Image Manipulation And Utopianism – Sparta’s Legacies To Modern Europe

by The Editor

Image Manipulation And Utopianism – Sparta’s Legacies To Modern Europe
Classicist KENNETH ROYCE MOORE delves into one of the oldest and most important ingredients of Western civilisation. Spartan tradition, both real and idealised, had a profound influence on such notable philosophers as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno of Cyttium and others [EDITOR’S NOTE: Zeno of Cyttium (c 340-265 BC) was the founder of Stoicism]. This is especially the case in terms of those who speculatively explored political theory and that which we would today refer to as utopianism and, by extension, the subsequent Western traditions that derive from their philosophies.

Spartan tradition, both real and idealised, had a profound influence on
such notable philosophers as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes
the Cynic, Zeno of Cyttium and others [EDITOR’S NOTE: Zeno of
Cyttium (c 340-265 BC) was the founder of Stoicism]. This is especially
the case in terms of those who speculatively explored political theory and that
which we would today refer to as utopianism and, by extension, the subsequent
Western traditions that derive from their philosophies.

The image of Sparta, if not the reality, represented what amounted to, for
some at least, a social order superior to any of other ‘natural’ constitutions of the
era – a thing to be examined, refined and, if possible, replicated. However, it was
clearly in conflict with the actuality of ancient Sparta; the image came about
largely through the pro-Lakonian works of Xenophon and others, not the least
being the philosophers named above, along with the official version of Spartan
affairs that issued, albeit in a tightly controlled manner, from the Spartans
themselves. The truth still remains overshadowed by the legend. Cartledge refers
to this phenomenon as “the partly distorted, partly invented image created for
and by non-Spartans (with not a little help from their Spartan friends) of what
Sparta ideally represented”.1 In other words, they were effectively no strangers
to the modern concept of political idealism. They sought to propagandistically
reshape their past and present, thereby attempting to control their future as well,
along a specifically ideological course. No small part of the legacy of Sparta, and
perhaps that which so impressed the utopian philosophers, was her native skill
for re-inventing her own traditions, time and again, with notable success.

The Spartan politeia underwent a series of revisions and constitutional
reforms – not, as the pro-Lakonianists would necessarily have us believe, all
at once. The first round of reforms appear to have come about in the seventh
century BCE, as Whitby says, when there were some “internal wranglings over
the constitution” as well as, perhaps more profoundly, the revolts of the enslaved
populace of Messenia. These and other political events seem to have necessitated
some deliberate cultural re-ordering.2 According to the official tradition, the
mytho-historical Lykourgos, a lawgiver extraordinaire, took control and revised
the Spartan politeia, issuing his Great Rhetra to enact and record these reforms
for posterity. The Great Rhetra itself was maintained by oral tradition since the
Spartans kept no written records until well into the Hellenistic era. Of course,
this made its authenticity subject to the authority of those entrusted with its
official recitation.

A primary result of the Lykourgan reforms appears to have been the
achievement of a more tightly controlled society in which the lives of most
citizens were subject to some type of intense scrutiny, martial regulation and
relative socioeconomic austerity. This process involved, amongst other things,
the inculcation of accepted virtues through education along with considerable
exposure to the state’s official ideologies. The customs changed, according to
circumstantial necessity, over time and were given legitimacy as if they had
always been part of the ancestral constitution. Sparta’s political restructuring
throughout her history seems to have been a remarkable feat of social
engineering if only inasmuch as it maintained a kind of static identity of Sparta,
itself different at different times, with regard to the other (Greeks, Persians etc.).
It is possible that many Spartiates and non-Spartiates drew little distinction
between the official mask and the reality.

As indicated, not all of the alleged traditions of Lykourgos can be fairly
attributed to the man himself. Some are clearly the products of 3rd century
revolutionary reforms. Many were adopted in response to socio-political
crises that arose at other times throughout Spartan history (eg, the protracted
Peloponnesian Wars, the conflicts with Thebes and Macedonia). The process of
self re-invention seems to have been ongoing from the time of Lykourgos up to
and after 146 BCE when Rome permitted them to re-establish their ‘Lykourgan
constitution’ that had been abolished by the Achaean general Philopoemen in
188. All such reforms were designed to hearken back to an idealised Sparta
of old and claim legitimacy by purporting to come from the (orally recorded)
Rhetra of Lykourgos himself. Notable examples of this phenomenon are treated below according to subject, but let us presently consider the case of the Spartan cavalry. Thucydides attests
that an equestrian military force was first introduced into Sparta in 424 BCE.3

Moore He calls this change “contrary to custom”. However, Xenophon tells us that it
was Lykourgos who divided the Spartans into six regimental units of cavalry
and Plutarch, citing the 3rd century source Philostephanus, backs up Xenophon
on the official Lakonian version of events.4 A new tradition appears to have been
invented here in order to justify a significant change from heavy infantry-based
tactics. Such an attribution to Lykourgos “was the only way to make socially
palatable so radical an innovation, born as it was of military necessity”.5 This
example highlights the fact that it is always wise to take the officially sanctioned
Spartan traditions that claim ancestral legitimacy with a grain of salt.

Lykourgos and his revisionist successors were not working in a cultural
vacuum. In terms of the nature of their reforms, there is a recognised borrowing
and influence from afar. Kretan institutions, typically conservative but also
having recourse to sophisticated legal codes, are a major case in point. As with
Sparta, these too found champions amongst later philosophers. According
to Herodotos, the Spartans of his era (fifth century BCE) maintained that
their Lykourgan legislation was derived in part from that of Krete.6 Aristotle
discusses one historical approach that attempted to make not only the reforms
of Lykourgos but also those of Zaleukos and Charondas dependent on one
Thaletas who was a legislator of Gortyn.7 Aristotle rejects this for chronological
reasons (not unlike the case of the Spartan cavalry mentioned above) but agrees
with the tribute to Krete that it implies. He says that “the true statesman wishes
to make his citizens good and obedient to the laws; we have a good example of
this in the Kretan and Lakedaimonian legislators”.8

Something like Sparta’s mixed constitution is favoured by Zeno of Cyttium
in his Republic. A number of the policies in Plato’s Republic and Laws appear to
reflect Spartan ways of thinking both real and imagined and this is particularly
the case in terms of governmental organisation and the mixed constitution.
The politeia outlined in the Laws is especially characterized by a selective
blending of Spartan and Athenian elements. There are other connections with
the utopianists discussed below.

Sparta’s own system inclined toward gerontocratic oligarchy with limited
monarchical and democratic elements. They promoted this system with a zeal.
“Honours given to the old at Sparta”, as Powell says, “represented the culmination
of an elaborate hierarchy based on age and beginning in early schooldays”.9 As
with Plato, it was essential to ‘get ‘em while they’re young’.

The apparatus of the Spartan government may be loosely described
as follows. The gerousia was the actual governing council with more or less
supreme authority. The pseudo-democratic apella was made up of the adult,
male citizens and had the right to either support decisions made by the gerousia
through popular acclaim or, if they disagreed, to remain patriotically silent. The
duarchy of the two kings existed largely for ceremonial and martial purposes,
although some kings took more active roles in politics than others. The Spartan
ephors were effectively a ‘watchdog’ branch of government, in charge of the
public morality, who made certain that the laws and social mores were upheld
by all. They could call any citizen, including in theory even a king or a member
of the gerousia, to account. They could and did vie for power with the other
branches of the government.

The ephors in particular serve a purpose that Plato deemed sufficiently
valuable to import, albeit in modified form, into both his Kallipolis in the
Republic and Magnesia in the Laws. Each of these utopian visions is to be a
sort of gerontocracy strongly recollecting that of Sparta – with its Guardians
of the Laws (nomophylakes) themselves over the age of fifty and the oligarchic
Vigilance Committee/Philosopher Kings and Queens made up of the eldest of
these. The Platonic nomophylakes have much in common with their Spartan
counterparts, the ephors, in a sort of philosophically idealised way. As Morrow
says, they add a Lakonian “monarchical element in the city” further indicating a
preference for the “mixed constitution”.10 They would also have been an effective
agency for ensuring obedience and conformity.

The fact that Sparta had undergone legal restructuring with observable
results was perhaps a significant factor in its being considered especially
worthy of study by later philosophers. Plato’s Sokrates praises Krete and Sparta
on various occasions and, in the Republic, he cites “the Kretan and Spartan
constitution” as an example of the best of the imperfect forms of government.11
One of the main perceived faults of these constitutions was their inbuilt warlike
inclinations. More importantly, they were seen to aim at only one principal part
of virtue – courage – rather than the whole of virtue. As with the Republic, the
polis in the Laws also aims at the greatest possible happiness (eudaimonia); and,
this is inextricably linked with virtue (aretē). The Platonic lawgiver must aim at
fostering all of the virtues – courage, justice, moderation and wisdom – in all
of the citizens.

The similarities between Sparta (however idealised) and the constitutions of
the Republic and Laws are too numerous to recount here. Plato employed lessons
learnt from Sparta both within and without the realm of text. Plutarch tells us
that, under Plato’s influence, Dion, the King of Syracuse, sought to establish a
constitution “of the Spartan or Kretan type, a mixture of democracy and royalty,
with an aristocracy overseeing the administration of important affairs”.12 Plato was not
alone in terms of his interests in Lakonian ways. More than a few of
his students in the Academy took their lessons in Spartan cum utopian politics
abroad and influenced political affairs all over Hellas with varying degrees of

Aristotle is probably the most famous of Plato’s students with close ties to
the political leaders par excellence who would set the course of the Hellenistic
world: Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander, later called the Great. The
second book of his Politics contains a lengthy account of Kretan and Spartan
customs, comparisons between them and a discussion of their historical
relationships. Jaeger indicates that the materials used by Aristotle in this
section of the Politics were assembled during the period of his residence in
the Academy, as he says, “when Plato was working on the Laws and Kretan
and Spartan institutions were a favourite subject of discussion”.13 Aristotle
is in good company here. Iamblichos reported that Pythagoras himself paid
special attention to the subject.14 He was reputed to have had political dealings
in Sicily, Lampaskos and Kroton (to name a few places), and he appears to
have also held a strong interest in the constitutional formulations of Krete
and Sparta. The indications that we have suggest a highly political aspect to
early Pythagoreanism. That Pythagoras’ teachings greatly influenced Plato, and
thereby Aristotle, is generally acknowledged.

The interest in Sparta extends to the Stoics who also borrow from its
traditions. This is probably due to the fact that Zeno of Cyttium follows in the
footsteps of Plato and Aristotle and can be seen, perhaps most notably, in the
Stoic preference for austerity, along with other Stoic ideals discussed below.
But Zeno himself was indirectly influenced by a notable proponent of Spartan
customs, Diogenes the Cynic, no doubt as a consequence of Zeno’s own teacher,
Krates, having been one of his students.

Such interest from prominent philosophers and thinkers as these highlights
the fact that Sparta’s achievements as a society are worthy of consideration.
The Lykourgan reforms seem to have provided her with a relatively stable social
order in which a minority of Spartiates ruled over a majority of subject peoples,
many of whom were not infrequently inclined toward violent revolution. They
had an exceptionally superb military machine and, from the end of the Persian
wars up to their final defeat by the Theban and Boeotian alliance at the battle
of Leuktra (371 BCE), they held an empire that rivalled and, indeed, eventually
defeated that of Athens. Virtually all of this, it should be noted, was built on
the backs of their many slaves and accomplished by way of calculated social

Certain peculiarities and novel approaches characterise Spartan culture
which also attracted the utopianists. Education, for example, was a carefully
ordered and influential institution of the polis. Most other ancient Greek cities
had various forms of education, exercise and military training available. The
Lakonian distinction may be found in terms of organisation. The Spartans
referred to their system as the agōgē, which means a ‘leading’ or ‘rearing’ of
youths who were organised into ‘herds’ for administrative and proselytising
purposes. The Spartan agōgē, in keeping with their national character, appears
to have been quite rigid and hierarchical. It consisted of letters and the building
of endurance through sport and martial activities. Something very much like
this system is espoused by Plato (with Aristotle in agreement) and, to a differing
degree, Zeno as well in their respective treatises on political theory.15

The Spartans were amongst the first to make education obligatory and to
organise it in so thorough a manner. It was “compulsory for all boys from the
age of seven until they attained their socio-political majority (as opposed to
physical maturity) at age eighteen”.16 There was also the krypteia, which was a
form of military service for older youths akin to the later Athenian ephebeia
– but with more sinister connotations in terms of social control.17 Xenophon’s
idealised account of the Spartan system envisions a type of institutionalised,
physical training to have existed for women as well, but evidently not on a par
with that of men. This may have amounted to some degree of preparedness in
defending the city if an enemy attacked or if slaves revolted whilst the menfolk
were away fighting wars but it represents a marked leap over Athenian citizenwomen’s
level of public involvement. The apparent, albeit limited, education of
Spartan females is a subject of much debate but, along with other aspects of
their agōgē, it (or perhaps Xenophon’s idealised version of it) had a profound
affect on Plato’s approach to the subject of pedagogy in his Laws and probably
Zeno’s politeia too in regard to the near-equal education of women and men.
Aristotle’s Macedonian tendencies may have influenced his (rather misogynistic)
view on women, clearly at variance with that of Plato and Zeno, as it appears in
his works.

The utopian educational programmes of Plato’s and Zeno’s speculative
philosophy, and apparently that of Diogenes the Cynic too, strive to instantiate
virtue in all citizens. The Spartans allegedly sought this same end albeit adapted
to their own overriding agenda. The rigidly hierarchical approach of the Spartans
too is incompatible with the somewhat anarchistic politeiai of Diogenes and
Zeno. Even so, in Zeno’s ideal polis (or antipolis, as it may be rightly called),
youths go barefoot like those in Sparta and comparable emphasis is placed on
their physical and mental development. As Diogenes Laertius indicates:
“He used to affirm that training was of two types, mental and bodily:
the latter being that whereby, with constant exercise, perceptions are
formed such as secure freedom of movement for virtuous deeds; and
the one half of this training is incomplete without the other, good health
and strength being just as much included among the essential things,
whether for body or soul”.18

As with Plato, the youths must be ‘strapped-up’ with physical and mental
labour in order both to quell their natural hybris and to mould them into the
officially accepted forms that they will take as adults. However, Plato’s narrators
have maintained that the Lakonian method needed some revision in particular
with regard to its austerity. His Athenian Stranger criticises the systems in Sparta
and Krete, in addition to their incomplete approach to virtue mentioned above,
since they also compel their citizens ‘to keep away from and not to taste of the
greatest pleasures and entertainments’.19 This, he says, has left them unprepared
for temptations of pleasure and therefore subject to defeat at the hands of those
who have mastered them. There is some indication, later discussed, that this
was indeed the case.

Music figured prominently into Lakonian education and socialisation, as
it did for most ancient Greek poleis both real and imagined, but typically with
marked differences and significant points of contrast. In fifth-century Sparta,
“Tyrtaeus’ elegies were still the most popular songs in the repertoire, but
that was because of their moral tone and because they made good marching
songs”.20 This type of music was designed to leave a powerful impression. “It
was a dreadful but inspiring sight”, declares Plutarch, the Lakonophile, evincing
genuine admiration, “to see the Spartan army marching off for an attack to the
sound of the oboe”.21 Clearly music’s potential for inspiring awe and reverence,
along with fear in all its shades of significance, was well utilised as a means of
social control and inculcation.

The officially sanctioned musical repertoire found in both of Plato’s utopian
visions self-consciously reflects Spartan practices more so than any other
type.22 His carefully vetted choice of material for these least resembles the
luxurious Persian styles, and evidently, much of the Athenian as well, since his
narrator locates the sought-for quality of andreia (manliness/courage – as it
may be manifested in music) particularly within the Spartan tradition. It seems
somehow fitting, and certainly in keeping with Lakonian propaganda, that an
idealized view of the Spartans should represent, for some, the quintessence of
Hellenic manliness.

As we have seen, a central theme of the Spartan education, identified with
virtue, was the inculcation of civic obedience. This is in part achieved through
the social leverage allowed by shame. As in Plato’s Magnesia, the “best people”
are said to hold “phobos [fear] in the greatest esteem, calling it aidōs [shame/
modesty]”.23 This reflects traditionally Homeric values associated with accepted
social behaviour and underscores the connection with ancestral customs
however idealised.

Xenophon wrote of Sparta that “there, great aidōs stands beside great
obedience”.24 This was apparently true in both a figurative and literal sense. A kind
of ‘shame-culture’ figured prominently into their civic ideology. Aidōs entails the
fear of public censure incurred by the breaching of accepted protocols. It served
all over Hellas as an “embedded means” of controlling citizens’ behaviour, but it
appears to have found its home in Sparta. The privileged relationship of phobos
with the authority of the ephors is emphasised by “the spatial contiguity of the
place where ephoric power was exercised” and the actual temple of deified
Phobos itself.25

The Spartan approach to social control appears at once brutal and, at the
same time, sophisticated. Such practices of psychological and ideological
manipulation were perhaps a significant inspiration for Plato’s notion of the
so-called ‘noble lie’ (or virtuous fiction) in the Republic along with the use of
paramyth – persuasive, if not always factual, legal preambles – in the Laws.
However, the deployment of carefully stage-managed (mis)information by
Sparta is not limited to musical censorship, the invention of tradition and the
exploitation of shame. Spartan official deceit included not only lying to the helots
about whether they would be rewarded or killed, misleading other enemies
in wartime (which was a practice that Xenophon explicitly recommended to
non-Spartans), but also misinforming their own citizens about the outcome of
battles involving Spartan forces. Sparta was a fairly closed society that took
special precautions to limit citizens’ access to various levels of information
while striving to control such information that went into the outside world
concerning Sparta itself.

Like Plato’s fictional Magnesia, the freedom to travel and learn about foreign
ways was only granted to select individuals by special permission of the Spartan
government (that is, the gerousia and the nobles). Officially, there was a concern
that if Spartiates travelled abroad they might shed their native values under the
(perceived) decadent temptations of alien customs. Some question remains as to
when this reform actually took place. There is an account of it in Xenophon and
this is in turn supported by other sources of his era.26 However, the first time that we
hear about the Spartans being seriously concerned over foreign travel
is from Thucydides in reference to the events of the 470s BCE. At this time, the
Spartan regent Pausanias was accused of Medism [EDITOR’S NOTE: Greek
sympathy or support for the Medes (Persians), Greece’s ancient enemies] in
part because he had allegedly adopted a Persian style of dress and other foreign
manners. However, a political motivation may be seen behind this charge
resulting from the fact that he was engaged in unofficial acts abroad amounting
to his own private foreign policy, perhaps with designs to set himself up as the
master of the Greek world. Recalled under threat of being made public enemy
No 1, but eventually acquitted of all charges, he was not allowed to return to his
previously high level of social standing and was compelled to remain at home in
Sparta for the remainder of his life. It seems likely, as Flower suggests, that “the
fall of Pausanias provides an appropriate context for the introduction of a ban
on foreign travel without official authorisation.”27 This innovation was naturally
attributed to Lykourgos and what had perhaps been a native inclination in the
past thus became enshrined in law.

Another feature of Lakonian social control that impressed later philosophers
was their command of the economy along modern-day communist lines.
The Spartan lawgivers saw fit to limit the ownership of money and manage
its movements within their sphere of influence. This is the policy outlined in
Xenophon’s account of Spartan currency after Lykourgos’ alleged reforms:
“…such that even ten minae could not be brought into the house without
the master and servants knowing as it would take up considerable space
and require a wagon to move it; there were also searches for gold and
silver, and if any was found, the possessor was punished.”28

In approbation of such an ostensibly beneficent policy, Plato’s Athenian
Stranger indicates that “to be exceedingly wealthy and at the same time to be
good is impossible”.29 The absence of valuable legal tender is also compatible,
in theory, with the policies in Plato’s Republic, Zeno’s politeia along with the
utopian teachings of Diogenes the Cynic.

However, the real and the ideal appear at odds with regard to this tradition
in Sparta; in short, it seems to have been a patent invention of later times and
circumstances rather than part of the ancestral constitution. There is indeed
some indication that the Spartans of earlier centuries were relatively unfamiliar
with coinage in general perhaps due to their isolationist character and Sparta
may not have minted her own currency. However, as Hodkinson says, “contrary
to the programmatic statements in literary sources, a range of evidence
indicates official possession and use of precious metal currency before 404”.30

The iron-ingot currency purportedly in circulation in ancient Sparta, even if
it was not the only kind available, has never been discovered. The motivations
behind this innovation in tradition appear again to have been political. Much as
with Pausanias a generation prior, the Spartan admiral Lysander was amassing
considerable power in the Greek world and much of it appears to have been
purchased with Persian gold (foreign currency). This was used for the bribery of
Athenian sailors to join the Spartan fleet which probably facilitated his famous
naval victories at Notium in 407 and Aegospotami in 405. Perhaps Lysander’s
opponents recalled that iron had once been used as a medium of exchange in
antiquity and, “re-created an iron currency in the tense atmosphere of 404”
as part of their aggressive reversal of his policies.31 Further complicating the
claims of the Spartan revisionists is the fact that there was no coinage known to
have been in circulation in Greece at the time of Lykourgos.

Sparta’s command economy went beyond limiting the possession of currency.
Strikingly similar to the Magnesians of Plato’s Laws and the philosopher-citizens
of Zeno’s politeia, Plutarch tells us (and Xenophon concurs) that “Lykourgos
absolutely forbade the Spartans from practicing a manual craft”.32 In the
speculative utopias of the philosophers, the reason for this exclusion is so that
the citizens will be able to devote all of their energies to the pursuit of virtue.
Sparta’s case is more complicated. Herodotos, writing in the 420s, mentions no
such prohibition against banausic labour. He indicates that a bias against those
who practice a manual craft existed throughout the whole of Greece, especially
amongst the Spartans and least amongst the Corinthians.33 It is difficult to say
precisely when this bias turned into Lykourgian law; however, an explanation
may be found in the privations that Sparta suffered after carrying on the lengthy
and expensive process of fighting protracted conflicts of attrition during the
Peloponnesian Wars. This may have caused them “increasingly to represent
themselves, and indeed to see themselves, as fundamentally different from their
antagonists”.34 Again, Plutarch and Xenophon may be telling us only what the
Spartans wanted us to hear.

The prohibition of dowries is another curious facet of Lakonian monetary
policy and it, along with a division of citizenry presently to be considered, may
represent circumstantial evidence for a stronger Platonic connection than is
generally acknowledged. In the Laws, Plato’s Athenian Stranger prescribes a ban
on dowries in Magnesia and significantly limits brides’ trousseaux in contrast
to real-world amounts typically expended. This is consistent with the spirit of
(later) Spartan ideals if not traditional practice. The reasons given by Plutarch
for the alleged removal of dowries from Sparta were, in characteristically egalitarian tones,
“so that none may be left unmarried because of poverty or sought eagerly because of
affluence”.35 Even so, a transfer of material goods seems to have accompanied Spartan
brides from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE until the reforms of Agis
and Kleomenes in the third century. Aristotle’s reference to this as a proix (dowry)
may be a loose way of describing the practice
as analogous to the Athenian one.36 He says that Spartan women had large
dowries, loaned money at interest and were able to own and inherit property.37
The third century claims that dowries were forbidden in Sparta since Lykourgos
represent a later “invention of revolutionary propaganda”.38

Dowries and land distribution were problems that haunted Sparta in the
altered political landscape after her defeat at Leuktra. By 244 BCE, as Plutarch
tells us, “not more than 700 Spartiates were left, and of these there were
perhaps 100 who possessed land and allotment.”39 These figures may not be
wholly accurate but they nonetheless indicate a society in extremis. The Spartan
response to this crisis, as usual, was to re-invent a Lykourgan tradition and
they may have even had a certain fourth century philosophical text as their
guide. We are told that King Agis wanted to divide the land into 4,500 equal
and inalienable lots for citizens; although, the task was actually completed by
Kleomenes who eventually settled for a citizen body numbering 4000.40 In
Plato’s Magnesia, there are to be 5,040 (a number readily divisible by 12, 10,
etc.) administrative units for land-holdings by the citizens of the city (Laws
737e); each lot supports one family, the number of families is meant to remain
at more or less a constant of 5,040 (740b-c). One of the male children will
inherit the holding and the females are given in marriage where appropriate;
excess offspring will be obliged to emigrate (740d-e, 741). While not precisely
the same figure, this is strikingly similar to the reforms of Agis and Kleomenes.
The indivisibility of the land units is even more suggestive.

Plutarch tells us in the eighth chapter of his life of Agis that Lykourgos
had made this division in antiquity. This “tradition”, as it was related in the 3rd
century, maintained that land could only be passed from father to son (or to the
State for further re-distribution in the event of no heirs). Yet, in the Rhetra of
Epitadeus from the early fourth century, we are told that Lykourgos allowed a
citizen to bequeath his estate to anyone he pleased.41 This appears to be one of
the main reasons why so much land ended up in so few hands and therefore came
in need of redistribution in the third century. The whole concept of inalienable
and indivisible lots of equal size was an invention of King Agis with no basis
in historical fact.42 Its basis in Platonic literature and pro-Spartan idealisations
seems to be a significant possibility, with a kind of bizarre interaction between
idealisers, philosophers and an actual polity.

Other truly ancient Spartan traditions, such as the agōgē (mentioned above)
and communal meals had also fallen out of practice by the third century and
were reintroduced, with revisions, by the reformers Agis and Kleomenes. In the
earlier version of communal dinning, each Spartiate contributed a set amount
to the whole meal. Xenophon says of the Spartan common messes “that as long
as they are together, their table is never without food”.43 They had evidently
grown elitist and exclusive as property and citizenship became more unequally
distributed. Here too is another connection with Plato’s Laws and potentially
Zeno’s politeia. The former has virtually the same institution and the latter seems
favourable to such activities – even if they have not been precisely spelled out in
the surviving texts – since communal life is espoused and extolled. While it is
clear that this institution served a civic role in binding the Spartan community
through shared meals, it also had an educative quality. The Spartan syssition, or
“communal mess”, “was looked upon as a school of manners and deportment”
and as a means of induction into the accepted modes of public deportment and

The common meals were also notoriously hotbeds of institutionalised
same-sex activity. The subject of Spartan sexual mores is complex but relates
prominently to the works of the utopianists. Same-sex intercourse appears to
have been a norm of life in Sparta perhaps even more so than other poleis at the
time. It is a concept that many of the later Stoics found acceptable and a system
of state-sanctioned same-sex relationships of a Lakonian nature is famously
proffered in Plato’s Republic.45 Yet the Spartans reveal, not unlike many regions
of the modern world, a contradictory quality with regard to what we take to
represent their essential attitude toward sexuality. Xenophon says that Lykourgos
forbade same-sex relations between boys and men apart from the virtuous,
non-sexual type of relationship favoured by Plato (in his later works), Zeno and
other philosophers in theory if not always in practice.46 But Xenophon makes
the notable and somewhat startling admission that customs had changed since
the inception of these reforms.47 On this account, Plato’s Athenian Stranger
decries Sparta and Krete as city-states that, to their detriment, he perceives to
have officially sanctioned same-sex behaviour. This is a point where Plato’s final
utopian vision diverges from Spartan practices since same-sex relations are to
be highly discouraged if not altogether outlawed in Magnesia.48

Some details survive to back up the popular perceptions of Lakonian
sexuality. In addition to the alleged proclivities of communal messmates,
there is considerable evidence pointing toward a high level of homoeroticism
pervading Spartan culture. For example, imagery found on bronze figurines,
mirror-handles and kylix interiors [EDITOR’S NOTE: A kylix is a shallow cup
with a tall stem, similar to an Italian tazza] not only tend to reveal scenes of an
erotic nature between males but they often “portray girls and young women with
underdeveloped or de-emphasised secondary sex characteristics”.49 Certainly
there was same-sex behaviour and homoerotic art to be found in virtually
any ancient Greek poleis, but Sparta’s notoriety in this regard is significantly
one piece of news that circulated widely beyond the ‘iron curtain’ of Lakonian
influence. By the fourth century BCE, their youths had acquired a reputation
for amorous proclivities in terms of same-sex intercourse to such an extent
that Diogenes the Cynic, “being asked where in all Hellas he found good men,
replied: ‘Good men nowhere, but good boys in Sparta.’” 50

Lakonian mixed-sex relations appear to have also been fairly unique in the
ancient Greek world as well in no small part due to their adherence to an overall
theme of communism. Xenophon’s account suggests that their system permitted
more freedom of choice for both partners (with limited contact after marriage)
and, in some particular circumstances, allowed husbands to share their wives
with other men. Even so, “a Spartan woman’s primary role was not, unlike that
of her Athenian sister, the performance of strictly domestic tasks – though she
was expected to be able to run a home…the goal of her life was childbearing
(teknopoiia)”.51 The same attitudes appear, albeit in markedly different ways, in
the sort of sexual communism espoused by Plato and Zeno in their respective

Xenophon indicates that Spartan men often wedded women older than
perhaps the Greek norm. Lykourgos allegedly forbade citizen men to marry
until their brides were “in the period of physical prime”,52 but some older men
clearly still preferred younger wives. He does not say precisely what age the
“period of physical prime” entailed. Plutarch gives evidence for a comparable
‘minimum age’ but pointedly does not specify a number.53 The allegedly
superior Spartan diet may have helped their girls to mature faster and thus wed
earlier or, alternatively, the rigorous athletics might have delayed the onset of
menstruation and, thereby, their weddings.54 The precise age of marriage for
Spartan women remains unknown.

Sexual communism seems to have been a dominant theme embedded
in the Spartan cultural psyche. For example, we are told that they regarded
adultery as hardly a crime at all.55 Xenophon does not mention it in his works
on Sparta while Plutarch curiously goes out of his way to deny that it existed.
“Plutarch seems to have been technically correct”, as Cartledge says, “and this is
a remarkable comment on the emphasis laid on the extra-marital maintenance
of the male citizen population at Sparta”.56 It may have been the case that there
was no law on adultery in Sparta except amongst their royal families. Our
lack of knowledge about these things with regard to the other citizen classes
may be due to the small number of non-Spartiates who had the chance to hear
about them. Polybius and Strabo both indicate that the ephors had encouraged
sexual license between citizens and the helots as a means of survival in times of
conflict when legitimate fathers were few and this precedent may have thence
encouraged the decriminalisation of extra-marital intercourse.57 If so, then
this is another example of the re-invention of Lykourgan tradition on a most
essential subject. The theme of sexual communism, moreover, was prominently
taken up by the utopian philosophers.

I have sought to demonstrate that the Spartans were at once like and unlike
their fellow sons of Hellas in significant ways and to indicate some of the potential
impact that this difference effected in terms of the speculations of others. As
we have seen, many of their institutions (whether real or imagined) impressed
and influenced utopian philosophers such as Plato and Zeno of Cyttium who
borrowed heavily from perceived Lakonian traditions. Organised education,
stringent monetary policies, a mixed constitution and a powerful military aside,
perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Spartans was their ability to adapt
and to cope with a changing world in which their Lykourgan values had to be
constantly re-invented, doubtless out of sheer necessity, if they were to remain
whole and distinct as a society. We have seen that the Spartans themselves,
through both the enacting of official policies and the propagandistic promotion
of their ideals, have shaped their society along directed paths. In some cases,
they appear to have conflated the real and the ideal by later adopting some
of the fictional traditions, as advanced by some of their more notable literary
proponents, of which perhaps they themselves, at a different time and for
different reasons, had originally a hand in the creation.

Far from simply being a static, cultural backwater entrenched in the archaic
traditions of a legendary lawgiver, the Spartans were constantly engaging the
world around them, interacting with it in their own unique way and adapting
dynamically to it. I suspect that this quality was known and admired by
Plato and others who undertook such intensive investigations into Spartan
civilization and history. How could they who had such insight, and who were
so close to the events in question, fail to observe this phenomenon? The ability
to call a calculated ‘something’ into existence for the ostensible good of the
polis, to give it a name and invent a convention that people will follow is no
mean feat. This is ‘the word’ (logos) in action. It strikes at the very foundations
of political philosophy and finds its home as much in the modern democracies
of the industrialised West today as it did in ancient Sparta.

Dr KENNETH ROYCE MOORE is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Archelogos in
the department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, and the author of Sex and the
Second Best City: Sex and Society in the Laws of Plato (Routledge, 2005)

Replicated, with permission, from the Winter 2009 Issue of The Quarterly Review. To find out more about this conservative intellectual journal head to the website at

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