Exercises of Ancient Spartans

The word “Spartan” is synonymous with a very hard way of life due to their culture being hard way of life. They had built one of the finest militaries of the ancient world. On their way to becoming accepted as full citizens of the city state Sparta, the Spartans constructed their society around a strict moral code and sense of duty, and the people underwent great hardships.

Ancient Spartans - A Spartan Warrior

The ancient Spartans were not only the world’s first democracy but were also fierce warriors who prized military strength. This is about the traditional and ancient exercises and martial skills of the ancient Spartans.

Ancient Spartans - History

Spartans had to prove their fitness even as infants

In ancient world the infanticide was a disturbingly common act. But this practice was organized and managed by the state in Sparta. All Spartan infants were examined for physical defects by a council of inspectors. Those who weren’t up to the standards were left to die. What most historians now dismiss as a myth was claimed by an ancient historian Plutarch that these “ill-born” Spartan babies were tossed into a chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus. A Spartan baby was abandoned on a nearby hillside if it was found to be unfit for its future duty as a soldier. Left alone, the child would either die of exposure or be rescued and adopted by strangers.

It was not easy even for the babies who passed the test. Spartan infants were often bathed in wine instead of water to test their constitutions. They were commanded to never fear darkness or solitude and were also frequently ignored when they cried. As per the ancient historian Plutarch, the foreigners admired these tough love parenting techniques so much that the Spartan women were widely sought after for their skill as nurses and nannies.

Spartan children were placed in a military-style education program

Spartan boys began the “agoge” a state-sponsored training regimen designed to mold them into skilled warriors and moral citizens at the age of 7 after being removed from their parents’ homes. The young soldiers-in-waiting were instructed in scholastics, warfare, stealth, hunting and athletics after being separated from their families and housed in communal barracks. These initiates, at the age of 12, were forced to sleep outside and make their own beds from reeds and deprived of all clothing except for a red cloak. To ready them for a life in the field, the boy soldiers were also encouraged to scavenge and even steal their food, though if detected they were punished with floggings.

All Spartan women were expected to bear children just as all the Spartan men were expected to be fighters. Spartan girls were subjected to a rigorous education and training program even though they were allowed to remain with their parents. Girls practiced dance and sports like gymnastics, javelin and discuss throw which would make them physically strong for motherhood, while boys were readied for a life on campaign.

Hazing and fighting were encouraged among Spartan children

The training side had a vicious side even though much of the Spartan agoge involved a typical school subjects like reading, writing, rhetoric and poetry. Often fights and arguments were instigated by instructors and older men. This was all done to toughen the young warriors and encourage their development as soldiers. The boys were subject to teasing and violence by peers and superiors alike if they showed any signs of cowardice or timidity during the agoge which was partially designed to make the youths resistant to hardships like cold, hunger and pain.

Even Spartan girls were known to participate in this ritualized hazing. Girls would stand before Spartan dignitaries during certain religious and state ceremonies, and, sing choral songs about the young men of agoge in which often the specific trainees were singled out for ridicule in order to shame them into stepping up their performance.

Training

The Spartan military training life started at the young age of five when a boy child became a boy, until the boy reached 11 years of age. At this age the boy left home and started to live in barracks, and would wear only a tunic. Here the boy was taught to read and write, along with dance while carrying the weapon which trained the young male under his arms. The boy was tutored to sing all the songs of Tyrtains on campaign by heart. He was enrolled in a pack and was encouraged to compete against the packs in sports. By the age of 10 a boy would be able to take part in competitive exercises in music, dancing and athletics.

In his 12th year the boy became a youth, increasing his physical exercise, with a short haircut. He would be wearing only a thin cloak wrapped tightly around the body, with tunic being taken away. For preparing the boy so that he would be able to endure the summer and the winter this cloak would only be his clothing, even playing naked for the most part. He was taught to play barefoot on his feet in battle and would be sleeping on a bed made of reeds plucked by hand from the valley alongside others in his pack in barracks. He was allowed to add thistledown on his bed since it is a kind of material had warmth in it. For the ability to work on empty stomach in the future, the boy would be given a minimal diet, believing that it made the youth grow tall. But on the other hand he was allowed to steal supplement for his diet, which was thought to be useful in increasing his cunningness during the wars. He would be severely punished on being caught; not for stealing but for being caught in the act of stealing!

Every Spartan youth had an adult guardian who was responsible for his conduct and was called as “lover”. When a male had completed his 18th year he became an adult citizen. He would train the youths at his first year. After that he would enter one of the messes which housed about 15 various age and classes for Spartans males. Although a Spartan adult was allowed to with his wife at home at that age, it was not entirely clear. Bu he was not allowed to converse with his fellow adults into the marketplace with he is 30 years old.

A Spartan spent his time in choral dances, hunting, physical exercise, feast and festivals or conversation, when there was no expedition on a military. War was a welcome rest for only the Spartan men in the world from training for war.

Every Spartan was responsible for being conscripted into the secret service before the age of 30 for two years. From time to time when they were threatened by revolt, a group of young men were sent to the countryside equipped with only rations and daggers. During the day they hid out in remote places but at night they came to roads quietly and killed any helot they run across.

All Spartan men were expected to be lifelong soldiers

The soldier’s life was the only option for young men who wished to become equal citizens or “Homoioi”, as Sparta’s educational system was very grueling. According to the edicts of the Spartan lawmaker and reformer Lycurgus, male citizens were legally prevented from choosing any occupation other than the military. This commitment could last for decades, as warriors were required to remain on reserve duty until the age of 60.

Sparta’s business of manufacturing and agriculture were left entirely to the lower classes due to their preoccupation with the study of warfare. A class of free non-citizens lived in the surrounding region of Laconia and were called “Perioeci”. These people were skilled laborers, traders and craftsmen. Enslaved Helots, a servile class that made up the majority of Sparta’s population looked after agriculture and food production. One of the major reasons why Spartan elite became so devoted to building a strong military in the first place was due to the constant fear of Helot revolts and uprisings.

Spartan youths ritualistically beaten and flogged

Adolescents were flogged, sometimes to death, in front of an altar at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. This brutal practice was mainly done for a so-called “contest of endurance”, and, was known as “diamastigosis”. This was an annual practice that was used as both a test of the boys’ bravery and resistance to pain, and a religious ritual. Once later when Sparta went into decline and fell under the control of the Roman Empire, it devolved into an outright blood sport. By the third century A.D. there was even an amphitheater constructed so that scores of tourists could cheer on the grisly ordeal.

Food intentionally kept scarce, and poor fitness a cause for ridicule

A Spartan man was elected to a “syssitia” – a military style mess where citizens gathered for public meals once main phase of the agoge was completed at around age 21 by a Spartan man. The rations served at these communal dining were always bland and slightly insufficient. This was done to prepare soldiers for the strain of war and discourage poor fitness. The Spartans publicly ridiculed and could even banish from the city-state the citizens who were over-weight. They were renowned for their devotion to physical fitness and a proper diet.

Wine even though one of the staple diet of the Spartans, they rarely drank it to excess and often cautioned their children against drunkenness. For showing as an example to the young Spartans, they would sometimes force the Helot slaves to get wildly inebriated.

Spartan men not allowed to live with their wives until age 30

The marriage and childrearing were both subject to some strange cultural and governmental constraints, even though the Spartans didn’t discourage romantic love. It was counseled by the state that men should marry at age 30 and women at 20. It was required by the state that all men live in military barracks until the age of 30. Thus the couple who married earlier were forced to live separately until the husband completed his active military service.

Marriage was seen by the Spartans primarily as a means for conceiving new soldiers and citizens were encouraged to check and consider the health and fitness of their mate before marrying. In fact, husbands who were unable to have children were expected to seek out virile substitutes to impregnate their wives. Bachelors were often publically mocked and humiliated at religious festivals and were seen as neglecting their duty towards the state.

Surrender in battle was the ultimate disgrace

Spartan soldiers were expected to fight without fear and to the last man. The warriors who voluntarily laid down their arms were shamed so much that they often resorted to suicide; this was mainly due to the fact that the Spartans considered surrender as an epitome of cowardice. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, two Spartan soldiers who missed out on the famous Battle of Thermopylae returned to their homeland disgraced. One later hanged himself, and the other was only redeemed after he died fighting in a later engagement.

Even the Spartan mothers were not behind their male counterparts; they were known for their do-or-die approach to military campaigns. Spartan women are said to have sent their sons off to war with a chilling reminder: “Return with your shield or on it”. Death in a battle for a Spartan trooper was considered to be having his duty completed as a citizen. In fact, the law mandated that only two classes of people could have their names inscribed on their tombstones: women who died in childbirth and men who fell in combat.

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