How the Spartans Became the Spartans

Chapter 12   How the Spartans Became the Spartans

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society and made it into a warrior culture.

So that no individual would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called “citizens,” but “peers” or “equals.”

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man’s head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. “That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece,” he declared, “and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect.” The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. “Yes,” he said, “and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup.”

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted “common messes” of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. “Even horses and dogs who are fed together,” observed Xenophon, “form bonds and become attached to one another.”

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here’s how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

Chapter 13  The Opposite of Fear is Love

The greatest counterpoise to fear, the ancients believed, is love—the love of the individual warrior for his brothers in arms. At Thermopylae on the final morning, when the last surviving Spartans knew they were all going to die, they turned to one of their leaders, the platoon commander Dienekes, and asked him what thoughts they should hold in their minds in this final hour to keep their courage strong. Dienekes instructed his comrades to fight not in the name of such lofty concepts as patriotism, honor, duty or glory. Don’t even fight, he said, to protect your family or your home.

Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.

The soldier’s prayer today on the eve of battle remains not “Lord, spare me,” but “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.”

Civilians wonder at the passion displayed by wounded soldiers to get back to their units, to return to the fight. But soldiers understand. It is no marvel to them that men who have lost arms and legs still consider themselves fit for battle, so powerful is the passion to return to their brothers—and not to let them down.

All warrior cultures train their youths to feel this love. They make the young men on the passage to warriorhood dress alike, eat and sleep alike, speak alike, wear their hair alike, suffer alike and achieve victory alike.

Ordeals of initiation are undergone not as individuals but as teams, as units.

Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.

Chapter 14   Selflessness

Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield?”

Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line.

The group comes before the individual. This tenet is central to the Warrior Ethos.

Once Alexander was leading his army through a waterless desert. The column was strung out for miles, with men and horses suffering terribly from thirst.

Suddenly, a detachment of scouts came galloping back in to the king. They had found a small spring and had managed to fill up a helmet with water. They rushed to Alexander and presented this to him. The army held in place, watching. Every man’s eye was fixed upon his commander. Alexander thanked the scouts for bringing him this gift, then, without touching a drop, he lifted the helmet and poured the precious liquid into the sand. At once a great cheer ascended, rolling from one end of the column to the other. A man was heard to say, “With a king like this to lead us, no force on earth can stand against us.”

[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]


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  1. Chris Duel on March 7, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Powerful warrior wisdom that we should all be reminded of.

    I especially appreciated this paragraph:

    “Civilians wonder at the passion displayed by wounded soldiers to get back to their units, to return to the fight. But soldiers understand. It is no marvel to them that men who have lost arms and legs still consider themselves fit for battle, so powerful is the passion to return to their brothers—and not to let them down.”

    I have been privileged to spend some time at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston with Wounded Warriors who have been injured or severely burned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    To a man and to a woman, each of them speaks of their intense desire to return to their unit as soon as possible. Some of these soldiers have lost limbs and/or have unfathomable burns upon their bodies. Their spirit and heroism is profound and inspiring.

    They embody The Warrior Ethos.

  2. Guy (WitStop) on March 7, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Thank you for your powerful series on the warrior ethos, Mr. Pressfield. As a retired military officer who served with some fabulous warriors who not only understood, but embodied the warrior ethos, I can only hope that those readers who have not had the privilege of serving will at least learn that warriors are indeed “different” and that the unique warrior culture must remain intact.

    The continued pressure from outside our U.S. military establishment to soften it and make it conform to civilian standards is dangerous, and yet those who fail to understand the warrior ethos cannot recognize that danger.

    Write on, brother!

    • andrew on March 31, 2013 at 3:13 am

      I’ve done my share of fighting and what I say is that it’s a terrible thing if brotherly compassion and selflessness can only be achieved at the cost of slaughter, pain, loss and misery.

  3. ruth kozak on March 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Fantastic, Steve. A very enlightening read.

  4. Chris Pangalos on March 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Great stuff Steve. Semper Fi Bro.

  5. Pilot on March 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm


  6. Jerome on March 12, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    So, basically, the Spartan culture was militarized to the exclusion of everything else. And you think that’s a good thing? How did that work out, by the way? Seen any good Spartans lately?

    • Vuk on May 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      The whole world is full of spartans. I could keep on counting forever, but here are just some that I’m sure you know:Rudy Reyes, Randy Couture, Fedor Emelianenko, Alexandr Karelin, Andreas Thorkildsen, Lars Riedel, Klitschko brothers, Benjamin Roberts-Smith, Marcus Luttrell, Evgeny Rodionov and who knows how many more.

    • Chris on August 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      “So, basically, the Spartan culture was militarized to the exclusion of everything else. And you think that’s a good thing?”

      If I am to admire ancient Greece, its works and philosophies such as democracy, its art and architecture, its history and its people, yes. If I am to admire the concept of a free republic, the notion of virtue above wealth, yes.

      These are the things the Spartans defended from extinction at the hands of Xerxes’ Persians.

    • MArtin on August 28, 2011 at 9:24 am

      yes… the royal marines… they exist soley to fight the toughest battles with only a handful of men.

      They are the closest to true warriors in modern existence…

      They would without hesitation beat the crap out of people who mocked them for whatever reason.

  7. jeff Davis on March 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Yes, its called Western civilization.
    They turned back the Persian empire from concurring and assimilating the world.
    They fought and died so that you could mock them.

  8. Rouillie Wilkerson on March 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Interesting read with much to be learned and even more to promulgate among the rest of western civilizations fast food mentality to justify personal gratification in some at the expense of many; assimilation, control and manipulation at its finest.

    My statement is totally personal as I abhor the westernized interpretation of what it is to be a warrior.

    Romantic notion for some I’m sure; I’m not among them.

    • Sam Wilson on April 2, 2011 at 7:06 am

      Tune your TV to Oprah or Jerry Springer.What this country stands for is understood best by those who have fought to give your right to express your clueless opinion.
      Walk 3 steps behind a man , have no chance to be educated, no choice in who to marry,and then and only then may you understand what the freedom you enjoy is worth.Sheeple…………….

  9. Raymond on March 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Above: i’m curious, what does it mean to you to be a Warrior? and what is the Westernized interpretation? I read the comments and am curious to your train of thought.

  10. Dara on March 21, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Here is a relevant reference from the attached website: The Taoist Text – LaoTze’s TaoDeJing:

    31. Armies
    Armies are tools of violence;
    They cause men to hate and fear.
    The sage will not join them.
    His purpose is creation;
    Their purpose is destruction.

    Weapons are tools of violence,
    Not of the sage;
    He uses them only when there is no choice,
    And then calmly, and with tact,
    For he finds no beauty in them.

    Whoever finds beauty in weapons
    Delights in the slaughter of men;
    And who delights in slaughter
    Cannot content himself with peace.

    So slaughters must be mourned
    And conquest celebrated with a funeral.

    • Mark on August 7, 2023 at 10:55 am

      Okay but what happens when a community of holy people are invaded? Sounds like they’d be simply out of luck like the Buddhists in Tibet. They had this philosophy and their holy land was taken from them and spit on. A warrior sage is a man who does not love a weapon for its ability to kill a man, but for its ability to gain and protect what is sacred. Why do you think men like King David of Israel is so highly revered?

  11. Dwake on April 1, 2011 at 4:35 am

    “Ship, shipmate, self”

  12. Tania Asiello on November 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

    extremely practical information. hope to see even more posts quickly!

  13. Keva Lewczyk on November 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    leading post. i seem ahead to looking through far more. cheers.

  14. Stephen M Dull on February 28, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Loved your book “Gates of Fire”. Devoured it in a couple days.

    Awesome post about warrior wisdom and the ways of this ancient culture.

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