Sparta was the world’s first proto-fascist state, demanding absolute, lifelong loyalty and obedience from its citizens. Militaristic and fanatical, Spartan society was unique and unlike any culture before or since. Praised by Adolf Hitler as the “the first racialist state” worthy of admiration, Spartan society was brutal, merciless, and ruthless. It was organized for one exclusive purpose – crafting and maintaining a powerful, dependable military. From birth, Spartan citizens were required to train or serve in the army for their entire lives. With an entire society dedicated to the perfection of warfare, the Spartans were an unrivaled military force on the peninsula.
Lycurgus the Legendary Lawgiver
Before Sparta rose to infamy, the city experienced an extended period of lawlessness and civil strife between the 7th and 8th centuries. Desperate to save their society, the Spartans passed numerous social and political reforms that completely redesigned the Spartan state. These reforms turned Sparta into a country completely obsessed with war, turning it into a military powerhouse that rose to dominance on the Iberian Peninsula.
According to Spartan legend, Lycurgus, a semi-mythical lawgiver, was responsible for the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society during the 8th century BC. Lycurgus was obsessed with remaking the Spartan state from the ground up. He traveled to countries surrounding the Greek peninsula, such as Crete, Ionia, and Egypt, to study their forms of government. Inspired by both the discipline of Crete and the strict classist system in Egypt, he came up with an idea for a new Spartan society devoted to devoted to austerity, simplicity, and military fitness.
To protect Sparta, Lycurgus decided that a well-trained, devoted military must be built and then supported by an underclass of serfs. These two groups would be kept separate, with only members of the military being eligible for citizenship. The military for his strictly class-structured society had to be kept in perfect physical condition and ready for battle at all times. In order to allow his soldiers to serve full time, the large worker underclass lived as slaves, responsible for maintaining all domestic production. While the serfs spent their entire lives farming or herding to provide food for Sparta, the citizens of Sparta would train incessantly to become talented warriors.
Excitedly, Lycurgus returned to Sparta and organized a coup d’état in order to take over the state and implement his reforms. Popular and well regarded in Sparta, Lycurgus informed 30 of his closest friends of his plans, who immediately pledged to support him. At dawn, fully armed for battle, they marched on the marketplace and announced their intent to take over the state and institute reform. The king, overwhelmed by the people’s support of Lycurgus and desperate to improve conditions, agreed to his long list of demands.
To solidify his proposed caste system, Lycurgus divided the Spartans into three strict classes:
- Spartiates, or citizens responsible for governing and protecting Sparta and were the only members of the armed forces
- Periokoi, those who had failed the Agoge/free non-citizens
- Helots, or state owned serfs that were exploited for manual labor by Sparta’s citizen-army
Citizens of Sparta had to be able to trace their lineage directly to the city’s founding families and complete the extensive Agoge training program. In essence, all Spartan citizens had to be both from a noble family and be athletic and disciplined enough to pass the Agoge. This way, Sparta’s armed forces were kept physically capable and ‘racially elite’. Those who failed the Agoge became perioikoi, removing their family from the direct linage and forfeiting the chance for their offspring to become full Spartan citizens. When one man argued against Lycurgus’s discriminatory, proposed class system and suggested that Sparta should set up a democracy, Lycurgus wittily replied: “If you want equality, begin with your own family.”
The helots, ancient Greek for ‘captives’, were the largest class in ancient Sparta. They were state owned serfs, responsible for manual labor and farming. As Spartan citizens were exclusively full-time, lifelong soldiers, Spartan society depended heavily on the helots for domestic production and economic stability. Spartan’s saw the helots as racially inferior, and ruthlessly exploited them for their physical labor. As the helots always significantly outnumbered actual Spartan citizens, the very real threat of a helot revolt terrified the Spartans.
- The Cryptia
To intimidate and control the helots, Lycurgus formed the Cryptia, a type of ancient secret police staffed by Sparta’s citizen-soldiers. The Cryptia was responsible for keeping the helots enslaved and productive, dedicated to suppressing potential helot revolts against the Spartan citizens. They used deceptive tactics to weed out potential helot revolutionaries, once tricking them by declaring that any helot could report to a Spartan army post to claim their freedom. As it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most likely to rebel, the first 2,000 helots who arrived were executed on the spot.
In addition to the Cryptia’s aggressive tactics, Lycurgus instituted multiple state-wide policies to control the slaves. Every autumn, the Spartans declared ritualistic war against the helots, making all crimes against the group temporarily legal. During this period, Spartans were encouraged to summarily execute helots that they found troublesome or unruly in order to quell potential revolutionaries.
- Improved status of women
Lycurgus forfeited Sparta’s traditionalist values, instead favoring policies to strengthen the overall state and fitness of his citizens. He instituted major reforms for women, who became respected as the bearers of the next generation. Lycurgus declared that all women would be married in their late teens or early twenties, unlike Sparta’s rival Athens where it was common for girls to be married as young as 12 or 13. Women in Sparta were to be well-fed, educated, and trained, responsible for their own properties and economic affairs. As such, Spartan women enjoyed a status and power that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. In fact, women were so respected within Sparta that only women who died in childbirth or men who died during combat were allowed the right to have their names inscribed on their tombstones.
- Abolition of personal wealth
Arguably one of Lycurgus’s most revolutionary reforms was his set of radical economic policies. He instituted major communal reforms, deciding that if nobody had individual wealth or personal ownership, greed would be eradicated and everyone would be able to dedicate themselves fulltime to military training. To accomplish this, he equalized landholdings and distributed the city’s wealth among the population. In order to defeat greed and dependence on money, he banned all gold and silver from the city. He deemed Sparta’s new currency to be iron, weakened by being heated red-hot then cooled in a vinegar bath. As such, Sparta’s currency was worthless outside the city, making all Spartans equally poor. Spartans were in effect completely isolated economically, limiting external influences to maintain cohesion of the state.
- Extensive military training
In order to train and organize his dreamed citizen-army, Lycurgus implemented extensive militaristic and authoritarian policies, such as the state sponsored Agoge training program. At age 7, Spartan boys eligible for the Agoge would be taken from their families by the government and enrolled full time in the program. Teaching absolute allegiance to the Spartan state, the Agoge was designed to create ideal soldiers. Encouraged to give their loyalty to their new comrades instead of their families, the boys were indoctrinated and taught that their only purpose in life was to serve Sparta on the battlefield. Featuring constant physical training, violent competition, and rigid discipline, the Agoge was responsible for training the next generation of Sparta’s elite hoplite army.
Lycurgus cherished frugality and simplicity, adamant that an individual raised in adversity would become strong and capable. He incorporated these values into the Agoge’s rigorous education, ensuring that only the strongest, most talented boys would pass. Boys in the Agoge received just one article of clothing a year and were purposefully underfed. Constantly hungry, the young boys learned to fight on an empty stomach, allowing Spartan soldiers to continue extended campaigns even after their food supplies had been exhausted. These harsh conditions gave rise to the modern word ‘Spartan’, meaning simple, or bare. The boys were trained mercilessly, and were subjected to ritualistic flogging in order to weed out weakness. Only at age 20, after 13 years of grueling effort, would the boys be made citizens and full time members of the army.
Military and the Peloponnesian War
As a result of Sparta’s rigorous military training, the city had the best army in ancient Greece. Spartan soldiers were renowned across the ancient world for their legendary talent and ability in battle, allowing Sparta to become the dominant city in Greece. Even though in its zenith of power Sparta could only muster a small sized force of 8,000 citizen hoplites, other city-states were reluctant to attack the military powerhouse.
The military minded Spartans made a culture out of war, constantly subjugating other peoples to protect her interests. Sparta quickly defeated neighboring city-states, forcing smaller cities to pledge allegiance to Sparta in return for protection. By 450 BC, the Spartan’s boasted a large alliance system called the Peloponnesian League which dominated the Greek Peninsula. Only Athens, Sparta’s ancient enemy, challenged Sparta’s supremacy. Building a naval empire in the Aegean Sea called the Delian League, democratic Athens and her allies stood in direct contrast to Sparta’s oligarchic, fascist society.
Rivalry turned to conflict in 431 BC when the two cities began raiding each other’s lands, burning villages and committing widespread atrocities on both sides. In 415 BC, the Athenians daringly sent a large expeditionary force to attack Sparta’s island ally Syracuse. However, in facing the Spartans in open battle, the Athenians were decimated and the entire force was destroyed. The Spartans seized the opportunity and went on the offensive, eventually defeating the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami and laying siege to Athens. Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC.
Sparta’s allies in the Peloponnesian League called for Athens to be burned and all her citizens enslaved, but Sparta refused. Seeking to incorporate Athens into their empire, the Spartans set up a puppet government ruled by the “Thirty Tyrants” based on the oligarchic Spartan model. The Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarch Sparta was one of the world’s first conflicts between governmental systems, seeing Athens crushed under the militaristic weight of Sparta.
Downfall of the state
However, while the Spartans manufactured a strong, well protected society, their downfall was a result of their own strict laws. Spartan citizenship was highly exclusive, available only to those who completed the Agoge and their direct offspring. But the Agoge was difficult to complete and many would be citizens dropped out, thereby forfeiting their family’s citizenship rights. As Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta had a constantly declining citizen-status population – a trend that could not be reversed without changing Sparta’s founding laws. These laws meant that Sparta could not easily replace citizens lost in battle or otherwise, proving to be fatal to the continuation of the state.
At the height of Spartan power in 500 BC, there were approximately 10,000 citizens, 50,000 perioikoi, and nearly 170,000 helots. This unsustainable system was further weakened as the size of the citizen class decreased more every year. By 244 BC, there were less than 4,500 citizens and 15,000 perioikoi. Sparta now increasingly faced a helot population that vastly outnumbered its citizens, creating social instability and unrest. Sparta was taken over by aggressive tyrants, who led her into a series of costly, unsustainable wars with surrounding city states. When the powerful Roman Empire swept into Greece in 146 BC, Sparta’s allies were annihilated and the weakened city was forced to submit to Rome.
Admiration or love for Spartan culture is known as Laconophilia. Sparta was the subject of fascination for many philosophers and academics in ancient Greece and remains a subject of controversy in the modern era. For over 500 years, Spartan society flourished as an unparalleled example of a strictly classist society governed by an authoritarian, militaristic upper class. Many historical figures, such as political strategist Machiavelli or philosopher Rousseau praise Sparta as the pinnacle of human achievement. Adolf Hitler praised the Spartans, recommending in 1928 that Germany should imitate them by limiting “the number allowed to live”. Claiming that the Spartan’s subjugation of the helots was only possible through the citizen’s superior genetics, Hitler deemed Sparta as the “first racialist state”.
Despite notable endorsements over time, Sparta’s militaristic, overtly oppressive style of governance has lost out to Athenian styled democracy in the modern era. Many western countries follow in the footsteps of Athens rather than Sparta, favoring equality over order.