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.]