Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A Way of Life

Why stop at reforging a nation when you can remake its people? It was precisely this idea which gripped Lycurgus now. After so many years spent in exile, and so many years travelling the world, the onetime King of Sparta had singlehandedly built a country, raising her from the brink of destruction to greatness anew (for the first part of the this story, please click here).

Mount Taygetus - Where rejected infants were abandoned
Photograph taken by the author
But it is in the revolutionary education that Lycurgus made Sparta the envy of the world. Seeing the weak and passive boys of Athens, who reclined in their homes being tutored by foreign slaves, Lycurgus resolved to make the sons and daughters of Sparta the most fearsome in all the world. Unique among the nations which have lived in this world, the Spartans practised selective breeding and eugenics upon themselves. When a baby was born, be it a boy or a girl, they would be immediately examined by the senior elder. If the child was strong and healthy, then it would be allowed to live. If the infant displayed any sign of physical deformity or poor health, it would be destroyed, regardless of the parent’s wishes, as it was deemed better for both the child and the state if it were incapable of the formidable demands of the Spartan state. Infants were trained not to fear the dark or being left alone, to eat up their food without fussing, and fits of temper and crying were soon bred out of them. Boys that survived to the age of seven were divided into ‘herds’, and were inducted into the legendary agoge, the brutal path that would turn a boy into a Spartan. The boys exercised vigorously, and perpetually, carefully observed by the older citizens, who spurred them on to fight each other, to ready them for war. They learned to read and write “no more than was necessary”, focusing their training on “obedience, perseverance under stress, and victory in battle”. The older they grew, the more intensive the training. At twelve, each surviving boy was given the iconic red cloak to wear, for all other clothing was forbidden in Sparta. As others wasted fortunes on lavish clothing, Lycurgus reasoned that a powerful body showed the devotion of a man to wellbeing, and silken clothing a hideous corruption of it. Such practice would also harden the boys against the effects of cold and heat. Shoes were forbidden too, to toughen the boy’s soles, so that each was well accustomed to running in the wild. At night, torches were forbidden, so that each would be used to operating in the dark and would have no fear of it.

A Spartan Warrior
Marble statue of the 5th century BC
The ruthless agoge not only honed the body, but the mind too. All boys were allocated to a common mess, and frequently held discussion on important topics with the elders. Each boy was regularly asked to scrutinise his fellow comrades. “Answers had to be reasoned, supported by argument, and at the same time expressed with brevity and conciseness”, defying the stereotype of the Spartans as unthinking warriors. The Spartan’s quick wit and use of few words, from where our adjectives ‘laconic’ or indeed ‘Spartan’ come from, became legendary even in ancient times. Once a foreigner asked the Spartan Eurypontid King Ariston how many fighting men lived at Sparta. “Enough”, replied the King. Centuries later, when King Philip II of Macedon had conquered all the other cities of Greece, he sent an ultimatum to Sparta. “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city”. The Spartans sent a reply of just a single word – “If”. Philip never again dared threaten the Spartans. Once, in a time of crisis, a Spartan who had been crippled in one leg eagerly enlisted with the fighting men. Some were determined to bar him from combat as a result of his injury, he answered, “But what is needed to fight our foes is a man who stands his ground, not one who runs away”. When once a foreign man bragged loudly of his wealth and riches, sneering as he asked where Sparta’s wealth lay, a nearby Spartan declared “Stranger, we are rich in valour and deeds”. During the dramatic Persian invasion of Greece, when just three hundred Spartans faced a Persian army numbering in the millions, the Persian Great King Xerxes sent a herald to the Spartans. “Spartans! Lay down your arms!”, he cried. “PERSIANS! COME AND GET THEM!” the Spartan King Leonidas roared back. When a terrified Greek scout declared that the Persians were so many that their arrows would block out the Sun, one of the three hundred declared, “Excellent, then we shall fight in the shade”. A Spartan ambassador in Athens was once mocked by the Athenians as hailing from an uneducated people. “It serves us well, for we have learned nothing wicked from you”, came the calm reply, wiping smiles clean from Athenian faces. When once a man was invited to a great meal on account of his legendary speeches, and remained silent throughout the entire meal, much criticism of him spread throughout the room. The Spartan King Archidamadas, puzzled by this reaction, pointed out “an expert at speaking also knows when to do so”. When the people of Elis received lavish praise once for their fair conduct of the Olympic Games, only the Spartan King Agis did not join in. The other Greeks angrily turned to him to ask why he was not offering praise. “What great or wonderful achievement is it on their part if they act fairly on just one day in every four years?”, the King retorted. When far away on campaign in Asia, a foreigner asked the Spartan King Agesilaus how far the boundaries of the Spartan domains extended. Seizing his spear, he replied “As far as this can reach”.

Lycurgus decreed that each boy was to be deliberately given rations that were not enough for one person, forcing them to fight and steal. If a boy was caught stealing, he would be savagely beaten and whipped, not for theft, but for incompetence at theft. Indeed, a story abounded how one young Spartan boy was caught after he had stolen a fox cub and hid it under his cloak, but refused to admit his crime, even as the frenzied beast clawed his abdomen open. The idea of retreat in battle was the most polluting shame a man could suffer in Sparta. Death was preferable. If any fled in war, they would be reduced to subhuman status, mocked and beaten in the streets, his family members forbidden from marrying and his name disgraced. Valour was everything, even if it led to death. To die fighting in battle was the highest honour a man could aspire to, and only those Spartan men who died in war were permitted to be buried in a marked grave, as a beacon of inspiration. One man expressed his fears for the safety of Sparta, as the city had no walls to defend it. Lycurgus retorted that “a city cannot be unfortified if it is ringed with brave men and not bricks”. To the end of its days, Sparta never built walls. Lycurgus fondly recalled the division of labour in Egypt, and decreed that all Spartan men were forbidden from practicing any craft, ensuring they focused their life on training for that thing which makes nations free - war - all day, all days. Only during times of war was training relaxed, so that the Spartans would see battle as a respite, and relish it more.

Spartan girls exercising
Painting by Edgar Degas
It was not only the males who trained. Unique among all the civilisations of the ancient world, in Sparta girls too would exercise and devote themselves to physical perfection, even competing in the arenas of sport. By their late teens, a Spartan girl would be more than a match even for the most battle hardened of men from other cities. Some even competed in the Olympic Games. The Spartan Princess Cynisca shocked the Greek world by triumphing in the chariot races, not once, but twice, at the Olympic Games of 396 and 392 BC, making a mockery of the men she raced against. “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?” an envious Athenian lady once asked Queen Gorgo of Sparta. “Because we are the only ones who give birth to real men”, the Queen famously replied. Just as the supreme honour was for a man to die in war, for a lady to die in childbirth would warrant her name being immortalised in stone. Lycurgus reasoned that each had entailed the greatest sacrifice for the state, and was worthy of honour.

Lycurgus looked proudly upon the new state he had built, and the Spartan people eagerly accepted it. Summoning the people to assembly, he declared that Sparta was secure, but the greatest reform was yet to come. He volunteered to take the road to Delphi, and hear from the Oracle if his reforms were pleasing to the gods on high. In the meantime, he declared, the people must swear an oath to abide by the laws until his return. This the people readily did, awed by Lycurgus as they were. A path trodden by so many great souls, now Lycurgus followed in their wake to the Oracle’s Mount. ‘Will these laws secure the happiness and greatness of the state?’, spoke the exiled King. The Oracle was unusually forthright. The gods had decreed that Sparta would enjoy an everlasting legacy that would be the envy of the world, and that so long as she obeys the new way of life, she may never fall. Tearful with joy, Lycurgus wrote down the Oracle’s words, and sent them to Sparta. But Lycurgus was a prudent and pious man. Well did he know that many revolutionary ideas die with their creator, and decided to ensure the survival of his masterpiece. Lycurgus, the King who became an exile, and the exile who became the father of a nation, true to his own teachings until the end, decided to give the greatest sacrifice for the state. Ordering his friends to take his ashes and scatter them in the sea, the once exiled King took his own life, so as to never release Sparta from her oath, and to ensure the glory of his city lived forever...

United Kingdom

On Sparta:
On Sparta (Penguin Classics)
(A unique insight into the stories, customs and founding of the Spartan state, written in ancient times)

United States

On Sparta:
On Sparta (Penguin Classics)
(A unique insight into the stories, customs and founding of the Spartan state, written in ancient times)

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