The Myth Of The Noble Spartan Fighting For Freedom

“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

  • Exiled Phoenix

    Well, they aren’t such hot s**t now…lol.

  • Hadeskabir

    Well, there goes my opinion about the Spartans down the drain.

    • Andrew Coll

      And you wouldn’t keep slaves in that day and age to make life easier for yourself ? now i don’t agree one bit with slavery or domination of men but if someone threatened spartan society the slaves were protected too not just their own family and spartans were mostly killed off apart from some rogue elements still alive in greece today not much about them though they like too keep to themselves!

      • Hadeskabir

        They treated the slaves worse than animals. I can’t see a single good thing on owning slaves and how that was good to the slaves.

        • Andrew Coll

          Well you don’t have to go out and collect the stuff ! just because you are validated with money doesn’t mean you’re not a slave. Doesn’t mean i love slavery and advocate it just i know people like money so i would rather pay them and get stuff done !

        • Andrew Coll

          And how do you know? Whens the last time you talked to helot oh wait you know all excuse while i go away !

          • 0000

            Lol, what Helots? Do you know one?

      • Clara T Ohare

        If slavery is so good how many would volunteer for it? Would you?

  • Christina

    “Spartans were freedom fighters much the same way the Confederacy fought for freedom.”
    I think you must have said that Spartans were freedom fighter *less* than Confederacy fought for freedom.

    • Check

      Actually, I think what he means is that the Confederacy fought for the right to continue having slaves in America.

  • Spartacross

    Only people who try to get an education through…Hollywood is surprised by this.
    In fact, no other Greek liked the Spartans. They were not Democratic, they had racial slaves and, given half an excuse, they tended to meddle in other city-state’s business. Sure, the other Greeks wanted them around to help them bitch-slap the Persians whenever they came on knocking but the rest of the time, they gave the Spartans as wide a berth as possible.

    In fact, when Alexander the Great unified all the Greeks and led their army to conquer Persia (to put an end to their constant invasions), the Spartans chose not to follow. Alexander, of course, would not forget this so when he made his victory offering to the Oracle of Delphi, he made sure sure the inscription on the Tripod to read: “this is an offering of gratitude to the Gods from all Greeks – with the exception of the Lakedemonians [Spartans]”.

  • himaniarora

    I do not believe in any type of Myth .

  • Clara T Ohare

    In some ways institutionalized slavery still exists. Are not the workers today really wage slaves? We all know that all workers are a paycheck away from poverty and hopelessness. How many mean spirited bosses act like minor Hitlers by being abusive to workers? Labor Unions are demonized and labor laws favor the corporations. Pensions are a thing of the past and well educated people are working as waiters. All the while the government bails out corporations and CEOs get golden parachutes and million dollar bonuses. The next thing will be indentured servants made up of people in debt who will lose their civil rights to pay off their debt. That is real slavery.

    • 0000

      Uh, no, it’s not. You want to complain? Go to China and work in one of those factories. You’re privilege is sick. Shut up and start your own business if you’re so upset. And those labor unions? They’re run by the mafia.

      • lonelydisco