Nestled just a little bit south of the heart of the Greek Peloponnese, right on the River Eurotas, lies the ruins of one of the greatest war machines the world has ever known: Sparta. We grow up reading about Sparta in school. We enjoy movies like 300 that tell the story of King Leonidas and the battle of Thermopylae, and the very word “Spartan” has become synonymous with strength, determination, and self-denial. But, there’s a lot of Spartan society that gets glossed over in school. Some of the most intriguing parts of the society are never talked about. Who were the Spartans, really? What was the Crypteia? How did women factor into a society famed for its hyper-masculinity and battle-hardened warriors? It was a society that lasted almost 800 years, from about 900 BC, to 192 BC, and there’s a lot more to Sparta than its battle strategy.
We’re all familiar with the stories about the brutal Spartan military training. Boys held competitions over how much pain they could stand. They were fed just enough to survive, but not enough to feel full, and were expected to steal what they wanted. They started military training at the age of seven, and it would last until they were twenty. But, did you know that their training not only included physical education, but also education in dancing, reading, writing, and history? Spartan boys were made to dance in armor to increase speed, flexibility, and agility, and they were required to learn how to read not for cultural reasons, but in order to correctly understand military correspondences and to study military tactics and strategy and to read maps. This system of training was called Agoge. Spartan men, after Athenian men, of course, were some of the most well-educated people in Greece.
Another thing not many people tell you about Sparta is that there were more slaves than free men. These members of their society were called Helots, and they were immensely invaluable to Sparta functioning the way it did. The reason everybody could train their butts off and spend their whole lives devoted to the art of war and not be at home working or farming or creating anything was because they had slaves to do it for them. Of course, the Spartans actually feared their slaves. They weren’t stupid. They knew that they’d be screwed if there was ever an uprising because the helots outnumbered them so much. So, each year, when a new Spartan official entered office, they would officially declare war on the slaves. A specially trained division of Spartan boys, called the Krypteia, who were basically the Spartan Inquisition Service, terrorized the slaves, murdering them at random, burning their lands and terrorizing them into submission. Eventually, the helots would rebel, but the Krypteia was understandably effective at keeping them in line.
Okay, but where do Spartan women fit into all of this? Well that, my friend, is the best story of them all. You’d expect that the most academically advanced city-state in Greece would be the most egalitarian city, wouldn’t you? In this case, that would be Athens. You’d be wrong. The most egalitarian Greek city-state by far was Sparta. Spartan women enjoyed a lot of free time away from their husbands, since their husbands weren’t really allowed to come home and see them for about ten years (most married at twenty and stayed in the active forces until age 30). Spartan women also had a bunch of slaves to help them with the housework. So… what on earth did they do? Well, they trained. Spartan girls enjoyed the same standardized education that boys did. They were taught to read, to write, to do accounting, and to fight. This was unique across all of Greece. Not only that, but they had laws protecting them. They were allowed to divorce their husbands, often practiced polyandry (had multiple partners), and, if they were sexually assaulted, were well-within their rights to castrate the offender. How’s that for equality?
The story goes that, one time in Spartan history, in the 3rd century BC, when all of the Spartan men were away at war. One of Sparta’s enemies, Pyrrhus, led a force on Sparta, believing it to be weakened in the absence of any male defenders. The Spartan women, led by Arachidamia, the queen at the time, picked up swords, donned armor, and went out to meet the opposing forces, beat them back, and won, sending their attackers home with their tails between their legs!
Not bad, Sparta, not bad at all.