Gateway to the Classics: Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould

The Hardy Men of Sparta

T HE men in the fortress on the hill were so surrounded by their foes that Sous, their leader, advised them to yield, and they agreed. He spoke to the enemy from the wall:

"We will own you masters if you will agree to one condition. For days we have been without water, and we are dying of thirst. Let every man of my army drink of the spring which runs by your camp, and then all our land shall be yours."

This was allowed. But Sous first called his fighting-men together, and asked if any one of them would forbear from drinking. None would go without the water he longed for. They marched out of the castle and eagerly drank—all except Sous. His throat was dry like desert sand, but he would not drink. He simply sprinkled water over his hot face. Then he summoned his men and marched off, saying to the enemy:

"This land is still mine and not yours, for we have not all drunk. Not a drop of water has touched my lips."

Of course, this was cunning and dishonest, according to our ideas to-day; but the ancient Greeks and other people thought such tricks quite right, especially if the deceit was done for the sake of one's country; and you see Sous wished to save his country from the hands of strangers.

This chieftain Sous was a Spartan, and Sparta was a rocky and mountainous land in the south of Greece, the cliffs along its shore standing over the blue depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Round its main city, Sparta, no walls were built, the bravery of the citizens being its true defence. Sous was the first man who thought of seizing the men of a certain seaside town of Sparta, and making slaves of them. They were called Helots (Hel-ots),  and any other captives taken in sieges or in battles on the sea were also called Helots. You could know these slaves in the street by their dress. They wore caps of dogskin and coats of sheepskin, but no other clothes, and each day (so it is said) they bared their backs and were beaten by their masters, in order to keep their spirit humble. Sometimes the Spartans would give the slaves strong drink till they were drunken, and then lead them out before the young men so as to show how wretched and unmanly a drunkard appeared. Yet the Spartans would have fared ill without the help of their slaves, for the Helots were cooks, ploughmen, carriers, and general servants. I am glad to say, however, that no Helot could be sold, and, after paying so much barley, oil, or wine to his lord, he might keep the rest of the fruits of the field on which he worked.

Among the children's children's children (or descendants) of Sous was the famous man Lycurgus (Ly-kur-gus),  about 825 B.C., who was teacher and lawgiver to the Spartans as Moses was to the Jews. Now, Lycurgus had made up his mind to give the best laws he could plan to the people of Sparta; but, as he knew it was harder to rule men than to rule sheep, or even wolves or lions, he first went about the world to learn all he could concerning people and their manners. Thus he travelled to Spain, Egypt, and (some say) as far as India.

On his return to Sparta, he was made lawgiver; and one of the first things he did was to divide the land into forty thousand small portions, or lots, each being just large enough to keep a family supplied with barley, wine, or olive-oil. And when he passed at harvest-time among the fields, divided into lots, and saw the shocks of yellow corn standing, he smiled to think that the land of Sparta was fairly shared among the citizens, and that each man had neither too little nor too much. No gold or silver money was used; all the money was simply pieces of iron, and thirty pounds' worth of iron would fill a room and need two strong oxen to carry it in a cart; and so it was not easy to hoard up much money, or for a man to become very rich.

Their couches, tables, and beds were all carved in wood in a very plain way, without costly cushions or gilding; and the doors and ceilings of the houses were made of wood roughly sawn, but never polished. Lycurgus would not let the people sit at home to eat dainty meals; all were obliged to come to public tables, and take their dinners and suppers in company. At each table about fifteen persons would sit, and each would bring to the public store every month a certain load of barley-meal, wine, cheese, and figs, and a little iron money to buy flesh or fish. Their favorite food was a kind of black broth. At the tables the children sat with their elders, and folk might talk as much as they would and make jokes, so long as the jokes were not nasty and silly. And if the joke went against any particular man, he was expected to take it in good part, for the Spartans considered that a brave fellow should not only be stout in fight, but should cheerfully stand being laughed at.

The boys had their hair cut short, and went barefoot, and wore very little clothing. They slept together in companies, or brigades, their beds being made of reeds, which their own hands had pulled up on the banks of the river. In winter, they were permitted to spread warm thistle-down on the top of the reeds. When the boys ran races, or boxed, or wrestled, the old men would stand by and watch the sports. At supper they might sing and talk, but that lad was thought most of who could say the best things in the fewest words. The Spartan style of talking was called "laconic," and it was short and shrewd.

Thus a Spartan was asked by a foolish man the question, "Who is the best man in Sparta?" The answer was, "He that is least like you."

Another was asked how many men there were in the Spartan country, and he replied: "Enough to keep bad men at a distance."

So hardy were the Spartan lads that they were proud to bear pain without uttering a cry. On one occasion a boy had caught a young fox and placed it inside his coat. While he sat at the supper table, the young fox began biting him very severely, but he would not make a single sound; and not until his companions saw the blood drawn by the creature's claws did they know how much the brave lad suffered. The girls also would join together in sports, running, wrestling, and throwing quoits and darts; for they took delight in rendering their bodies healthy and strong, so that they might be happier mothers. When their sons went forth to war, the Spartan mothers would give each young man his shield, and say: "Return with this shield, or upon it," meaning, "You must either carry back your shield as a warrior who has fought well, or be carried on it as a dead warrior, who would not allow himself to be taken prisoner by the enemy."

So anxious were the Spartans that all the citizens should be strong and well-made that they carried weak and sickly babies to a deep cave in a mountain, and there let them die. When quite little, the children were often taken into dark places, so that they might be used to the gloom and walk through it without fear. Thus it came to pass that the Spartans were heroic in the day of battle; and, when the question arose whether a wall should be built about the city, the people were pleased with the man who said: "That city is well fortified which has a wall of men instead of bricks." Yet, powerful and warlike as the young men were, they always treated the aged with respect, and, if a weak old man came into a place of meeting, they would instantly rise and offer him a convenient seat.

Some of the richer sort of people disliked the stern way in which Lycurgus made them live, and one day an angry crowd attacked him, and he fled for refuge to a temple. A young man named Alcander joined in the riot, and thought it a fine thing to help in putting down the tyrant. He struck the lawgiver on the eye with a stick. Then Lycurgus stopped and showed his bleeding face to the people, and they were ashamed, and, seizing Alcander, brought him to Lycurgus, and bade him punish the young man as he willed.

The lawgiver took Alcander to his house, and the young man expected a very rough chastisement for his wrong-doing. But Lycurgus merely ordered him to act as his servant, and fetch things for him and wait upon him at his work or his meals; and for several days this went on, the master of Sparta saying no unkind word to Alcander, and in no way showing that he owed a grudge. When Alcander at length went home, he told his friends how generously he had been served, and how noble a man he thought Lycurgus was; and thus Lycurgus turned an enemy into a friend.

When Lycurgus felt himself advancing in years, he made up his mind not to dwell any longer in Sparta. He called the people together and said to them:

"My friends, I am going to the temple of the great god Apollo, to speak with him and hear what he has to say to me. Before I leave, I wish you all to promise me—princes and citizens alike—that you will faithfully keep all the laws I have made, and alter none of them until I return."

The people said: "We promise."

Then Lycurgus bade farewell to his friends and to his son, and set out for the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the god told him that the laws which he had established for Sparta were good and useful. The lawgiver thought that, if he never returned to his native land, the citizens would never alter the laws. Therefore, for the sake of the country which he loved, he died beyond its borders. Some say he died in one place, some in another. Some say he died in the island of Crete, and, as the old lawgiver lay sick, he bade those about him burn his body and throw the ashes into the sea. When they did this, his remains were borne by the waves this way and that, and so it was not possible he could ever return to Sparta.

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