Document #9 – Spartan Society by Xenophon (c.400 BC)


  1. Why did Xenophon decide to write about Sparta?
  2. Why did Xenophon admire Spartan education? Would you send YOUR sons to be educated in Sparta?
  3. What does Xenophon think about recent changes in Spartan attitudes?
  4. What thoughts do you have about the Spartan concept of honor? What is it to be honorable in 21st century America?

Spartan Society

By Xenophon

1. Now once it had struck me that Sparta, despite having one of the lowest populations, had nonetheless clearly become the most powerful and most famous state in Greece, I wondered how this had ever happened. But I stopped wondering once I had pondered the Spartiates’ institutions, for they have achieved success by obeying the laws laid down for them by Lycurgus. I certainly admire him and consider him in the highest degree a wise man, since it was not by copying other states, but by deciding on an opposite course to the majority that he made his country outstandingly fortunate.

2. Putting first things first, think for instance of the production of children. Elsewhere girls who are prospective mothers and considered to be well brought up are fed the plainest practicable diet with as few extras as possible; certainly wine is not given to them at all, or only if watered down. Other Greeks require girls to be sedentary, sitting still and working wool. But in Lycurgus’ view, by contrast, clothes should be produced by slave women; the production of children was the most important duty of free women. So he required females to take physical exercise just as much as males. He arranged for womean also, just like men, to have contests of speed and strength with one another, in the belief that when both parents are strong their children too are born sturdier.

3. Moreover, he made it a matter of disgrace that a man should be seen either when going into or leaving his wife’s room. His thinking was that sex under these circumstances increased a couple’s desire for each and any children born would be much sturdier. Besides he no longer allowed each man to marry when he liked, but laid down that men should marry only when they are at their peak physically — his idea being that this too would help in the production of fine children. He observed, also, that where an old man happened to have a young wife, he tended to keep a jealous watch on her. So he planned to prevent this too by arranging that for the production of children the elderly husband should introduce to his wife any man whose physique and personality he admired. Further, should a man not wish to be married, but still eager to have remarkable children, Lycurgus also made it lawful for him to have children by any fertile and well-bred woman who came to his attention, subject to her husband’s consent. The question of whether he did thereby endow Sparta with men whose size and strength are in any way superior is for anyone who wishes to investigate for himself.

4. Now that I have explained about procreation I want to give a precise account of education. Elsewhere in Greece those who claim to give their sons the finest education put their children under the care of servants as tutors and dispatch them to schools to learn reading and writing and music and the art of wrestling. They make their children’s feet soft with shoes and their bodies delicate with many clothes. As for food, they let them eat as much as their stomachs can hold. But Lycurgus, in place of the private assignment of slave tutors to each boy, stipulated that a man should take charge of them as Train-in-Chief. Lycurgus gave this man authority both to assemble the boys and to punish them severely. He also gave him a squad of young adults equipped with whips to administer punishment when necessary. The result has been that respect and obedience in combination are found to a high degree at Sparta.

5. Rather than letting boys’ feet grow soft in shoes, he told them emphatically to make them strong by not wearing shoes, in the belief that this practice should enable them to walk uphill with greater ease, jump better, and run faster than the one with shoes. And instead of their clothes serving to make them delicate, he required them to become used to a single garment all year round, the idea being that thereby they would be better prepared for cold and heat. As for food, he instructed the eiren to furnish for the common meal just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. His view was that boys under this kind of regimen would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. He also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies would also make them grow tall.

6. On the other hand, while he did not allow them to take what they required effortlessly, to prevent them suffering from hunger he did permit them to steal in order to ward off starvation. Clearly a prospective thief must keep awake at night, and by day must practice deception and lie in wait, as well as have spies ready if he is going to seize anything. So clearly it was Lycurgus’ wish that by training the boys in all these ways he would make them more resourceful at feeding themselves and better fighters. Someone might ask then, if he considered theft a good thing, why on earth did he inflict many lashes on a boy who was caught stealing? My answer is, because people chastise anyone who does not perform satisfactorily. After making it an honor for them to snatch as many cheeses as possible from the Temple of Artemis Orthia, he commanded others to whip them, thereby demonstrating that a short period of pain may be compensated by the enjoyment of long-lasting prestige. With the intention that even in the absence of the Trainer-in-Chief the boys should always have someone ein charge of them, he authorized any citizen who happened to be present at the time to give the boys whatever instruction he thought proper, and to punish any slip they might make. By this measure he gave the boys a greater sense of respect. To ensure that someone should be in control of the boys even when no adult happened to be on the spot, he deputed the smartest of the eirens to take command of each squadron. As a result the boys of Sparta are never without someone in charge of them.

7. The time when boys reach their teens is the very moment when others remove them from tutors, remove them from schools and have nobody in charge of them any longer, but rather leave them independent. Here, too, Lycurgus took the opposite view. Because he appreciated that at this age boys become self-willed and are particularly liable to cockiness — both of which produce powerful cravings for pleasure — this was the age at which he loaded them with the greatest amount of work and contrived that they should be kept occupied most of the time. In his wish to see a sense of respect strongly implanted in them, he have orders that even in the streets they should keep both hands inside their cloaks, should proceed in silence, and should not let their gaze wander in any direction, but fix their eyes on the ground in front of them. Certainly, you would sooner hear a cry from a stone statue or succeed in catching the eye of a bronze one than a Spartan boy. And whenever they attended the mess, they were only allowed to respond to questions the men put to them. Such, then, was the attention he devoted to youths.

8. However, he displayed the greatest concern by far for the young adults, in the conviction that they had the most influence for the good of the state if they were of the right character. From his observation that when people have the strong innate spirit of competition their choruses are the ones most worth watching, he came to think that if he could also urge the young adults to compete in excellence, then they would attain the height of manly gallantry. Let me explain how he used to urge them.

9. From among them the ephors select three of those in their prime. Each of these picks 100 men with a clear explanation of why he approves some and rejects others. As a result those who do not achieve the honor are at war with both those who have dismissed them and those chosen instead of them, and the two groups are on the lookout for any negligent act which may go against the accepted standards of honor. This is also the type of competition most highly favored by the gods and best suited to a citizen community — in which the conduct demanded of brave men is spelled out and each of the two groups independently strives to ensure that it will always prove superior. But should any need arise they would as one protect the city with all their might. They must keep themselves physically fit too, since their rivalry brings on fights whenever they meet. However, all passers-by have the right to separate the combatants. Anyone who defies the man attempting to separate them is brought before the ephors; they levy a stiff fine in their desire to establish the principle that anger must never prevail over respect for the law.

10. As for those who have passed beyond the youngest grade of adulthood, other Greeks, after removing their obligation to keep up their physical strength, nonetheless require them to go on serving in the army when necessary. Lycurgus by contrast made hunting the noblest of pastime for men of this age, so that they could stand up to the exertions of campaigning just as well as the youngest men. This then completes my account of the training Lycurgus prescribed by law.

11. When Lycurgus tok the Spartans in hand they were living in separate households like Greeks elsewhere. He concluded that this was the cause of a great amount of misbehavior and so devised his scheme for common messes, thinking that these would reduce disobedience. The rations he fixed in such a way that they should have neither too much nor too little food. There is never a shortage of food on the table, yet neither is there a lavish spread. When it came to wine he stopped excessive drinking — which causes both physical and mental degeneration — and just let each man drink whenever he felt thirsty. In his view this is the least harmful and most enjoyable way of drinking. With common messes of this type how would anyone ruin either himself or his household by greediness or alcoholism?

12. In other cities men of the same age generally congregate together and respect only their own social group. But at Sparta Lycurgus mixed ages together in the belief that it is beneficial for the younger men to learn from the older ones. Indeed, it was the custom that any noble act on the part of any citizen was discussed in the messes, so that there was limited opportunity for drunken behavior. Eating out certainly brings out more benefits. To get home the Spartans have to walk, taking care not to trip and fall under the influence of wine. They also have to do in the dark what they do by daylight; men still liable for military service are not even allowed a torch. Lycurgus further noted that the same rations improve the complexion, physique, and strength of hard workers, whereas they give lazy people a bloated, ugly, and feeble appearance. It would certainly not be easy for anyone to find men healthier or more physically adept than Spartiates.

13. Lycurgus definitely held the opposite view to the majority of Greeks in the following ways too. In other cities each man is master of his own children, slaves, and property.. But Lycurgus, in his wish to arrange that citizens might enjoy a mutual benefit without injury to anyone, caused each man to be master of other people’s children just as much as his own. Should any boy ever tell his father that he was beaten by another, then it is a disgrace if the father does not give his son another beating. To such a degree do Spartans trust each other not to discipline children carelessly or dishonor good order. He even authorized them to use other people’s household servants too if anybody needed them. He also authorized the sharing of hunting dogs. They have the same arrangement with horses, so that if someone needs to go somewhere fast and happens to spot a horse anywhere, he just takes it, and then duly returns it after use. He also arranged to have food caches stocked throughout Sparta so that those in need could break the seals and take what they needed. By sharing with each other in this way, even those who possess little can benefit from everything in the polis whenever they are in need.

14.  There are also the following practices instituted by Lycurgus which are quite the opposite from those elsewhere in Greece. In the other poleis everyone naturally makes as much money as possible; some are farmers, others ship owners or traders, while crafts support others. But at Sparta Lycurgus banned all free men from the pursuit of wealth and prescribed that their sole concern should be with things that make cities free. Lycurgus demanded that provisions should be contributed on an equal basis and the way of life be uniform, thus doing away with self-indulgent passion for wealth. There is no point in making money even for the sake of clothes, since it is physical vitality which gives men a distinctive appearance not lavish dress. There is no point in amassing money to spend on fellow members of the mess either, since Lycurgus instilled the idea that the person who helps his companions by undertaking physical labor is more reputable than the one who spends money — the former service comes from the heart, whereas the latter is a function of being rich.

15. He also prevented moneymaking by illegal means. First he instituted currency of such a type that neither master nor servant could ever be unaware of money coming into the house; indeed this would require a great deal of space and a wagon for transport. Searches are made for gold and silver, and should any be found anywhere its possessor is fined. So what would be the point of being eager to make money when more trouble comes from having it than pleasure does from spending it?

16. Now we all know that in Sparta there is the strictest obedience to both the authorities and to laws. In other states the more powerful people do not wish to give the impression that they fear the authorities and consider it demeaning to free men. But at Sparta the most influential figures are in fact particularly submissive towards the authorities. They take pride in being humble for they believe that they should take the lead in showing exceptional obedience.

17. In order to make the citizens willing to obey the laws, Lycurgus issued his laws only after going to Delphi and asked the god if it would be preferable and better for Sparta to obey his laws. Once the god had responded in the affirmative, only then did he issue them, with the prescription that it would be not only lawful but also impious to disobey laws ordered by the Pythian god.

18. Lycurgus merits admiration for also bringing it about that the citizens considered an honorable death preferable to a life of disgrace. In fact anybody will find upon investigation that casualties among them are lower than among men who prefer to retreat from danger. To be truthful, self-preservation in most instances is really associated more with bravery than with cowardice, since the former is in fact easier and more pleasant. Clearly glory is the companion of bravery; everyone wants some alliance with brave men. Now it would be quite wrong to neglect how Lycurgus contrived this attitude. Clearly, he offered the brave prosperity and the cowards adversity. In other cities whenever someone displays cowardice, he merely gets the name of coward; yet the coward continues to go out in public and take exercise in the same place as the brave man. But at Sparta everyone would be ashamed to associate with a coward in his mess or have him as a wrestling partner. When sides are being picked for a ball game, that sort of man is often left out with no position assigned, and in dances he is banished to the insulting places. Moreover, in the streets he is required to give way and give up his seat even to younger men. The girls of his family he has to support at home and must explain to them why they can’t get husbands. He must endure having a home with no wife and pay a fine on top of this. He must not walk around with a cheerful face, nor must he imitate men of impeccable reputation. If he does he must submit to being beaten by his betters. When disgrace of this kind is imposed on cowards I am certainly not surprised that death is preferred to life of such dishonor and ignominy.

19. Equally splendid in my opinion was Lycurgus’ law that excellence be cultivated through old age. By establishing that election to the Gerousia should occur near life’s end, he ensured that they would continue to care about their moral excellence even in old age. He is to be admired also for the protection he offered to virtuous men in old age, for by making the elders [senators] supreme judges in capital cases he produced more respect for old age than for those at the peak of their strength. And it is certainly reasonable that of all mankind’s competitions this one should prompt the greatest rivalry. While athletic contests are honorable too, they are mere trials of physique, whereas the competition for the Gerousia involves a test of the noble qualities of the spirit. Thus, just as the spirit is superior to the body, to the same degree contests of spirit merit greater rivalry than those of physique.

20. How could one truly deny that the following measure by Lycurgus merits tremendous admiration? He recognized that where only enthusiasts show concern for virtue, their numbers are not sufficient to exalt their polis. So at Sparta he made it compulsory for everyone to develop all the virtues as a public duty. Thus, just as private individuals who cultivate excellence are superior to those who neglect it, so Sparta too is superior to all cities in this quality, because she alone makes the development of moral excellence [arête] a public duty. Isn’t it splendid too, that where other cities inflict punishment in cases where one person injures another, Lycurgus imposed even greater punishment on someone who neglected to be as good as possible? He made the exercise of all good qualities of citizens an inescapable duty, thus he gave an equal share in the state to all law-abiding citizens without regard for physical or financial deficiencies. Lycurgus made it clear that if anyone should shirk the effort required to keep his laws, then he would no longer be considered one of the Equals.

21. Now it is plain that these laws are extremely ancient, since Lycurgus is said to have been a contemporary of the grandson’s of Heracles. But despite their age, even today other peoples find them new and strange. And the most extraordinary thing of all is that despite the universal praise for such a code of behavior, not a single city is willing to copy it.

22. Now these advantages they enjoy jointly in time of both peace and war. But if anyone wishes to understand how Lycurgus also caused their military organization to be superior to that of others he should pay attention to what follows. First of all, the ephors announce which age groups are required for service and exactly which craftsmen are needed. Consequently, even on campaign the Spartans are fully supplied with everything used by a city population. Now as to their equipment for battle, he arranged that they should have a red cloak and a bronze hoplon, on the thinking that the former presents the greatest contrast with any female dress as well as the most warlike appearance; the latter certainly can be polished quickly and is slow to tarnish. He permitted those who had reached adulthood [age 30] to wear their hair long too, in the belief that they would thereby look taller and have a nobler, more fearsome appearance.

23. The general view that the Spartan battle formation is complicated is an assumption completely at variance with reality. In the Spartan formation the men who stand in the front line are officers and all the ranks cooperate by doing what is required of them. Orders for deployment are given verbally, so that the phalanzes thin out or grow thicker as required. None of this is difficult to grasp. What isn’t at all easy to grasp, except to those trained under the laws of Lycurgus, is the tactic of continuing the fight after the line has been thrown into confusion.

24. Spartans also execute with complete smoothness maneuvers regarded as extremely difficult by military instructors. For instance, whenever they are marching in column and suddenly meet an enemy phalanx, the order is passed to form front to the left, and this continues down the entire line until the counter-phalanx is in place. Should the enemy appear in the rear when the Spartans are in this position, each line counter-marches itself so that the men of highest caliber are always facing the enemy. Even the fact that in these circumstances the commander is now on the left of the line is not seen as a drawback. If it happened to seem advantageous that the commander hold the right wing, they first turn the unit in file and reverse the phalanx to the point where the leader is on the right and the rearguard to his left.

25.Given that the angles of a square are indefensible, Lycurgus laid out circular military camps, except where a secure hill or wall or river lay to the rear. In the daytime he posted sentries by the weapons facing inwards — men stationed to guard against their friends rather than their enemies. A watch for the enemy was kept by cavalry who could spot anyone approaching from a great distance. During night-time he assigned skiritae [Spartan light infantry] to mount guard on the camp perimeter, and nowadays any mercenaries who happen to be present join them too. One should also be clear that the practices of always walking about with spear in hand and of keeping slaves away from the weapons both have an identical purpose: security. Moreover, they change their campsites frequently.

26. All Spartans are also instructed by law to keep up their gymnastic training for the duration of campaigns, with the consequence that their sense of their own impressiveness is enhanced and they look superior to other men. No walking or running is to be done beyond the area occupied by the army, so nobody goes far from his weapons. Following the main evening meal they sing a hymn to those gods who have responded favorably to sacrifice and ordered to sleep with weapons close to hand. Where military matters are concerned the Spartans have overlooked little that demand attention.

27. Let me further describe the authority and prestige which Lycurgus bestowed upon a king on campaign. While on service a king and his entourage are maintained by the state. The officers join his mess so that they are always at his side to allow them to confer whenever necessary. There other Equals are also members of the mess and take care of the others’ needs and ensure that they have no concerns to distract them from the business of war.

28. I should go back to how the king starts out with his army. First, while still at home, he sacrifices to Zeus and associated gods. If the sacrifice appears favorable, the Fire-bearer takes the fire from the altar and conveys it to the frontier of the polis, where the king sacrifices again to Zeus and Athena. Only after both of these gods have reacted favorably does he cross the frontier of the polis. Fire from these sacrifices is conveyed onwards without being extinguished. In every instance when he is making a sacrifice he begins the operation before daybreak, with the aim of being the first to win the god’s favor. Also present are two ephors, who do not involve themselves, but observe each person’s actions and ensure that they are correct in every case. Once the sacrifices are completed, the king assembles everyone and gives orders. In short, if you witnessed this you would think that militarily all others are amateurs, whereas Spartans alone are the real masters of the craft of war. With these arrangements the king is left with no other duty on campaign except to act as priest in the divine sphere and as general in the human one.

29. When not in the presence of an enemy, nobody goes in front of the king except the skiritae and the cavalry on reconnaissance. However, if battle is immanent the king takes command of the first battalion and wheels it right until it is placed between two other battalions. The troops positioned behind these are marshaled by the eldest member of the king’s entourage. Lycurgus also made the following splendid, and in my view advantageous, arrangements for actual combat. Once the enemy can see what is happening, a she-goat is sacrificed, all the pipers present begin playing, and every Spartan decorates himself with garlands of flowers and polishes his weapons. Young men may enter battle with their hair oiled and groomed and with a joyful, distinguished appearance.

30. The king’s oath is to rule according to the city’s established laws, while that of the city is to keep the king’s position unshaken so long as he abides by his oath. His special privileges at home do not amount to much beyond those of an ordinary citizen, for it was not Lycurgus’ intention either that kings should acquire a tyrannical attitude or that citizens should come to envy their power. As to the honors shown a king after his death, the aim of the laws of Lycurgus demonstrate that they give special honor to Spartan kings not as humans but as heroes.

30. Were anyone to ask whether I think that the laws of Lycurgus still remain in force and unchanged even at the present time, by Zeus no, I would not have the confidence to make that claim today. I am aware that in the past the Spartans chose to live together at home with modest means rather than to serve as harmosts in various cities and so be corrupted by flattery. I am also aware of how in the past they feared any disclosure that they possessed gold or silver, though nowadays there are even some who glory in having acquired it. I know that in the past too, for this reason, expulsions of foreigners used to occur and Spartans were not permitted to go abroad lest they be infected by lax habits caught by foreigners. But I know that nowadays those who have the reputation of being leading citizens have proved keen to serve abroad as harmosts all their lives. At one time, too, they would have taken care to ensure that they deserved to occupy the position of leadership, but nowadays their main preoccupation is just to exercise authority rather than be worthy of doing so. In the past, for instance, the Greeks came to Sparta and asked her to be the leader against those they felt were wronging them. But now many are calling upon each other to prevent a further period of Spartan rule. It is certainly no wonder that these aspersions are being cast against them, since plainly they are obedient neither to heaven nor to the laws of Lycurgus.



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