How Did One Actually Become a Spartan Warrior?

When we think of Sparta, the first thing that comes to mind is the Spartan warrior. Unlike other historical warrior peoples like the Samurai, the Spartan warriors were pretty close to our imagined conception of them. They were manly warriors who were very muscular, fought wearing red capes, and holding big shields. They were the face of Sparta, to the point that we often don’t realize that Sparta is not a state, but the capital of the region of Lakedemonia and the only city in which the warriors were permitted to live, hence their description as Spartans. Today, the Spartans are remembered as a society completely geared towards war and fighting, but how accurate is that? Is this actually Sparta? And how did one become a Spartan Warrior anyway?

As mentioned, Sparta is not the name of the region, it is just the name of the central city. The region was called Lakedemonia in the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula. It isn’t really all that surprising that we know the Spartans by the name of their central city. Ancient Greeks organized themselves politically into city-states, or Polis. Think Athenians, Thebans, or other well known Ancient Greek peoples. We usually refer to them by the name of their Polis, even if they lived in the surrounding regions of the city-state. What makes the Spartans special, not just in our modern eyes, but in the eyes of their fellow ancient Greeks is that they had a very different society from other Greeks. Despite Sparta controlling the whole region of Lakedemonia and sometimes beyond, citizens could only come from the city of Sparta, and only live there in their special society. Spartans went on several colonial campaigns to capture neighboring lands and referred to their area of political control as Lakonia. The citizens referred to themselves as Spartans, outsiders referred to the Spartans as Lakedemonians after the region, but we might also see them referred to as Lakonians after the political area they controlled.

So, who were the Spartan warriors? The citizens of Sparta were those who not only lived in the city of Sparta, but belonged to the ruling class. These were the Spartans you saw in films like 300. They see themselves as descendants of Hercules and Dorians who settled in the region of Lakedemonia. As an outside force, they ruled over the native population of second class citizens or slaves. This class of people were known as the Spartiates.

So that begs the question, who are the other Lakedemonians, and for our purposes, did they fight? There are many classes of people in Lakedemonia, but the three most prominent were: the Spartiates, the Dwellers-Around, and the Helots. The Dwellers-Around and the Helots were probably the original inhabitants of Lakedemonia, but we don’t know as much about them as we do the Spartiates. The Dwellers-Around are the regular every-day free peoples of Lakedemonia. They lived a similar life to most Greeks at the time, neither required to live the Spartiates’ warrior lifestyle, nor live as slaves. They tended to be traders, manufacturers, artists, but also put on their warrior uniforms and followed the Spartiates into battle at the command of the state. The exiled king Damaratos warned the Persian Xerxes about the necessity of the Dwellers-Around to Spartan society, and their bravery in combat. As Spartan history went on, the Spartiates began to rely on the Dwellers-Around to fight more and more until they came to outnumber the Spartiates in their armies. Even then, we don’t know how Dwellers-Around became warriors.

Then you have the Helots. The Helots were a type of slave that comprised the majority of Lakedemonia’s population. Other than the Spartiates, the Helots are remembered mostly because of the intense level of class disparity between them and the Spartiates. By class disparity I mean the Spartiates were known to have abused and murdered Helots in a way that often shocked other slave-owning Greeks, to the point that the Spartans always feared an intervention by their rivals to support the Helots. As to what these slaves got up to, Helots supported their masters on campaigns and fought on the front lines. If all you know of Sparta is the movie 300, just know that there were Helots on that campaign, and that they far outnumbered their 300 Spartiate masters. Spartiates always kept an eye on their Helots during campaigns, even changing camp formations so that they faced inward at camp rather than outwards, because of past revolts that rocked Lakonia; they never turned their back on their warrior slaves. There were other smaller and less significant groups in Lakedemonian society, but the Spartiates, Dwellers-Around, and Helots are the main three.

Of the classes, we know most about the Spartiate warriors and their upbringing. Spartiates relied very heavily on the Dwellers-Around and the Helots for their warrior lifestyle. The Helots did the heavy lifting in Lakedemonian society, and the Dwellers-Around took care of the state beyond the Spartiates’ roles as warriors, defenders, and decision makers. The same exiled King Damartos acknowledges as much to King Xerxes. Being freed from mundane matters of labor, farming, and administration, the Spartiate citizens were allowed to focus on their training. Modern scholars even refer to the Spartiates as a class of leisure. While that may be true, they endured childhoods of hell to reach that point.

Spartan education is considered a thirty year process broken down into three parts. The education of a Spartan, and by Spartan I do mean Spartiate, is a communal effort the state is involved in. It takes a village to raise a child, and in the case of Sparta, that village would mercilessly beat them into adulthood. The first phase of formal education began around the age of seven when boys were assigned to groups of boys called herds led by a herder. If the assigned herder was not present, any Spartan citizen could order the herd around if need be. The Spartans considered following the rules to be very important, and herders were usually accompanied by whip bearers who whipped the boys for any infraction. Further, if you were whipped as a Spartan child, you can expect your father to continue with a staff when you got home. If you broke a rule in front of another boy’s father and he beats you, your father was also honor bound to beat you again when he hears of it. This can happen when the herder is absent and another father takes charge of the group, again going to show how communal the raising of children was in the city of Sparta.

Despite this instilling of rules, the instilling of rule breaking was also a part of the boys’ education. The boys were fed meager meals, even by Spartan standards. They were expected and even encouraged to steal food to supplement their meagre diets. Despite that encouragement, boys were punished for being caught, even killed in the process of that punishment. So why encourage rule breaking when you are just going to punish a boy for breaking the rule? It seems the purpose was to instill a respect for the rule of law yet teach the children how to undergo covert operations as training for later life. Like most things in Sparta, stealing was a collaborative project. The herd had to collectively organize their stealing, with members acting as lookouts while others stole. The whole process required endurance, something necessary to instill in future warriors. Endurance was the name of the game, from their meager food to their harsh punishments. Finally, the leaders of the Spartan state, the Ephors, inspected the boys of this age naked every ten days, ensuring that the boys did not get too fat and were progressing in their training.

At fourteen the Spartan boys moved to the next level of their education, which got even harsher.

But before we get into that, you might at this point be wondering who established this bizarre and brutal way of life for the Spartiates? The Spartiates cite a lawgiver-king named Lykourgos. Today scholars tend to agree that Lykourgos might have been mythical, and even the ancient Greeks could not nail down a time in which he ruled, although they didn’t doubt his existence. Herodotus places Lykourgos in the middle of the sixth century and puts forward two stories as to how he developed the Spartan way of life. He either received instructions from an oracle at Delphi or borrowed his system from Crete.

Lykourgos may be part of what is called the “Spartan Mirage.” Spartans were very secretive, mischievous, guarded, and xenophobic. This extended into their training, everyday lives, and conduct with other Greeks. They created this image of Sparta to hide their true activities and intentions, so that their enemies were always in the dark. Even aspects of their training and leisurely activities such as their ball games were meant to hide their intentions, which is to train for combat. This Spartan Mirage throws some of what we know about them into question, especially because so few of our sources are from Sparta. Most of what we know about Spartans come from contemporary Athenian writings, which are openly anti-Spartan, or later Roman sources.

But in any event, as mentioned, at the age of fourteen the Spartan boys moved to the next phase of their education as youths. This phase of the education is the toughest. Spartan elders saw this phase of a teenage boy’s life as the most rebellious and cocky, so they piled on the work for the boys. They designed the training so that the boys had as little free time as possible, and had no choice but to go about their tasks and duties, all the while continuing to be held to a higher standard of abuse for breaking the rules. Youths also practiced the many sports and exercises for which the Spartans are known: wrestling, javelin and discus throwing, several types of running and sprinting races, equestrian sports if the youths came from rich families, and a group bareknuckle boxing contest where the boys split into teams of two and tried to drive each other into a moat surrounding the battlefield. They also played a game called “battle-ball” that required co-operation between team-mates and brute strength as it was similar to ball sports such as American football.

Youths began to learn to read and write, but we don’t know how. The Spartans didn’t hire foreign or slave tutors to educate their children, but we do know that they did learn. We know this because we have records that Spartiates sent messages to each other and could make use of cryptography in the messages between warriors and their commanders. The Spartiates seemed to enjoy a… Spartan formal education to suit their elaborate and demanding physical education. Even elite Spartiates were not allowed to bring in tutors for their children, meaning that all Spartiates enjoyed the same state level education. This lack of literary flourish didn’t mean they were simpletons. While not too many Spartan works of literature came down to us, we do have other evidence of the Greeks’ fondness for Spartan wit. Spartiates tended to speak directly and bluntly to the point of being known for their one-liners. It wasn’t just the men, but women who seemed to be known for their wit as well, since a large portion of surviving Spartan one-liners came from the women.

Speaking of women, it should be noted that girls had a very physical education as well. Unlike other Greeks, who tended to heavily segregate the sexes and keep women at home, Spartan girls underwent an education that put them on par, at least within the bounds of their respective strengths, physically with the boys. Spartan girls would wrestle and race with the boys. The girls even competed in front of men in activities that other Greeks considered too sexual, whereas the Spartans didn’t seem to mind. One such activity was an endurance competition that was kind of like skipping rope without the rope. The girls often participated in the same sports the boys did such as throwing, running, wrestling, and even practiced dancing. On top of that, the Spartan girls went about dressed in clothing non-Spartan Greeks considered too revealing and immodest, with exposed thighs and or even sometimes completely nude. This made Spartan girls much more athletic than their non-Spartan counterparts in most places in the world.

The wisdom behind this was utilitarian: The Spartiates wanted healthy mothers and healthy fathers to bear healthy sons. The woman had a role as mother and wife to make sure her son did his part as a warrior. Mothers would beat and berate their sons for cowardly behaviour or failing to make the grade. There are even cases of women killing their warrior sons for cowardly behaviour. Despite that, there is evidence to suggest that once a Spartan woman is married and gives birth, she is generally veiled and gender segregated just like the rest of the Greek women. They did not fight in battles, but their function was to bear and raise the next generation of warriors for the Spartan state.

It should be explained that the Spartiate men were organized socially into groups who ate together at a mess hall. They called this group either a men’s club or friendship club depending on the era. Spartiates dined in groups of fifteen and contributed the food of the mess from their own properties. Youth are sometimes brought to the clubs to see how the adults are expected to act once they reach adulthood. Dining in these clubs was mandatory for all Spartiates. This communal experience was meant to strengthen the bond between warriors and even had democratic aspects to it, such as members having to vote in new members. Those new members were about ready to join at age 20.

On this note, at 20 the Spartiates enter the next phase of their education as young men. They can now join a club, but are still forced to sleep in communal barracks rather than their own homes. They can take part in fighting, and even qualify for the elite 300 member bodyguard corps of the kings. Part of their training included a little understood and much debated ritual called the Kryptoi. Scholars can’t seem to agree on what exactly took place during the Kryptoi. Some believe the ritual involved searching for and slaughtering unsuspecting Helots. Others contend that it was simply a survival and endurance test. Thinkers as far away in time as Aristotle in the 300s BCE and the Roman Plutarch in the first century CE debated the nature of this ritual. Either way, once the Spartiates turn 30 their education is considered complete, and they are full fledged citizens.

Success in completing the Kyrptoi doesn’t mean the training is over, however. Spartans continue to regularly train in battle tactics and maneuvers disguised as games and exercise routines. They also practiced coordination during hunting. The training never stopped. The clubs play a significant role in the life of a Spartiate regardless of their level in society. Just like in their youth, the type of food provided to the Spartiates in the club made sure that they did not eat or drink too much. Excessive fattiness or excessive drinking were highly scrutinized and one could get fined for indulging. Spartiates spent a lot of time on physical exercises, ball games and other pursuits that scholars still debate whether they were disguised military training or leisurely activities.

Whatever it was the Spartiates were up to, it worked. Their intense upbringing and constant focus on physical training meant that the Spartans did live up to their reputation as fierce warriors. Whether they worked with other Greeks, or fought them off, the Spartans were considered a formidable foe to their enemies. The Spartans themselves always prized their unique system for raising warriors, and always kept an eye out to any threats to that system. It is important to note that all of this happened within and around the city of Sparta, which was just a tiny part of Lakedemonia. It took a village to raise a Spartan, and in this case, it was the village of Sparta itself.

Bonus Fact:

Before graduating to the next phase of their lives, the boys usually found a lover by the age of 12. Sources such as Xenophon claim that these relationships were not sexual while also admitting that the reader probably would not believe him. This is because Spartans in general developed a reputation for anal sex, especially in this sort of relationship. It seems in reality that Spartans did not partake in this practice as much as other Greeks, although it can be attested by some surviving Lakedemonian artwork. It was such a stereotype of Spartans that they enjoyed anal sex regardless of gender that it became slang in Ancient Greece to refer to anyone who enjoyed the same thing to have “Lakedemonian buttocks”

Expand for References

Bayliss, Andrew J. The Spartans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Kennell, Nigel M. Spartans: A New History. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2010

Powell, Anton. Ed. A Companion to Sparta. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2018

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