By Periklis Deligiannis
Conflict of Greek hoplites ( Archaic period, vase-painting).
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At the age of 18 years, the Spartan teenager was becoming an eiren, i.e. an adult man and citizen. Up to the age of 19 he was serving the state as proteiras, i.e. leader of a group of trainees/teenagers.
The last stage of his training was the krypteia, the service in the secret groups of extermination of threatening helots (enslaved serfs), in order to intimidate the other helots. The Spartans who were around the age of 20 years were part of secrets groups patrolling at night in the countryside. They were armed only with daggers and used to kill all the helots who met during the night. Due to the secrecy of this activity, during the day those young Spartans were hiding in remote bases of operations. Sometimes they used to attack during the day as well, the helots who were working in the fields, killing those who were regarded by the authorities as suspects for inciting the others in rebellion. In order to avoid the agos, i.e. the curse of the gods because of the murders of the krypteia, the state occasionally declared officially the war on the helots. Thereby the wars of Sparta of the “Dark Ages” and the Geometric Period (10th-8th c. BC) against the Achaeans of the valley of the Eurotas (Laconia) and against the Dorians and Pre-dorians of the valley of the Pamisos (Messenia) who were the forefathers of the helots, had become perpetual. In essence this ‘war’ ended shortly before 200 BC, when the last helots were freed.
For the Spartans, the killing of the most dangerous of their serfs was not an unjustified crime, because they considered the helots as a defeated and thus enslaved people with whom they were perpetually at war. Therefore they considered the slain helots as losses of the enemy in this perpetual war, continued for centuries after the Spartan conquest of Laconia and Messenia. Until lately it was considered that the krypteia functioned only as a measure of national security. As it turned out, it functioned also as an act of initiation of the trainees in the physical annihilation of the enemies, a sort of animmersion of the warrior in the ‘first blood’. In fact, the krypteia was not continuously taken place but only in cases where there was a reasonable suspicion about a revolution of the helots. If the krypteia was constantly taken place, it would have the opposite effect: the constant helotic uprisings. The helots always remained a tough people because of their hard living, rather than a ‘soft’ population as they often considered to be (by a number of modern scholars). The Messenian helots were more threatening because their lands were away from Sparta. As the historian Grundy points out on the Messenian helots, ‘Sparta was holding a wolf by the neck’. The helots of the Lower Eurotas valley were also threatening enough.
It is not known what was the avocation of the youths of the groups of the krypteia, in peaceful periods. They probably were responsible for maintaining order in the countryside and collecting information on possible secret movements of the helots.
After the age of 20, the Spartan citizen-soldier officially came of age, provided that he had passed the stages of the agoge (socio-military education and training) and he was allowed to let his hair grow long. He went on sleeping and eating in the syskenia (military group), in the barracks. There was no exception for those who had a wife and children. They were allowed to sleep at home with their wives only for a few days annually, although in several cases they went to their homes secretly and only for a while. Each group of a syskenia consisted of fifteen men. These groups were also the smallest units of the Spartan military organization. The members elected by voting the young warriors who would join their team (syskenia), when there was a vacancy in the group because of death or a retirement of a veteran. This election was secret and had to raise the affirmative vote of all the members of a syskenia. Just one negative vote meant the rejection of the candidate to enter the military group. Therefore, the candidate had to fully reflect the standards of a true Spartan. No syskenia group wanted a young warrior inferior to these standards, who could become dangerous for the survival of all his companions-in-arms during a battle. Thereby, if a young warrior was repeatedly rejected by a number of groups in which he tried to enter, he was very likely not to ever acquire civil rights: he would never be a Spartan.
The warriors of a syskenia were living together, day and night, in separate residences (called andreia or syssitia), were eating together in special places (syssitia also, or fiditia), chatting and entertaining themselves with songs and dances. Some trainee youths were allowed to eat together with the men of the syskenia groups, in order to learn from the more experienced men. The age at which a Spartan could take up residence in his house with his wife and children, is not known. But it is known that he was not allowed to go to the market (Agora) and to converse with other citizens before reaching the thirty years of age. This was possibly the age at which he left the barracks.
Greek mercenaries serving the Persians (Xenophon’s era) in a fine artwork of the Russian artist A. Karatchuk. An auxiliary attendant of the combatants is also depicted (a service which the helots undertook in the Spartan army). The Spartans were the most wanted mercenaries of their time.
The military life and continuing education did not stop even then. Until the age of 60 years, a Spartan was considered available for campaign outside the city. But it was an age limit not respected in essence, since there are known examples of older enough Spartans who fought in battles or marched beyond the borders of their state. The military exercises of the adults were so tough that they were often ending in bloodshed. As the Spartans claimed themselves, their exercises were bloody in order for their battles to be bloodless. The training and exercises on the formation of the Spartan hoplite phalanx, on its preservation under pressure and on the famous othismos (i.e. unbearable pressure on the enemy phalanx) were continuous. Plutarch (in the Life of Lycurgus) notes that the Spartan warriors were the only men in the world who were welcoming war, as a repose from the exercises in view of war. Nowadays, most military experts consider the Spartans as the first real elite soldiers in World History.
Aerial view of ancient Sparta.
For the Spartan omoios (full citizen) there was no profession, apart from martial art. He was entirely devoted to the continuous preparation for war. Agricultural and other works were made by the helots, while the perioikoi (non-Spartan but free men of Laconia and Messenia) practiced various professions, like the men of the other Greek city-states of their time. The Spartans and their families lived off the income of their farms. Each month, the Spartan citizen (omoios) was obliged to deliver for the aformentioned syssitia (meals for the military groups), 26 kgs (kilos) of flour (an Aeginetan medimnos), 9-14.5 kgs of wine, 9.5 kgs of cheese, 5 kgs of figs and 10 Aeginetan obols (currency) for other needs. Those who could not contribute these quantities, were unsubscribed from the syskenia groups and were losing their political rights. This was usually the fate of the younger sons of a full citizen, i.e. except the firstborn. They did not inherit their own allotments (farms) in order to contribute to the syssitia meals. Another such case were the citizens whose farmsteads were in areas that Sparta lost because of wars, as it happened for example in 369 BC with the loss of Messenia. It was then that half of the citizens lost their farms. All those Spartans were reduced to the civil category of the hypomeiones (Spartans in origin but without civil rights). In the same category belonged as well the young Spartans whose applications for entry to a syskenia were rejected, those citizens whose harvest fields were no longer fruitful enough to provide them with the monthly contribution for the syssitia-meals, and those who feathered in battle. The hypomeiones were first reported (by the ancient sources) in the early 4th century BC, but their existence is definite since the establishment of Lycurgus’ socio-military system. It seems that they were few until the late 6th century BC, but since then their numbers began to grow rapidly .
The educational and sociopolitical system of Sparta aimed above all, to the full homogeneity of her citizen-warriors, in order to act during the battle with a common thinking. The high level of military training and living of the Spartans, was the basis of the killing machine that their hoplite phalanx had been. This perception of life has turned the Spartans into ‘craftsmen of war and attendants of Ares’ (the god of war).
CONTINUE IN PART II