The Spartan Family

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The Spartan Childhood

The Spartan family was quite different from that of other Ancient Greek city-states. The word "spartan" has come down to us to describe self-denial and simplicity. This is what Spartan life was all about. Children were children of the state more than of their parents. They were raised to be soldiers, loyal to the state, strong and self-disciplined.

It began in infancy. When a Spartan baby was born, soldiers came to the house and examined it carefully to determine its strength.The baby was bathed in wine rather than water, to see its reaction. If a baby was weak, the Spartans exposed it on the hillside or took it away to become a slave (helot). Infanticide was common in ancient cultures, but the Spartans were particularly picky about their children. It was not just a matter of the family, the city-state decided the fate of the child. Nurses had the primary care of the baby and did not coddle it.

Soldiers took the boys from their mothers at age 7, housed them in a dormitory with other boys and trained them as soldiers. The mother's softening influence was considered detrimental to a boy's education. The boys endured harsh physical discipline and deprivation to make them strong. The marched without shoes and went without food. They learned to fight, endure pain and survive through their wits. The older boys willingly participated in beating the younger boys to toughen them. Self-denial, simplicity, the warrior code, and loyalty to the city-state governed their lives.

Spartan children were taught stories of courage and fortitude. One favorite story was about a boy who followed the Spartan code. He captured a live fox and intended to eat it. Although boys were encouraged to scrounge for food, they were punished if caught. The boy noticed some Spartan soldiers coming, and hid the fox beneath his shirt. When the soldiers confronted him, he allowed the fox to chew into his stomach rather than confess, and showed no sign of pain in his body or face. This was the Spartan way.

At the age of 20 or so, they had to pass a rigorous test to graduate and become full citizens. Only the soldiers were received the aristocratic citizenship. If they failed their tests they never became citizens, but became perioeci, the middle class. So to some extent class was based on merit rather than birth.

If the young men passed, they continued to live in the barracks and train as soldiers but were required to marry to produce new young Spartans. The state gave them a piece of land which was farmed by slaves and which they did nothing to tend. The income provided for their support so they could remain full-time soldiers. At the age of 30 they were allowed to live with their families, but continued to train until the age of 60 when they retired from military service.

Girls also were removed from the home at 7 and sent to school. Here they learned wrestling, gymnastics, were taught to fight, and endured other physical training. Spartans believed that strong mothers produced strong children. Young women competed at athletic events and may have competed in the nude as the men did.

If they passed their citizen tests, they were assigned a husband. Because this did not happen until they were 18-20, they were more emotionally mature when they married and closer to the age of their husbands. Marrying later than other Greek women, the Spartan women produced stronger children, if not as many. To prepare for the wedding night, her hair was cut short and she was dressed in male clothing. The man then returned to his all-male barracks.

Men and women did not live together, but met occasionally for procreation. The wedding consisted of a ritualized physical struggle which resulted in the man slinging the woman over his shoulder and taking her off. By the end of the 4th century BCE there were more women than men in sparta and women often had more than one father for their children, and a several men might share a wife. Connubial love was discouraged by the city-state, but there is evidence that some husbands and wives loved each other very much. This fact would embarrass them if it were known, a shameful weakness, so such attachments were usually kept secret.

Women enjoyed much greater freedom and independence in sparta than in other Greek city-states. Because mothers had little responsibility for the care of their children, they were not as tied to the home as most Greek women were. They were allowed to walk abroad in the city and transact their own affairs. They owned their own property, as much as a third of the property in Sparta. Their husbands were only a minor part of their lives, and except in matters relating to the military were generally their own masters.

They were not as close to their children as other Greek women in some ways, but a mother had pride in her son's stature as a courageous and strong soldier. “Come home with your shield or upon it” was said to be the advice one woman gave her son as he went off to war. They shared the culture's shame of weakness.

Although the Spartans did not have a family life as we think of it, there is evidence that in some cases at least Spartan men and women had close ties to their children and with each other. Their system certainly was well-ordered and avoided the "moral degeneration" they despised in the Athenians who they saw as wallowing in luxuries. And their is no doubt that the system produced strong soldiers. The Spartan army was legendary in ancient Greece, and the legend continues to this day.

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