In Sparta, citizenship brought power and privilege
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In Sparta, citizenship brought power and privilege, but required devotion and personal sacrifice
The Laconians had a particularly strict and defined notion of citizenship. Only adult males who could prove their descent from original Doran conquerors, who had completed their training at the agoge, (the Spartan state education system which turned boys into warriors) and who had been accepted to the public messes were considered to be part of the homoioi; Spartiates or ‘equals’.
With such a rigid structure in defining the men of the citizen class, at her peak Sparta’s military – which was comprised of her citizen body, and during times of war, pereoikoi (inhabitants of outer villages of Laconia) and helots (conquered peoples who were reduced to slavery) – would have numbered no more than ten thousand.
Upon election to one of the public messes, the Spartan citizen was obliged to make a monthly contribution of grain, fruit and wine to his syssition (mess), and was, for the next thirty years, liable to be called for military service. He also had to dine at the messes every night, and only sickness, hunting expeditions or public sacrifices excused him from attending.
Despite the expectation of total devotion to the state, Spartiates were entitled to a number of privileges strictly denied to non-Spartans. Once elected to a mess, a man was given an allotment of public land and serfs. He could participate in the Assembly, and, if married, finally able to live with his wife.
The level of commitment required of a citizen to his state in Sparta was unheard of anywhere else in Greece. However, the education and training all citizens would have had to undergo was designed to instil a sense of courage, confidence and unwavering devotion to the polis, and this is why the citizens had no hesitation in making personal sacrifices if it was for the good of the state.
The first active step in becoming a Spartan citizen was at the age of seven, when boys of the citizen class (and in rare cases, pereoikoi, Laconian outsiders and local royalty) were given up by their parents and put in the state education system; the agoge. The women had no trouble in letting go of their young sons because, although they were fully aware of the extreme discipline that pervaded all aspects of their sons’ training, it was considered to be for the good of the state that fit, healthy males be given the right to develop into defenders of the city (and it was also enforced by law).
The boys were supervised at all times by a paidonomos, a Spartiate of great repute who was responsible for the education of his boys. However, any citizen had the right to discipline them if the guardian was absent. From a very young age, this reinforced the principle of prompt and unwavering obedience to authority.
The agoge trained the boys for living the specific life of a warrior soldier, and therefore they were taught to read and write no more than was necessary. They were issued one cloak to last them all year, ran barefoot at all times, and were fed minimal amounts of food. The logic behind these overly harsh living conditions was that if as ever on campaign as Spartan warriors, they would be able to better endure exposure to the elements, not be inhibited by fighting on harsh terrain, and be more cunning and inventive when finding food. (Indeed, when training, the boys were encouraged to steal food but were severely punished if caught – not because of the act of theft, but because of the fact that they were caught). At age thirty, the fully trained males of the agoge were to face their final test before being accepted as a Spartan citizen – being elected to a public mess. Each member voted by putting a small chunk of bread into a basin called as caddichus. Depending upon whether the bread was round or flattened decided the fate of the candidate. The decision had to be unanimous, so the appearance of one flattened piece of bread representing a ‘no’ vote meant that the young man was disqualified. If accepted however, the responsibilities and expectations did not end with the successful election to a mess. Now granted full rights of
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Sparta, Spartiate, Agoge, Helots, The Spartans, Spartan Constitution, Women in ancient Sparta
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