sources for Archaic history in general. The first arises from the fact that Sparta was, by the Classical period, a somewhat xenophobic society, not an attractive place for foreigners to stay. In fact, from time to time the Spartans expelled foreigners from their territory. As usual, rumor filled the void created by lack of solid information, leaving us with as many exaggerations as hard facts, and rarely any way of telling which is exaggeration and which is fact. For instance, the Spartans were said to weed out unfit and deformed infants and put them to death.1 But we know that one of the Spartan kings, Agesilaus II, was lame from birth, and he was not put to death as an infant. So probably the Spartans did not practice infanticide—or at least no more than other Greek states—and this was just a rumor.
The second impediment is that the Spartans themselves constantly reinvented aspects of their early history. Most of the literary evidence is tainted by the ideas that, instead of the piecemeal legislation that we have found typical of early Greek states, the Spartan constitution was drafted in its entirety by a single individual, a man called Lycurgus, way back in the mists of time, and had remained in force, unchanging, ever since.
This entire picture, including the person of Lycurgus, might be an invention; at least some of it is demonstrably false. For instance, Lycurgus was said to have banned coined money, but there was no coined money anywhere in the world at the time he is supposed to have lived. Furthermore, even though the Spartans did not mint their own money until early in the third century, other forms of currency were recognized (especially weighed ingots of iron), and of course they must have made use of coined money for international trade and so on. An inscription exists, for instance, from the end of the fifth century, detailing the receipt of money from Sparta’s allies. Full Spartan citizens did not sully their hands with moneymaking activities, but that did not mean there was no money circulating in the state.
The idea that the traditional Spartan way included a ban on coined money was most likely invented early in the fourth century, when the state was having to cope for the first time with great wealth, and avarice had become a real social problem. A great debate raged about the issue, and some conservative group in Sparta must have tried to invoke Lycurgus (who was worshipped as a god) for the idea that Sparta should remain austere. It worked: the private possession of coined money (but not its public use) was officially banned for a few decades in the early 300s. But other aspects of the “Lycurgan system” were probably invented even later, during the revolutionary reigns of Agis IV and Cleomenes III in the third century; they too, as we shall see, attributed their reforms to Lycurgus as a way of validating them.
All other evidence suggests that early Sparta was, apart from its exceptional size, a normal Greek polis. It was a center for the manufacture of luxury goods for the internal elite market and for export; it was particularly famous for its ivory carving (the ivory was imported), lead figurines, fine black-figure pottery, and bronzes. More poetry was being crafted in seventh-century Sparta, by both native-born and foreign poets, than anywhere else in Greece at the time. The competitive Spartan elite were importing luxuries from the Near East, making conspicuously valuable dedications in their sanctuaries, forging links with their peers abroad, and entering all the equestrian events at Olympia. But, early in the sixth century, their priorities changed. There was a sharp decline in artistic production, and no literary production at all. The Spartans had set their collective face against such things. Even laws were rarely written up and archived; justice was administered on principle, and the chief guiding principle was the preservation of Spartan society.
The Conquest of Messenia
In the middle of the eighth century, a cluster of four villages in the Eurotas River valley of the district of Laconia annexed the territory of a fifth, a short way south. The newly formed statelet of Sparta then followed the pattern typical of prosperous early Greek states by expanding into its hinterland, Laconia, and establishing borders. But Laconia was apparently not enough for them. The First Messenian War (probably more like a series of raids) was over by about 690, though the dates are uncertain, and gained the Spartans southeastern Messenia, the exceptionally rich Pamisus River valley—and even more subjects. Next they tried to challenge Argos for Cynouria, the southeastern coastline of the Peloponnese, especially for the fertile plain at its northern end called Thyreatis. The attempt was sustained for several decades, but Sparta was finally and decisively defeated at the battle of Hysiae in 669, not far southwest of Argos, creating a permanent enmity between them and the Argives. But the Spartans had completed the annexation of Messenia by about 610, as a result of the lengthy Second Messenian War. In territorial terms, Sparta had become by far the largest state in Greece.
With the conquest of Messenia, the Spartans were hugely outnumbered by subjects who had reason to hate them. At the same time, they seemed incapable of getting the better of Argos. Their response presumably took some years to implement, but by the end they had turned themselves into a landowning elite of full-time servants of the community, who underwent a special form of training and adopted a particular lifestyle designed to make them supreme battlefield warriors, capable of keeping their subjects quiescent and enemies at bay. That is why the leisurely habits of earlier times had to be abandoned.
Perioeci and Helots
Spartan subjects fell into two categories. Closest to independence were the inhabitants of the eighty or so outlying towns and villages of Laconia and Messenia, known as the perioikoi, “those who live around us.” They retained self-government and were personally free, but had no say in policy-making, even though they were required to serve in the army. A Perioecic community was little different from any other Greek town, with the same ranges of wealth and occupations, from hoplites to slaves. Full Spartan citizens, known as Spartiates, did not engage in farming, crafts, or trade. They had serfs for agriculture, but most of the rest of Spartan economic activity was in Perioecic hands.
The rest of the population of Laconia and Messenia was reduced to serfdom. It is not clear why Perioeci remained free while others did not. Perhaps they occupied a higher social rung at the time of the Spartan conquest and were allowed to remain free while their tenants and dependents were not. These serfs were called “helots,” which means “captives” or “the conquered,” so it seems that they were reduced en masse as a result of conquest.
Gangs of helots worked the farms of their Spartiate masters and were obliged, on pain of death, to hand over 50 percent of the produce to sustain their masters and their families, who lived in Sparta itself, and to allow them to dedicate themselves full time to service to the state. Helots were publicly owned, because only the state could emancipate them, but otherwise were entirely subject to their particular masters. This was not slavery, because they were not bought and sold, and they lived apart from their masters and were allowed a family life and their own culture. There were slaves in Laconia, owned by both Spartiates and Perioeci, but otherwise the Spartans were little involved in the international slave trade, since the helot population was self-perpetuating. Sparta was always closer to self-sufficiency than other states, thanks to its huge territory.
Although Laconian helots generally lived on their masters’ estates, their counterparts in Messenia were more likely to be found in nucleated villages. In terms of security, both systems had advantages: dispersed helots would find it hard to organize; nucleated helots were easier to watch. But compliance was won chiefly because, besides having family lives, helots could even make money, since they were obliged to hand only half of their produce over to their masters. In the third century, when there were far fewer masters, and therefore far more well-off helots, Cleomenes III of Sparta raised five hundred talents by offering freedom at five minas a head—so six thousand helots, at least, had considerable wealth to spare. But the same factors that made for compliance also made for rebellion, because they meant that, over time, helots could develop a sense of identity, the prerequisite for rebellion. Nevertheless, helots were not infrequently armed and incorporated into the army, with the state providing their weaponry.
The arming of helots implies that the Spartans thought they had the situation under control, and even that they could expect loyalty. There may have been an implicit threat: their families at home could have been considered hostages for the helots’ good behavior while out on campaign. Anyway, it is remarkable that the majority of the helots, those in Messenia, lived on the other side of the Taygetus mountain range from Sparta, where all Spartiates lived; since the Taygetus is one of the more formidable barriers in Greece, the helots were unsupervised except by Perioeci or trustees from their own number. Helots fought alongside their masters because they too were defending their homes, ancestral shrines, and families.
The two major helot rebellions of which we know (one in the mid-460s and the other, the decisive one, in 369) were both prompted by extraordinary circumstances. There probably were more uprisings, but they were small enough to be successfully quelled and successfully kept from the knowledge of outsiders. But the precariousness of Spartan society was underlined by the attempted coup in 399 of a former Spartiate called Cinadon, now demoted to Inferior status, who claimed (before being flogged to death by the authorities) that all non-Spartiates would happily eat the Spartiates, even uncooked.
Helots were kept in fear of their masters. As part of their training, a few twenty-year-old Spartiates (perhaps ten or fifteen in any year), selected from their year-group, were sent out into the Messenian wilderness for a week or two. They were lightly clad and armed only with daggers. They were under orders to stay hidden in the daytime, and after dark to come down from the hills where they were hiding to hunt down helots. The selected young men had been earmarked for greater things, and were to prove their manhood and their absolute loyalty to the state by means of this challenging and brutal ritual. It was a form of initiation; the number of helots killed in this way was not enough to keep the population down—but it was enough to keep them terrified. At the start of every year, war was formally declared by the Spartiates on their helots, so that the killing of a helot would be legitimate and would not pollute the state with wrongly spilled blood.
Absolutely central to Spartan society was its educational system, the agōgē or “raising.” Uniquely for the Greek world, this was compulsory education: the sons of rich and poor alike were educated—as long as they were Spartiates. The evolution of the agōgē is impossible to recover. It is never certainly mentioned in our sources until the third quarter of the fifth century, but it or some elements of it must have been in place earlier, since it fits so well with other Spartan practices.
Up until the age of seven, a Spartiate boy lived at home. Then there were two phases of school education, from seven to twelve and from thirteen to eighteen. There were similarities between the two stages—bonding activities such as dancing, singing, and sports continued throughout, and evening meals were eaten in year-groups—but the second phase was far tougher than the first. Softer aspects such as reading and writing were de-emphasized in favor of more exercise, now including weapons training, tactical exercises, drilling, hunting, and mock battles in which real violence was encouraged and failure was punished. The emphasis now was not just on lessons but on austerity: cold baths, food that was plain at best and came in small portions, reed beds, thin clothing.
The boys lived away from home. Their rations were occasionally made so short that they were encouraged to steal food (but nothing else); they were punished only if they were caught. They were being trained to act as foxes. Their success at this was constantly monitored by their elders, and talented boys, those who conformed exceptionally well to Sparta’s values, would find themselves on graduation rewarded with privileges. Rivalry was encouraged, competitiveness was the dominant dynamic, and honor the constant goal. The point of the agōgē was not just military training; it also allowed elders to judge who was likely to serve the state well in any capacity.
In order to graduate, fledgling Spartiates had to undergo, or survive, certain rites of passage, which could be extreme. The most famous was a development of the Spartan virtue of stealing: in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, the boys had to try to steal as many cheeses as possible from the altar while avoiding whip-wielding adults. Marcus Tullius Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, and Plutarch, 150 or so years later, assure us that in their day boys died during this ritual;5 but Sparta had by then become a tourist destination, a museum of customs attributed to Lycurgus, and the rite had become a spectator sport, with banked seats from which the audience could watch blood fly. Endurance of the flogging had become the perverted point, and we hear nothing about cheeses.
Another institutionalized practice was pederasty: at age thirteen, a Spartiate boy received an older man, aged twenty or so, as a lover. This man was his “inspirer” (the word also connotes “inseminator,” the idea being that the older man injected valor into his lover along with his semen), and his job was to teach the boy Spartan virtues. Socially regulated, compulsory pederasty is known from other societies, such as Crete, as an initiatory procedure: the boys are thought to be tamed by their older lover and initiated into adulthood. The boy and his inspirer remained a couple throughout the final phase of the boy’s education, and the older man retained some responsibility for his younger charge for the rest of their lives, but it is not clear whether he remained a lover past the boy’s graduation. If comparative anthropological data are anything to go by, he did not.
In short, the agōgē discouraged affection for anyone or anything except the state itself and a man’s fellow Spartiates, with whom he messed, participated in religious rituals, competed, danced, played sports, and suffered. This was where his loyalty lay. A Spartan man got married in his twenties, but did not spend time with his wife until he was discharged from sleeping over at the mess (but not from military call-up) at the age of thirty; even then, the center of his life remained the mess. In any case, being in his twenties, he was involved at the time in a homosexual relationship as an “inspirer” of a teenager. From the middle of the fifth century, faced with declining Spartiate numbers, the Spartans introduced a form of eugenics: an elderly husband could get a younger man to sleep with his wife if he felt that a good soldier would be the result, and brothers might share wives. In the developed system of Classical Sparta, loyalty might not be given in the first instance even to the family.
Having fully absorbed his social conditioning and undergone the same education as his peers, a Spartiate was now one of the homoioi, the “Similars.” This was reflected in a certain uniformity of appearance and lifestyle, which was reinforced by state-instituted restrictions on the use of wealth. In reality, things were not quite so uniform: men who were considered exceptional were rewarded with higher ranks in the army, as I have already mentioned, and with occasional posts such as ambassadorships. Some messes were more prestigious than others. Three hundred soldiers who had proved their valor formed the kings’ lifeguard on the battlefield and policed the city at home; their name, the Knights, reveals their origin as mounted warriors, but by the time we hear about them they were hoplite foot soldiers. There were plenty of inequalities among the homoioi, but everyone equally served the state to the best of his abilities.