Why the Sparta you know never existed: a militaristic culture stereotype revealed as no different from landed gentry

Garrett Ryan, “Why the Sparta you know never existed” (Toldinstone, 8 April 2022)

Classical Sparta has long been perceived as not much more than a highly martial society that trained all its male citizens for little more than to fight wars and prepared all its women (that is, the daughters of Spartan citizens) for marriage to Spartan citizens and bear them sons for war. Undoubtedly the unique and highly regimented nature of Spartan society for its male citizens, and the rigorous education of boys for their future role as soldiers that such a society demanded, have contributed to the popular stereotype. However as historian Dr Ryan explains in this episode of his long-running Toldinstone series, Spartan society was actually more complex than it at first appears. In a short space of time (just under 13 minutes), Dr Ryan quickly describes the lives of Spartan male citizens, their womenfolk and the helots (slaves) who served them.

Spartan men and women are revealed to have lived the lifestyles of what we might call the landed gentry and aristocracy, with men engaged in soldiering, exercising in gymnasiums, hunting for pleasure and dining with their friends, and their womenfolk involved in running their households, directing their domestic slaves, raising young children – and often also running their own businesses. The lives of helots, who far outnumbered the Spartan citizenry, could be brutal and miserable – but they were necessary to carry out the functions of Spartan society so that Spartan citizens could effectively live lives of luxury. Dr Ryan then compares Spartan and Athenian societies and points out that most differences between the two city-states in their politics, their class structures and the lifestyles of their elites are really differences in degree.

It is true that all male Spartan citizens trained to be soldiers for the state – but what they had to do was perhaps equivalent to modern male citizens living in a society where conscription is compulsory and all men of draft age (18 years to early 60s) are regarded as part of their country’s national reserve, to be called to serve at short notice. When the country is at piece, then male citizens are more or less free to live their own lives, provided they maintain their weapons and participate in regular training programs as required. If Spartan boys were taken from their families to train in physical education in special state facilities to prepare for their future adult lives as soldiers, this was not much different from, say, the British practice of enrolling upper and middle class children in boarding schools for several years with the aim of instilling British values and belief in British uniqueness and superiority in the children and prepare them to govern and control the lower classes and British overseas colonies. If the lives of the helots (slaves) under Spartan rule were harsh and humiliating for them, parallels in Western societies can be found: Anglophone settler societies in North America, Australia and elsewhere employed slave labour, convict labour and indentured labour to do their dirty work while their ruling elites enjoyed lives of relative ease and pleasure; and similar might be said for settler societies founded by other European nations in areas they colonised in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The revelation that Spartan society and culture are really not so very different from Athenian society and culture – or even from modern Western society and culture – is less surprising than at first it might seem. Perhaps what we really should be surprised at is how we have been persuaded over the decades to see Classical Athens and Sparta and their relations as a metaphor for Cold War relations between the West (western Europe, North America and their allies) and the East (Russia / USSR, China and their allies) and how the two ancient Greek city-states ended up being shoehorned into stereotypes with Athens supposedly being gold-standard democratic and Sparta being the antithesis of Athens.

Unfortunately Dr Ryan doesn’t go far enough into his video to explore why Sparta has had such bad press from its Athenian enemy and from modern Western nations anxious to portray themselves as a sort of New Athens … but then, such an exploration would require questioning how and why Classical studies has been politicised and used to justify Western political and cultural superiority towards non-Western nations, usually with the aim of dominating those other nations, repressing their peoples and cultures, and stealing their lands and resources.