The Myth Of The Noble Spartan Fighting For Freedom

By J. Wisniewski on Tuesday, December 17, 2013
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“The walls of Sparta are its young men, and its borders the points of their spears.” —King Agesilaos

In A Nutshell

Spartan society has been invoked as an exemplar of everything from gender equality to democratic freedom. But the oft-praised martial society was neither as warlike nor as free as is often imagined. Sparta often preferred diplomacy to deploying and was dominated by a singular motive—the preservation of its systemic slavery.

The Whole Bushel

Sparta’s lofty ideal wasn’t freedom; it was slavery of an unparalleled degree. As a result, Spartans were far more concerned with staying home and keeping tabs on their obscene number of slaves than going to war.

Sparta functioned with the sole goal of preserving its profitable and dehumanizing institution called “helotage.” The population of helots was made up of fellow Greek cultures the Spartans enslaved and kept in a state not unlike that of the inhabitants of District 12 in the Hunger Games world. Since the helots greatly outnumbered the Spartans, a number of oppressive tactics were employed to cow the helots into continued submission.

The Spartans murdered the helots ritually, waged war on them annually, restricted the helots’ food supply, and generally humiliated the helots at every opportunity. For sport and for the education of their young men, Spartans forced helots to consume alcohol and then paraded the drunken (and now sick) serfs as a warning against the dangers of insobriety. Under Spartan law, helots’ rights were virtually non-existent and reminders to the helots of their inferior status were constant. In any case, keeping their slaves in line was a full-time job, which left little time or manpower for foreign interventions.

As a result, the Spartans of historical fact were far more diplomatic and unwilling to go to war than the Spartans of popular portrayal. Living in near-constant fear of a slave revolt, the Spartans were always wheeling and dealing to keep their troops at home. Sparta often entered into alliances only with the understanding that Sparta’s allies would provide troops to quell the inevitable slave uprisings to come. The pan-Hellenic identity and loyalty depicted in the film 300 were relatively new concepts. At times, Sparta even sought aid from Persia itself (you know, those guys who were supposedly the very antithesis of the liberty lovin’ Spartans) to wage war while keeping the helots enslaved. Spartans were freedom fighters much the same way the Confederacy fought for freedom.

It’s true Spartan hoplites were highly skilled. Of course, Spartan men had so much time for martial training because the helots took care of all that pesky hard labor and farming. Hence the ancient saying: “In Sparta the freeman is more a freeman than anywhere else in the world, and the slave more a slave.” The legacy of Sparta is, for many, tied together with notions of liberty and the defiance of an oppressive tyranny in the form of Xerxes. But more accurately, Sparta fought for the liberty of imposing its own brand of oppressive tyranny on other Greeks.

Show Me The Proof

Spartan Reflections, Paul Cartledge
The Greek World, 479-323 BC, Simon Hornblower
Plutarch — Life of Lycurgus
Spartans: A New History, Nigel M. Kennell
Sparta and Lakonia & Hellenistic and Roman Sparta, Paul Cartledge, Antony Spawforth