It became the head of the alliance of city-states on the Peloponnesus known as the Peloponnesian League.
Sparta was also the head of the Greeks who fought the Persians in the fifth century BC.
Sparta was located on the Eurotas River in a valley that forms a natural fortress. To the west is Mt. Taygetus (2407 m) and to the east is Mt. Parnon (1935 m). To the north are high hills reaching 1,000 meters in altitude.
Spartan society was divided into three major classes.
There were the Helots. In about 725 BC, the Spartans conquered the large Messenian tribe to the west and made them slaves called heilôtai (“to capture”).
- They were the property of the state and were assigned to the Spartan citizens. There were possibly seven helot slaves for each Spartan.
- They were forced to do the agricultural work and manual labor and be household slaves, freeing the Spartans to devote themselves to military training. The helot farmers gave half their produce to the Spartans.
- They had “an altogether cruel and bitter condition.” The poet Tyrtaios described the Helots as “asses worn down with great burdens.” They were forced to wear a dogskin cap and were beaten each year so they would not forget they were slaves. They were degraded in many ways, such as being forced to get drunk and dance and sing to entertain the Spartans.
- The Spartans were constantly in fear of a revolt by the Helots. They had a secret police called krypteia that was tasked with preventing rebellion. The Greek historian Thukydides relates a situation in 424 BC in which the Spartans weeded out strong-minded helots by deception. They announced that they would give liberty to those helots that considered themselves to be the most brave in battle, believing that those who came forward would be the ones most likely to cause trouble. The 2,000 that were selected were taken to the temples and feted and then killed.
There were the Perioeki (Perioeci, dwellers round about)
- These were the skilled laborers, traders, and craftsmen. They were free, but they were not Spartan citizens and did not participate in the ruling assemblies.
- They lived in villages surrounding the city.
Then there were the Spartan citizens themselves called the Spartiate.
- They devoted themselves to military training. Because of the militaristic culture, the word “spartan” came to signify a strict, austere lifestyle. The entire population was dedicated to producing special forces soldiers, and “the obligation to the state overrode any duty to self or family” (Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 78).
- Each newborn child was examined by a council of inspectors to consider its physical and mental fitness for citizenship. “Plutarch informs us that the father of a newborn child had to present his offspring for inspection before the council of Spartan elders. If it was strong and lusty, the council ordered him to raise it, but if it was not, the father was ordered to expose it at the foot of Mount Taygetos ‘in the belief that the life which nature had not provided with health and strength was of no use either to itself or to the state’” (Plutarch’s Life of Lykourgos, 16.1-2, cited from Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 60).
- Girls were considered of less value than boys and were more often killed. “Girls were abandoned more frequently than boys, partly because their usefulness in the home was more limited than that of boys, and partly because they had to be provided with a substantial dowry in order to attract a suitable husband” (Plutarch’s Life of Lykourgos, 16.1-2, cited from Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 60). Of the Spartan king Kleomenes, the Greek historian Herodotos said he “died childless, leaving only one daughter, Gorgo, behind.”
- The practice of exposure was not limited to Sparta. It was done in other parts of Greece, as well. “Some estimates actually put the level of female exposure in Athens at as high as 10 percent” (Garland, p. 61).
- Sparta was deeply idolatrous. Temples of the goddess Artemis and Athena have been unearthed. Votive offerings dating from the ninth to the fourth centuries BC have been found.
The Spartans offered human sacrifices to their gods after battle victories. “After a battle the winning side would usually set up a trophy. This would include an altar, where it would be set up, allowing victims to be sacrificed to thank the gods. The trophy would usually be positioned at the point the defeated enemy turned and ran, dropping their shields in the process to allow them to run faster. Now the Greek word for 'turn' is 'στροφη' (in English the letters translate to 'STROFI'). So when the altar was set up it became to be known as the STROFI, the place where the enemy turned and fled. This word has now filtered through to be in the English language as well where the word is now called TROPHY” (“Trophy,” AncientGreekBattles.net).
- The Spartans were world famous warriors in an age of warriors. The Greek historian Plutarch said, “The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they.”
- In the Spartans, we are reminded that no matter how elite man’s training is, no matter how thorough his education, no matter how skilled a society becomes, it is still composed of sinners and is under God’s judgment. We are also reminded that “except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa. 127:1).
- At about age seven each Spartan boy (except the firstborn) was taken from his parents and trained until age 30, when he achieved full citizenship. This training was called agoge. “The Agoge is perhaps the most brutal and effective system of physical, psychological and spiritual training ever created” (Cesar Tort, Sparta and Its Law). Basically, every Spartan soldier was trained from childhood as a special forces soldier. Trainees were kept on a special diet and avoided drinking to excess. They were brought to a high level of physical fitness and trained in every element of warfare. They were taught to endure hardness (cold, heat, hunger, pain) without complaining and to obey commands. They were taught to fight as one body. They learned how to live outside by their own skills. They were taught to deal with fear. No sign of cowardice was allowed. They had to endure harsh discipline such as floggings.
v- Many wealthy Greek families wanted their sons to be trained for a period on the Spartan agoge, but few were accepted.
The famous Spartan infantry soldiers were called hoplites.
- They were protected by a breastplate made of bronze or corselet (layers of linen or leather glued together), a bronze helmet with cheekplates, greaves, and a circular shield (aspis) made of wood covered in bronze.
- Their weapons consisted of a spear (dory) seven to nine feet long. It had a spearhead on one end and a spike on the other called a sauroter (“lizard killer”). They carried a short double-sided sword (xiphos) used for slicing or thrusting. Some soldiers carried a pike (sarissa) that was twice as long as the aspis.
- They mastered the phalanx formation, which is described in Homer’s writings. The soldiers marched into battle nearly shoulder to shoulder, using their shields for protection and their spears for offense. They moved as one, following every command of their leaders.
- After age 30, Spartan soldiers typically got married. But they continued to live in military barracks and had only brief visits with their families and wives.
- Each Spartan male was given a plot of land which was worked by helots.
- Spartan girls were also trained in physical fitness programs to prepare them to bear children. They practiced dancing, gymnastics, javelin and discus throwing. They were taught to raise brave sons. When a son went off to war, Spartan mothers pointed to his shield and said, “e tan e epi tas,” which meant return “either with it or on it.” It was an exhortation to be brave and to never lose one’s equipment by running from battle.
- The most famous Spartan military engagement was the Battle of Thermopylae. This was a mountain pass near the Gulf of Malis. The Persian king Xerxes had determined to conquer the Greeks and led a massive army and navy around the Aegean Sea to attack from the north. The Greeks determined to stop the Persian army at a narrow pass in Thermopylae and sent a force of 7,000 soldiers led by the Spartan king Leonidas. The Persians had perhaps 200,000 soldiers and at the front were the famous Immortals who were depicted on the palace walls at Susa. The Immortals were a body of 10,000 of the most elite soldiers, all Persians, the personal bodyguard of the king. The Spartans held off the Persians for two full days, which is a testimony to the efficacy of their training. Then they were betrayed by a Greek who showed the Persians a small path that led around the mountains and behind the Spartan lines. Leonidas was informed of the treachery, and knowing that they would be overrun the next day, he dismissed most of his army and stayed with 300 Spartans and a few hundred others to hold off the Persians as long as possible to give the others a chance to escape. As the third day dawned, he told his men, “Eat a good breakfast, for tonight we eat in the underworld.” Leonidas and all of his men were killed or captured, but the rest of his army escaped.
Spartans were famous for their brief statements. This became known as a “laconic” phrase, after the region of Laconia. One famous example is when the Persian king Xerxes demanded of king Leonidas that the Spartans lay down their arms at Thermopylae. His two-word reply was “molon labe” (“come and take them”). When Philip II of Macedon sent word to Sparta, “If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed,” the Spartans replied with one word, “Aika” (if).
God’s people can learn many lessons from soldiering in general and the Spartans in particular, because they are the Lord’s army and are engaged in spiritual warfare (2 Tim. 1:7).
Christians are to fight spiritual enemies. “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).
Christians are to obey their leaders. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
Christians are to work as a body. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:27).
Christians do not choose their place in the body. “But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him” (1 Cor. 12:18).
Christians are under discipline. “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:5-6).
Christians are to train continually. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Christian women are to guide the house. “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully: (1 Tim. 5:14).
Christians are to train their children to be soldiers for Christ. “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
But there are also many differences between Christian warfare and Spartan.
The Spartans’ weapons were carnal, but the Christian’s weapons are spiritual. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor. 10:4).
Spartans trusted in themselves and their idols, but the Christian trusts in the living God. “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).
Spartans fought for their own glory, but the Christian fights for the glory of Jesus Christ. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Spartans conquered their fears by human strength, but the Christian conquers his fears by the power of God. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Spartans are written in human temporal history books, but the Christian’s works are written in God’s history books. “… the judgment was set, and THE BOOKS were opened” (Dan. 7:10). “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and THE BOOKS were opened … and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books” (Rev. 20:12).
Spartans at Thermopylae were led by Leonidis, who died and was never seen again, but Christians are led by a greater Leonidis, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who died and rose from the dead the third day! “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof” (Rev. 5:5).
The Spartan went to the underworld at death because he trusted false gods, but the born again Christian goes to heaven because He has a living Saviour. “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:23).
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