The Spartan army was composed of highly disciplined citizens who trained rigorously from early manhood.
Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, at the height of Sparta’s power, they were one of the most feared military forces in the Greek world.
Here are 48 facts about Spartans you might not have known.
1. The Spartan Army was developed by the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, Lycurgus, who inaugurated the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society. The reforms worked in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi and were directed towards “proper virtues,” which included equality among citizens, austerity, strength, and fitness. Lycurgus created harmony, simplicity, and strength in Sparta by using the discipline and honor of the warrior society to tame the state’s youth and develop leadership. Lycurgus famously responded to the proposal of building a defensive wall enclosing the city by saying, “A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.” It’s unclear whether or not Lycurgus was an actual historical figure, but he has been referred to by many ancient historians and philosophers and is credited with establishing the Spartan Constitution. Lycurgus is believed to have slowly grown Sparta and invent Gerousia, the Spartan council of elders. Nowadays, the term “spartan” has become synonymous with fearlessness and endurance.
2. The Spartans became known for their understated wit, which can be seen in their response to a letter from Philip II of Macedon. Before invading Laconia, Philip wrote a letter saying, “If I invade Laconia, I will drive you out.” The Spartan ephors responded to the letter with a single word, only writing, “If.”
3. Due to the people of Sparta having a reputation for their blunt and sometimes pithy remarks, the word “laconic” came to, which was named after the region of Greece including Sparta, Laconia. Some believe blunt Laconian speech was a result of a lack of education, arts, and literature, but Socrates rejects this idea and stated Spartans are best educated in philosophy and speaking.
4. In Spartan Constitution, the issuance of coinage was forbidden to discourage pursuit of material wealth. Instead of gold or silver, Spartans used iron obols (bars or spits), which were meant to encourage self-sufficiency and maintain focus on preparation for war. First-century historian, Plutarch, said Lycurgus commanded, “Money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was but very little worth.”
5. Spartan warriors were expected to be strong and fit enough to play the part. To ensure this, Aelian (Miscellaneous History: 14.7) recorded that Spartan law required training warriors to stand naked in public so their bodies could be inspected every ten days. If a warrior didn’t adhere to the standards, they were beaten and censured.
6. The diet in ancient Sparta was limited by local resources of the Greek landscape, but warriors consumed their food with the intention of becoming as strong and healthy as possible. One meal Spartans famously ate was black soup, which was composed of pork boiled in pig’s blood, flavored with nothing but salt and vinegar.
7. The Battle of Thermopylae, which was depicted in the Zack Snyder film 300, saw many warriors’ weapons destroyed. However, this didn’t stop the Spartans from fighting tooth and nail. According to Herodotus (Histories, 7.223), “They resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth.”
8. Considering Sparta was adamant on having warriors who were fearless, cowards were not treated kindly. If a Spartan ran away from battle, they were considered a coward and were publically shunned. These citizens were forced to dress in rags and shave half their beard so that everyone could see their disgrace.
9. Spartan warrior, Aristodemus, was one of the only two Spartan survivors as he was not present at the last stand against the Persians in Thermopylae. He was deemed ‘Aristodemus the Coward’ because he became afflicted by a disease of the eyes and was too ill to fight. However, he managed to redeem himself a year later at the Battle of Plataea when he died horrifically after charging to kill several Persians.
10. The Spartan army was infantry-based and they fought using the phalanx formation, which was a dense grouping of warriors who were armed with long spears and interlocking shields. The Spartans didn’t advance the fighting method, however, they had times of success with it due to their rigorous training and discipline.
11. Shields held great importance amongst the Spartan army and military families would pass down their shields to each generation as family heirlooms. Losing a sword or spear in battle would go without consequence, but to lose a shield was a sign of disgrace. The reason shields were seen as being so important was because they didn’t just protect the individual warrior, but the army as well.
12. Zack Snyder’s depiction of Spartans going into battle with bare chests was one of the many stylistic choices the film made. In reality, Spartans would regularly have used chest plating that was made from bronze and would be up to 1 inch thick. There were different types of bronze chest plate protection, but most would effectively cover the chest and abdominal cavity.
13. One of the more notable features of Spartan wardrobe was the use of the deep crimson red color. Part of the reason Spartans would don this color in battle was the its similarity to the color of blood. Wearing crimson allowed warriors to hide any blood loss in order to not give their enemy any notice of wounding.
14. Spartans were famously known to have long hair, and according to their leader Lycurgus, “A large head of hair adds beauty to a good face, and terror to an ugly one.” However, it’s also stated that the historical reason for Spartans having longer hair was it identified them as a non-working class.
15. The main weapon utilized by Spartan warriors was the dory, a spear 7 to 9 feet in length. The handle of the dory was made from wood and the spearhead was made from iron with weight counterbalanced by a bronze butt-spike. The word “dory” was declared by Homer to have the meanings of “wood” and “spear.”
16. Spartan warriors were required to live in barracks, which were buildings that housed soldiers until they were at least 30 years old. However, Spartan men could marry after the age of 20, they just weren’t allowed to reside together until the age restrictions of the obligatory military housing had passed.
17. Spartan women were unique in the freedom they enjoyed and their husbands would be seen as their equals, not their masters. However, at the age of 30, Spartan men were required to take a wife. Prospective brides would have servants shave their heads and don men’s clothes only to then lay and wait for a groom to come consummate the marriage.
18. Spartans had slaves known as “helots,” who primarily worked in agriculture and economically supported the Spartan citizens. The number of helots a Spartan citizen would have varied throughout history, but Herodotus states that there were seven to each Spartan during the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Helots were treated with cruelty and were often humiliated and even slaughtered.
19. Sparta was so influenced by warrior culture that male citizens were only allowed to be a soldier as an occupation. At the age of 7 years old, Sparta boys would leave home and begin military training at the Agoge, a state-sponsored education program that mainly focused on warrior preparation but also taught dancing and singing.
20. Once young male Spartans reached the age of 12, they would be subject to drastically more intensive training and discipline. This training would last until they had matured to the age of 20. This rite of passage meant they would then be considered full warriors by the state and ready to join the Spartan army.
21. Only certain Spartan people would receive the honor of a marked headstone once they had passed. In order to receive a name engraved on their headstone, the Spartan had to either die in combat during a victorious campaign or be a woman who died during service of a divine office or in childbirth.
22. Emphasis on military fitness began for Spartans at birth and it would determine if they would even have a chance at life. A mother would have to bathe her child in wine to test its strength and then the father would present it before the Gerousia if they survived. The baby would be inspected and in the result of any defects, would be left to die.
23. The Spartan law was strict about encouraging new children, which was crucial as they would have to replenish the population due to the amount of fatalities with each war. To enforce this, married Spartan women who were childless would be ordered by the government to see another man to be impregnated.
24. To desensitize training Spartans to pain, boys slept on beds of reeds and would be regularly whipped. Sometimes this whipping would even happen competitively to see who could resist the highest number of lashes. Those who would cry out during these whippings would be subject to further punishment until they were able to suffer silently.
25. Spartan children were embedded with courage and fortitude through stories. Boys were told to scrounge for food yet would be punished if caught. One story children were told was of a boy who captured a live fox but then hid it under his shirt when he came across Spartan soldiers. The story results in the boy allowing the fox to chew into his stomach without showing pain.
26. Just like the boys, Spartan girls were removed from their homes at the age of 7 and sent to school. While they didn’t undergo the same warrior training, there was the belief that strong mothers produced strong children. To ensure this, girls would be taught to fight and take part in other types of physical training.
27. Weakness was shamed greatly in Sparta to the point that, “Come home with your shield or upon it,” was the advice mothers would give to their sons as they went off to war. Women of Sparta aren’t believed to have been as close with their offspring as other Greek women but would find pride in her son’s strength and courageousness as a soldier.
28. Spartan boys were taught to fight from a very early age and older boys would willingly beat younger arrivals solely to toughen them up. Spartan boys were also subject to going without food or shoes as physical discipline. They were also only permitted one garment a year as a way to toughen them to the elements.
29. Wine was a big part of the Spartan diet and it would be consumed either with or after a meal. However, Spartans would never overindulge to the point of drunkenness. In fact, Spartans would force their slaves to get highly intoxicated just to show children the negative effects of alcohol.
30. King Nabis of Sparta, who ruled as a tyrant from 207 to 192 BC, created an ancient torture device similar to the iron maiden, which was made out of a mold of his wife. The torture device was used to force obedience upon victims who refused to follow his orders.
31. It wasn’t uncommon for relationships to develop between adult males and adolescent boys in ancient Sparta. The men were rarely in the presence of other women and most relationships would happen between the mentor and mentee. However, if this relationship was found to be purely physical, both men could end up banished.
32. The bronze butt-spike on a Spartan warrior’s spear was also known as a “lizard killer.” The butt-spike didn’t just counterbalance the weight of the spearhead, it was also used as a backup weapon in case the spearhead broke mid-battle. The butt-spike also allowed Spartan warriors to vertically stab fallen enemies as they passed them.
33. Becoming a soldier was the only option young men had to become equal citizens in Sparta. Considering how young they would have to begin training, not many Spartan men would experience life outside of being a warrior. They were expected to remain on reserve duty until the age of 60, which wasn’t ideal considering the life expectancy at the time.
34. Fat-shaming was a very real thing amongst the people of Sparta and being overweight would not only result in public ridicule and loathing but also potential banishment from the city-state. Spartans were known for being devoted to physical fitness and food was kept intentionally scarce in order to ensure this.
35. Spartan was unusual in that it had a diarchial system, which means it was ruled by two kings who had equal power. The hereditary rulers came from two separate dynasties. Tradition states that the two dynasty lines descended from the twins Eurysthenes and Procles, who are said to be descendants of Heracles.
36. While Sparta was ruled by two kings, there was also a council of five men called the ephors who would watch over them. Spartan laws were established by a council of 30 elders, which also included the two kings. The primary duties of the two kings were religious, judicial, and militaristic.
37. Cynisca, a Greek princess of Sparta, was the first woman in history to win the ancient Olympic games. Cynisca managed to win the four-horse chariot race in 396 BCE and in 392 BCE. This was an incredibly ambitious feat considering women were generally forbidden from stepping foot into stadiums at ancient Olympic Games.
38. 300 is a number that’s often associated with Sparta because of the number of fatalities that occurred at Thermopylae. However, despite this number being a popular association in the media, the death count was actually 298. Two of the Spartans sent to Thermopylae did not die in the battle due to serious eye infections.
39. Despite being slaves, the Helots actually outnumbered the Spartans by as much as 20 to 1. However, Spartans managed to control a potential uprising in a number of ways. Annually, Spartans would ritually wage war on the Helots and through the Krypteia, would kill the ones that showed the most strength.
40. Pantites, a Spartan warrior, was one of the 300 sent to the Battle of Thermopylae that did not die fighting. Pantites was ordered by King Leonidas I to bring a message to Thessaly and did not return in time for battle. Pantites was shunned by the people of Sparta and he eventually hung himself as he couldn’t live with the shame.
41. Spartans had an annual festival where they would place cheese on an altar to the god Artemis. Then, starved trainees would be unleashed to battle it out and grab as much as they possibly could. During this event, older men would be whipping the trainees with whips, sometimes to death.
42. Trainees would have bizarre punishments if they failed questions their master would ask them after supper. The answers to these questions were required to be clever, well thought out, and prompt. If the answer given to the prompt was not sufficient, the trainee would be bit on the thumb, according to Plutarch.
43. Much like Japanese soldiers in World War II, Spartans would choose suicide over surrender. The notion of cowardice was so utterly disgraceful in Sparta that for warriors, death would often be a more favorable choice than having to deal with the wrathful disgrace the people of the city-state would inflict.
44. Due to the men of Sparta being killed in the many wars, women became amongst the richest members of society. Eventually, women controlled 2/5th of Spartan land. Unlike other Greek city-states where women had less freedom, Spartan women could own property which would be gained through dowries and inheritances.
45. Making sacrifices before and after a battle was common for Greek warfare, but the Spartan army took matters of religion even further. The Spartan army would make sacrifices before even crossing rivers. According to Herodotus, the Spartan army “considered the things of the gods more weighty than the things of men.”
46. The only break Spartan warriors would ever get from training during camp was right after dinner. During this time, the soldiers would often huddle together and sing hymns. However, even these singing sessions were seen as competitive and the winner would win a choice piece of meat as a prize.
47. Greek historians described how Spartans who had relatives in the battle would be seen celebrating after finding out their kin had died in battle. However, wives and other family members of warriors who survived in battle would appear depressed. Many who would return home would be ostracized by their own mothers.
48. At one point, Sparta controlled more territory than any other city-state. Due to how powerful Sparta had become, the only way it could be controlled was through alliances formed by the major Greek powers. The city-state eventually crumbled in 362 BC, when the Thebians defeated the Spartan army during the Battle of Mantinea.