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The Rise of Sparta: Spartan Constitution and Spartan Way of Life. Geography Location. Geography Location. Introduction. Webster’s has defined Spartans as “warlike, brave, hardy, stoical, severe, frugal, and highly disciplined.”
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Dorian newcomers from the north (10th) entered the plain Laconia;
Local inhabitants were reduced to a status of slaves called Helots.
Three traditional divisions of Greeks, distinguished by the different dialects of Greek they spoke:
Troubled by difficulties in satisfying its needs from its own territory, the Spartans sought a military answer to their problems:
(1)Started the first Messenia War (730 – 710 B.C.): Messenia became subject to Sparta, the local people became perioikoi, or helots. (turned into one of largest of Greek states (over 3,000 square miles);
(2) This is a whole people with a sense of themselves, who think of themselves as Mycenaeans. They are conquered and enslaved and they become a critical part of the Spartan;
(3) The Second Messenian War (640-630 B.C.).
The Helots led a miserable life as described by the poet Tytaeus who fought in the Messenia War:
Like asses exhausted under great loads: under painful
Necessity to bring their masters full half the fruit their
Ploughed land produced.
Sparta rested on insecure foundations. The Helots later outnumbered the Spartans.
The large number of the helot workers, Sparta’s absolute dependence on them, and the fear of a helot rebellion led to extremely harsh measures. Helots were allowed to be killed without a penalty. Deprived of their freedom and fertile territory, the Messenian helots were ever after on the lookout for a chance to revolt against the Spartan overlords. Civil unrest was a threatening factor.
The Spartan system will be Spartans at home, training constantly for their military purposes, never working any fields, never engaging in trade or industry, others doing that for them.
After the Second Messenian War, Sparta fell into social chaos. Amid such social surroundings, Lycurgus reformed the Spartan system and founded the typical Spartan institution. This is the institutions which made Sparta so successful for so many centuries from the eighth century BC right down to the time of Alexander the Great, almost 500 years.
Lycurgus was a great lawgiver and one of the seven wise men in Greek history. Lycurgus himself was not the royal blood but was the uncle of the King of Sparta and acted as his regent. Lycurgus was said to be a man of enormous integrity and both Lycurgus and Solon set the model of “Nothing in Excess” and “Never to Abuse Power”.
Biography(800 BC–730 BC)
Bas-relief of Lycurgus, one of 23 great lawgivers depicted in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
And so Lycurgus was asked to undertake his reforms.
Now realizing that Sparta was in need of reform, Lycurgus set off a series of travels and went first to Crete. The Cretans were related to Spartans; both of them were Dorians and came from the northern Greece to the South after the fall of the Mycenaean. Lycurgus studied the characteristic institutions of Crete.
Then he went to Ionian, Asia Minor where the Iliad was composed, and there he also studied their Greek institutions and compare the softness of love of luxury that characterizes the Ionians with the rigorous war-like society of Crete.
And then he also went to Egypt. He then came back to Sparta and carried out his reforms.
4.1 The ideal of reform
From the very start, reforms undertaken by Lycurgus rested upon the ideal of achieving absolute equality among all Spartans. In the Archaic Age, the bane of almost all Greek city-states was civil war brought about by economic and social disparity. Lycurgus therefore sought to avoid this through his reforms by making every Spartan equal. He aimed to establish a balanced constitution and it was this very balanced constitution of Sparta attributed to Lycurgus was very much admired by the founders of many later countries.
Balanced in itself all the elements essential to government: monarchy (, democracy, and aristocracy
4.3 Three Parts of Sparta Constitution:
This balanced institution was considered by many, including Plato and Aristotle, to be a model for other poleis. The Spartan constitution or rhetra in Greek language, in its developed form had three parts:
(1) The dual kingship;
(2) The council of elders, or Gerousia;
(3) And the Assembly.
4.3.1 The Dual Kinship: The Monarchy
(1)Two kings from separate royal families: equal power and held office for life.
(2) The kings’ power in domestic matters was strictly limited. But in time of war, the kings were commander-in-chief invested with enormous power. They had the right of announcing a war upon whatever country they chose, and in the field they exercised unlimited right of life and death and had a bodyguard of 100 men.
(3) Later, however, their power was further restricted by a reform that allowed only one of them, chosen by the people, to lead the army in a given campaign, and held him responsible to the community for his conduct of the campaign. The kings held certain important priesthoods, but they did not have judicial power over criminal cases.
(4)Their main source of income was from royal land that they held in the territory of the perioikoi. They were ceremonially honored with the first seat at banquets, were served first, and received a double portion. One king acted as a check on his colleague.
4.3.2 The Assembly: Democracy
The Assembly of all Spartans was the ultimate sovereign; it decides all matters of war and peace.
It was made up of Spartan male citizens over the age of thirty.
Citizenship depended upon successful completion of the course of training and education which was provided by the state, and upon election to, and continuing membership in a mess .
The Assembly elected the Gerousia the Ephorate and the other magistrates , decided disputed successions to the kingship, and determined matters of war and peace and foreign policy.
Debate was not allowed, only assent or dissent by acclamation to measures presented by the Gerousia. Thus, theoretically Sparta was a democracy, but the power of the people in the Assembly was strictly limited, and the Assembly’s decisions were subject to overturn by the Geriousia.
4.3.3 The Gerousia: Aristocracy
The Gerousia guided policy, particularly foreign policy.
The Gerousia elected by the Spartan Assembly consisted of thirty members, including two kings.
This was the Senate of Sparta, literally the Council of Old Men for members had to be over sixty years of age and were chosen for their outstanding abilities and service to Sparta. They served for life.
The Gerousia acted as a supreme court. It could declare a law passed by the Assembly as unconstitutional. And if the decision of the Assembly was “unjust,” the Gerousia had the power to overturn it.
4.3.4 the Ephors:The Guardians
Another ruling entity was formed after Lycurgus – the Ephors. Five Spartans were elected annually for a one-year term. They were the guardians of the rights of the people and a check on the power of the kings. So, the creation of ephors further limited the power of the two kings. They also enforced the Spartan way of life and its educational system. Although a variety of duties came to be assigned to the ephors in classical times, the most basic of their duties reveals the primary function of the office. This was the monthly exchange of oaths between the ephors and the kings: the ephors swore to uphold the rule of the kings as long as the kings kept their oath, while the kings swore to govern in accordance with the laws. Thus they provided a check on the power of the two kings.
4.4. Result: Balanced Constitution
By the Classical period, these constitutional reforms had resulted in a balanced constitution that combined the merits of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. The ability to compromise and to bring into harmony the interests of competing groups had enabled the Sparta to avoid the phase of tyranny through which many other Greek poleis passed in order to achieve similar reforms. Sparta’s balanced constitution was the admiration of other Greek cities and of the Founders of the United States.
5.1 Civil Virtue:
Lycurgus understood that even the best constitution will fail unless it is vitalized by civic virtue. He defined civic virtue as “the willingness of the individual to subordinate his interest to the good of the community”. To instill civic virtue was the goal of the educational system –the Spartan way of life – attributed to Lycurgus.
In the Spartan system, the polis and its welfare was all in all. Individual and family interestsand ambitions were to be put aside to create a society focused on the common good. A Spartan newborn had first to be formally “recognized” by the five Ephors. Unrecognized and very sick infants were “exposed”—abandoned to die. “Recognized” infants were given a plot of land, to be worked by slaves (helots). A Spartan child was raised by his mother until the age of seven.
5.3 At Seven
At seven, the child began to be educated in a system called theagoge(the Greek word comes from the verb ago, “to lead,” and denoted a system of training and a way of life). The agoge was carefully planned to weaken ties to family and to strengthen a collective identity. When they entered the agoge, boys were divided into age groups and lived under the immediate supervision of older boys. Although they were taught the rudiments of reading and writing, the focus of the agoge was on rigorous physical training to develop hardiness and endurance. They were also acculturated to Spartan values by listening to patriotic choral poetry and tales of bravery and heroism at the common meals.
5.4 At Twelve
At age twelve, the agoge became increasingly more military in form and more demanding. The boys were allowed only a single cloak for winter and summer, required to sleep in beds that they made themselves from rushes picked from the Eurotas River, and fed meager rations that they were expected to supplement by stealing (if caught, they were whipped for their failure to escape detection). On occasion they attended the men’s messes in preparation for their later election to one of these groups. To further their acculturation, they were expected to develop homosexual “mentor” relationships with one of the hebontes, men between the ages of twenty and thirty who played a quasi-parental role in socializing their young charges.
5.5 At Eighteen
At eighteen, Spartan boys were sent out on a mission to prove their manhood by killing the largest helot they could find. For those who successfully completed the agoge, the next step was to gain acceptance in the fundamental institution of adult Spartan male life, the mess, or sysitia. A mess consisted of a group about fifteen men of mixed ages who ate and fought together throughout their lives, and who lived together until the age of thirty, when they were allowed to set up their own households. Entry into a mess required unanimous vote by its members. It was a crucial vote, for full citizenship depended upon membership. Those who failed to be elected were relegated to an inferior status, possibly to be indentified with the hpomeiones, literally “inferior.”
5.5 At Eighteen
Upon election to a mess, the young men, now classed as hebontes, were still not in possession of full citizenship rights. While they could probably attend the Assembly and vote, they remained under the close supervision and control of the paidonmos. The hebontes were encouraged to marry, but they were not permitted to live with their wives until they reached the age of thirty. As a result, they spent for more time and developed closer emotional ties with their young male charges, than with their wives. This was the period in which they were most active in military service, and, as we saw above, they were also subject to serve in the Krypteia.
5.6 At the Age of Thirty
At the age of thirty, the Spartan became a full citizen and was expected to move out of the barracks and set up his own households. He also became eligible to hold office. But he continued to take his main meal in his mess, and his military obligations continued until the age of sixty. At that time he became eligible for the Gerousia and no longer had military obligations. He still ate in his mess, however, and was expected to participate actively in the training and disciplining of the younger men and boys.
5.7 All in all
It would be seen that the entire Spartan way of life was directed toward keeping the Spartan army at tip-top strength. It became a warlike society in which equality was at the center of the Spartan way of life. All Spartans owned the same amount of land and a set number of helots. Personal possessions were freely shared.
6.1 The Spartan Girl
Spartan girls were educated in the same ideals as Spartan boys, which is quite different from other poleis. For example, in Athens, girls were not educated, and historical evidence shows that Athenian women lived so completely separated from the men that they even had their own dialect. Spartan women enjoyed a status, power, and respect that were unknown in the rest of the classical world.
With their husbands so rarely at home, Spartan women directed the households, which included servants, daughters, and sons until they left for their communal training. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. Unlike women in Athens, if a Spartan woman became the heiress of her father because she had no living brothers to inherit (an epikleros), the woman was not required to divorce her current spouse in order to marry her nearest paternal relative. Unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased rather than being secluded in the home. Nor did the Spartans follow the customary practice of most poleis of marrying girls at puberty; in Sparta marriage and childbearing were put off until girls reached physical maturity (at eighteen to twenty years old), again in order to ensure the best reproductive outcome.
The girl was carried off, her hair was cut, and she was dressed as a boy by her “bridesmaids”; she was then left in a dark room where her husband-to-be would visit her. If pregnancy resulted, the marriage was valid, but the husband continued in his mess until he reached the age of thirty, visiting his wife only at night and by stealth. The ancient sources report that this regime was adopted to heighten sexual attraction and increase the vigor of any resulting infants. Another view is that it would ensure that the couple would see each other primarily as sexual partners and that the husband would not invest himself emotionally in the welfare of his wife and family to the detriment of his military duties.
6.3 The Marriage: Description by Plutarch
Plutarch reports the peculiar customs associated with the Spartan wedding night:
“The custom was to capture women for marriage(...)The so-called 'bridesmaid' took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man's cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom—who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always—first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
6.4 The Concept of Adultery
In Spartan law and practice, the concept of adultery did not exist. It was acceptable for a husband to loan his wife to his friends if he wanted no more children himself, or to borrow the wife of another men for reproductive purposes. Old men with young wives were expected to provide a young man as a sexual partner for their wives. Such practices of course fostered reproduction: the potential of female fertility was fully exploited even when the luck of the marriage draw did not favor it. Other Greeks looked askance at these practices and at the “freedom” allowed to Spartan women and viewed Spartan women as licentious. But it was not the women who were in control; in each case, it was the husband who arranged for and sanctioned such extramarital relationships. These relationships can be looked upon as logical extension of the general Greek conception of women as property, in the context of the Spartan practice of sharing resources.
Spartan women ran the farm and disciplined the helots. In Sparta, commerce is forbidden. No gold or silver was permitted and Luxuries were banned. There were no written laws and, hence, no lawyers. All Spartan citizens were expected to put service to their city-state before personal concerns because Sparta’s survival was continually threatened by its own economic foundation, the great mass of helots.
Reforms by Lycurgus resulted in a powerful Sparta. In the Classical Period, Sparta became the preeminent military power in Greece; its fighting force was remarkably disciplined and obedient to the dictates of the Spartan state. This contributed a lot to the success of the Greek army against the Persians which we come back in the later chapters. The Spartans were also very much admired and respected as the champions of liberty in Greece and also for their military skill and courage in battles. Their alliance with other Greeks (the Peloponnesian League) made them the most formidable military power in Greece. But even more important was the Spartan success in achieving good government through the institutions of Lycurgus. In antiquity the Spartan were widely admired for their courage and military prowess, and my Greeks – and later, Romans—had a romantic fascination with the Spartan way of life. Many followers often adopted Spartan fashions in dress and the long hair that was Spartan custom. Among these admirers were some of our most important sources – Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch. For example, Plato based his ideal state on certain characteristics of Sparta.
Viewed from the standpoint of the values of Athens and other, more liberal societies, there were definite weakness in the Spartan way of life.
First, the Spartan paid a high price for their security. Their way of life was marked by extreme austerity. They were notorious for the simplicity of their meals consisting of barley, cheese, figs, and wine, and supplemented by occasional bits of meat. In order to ensure absolute equality, commerce is forbidden. No gold or silver was permitted and Luxuries were banned.
Second, Spartan society was, as might be expected, quite conservative: innovation and foreign influence were firmly resisted. In contrast to the Athenian fascination with the poetry of tragedy and comedy and the love of rhetorical display, the Spartans took pride in laconic (terse) habits of speech and confined their literary and music appreciation to patriotic songs, such as those of Tyrtaeus. By the Classical period the earlier achievements in the crafts had disappeared; even monumental public building had ceased. Third, the Spartan way of life is incompatible with their own aims. The agoge, with its emphasis on strict control and obedience, did not foster the development of individual judgment, and we shall see in later Greek history many instances of Spartan at a loss to handle unusual situations. Nor were the Spartans immune to the temptations of luxury.
Another thing which has much to do the Spartan lifestyle is its demographic difficulties—a shrinking population. Sparta was the only Greek state in which male infanticide was institutionalized. Moreover, many deaths can be explained by the Spartan soldier’s obligation to stand his ground and give his life for his country, rather than surrender. This ideal was reinforced by peer pressure, epitomized by statements attributed to Spartan women such as that of the mother who told her son as she handed him his shield to come home “either with this or on this.”
In addition to high rate of infant and juvenile mortality found throughout the ancient world, the Spartan problem was aggravated by their unusual marriage practices. Women married only several years after they became fertile; opportunities for conjugal intercourse were limited; husbands were continuously absent at war or sleeping with their army groups when wives were in their peak childbearing years; and both sexes engaged in a certain amount of homosexual, nonprocreative sex. Sparta’s population problem was also accelerated at times by natural disaster, economic problems, and the emigration of men.
Lycurgus was the son of the king Eumenos. After the death of his father, his older brother Polydektes took the throne. Not much later, he also died and Lycurgus became king. The widow of his brother, an ambitious and unhesitating woman, offered him to marry her and kill her unborn child. Lycurgus, knowing her character and being afraid for the life of the child, pretended to accept her offer. He said to her to bear the child and he would disappear it, as soon as the child was born. But when the time came, he took the infant boy at the Agora, proclaimed him king of the Spartans and gave him the name Charilaos (Joy of the people). When the widow learned what happened, she started plotting against Lycurgus, who left Sparta in order to avoid bloodshed.
He first went to Crete and then to Asia and Egypt and later to Libya, Spain and India. In every country that he visited, he studied their civilization, history and constitutions.
After many years Lycurgus returned to Greece and visited Delphi to question the oracle, if the constitution he had prepared to apply in Sparta was good and received approval with the answer that "he was more God than man". He then returned home and found his nephew Charilaos, a grown man and king of Sparta.
In order to persuade the Spartans to accept his laws, which demanded a lot of sacrifices, he bred two small puppies, the one indoors with a variety of foods and the other he trained it for hunting. He then gathered the people and showed them that the untrained dog was completely useless.
But if Lycurgus succeeded to persuade the poor people, he did little for the rich, who tried everything to oppose him. One of them, a youth named Alkander, in the Agora tried to hit him with his stuff and when Lycurgus turned his head, he was hit in the eye and lost it. Lycurgus did not prosecute him, but took him as his servant, giving him the opportunity to discover his character. Indeed Alkander became later a devoted disciple.
When his laws were accepted, he made Spartans swear that they would not be changed until he returns and left again.He never came back, making sure that his laws would not change.
He died at Delphi and according to some in Crete and it is said that before his death, he asked his body to be burned and the remains to be scattered in the wind. Lycurgus thus did not permit even his dead body to return.