One of the greatest armies in history was the Spartan army. But what made them great? They used the phalanx as was customary of the time and their phalanxes were filled with ranks of hoplites. The difference for the Spartans may have come from their militaristic society. The Spartans began training warriors almost from birth, the men going through a process called the Agoge, or “the upbringing” to become the warriors and the women being educated to run the affairs of the house and prepared to give birth to warriors.
When a child was born in Sparta, they were washed with wine, and presented before a council of elders who would decide if the child was strong enough and healthy enough to be a Spartan. If the council decided the child wasn’t healthy enough, the child was taken to Mount Taygetus to die from exposure. Otherwise the children lived at home until they were 7 years old. At age seven, the boys were put into a mitilary school and their training began. They were trained in several disciplines including gymnastics, warfare, and others, all of which were designed to produce great warriors. As part of their training, they were not well fed, which was believed to produce tall warriors (Cartledge, p. 69-70). The lack of food also prepared the men for long campaigns with little food, and encouraged stealing. If the boys were caught stealing, they were punished for being caught, rather than for stealing. Stealth was a highly desired quality for Spartan warriors.
When the boys reached the age of 20, they had ten years to join a group or messes (pheiditia, sussitia). Election into these groups was highly competitive. All members of a mess had to accept the applicant in order for them to join the group. If the individual was not accepted into one of these groups by age 30, they were not granted full citizenship in Sparta. These individuals became part of the Perioikoi, a group of free people but not full citizens who contributed to society in a variety of ways.. They may have been part of what we would understand as the military reserve, but that isn’t known for sure. They were a step up from the helots, who were serfs, the group of the Spartan society that did not enjoy freedom (Wikipedia, Sparta).
After being admitted into a group, the warriors continued training and the leaders would have rewards to keep the men fit for battle. In Xenophon”s Hellenika, Xenophon records “As [Agesilaos] wished to train the army, he set up prizes among the hoplites for the one who was found to be in the best physical condition.” Agesilaos also set up prizes for the cavalry, the peltasts, and the archers as well. Xenophon continues, “Because of this policy, one could see all the gymnasia full of men exercising,” and the other groups all training and preparing for their specific factions of the army (Xenophon, p 105).
The spartan army was one of the greatest armies of the world and much of that was in part to the lifestyle of complete dedication of the men to the military until they reached the age of 60. If a person wanted to be a Spartan, they had to live the life, be part of a mess, and fight honorably and with singularity of purpose. The training brought discipline, discipline brought trust, trust brought unity, and unity led to success for the Spartans.
“Agoge.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2014. Web. 7th Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agoge>.
Cartledge, Paul. “Under the Sign of Lycurgus.” The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2003. 69-70. Print.
Degas, Edgar. Young Spartans Exercising. 1860. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery, London. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Spartans_Exercising>.
Kyriazis, Nicholas, and Xenophon Paparrigopoulos. “War and Democracy in Ancient Greece.” European Journal of Law and Economics. 2012. Springer US. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10657-012-9352-1#page-1>.
Sacks, David, and Oswyn Murray. “Sparta.” A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 233. Print.
“Sparta.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 8 Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta>.
Xenophon. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. Trans. John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon, 2009. 105. Print.