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Sparta: A Society Designed, and a Warning

By Charles Hopkins Published 04/23/2006 | Social Issues
Ancient Sparta was one of history's strangest societies. This could have been the result of having been designed rather than developing naturally. Perhaps it was the first such society, and possibly it was designed by a single man named Lycurgus.

In the last few centuries, quite a few societies have been constructed by committees, and there have been many more failures than successes. Sparta can serve as an example of both a success and a failure, and it would be helpful to remember these ancient people whenever we opt to design anything, such as a business or family.

In English, the term "Spartan" has connotations of discipline and frugality. A Spartan room, for example, might contain nothing but a table and chair. This is an accurate description of the Spartan way of life. In the mind of a historian, however, the meaning of "Spartan" leans more towards "brutal" and "militaristic." Sparta was a society designed to dominate its neighbors: A warrior culture.

In a time when cities were typically surrounded by walls to protect them from the latest conquering horde, Sparta needed none. Each and every male citizen was trained literally from birth to be a hardened, world-class soldier.

Sparta was a considerable military power for over a thousand years. Their system of warfare based on hoplite spearmen was copied by every army in the Mediterranian region. Their soldiers' prowess was demonstrated most vividly in 480 B.C. at Thermopylae, a narrow stretch of land between cliff and sea where only 300 Spartan hoplites held off an entire Persian army numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

This power dearly cost the Spartan citizens, and their unusual society eventually garnered a more humble status as a Roman tourist attraction.

Sparta took common Greek practices to extremes, even ones which would seem brutal to modern people. For example, it was acceptable in most of Greece to abandon an unwanted newborn in the woods. There was a chance that someone would find and adopt such a baby. In Sparta, babies were a communal asset, unless they were considered a liability due to being somehow weak or deformed. These infants were thrown over a cliff!

Every day of a young boy's life was a struggle for survival. Boys lived as members of small bands, living off the land and raiding farms and villages. They were punished for stealing from other Spartans, but more for getting caught than for the act itself.

Surviving teenagers were each assigned a mentor/lover (homosexuality was considered necessary for a soldier far from home). They were put through a coming-of-age gauntlet during which a significant percentage were mortally wounded.

Marriage was a contract between two families. Young women were trained for marriage and child rearing as young men were trained for war. Women were responsible for controlling all aspects of sex and reproduction. This was often a jolting experience for the man who had seen few women during his short life.

When it came time for war, Sparta was always ready. However, they were spread very thin. The number of slaves and serfs in the wide regions around Sparta was hundreds of times the number of Spartan citizens. Sparta controlled vast wealth, but its citizens never enjoyed any of it.

Eventually, all of Greece was absorbed into the Roman empire. They were spared most of the downsides of conquest faced by the "barbarians" of places such as Gaul. Romans respected Greek culture, and even believed that Rome was founded by Greeks. Therefore, they left Greek society very much intact, including Sparta.

However, Sparta was now just another state within a vast empire. Though its traditions were still alive, suddenly they were quaint rather than brutally effective.

The Spartan culture caused each of its citizens to become an awesome powerhouse of strength and discipline. Unfortunately, there just weren't enough of them, and there wasn't much variety.

Rome won over Sparta because Romans valued individuality and personal rewards as well as communal strength and power. Sparta's society had just a few fatal flaws. It was too elitist. People couldn't "join" Sparta: They had to be born into it. Spartan men had to be warriors before being husbands, merchants, or politicians. Other cultures were allowing different men to perform different tasks. Sparta's population began to shrink as soon as Lycurgus implemented his militaristic reforms, and it never recovered.

Of course, Rome was won over by a certain movement, and you probably know what it is (This would make a good article). Think about this also when you next decide to design something.

What does this all mean, and why should you care? History shows us what has been done right in the past, and what has been done wrong. There are quite a few lessons we might take away from the history of Sparta:

To grow and expand, to gain control of assets, you need to be able to grow internally.

It's better to open your doors to diversity than to screen and weed people, or to stuff them into a mold. Think of some other regimes in the last hundred years or so that tried to do this, and what happened to them.

Wealth, power, and respect are all some people are looking for. Sparta had all of this, and for a long time. In the long run, however, these things amounted to only a few moments of glory and a place in the history books. Maybe you're looking for something more "in the moment".

Of course, you will come up with many more insights depending on your situation and frame of mind. This is the value of understanding and interpreting history.