After 2,500 years, Sparta continues to capture the imagination. Even in ancient times, Greek writers like Xenophon and Herodotus were fascinated with the place, which left little literature of its own behind. What we know of Sparta is doubly obscured, both in the uncertain reliability of the ancient sources, and in the fact those sources were themselves outsiders to Sparta. None of this, of course, has prevented centuries of mythmaking from taking place.
Sometimes the best way to learn about a difficult subject like Sparta is to start by nibbling around the edges, learning an interesting fact, then tracing its source and reading some of the commentary about it. This list is a grab bag of information about the famous city-state.
- Photo: 300 / Warner Bros. Pictures1
Sparta May Have Slain Over A Third Of Its Population Through Infanticide
Infanticide was a common practice throughout the ancient world. Children with birth defects (or those merely unwanted) were often "exposed" - left to the elements, where they would perish unless taken in by someone else. Additionally, Roman patriarchs had power over the lives of their children, with no legal consequences attached.
It's not surprising in this context that Sparta, which prided itself on the physical strength of its elite citizens, would have liberally practiced infanticide. A key source for this information is the historian Plutarch, who wrote in his life of the quasi-legendary Spartan reformer Lycurgus:
Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the 9,000 lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.
(Plutarch's claim that "deformed" children were discarded is called into question by the life of King Agesilaus II, who had a clubfoot. Evidently, other factors were in play.)
Historian Helena Schrader noted that because effective birth control was unknown in the ancient world, yet ancient families were generally smaller than medieval ones, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of infants born to ancient Greek women may have been lost to neglect, illness, or deliberate exposure.
While infanticide was common throughout ancient Greece, two aspects of the Spartan practice seem to have stood out to other ancients: Boys as well as girls were exposed (a rarity in misogynistic Greece), and the decision was left not up to the parents but to the state.
It's worth noting, by the way, that Sparta suffered a severe demographic crisis later in its history, with significant political consequences.322Interest piqued?
It Was The Only Greek City-State Without Prostitutes
According to Plutarch, the austerity imposed upon Sparta by its quasi-legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, who restricted the economy by banning precious metal coinage, extended to various "superfluous arts":
It was not possible, therefore, to buy any foreign wares or bric-à‑brac; no merchant-seamen brought freight into their harbors; no rhetoric teacher set foot on Laconian soil, no vagabond soothsayer, no keeper of harlots, no gold- or silver-smith, since there was no money there.
Plutarch's comments seem a bit naive to anyone who has given much study to the way black markets can arise and turn anything into currency. The writer Sarah Pomeroy, in Spartan Women, speculated that the stricture on prostitution would have applied only to the upper-class Spartiates.241Interest piqued?
In 1996 The Mayors Of Athens And Sparta Formally Ended The Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, fought in the late fifth century BCE between Spartan and Athens with their respective allies, was a cataclysmic event that shook the Mediterranean world to its foundations. The historian Victor Davis Hanson compared it to WWI in its devastating effect on the politics and culture of the time.
But 2,400 years later, in March 1996, the two cities officially called the whole thing off. At a special ceremony, the two cities' mayors signed a proclamation stating that "[t]oday we express our grief for the devastating war between the two key cities of ancient Greece and declare its end."220Interest piqued?
Boys Were Punished For Lack Of Brevity And Wit
Spartans were renowned for a particularly terse form of wit. Some famous examples are "Come and take them" (molon labe), a supposed retort to Persians who asked Leonidas's soldiers to set down their weapons, and the one-word reply "if" to Philip of Macedon's threat to invade their lands.
This famous brevity is the source of the word "laconic," as Laconia was the region of Greece in which Sparta was located. According to Plutarch, this style was drilled into them from a young age:
[T]he boys were accustomed to pass right judgments and interest themselves at the very outset in the conduct of the citizens. For if one of them was asked who was a good citizen, or who an infamous one, and had no answer to make, he was judged to have a torpid spirit, and one that would not aspire to excellence... And the answer must not only have reasons and proof given for it, but also be couched in very brief and concise language, and the one who gave a faulty answer was punished with a bite in the thumb from the [upperclassman].212Interest piqued?