5. The Spartan Way of Life

The Rise of Sparta: Spartan
Constitution and Spartan Way of
Geography Location
Webster’s has defined Spartans as “warlike,
brave, hardy, stoical, severe, frugal, and highly
Even till today, calls up images of military
strength and prowess, and of a way of life
devoted single-mindedly to patriotic duty,
characterized by patriotism, courage in battle,
and tolerance for deprivation.
“Admired in peace and dreaded in war”;
The most powerful and the most important state;
The polis was the center of a Greek man’s life;
Became a sort of a model for the philosophers
(Plato and Aristotle);
The leading power of the first international
1.Brief History
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:
• The Dorians,
• The Ionians,
• and the Aeolians.
1.Brief History
Troubled by difficulties in satisfying its needs from its own
territory, the Spartans sought a military answer to their
(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 potential risks of the helot system:
• They are permanently dissatisfied, angry
• They are permanently thinking about
somehow getting free and permanently,
therefore, presenting a threat to whatever
the Spartan regime is at the time.
2. The Helots
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 becomes a slave holding state like no other Greek state.
• Now, there was slavery all over the ancient world. There was
no society that we know of in the ancient world that was without
slavery and Greece was no different, but in the period we're
talking about there were not very many slaves among the
Greek states as a whole, and there was certainly nothing like
what the Spartans did.
• To have a system of life that allowed the Spartan citizens not to
work in order to live; no other Greek state would have that. If
you want to think about Greek slavery in the seventh century
B.C., think about what I told you about Hanson's reconstruction
of the development of the polis. Think about farmers who
themselves worked the fields, and are assisted in their work in
the fields by one or two slaves.
3. Insecure Foundation
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.
3. Lycurgus
3.1 Background
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.
3.2 Lycurgus: Greek Great Lawgiver
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 regent (摄
政王) for him. Lycurgus was said to be a man of enormous
integrity and both Lycurgus and Solon who is also a great
lawgiver we will talk about in the later chapter set the model
of “Nothing in Excess” and “Never to Abuse Power”.
(800 BC–730 BC)
Reform of Lycurgus
Bas-relief of Lycurgus,
one of 23 great lawgivers
depicted in the chamber of
the U.S. House of
3.3 Travelling
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, Asian 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. The Reform of Lycurgus
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
4. The Reform of Lycurgus
Balanced in itself all the elements essential to government:monarchy (君主
统治), democracy, and aristocracy (贵族统治):
(1) Monarchy: Rule by one individual, answers the need for strong unified
executive authority. In a time of crisis of warfare, every government has
the need for strong executive authority for a single individual to be able
to hold the reigns for the central power.
(2) Democracy: Answers the need for a broad base of popular support.
Such a broad base of public support serves the unity of the central
(3) Aristocracy: There must be the room for the guidance of the state by
a collection, a small collection of best individuals. This is aristocracy,
rule by the best which answers the need for the making of policy by a
small group of outstanding citizens, the best morally, and the best
4. The Reform of Lycurgus
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
(1) The dual kingship;
(2) The council of elders, or Gerousia;
(3) And the Assembly.
4. The Reform of Lycurgus
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 making 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. The Reform of Lycurgus
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.(We will discuss
this constitution in detail below)
The Assembly elected the Gerousia (贵族元老议事会 ), the
Ephorate (监察官会议 ), and the other magistrates (法官 ), 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. The Reform of Lycurgus
4.3.3 The Gerousia: Aristocracy
the Gerousia guided policy, particularly foreign policy.
The Gerousia (贵族元老议事会 ) 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. The Reform of Lycurgus
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. The Reform of Lycurgus
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
5. The Spartan Way of Life
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.
5. The Spartan Way of Life
5.2 Childhood
In the Spartan system, the polis and its welfare
was all in all. Individual and family interests and
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. The Spartan Way of Life
5.3 At Seven
At seven, the child began to be educated in a system called
the agoge (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 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. The Spartan Way of Life
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, perhaps in a form of “rushing,” 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 quasiparental role in socializing their young charges.
5. The Spartan Way of Life
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. The Spartan Way of Life
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. The Spartan Way of Life
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.
Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century BC)
5. The Spartan Way of Life
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. The Spartan Women
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.
6. The Spartan Women
6.2 Households
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.
6. The Spartan Women
6.3 Marriage
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. The Spartan Women
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. The Spartan Women
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.
6. The Spartan Women
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.
7. The Cost of Utopia Martial State
It would be seen that the entire Spartan way of life
was directed toward keeping the Spartan army at tiptop 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
7. The Cost of Utopia Martial State
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
7. The Cost of Utopia Martial State
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 meant. 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.
7. The Cost of Utopia Martial State
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.
Your Views on the Spartan Constitution
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
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.
Lycurgus was said to be a man of
enormous integrity and both Lycurgus and
Solon who is also a great lawgiver we will
talk about in the later chapter set the model
of “Nothing is Excess” and “Never to Abuse
Thank You!
Concept of General Education
The concept of General Education—often known as a liberal arts
education—has its roots in the Renaissance of the fifteenth century.
As the result of economic and political changes, residents of Italian
city states came to believe that education in a broad range of subjects
was necessary to equip citizens with the skills and knowledge they
needed to be an active and responsible member of society.
Today, the topics included in the General Education curriculum
have changed, but the ideals have not. Part of what it means to have
a college education is that undergraduate students, regardless of their
majors, will have acquired the skills and knowledge to be informed
citizens; citizens who are equipped to act thoughtfully in society, to
make critical judgments, and to enjoy a life dedicated to learning and
the pleasures of intellectual and artistic pursuits.
“We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a
free man; those studies by which we attain and
practice virtue and wisdom; that education which
calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts
of body and of mind which ennoble men.”
- Petrus Paulus Vergerius,
letter to Ubertinus of Padua, ca.