“Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Simonides of Ceos

Many years ago (possibly before the Peloponnesian War), when embarking on a Classics MA, I chose to specialise in Sparta. “But why?” enquired the bemused Head of Department, “Athens is a much richer field of study…it was a centre for the arts and learning; it’s the birthplace of democracy, the cradle of Western Civilisation and just look at all that lovely philosophy.”

My answer then remains the same today. From a purely modern-day standpoint, the Ancient Greeks were, quite frankly, oddballs. And yet these self-same fruitcakes thought the Spartans were really, really, really weird. As indeed they were, wonderfully so. Which made them utterly irresistible, and not just in an academic sense. It was their very ‘weirdnesses’ that, between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, led to Sparta becoming the undisputed major military power among the Greek city states. In short, there was method in their madness and, as a result, there is still much we can learn from them.

1. Do one thing and do it terribly, terribly well.

In Athens and other Greek city states, citizens were brought up to be farmers, fisherman, blacksmiths, butchers, bakers (and, who knows, maybe even candlestick makers). In times of war, they just left their day jobs and mobilised, much as the British Territorial Army do today. Not so Spartans, who were debarred by law from trade or manufacture. Subject to intense and rigorous military training from the age of 7 when they left home to enter the agoge (military school), they were brought up solely as professional soldiers and their primary obligation was to be killing machines, to be a ‘wall of men, instead of bricks.” The result was that the Spartans became one of the most efficient and feared military forces in world history. Indeed, at the height of their power it was commonly accepted that, “One Spartan was worth several men of any other state.”

2. Never, ever, give up.

Surrender simply wasn’t an option. Spartan mothers or wives gave a departing warrior his shield with the words: Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς!” (“With it or on it!”) meaning he should either return victorious with his shield, or with his dead body on it having died with honour, but never after discarding his heavy shield and fleeing, the mark of a deserter. The most famous example of this came in 480 BCE when King Leonidas I of Sparta was guarding the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae with just 300 Spartans and 7,000 other Greeks in order to delay the invading Persian army (alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million but probably ranging between about 100,000 and 150,000). When King Xerxes offered to spare the vastly outnumbered Greeks if they gave up their arms, Leonidas responded “Μολών λαβέ” – “Come and take them”. At dawn on the 3rd day of battle, realising the Greeks had been betrayed, Leonidas ordered the rest of the Greeks to leave. The Spartans, however, fought on until the last – literally with tooth and nail when their weapons were destroyed. –

3. K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Spartan).

The Spartans were famous for their dislike of long winded speeches. Unlike other Greek city states, most notably Athens, they had no patience with the orotund rhetoric flourishing at the time. Instead, choosing to save time, effort and cut through useless babble, they became known for the brevity and simplicity of their speech. Known as laconic speech (Laconia being the region of Greece of which Sparta was – and still is – the capital), their communications were short and straight to the point and very often sharpened by an acerbic wit. Notable examples include:

* When told by an Athenian that speech was the most powerful of all, King Agis replied:”Then when you are silent, you are worthless.”

* On receiving a threatening note from Philip of Macedon: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” the Spartans sent back a one word reply: “If”.

* In an account from Herodotus: “When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid.” When it was over, the Spartans averred that they could no longer remember the first half of their speech, and thus “…could make nothing of the remainder. Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, ‘The bag wants flour.’ The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said ‘the bag.’ “

4. Excess is for wimps.

The practice of Spartan austerity, of course, didn’t stop at speech. The Spartans recognised that the rich lifestyle is almost always in conflict with the good life. For example, you would never find a Spartan admiring the craftsmanship of anything without utility. By law, roof beams in Sparta could not be finished with anything but an axe. When a Spartan was visiting Athens and his host was showing off his luxurious mansion, complete with finely detailed, square roof beams, the Spartan asked the Athenian if trees grew square in Athens. “No, of course not,” said the Athenian, “but round, as trees grow everywhere.” “And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”

In another instance, when the Spartans and their allies overcame the Persians at Plataea in 479 BCE, the spoils included the opulent pavilions of King Xerxes, along with his cooks, wine stewards and kitchen servants. Pausanius, the Regent of Sparta, ordered the Persian chefs to prepare a typical dinner, the sort they would normally make for Xerxes. Meanwhile, he had his own cooks whip up some standard Spartan fare. The Persian chefs produced a lavish banquet of many courses, served on golden plates and topped off by the most sumptuous cakes and delicacies. The Spartans’ grub was barley bread and μέλας ζωμός (pig’s-blood and vinegar soup). When the Spartans saw the two meals side by side, they burst out laughing. “How far the Persians have travelled,” proclaimed Pausanias, “to rob us of our poverty!”

5. Take one for the team.

From the age of 7, Spartan boys lived in communal messes and continued to live communally well into adulthood, At the age of 20, the Spartan citizen began his membership in one of the συσσίτια (dining messes or clubs), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. They called themselves “ομοιοι”, (“equals”), pointing to their common lifestyle and the rigorous discipline of the infantry line, which demanded that no one soldier was superior to another and that his ultimate responsibility was to his comrades in arms – messmates and friends. The Spartan Dienekes perhaps said it best when he instructed his comrades to: “Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.”

To sum up, I leave it to someone far more qualified than I. As the world’s greatest expert on Sparta, Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus, University of Cambridge, says:

“How could we be ‘spartan’ without the Spartans? In these days of global economic austerity perhaps that’s a thought that’s all too close to the bone or near the knuckle. But think of Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae – the classic example of heroic self-sacrifice. The Spartans remain very good to think with.”

N.B. If you’d like to embrace the wonderful weirdness of Sparta and learn more, the best book to start with is probably ‘The Spartans: An Epic History’ by Paul Cartledge. You can find it here.