Spartan Culture

Sparta was an ancient Greek state located in the present day region of Laconia. The population of Sparta consisted of three main groups: The Spartans, who were citizens, the Helots who were slaves and the Perioeci, who were neither slaves nor citizens.

All healthy male Spartan citizens participated in the compulsory state-sponsored education system, called the Agoge, which emphasized obedience, endurance, courage and self-control, to train them for life in the army as Spartan men devoted their lives to military service. A Spartan was taught that loyalty to the state came before everything else, including one’s family. They were subjected to continual physical, competitions, given meager rations and expected to become skilled at stealing food, among other survival skills. The teenage boys who demonstrated the most leadership potential were selected for participation in the Crypteia, which acted as a secret police force whose primary goal was to terrorize the general Helot population and murdered those who were troublemakers. At age 20, Spartan males became full-time soldiers, and remained on active duty until age 60.

Spartan women had a reputation for being independent-minded, and enjoyed more freedoms and power than their counterparts throughout ancient Greece. While they played no role in the military, female Spartans often received a formal education, although separate from boys and not at boarding schools. In part to attract mates, females engaged in athletic competitions, including javelin-throwing and wrestling, but also sang and danced competitively. As adults, Spartan women were allowed to own and manage property. As well as this, they were typically unencumbered by domestic responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and making clothing, tasks which were handled by the helots. Marriage was important to Spartans, as the state put pressure on people to have male children who would grow up to become citizen-warriors, and replace those who died in battle. Married couples typically lived apart, as men under 30 were required to continue residing in communal barracks. In order to see their wives during this time, husbands had to sneak away at night.

The helots were originally free Greeks whom the Spartans had defeated in battle and subsequently enslaved. Unlike many of the other Greek cities, the male population was not exterminated and the women and children weren’t turned into chattel slaves. Instead, the helots were given a subordinate position as slaves. Helots did not have voting rights, however were allowed to marry and retained 50% of the fruits of their labour. They also seem to have been allowed to practice religious rites and owned a limited amount of personal property. The helots were used as unskilled serfs, tilling Spartan land. Helot women were often used as wet nurses.

The Perioikoi came from similar origins as the helots but occupied a significantly different position in Spartan society. Although they did not enjoy full citizen-rights, they were free and not subjected to the same restrictions as the helots. They seem to have served partly as a kind of military reserve, partly as skilled craftsmen and partly as agents of foreign trade.

In 371 B.C., Sparta suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. In a further blow, late the following year, Epaminondas (c.418 B.C.-362B.C.) led an invasion into Spartan territory and oversaw the liberation of the Messenian Helots, who had been enslaved by the Spartans for several centuries. The Spartans would continue to exist, although as a second-rate power in a long period of decline.

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