• Daniel Kephart

Sayings of the Spartans

To this day, my favorite part about studying the Middle Ages is the abundance of castles still standing. There's something in a child's mind that is captivated by the idea of a mighty fortress. Huge, unbreachable walls sheltering a noble and valiant people, this idea is central to the way westerners think of ourselves.

But it wasn't always so. Not in Sparta.

Chances are you know a thing or two about Sparta. You might know that they were the Navy SEAL teams of Ancient Greece. Fierce, brutal, and relentless, the Spartans were more than a match for any foe. You might know that during a Grecian conflict known as the Peloponnesian War, sometimes just having a single Spartan commanding a force of other Greeks was enough to turn the tides of battle. You might even know about the Agoge, a deplorable practice of selective infanticide by which the Spartans ensured that only the most physically fit children would grow to be Spartan warriors and Spartan mothers.

More often overlooked, however, is the rich and vibrant culture of honor that existed in premodern Sparta. Among warrior peoples, adherence to a central honor code is everything, and Sparta was no exception. This wasn't always a good thing. Spartans were notoriously violent and superstitious, traits reinforced by their highly ritualistic honor code. On the other hand, however, there were a number of positive outcomes of the Spartan's decision to base their society around honor.

Here are three stories about the Spartans (drawn from the ancient writer Plutarch) and their views on honor, as well as some thoughts on how they apply to modern life.

  1. It's said among the Spartans that their young men are the walls of their city and that the points of their spears are its boundaries. Today, most of the destabilizing violence that takes place in the United States is associated with young people, particularly young men. While debates about the cause of these violent outbursts rage all around the nation, one thing is certain: Most of us don't attribute our safety to the young men in our society. For the Spartans, though, this was exactly the case. Sparta had great pride in its young men (and women, for that matter) and believed that they were the best defense of their way of life.

  2. Once, someone asked Archidamus who was at the head of Sparta. He replied, "The laws." The western world has achieved great success through our decision to found our societies on laws. The survival of this system is far from certain, though. Increasingly, as legislative bodies delegate more and more power to executive agencies, our ability to point to the law as supreme over all is in doubt. There are more and more men and women today who seem to be above the law.

  3. A foreigner asked a Spartan why they rebuked men for dropping their shields, but not losing their helmets or breastplates. He replied, "Because men wear their helmets for their own good, but their carry their shields for the whole line." In an honor society, every person acknowledges a relationship of respect and mutual dependence on their fellow man. This relationship can become so strong that it eclipses the individual's own commitment to life itself. Next time you're at work, consider who people admire the most. Usually, it's the person who is utterly reliable--or, in other words, the person who is the most honorable.

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