I’ve seen the Spartan influence in a lot of places lately: movies, books, video games, even Spartan wetsuits. Our obsession with Spartan culture is so prominent that now there’s a word for it: laconophilia. Though I’m motivated by the images I see on TV of brave Spartans fighting battles against all odds, I find my true inspiration in the actual history of the Spartans.
Sparta was a state in classical Greece best known for its military prowess and disciplined, physically tough population, a reputation they certainly deserved. At one point they even managed to defeat the Athenian Empire.
From birth, Spartans were judged on their physical strength. At age seven, the boys entered the Agoge, where they spent the next thirteen years of their lives training to become citizens and warriors of Sparta. Self-discipline, endurance, and physical strength were all goals of the training they received in preparation for lives constructed around war. Every day was spent training their bodies and minds for the rigors of battle. Life was tough and demanding. Indulgences were few and far between.
According to Plutarch, a Greek historian (circa 50 CE), a Spartan only got the luxury of a bath a few special days a year.
The historian Helen Schrader stresses that Spartans were also trained intellectually as well as physically. In fact, boys would receive extra punishment if they did not respond quickly and concisely enough to questions. To be good soldiers, Spartans had to learn to think quickly, as well as just move quickly. A little strategy can go a long way in the field.
Spartans left the Agoge to become part of the military reserve at 18. Promising Spartans, at this time, were sent into the woods with only a knife in order to test their military skills and stealth. After passing this test, at 20 years old, a Spartan became a true soldier, although he still had many more years of hard work ahead of him in order to become a full citizen. The reality is that a Spartan’s training was never done. In order to stay in peak physical and mental condition, a Spartan soldier could never relax.
There was no such thing as a day off in Ancient Sparta.