Time and again Spartans have been projected as a clan of ‘testosterone charged’ throat rippers with well chiseled bodies who wouldn’t think twice before kicking your bottom! But, don’t you agree there is so much more to this fascinating warrior clan that we ought to know about?
Well, Spartans were not only gallant soldiers. They were masters of verbal combat and could put a lock on a rivals’ mouth instantly! So, without wasting anymore of your precious time, its time that we present our interesting collection of 25 most riveting facts about Spartans that will bring light to their way of life, their military, women, children, their beliefs and customs.
1. Two kings for Sparta
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Reading Spartans history will reveal that Sparta was always under the rule of two kings as against the usual custom of having a one king rule. The presence of diarchy or dual rule was restricted to Sparta alone. Both the kings belonged to two prominent royal families, namely – Eurypontids and Agiads. This arrangement was done basically to safeguard Sparta from the enemy. In case, one king went on military campaign to far off regions, the other would stay back and rule his people.
The most surprising fact here is that both these kings, though royalties, were subjected to the Spartan civilian laws, applicable to the common citizens of Sparta. So, all people in Sparta were equals.
2. The non pursuit of material wealth
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While, the rest of the ancient world was busy in it’s pursuit of collecting and hording material wealth, and the greed of powerful men was motivating many a plunders and battles, Spartans were busy suppressing their need for wealth. Their only aim was to prepare future warriors for the safeguard of their country and people.
Spartans were not driven by material wealth. In Sparta, using silver and gold was barred. Coins made of iron were in circulation. For boys, it was only a career in the army that motivated all their actions. Women were driven with the sole aim to produce more and more warriors for their land. The common vices like bribery were rather absent.
3. The Ephors and their role
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Ancient Sparta had a diarchy whereby two kings ruled over the people. It also had a special branch of annually elected people called Ephors who were regarded as the supreme governmental branch to have jurisdiction over the two Spartan kings. The Ephors were elected from common male population of the public and were basically created to aid the kings render their duties properly.
The Ephors acted like a backbone for the king, but, they had the power to question him in case he failed to do his job. Whenever, one of the kings went on a military campaign, two Ephors usually accompanied him. The other king who stayed back was helped by the rest of the Ephors.
4. The origin of the term Laconic
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The term Laconic originated from Laconia, the native country of the Spartan people. Laconic was a style of speech in which only a few words were spoken or written in a blunt manner. It was a style that was invented by the Spartans. These warriors were famed for having a mastery over verbal combat by using Laconic.
As per Plutarch, when the king of Persia, Xerxes asked King Leonidas and his men to lay down the weapons, Leonidas I gave a befitting reply, “Molom labe”, meaning “Come and get them”. This was a very terse use of Laconic.
5. The custom of diamastigosis
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Diamastigosis was the ritualistic flogging custom involving Spartan adolescents that took place in the temple of Artemis Orthia. Spartans were a disciplined clan that took to extremes. One such extreme was flogging. The flogging ritual was done so as to test the endurance level of young Spartan adolescent boys, and also to check their courage.
Since, all Spartan boys were inducted into military training from a very young age, they were needed to endure several hardships and pain. This ritual was a test to see whether they were fit for their future military endeavors or not. However, this ritual often led to causalities. There is a 3rd century AD amphitheater that was used to organize this ritual with spectators.
6. Grueling training for a life in the army
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All Spartan boys were destined to become fine warriors and soldiers, and their training began not when they were 20, but at the young and tender age of seven. Young boys of seven were picked from their homes and placed in military housing along with others of the same age. Their training was hard and often severe.
We have mentioned the ritual of flogging in the above point. This customary practice was mandatory for every adolescent boy who would be tested for his courage and will. When the boys turned 20, they were shifted to mess halls and took active part in battles and wars.
7. Spartans inspected and discarded deformed new born boys
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There are some facts about Spartans that will force you to question their rigid and inhuman customs and make you hate them. One such custom was the usual inspection of new born boys to check for deformities. The newly born infants(boys) were presented before the elders of a tribe and were examined for physical deformities. In case some deformities were found, the infants were immediately abandoned.
Often, this abandonment led to starvation and death for the infant boys. However, childless couples often picked these infants and raised them as their own.
8. Spartan women enjoyed more freedom
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In ancient Sparta, women had the right to live their life freely, quite unlike their Greek counterparts. They were essentially brought up to become mothers to gallant soldiers and warriors. Hence, Spartan women too underwent physical training like the boys. Young girls, like boys, took part in gymnastics along with the opposite sex in nude. They were very much a part of society as men, and were trained in sports like wrestling, dart and running. The training was given to women for preparing their bodies for childbirth.
9. Lessons of survival taught at age 12
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Ancient Sparta was a land of great warriors and kings, and the society left no stones unturned to churn out valiant men year after year. Every Spartan had the one and sole aim of preparing young boys for the hardcore military life that lay ahead of them. When a boy attained the age of 12 years, he was considered a grown up man, known as ‘meirakion’. At this age began a strenuous training regime where he was taught how to fight and survive.
12 year old boys were not allowed to wear any warm clothes or footwear; they were sometimes made to sleep in nude, and were given minimum diet for maintaining weight. Very few of Spartan boys were fat as they weren’t looked upon with respect and were ridiculed.
10. The hunting of Helots by the Spartan soldiers
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Another unnerving fact in this list of awesome Sparta facts is about the hunting or killing of slaves – helots by the Spartan soldiers. It was a common custom for the soldiers to start fighting in battles once they turned 18, and were counted as adults. There was the ‘krypteia’, secret police of Sparta that took these young soldiers under their wing and trained them. One form of training given was to kill helots as game.
The killings were authorized by the Ephors and were considered legal. On the day of the killing or mayhem, the soldiers were often let out of their quarters and ordered to kill innocent helots using daggers. The soldiers often attacked ignorant helots passing by in the night.
11. No place for a coward in Spartan society
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Spartans hated cowards and any act of cowardice from their guts. A coward was shunned by everyone, and wasn’t given any kind of respect. Cowardice was something that was not fathomable by the common Spartan man or women. Even women didn’t marry a man who was termed a coward. A man branded a coward couldn’t share any meal with others, nor could he find mates for gymnastics.
There was a particular type of punishment meted out to cowards in ancient Sparta. This punishment is written about by Plutarch and mentions about the way it was carried out. A coward, according to Plutarch, had to wear dyed and patchy cloaks and move about with an untidy look. He even had to shave off one side of his beard.
12. Problems faced by married couples
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In Sparta, anyone above the age of 20 could wed. But, the only problem here was that a Spartan man could marry only after 30. Till he attained this age, he had to live a disciplined life under military training. So, most men married in secret, much before than the respective age of 30.
All married couples that tied the knot in secret had to live in secrecy with each other. There were instances where married couples bore children before they actually started living together, and were given the due respect of a married couple by the society. There was a weird custom for a newly married woman to dress up as man on her wedding night. The bridegroom would secretly enter the dark room and find the bride resting on a couch. The couples would then have intercourse, but, without seeing each other.
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13. Spartans’s concept of tough love
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Spartans history offers us a vivid account of their disciplined life and the toughness with which children were bred. Though, to some of us, the practice of showing less love and affection to the children may seem a little too much to digest, yet, most ancient Greeks considered, and even appreciated this way of bringing up children.
Spartan parents were not known to show physical love to their kids, mostly boys, as they were destined to become great soldiers and warriors. Right from their childhood, young boys were tested. A boy was given very less food and taught to survive with bare minimum. Even crying was not appreciated, nor acknowledged. Once a boy grew a little older,it was a common custom to teach him to survive darkness and loneliness.
14. Agriculture and manufacturing were considered lower jobs
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Spartans lived and breathed only with the sole aim to protect their land and people. Hence, their main job was to produce more and more number of boys who would later become great soldiers and generals. Every parent bore and reared children for inducting them into the Spartan Army. Other areas of work like agriculture were looked down upon and were mainly reserved for the lower class people like slaves. Even manufacturing was left for these ‘unwanted’ people.
15. Spartans kept slaves known as Helots
The helots were slaves kept by Spartans and rendered domestic help. Most of the helots also worked as farmers for a living. They belonged to Greek lands and territories that were captured by the Spartan Army. These slaves were badly treated and were not trusted by Spartans at all. In military training for the Spartan males, the helots were used randomly for getting massacred and butchered. The secret police of Sparta called Krypteia kept a watch on helots and killed any helot that was found venturing in the countryside at nighttime. Well built helots were also targeted and killed without reason.
16. Same sex love was permitted
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Homosexuality was common with most Spartan adult men as they often engaged in sexual relations with adolescent boys. The relationship was legalized and was a way of life in ancient Sparta. Most adult men acted as mentors and guides for young adolescent boys. These men prepared the young boys for the future and were respected. But, there was a weird treatment of banishing gay couples that had entered into the relationship without any higher purpose other than sex.
17. Wine was a must have in Spartan diet
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Spartans loved their wine and no meal was considered complete without it. But, Spartans never drank too much of wine, or food. Anything in excess was considered improper. Even at social gatherings and feasts, Spartan men never became intoxicated. However, helots were forced to get drunk in order to show the audience how bad wine’s effect was on the body and mind.
18. The Spartans loved their crimson robes
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Another surprising fact in this list of facts about Spartans is the love for crimson robes that Spartan men wore. According to legend, it was the famous lawgiver called Lycurgus of Sparta that recommended the crimson robes to be worn. If you read the writings of Xenophon, you will find that these robes were considered manly. According to Plutarch, the crimson shade of the robes wore by soldiers and warriors instigated fear in the enemy.
Also, there was a symbolic aspect to wearing the crimson colored robes. The crimson robes reflected the pride of Spartan mothers and wives. Mothers and wives often made robes of crimson dye that was considered royal and befitting for the battle ready warriors.
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19. The highest form of regard for shields
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If there was any weapon that was considered sacred, and was highly respected, it was the shield. Without a shield, a Spartan male was nothing, and any soldier who had thrown away his shield was punished harshly. Shields were used as prime tools for not just protecting oneself, but, also for the protection of the whole clan. So, anyone found without it was given severe punishment.
20. The Iron Apega was a famed torture device
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The infamous torture device called the Iron Apega was invented by a Spartan king Nabis who ruled between 207-192 BC over Sparta. Spartans that resisted to pay money had to undergo the torture at the hands of this machine, a replica of King Nabis’s wife Apega. The device was made in the mold of Apega and anyone who objected to pay money was asked to hug her. The arms of the machine and its other parts were covered with sharp edged nails. The nails crushed anyone that came in its engulf.
21. Laziness was not accepted
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Coming up now in this list of Sparta facts is the complete non regard for laziness. Spartans lived for protecting their motherland, and were all inducted into military life from childhood. Young boys of 12 years were taught to survive with basic necessities, and comforts were a thing of dreams. Every Spartan warrior was expected to own healthy and fit body. It was a common thing to make young Spartan boys under army training to stand nude in public. This was routinely done to inspect the bodies of young men. Any kind of fat on the body was not tolerated and called for punishment.
22. Death was the supreme sacrifice for a Spartan
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Every Spartan soldier aimed for one thing only – GLORY FOR HIS MOTHERLAND. And in surrendering, there wasn’t any glory, so thought all the Spartans. If, in a battle, Spartan soldiers had surrendered, they were disgraced, not only by the authority, but also by other citizens. Therefore, every Spartan solider aimed to die in a battle rather than surrender. Surrender of any kind was considered as the ultimate shame.
23. Spartans wore body armors
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Unlike their usual projection in movies where they are shown with bare chests, Spartan soldiers and generals typically wore body armors. These armors looked like the mouths of bells in the beginning. But, in the early part of 5th century, the armor started resembling the chiseled chest of a muscular solider. Such types of body armors were worn during the Battle of Thermopylae by King Leonidas and his men.
24. Spartan Army was superstitious
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The army of Sparta was quite superstitious as it followed many a rituals and sacrifices before beginning with any military campaign. Before a king and his army started for any important campaign outside Sparta, animals like katoiades would be sacrificed using fire. The appointed fire bearer would then carry this fire to the border of Sparta and would never extinguish it till the battle was over. The fire bearer was an extremely important person who would continue to march alongside the soldiers beyond the borders.
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25. The sword Xiphos looked like a dagger
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Spartans carried not only shields and body armors, but also swords known as Xiphos. These eventually got shorter as military tactics changed, and started resembling small daggers. These daggers were more agile and flexible to inflict injury on the enemy’s groin and torso as compared to the long swords that were used earlier.
The above mentioned facts will help in removing any kind of misconception about the Great Spartans, that, in celluloid have always been projected as gory warriors. Never once have any of these movies represented the true ethos of Spartans. Spartans were much more than just muscle and show. There is no overstatement when we say that these men lived and died for glory of their motherland. Keeping aside the fictional dramatization, we would like to mention that Spartans were warriors, and were no less in winning verbal combats as well.
Hope we have done justice in bringing out true and unbelievable facts about Spartans today!