Thanks to the film “300”, the Spartan lifestyle and their iconic Hoplite helmet has become a popular one among military age males and is frequently used ad campaigns or on t-shirt designs. But what was life like, as a Spartan male who would eventually become part of their military? We’ll take a quick look at their life, training and how they fought here.
The Greeks were quite different from their Spartan neighbors who they fought against almost as often as they fought with. There would be no great philosophers from Sparta, and the entire state existed to serve the military. The Spartans built no great temples or buildings, such ostentatiousness had no place in their culture. Their military, for which they were renowned, was admired for its professionalism, their physical and mental hardness and dedication to their beliefs.
Much of what was depicted in the film was true. Spartan children were inspected, shortly after birth and those deemed physically unfit were culled from the Spartan citizenry. The myth that they were thrown into a chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus is false. They were probably left on a remote hillside to die from exposure or be rescued by strangers or perhaps by the non-citizen laborers and tradesmen class of “Perioeci.”
Spartan parents began their training of the children at an early age. Babies crying were not picked up and children were taught at an early age not to fear the dark. Spartan women were said to be the best nannies due to this harder form of parenting. Babies were washed with wine because it was thought that it would make them strong.
Training at the Agoge:
Spartan boys lived with their parents until age seven. This was the training ground for the boys until they were ready for military service. It was like a military academy where the boys were taught both academically and militarily. The purpose of this was to lessen the ties to a boy’s family and strengthen his ties to the state. Exact obedience was demanded and discipline was harsh.
Food was purposely kept scarce to provide a constant hunger and which encouraged the young men to steal food. Where if they were caught, they’d be flogged. Not for the act of stealing but of being caught.
Hazing and ridiculing others was encouraged in the Agoge. Competition among the boys was intense in matters of games or mock combat to foster the esprit de corps that the Spartan military was so famous for.
By the age of 12, the only clothes a boy own was a cloak winter or summer, while going barefoot and they would sleep on a bed of reeds that they would pick. Discipline became even harsher. They were taught to read and write, not for any cultural reasons but to be able to read maps and issue and receive orders.
Their tough training and living conditions were noted by the first-century Roman historian Plutarch who wrote this:
“Their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle … When they were 12 years old, they no longer had tunics to wear, received one cloak a year, had hard flesh, and knew little of baths. They slept together … on pallet-beds which they collected for themselves, breaking off with their hands—no knives allowed—the tops of the rushes which grew along the river Eurotas.”
When the boys reached the age of 18, they became trainers for the younger boys. At this time, they also became members of the Spartan reserve army. They would also spy on Helot slaves and kill any who would sneak out at night or speak openly of revolting at their masters.
At the age of 20, a Spartan young man now became a member of the army and the men had a peer evaluation to vote each individual man into becoming a member of one of the messes.
From Wikipedia: The voting was done by Spartan peers who were members of the mess and must be unanimous. Rejected candidates could try to gain entry to a different mess for up to ten years. If a man failed to gain entry into a mess by age 30, he would not gain full Spartan citizenship. At the age of 30, men were permitted to marry and to become full citizens of Sparta who could vote and hold office.
Service in the Spartan Army:
Once a Spartan entered the army, he would serve until he was 60. With a war looming a council of elders would call up the army and select the 300 best hoplites in Sparta to become the hippeis or the King’s guard as was portrayed in the film, “300”.
During a march, the mercenaries from the north, known as the Skiritai and the cavalry would be out front as a screening force. The Hoplites would follow in two long columns followed by the non-combatants.
Each hoplite would carry 20 days of provisions consisting of bread, salted meat, and cheese. They also would carry their armor, helmets, and weapons to include their shields.
From National Geographic: The Spartan shield, the hoplon—from which is derived the name of its bearer, the hoplite—the shield was, together with the spear, the most important weapon of the Spartan warrior. Each shield was circular and convex, weighed more than 15 pounds, and measured three feet in diameter. Shields were specially made out of layers of wood that had been rounded off and glued together. The exterior was covered with a fine layer of bronze, whose surface, glinting in the sun and replicated across the formation, would present a daunting spectacle to an enemy. The Spartan hoplites organized themselves into a tight-packed phalanx that then relentlessly pushed forward behind this wall of bronze.
The legend has it that Spartan mothers would give their sons their shields and say to them, “return with it or on it.” Which meant victory or death. They dressed the same as their Greek countrymen with the exception of the Spartans wore a bright red cloak.
Before a battle, the army would exercise but not nearly as strenuous as in garrison. Plutarch would write that “Their bodily exercises, too, were less rigorous during their campaigns, and [they] were allowed a regimen less rigid. They were the only men in the world for whom war brought a respite in the training for war.”
Often in the morning of a battle, they’d polish their shields and arrange their long hair in full view of the enemy. Their battle formation the Phlanx, would be eight men deep and advance in beat with their music played on utes.
The troops in the front would have their spears pointed outward toward the enemy’s eyes, throat, and arms. They’d use their shields to break thru the enemy’s formation. Any soldier who died in battle would be buried nearby where a memorial engraved with an epitaph, like one for the Spartans who died defending the Thermopylae pass against the Persians: “O Stranger, tell the Spartans that here we remain, obedient to their orders.”