Creating Spartan hoplites

As soon as a baby boy was born, the state sent officials to look at the child to decide whether he was suitable for future military service as a Spartan hoplite. Male babies which were deemed not viable were abandoned at the foot of the nearby Mount Taygetus, where nature was allowed to take its course. Suitable babies were allotted a certain amount of land by the state (this land was called the kleros), which would then revert to the state when the person to whom it had been granted died (until the laws were changed in the fourth century to allow land to be handed down in a will). Boys were forced to leave home at the age of 7, when they were put into groups (called “herds”) where they were trained in matters such as conformity, obedience, group solidarity and military skills. Each boy was allowed only 1 coat per year, and sandals were not permitted (the feet needed to be toughened to allow the future hoplites to undertake long marches). Food rations were meagre, and the boys were encouraged to develop cunning by trying to steal food (anyone who was caught was severely whipped).

Another toughening ritual was that enacted yearly at the altar of Artemis Orthia. 1 group of boys would try to steal a piece of cheese from the altar, which was defended by a group of older boys brandishing whips. During Roman times, this sacred ritual had become something of a tourist attraction, and a theatre was built on the premises so that visitors could watch the bloody spectacle. And bloody it was – some people were quite literally flogged to death during this ritual, and the altar was invariably spattered with blood by the time it was over.

Between the ages of 14 and 20, the soldiers-to-be performed their preliminary military service, after which they were allowed to adopt the characteristics which set the Spartan hoplite apart from all other soldiers in Greece – his hair was grown long (in contrast to the short hairstyles preferred my most Greeks), and he had a long beard (but no moustache). Between 20 and 30, the hoplites were allowed to marry, yet had to remain with their army groups until the age of 30.

While they were still with their army groups, everything was done communally, supposedly to foster a sense of loyalty and solidarity. As with everything else in Sparta, food was usually purely functional – the main staple was probably “Black Broth” (pork cooked in blood and seasoned with salt and vinegar). Excessive drinking was discouraged – the dangers of such practise were shown to young soldiers by bringing before them helots who had been forced to over-drink who then made fools of themselves in their drunken stupor (this also serves to imbue the Spartans with a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the helots).

Result of the training policy

As one might guess from the above, not everyone made it through the harsh training procedure. Those who dropped out or fell by the wayside were ridiculed (they were known as the “tremblers”), forced to wear cloaks bearing coloured patches, and had to shave half their beard. They were not allowed to hold public office and had little or no chance of ever getting married. They were also rejected by their own kinsfolk, who they were believed to have dishonoured.

Spartan women weren’t left out of this system either. Although they couldn’t fight themselves, they were expected to produce plenty of future soldiers. Unlike Greek women elsewhere, female Spartans were educated at the state’s expense, were given rations equal to those the men received, and often exercised outside. Before they were married, women wore their hair long, but when they married, it was cut short. Generally speaking, women married at about 18, and men at some point before 30.

This austere lifestyle, coupled with the fact that Spartans never married foreigners, meant that the number of male Spartans declined steadily over the years. In the Archaic period, it has been estimated that there were about 9000 Spartans, this number declining to 8000 by the fifth century BC. Not only were valuable Spartans lost during military campaigns, but natural disasters took their toll – there was a devastating earthquake in Sparta in 464 which took the lives of not only many adult Spartans, but which supposedly killed the majority of, if not all, youths who were currently undergoing military training. Early in the fourth century, quite a few Spartans were lured away to serve as mercenaries elsewhere. When he visited the city in 330BC, Aristotle put the number of Spartans at about 1000. By Roman times, there were very few left indeed.