The Religious Poachers of Sparta

I said in the previous post that it is theorized that the emergence of the Spartan martial culture was the result of the necessity to maintain control over a huge number of slaves, called Helots. One of the facts supporting this theory is that every year the Ephors (a kind of senate and supreme court rolled into one) officially declared war on the Helots–the slaves living in Spartan lands who outnumbered the Spartans 10 to 1.

Spartans did not actually move troops against their slaves the Helots. Instead, every autumn they sent young graduates of the Agoge (the Spartan training program) into the countryside surrounding Helot villages with nothing but a knife and the command to kill the best of the Helots–without being caught–and to steal for their sustenance. These young Spartans were called Krypteia[1] In this way the Helot population was controlled, and any perceived leaders of the Helots were removed.

Just to be clear: The Spartans ritually declared war on their own slave population; who were the people who fed the Spartans. Recall that Spartans were forbid to do any work aside from war and training. And remember that in ancient times the season of war began in spring and running through the summer. The reason for declaring war was so that any Spartan could kill any Helot without staining himself with the sin of murder; a necessary legalism because killing Helots for political purposes was a foregone conclusion of the Spartans.

One might think that a lifestyle of perpetual, off-season, secret, murder campaign–under the cover of law and tradition, and against the people who feed and clothe Spartans and who cannot defend themselves–would be off-putting to their observers. Yet Spartans are esteemed as a highly regimented and religious people. Plato’s Republic[2] proposes a society very like Sparta, and the Romans held them in high regard. More than shades of Spartan ethics will survive into Medieval Europe; particularly in the southern countries.


[1] Krypteia is a cognate of <i>cryptic</i>, and means <i>secret</i> or <i>hidden</i> just as it does now in English.

[2] Almost 20 years ago I first read The Republic, and that was the end of my indoctrinated estimation of the Plato/Socrates. Who proposes state-sponsored orphanages as a primary means of child-rearing?

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12 thoughts on “The Religious Poachers of Sparta

  1. Gorgias and the Symposium show how even pagans can attain natural virtue among the best of them.

    The Republic shows how even the best of humanity are damned without Christ as their King.

    And that there are now people claiming to be Christian following such pagan folly proves the power granted to those that follow the path of Judas over that of Calvary

  2. @feeriker

    It might be even worse. I think there is a difference in that the Soviet Union aimed for a Spartan version of virtue or excellence. The US is slouching towards a version that doesn’t even recognize virtue as an objective thing.

    @Chad & DG

    The more I learn, the more I am convinced that Christ is not only of the utmost importance, but everything pales and rots in comparison to Him.

  3. It might be even worse. I think there is a difference in that the Soviet Union aimed for a Spartan version of virtue or excellence.

    They called it the New Soviet Man.

  4. To be fair, the writer who recorded that bit didn’t like the Spartans _at all_. We actually know surprisingly little about them.

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