300, everybody knows it, at least, everybody who enjoys a great movie knows 300, it was a major blockbuster in the movies that made a box office total in the UK of £14,000,000 and in the US over $210,000,000 these are some outstanding numbers but who were the Spartans exactly? It is an interesting subject and though seemingly incredible the history of Sparta is relatively short. Founded around 900 B.C. and ending in annexation to the Achaeans in 192 B.C. Sparta was an Oligarchy and ruled by 2 hereditary kings said to be descended from Heracles. Though sources written on the foundation of the Spartans and their land varies immensely. There are some sources that are largely commented on such as the size and scale of their land and its fertility, so fertile was the land that sometimes there would be two harvests of grain, much is also mentioned and written on the military style of which the country was run.
As stated Sparta was essentially a warrior society and reached its peak as a power after defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404) in which it had gained hegemony over Athens and its allies. The Spartan state focused solely on loyalty to the state and military service. The Spartans used a system known as the Agoge to ensure that these principles of state were met, the Agoge system emphasised the people’s duty, discipline and endurance, since, of course being a military state it had to be abundant in all the above. The Agoge system was enforced on boys at the age of 7 where they were trained to be soldiers and learned social skills, the Agoge system was a brutal system with constant military drills, fighting other candidates and masters all to improve their soldiering abilities. At the age of 7 a young Spartan is give to an instructor or master who would essentially be a surrogate parent that would train, raise and feed the Spartan, it was not as pleasant as it sounds as the masters would also use the boys for sex. The barracks in which the young Spartans were trained and kept, was separated from regular society and it was not unusual to not see any females for large durations of their training. Young Spartans that showed great intelligence and leadership were entered into another system, the Krypteia, the Krypteia was essentially a policing unit in which only the finest candidates would be a part of, the main job of the Krypteia was to keep the slaves in good order and murder troublemakers. The initiation of the Krypteia was a greater level than that of the Agoge as the candidate would have to kill targets without being seen, the job of the Krypteia was an extremely important one as it reduced any chances of rebellion, in a sense, crowd control through fear. Spartan men had only one job available to them, being soldiers and the finest at that, Spartan men would be full-fledged soldiers by the age of 20 and would serve as soldiers until 60 after which they would become advisors.
Spartan women, unlike men had much more freedom and options in society, they did not have to partake in the brutal Agoge and were educated with more freedom than many other Greek women. Though the Women did not have to participate in the Agoge they were far from weak, Spartan women would frequently partake in athletic competitions, this was a way for them to win the hearts of Spartan men, the sports they partook of were also quite physically demanding like Javelin throwing and wrestling. The Greek world knew the Spartan women for their very independent minds, they also had the rights to own and manage property. The domestic activities of a Spartan woman was no different from the rest of the Greek world as they were also educated in cooking, cleaning and child raising. Marriage was also extremely important to the Spartans in which the state would put immense pressure on men to get married, any delays in marriage was a shameful act and the men would be publicly shamed by the state for doing so. Pressure was also applied on men to have children, in particular male children as they would be raised to replace fallen or old Spartan warriors, a point of fact, is that if a couple had multiple healthy male children they would be graciously rewarded. If a child was born unhealthy or with any deformities, handicaps of any sort they were abandoned by their family and the state as they would not be a boon to the Spartan state.
Spartan society was far from what we, today would see as a good standard of life but it was an effective one, with a solid and firm command. Spartans are legendary in the sense that they are known as one of the greatest warrior races to ever exist, and though films may romanticise them it is not to far from the truth, to the point that it could be classed as ridiculous. As with every great power it will inevitably fall and for the Spartans it was the mass land, and first ever major defeat to the Spartans during the Battle of Leuctra, after this defeat Sparta entered it’s slow decline. The defeat at the Battle of Leuctra cost the Spartans an immeasurable number of casualties as this was one of the very few battles in which Sparta went full strength against an enemy, this loss of so many of their finest soldiers led to a major lack in civil security, with so many of the Spartans lost the helots and slaves were now more able than ever to revolt and rise against their masters. The Spartans never recovered from the Battle of Leuctra and with the constant helot revolts Sparta fell from its position as a super power.
Though Sparta had lost its position as a super power it was still a major regional power for another two centuries, their strength was still quite formidable, so much so that even Phillip II and Alexander the Great did not conquer Sparta itself, it is said that even when Philip II sent an envoy with the message that if he was ever to enter Laconia he would Raze sparta in which the Spartans replied to him ‘if’.