Sparta of Ancient Greece

While, in the world of "Greater Greece," the pen was thus making its first effort to rule the sword, a movement widely different but equally interesting was going on in the home land of Greece itself, the peninsula of the Peloponnesus. This was the effort of the Spartans to create among themselves perfect physical bodies, the acme of bodily health and strength and vigor. Sparta gradually became the most powerful of the little states of the Greek mainland, the centre of the Dorian power, which at first had seemed to lie with Argos.

This supremacy of the Spartans was largely due to their great law-giver, Lycurgus, who lived about 885 B.C. He was a king of Sparta who succeeded his brother on the throne. A son was, however, born to the former king after the father's death, and Lycurgus, recognizing his little nephew's right to the throne, abdicated in his favor. The friends of the babe continually suspected Lycurgus of scheming to regain power, so finally this just and generous leader left Sparta and, in Grecian fashion, journeyed over the known world. He studied everywhere the system of government, seeking to find some way of preventing the outbreaks and street tumults which were so frequent among the Spartans.

When his little nephew had grown to manhood and full kingship, Lycurgus returned home, only to find his countrymen more turbulent than ever. So he planned a revolution of his own, gathering to his aid thirty of the wisest and most respected men of Sparta. The thirty appeared suddenly with drawn swords in the market place, the centre of the city's life. There they forced all the officials to submit to them. The young king, thinking he was to be slain, fled; but Lycurgus persuaded him that he was to be helped, not harmed, and he returned. A system was established by which Sparta was to have two kings and to be ruled by them and by a senate of twenty-eight advisers. These were the thirty supporters of Lycurgus, lacking two who had lost courage and deserted him at the last. Everything the kings and senate did was to be submitted for approval to a general gathering of the people, so that really this was to be a people's government at heart.

Lycurgus then established a whole system of laws, planned to make his people peaceable at home but powerful abroad. Just what these laws were we do not know; because the Spartans of after years so admired Lycurgus that they attributed all their laws to him, though some must have been of later date and some far older. At any rate, Lycurgus got his people to adopt his laws on trial. He then set out on a religious pilgrimage to the oracle at Delphi. The Spartans took a solemn oath to follow his laws until his return, and as a way of binding them to their pledge forever, he never returned. Going for the second time into voluntary exile for the sake of his country, Lycurgus died there. Thus the Spartans felt themselves pledged forever to his law code, and they obeyed this with a scrupulous fidelity which brought them not only the peace which their great law-giver had desired, but also the military prowess which made them the most successful and admired of the Greeks. "We will not change the laws of Sparta" became the regular form of answer with which the Spartan senate of later days met many a petitioner bringing every possible form of suggestion for improvement.

These Spartan laws and customs seem very curious and very harsh to us today. They forbade every form of ostentation and display. To prevent this they made all their money of iron; thus each coin was so big and yet of so little value that no one could carry much, or buy much with it, or hoard it up in secret. Any large sum would have filled an entire house.

Neither were the people allowed any pampering of their appetites. The men and boys all ate at a common table; the women and girls usually at another in another building. The food supplied was plain but wholesome, consisting chiefly of a noted black broth called the Spartan broth. Only very rarely was even the father of a family allowed to dine or sleep in his own home. His real dwelling was with his countrymen. Even among these, conversation was not encouraged. Each Spartan studied to speak only when he must, and then to compress just as much of meaning and point as possible into the fewest words. Thus the Spartan race became noted for their abruptness and their pithy sayings. Phrases in their style, since the name of the country of Sparta was Laconia, are still called "laconic" speeches.

In the community life which men thus shared together, they devoted themselves to athletic sports. Every boy was regularly trained to take part in these; and it is even said that sickly babies were deliberately put to death, lest they grow up into weakly men and women and thus pull down the physical average of the race.

The Spartans did little work except this constant training for athletics and for war. There dwelt among them many of the Greeks of older race, and these tilled the farms and shared the produce with their Dorian rulers. The Spartans had also one special kind of Grecian servitors whom they called "Helots." These helots were treated as slaves, or even worse. When they grew too numerous and desperate, the Spartan youths acquired training in the art of war by going out among the helots and slaying such of them as seemed most dangerous.

The youth were also trained in self-repression. They were encouraged to steal, since the practice of thieving developed keenness, quickness, caution, and other warlike qualities. But if caught in theft they were severely punished, not for the deed, but for the blundering which had left them open to detection. Thus we have the well-known story of the Spartan lad who, having stolen a fox, concealed it beneath his cloak; and when it began to bite and tear at his body, he endured the torture without a sign until it killed him, rather than betray himself by any move or outcry.

Naturally these Spartans became celebrated as warriors. The later Athenians used to say in sarcasm that of course the Spartans fought well, because any man would sooner be slain than driven back to endure the grim and narrow life in Sparta. A Spartan mother would give her son his shield as he went forth to battle, saying in laconic fashion, "Return with it or upon it." That is, he was not to throw away his shield in order to flee from a foe. He must keep moving forward and so preserve his shield. If he was slain his comrades carried him home upon that shield as proof that he had died fighting.

In the great national games of Greece, the Spartans were also leaders. Way back in the Trojan war days the Greeks had been very fond of athletic sports, and gradually they established one set of games after another throughout Greece. Most celebrated of these were the "Olympic Games." These were celebrated every fourth year as a religious festival in honor of Jupiter, the great god of Mount Olympus. So important were these considered that the Greeks dated events by them, naming each four years by the victor in the chief contest, which was a running race. So ancient were the Olympic games that we cannot tell when they were first established; but the Greeks began to keep regular record of them in the year 776 B.C. Hence we call that year the "first Olympiad," and from that time onward by noting in what "Olympiad" any event was said to occur we can count up the Olympiads and learn the real date of the event.

This leadership of Sparta both in war and in play was, you may be sure, neither easily won nor easily maintained. Wars between her and the two other great Dorian cities, Argos and Messene, were frequent. Against Messene in particular Sparta fought two celebrated wars, the first terminating in 724 B.C., and the second about 668 B.C.

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Read about Sparta of Ancient Greece in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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