As demonstrated by the 2007 movie "300" and the "God of War" video game series, even today the warrior-citizens of the ancient Greek city of Sparta remain icons of courage and military might. Starting in childhood, the life of the male Spartan citizen was dedicated to full-time professional soldiering, while others of his society engaged in farming and commercial trades. Although the city's power precipitously declined in the fourth century B.C., its reputation as the paragon of military excellence never fully waned.
As the "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World" explains, Sparta and its affiliated territory had three main classes of residents. Full citizenship was reserved only for males of the ruling Spartiate class. The lowest level consisted of slaves, known as helots. Residents of the surrounding villages, or perioikoi, could serve in the military but did not have the same privileges as the Spartiates. A male from a Spartiate family who failed to be accepted as a full-time soldier would lose his Spartiate status, thereby falling into a nebulous social class between the perioikoi and Spartiates.
Training for War
Preparation for life as a full-time soldier began during childhood. Spartiate boys went through a rigorous educational system known as the agoge. Schooling began at age 7 and continued through the age of 20, at which point the trainee was eligible for admission into one of the military dining halls that became the focal point of the full-time soldier's life. As "The Gymnasium of Virtue" observes, the agoge inculcated the core military values of obedience, endurance, solidarity and aggression, preparing children for combat through a series of survival tests and often-violent athletic contests.
A Spartiate who successfully completed his training and gained admission to a military dining hall did not pursue any other profession, and even his personal life centered around the army. The soldier-citizen was allotted a piece of city-owned land that was farmed by helots, and according to the "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World," a member of the Spartan army also lived in the barracks with other soldiers until the age of 30. If he had a wife, she lived apart from him until he was eligible to leave the barracks. Dedication to military strength was also part of family life; if a child was born that was deemed not to be sufficiently fit, it was killed.
The Battle of Thermopylae
Although Sparta engaged in many conflicts at the height of its power from the sixth through fourth centuries B.C., the battle that has done the most to perpetuate the reputation of its warrior-citizens is the Battle of Thermopylae. In 480 B.C., according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, 300 Spartans, including their king, Leonidas, fought to the death in a narrow pass against several thousand Persian soldiers rather than withdraw to safer ground. This battle has been the subject of a number of movies and books, including Frank Miller's substantially fictionalized graphic novel "300" and its successful film adaptation.
- Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World; David Sacks et al., eds.
- Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past; John Howard Oakley
- The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta; Nigel M. Kennell
- Fordham University - Ancient History Sourcebook: Herodotus: Xerxes Invades Greece, from The Histories
- History vs. Hollywood: 300 (2007)
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images