If in Athens we have ethnopolitical aspects, insofar as the democracy was tempered by Hellenic virtue, in Sparta we have a State wholly dedicated to systematic organization of the society according to a biopolitical ideal. Sparta’s mixed system of government and fiercely communitarian and hierarchical customs were supposed to have been created by the semi-legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, who perhaps lived in the ninth century B.C. Virtually nothing can be said for certain about his life. Lycurgus was, in later ages, rumored to have traveled to Egypt, Ionia, Crete, and even India, where “he talked with the Gymnosophists, before establishing Sparta’s constitution. What is clear, in any case, is that the basic law and way of life attributed to Lycurgus, and credited for Sparta’s success, were emphatically biopolitical.
Spartan law and culture were obsessed with systematically ensuring good breeding, martial education, and group unity. Spartan ethics and law considered that what was good was whatever was good for the community. During a debate as to whether a commander had abused his authority, the Spartan king Agesilaus argued: “The point to be examined . . . is simply this: has this action been good or bad for Sparta? Kevin MacDonald has argued that the law instituted by Lycurgus – featuring in-group altruism, relative egalitarianism, separation from and unity in the face of out-groups, specialization in warfare, and communally-determined in-group eugenics – qualifies as a genuine “altruistic group evolutionary strategy.
Few forms of government have so drawn the admiration of both liberals and ‘totalitarians’ as that of Sparta. Many republicans, both ancient and modern, have been impressed by the Spartans’ ‘mixed’ system of government, with its combination of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements, as conducive to social unity, stability, and the rule of law. The Founding Fathers of the United States sought to emulate the stability of Sparta’s constitution and saw in it a precursor to their own system of checks and balances. Thinkers of a more communitarian bent, such as Rousseau and Hitler, have for their part admired the city for its rigorous organization in service of the community.
The Spartan citizen body was made up of landowning males past the age of 30 who had completed their arduous military training and education. These Spartiates, known as Homoioi (roughly meaning ‘Equals’ or ‘Peers’) made up an uncertain, but no doubt small, percentage of the country’s population. The Helots, Sparta’s large population of agricultural serfs, provided the citizens with the leisure to specialize in military training. These slaves were fellow Greek-speakers although, as non-Dorian Achaeans, there was a certain degree of ethnic difference from the Spartiates. So-called ‘Peripherals’ (perioikoi), foreign residents engaging in various skilled crafts at the service of the Spartans, appear to have regularly accumulated around the Spartan State.
Sparta was presided over by two relatively-weak kings, from two distinct royal families, who served as priests, generals, and occasionally judges. The Ephors, five powerful magistrates elected by all citizens for a non-renewable one-year term, were responsible for implementing decrees and had judicial powers to supervise and prosecute others, including the kings. The most powerful body was the Gerousia, a council made up of the two kings and 28 elders over the age of 60, who were elected for life. The Gerousia set the political agenda, debated issues, and presented the decisions open to the Assembly. The Assembly of Spartan citizens did not propose legislation but could only decide on whatever was presented by the Gerousia. Through these institutions, the Spartan regime sought to reconcile the values of authority, stability, law, aristocracy, seniority, and community. When asked why he did not institute a democracy, Lycurgus is supposed to have answered: “Make your own household a democracy first.”
Spartan society was systematically organized by the regime to achieve social unity and martial prowess. Practically, among the elite Spartiate body of citizens, this meant the encouragement of births, the communal education of children according to an austere and militaristic way of life and living perpetually together through common meals and training. Failure to live up to the city’s demanding standards was harshly punished. Citizenship was not an automatic right, but had to be earned, by passing one’s educational training and paying one’s duties to the mess hall. According to Xenophon, Lycurgus “gave an equal share in the state to all law-abiding citizens, without regard for physical or financial deficiencies. But Lycurgus made it clear that if anyone should shirk the effort required to keep his laws, then he would no longer be considered one of the Equals.
Following such customs was in Sparta a sacred duty. Not only were Sparta’s institutions and customs attributed to the wise Lycurgus, but these were said to have been approved by Apollo himself. This was significant as the Spartans appear to have been exceptionally pious, regularly engaging in common rituals and sacrifices. Herodotus says that for the Spartans “divine matters took precedence over human ones” (Herodotus, 5.63). Once again, we find religious piety being central to the foundations of custom and the enforcement of group norms. Xenophon also highlights the importance of Spartan religious practice in warfare, saying of their meticulous rituals while on campaign: “if you witnessed this you would think that militarily others are amateurs, whereas Spartans alone are real masters of the craft of war. Both Xenophon and Plutarch believed that the joint and pious fulfillment of ritual inspires confidence in men before battle.
Spartan politics began with the rearing of children and their education in the martial and communitarian values of their society. Lycurgus is said to have “regarded the upbringing of children as the greatest and noblest responsibility of the legislator. Young men and women performed sporting events in the nude, so as to encourage both physical fitness and marriages. Lycurgus was emphatic that there was a civic duty to ensure that the next generation of citizens be not only be produced but be the healthiest and best possible. Plutarch reports this while drawing a direct analogy with heredity in animals:
First and foremost Lycurgus considered children to belong not privately to their fathers, but jointly to the city, so that he wanted citizens produced not from random partners, but from the best. Moreover he observed a good deal of stupidity and humbug in others’ rules on these matters. Such people have their bitches and mares mounted by the finest dogs and stallions whose owners they can prevail upon for a favor or fee. But their wives they lock up and guard, claiming the right to produce their children exclusively, though they may be imbeciles, or past their prime, or diseased. They forget that where children are born of poor stock, the first to suffer from their poor condition are those who possess and rear them, while the same applies conversely to the good qualities of those from sound stock.
Past a certain age, single men were severely stigmatized. Lycurgus also believed that “the production of children was the most important duty of free women,” thereby making a fundamental contribution to the society which sustained their freedom. Spartan women were not sedentary and trapped in the family home, as most Greek women were. As their husbands were training constantly away from home, Spartan women were unusual in managing their own households, often becoming wealthy in their own right. These women were discouraged from overeating and encouraged to participate in sports such as wrestling and javelin-throwing on health grounds:
Thereby their children in embryo would make a strong start in strong bodies and would develop better, while the women themselves would also bear their pregnancies with vigor and would meet the challenge of a childbirth in a successful, relaxed way.
It was apparently considered shameful for men to be seen with their wives at Sparta, resulting in sex occurring irregularly while the sex drive remained strong. There was another primitive eugenic rationale behind these measures: young, healthy, active, lustful parents were believed to produce healthier and stronger children. “Puny and deformed” newborns were to thrown into an abyss (or, perhaps more likely, killed through exposure) “considering it better both for itself and the state that the child should die if right from its birth it was poorly endowed for health or strength.
Lycurgus is supposed to have banned dowries and make-up: “So that none should be left unmarried because of poverty nor any pursued for their wealth, but that each man should study the girl’s character and make his choice on the basis of her good qualities. His concern with biological quality was so extreme he apparently even allowed for a bizarre official practice of ‘eugenic cuckoldry’ whereby an elderly husband could have children by introducing his wife to “any man whose physique and personality he admired. Conversely a wifeless man could, if “eager to have remarkable children,” have them “by any fertile and well-bred woman who came to his attention, subject to her husband’s consent.” Plutarch claims that by this measure the Spartans succeeded in “planting in fruitful soil, so to speak, and producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family. These measures—so foreign to the contemporary mores of the West—were eugenic and natalist in their objectives. They also emphasize Spartans’ supreme subjection of their personal and familial interests to the public good, ideally up to and including access to their wives! Xenophon, an eyewitness source, claims that by these methods, Sparta gained “men whose size and strength are . . . superior.
There was an enormous emphasis in Sparta, as in no other Greek city, on the truly systematic education and training of the citizens in order to shape a culture conducive to the public good. Spartan education was communal and austere. The children were taken from their families at age seven and would not complete their training until they were 29. At that point, if the young man had succeeded in this agoge training, he would be made a full citizen. Whereas wealthy Athenians might have a private slave tutor for their children, Spartan children had a single Trainer-in-Chief (a paidomus, literally a “boy-herdsman”) and any citizen could discipline them.
Young Spartans would go barefoot, have a single cloak to wear all year in hot or cold, and would be given a limited amount of food, measures all aimed at making them tougher. Youths were expected to steal from or even murder Helots. The Spartans in general appear to have treated their Helots with extreme cruelty, from humiliation through making them drunk to regular ritualized murder—evidently aimed at keeping this class firmly separate and subservient. Plutarch himself concedes that “there is nothing to match either the freedom of the free man at Sparta or the slavery of the slave. Montesquieu later would sum up the conflicted feelings of many classical liberals concerning Sparta, saying: “Lycurgus, combining larceny with the spirit of justice, the harshest slavery with extreme liberty, the most atrocious sentiments with the greatest moderation, gave stability to his city.
We must imagine Sparta as an ordered, hierarchical, and pious state characterized by constant ritual and training, a cross between a military-athletic camp and a monastery. Plutarch says:
Spartiates’ training extended into adulthood, for no one was permitted to live as he pleased. Instead, just as in a camp, so in the city, they followed a prescribed lifestyle and devoted themselves to communal concerns. They viewed themselves absolutely as part of their country, rather than as individuals, and so unless assigned a particular job they would always be observing the boys and giving them useful piece of instruction, or learning themselves from their elders.
Concerning adolescents, Lycurgus “gave orders that even in the streets they should keep both hands inside their cloaks, should proceed in silence, and should not let their gaze wander in any direction, but fix their eyes on the ground before them. Young adults were encouraged to be competitive in music, sports, and “manly gallantry. According to Xenophon, this education succeeded: “The result has been that respect and obedience in combination are found to a high degree at Sparta . . . [the system] turns out men who are more disciplined, more respectful, and (when required) more self-controlled. By his laws, Lycurgus was said to have “done away with prudery, sheltered upbringing, and effeminacy of any kind.
There is a sense in which all life for Spartan citizens was communal and hierarchical. Even once one had completed the agoge, Spartiates would eat together in common mess halls, again creating common feeling. The ages were mixed, so that the older could teach the young, and citizens were expected to discuss noble deeds. In the gymnasium, the oldest man would supervise, and citizens were expected to train regularly. Xenophon claims that “it would certainly not be easy for anyone to find men healthier or more physically apt than Spartiates.
Lycurgus reputedly had accompanied his basic law with a land reform giving each of those in the small citizen class an equal property, although economic inequality gradually accumulated over time. A positive consequence of the Spartans’ systematically communal lifestyle was an extremely high degree of trust among citizens. They shared each other’s hunting dogs and horses, the latter being extremely valuable property in those days. Citizens even trusted others to beat their own children if they had done wrong, for “there was a sense in which everyone regarded himself as father, tutor, and commander of each boy.
The entire society was oriented towards inculcating martial valor and unity. Cowards were severely stigmatized—so much so that they could be beaten freely—and “the citizens considered an honorable death preferable to a life of disgrace. Citizens were banned from working and instead “all their time was taken up by choral dances, festivals, feasts, hunting expeditions, physical exercise, and conversation. At the same time, the society’s general frugality meant “there was . . . no need to amass wealth (with all the work and concentration that this entails), since riches were emphatically neither envied nor esteemed. Music played a large role in Spartan society and their songs dealt with military heroism, sacrifice for Sparta, and the shaming of cowards. The result was an intensely communal ethos:
Altogether [Lycurgus] accustomed citizens to have no desire for a private life, nor knowledge of one, but rather to be like bees, always attached to the community, swarming together around their leader, and almost ecstatic with fervent ambition to devote themselves entirely to their country.
The supreme values of this society are suggested even by their burial practices: “Those who buried a dead person were not permitted to inscribe the name on a grave except in the cases of a man who had died on campaign or a woman who had died in labor. The dead were buried within the city, so as to habituate the young to their sight.
Sparta was an exceptionally xenophobic society, sharply controlling population movements of both citizens and foreigners so to maintain their unique customs. Xenophon says that “expulsions of foreigners used to occur and absence abroad was not permitted, so that citizens should not be infected by lax habits caught from foreigners. Iron bars, worthless outside of Sparta, were the only legal currency in the State. Plutarch claims this also led to great benefits: “it was impossible to buy any shoddy foreign goods, and no cargo of merchandise would enter the harbors, no teacher of rhetoric trod Laconian soil, no begging seer, no pimp, no maker of gold or silver ornaments.
Plutarch says Sparta’s values of patriotism and sacrifice were apparently so ingrained that Spartan women were among their fiercest enforcers. A mother reputedly handed her son a shield as he was leaving for battle saying: “Son, either with this or on this. There are many stories of Spartan mothers rejoicing that their son died in battle or conversely, if he had returned by fleeing as a coward, killing him herself. Plutarch says:ntly so ingrained in the society that Spartan women were among their fiercest enforcers. As he left to fight and die at Thermopylae, Leonidas is supposed to have told his wife “to marry good men and bear good children. When Xerxes proposed making Leonidas tyrant of Greece, he is supposed to have responded: “For me, it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch of the people of my race.
The Spartans were famous for their brief ‘Laconic’ sayings and sharp wit. Plato claimed that the “distinctive kind of Spartan wisdom” was found in “their pithy, memorable sayings” (Protagoras, 343c), which can be recalled easily and thus be borne in mind in our daily lives. Laconic brevity also reflected the Spartan concern with doing well rather than merely speaking or speculating like the verbose Athenians. Lycurgus is supposed to have forbidden his laws from being written because “the guiding principles of most importance for the happiness and excellence of a state would remain securely fixed if they were embedded in citizens’ character and training. When asked why the Spartans kept their laws on bravery unwritten, a Spartan king is said to have replied: “it’s better for [the youth] to get used to acts of bravery rather than to study written documents.
A number of Spartan sayings have come down to us, although their precise attributions to various historical figures are probably unreliable. The Spartans, like the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, came to be idealized across the ancient world as an example of perfect virtue and would then tend to be credited with proverbs reflecting this. Nonetheless, the Sayings of the Spartans collected by Plutarch do give us a feeling for the Spartan spirit, as in the following sample:
When asked how anyone could rule the citizens safely without having a bodyguard, [King Agasicles] said: “By ruling them in the way that fathers do their sons.” (Agasicles, 2)
[King Agesilaus] watched a mouse being pulled from its hole by a small boy. When the mouse turned round, bit the hand of its captor and escaped, he pointed this out to those present and said: “When the tiniest creature defends itself like this against aggressors, what ought men to do, do you reckon?” (Agesilaus, 9).
When somebody asked what gain the laws of Lycurgus had brought to Sparta, he said: “Contempt for pleasures.” (Agesilaus, 20)
To the man who was amazed at how modest his clothes and his meals were, and those of the other Spartans as well, he said: “Freedom is what we reap from this way of life, my friend. (Agesilaus, 20).
When somebody else asked why Sparta lacked fortification walls, he pointed to the citizens under arms and said: “These are the Spartans’ walls.” (Agesilaus, 29)
As [King Agis] was passing through the Corinthians’ walls and observed their height and strength and great extent, he said: “What women live in this place?” (Agis son of Archidamus, 6)
When asked how one should remain a free man, he said: “By despising death.” (Agis son of Archidamus, 18)
When somebody said that [the philosopher Xenocrates] was a wise man and one of those who search for virtue, [King] Eudamidas said: “And when will he make use of it if he is still searching for it?” (Eudamidas son of Archidamus, 1)
To the stranger who was claiming that among his own citizens he was called a friend of Sparta [King Theopompus] said: “It would be better for you to be called a friend of your fellow citizens rather than a friend of Sparta.” (Theopompus, 2)
When a Persian inquired what type of constitution met with his greatest approval, he said: “Whichever gives brave men and cowards their due.” (Lysander, 11)
When someone was asking why they made the poet Tyrtaeus [an Athenian, whose poems provide some of the only surviving Spartan literature] a citizen, [Panthoidas] said: “So that a foreigner should never be seen as our leader.” (Panthoidas, 3)
When amongst the spoils some people were amazed at the extravagance of the Persians’ clothing, he said: “Better for them to be men of great worth rather than to have possessions of great worth.” (Panthoidas, 5)
When [Governor Pedaritus] observed some effeminate person being nonetheless praised by the citizens for his fairness, he said: “Men who are like women should not be praised nor should women who are like men, unless some necessity forces the woman.” (Pedaritus, 2)
When someone asked [King Charillus] which type of government he considered the best, he said: “The one in which the largest number of citizens are willing to compete with each other in excellence and without civil concord.
The Virtuous Circle of Spartan Power: Discipline Through Lordship
The defining fact of Spartan life was the hard-won conquest of neighboring Messenia in the eighth century and the enslavement of its population as Helots. This victory had launched the virtuous circle of Spartan power. The subjugated Helots provided the Spartan citizen-soldiers with both the leisure and the imperative need to dedicate themselves to martial prowess in the face of a constant threat of rebellion at home. The entire social organization of Sparta came to reflect this state of affairs. Thucydides noted: “most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots.”
The system instituted by Lycurgus proved remarkably successful for centuries. The organization and training of the—at their height—around 8,000 Spartan citizen-soldiers to suppress the Helots also translated into international military power, which in turn allowed Sparta to secure allies and thus yet more military power in the Peloponnese. Xenophon opens his account of the Spartan regime saying: “Sparta, despite having one of the lowest populations, had nonetheless clearly become the most powerful and most famous state in Greece.” The unsentimental Thucydides says of Sparta: ‟its system of good order is very ancient and it has never been subject to tyrants. The Spartan constitution has remained unchanged for somewhat over 400 years . . . a source of strength, enabling their political intervention in other states” (Thu., 1.18). Indeed, Sparta was hailed for her lack of civil wars among citizens, a common cause of grief in the Greek world, and for having intervened to liberate other Greek cities from tyrants. Sparta’s oligarchic government seems to have been better than Athens at securing consenting allies among fellow-Greek city-states. The Spartans seem to have been better able at developing stable interpersonal ties with foreign elites, whereas the Athenian democracy tended to a chauvinism serving her own citizens alone without regard for its imperial subjects. Thucydides has Pericles boast that Athens did not use undependable foreign allies in war but only Athenian residents, implying that Sparta in contrast had the assistance more-or-less consenting allies.
The great successes of Spartan social organization came at a heavy price. The city was devoid of material culture, leaving precious few artifacts in the archaeological record. Even during its heyday, Thucydides observed that Spartan architecture was so unimpressive in comparison with Athens, that “if the city of Sparta were to become deserted, with only the temples and the foundations of buildings left to view, I imagine that with the passage of time future generations would find it very hard to credit its reputed power (Thu., 1.10). Alexander Hamilton wrote that “Sparta was little better than a well-regulated camp.” Sparta is unlikely to have had much intellectual culture either. If there were any Spartan dramatists and philosophers, there is virtually nothing that survives of them. There is little to suggest there was any Spartan equivalent of Athens’ extraordinary theatrical and philosophical achievement, notwithstanding the idealizations and ironic paradoxes of the philosophers.Indeed, the Spartans were said to be “the least intellectual of men” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1398b).
Sparta was basically a caste society. Besides the solidary elite citizen body of Spartiates, there were also “fallen” Spartans who had lost their citizenship for reasons of poverty or dishonor, “neo-citizens” who had been naturalized (especially in the later years) to have more soldiers, the working Peripherals who gravitating around the city, and finally the Helots. This appears to have been, somewhat like ancient and medieval India, a largely static society. It was certainly a closed society in which, besides the rigid social order, foreigners were restricted from entry and regularly evicted to prevent the Spartans from being infected with foreign cultural influence. Furthermore, it appears that Sparta’s power in the Peloponnese was based on its ability to retard urban development abroad: rival cities were broken up into villages and placed under the government of Spartan-friendly landowners. Sparta has an air of stagnation, and while the appearance of eternity typically impressed the Ancients, we Moderns tend to feel that that which does not grow is already doomed. At the same time, living in a time of perpetual economic growth leading to cultural collapse and ecological exhaustion, the Spartan ideal and long-lasting success of a socio-political steady-state perhaps has a new relevance for our time.
By the yardstick of individual freedom, the ledger is perhaps not quite as much in Athens’ favor as one might expect. In every premodern economy, the precious leisure necessary for culture and civic life is necessarily the purview of a select few. Athens no doubt afforded more scope for individual merit, freedom, and political participation to a greater share of the population on the whole. But one also should not forget that democratic Athens itself was based on chattel slavery, subject colonies, and house-bound women. In the Spartan empire, notwithstanding the hard lives of the Helots, women and allied states were generally freer than those of Athens. Furthermore, those who have tasted the monastic life may also suspect that the highly-regimented Spartan lifestyle—the constant training in community life, athletics, and self-restraint—may have offered citizens certain deep satisfactions not available with the liberal lifestyle.
Ironically, Sparta’s greatest failing was precisely in the biological and specifically in the demographic sphere. Sparta, somewhat miraculously, defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War but fell within decades due to the failure to maintain the population of citizen-soldiers. As Kevin MacDonald observes:
It would appear that the system devised by the Israelite lawgiver [Moses] was in some sense a better strategy for maintaining long-term ethnic coherence than that designed by the Spartan lawgiver, since the Israelite strategy, arguably, continues today (see [The Culture of Critique], ch. 8). The Spartan system was an excellent defensive system, but was ill equipped to administer an empire, and there were no provisions, such as the hereditary Israelite priestly class, that would have allowed it to survive being militarily conquered – a contingency that was all but inevitable in the ancient world and that certainly continues to some extent today.
For MacDonald, “while the group strategy of the ancient Spartans was successful for a significant period, it was ultimately a failure.” In marked contrast with the Jews, who were able to survive through fanatical adherence to a dogmatic ethnocentric religion, the Spartans proved completely incapable of maintaining their identity and group evolutionary strategy in the absence of a supportive sovereign State. In this, the Spartans were sadly typical of Western peoples. There is furthermore little reason to believe that Sparta’s primitive eugenic measures had much positive effect.
We would be wrong to downplay the Spartan achievement however. The other Greeks were greatly impressed by those four centuries of Spartan order and power which were so great a factor in their international affairs. Polybius, a later Hellenistic historian who documented the rise of Rome, gave a balanced summary of the greatness and limits of Sparta through a useful comparison with the Roman Republic. He remarked that “the constitution so framed by Lycurgus preserved independence in Sparta longer than anywhere else in recorded history” (Polybius, 6.10). Furthermore:
The Lycurgan system is designed for the secure maintenance of the status quo and the preservation of autonomy. Those who believe that this is what a state is for must agree that there is not and never has been a better system or constitution than that of the Spartans. But if one has greater ambitions that that – if one thinks that it is a finer and nobler thing to be a world-class leader, with an extensive dominion and empire, the center and focal point of everyone’s world – then one must admit that the Spartan constitution is deficient and the Roman constitution is superior and more dynamic. (Polybius, 6.50)
There is no doubt that there is a tendency to “slouching” in human history: every new generation balks at the unexplained disciplines and traditional rigors inherited from the past. If this rebelling against the past is done for the sake of comfort and pleasure, as opposed to replacing a tradition with new practices because they are more conducive to the public good, we call this decadence. In Sparta alone, the citizens were able to maintain a fearsome degree of virtue, by the authority held by the elders, by the systematic education and training of the citizens, and by the threat posed by the Helots.
The constitution of Lycurgus – with its stability, mixing of elitism and democracy, sovereignty, lawfulness, training, social unity, and sacrifice for the common good – may serve a model for all nations that truly wish to fight to determine their own destiny and adhere to values. The example of Sparta, like Prussia in the modern era, also shows that smallness is no reason for defeatism, that all nations have, with effort, a chance at achieving freedom and greatness. No wonder that the law of Lycurgus and the sacrifice of Leonidas’ 300 Spartans have inspired philosophers and statesmen throughout the ages, even in the face of terrible odds. Given the challenges facing Western and European nations in the twenty-first century – consider the sheer scale of the rising foreign superpowers, ecological threats, and demographic collapse – the Spartan experience in building a lawful, holistic, and biopolitical martial republic may yet help inspire our renewal.