ALTHOUGH Sparta was one of the smallest of the Greek states, it became one of the most famous. This was because one of its great men, Lycurgus, gave it laws of unusual excellence. That he might do this, he traveled in many countries and noticed everything that was best in their government.
When he went home again he drew up the constitution, a body of laws obedience to which made the Spartans brave, strong, patient, and victorious.
He found that a few citizens owned all the land, while many had no estate. By his rules the land was equally divided so that every family had a small farm. Each farm would yield, in a year, about seventy bushels of grain for a man and twelve bushels for his wife, besides olives for oil and grapes for wine. In that way nobody could become very rich, and nobody had any excuse for being a beggar.
Lycurgus then tried to divide among the people all the money, jewelry, handsome dresses, and rich furniture that were in the country. But those who owned such things would not give them up. So he tried another way to keep everybody poor. He would not allow any gold or silver coins to be used. The only money the Spartans had was iron, and that was very cheap, so that a man wishing to carry a hundred dollars with him must own or hire a cart and a yoke of oxen. That put a stop to nearly all stealing, for robbers could not easily escape with their ill-gotten gains.
Yet on the other hand the Spartan children were taught to steal anything they could carry. Lycurgus said the habit would be useful in time of war. When they were in an enemy's country the Spartan soldiers could in that way get food and money. To them the only disgrace in stealing was in being found out.
Lycurgus did not wish his people to be friendly with strangers. Foreigners were not invited to come and do business in Sparta or to live there. Spartans were not to be merchants, or traders, or travelers. They were to stay at home and be good citizens and soldiers. The only time for travel was when they went out to fight their enemies.
Every child, when only a few days old, was carried before a company of wise old men. They looked at it carefully. If it was deformed, or if it seemed sickly, it was not allowed to live. Every Spartan was expected to be strong and well. Only plain and wholesome food was eaten. Nothing rich or dainty was allowed.
Little boys stayed at home with their mothers until they were seven years old. Then the state took charge of them and trained them in gymnastics and in the art of war. Their daily exercise was jumping, running, wrestling, playing at quoits and with lances. They were treated roughly and cruelly, but they were taught not to complain. They were not thought to be men until they were thirty years old; from that time until they were sixty years old they were obliged to serve the state. Only the women, the children under seven and the men over sixty ate at home. All others, even though married, had to eat at the public tables. They sat down in companies of fifteen persons, and the same kind of food was served to all. The favorite dish was a "black broth," which only Spartans liked.
In their festivals the Spartans had three choirs, one of old men, one of young men, and one of boys. The old men sang,
"Once in battle bold we shone."
The young men chanted,
"Try us; our vigor is not gone."
Then the boys ended with the chorus,
"The palm remains for us alone."
The Spartans had slaves called Helots, who did all the rough and coarse work. They were permitted to get drunk, and when they were in that condition Spartan fathers called their sons and said, "See! Thus slaves may drink and thus they may behave, but such a condition and such action are not for freemen or the sons of freemen."
Spartan women were taught to be almost as fierce and warlike as the men. When the young men were going to war, each mother gave her son a shield and said, "Come back with this or on it." If he was defeated and lost his shield, above all if he threw it away and ran from the field, he was forever disgraced. Those who were killed in battle were laid, each upon his shield, by his comrades, and carried home in honor as heroes.
It is very strange that when they marched to fight they did not blow trumpets. They charged to the soft, sweet music of flutes. It was their boast that they did not need loud noise to make them brave.
Their character is shown in the story of the boy and the fox. The little fellow on his way to school saw some fox cubs playing together. They belonged to a man who was fond of pets. The boy picked one up and hiding it under his coat went on to school. The fox, restless and angry, began to gnaw the boy's flesh just above the heart. The child studied his lessons without a word or cry, though he grew pale and weak. Suddenly he sank down upon the ground, and when the teacher went to him and opened his coat, the fox jumped out and ran away. But the boy was dead. He could steal and suffer and die rather than be found out. That was the Spartan idea of manliness.