History Files : Sparta and the Spartans
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Go Tell the Spartans?
Who were the Spartans?
Many of us think we know, we've seen the movie 300, that tells us a lot doesn't it? The bunch of Greeks who went off to fight for freedom and democracy against some crazed Persian king. Wearing only their underpants and funny hats. Well that is the graphic novel and movie view of the Spartans. But it doesn't even get their name right.
Sparta was a kingdom of the Greek peninsula about 2500 to 1900 years ago. Most Spartans would have called themselves Laconians. Unlike most of the Ancient Greek city states, the Spartans were ruled by a council of four elders and had a dual kingship, one king from each of two leading families.
The Spartans, I will call them that for ease of typing, lived in a society aimed at communal living and war, democracy as we know it was not the Spartan way. The Spartan male citizen grew up from the age of seven years in a system which aimed to create the perfect soldier, a member of the hoplite phalanx. Girls were also encouraged to join in physical exercise and train almost as rigorously as their brothers. After all it was the strong Spartan woman who would give birth to strong male babies. Some Greek writers talked of girls performing their games naked along with boys, but this may be just propaganda by writers who considered the Spartans less than true Greeks.
Sparta was a divided society, early in its history, Sparta had conquered it's neighbors in Laconia, these conquered peoples became known as the Helots. A Helot was a slave. They produced all the goods and foodstuffs needed for the Spartan citizenry. Helots also played a part in Spartan ritual, a young Spartan male when joining the ranks of the elite Spartan army was often sent out to kill a Helot. Whether the Helot chosen might be an agitator or just unlucky to be chosen is not known, but the task was for the young man to kill the Helot without being detected. If he was detected then it was possible he could be severely punished for the crime crime of being detected,and not the killing itself.
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Religion and War
The Spartan's were famous for their warrior code but were constantly seeking guidance from the gods at times there seems to be a near perpetual line of Spartans making their way to the Oracle at Delphi and records mention Spartan kingsmaking dozens of offerings to the gods before a battle waiting until the reading of the entrails of the sacrificed beast coincided exactly with the kings wishes. During the first invasion of Greece by the Persians the Spartans had refused to join Athens and her allies in the defense which was to lead to the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) citing their need to observe religious festivities. The subsequent victory of Athens and her allies against great odds served only to act as a thorn in the side of Sparta, their reputation as soldiers dented slightly.
A few years later the Persians invaded Greece again, in part to avenge the defeat at Marathon and in part to remove the insubordinate Athenian state from its constant interferrence in Asia Minor affairs.(480-479 BCE). This time the Oracle told the Spartans that if they were to save Athens and Greece they must sacrifice a king. Again religious fedtivities caused the Spartan elders to hesitate. King Leonidas offered to take a force of three hundred to show Athens good faith. He selected his best soldiers, tradition adds that all the men had at least one living son so that their name would live on. Leonidas and his bodyguard knew that the mission was probably suicide. Along the way to block the Persian march on Athens the Spartans were joines by a few thousand other city state hoplites. By the time they reached the pass of Thermopylae (The Hot Gates) the small force was too large to effectively manouvre in the pass but too small to stand a chance of outright victory. Leonidas split his force, the Spartans held the center and front line supported by light troops and hoplites from the allies. A small group of Hoplites were also sent to guard a goat herd path around the flank. This path was later seized by the Persians after the Greeks were betrayed by a local goatherd or shepherd.
The Persian onslaught lasted for three days as wave after wave of Persian infantry tried to break the Greek Phalanx. By the third day the Persians and Greeks must have been exhausted. Before the final assault The Persians sent a herald to warn the Spartans that they would darken the sky with arrows, The Spartan reply was said to be "Then we'll fight in the shade." Also on the final morning, Leonidas is said to have told his men to eat a good breakfast as that evening they would dine in Hades. Breakfast was not a usual meal for the Spartans whose main meal was generally served in the evening.
As the Persians advanced into the pass from the front, the Persian Immortals, the king's bodyguard appeared in the rear of the Greeks, they too were exhausted from a night march over the goat path and a battle with the Greek force set to guard it. Within a few hours of bloody fighting the Spartans were pushed to a small hill or rise. Offered the chance to surrender they merely closed ranks, possibly around the body of Leonidas and prepared to die. The Persians failing to see the need to waste more men brought forward archers who finished the battle in a hail of arrows.
The Spartans died to a man, fulfilling their duty and honoring their wives and mothers who traditionally handed them their shield (Hoplon) with the words "With it or on it." The Laconic phrase saying Come home with honor carrying your shield in victory, or carried in honor dead upon it.
The holding of Thermopylae helped to produce a Greek victory against Persia. Athens and Sparta however turned to fighting each other in the Pelopenesian Wars which went on for about thirty years. In the end Sparta and Athens both exhausted themselves and their allies and saw a decline in power as the Macedonian regimes of Philip and Alexander came to dominate Greece in the mid fourth century BCE.
Spata eventually declined in status, by the Roman era their leaders sought an alliance with both Rome and Carthage during the Second Punic War. This duplicity failed when Rome became the eventual victor and seized the Greek Peninsula as a province.
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My Favorite Reading
Among my favorite reading and research materials are the works of Paul Cartledge. His work is easy to read and full of information. Unlike many authors, in my experience, he explains unfamiliar terms well and does not leave one bewildered by his sheer knowlege. Try Him.
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