Learn About the Military State of Ancient Sparta

Lycurgus of Sparta
Lycurgus of Sparta. Clipart.com

In the 8th century B.C., the polis of Sparta needed more fertile land to support a booming population. There was fertile land near Sparta, so the Spartans decided to take it. Their neighbors were the Messenians who weren't eager to give up their land. Sparta and the Messenians fought over the property for 10 years. Ultimately victorious, Sparta turned the Messenians into their agricultural labor force.

Henceforth, the Messenians were known as "Helots". Eventually, the serf-like Helots rebelled, but by then the population problem in Sparta had been reversed: the population of Sparta was in decline. By the time Sparta won the Second Messenian War (perhaps in 640 B.C.), the Helots may have outnumbered the Spartans by as much as 10 to 1.

Since Sparta still wanted the Helots to do their heavy labor, it had to devise some means of keeping the helots in check -- a Military State.

The Spartans were particularly formidable as soldiers because, as Herodotus says, they weren't entirely free.

One-against-one, they [sc. the Spartans] are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm -- to conquer or die.
- From Herodotus' dialogue between Demaratos and Xerxes Book 7

Modern psychologists might approve of positive reinforcement and carrots rather than sticks, but the Spartans thought otherwise. Modesty and obedience followed peer beatings, according to this account by Xenophon:

[2.2] Lycurgus, on the contrary, instead of leaving each father to appoint a slave to act as tutor, gave the duty of controlling the boys to a member of the class from which the highest offices are filled, in fact to the "Warden" as he is called. He gave this person authority to gather the boys together, to take charge of them and to punish them severely in case of misconduct. He also assigned to him a staff of youths provided with whips to chastise them when necessary; and the result is that modesty and obedience are inseparable companions at Sparta.
Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1


Boys left their parents at age 7 to live in barracks, for the next 13 years, where they were under constant attention:

"In order that the boys might never lack a ruler even when the Warden was away, he gave authority to any citizen who chanced to be present to require them to do anything that he thought right, and to punish them for any misconduct. This had the effect of making the boys more respectful; in fact boys and men alike respect their rulers above everything. [2.11] And that a ruler might not be lacking to the boys even when no grown man happened to be present, he selected the keenest of the prefects, and gave to each the command of a division. And so at Sparta the boys are never without a ruler."
- Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1

The Spartans' state-controlled education ( agoge) was designed not to instill literacy, but fitness, obedience, and courage. Boys learned survival skills, to steal what they needed without getting caught and, under certain circumstances, to murder helots. Even as adults, men did not live with their wives, but ate at common messes with the other men of the syssition. They contributed a prescribed share of the provisions. If they failed, they were expelled from the syssiton and lost some of their citizenship rights.

"After they were twelve years old, they were no longer allowed to wear any undergarments, they had one coat to serve them a year; their bodies were hard and dry, with but little acquaintance of baths and unguents; these human indulgences they were allowed only on some few particular days in the year. They lodged together in little bands upon beds made of the rushes which grew by the banks of the river Eurotas, which they were to break off with their hands with a knife; if it were winter, they mingled some thistle-down with their rushes, which it was thought had the property of giving warmth."

Aristotle, in the On the Lacedaemonian Constitution section of The Politics, says some claim Sparta's system of government included the following three components:

  1. monarchical (rule by kings),
  2. oligarchic (rule by the aristocrats or other privileged few), and
  1. democratic (rule by the deme or citizens, restricted to free men of a certain class) components.

Two kings, hereditary monarchs, one from each of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, had priestly obligations and the power to make war (although by the time of the Persian Wars, the kings' power to make war was restricted).

The kings were automatic members of the Gerousia, which was a council of 28 elders picked for life plus the two kings. Five ephors, chosen annually by popular election, had the main power.

The final component was the assembly, made up of all Spartiates (full Spartan citizens) over 18.

The Lacedaemonian constitution is defective in another point; I mean the Ephoralty. This magistracy has authority in the highest matters, but the Ephors are chosen from the whole people, and so the office is apt to fall into the hands of very poor men, who, being badly off, are open to bribes.
" - From Aristotle The Politics: On the Lacedaemonian Constitution

Resources on Spartan Law

  • Ancient History Sourcebook: 11th Brittanica: Sparta - The history of the Spartans from prehistory to the middle ages with particular focus on the government.
  • The Ephors of Sparta: Table of the names and dates of the terms of the ephors and their sources.
  • Herodotus On the Kings of Sparta (c. 430 B.C.): Privileges (includes priesthood, guard of 100 men, right to the hides and backs of sacrificial cattle, double portions at feasts, and power to make war), obligations (includes selecting husband for woman without a father) of the kings, and procedures following a king's death.
  • The Kings of Sparta: A table listing kings of Sparta. These hereditary joint kings came one from each of the Agiad and Eurypontid families.
  • Periegesis Hellados III: Passage from Pausanias on the legendary history of the founding of Sparta. Lacedaemon was the son of Zeus who married Sparta, a daughter of Eurotas, the grandson of the aboriginal Lelex, the original ruler of the land. Very complicated genealogy.
  • The Spartan System

Definitions of key terms

  • Eunomia (good order),
  • Agoge (training),
  • Lacedaemonians,
  • Spartan,
  • Spartiate (full citizen of the polis of Sparta),
  • Perioikoi,
  • Helots,
  • Gerousia (28 elected Spartiates over 60 plus the two kings),
  • Ephors (five Spartiate overseers), and
  • Ecclesia (the assembly)