Ancient Sparta: The First Self-Conscious Ethnostate? Part 1: Educating Citizen Soldiers
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.”
 Literally “naked wise men,” which is what the Greeks called the Hindu and perhaps Buddhist ascetics they found in India. Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 4.
 Xenophon, Hellenica, 5.2.32
 Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, with Diaspora Peoples (Lincoln, Nebraska: Writers Club, 2002), pp. 8-35, 394-95. Editor’s note: I first got the group strategy idea by writing a chapter on the Spartans for my 1988 book, Social and Personality Development: An Evolutionary Synthesis.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 19.
 Xenophon, Spartan Constitution, 10.
 Xenophon, Constitution, 13.
 The later Greco-Roman writer Polybius went so far as to argue that Rome’s extreme religiosity was what made her constitution “so markedly superior” to other states (Polybius, 6.56). See Guillaume Durocher, “Religious Piety in Sparta & Rome,” Counter-Currents.com, January 18, 2018.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 14.
 Ibid., 15.
 Xenophon, Constitution, 1.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 14.
 Ibid., 16.
 Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans, “Lycurgus,” 15.
 Xenophon, Constitution, 1.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 15.
 Xenophon, Constitution, 1.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 28.
 Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 4.6.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 24.
 Xenophon, Constitution, 3.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 2.
 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 14.
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