Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ancient Sparta : A war machine(part 1)

Ruins of Ancient Sparta

The boundaries of the region of Lakonia in Greece remain the same since the antiquity. The Evrotas valley is protected to the east by the mountain Parnonas and to the west by the legendary mountain range of Taigetos. The valley ends to the south reaching the Lakonian gulf..
Those enormous mountains were like a natural fortress for the fertile valley and protected the Spartans from invaders.In this region 3000 years ago a Greek tribe from the north ;the Dorians invaded the area enslaved its original inhabitants and settled down. The Dorians founded  Sparta or as they were calling it Lakedemona.Ancient Sparta with its glorious past will always remain a part of universal historical memory.The Greek mythology contributes to it  as according to Homer the abduction of Helen the wife of Menelaus the king of Sparta by Paris was the main reason for the begining of the Trojan war.


The organisation of the city state of Sparta is attested to Lycourgos (9th century BC), a person whose deeds balance between history and legend.One tradition says that he travelled all around the world to study and compare the laws of each nation and tribe in order to create a perfect system of laws.Historically speaking we know that during the 9th and 8th century the legislative breakthrough took place in Sparta(either by Lycourgos or somebody else), created a unique political and economic system that would make Sparta distinguished.


Lycourgos divided the arable land in equal pieces and distributed them to the Spartan citizens. Afterwards he introduced a political system in which all the decisions would be taken by a council called Apella. In case the Apella couldn't make decisions(if the majority of votes couldn't be achieved) the administration was taken over by the Senate and the two Kings.
The system of the administration defined the existence of two Kings who were equal in rule but each one had his own duties.The Senate was consisted of 30 members who were mainly the elders of the Spartan aristocracy.The way the  senators were elected had characteristics of primitive traditions. A group of judges was locked inside a building without windows.The citizens outside were either shouting for approval or for disapproval for each candidate. According to the sound the citizens were making the judges had to decide which candidates were more popular in order to elect them.
The assasination of Lycourgos on a mosaic 


One of the most significant innovations of Lycourgos concerned the monetary system and most particularly the coins.Although each coin was made of iron their value was not equal to their weight. The coins were forged to weigh so much that it would be impossible for them to be used for  financial exchanges.They were so big and heavy that someone would need a donkey in order to carry them. By this way Lycourgos limited the greed of the citizens of Sparta because if someone wanted to become rich he would have to pay a whole fortune to store his coins in big storage rooms and for a thief it would be impossible to steal a worth stealing amount of money. In addition this reform rendered trade with other cities impossible.


As it is aforementioned Sparta was not having trade relations with other cities and tried to remain self-sufficient.Food distribution was an institution where every Spartan had to participate. Every month each Spartan citizen was giving to the state a certain amount of food and money. The gathered food would be redistributed  equally .There was also a tradition/institution where all Spartans were eating together in order to strengthen the social bonds. Food distribution was also a way for controlling obesity. Obesity was considered unacceptable in Ancient Sparta.


The sexual moralility of the ancient Spartans would be considered inappropriate even nowadays.According to the ancient historians the Spartans had no inhibitions. For instance young women could wander naked with young men around without problem . Marriage was compulsory in ancient Sparta. The state was rewarding big families by granting them special priviledges. Celibacy was punished . The relationships between two persons of big age difference was acceptable and adultery wasn't punishable.

Men and women in ancient Sparta were working out  naked in the same place.


The Spartan army was considered invincible in the ancient world.All the Greek cities were sending lavish gifts in order to create an alliance with the Spartans.In exchange the best gift the Spartans could send to their allies was a Spartan general.The military contribution of the Spartans during the Persian wars was crucial. The most important events where Spartans were involved was the famous battle of Thermopylae with the sacrifice of Leonidas and 300 Spartan hoplites and the final battle of Plateae where the Greek alliance lead by Spartan generals drove away the Persians from Greece.


The Spartans disliked lengthy conversations and prefered to express  only the essence of what they wanted to tell in few words. Even nowadays there is a Greek phrase Το λακωνίζειν εστί φιλοσοφείν(talking like Spartans talk is philosophical). Being laconic is  a synonym to short talking , brief and correct speech.


The Spartan lords were choosing the most intelligent and valiant young men between 18-20 y.o .The army was giving them some food  and was sending them out in the wild . There they were divided and lived as groups with the mission to set traps or prepare ambushes to kill helots(Spartan slaves). This was like a training for the real battlefield conditions . Besides it was also a way of warning the slaves(who were a two to one majority in Sparta) not to lead any uprising. The helots were the descendants of the indigenous people of Laconia who were enslaved when the Dorians invaded.The choice of helots to be killed was not random. They were usually the strongest and smartest. By this way the Spartans reduced the chances of  the emergence of a slave leader.

Although everyone was equal according to the Spartan  law, the right to citizenship was a priviledge of a minority. Except the Spartan citizens, there were the mothakes who were children of helots parents who have received Spartan training the helots and the neodamodeis who were liberated slaves.The only job of a Spartan citizen was blood and war, therefore they relied upon the helots for everything else.


The structure of the Spartan society was supported on education. Lycourgos' idea was that when each citizen was becoming better then the state as a whole was becoming better. According to Lycourgos the best citizen was a strong and modest citizen. He was asked how Sparta would be forever free from its enemies? He answered that it would achieve that when its citizens although they are poor, they will not lust bigger wealth than their fellow Spartans.

"Mental health and physical health" was the motto of the ancient Spartans and the ancient Greek world

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