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Who Were the Spartans?

The Spartans were a warrior based society that existed in Ancient Greece for approximately one hundred and fifty year until the empire was toppled in 371 BC by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra. Sparta was located in Southern Greece in a region known as Laconia. Here we will take a more in depth look at Spartan society, how they lived and fought plus how their demise occurred.

The Spartan Community

Spartan people can be divided into three main categories, the Spartans who were full citizens, their slaves who were known as Helots and the Perioeci who were tradesmen or craftsmen who made weapons for the Spartan armies and were neither full citizens nor slaves.

The lives of Spartan men were devoted to military service with all male citizens being well educated by a state run system that taught them that loyalty to Sparta came before anything or anyone else. The Helots who were slaves were Greeks who hailed from Laconia or Messenia and were captured by The Spartans who subjegated them by making them slaves. Helots, although slaves, played a huge part in Spartan life by looking after farms, nursing the sick or working as domestic servants for their betters. There were in fact many more Helots in the Spartan community than citizens with The Spartans treating Helots very badly as a result. Their treatment at times could be brutal but this meant that Spartan citizens would always have the upper hand and not have the worry of the Helots mutinying.

Helots lived in fear of their masters at all times, indeed a Helot could be killed by a master who feared he was becoming too clever or educated. The Spartans would also make spectacles of their slaves by forcing them to drink alcohol, become inebriated and perform undignified acts. This demonstrated to Spartan men how they must never act, always being in complete control of their faculties but with no thought for the poor Helots who were humiliated beyond belief!.

The Spartan Army

To the Spartans their army was the most important institution in Sparta with the Spartan population revering the army offering them respect at all times. The culture in Sparta was that of the warrior with male citizens expected to join the army as soon as possible with no other profession deemed appropriate. Boys in Sparta began their military education as young as seven years of age when they would leave home to join the Agoge which was a very tough programme that trained the boys to become great warriors, who grafuated as soldiers at twenty and retired at age sixty.

The training was extremely hard with boys engaging in physical competitions, living off small rations of food and learning survival skills that included stealing rations among other things. Boys who showed strength and leadership were draughted into the secret police force known as Crypteia. This cruel force plagued the lives of the Helots often terrorizing them and in some cases murdering them if they deemed them to be trouble.

Spartan soldiers wore bronze helmets, breastplates, carried shields, swords and spears, while they wore bright red cloaks and wore their hair very long. Soldiers were trained to stick together with camraderie being paramount as no one soldier was considered more important that another. This lead to the battle formation called the Phalanx where coordinated movements made for strength and depth in battles.

Women's Role in Spartan Society

Women in Spartan society were educated separate from men but none the less received a good standard of education which resulted in independant thinking. Women were encouraged to learn to dance and sing plus be athletic participating in events such as throwing the javelin or even wrestling. Spartan women were not expected to perform household duties as this was left to the Helots whose task it was to clean the house, do the washing and cooking while the women engaged in such jobs as the buying and selling of land or property.

Women in Spartan society were expected to marry and produce sons who would in turn join the military. Men who did not marry early were very much frowned upon therefore encouraged to provide Sparta with male heirs. Indeed a man who produced many sons was hailed as a hero in Spartan society. Women would shave their hair off before marriage and keep it short for the remaining years. Couples lived apart as men were confined to barracks meaning the only way for a man under thirty to receive his conjugal rights was to sneak out in the dark.

Peloponnesian War

Between 431 and 404 BC the Peloponnesian war was fought between Athens and Sparta. Just about all of Ancient Greece at one time or another was entrenched in this war. Both Athens and Sparta led seperate alliances that involved many states.  The Athenians had superior naval power and were financially far more secure, while the Spartans had by far the better land army. These two sides had engaged in war previously calling a truce that lasted thirty years albeit fragile and uneasy.

In 433 hostilities broke out once more with the Athenians blatantly breaking the rocky thirty years treaty resulting in the Spartans declaring war once again on the Athenians. Even diplomacy was no longer a viable solution. War raged for ten years with battles and losses on both sides, while following this an uneasy truce of six years followed. The Peace of Nicias began in 421. The peace was finally halted and fighting broke out once again between the two sides lasting for a further eleven years.

The Athenian navy was destroyed in 405 by the Spartan fleet under the command of Lysander along with help from the Persians.The following year the Athenians surrendered after being literally starved out by a blockade giving the Spartans their victory.