My regular readers may be surprised to learn that I have hobbies other than economic and moral critiques of socialism. One of them is ancient history. Given the recent popularity of war movies set in the ancient world, I thought it would be fun to combine my favorite subjects of economics, philosophy and ancient history and do a critique of the ancient world’s most notorious group of military socialists: The Spaaaaartaaaaaaans.
First of all, a brief historical overview. Who were the Spartans and where did they come from? Like most of the ancient Greek city-states the prehistory and origins of Sparta are shrouded by the mists of time. There is evidence of human settlement there from about the Middle Neolithic period. There is an oral tradition that attributes the founding of classical Sparta and its militaristic social system to a mythical lawgiver named Lycurgus around the 7th century BC.
This Lycurgus person, like many legendary ancient Greek lawgivers and city-fathers, probably never existed. A lot of contemporary ancient Greek philosophers and scholars, such as Herodotus and Plato, thought he did and wrote favorably about his social system. Whether man or myth, he was beyond fascist. Naturally there is a plaque of him in the US house of representatives along with a myriad of other fascist symbols.
The established history of classical Sparta is long and bloody. It includes a lot of famous battles that even average people today know about. The most famous is the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae which has been retold in various films and comic books and has become a part of our culture. Of course the version we get in movies is very different from the truth, but what else would you expect? Other than this there is the famous Battle of Plataea where the Spartans led another Greek victory against the Persians.
The Spartans also emerged victorious, if you can really call it that, from the decades long Peloponnesian War. This was a war between two opposing coalitions led by Athens and Sparta. It embroiled all of Greece in bloody conflict from 430 to 404 BC. There were really two wars, and they were of course characterized by a lot of lies, backstabbing, murder and ridiculously stupid ventures like the Athenian Sicilian Expedition which ended up costing them an entire army, a naval fleet and ultimately the war. In the end, no one really won. This war marked the end of the golden age of classical Greece. Five years later the Athenians killed Socrates for asking too many questions.
The Peloponnesian War is one of the most fascinating eras in ancient Greek history and I recommend reading about it more if you are interested. It is one of the few periods from which we have a complete primary record that is also an enjoyable read. I recommend Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War” to anyone that wants to read further. But this is not the main topic I want to focus on here.
So what was this Spartan social system and why do I characterize it as socialist? The Spartan system was dedicated entirely to producing the finest warriors in Greece for whom there was no greater honor than to die for the state in glorious battle. Trade and commerce were outlawed for the most part. Gold and silver were outlawed for all but the elite. Private property and inheritance were abolished for all but the most elite (of course). All land was granted by the state to the Spartan elite to run as caretakers. The nuclear family as an institution was essentially abolished and children were raised communally. The society was entirely static. A person’s role in society was determined for them by birth and they stayed there until death. It was a totalitarian centrally planned society, with all aspects of life, not just economy, sublimated to the interests of the state. That is why I characterize it as a socialist system.
There were four tiers to Spartan society. At the top were the two kings. Traditionally there were two rival families, both claiming to be descended from Heracles, that occupied the position of King at the same time. They were the top generals and priests of the state. Leonidas, the famous King from the stand of the 300, was a real historical figure and one of these Kings. Just below the Kings, and the least numerous other than the Kings, were the citizens, or Spartiates. These were the elite class of Spartan warriors. Members of this class were selected from birth to go through the uniquely hellish Spartan brand of military training. Given the nature of this training, by the time the Spartiates reached adulthood they would probably be considered complete sociopaths or even psychopaths by our standards. The Spartiates were granted land to manage by the state and allowed to own gold and silver, but they were absolutely forbidden to engage in any kind of commerce or trade. This was probably not a prohibition that needed to be enforced given Spartan notions of honor and their ideas about commerce.
Below the Spartiates was a slightly larger class of so-called “free men” or Perioikoi. I don’t think I would actually consider anyone in this brutal society to be “free” but whatever. The Perioikoi served as lower level military reserves as well as craftsmen and sometimes messengers or agents of trade, when the Spartans deigned to actually engage in trade.
The lowest rung of society was occupied by the huge majority of people in the area of ancient Laconia (The area around the city of Sparta), known as Helots. At some time in the murky pre-7th century BC past of the Spartans, they conquered the neighboring city of Messinia and enslaved its population. These people became the Helots. They were a slave class owned by the state, not by individual Spartiates. They worked the land that was owned by the state and granted to individual Spartiates, thus freeing the warrior class from any kind of productive activity. The major event in a young Spartan’s coming of age was the ritual slaying of a Helot. Helots could be killed at any time by a full Spartan for any reason with no consequences. A lot of the Spartan military prowess was exercised in controlling this native slave population and putting down the numerous revolts. Some historians think that the entire society ended up structured this way specifically to control this population. This is a credible thesis.
At age seven a boy born into the warrior class was removed from his family and placed into training in the Spartan military academy known as the Agoge. Boys were raised communally in this military training center. They slept and ate in communal barracks and mess halls. They were deliberately underfed in order to teach them toughness and the skill of fending for themselves. At age twelve they were assigned an adult Spartan male as a mentor and substitute father. It is pretty certain that this relationship also included sexual relations. So we can add rape to the list of traumas suffered by Spartan boys. At the age eighteen boys were sent out in groups to live in the wild, live off the land and hunt and kill renegade members of the Helot population as part of the larger effort of controlling the slave population. This final coming of age ceremony was called the Krypteia. Boys that survived this system graduated from the Agoge at age 20 and became full citizens and members of the warrior caste. They were probably completely broken and insane by this point.
Civil and judicial administration was carried out by a council of 28 elder Spartiates known as the Gerousia. State policy was discussed by this council along with the two Kings and proposed to a council of full citizens known as the Damos. State policy in Sparta probably consisted of little more than controlling the Helots and declaring war.
Sparta was a very closed society and hostile to foreigners so little is really known about what went on there. The above is what has been reconstructed as best as possible by both ancient and modern historians. There are of course examples in history of when this system was seemingly not adhered to. Some Spartan Kings showed a fondness for material wealth and inheritance was sometimes allowed for the elite class. But this is probably what the social system of classical Sparta generally looked like.
As you would expect from a society entirely dedicated to militarism, controlling a slave population and exhibiting an ethos of contempt for trade and commerce Sparta was poor in comparison to other Greek city-states. No great works of philosophy, theater, art or poetry came out of Sparta. If you go to the site of ancient Sparta today all you will see are some holes in the ground and broken down stone walls. There are no grand statues, temples and monuments such as those decorating the magnificent Acropolis at Athens. There are barely even any buildings. It is a wasteland.
But of course intellectuals throughout the ages have praised Sparta and admired its austere militarism and lack of corruption by commerce and trade as a society to be emulated. The idle rich classes in Athens had a particular admiration for Spartan life. The fascistic prison state imagined by Plato in “The Republic” is loosely based on the four tiered Spartan system, with an additional tier of “Philosopher Kings” at the top. Of course Sparta had no philosophers, and the Spartans would have spit on a wealthy and idle intellectual like Plato. Laconophilia, or admiration for Sparta, has continued down through the ages and even exists today. The recent spate of war movies involving the Spartans and the lionization of the 300 is part of this phenomenon. A valid comparison can be made to a wealthy New York Times editor enjoying the fruits of a society with a certain degree of freedom, property ownership and trade waxing rhapsodic about the virtues of the Soviet Union. Or perhaps a neoconservative intellectual like Victor Davis Hanson excoriating the population of the US for being selfish and not willing to sacrifice for the “War on Terror.” Presumably this “sacrifice” includes paying higher taxes, accepting state spying, undergoing body scans and pat downs and “supporting” the troops no matter how pointless and corrupt the mission.
We need to move beyond this. We need to get away from stupid prejudices against commerce, property and free trade. We need to get away from romantic notions about brutal, regimented, warlike states like Sparta and see them for the evil and barbaric societies they were. We need to recognize that there is nothing heroic about a society based on slavery and systematic child abuse. Most of all we need to recognize the ugly truths about our own society that would lead intellectuals to romanticize a place like ancient Sparta.