Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Training of the Spartans

Lycurgus had seen the severe discipline which soldiers in Egypt were forced to undergo. He had made up his mind that his own countrymen should be trained as thoroughly.

The Spartans at this time were poor and their numbers were small, perhaps about ten thousand were fit to bear arms. They were surrounded by enemies whose attacks they found hard to repulse.

But Lycurgus thought that if each citizen became a soldier, and that if each soldier was trained from his childhood to fight and to endure hardship, Sparta would soon have an army that no other power could conquer.

So as soon as a baby boy was born in Sparta he was taken to the Council of Elders that they might decide if he should live or die. If the child was strong and healthy he was given back to his parents, if he was weak and ailing he was left alone on a hillside to die from cold and hunger.

When he was seven years old, the Spartan boy was taken from his home to a public training-house. Here the strict discipline commanded by Lycurgus was begun.

Shoes and stockings were never worn by the little lads of Sparta, although the hills and countryside were rough for unshod feet. In winter they were clad in one garment, just as in summer.

Their beds were made of rushes, which they had themselves gathered from the banks of the river Eurotas. This was a hard task, for they were not allowed to cut them with a knife, but must break them with their hands. In winter the boys used to scatter thistle-down on the rushes to give a little warmth to their hard couch.

Each child, from the age of seven, cooked his own food, which was scanty and plain. If after their meals the boys were still hungry, so much the better, said Lycurgus. It would teach them to hunt the more keenly, that they might add to their daily portion of food. It would teach them to steal from the neighbouring farm-yards or gardens without being found out.

So a hungry Spartan boy would climb into a garden undiscovered, or even slip into a stranger's larder in search of fruit and food.

If the boys were caught, they were punished, not, I am sorry to tell you, for stealing, but for being so clumsy as to be found out.

Once a Spartan boy stole a young fox and hid it under his coat. It soon began to scratch with its claws, to bite with its teeth, until the lad was in terrible pain, yet he would have died rather than tell what he was suffering. Such was the endurance taught to the lads of Sparta.

If a boy shirked any hardship or flagged at his gymnastic exercises he was flogged, perhaps even tortured. One test of his endurance was a terrible scourging, under which he would die rather than utter a cry of pain.

In public the boys were trained to be silent, or if they were spoken to, to answer as shortly as possible. Their short, abrupt way of talking was called laconic, because the name of their country was Laconia. We still use the word laconic when we hear anyone speak in as brief a way as possible.

Hard as the Spartan training was, cruel as it sometimes became, it yet made boys into strong and hardy soldiers.

Girls, too, were trained, although not so severely as boys. They ran, they wrestled, they boxed with one another, while boys and girls marched together in religious processions and danced on the solemn feast days.

When they were twenty years of age, the girls usually married. They had been taught, as had the boys, that they belonged to the State, and that they must love their country and serve her with all their strength. So when Spartan mothers sent their sons forth to war, they handed them their shields saying, "Return either with your shield or upon it," for they feared death less than disgrace or defeat.

The children were taught to sing in chorus as part of their drill. At some of the festivals three choirs took part, one of old men, one of young men, and one of boys.

When the old men sang a song beginning, "We once were young and brave and strong," the young men answered, "And we're so now, come on and try," while the boys' voices rang out bravely when their turn came, "But we'll be strongest by-and-by."

The Spartan lads were twenty years old before they left the training-house to which they had been sent when they were seven. They were then fully-trained soldiers and left the training-house for the barracks.

After they married, the men still had to take their meals in the barracks with their fellow-soldiers. Not until they were sixty years of age were the Spartans allowed to live and take their meals in their own house. In this way almost the whole of a Spartan's life was given to the State.

When war actually came and the Spartans were on the field, they were treated with more kindness than in time of peace. Their food was more plentiful and pleasant, their discipline less strict. This was done to make the soldiers look forward to war, and to desire it rather than peace.

The younger soldiers, too, were allowed to curl their hair before the battle began, to wear gayer clothes, and to carry more costly arms. It is said the Lycurgus thought that "a large head of hair added beauty to a good face and terror to an ugly one."

So famous became the bravery and the endurance of the Spartans, that even now we call one who suffers hardships without complaint "a Spartan."