Sunday, January 22, 2012

Spartan Mothers - Tough for a Reason

 Those who have some familiarity of ancient Spartan society generally fall into one of two camps - one that admires the best of their culture while admitting that we are better off without the worst of it; and those who think poorly of it overall. Those who hold to that latter tend to be admirers of Athens and her society - itself also an example of a culture with many good traits and those that we are fortunate not to have. Both though, were societies where the individual was a crucial factor and provide fine examples, each in their own way, of how a nation-state may be organized in a manner where the individual does not get smothered by the power of the government.

One point should be ironed out firstly- that the Sparta of the Iliad was quite different from the ancient Sparta of of which we speak when Spartan society in the topic. The former was a city-state of the early Achaean/Mycenaean* Greeks. This Sparta, along with much of Greece, was overthrown by southward-migrating Dorian Greek tribesmen shorty after 1200BC. The illiterate Dorians took over many of the strongholds of the petty Greek kingdoms immortalized in Homer's epic poem and instituted a generally harsher rule. Thus began the Greek dark ages, which roughly parallels what occurred after the fall (More of a slow internal collapse) of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe staring in the fifth century AD. Consequently, when Helen of Troy is described as a Spartan, the term is geographically accurate but is misleading from a cultural or historical viewpoint. It is sort of like equating ancient Romans with those who today reside in Rome.

The Dorian state of Sparta rose out of the period where the earlier Achaean/Mycenaeans had been either driven out of the region of Lacadaemon/Laconia or subdued by the newcomers.Those who remained in the region generally fell into the class known as Helots. They had no rights at all and lived in state of servitude under the ruling Dorian Spartans. Note that this can not be held to be of the chattel-type of slavery practiced by societies such as the early US.  Other Dorians who lost out in the power struggle among the competing Dorian  tribes seem to have gained a status of non-Spartan freemen - the Perioikoi. They could own property, have  their own jobs such as farmers, craftsmen, armor makers, etc. They did not possess the rights of Spartans in the area of government. There were others such as the Sciritae, who also enjoyed free status. Both of the latter also were allowed to bear arms and defend the region; the Perioikoi as hoplites and the Sciritae as a sort of early skirmisher/light infantry types.

Unlike modern cultures, military service was not optional for free citizens of the period. Spartans were born to defend the state. If Spartan babies passed the initial tests administered to ensure that the child was healthy, then it would be allowed to live, if not, the infant was exposed.

We of course are happy that we no longer hold any peoples in subjection or leave the fate of our babies to any examiners, but we must note that there indeed are those from the modern Left who not only do advocate enforcing euthanasia on sickly/deformed/retarded infants and disabled seniors, but labor without pause to ensure that large swaths of our current population remain completely unable to even attempt to earn their own living and thus consist of a class forever dependant on the government for handouts. The latter provides an appetizing solid block of voters who will in turn will continue to vote for the Leftist candidates who consequently have no reason to allow anything that may change their condition.

Spartan society, although not nearly as austere as historians traditionally hold - they sang, played music, held celebrations, etc., but their methods of creating citizens soldiers were indeed austere. At age seven a Spartan boy was shipped off to the Agoge, which was essentlialy a military training barracks. He would remain in a barracks-type environment until age thirty. His military obligation did not end until age 60.

I will try my best to keep the details as short as possible to concentrate on the main point. Below are two wikipedia links that can provide a decent start for one who desires a more thorough familiarization.

The Agoge was a harsh environment. The children were subjected to extremely rigorous schedules of physical activities, exposure to the elements,  and deprivations, including the deliberate causing of hunger on a regular basis. The boys were made aware by implication that they could always steal food if they were hungry, but were punished severely if they were caught while doing so. This is believed to have encouraged them to learn to be disciplined to move quietly and without mercy as well as mentally inuring them to shortages that would inevitably be experienced while on military campaigns. The meals often consisted of some pork cooked in a broth of blood and vinegar; a concoction that reportedly caused a visiting non-Spartan to comment that he now knew why Spartans were not afraid to die in battle. Simliar comments were made of Spartan mothers; they were conisdered by many to be overly harsh and emotional with their sons. While some today will speak of German or maybe Irish mothers in this manner, Spartan mothers would generally make the former two look like pampering Italian moms of today.

There has to have been a reason for this harshness, and it appears to have been caused by the conditions ever-present in the Agoge. Those who have children are aware of the level of maturity and physical/mental toughness of seven year-olds. We can look at our children of that age and recoil in horror at the thought of having them removed from our watchful eye, the attention and affection that we give, and overall care that we regularly administer. We are able to do this as we know that, unless some terrible and unforeseen disaster visits our families, our young children are going to be with us at least until they are eighteen.

We have the luxury of bringing our kids along slowly on the road to toughness or mental and physical hardness. If parents know that their son is not close to being ready for, say football or wrestling, they can hold off for a while before throwing him in with boys of his age who are stronger and more aggressive. If is is clear that he is not going to be an athlete, a fighter, or a kid that is emotionally tough, they may very well not register him for any sports or other peer-involved activities at all. I personally do not recommend the latter course at all. There are too many advantages of getting the child exposed to some degree of competition even if he is not likely to be very accomplished at these activities.

Spartan Moms had no such option; the fathers were in the barracks and often not home until after thirty and even following that were on training/drill periods or actual campaigns. They could simply not be counted on to be there to toughen up the boys. Yet, ready or not,  the boys would have to leave, at age seven to an unforgiving world where the seven year-olds who were not ready would do more than cry for their mothers every night like a kid at summer camp, they would in all probability not graduate and become full Spartan citizens; either that or they would not survive at all.

When Spartan mothers acted in a manner that we would perceive as overly harsh or without affection, they were in fact doing the best thing that they could for the children that they loved - they were preparing them to survive the trials of the Agoge. The harder and harsher that they were on their boys, the more likely that they would live through the crucial first year of training and be on the road to citizenship. If they truly loved their boys, they withheld from themselves the selfish desire to pamper and "baby' their boys. If they did give in to their selfishness, they were guaranteeing that their boys would be beyond miserable - they may not even have returned home. Denying themselves the joy of lavishing all sorts of affection was therefore the key to increasing their sons' odds of making it through the Agoge.

Spartan mothers also denied themselves the luxury of public displays of grief for fallen adult sons. They practiced the "stiff upper lip" before the British were even formed as a people. There are dozens of saying and mini-anecdotes attributed to Spartan mothers - all of them telling and many are actually inspirational.

Two to note here:

The answer that Leonidas' wife Gorgo gave when asked why Spartan women ruled over their men. This was of course intended to be an insult to Spartan men. She replied that this was due to the fact that only Spartan women gave birth to men.

The others refers to the many examples of how the mothers reacted to any perceived cowardice on the part of their sons; some were killed by thrown tiles or other objects, some were chased with sticks, others mockingly shown their mothers' exposed bellies and asked if the wanted to crawl back in.

There are far too many to list, but the link below is a good source.

Whether one is an admirers of Spartan society or not, their system of creating tough, fearless hoplites worked.

A common phrase was that a Spartan women had "never seen the smoke from an enemy's fire."

Another telling example was when, during a discussion between the high ranking Spartan Antalcidas and an Athenian, the Athenian boasted that during the on-again off-again wars between the two states "We have indeed often driven you away from the Cephisus (A river near Athens). Antalcidus replied "But we have never driven you away from the Eurotas" (A river in the area of Sparta)

If you do visit sites that provide examples of Spartan sayings, you will see how the word "Laconic" came to mean short, brief speech where less was more and words were not wasted.

*Those disposed to Homer will use the term Achaean, those who lean towards the work of archaeologists, Mycenaean.

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