Unit 2: Ancient Greece / Athens and Sparta


The Customs of Spartans, ca. 390 B.C.

From Xenophon. Constitution of the Lacedaemonians. As reproduced in Xenophon: Scripta Minora, trans. E.C. Marchant, ed. E. Capps, T.E. Page, and W.H.D. Rouse (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1925), 137-157.

It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But then I considered the institutions of the Spartans, and I wondered no longer.

Lycurgus, who gave them the laws they obey, and to which they owe their prosperity, I do regard with wonder; and I think that he reached the utmost limit of wisdom. For it was not by imitating other states, but by devising a system utterly different from that of most others, that he made his country pre-eminently prosperous.

First, to begin at the beginning, I will take the begetting of children. In other states the girls who are destined to become mothers and are brought up in the approved fashion, live on the plainest fare, with the most meagre allowance of delicacies. Wine is withheld altogether, or, if allowed them, is diluted with water. The rest of the Greeks expect their girls to imitate the sedentary life that is typical of handicraftsmen—to keep quiet and do wool-work. How, then, is it to be expected that women so brought up will bear fine children?

But Lycurgus thought the labor of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring.

He noticed, too, that during the time immediately succeeding marriage, it was usual for the husband to have unlimited intercourse with his wife. The rule that he adopted was the opposite of this: for he laid it down that the husband should be ashamed to be seen entering his wife’s room or leaving it. With this restriction on intercourse the desire of the one for the other must necessarily be increased, and their offspring was bound to be more vigorous than if they were surfeited with each other. In addition to this, he withdrew from men the right to take a wife whenever they chose, and insisted on their marrying in the prime of their manhood, believing that this too prompted the production of fine children. It might happen, however, that an old man had a young wife; and he observed that old men keep a very jealous watch over their young wives. To meet these cases he instituted an entirely different system by requiring the elderly husband to introduce into his house some man whose physical and moral qualities he admired, in order to beget children. On the other hand, if a man did not want to cohabit with his wife and nevertheless desired children of whom he could be proud, he made it lawful for him to choose a woman who was the mother of a fine family and of high birth, and if he obtained her husband’s consent, to make her the mother of his children.

He gave his sanction to many similar arrangements. For the wives want to take charge of two households, and the husbands want to get brothers for their sons, brothers who are members of the family and share in its influence, but claim no part of the money.

Thus his regulations with regard to the begetting of children were in sharp contrast with those of other states. Whether he succeeded in populating Sparta with a race of men remarkable for their size and strength anyone who chooses may judge for himself.

Having dealt with the subject of birth, I wish next to explain the educational system of Lycurgus. and how it differs from other systems.

In the other Greek states parents who profess to give their sons the best education place their boys under the care and control of a moral tutor as soon as they can understand what is said to them, and send them to a school to learn letters, music, and the exercises of the wrestling-ground. Moreover, they soften the children’s feet by giving them sandals, and pamper their bodies with changes of clothing; and it is customary to allow them as much food as they can eat.

Lycurgus, on the contrary, instead of leaving each father to appoint a slave to act as tutor, gave the duty of controlling the boys to a member of the class from which the highest offices are filled, in fact to the “Warden” as he is called. He gave this person authority to gather the boys together, to take charge of them and to punish them severely in case of misconduct. He also assigned to him a staff of youths provided with whips to chastise them when necessary; and the result is that modesty and obedience are inseparable companions at Sparta. Instead of softening the boys’ feet with sandals he required them to harden their feet by going without shoes. He believed that if this habit were cultivated it would enable them to climb hills more easily and descend steep inclines with less danger, and that a youth who had accustomed himself to go barefoot would leap and jump and run more nimbly than a boy in sandals. And instead of letting them be pampered in the matter of clothing, he introduced the custom of wearing one garment throughout the year, believing that they would thus be better prepared to face changes of heat and cold. As to the food, he required the prefect to bring with him such a moderate amount of it that the boys would never suffer from repletion, and would know what it was to do with their hunger unsatisfied; for he believed that those who underwent this training would be better able to continue working on an empty stomach, if necessary, and would be capable of carrying on longer without extra food, if the word of command were given to do so: they would want fewer delicacies and would accommodate themselves more readily to anything put before them, and at the same time would enjoy better health. He also thought that a diet which made their bodies slim would do more to increase their height than one that consisted of flesh-forming food.

On the other hand, lest they should feel too much the pinch of hunger, while not giving them the opportunity of taking what they wanted without trouble he allowed them to alleviate their hunger by stealing something. It was not on account of a difficulty in providing for them that he encouraged them to get their food by their own cunning. No one, I suppose, can fail to see that. Obviously a man who intends to take to thieving must spend sleepless nights and play the deceiver and lie in ambush by day, and moreover, if he means to make a capture, he must have spies ready. There can be no doubt then, that all this education was planned by him in order to make the boys more resourceful in getting supplies, and better fighting men.

Someone may ask: But why, if he believed stealing to be a fine thing, did he have the boy who was caught beaten with many stripes? I reply: Because in all cases men punish a learner for not carrying out properly whatever he is taught to do. So the Spartans chastise those who get caught for stealing badly. He made it a point of honour to steal as many cheeses as possible [from the altar of Artemis Orthia]1, but appointed others to scourge the thieves, meaning to show thereby that by enduring pain for a short time one may win everlasting fame and felicity. It is shown herein that where there is need of swiftness, the slothful, as usual, gets little profit and many troubles.

In order that the boys might never lack a ruler even when the Warden was away, he gave authority to any citizen who chanced to be present to require them to do anything that he thought right, and to punish them for any misconduct. Thus had the effect of making the boys more respectful; in fact boys and men alike respect their rulers above everything. And that a ruler might not be lacking to the boys even when no grown man happened to be present, he selected the keenest of the prefects, and gave to each the command of a division. And so at Sparta the boys are never without a ruler.

I think I ought to say something also about intimacy with boys, since this matter has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boeotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours. Some, on the other hand, entirely forbid suitors to talk with boys.

The customs instituted by Lycurgus were opposed to all of these. If someone, being himself an honest man, admired a boy’s soul and tried to make of him an ideal friend without reproach and to associate with him, he approved, and believed in the excellence of this kind of training, But if it was clear that the attraction lay in the boy’s outward beauty, he banned the connection as an abomination; and thus he purged the relationship of all impurity, so that in Lacedaemon it resembled parental and brotherly love.

I am not surprised, however, that people refuse to believe this. For in many states the laws are not opposed to the indulgence of these appetites.

I have now dealt with the Spartan system of education, and that of the other Greek states. Which system turns out men more obedient, more respectful, and more strictly temperate, anyone who chooses may once more judge for himself.

When a boy has ceased to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his moral tutor and his schoolmaster: he is then allowed to go his own way. Here again Lycurgus introduced a wholly different system. For he observed that at this time of life self-will makes a strong root in a boy’s mind, a tendency to insolence manifests itself, and a keen appetite for pleasure in different forms takes possession of him. At this stage, therefore, he imposed on him a ceaseless round of work, and contrived a constant round of occupation. The penalty for shirking the duties was exclusion from all future honours. He thus caused not only the public authorities, but their relations also to take pains that the lads did not incur the contempt of their fellow citizens by flinching from their tasks.

Moreover, wishing modesty to be firmly rooted in them, he required them to keep their hands under their cloaks, to walk in silence, not to look about them, but to fix their eyes on the ground. The effect of this rule has been to prove that even in the matter of decorum, the male is stronger than the female sex. At any rate you would expect a stone image to utter a sound sooner than those lads; you would sooner attract the attention of a bronze figure; you might think them more modest than a young bride in the bridal chamber. When they have taken their place at a public meal, you must be content if you can get them to answer to a question.

Such was the care that he bestowed on the growing lads.

For those who had reached the prime of life he showed by far the deepest solicitude. For he believed that if these were of the right stamp they must exercise a powerful influence for good on the state. He saw that where the spirit of rivalry is strongest among the people, there the choruses are most worth hearing and the athletic contests afford the finest spectacle. He believed, therefore, that if he could match the young men together in a strife of valour, they too would reach a high level of manly excellence. I will proceed to explain, therefore, how he instituted matches between the young men.

The Ephors2, then, pick out three of the very best among them. These three are called Commanders of the Guard. Each of them enrolls a hundred others, stating his reason for preferring one and rejecting another. The result is that those who fail to win the honour are at war both with those who sent them away and with their successful rivals; and they are on the watch for any lapse from the code of honour.

Here then you find that kind of strife that is dearest to the gods, and in the highest sense political--the strife that sets the standard of a brave man’s conduct; and in which either party exerts itself to the end that it may never fall below its best, and that, when the time comes, every member of it may support the state with all his might. And they are bound, too, to keep themselves fit, for one effect of the strife is that they spar whenever they meet; but anyone present has a right to part the combatants. If anyone refuses to obey the mediator the Warden takes him to the Ephors; and they fine him heavily, in order to make him realize that he must never yield to a sudden impulse to disobey those laws.

To come to those who have passed the time of youth, and are now eligible to hold the great offices of state. While absolving these from the duty of bestowing further attention on their bodily strength, the other Greeks require them to continue serving in the army. But Lycurgus established the principle that for citizens of that age, hunting was the noblest occupation, except when some public duty prevented, in order that they might be able to stand the fatigues of soldiering as well as the younger men.

I have given a fairly complete account of the institutions of Lycurgus so far as they apply to the successive stages of life. I will now try to describe the system that he established for all alike.

Lycurgus found the Spartans boarding at home like the other Greeks, and came to the conclusion that the custom was responsible for a great deal of misconduct. He therefore established the public messes outside in the open, thinking that this would reduce the disregard of orders to a minimum. The amount of food he allowed was just enough to prevent them from getting either too much or too little to eat. But many extras are supplied from the spoils of the chase; and for these rich men sometimes substitute wheaten bread. Consequently the board is never bare until the company breaks up, and never extravagantly furnished. Another of his reforms was the abolition of compulsory drinking, which is the undoing alike of body and mind. but he allowed everyone to drink when he was thirsty, believing that drink is then the most harmless and welcome.

Now what opportunity if these public messes give a man to ruin himself or his estate by gluttony or wine-[imbibing]? Note that in other states the company usually consists of men of the same age, where modesty is apt to be conspicuous by its absence from the board. But Lycurgus introduced mixed companies at Sparta, so that the experience of the elders might contribute largely to the education of the juniors. In point of fact, by the custom of the country the conversation at the public meals turns on the great deeds wrought in the state, and so there is little room for insolence or drunken uproar, for unseemly conduct or indecent talk. And the system of feeding in the open has other good results. They must needs walk home after the meal, and, of course, must take good care not to stumble under the influence of drink (for they know that they will not stay on at the table); and they must do in the dark what they do in the day. Indeed, those who are still in the army are not even allowed a torch to guide them.

Lycurgus had also observed the effects of the same rations on the hard worker and the idler; that the former has a fresh color, firm flesh and plenty of vigour, while the latter looks puffy, ugly, and weak. He saw the importance of this; and reflecting that even a man who works hard of his own will because it is his duty to do so, looks in pretty good condition, he required the senior for the time being in every gymnasium to take care that the tasks set should be not too small for the rations allowed. And I think that in this matter too he succeeded. So it would not be easy to find healthier or handier men than the Spartans. For their exercises train the legs, arms, and neck equally.

1The custom of scourging young men for stealing cheese from the temple of Artemis Orthia may show the development of Spartan values as military tactics changed. During the Greek Dark Age, young men were taught to be cunning and resourceful, for this would help them prevail in single combat and disorderly skirmishes. As close formation fighting became the order of the day, it became more important to produce soldiers who would endure danger and hardship unflinchingly. Thus, a festival that once rewarded clever thieves was altered to recognize and encourage those who stalwartly bore pain.

2The Ephors were the highest-ranking Spartan magistrates. Along with the kings, they formed the state’s executive authority.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of the Loeb Classical Library from : XENOPHON: VOLUME VII, Loeb Classical Library Volume 183, translated by E. C. Marchant, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925. The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College.