S2 E6: Sparta transcript
[Generic middle eastern hollywood music]
When was Sparta around?
From the 900s to 192BC. Though it reached the peak of its powers in 404BC after a defeat of its main Greek rival, Athens.
Who were the Spartans
They called themselves the Lacedaemonians.
FX: Matt Damon (Team America)
It was said that Sparta was founded by a king called Lacedaemon, a son of Zeus. He named his kingdom after himself just to make the historical records neat. And it sounds plausible. After all, we all know that Great Britain was named after early eighteenth century Union Jack salesman, Dave Great Britain.
In reality, the Spartans were part of the Dorian people who turned up in the area in the 3rd century BC - arriving from the north. They were supposed to be one of four major ethnic groups that formed the Ancient Greek identity, along with the Ionians (who settled around Athens), the Achaeans (in Patras) and the Aeolians, who invented mayonnaise.
What kind of government did the Spartans have?
Almost uniquely, they had two kings.
Tenacious D: two kings.
The kings of Sparta were said to descend directly from Heracles, aka Hercules - ultimate manly man, slayer of critically endangered monsters and Zeus’ backstairs bastard.
But why two? One king would lead the Spartans into battle and the other would hold the fort at home to keep things all stable like. But these kings weren't some absolutist power mongers, since the kings shared power with five elected officials called ephors. (effers)
Phil, did you just bleep me?
I won’t have filthy, dirty, blue language on my show.
Then there was another popular assembly and the gerousia. The gerousia who were like a council of elders - all of whom were over 60. Sort of like a House of Lords. Or a Joe Bidenocracy. But these weren't layabout geriatrics. Spartans were required to stay in fighting condition until the age of 60.
So despite hating democracy and being proactive about stamping it out where they could, the Spartans weren't as absolutely unrepresentative as they liked to pretend. As long as you were a male Spartan citizen of course, of which there were not many. But we'll come to that.
The Spartans thought that their unique military society set up came from someone called Lycurgus.
Who was Lycurgus?
He was probably made up - not least because his name means wolf work - but he was said to have been Sparta’s lawgiver. He set up the whole system and gave Sparta its key virtues: equality among citizens, military fitness and personal austerity. Virtues that the British upper class of the nineteenth century would look to fondly - well, except for the equality bit, and the personal austerity and (from the looks of the red-faced, gouty, pear-shaped English aristocracy) the military fitness.*
Societies throughout history generally make up easy-to-remember stories about themselves. And rather than saying: “our laws and customs evolved in a complicated process over time” you can just say: “that guy did it."
Where was Sparta?
To answer this question, we’ve uninstalled the useless Mapatron 3000 that we had running in series 1 and installed Mappo, the helpful geographical voice assistant. Let’s give this a whirl.
Hi Ed. What can I do for you today?
See, now this is worth the £19.99 per month subscription. Mappo, where was Sparta?
Did you say where was Splarpa?
No. Where was Sparta?
Got it. Ordering you spark plugs. £79.99 will be charged to your highest interest credit card.
No, cancel. Cancel.
Nigel Mansell was a British Formula 1 driver who won 5 Grand Prix in 1986…
Oh, for F*** SAKE.
Leave this to me. Mappo, what is the weather like tomorrow in Ipswich?
Sparta is located in the region of Laconia, in the south-eastern Peloponnese. Ancient Sparta was built on the banks of the Eurotas River, the largest river of Laconia, which provided it with a source of freshwater.
See? You just need to be patient. Like a pal.
Got it. Opening paypal and subscribing to the Mail Online
Hmmm… Yeah, unsubscribe.
In Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore, we’ve covered countries that tried to be countries – with things like an executive, money, a flag and all that good tangible stuff that countries are made out of. But Sparta was something different. It was a polis. And if you’re thinking “I hate the polis”, chances are you come from Glasgow.
Polis means a citizen state. So its people were the city. Which is convenient, because Sparta really didn’t do cities. Unlike other Greek powers like Athens, they didn’t spend their time building grand cities and fancy buildings. Despite being one of the dominant powers of Ancient Greece, they preferred small settlements without walls.
Why didn’t the Spartans like walls?
On a practical level, Sparta spent most of its history not needing them. Their comfy fertile Eurotas Valley was rarely invaded. Wars were things that happened somewhere else. And in fact, they even viewed walls as effeminate.
Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus referred to Sparta as having “a wall of men, instead of bricks.” I mean. You could have both.
When red blooded Trump supporters yelled: “Build that wall, build that wall…” a Spartan would have thought them a bunch of lily-livered <Withnail quote> “perfumed ponce” -es.
In fact, when Sparta defeated the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War, one of the demands was that the Athenians knocked down their cheating, girly walls.
You said girly like it was a bad thing. Am I to take it that the Spartans were a super macho culture?
So I guess Spartan women had a pretty rough time of it...
Ah, you see that’s where things aren’t quite what you’d expect. Over in democratic, progressive Athens, women were basically under house arrest. They were completely uneducated, married off at 12 and then basically never seen again. In Athenian culture, women were not seen and not heard and that included wealthy women.
Whereas in Sparta, things couldn’t have been more different. See, Spartan men were full time soldiers. That meant that their wives more or less handled everything else. At the market and on the street, they dominated day to day life and could do things which would have been scandalous in other Greek city states – like riding horses, literacy, owning property and amassing wealth. Spartan women could have clout and influence.
So, Spartans were actually woke feminists!
No, they were still chauvinists. Spartan women were still seen as glorified babymakers – but because they were expected to produce healthy Spartan soldiers, they were expected to be in peak physical condition – which meant…
Wednesday night Zumba?
No. Wrestling, athletics, dancing and a brilliant game where they had to jump in the air and try to kick themselves in the arse.
These women were so tough they literally kicked their own arses?
Exactly. Plus, girls were fed the same rations as boys but without having to do all the harsh training to be a warrior stuff that the boys went through.
It’s like when I was at school and we were made to play rugby on frozen pitches in winter gales while the girls were allowed to watch videos in the heated sportshall.
Sounding pretty Incel, Ed. / And they say Spartans had it tough...
So, that’s the surprising life of Spartan women. By no means chillin Germaine Greer style, but they had freedoms that other Greek women just didn’t. And the cherry on top was no domestic drudgery, since housework and cooking was done by Helot slaves, leaving women much more time to themselves. Not too shabby!
Athenian philosopher Aristotle even called Sparta a “gynecocracy” (jin-i-cocracy) - a state ran by women. I mean… it definitely wasn’t - but it’s a classical Twitter overreaction.
"I think women should be equal."
[in frothing angry voice] "you know, man, these neo-marxist feminists are the same ideology that leads to communist Russia being sent to the gulag. This is serious, man!"
So, that’s basically how Spartan females had it. But what about Spartan males?
I’m guessing childhood, a gap year to figure stuff out and then an internship at Uncle Leonidas’ olive farm?
Sort of, but no.
First of all, boys were born and were lucky to survive much past that.
The infant mortality rate was high in those days.
True, especially when people were chucking babies into chasms.
That’s right. If there was any perceived imperfection or weakness in the infant, it was curtains for baby.
Sounds insanely cruel, but It wasn’t an uncommon practise in Greece for parents to leave unwanted babies in the wilderness. But generally babies were put in baskets or pots in places well known to be a good spot for abandoned babies.
Just because you couldn’t look after your baby, it didn’t mean no one else would. You could leave a baby and hope it would get picked up by a childless couple or a female wolf and go on to establish the City of Rome.
But the Spartan tradition was more extreme. Unwanted babies were thrown into a chasm called “the place of rejection.”
Yeah, a bit final. But if you were one of the lucky ones to pass the ‘not getting thrown into a chasm ordeal’, things didn’t look that much brighter.
For the first 7 years, you were raised at home. Probably not smothered in love though. And when you were 7, you were sent off to the agoge – an extreme Spartan training regime that sought to turn young Spartan boys into well-drilled killing machines.
Boys were organised into Bro-eye, which meant a herd of cattle led by an older boy called a “boy herd” who was in charge of discipline and punishment. It’s a bit like an English boarding school with 20% more killing.
Each child was issued with a red cloak and starvation rations and so was expected to survive by stealing food. But if you were caught stealing you were punished.
No, for being caught stealing. And if that happened, you were flogged.
Do you want to raise a merciless psychopath? Then maybe you should enrol your child in the Spartan School for Boys. We take the ahhh out of heart and turn it into the arrrgh of heartless bastard! [more? Would be nice to take a subtle dig at Eton!] Did you know that the last two Spartan Prime Ministers went to Spartan School for Boys? And look at them - sociopathic maniacs. So send your child to Spartan School for Boys (if you haven’t already thrown him in a chasm). Spartan School for Boys - where kids become killers and maniacs are made!
The most promising, i.e. worst, boys joined the Cryptaia who were a set of particularly psychotic kidlets who were each given a knife and sent into the mountains. By day they hid out of sight. By night they were sent out to hunt and murder Helots. The Helots were communities of slave people that the Spartans kept in line by setting terrifying children upon them.
That's sounds horrific!
Yes, and the Spartans would punish them in other ways. For example, the Spartans really frowned on getting drunk and drank highly watered down wine. But they'd make the Helots get drunk, just to show each other how a Spartan shouldn't behave.
That sounds...not as bad. Free booze would sure smooth the rough edges of that murder thing...
But I’ll come back to the poor Helots shortly. Let’s finish the story of the poor Spartan boys first.
These boys were tested constantly, and not uncommonly tested… to death.
*CRASHING MUSIC* duh duh duhhhhh
A boy’s upbringing was brutal. When they were 12, they were brought to an altar full of cheese. The challenge was to steal as much cheese as possible.
The catch was that this altar was guarded by older boys with whips, who would show no mercy. Boys could literally be beaten to death.
It was Mini Baby Hell.
*Sad rim shot*
Again, we at CTDEA don’t want to judge an ancient society by modern standards. Except we aren’t. Other Greek states thought this sounded f***ed too.
The alternative was a Spartan staple of Molass Zomass or Black Soup - made of pig’s blood and vinegar. After having tried the food at a mess meal, one visitor to Sparta said, "now I know why they're so keen to die!"
I could sure go for an altar of death cheese round about now.
If you survived the whole mascarpone massacre ordeal, things just got worse. From that point on, it was more military training and less reading and writing.
So it was just double getting the shit beaten out of you every day studies?
Yes, and music and dancing.
Yeah. This is what’s surprising about Sparta. You’d think that the order of the day would be psycho, macho uber male stuff.
But, and this may come as news to some, but what it means to be masculine isn’t eternally written in stone. As with growing their hair long and luxuriant and male sexual relationships, Sparta had a lot of customs that to us would seem at odds with their military machismo.
But singing and dancing were actually all about that. Phalanxes required a huge amount of coordination and group rhythm and learning to dance together (what the Spartans called “War Music”) helped reinforce that. In certain battles, the Spartan line would literally advance to music. Thucidydes, the Athenian war historian wrote:
"A standing institution in their army, that has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it is intended to make them advance evenly without breaking their order, as large armies customarily do at the moment of engagement."
Spartan phalanxes could move and turn sharply in coordination - a big boon in battle. It’s like South USA line dancing except all the dancers were heavily armed and dangerous. So it’s exactly like Southern USA line dancing.
And while singing and dancing may not seem like fight training to us, it was essential to the Spartans.
Paint the fence, wax the floor, defrag my harddrive.
How is this helping?
Apparently, it’ll make my laptop run faster.
At the age of 20, Spartan men faced election to common messes or dining clubs where they’d eat and spend most of their time.
These messes weren’t just boys clubs. Their purpose was to encourage social cohesion by mixing young and old. Rich and poor. Divisions that in other Greek societies were creating huge social problems.
When we say “Spartan” we think of unflashy, minimalist living. And that’s what the Spartans encouraged. They were very keen to promote an egalitarian society - where the differences between rich and poor were almost invisible.
If Spartans were around today, they’d be fighting, hanging around with other men and queuing up on Sundays to get into IKEA.
They’d probably leave the putting it together bit to their helots.
Hang on. Who were these Helots?
In 650 BC, the Spartans marched West out of their Tellytubby paradise valley, through the Tajitas mountains and conquered the neighbouring Messenians. Despite being Greek and speaking the same language as the Spartans (with some even suggesting they had the same Dorian culture) Messenians were turned into a slave population – known as Helots. And Sparta lived off their labour for another 300 years. The Helots did all the work and the Spartans concentrated on beefing themselves up and stabbing people with spears.
Now this may have been a bit of a secret shame for the Spartans. Slavery was common in ancient Greece, but slaves were supposed to be non Greek speaking barbarians. They weren’t supposed to be Greek neighbours.
To add insult to injury, every year the Spartans officially declared war on the Helots - just to keep everyone on their toes and mark them as the enemy within!
A possible reason why the Spartans treated the Helots especially poorly may have been because they were so closely related. By being extra horrible, they could dehumanise the Helots and remind everybody that these were filthy slaves. Personally, I find this highly objectionable. The idea of taking someone that’s basically a family member and making them your slave is reprehensible.
Ed, could I have a night off editing? My fingers are bruised from all this trimming and splicing.
Get back to work!
Owww…where did you get that whip?
So, the Helots did the farming and slave work while a disenfranchised class of non-citizen Perioikoi did the trading and commerce that supplied Sparta and kept its economy afloat.
Who were the Períoikoi?
A disenfranchised class of non-citizens who did the trading and commerce.
I only ask questions. I don’t listen to answers….ok?
Despite supposing to be against that kind of thing, there’s quite a lot of surviving Spartan pottery and art - which may well have been produced by the Pereoikoi.
The unique way that Sparta was set up meant that they could devote all their time to warfare. The Spartans were the only Greek city state who could regularly field professional Hoplites.
A Hoplite. A solider. Most city states relied on citizens who would generally farm for most of the year and then would drop the plough and pick up a spear when they were called to fight.
But Sparta’s society meant that its full-time warrior citizen could devote themselves to the phalanx.
The phalanx was the heavily armoured formation bristling with spears. Most phalanxes were 50 men across and 8 men deep.
The job of the people at the back was to push the front forward. The job of the first few rows was to stab the opposing phalanx with their 8 foot spears. That’s 2.5 metres for our metric listeners.
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Hang on. I thought ancient battles were all individual combat and guys doing cool but unnecessary sword spinning tricks for no reason and then seeing their arch enemy and going “oh, you are so dead, mate.”
That had definitely been a thing at one point. But the phalanx had replaced all of that. Most battles were shields against shields and a whole lot of pushing grunting and hacking. Think secondary school rugby scrum with 50% more blood and carnage.
But the point of the phalanx is that it was the ultimate team building exercise. You all had to trust each other. The only way a phalanx worked was if everybody knew what they had to do and when.
If there was any hint of running away, the whole phalanx would break – so you had to have total faith in each other. The word Hoplite probably comes hoplon – a large concave shield. This was held in the left arm of every Hoplite but, and this is the interesting bit, it didn’t actually primarily protect you. It protected your neighbour. So you had to trust that the Hoplite next to you had your back. Or your front in this case.
And while it’s cool to gas about military formations that resemble giant Godzilla-like hedgehogs, there is a reason I’m telling you about it.
Because the phalanx wasn’t just a nifty formation. It was the entire basis of Spartan society. A society that said that the individual wasn’t worth a thing. What was more important was the community. And if everybody played their role as they had been instructed, the outcome would be success – both on and off the battlefield.
Sparta was one effectively one big phalanx.
See, the aim of Sparta was to build a utopia.
But not for the Helots or the Pereoikoi or anyone not Spartan.
It’s a utopia, Phil. Not a you-topia.
All Greeks were obsessed with law, order and stability. And they all had their system to try to achieve that. Athens gave democracy a whirl, Sparta built a military society. But it was one designed with social cohesion in mind.
So, family values. All that stuff.
Not quite. In fact, the value of the family in Spartan society was zero. Spartan men didn’t live with their family. They lived and ate with their comrades in giant messes. When you came of age in Spartan society, you were hopefully elected to a mess where you spent your time and paid your subs.
If you weren’t elected to a Spartan mess, you were a total wrongun that people would cross the street to avoid. In fact any act that went against strict Spartan society could make you an outcast.
Cowardice in battle would have you branded as a Trembler.
If you had mixed blood, you were a Mophax.
If you failed to pay your mess fees, shame on you.
If you were in your 30s and unmarried, that was a massive crime.
Unmarried men were stripped naked in winter and forced to sing a song about how they were basically massive wasters.
So, if we lived in ancient Sparta, you and I would be seen as total outcasts for not being married with kids.
Yes, it’s a situation our mother would very much approve of.
Except the being stripped naked in winter and forced to sing a song about being wasters, right?
Let’s find out [phone] Hi mum, it’s your son Phil here. What do you feel about Ed and I being unmarried in our 30s?
I think you should be stripped naked in winter and forced to sing a song about being basically a pair of massive wasters.
Oh… See you at Christmas. [Hang up sfx]
That said, getting married wasn’t about the social acceptability of white picket fences. It was about making more Spartans.
Marital bliss was non-existent. Spartan men weren’t married until they were between 25 and 30 years old. On the wedding night, the bride was expected to shave her head and dress like a boy. Their husband would visit them, they’d have something like simulated or actual rape and he’d then return to his mess. This arrangement could go on for weeks, months or even longer.
Sounds pretty dysfunctional?
While it's hard to say exactly why this was the norm, it's clear that Spartan men weren’t used to women. Their whole life had been spent in the company of men. As teenagers, their first sexual experience would be with men. So sex with the new wife was possibly more palatable if she looked like a boy.
Edmund: So you’re a ‘chap’, are you Bob?
Bob: Oh yes, sir. (laughs)
Edmund: You wouldn’t say you were a girl at all?
Aside from early years with their mothers, women were almost a foreign entity. And mothers were not encouraged to be doting. Their whole job in life was to raise a tough non mother lover.
There’s a great example from Sayings of Spartan women:
A man complained his sword was too short. His mother replied: “take a step forward. It will be long enough.”
Before their sons went to battle, mothers were to urge their sons to come back, “with your shield or on it.”
There’s a story of a son that ran away from a battle. Upon seeing his mother, she hitched up her skirt and asked: “Are you going to crawl back where you came from?”
[sitcom burn sfx]
If I lived in Sparta, I'd give it some serious thought.
Now, culture is a powerful thing. But how many Spartan mothers stuck to this ideal is hard to say. Were the Victorians really morally pure or was such heavy stock put on sexual purity because everybody was riddled with syphilis?
And speaking of unexpected sexual practices, the one thing we've glossed over with the upbringing of Spartan males was enforced sexual relationships with older men.
Every young teenager was paired with an older mentor. It was the duty of the older man to provide for the younger’s material needs. It was the job of the young man to provide for the older man’s… other needs.
What do you mean? Delivering messages, sewing on buttons?
In the Spartan system, homosexuality was compulsory. So, when we say that newly married men weren’t used to the company of women. We mean it in every sense.
Western society has a long tradition of slurring homosexuality as feminine or deviant. In Spartan society, not sleeping with men was seen as highly suspect. In fact, sleeping with men was the manly thing to do.
And with all these men sleeping with each other, you think that the women were being ignored? Not at all. Left to their own devices, it was perfectly acceptable for women to find their own pleasure. For one thing, women were allowed to sleep with other men who weren't their husband without getting any slurs over infidelity. For quite another, Spartan society was one of the few places where lesbian sex was perfectly acceptable. Sisters were doing it for themselves.
Other Greek observers looked at this set up and were totally disgusted/ obviously aroused.
PLASTIC ONO BAND:
Ev'rybody's talking 'bout
Hoplites in top fights, cropped wives with shopped knives, chopped thighs and popped eyes. Stopped cries and stopped lives.
Militarism, ism, ism, ism.
All we are saying...is give Greeks phalanx.
And since we've set the stage for a society perfectly attuned to war...let’s talk about war.
WAR! What is it good for? Demonstrating the supremacy of their phalanx
The Spartan war machine were able to demonstrate the supremacy of their phalanx society during the Battle of Thermopylae in 479 BC.
What was the Battle of Thermopylae?
This could be one of the most famous battles in history and was the moment when a Greek alliance tried to stop a massive Persian invasion by defending a narrow pass between some mountains and the sea. These were known as gates, a pass only about two chariots wide. Thermopolyae actually means Hot Gates. And it got pretty hot in there during 479BC.
It was a well picked spot, since the narrow pass meant Persia couldn’t use their feared cavalry and Persian numerical advantage (which was probably something like 10 to 1) was significantly reduced - since only a handful of soldiers could actually fight at any one time.
Wait, I know about this. This is when only 300 Spartans stopped thousands of Persians by being really muscular and oiled up and having amazing beards. I remember this because it was in a film about these 300 brave Spartans. What was amazing about these 300 warriors was that there were only 300 of them. I think the film was called: “Saving Private Ryan.” / (something else? “Some Spartans”)
Actually it was called 300. But don’t worry because it’s historically inaccurate. There were probably 300 Spartans at that battle but actually probably 7000 Greeks altogether. Then nearer 2,000 Greeks at the last stand.
Ok, but the important thing is that loads of Greeks joined forces, defeated the Persian empire and saved Greece.
No, they lost.
Why are you making me read this script where I keep being wrong?
It’s Ancient Greece.I’m using the Socratic method.
It’s where you make up a conversation where you appear wise and the other person seems like a thickie because you get to write the script.
But the important thing is that it delayed the invading force for a week and then was followed by the defeat of the Persians in a naval battle at Salamis.
But Thermopylae wasn’t a battle to be won. In fact the Spartans were fully aware they’d lose - which is why they only picked warriors who’d already had sons.
Wait, so you and I would be fine.
Yup. Bet that ritual humiliation seems pretty sweet now.
Hey. It’s the only life we know.
But Spartans were apparently fine with the idea of dying in battle. In fact they were told to actively seek what they called a “beautiful death.” So weirdly erotic was battle for the Spartans that before fighting they prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
What a bunch of emos!
But the Spartans were super religious. The army wouldn't cross a river without doing an animal sacrifice. The same goes for marching out to war. They'd ask the Oracle of Delphi about everything and if they didn't get a favourable answer, they wouldn't fight. It's amazing that they were able to get anywhere.
The first time the Persians invaded, in 490 BC, the Spartans didn't even turn up to the Battle of Marathon because the phase of the moon looked a bit iffy. And the reason they only sent 300 to Thermopalyae was because it clashed with a religious festival.
Spartan male voice:
Dear King Leonidas, unfortunately young Demaratus can't come to the battle to be massacred today due to a...religious festival. Signed, Spartan mother.
Anyway, after 3 days of fighting, apparently the Persian King Xerxes was tipped off about a mountain pass that would let them surround the Greeks. King Leonidas dismissed the other Greek allies and prepared his Spartans for their last stand.
Every morning before fighting, Spartan warriors stripped naked and exercised before oiling their bodies, combing each other’s long hair, then writing their names on sticks and attaching them to their arm so they could be identified. Basically. Ancient Greek dog tags.
When Xerxes heard about this he laughed and said “”What a bunch of wangs!” or something more historically appropriate.
But as we’ve said, the Spartans were killed to a man and the Persians were only seriously delayed by the Athenian navy. So, you could either comb your hair and hope for a particularly erotic death or you could… you know...buy a boat.
But Thermopylae wasn’t about winning. It was like a giant advert for what Sparta was all about. Discipline, duty and properly conditioned hair.
But when was all said and done, the victory left Greece with two dominant powers with very different ideas about things. On the one hand, there was Sparta. Untouchable land army and disciplined military society.
And on the other, there was Athens. Dominant naval power, great trading power and democracy.
Where Sparta was one society working together to attain the perfect phalanx, the Athenians had to rely on the people power of the rowers in their triremes that sunk the Persians. It was the common people who had made Athens great and they would be represented in the idea of democracy.
After defeating the Persians, it was outgoing Athens that took over leadership of the Greek alliance. It built up its navy, its walls and promoted its democratic values.
Sparta hated walls. Walls defined cities. Cities encouraged democracy. And the Spartans distrusted democracy.
Its a bit like how the USA and USSR allied to defeat Nazi Germany but then built up their own alliances after.
As the saying goes. History repeats itself. Once as tragedy, twice as Countries That Don't Exist Anymore. [sting]
While Athens had its allies, Sparta had its fans too. For some states, the idea of democracy seemed too volatile to achieve order. Many looked at the Spartan system of order, duty and the common good and liked what they saw.
In 465 BC an earthquake hit Sparta causing massive damage.The Helots saw their opportunity and revolted, fortifying Mount Messini and held out.
Not able to storm the fortifications, Sparta asked Athens for help - who sent them some siege equipment. Rather annoyingly, Sparta changed its mind and refused the help. They were worried that Athens was likely to spread its crazy ideas of democracy and freedom and this might appeal to the Messinians (I can’t think why).
This annoyed Athens so much that they talked about it to Sparta’s enemies and even set up escaped Helots in their own city on Athenian territory.
By 431 BC….
The Peloponnesian War broke out.
Why was it called the Peloponnesian War?
The war fought between the Athenians, Spartans and their allies took place on the peninsula called the Peloponnese. It’s the southern bit of Greece that looks like a tatty ghost.
Sparta got straight down to business and marched into Athenian territory, getting within 7 miles of Athens itself. And while the Athenians couldn’t match the Spartans on land, they could trounce them on the waves.
Athens had built itself walls surrounding the city with a further 7 mile stretch of double walls connecting it to its port of Piraeus. This basically meant that Athens could just keep resupplying itself and Sparta couldn’t ever successfully siege Athens.
But not long after, Athens was hit by a plague which wiped out a third of its population and led Spartans to believe that the gods were on their side.
But in 425BC, it was Sparta’s turn to suffer a blow. With the help of former Spartan slaves, the Athenians captured the Port of Pylos - not far away from the Spartan homeland. Sparta sent an army to blockade the Athenians - but this was countered when Athens sent a large fleet to break the Spartan blockade.
The Spartan force found themselves trapped on the Island of Spachteria for 2 months - harassed by Athenian archers and javelin throwers.
It had only been 50 years since King Leonidas and his Spartans sacrificed themselves for Spartan honour. So when the Athenians asked them if they’d like to surrender, the expectation was that the Spartans would comb their hair and go for the beautiful death. But instead the Spartan soldiers said:
“Umm. Yes, please.” (have got Eddy from Bottom if we need)
This was a massive blow to Spartan morale and Spartan PR. It seemed like the end of Spartan invincibility. The 120 Spartans that surrendered were taken back to Athens as hostages and paraded around the streets.
This rattled the Spartans so much that they sued for peace. But the Athenians, sensing weakness, said “No.”
But things swung back in 415BC. As weird as it may seem, Sparta had some fans in Athens. One of them, a playboy named Alcibiades, was facing charges of sacrilege in Athens and fled to Sparta. Though being a party animal, he soon endeared himself in Sparta by decking himself out in Spartan rags, eating a basic diet and - presumably - sharing some en flic hair care tips.
He convinced the Spartans to help out the Dorian Greek colony of Syracuse in Sicily. They had been fighting the Athenians and were inspired to fight back with Spartan support. The Athenians beat a fighting retreat - only to be trapped by the Spartan navy and defeated.
The irony of all this is that it was Alcibiades who had convinced Athens to invade Sicily in the first place.
The Spartans and Syracusans took 7,000 Athenian prisoners. But rather than taking them back to Sparta and parading them around for fun, the Athenian prisoners were set to work in quarries where they were starved, beaten and baked in the sun.
The only Athenians that survived were the ones who could perform the plays of Euripidies (a fave on Syracuse). Those lucky survivors who passed this high stakes Athenians Got Talent were...sold into slavery.
It was another outsider, Lysander, who dealt the final blow to Athens.
Who was Lysander?
Lysander was half Spartan and half helot - which made him a Mophax - or a mixed blood. Although he’d gone through the Spartan agoge system, he still felt he had a lot to prove. And he knew that Sparta and its allies would never defeat the Athenians unless they could do it on the water.
Lysander went to the Persian empire and asked for money to build a navy. Now although the Persians had only been enemies fairly recently, they were always delighted to see Greek powers fighting each other so they were happy to hand over loads of gold.
With this new largesse he built a navy - partly with the expertise of Athenian defectors - and then turned pirate - trouncing the Athenians ship to ship before successfully blockading Athens.
In 405AD, the Athenian fleet was destroyed and [Lysander’s force?] imposed their terms on Athens which were the removal of democratic government, the reduction of the Athenian navy to three ships and the destruction of those pesky city walls. The Spartans then massacred Athenian citizens - including Alsabayedes - who had subsequently got bored of minimalist living and had returned to the Athenian party scene.
Sparta had won! It had defeated Athens and was now the master of Greece. They had proven that their system was best, they were favoured by the gods and yes… this...is...Sparta.
Except it sort of wasn’t anymore.
Sparta worked best when it was insular, when it stuck to its land and knew what it was about. This is why Spartan society was highly xenophobic. Spartans were great and outsiders were divs and that was that. Unfortunately for Sparta, its troops had seen the Greek world, had bagged themselves lots of riches and had brought home their taste for the luxuries they were supposed to be dead against.
Sparta… the most consciously conservative nation that has perhaps ever existed… was changing.
Now, Phil, you may heard of the Oracle of Delphi?
No, I’m talking about the seer. The Pythia. An old woman in virgin’s clothes...
Like a Game of Thrones t-shirt?
Could be. But this old woman would eat hallucinogenic plants and babble away.
Oh that one? She lives in Streatham doesn’t she?
But more famously Delphi. So these hopped up babbles were then translated into elegant verse by a priest and that was the Oracle. The Spartans were hooked on the Oracle of Delphi.
Anyway, at Delphi the victorious Lysander did a very unSpartan thing. He commissioned 30 large bronze statues of gods and men with himself being crowned by Poseidon. That kind of putting yourself on par with the gods showy aggrandisement was very not Sparta.
I’m sure Leonidas himself would have said: “This is-n’t Sparta.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Spartans weren't beyond talking themselves up. They were the people who said that their royal lines descended from the divine Heracles himself. But Possiden crowning you while your entourage look on? In bronze? Not Spartan.
And then in 400BC, the shroomed up Oracle of Delphi gave a grim warning. She warned of a crippled kingship.
At that time, one of the kings had died, and it seemed likely that his son, Latahedas, should take the thrown. The king also had a half brother, Agesilaus, who was born lame. Now, under the Spartan system, he should have been hoyed into the place of rejection BUT he was spared because he was royal.
And despite his disability, Agesilaus thrived in the agoge, coming out as a top killer!
Wow! It’s almost like the Spartans were… wrong about disability.
Yeah, I’m getting that too.
Agesilaus had a powerful friend or should we say ex lover, our show off Lysander, who twisted the Oracle’s message. He said that when the Oracle meant a crippled kingship, she wasn’t referring to the literally crippled would-be king. No, she meant that the kingship would be crippled... by Latahedas.
Wait. How did Lysander manage this?
He said that the Athenian playboy Alsabayedes was really Latahedas’ father...which would make him illegitimate and would thereby make him cripple the kingship.
Oooh…? [just a thought, Harold camping backtrack]
Lysander was the Johnnie Cochran of his day.
"If the glove doesn't fit you must acquit."
So, despite the flashy Lysander's backing, Agesilaus comes to the throne and is an arch conservative. He led by example, even wearing a ragged cloak.
But despite his help getting on the throne, Lysander’s bronze statue antics were getting on Agesilaus’ nerves and he demanded that Lysander should serve at his table.
Realising that the tables had turned, Lysander fled but was killed in battle. Among his papers was found proof of his radicalism. Lysander seemed to be planning a new form of government for the Spartans. Sparta was still to have kings but these kings could be elected. It looked like Lysander was positioning himself as the first elected king.
Agesilaus was keen to publish it to show just what a wrongun Lysander had been, but he was advised not to on the basis that the proposal might get popular support.
And this wasn’t the only conspiracy that Agiselaus was faced with.
Kinnedin was a lower grade Spartan and was found to be in league with certain Spartans, Pereoikoi and Helots to overthrow the Spartan system.
Failing to overthrow the Spartan system, they were all thrown into deep caverns.
But all this throwing babies and people into geological formations was taking its toll on Sparta. Put simply. Sparta was running out of Spartans.
Around the time of Thermopolyae, there were thought to have been around 10,000 Spartan warriors. One hundred years later, and after a great many wars, there were 1,000. Ironically, Sparta was at times forced to free Helots in return for their military service. They were enlisting people they were technically supposed to be at war with. Desperate times!
Although the most powerful state in Greece, Sparta was unable and unwilling to field men to fight and demanded their allies to cough up men to fight for them. This led to dangerous tensions with other powers.
At a conference of 371 BC, the thin-skinned Agesilaus got eggy about the deference shown to the representative from Thebes, an ally of Sparta. He got so angry that he grabbed treaties that had been signed and crossed out the name of Thebes.
Chris Morris: It’s war!
Twenty days later Sparta fought Thebes at Lefktra. Sparta was only able to field 700 Spartans plus 1,300 Helots and allies. The Thebans put out an army of 6,000 highly irritated Thebens in phalanxes 50 men deep. This sheer weight of number crushed Sparta. During the battle, 400 Spartans were killed - half its full fighting population.
Sparta was effectively finished as a fighting force. The Thebens then went on the rampage, storming into Sparta’s peaceful lands and freeing the Helots. Gaining their liberty, the Messias built 6 miles of walls around their city. Unlike the Spartans, they saw the value of a sturdy wall.
Its workforce gone and its military now basically non-existent, Sparta limped on. The last recorded instance of Agiselaus was him as an 80 year old mercenary fighting in Egypt, trying to raise a few coins for Sparta. Egyptians came down to shore to grab a glimpse of this legendary king but found s broken old man in a cloak and just said...lol. Facepalm.
The Spartans were so weak that in the generations to follow they neither had the power to resist Philip II of Macedon or to join his son Alexander The Great in his conquest of Persia. Alexander in fact sent 300 suits of Hoplite armour to Athens with the inscription:
"Alexander, son of Philip and the Greeks - except Sparta - dedicated these spoils from the barbarians of Asia."
But it wasn't just lack of available Spartans. In the 300s BC, inequality was on the rise. There actually were available Spartan warriors, but they just couldn't afford their mess fees. The equality Sparta prided itself on hadn't survived ether.
But this wasn’t the total end of Sparta. In the centuries that followed, the Laconians tried to get themselves going again but without the huge Messinian slave population propping up their way of life, there was no recreating their military society.
For example, in 227 BC, King Cleomenes III went into reform mode, dolling out land and offering freedom and citizenship to thousands of Pereoikoi and Laconian Helots for cold hard cash. He also did away with the other wings of government and tried to restore the mess system and the agoge. These reforms went nowhere when he was defeated in battle in 222BC and died a few years later. Later rulers did very unSpartan things like trading and even building a girly wall. Sparta just wasn't Sparta anymore.
Two hundred years later, Sparta was visited by Emperor Augustus who was doing a spot of tourism in the area. Spartan culture had been turned into a theme park where dances were performed and young Spartan boys were flogged to death for the amusement of some fat Roman tourists.
Generally speaking, on Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore we cover places that most people don’t know about and that are lost to history. But that isn’t Sparta.
So why did we cover it at all? Well, the state of Sparta was just too damn interesting not to. And too full of wild contradictions not to.
It was an autocratic society which pushed personal austerity. It preached equality for the few at the expense of the many. Its outlook was insular and hostile to foreigners, yet it sought the leadership of the Greek world. It was the most conservative of nations but possibly the most progressive when it came to women and homosexuality.
It was a utopia for some and a nightmare for many.
And since the Renaissance, we’ve never forgotten about it. It was a shining light to as varying Spartan enthusiasts as Rousseau, Victorian public schools and Nazi Germany.
It was one of the first countries to define citizenship and to attach rights and responsibilities to that idea. But the exclusivity of that citizenship and its child murdering pursuit of physical perfection meant that it could never have the population needed to fight for its survival.
For all its vaunted principles of austerity, order and military fitness, these ideals were built on the backs of slaves and, when the slaves broke free – Sparta imploded.
Although Sparta bested Athens in the Peloponnesian War, democratic Athens was the long-term winner of the war of ideas - at least at this point in history. And although Sparta’s singular experiment may have failed, we just can’t look away.
And that’s why it’s quite firmly takes its place on Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore.
Beastie Boys Sparta song
You wake up late for agoge man you don't want to go
You ask you mom, please? but she still says, no
You're bruised and hurt and you scuffed your knees
You got whipped half to death when you grabbed some cheese
You gotta fight for your right to be Sparta
Fighting in a phalanx, man you better not lose.
And then your wife shaves her head to look like a dude
Athens boats and votes and says you lost Thermopalyae.
Aw, Athens you're just jealous of our beastly boys
Athens thinks it can beat our beastly boys? Bitch, please!
You gotta fight for your right to be Spartan.