History

5 Disturbing things about ancient Sparta that people don’t really know

Interest, admiration and idolization of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has been experiencing a huge resurgence of interest.
sparta
Spartan helmet (Getty Images)

Interest, admiration and idolization of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has been experiencing a huge resurgence of interest in the west for the past few years. There’s even a word for it now, laconophilia, derived from Laconia, the land the Spartan people once occupied. Maybe it was the movie “300,” but Spart-mania has been ongoing for a long, long time.

The truth is, what we think of a spartan is more of a legend than it is in reality. Actual Sparta was much, much worse than Zach Snyder or Michigan State’s football team would really want to believe.

Here are 5 disturbing things about ancient Sparta that people don’t really know

1. It was an authoritarian oligarchy.

Ancient Sparta was more like the Soviet Union than a true democracy. They voted in what was called a democracy, but not everyone got a vote. They had a constitution (so did the Soviet Union), but they also had two kings and a five-member council (called Ephors) that pretty much decided everything for everybody. Policy decisions were made by 28 elderly people who were appointed for life.

The Spartan citizen’s assembly, made up of a sliver of the population, could not set an agenda or debate anything. They just voted after a new policy was explained to them by one of the other bodies. Historians have compared life for the average Spartan to life in a Nazi concentration camp and vice versa.

2. Spartans were big on slavery.

Whenever Sparta conquered a new people, most of those people became Helots. The Helots were described as Serfs but they were essentially slaves whose life was pretty much without value. Spartans tortured the Helots and hunted them for sport. 90% of Sparta was made up of slaves and it became the entire reason for their militaristic society.

All of the military training, culture and ethos Spartans created and passed on to Western Civilization was designed around the fear of a massive slave uprising – an uprising the Spartans deserved.

3. Spartans created the world’s first secret police.

One of the key moves in the dictator’s playbook is the creation of a secret police, a shadowy organization that does more than enforce the laws, they root out potential political opponents. Leave it to ancient Sparta’s authoritarianism to create the world’s first, the Krypteia.

Like any authoritarian ruler, Sparta’s government was paranoid about being overthrown by its serf class. To keep an eye on and terrorize the Helots, Sparta used the Krypteia to kill any Helot that might be a threat. In fact, every year, the government declared war on the Helots, just to keep it legal to murder them.

ancient sparta
Imaginary View Of The Market Place In Ancient Sparta. From El Mundo Ilustrado, Published Barcelona, 1880. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

4. Spartans killed a lot of babies.

Killing one’s own baby was something all the Greeks were doing at the height of Spartan power, but Sparta took infanticide to a whole new level. But in Sparta, it wasn’t a parent’s decision whether or not to kill their newborn, it was left up to the five guys elected every year to decide things for people and kill serfs.

In fact, it was pretty much assumed that every baby brought before the Ephors was going to be killed. The Ephors weren’t deciding who dies, they were deciding who lives. Any sign of weakness in the baby meant that the new child was about to get yeeted out of Sparta.

5. Spartans did not look like Gerard Butler in “300”

Sparta purposely created a food culture that was disgusting (to outsiders). They took pride in making soup from blood and entrails, then purposely starving their children to make them angry and encourage them to steal food, even if they had to kill for it. The problem with starving children, as one can see in North Korea today, is that it stunts their development, making them thin, skinny and short.

The constant war, baby killing, and homosexuality meant that Sparta suffered from a population problem, mostly due to low birth rates, which made their non-Helot population so very small. Having a peak of only 30,000 Spartans is why they were always worried about the one million slaves they tortured rising against them.