“Learn to love death's ink-black shadow as much as you love the light of dawn. ” This is a quote taken from ancient Spartan society that was said to the young men who were in the process of becoming soldiers. While Sparta is most popularly known as a warrior society, it had many other characteristics that made it revered. No other civilization during the Classical Era can be compared to that of Sparta. Sparta’s legendary warriors, women, and politics made it a true iconic civilization during that time period. Of course, the main topic for discussion is that of the men and soldiers.
From the moment of a Spartan girl or a boy came into the world, the military and the city state were the center of every Spartan citizen’s life. Male babies were determined by city state if they were strong enough to be Spartan citizens. If the infants didn’t fit the criterion, they were abandoned in the country side to die. This may seem very draconian, but it was a very common thing in the Greek world because Sparta made it an official government policy. When a male Spartan was at the age of seven, he was taken from his mother and sent to live in special military barracks for twenty three years.
In these living quarters they were taught discipline, athletics, survival skills, hunting, weapons training and how to endure the pain. At the age of twenty in the barracks, the male Spartans become soldiers for the state. The life of a Spartan soldier was with his soldiers. He ate, slept and trained with them; they never allowed each other to veer off track during their grueling tasks. They were allowed to marry, but couldn’t live with their wives. Only equals were allowed to live with their wives and children.
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Equals were the soldiers who reached thirtieth age, but if any soldier who disgraced himself in any way was risked not becoming an equal. They were granted rights and allowed to participate in politics. However equals were still soldiers. Military service was required until age sixty. This military system was marveled at and rarely needed a resurgent effort after a battle. However this soldier centered state was the most liberal state in regards to the status of women. While women didn’t go through military training, they were required to be educated along similar lines.
The Spartans were the only Greeks not only to take seriously the education of women; they instituted it as state policy. This was not, however, an academic education (just as the education of males was not an academic education); it was a physical education which could be grueling. Infant girls were also exposed to die if they were judged to be weak; they were later subject to physical and gymnastics training. This process of education also involved teaching women that their lives should be dedicated to the state. The women became astute and self reliant after this process.
In most Greek states, women were required to stay indoors at all times (though only the upper classes could afford to observe this custom); Spartan women, however, were free to move out and had an unusual amount of domestic freedom for their husbands, after all, didn’t live at home. Spartan women were quite amenable and enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. It is estimated that women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property in Sparta.
The laws regarding a divorce were the same for both men and women. Unlike women in Athens, under the guise of Spartan law, if a woman became the heiress of her father because she had no living brothers to inherit, the woman was not required to divorce her current spouse in order to marry her nearest paternal relative. Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased. Spartan society was dived into three main classes.
At the top was Spartiate, or native Spartan, who could trace his or her ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. The Spartiate served in the army and was the only person who enjoyed the full political and legal rights of the state. Below the Spartiates were the perioeci (dwellers around and about). These were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the helots. Because of this vital function, they were accorded a great deal of freedom and were the artisans. Most of the trade and commerce carried out in Sparta were performed by the perioeci. At the bottom, of course, were the helots.
Since Spartan men were full-time soldiers, they were not available to carry out manual labor. The helots were used as unskilled serfs, tilling Spartan land. Helot women were often used as wet nurses. Helots also traveled with the Spartan army as non-combatant serfs. The relations between the helots and Spartans were at times very precarious; much time would elapse before they were able to make amends. Sparta is considered as one of the most important civilizations of all time, this proof being its military, the equality it provided for its women and its various social classes. And of course, who could forget the movie 300?
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