Yesterday I wrote about my extracurricular activities at the University of Michigan back in the 1980s. Although I moved to Europe after graduating in 1991, I am still attune to the Michigan / Michigan State rivalry and must grudgingly concede one point where Moo U tops Big Blue: mascots. MSU has Sparty. Michigan has a rodent.

Sparty rocks! He is muscular, handsome, and athletic. His chin juts haughtily forward. Determination and strength radiate from his deep set eyes. He is an honorable warrior. Essentially, he incorporates all that we learned about Sparta in high school. However, just how spartan were the Spartans?

Actually is difficult to get an unbiased view of ancient Sparta. Its inhabitants wrote almost nothing down and basically everything we know about them comes from the records of their mortal enemies, the Athenians. The Athenian story: Athens, the stronghold of freedom and democracy, the source of all culture, science, art and philosophy; Sparta, a warrior polis like a barracks where the individual is subjugated to the state.

Time for a quick fact check:

The 300: That 300 Spartans sacrificed their lives at the Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians is well documented but they were not alone. The 700 Thespians who also chose heroic death are largely forgotten.

No Culture: Like the Athenians the Spartans built temples and celebrated festivals. They also practiced a terse form of oratory. It is to the them that we owe the adjective “laconic” from the inhabitants of Laconia. When an emissary of an enemy polis showed up and threatened them – “If we take your city, we will destroy it!” – they simply answered, “If.”

Society: The number of Spartans citizens was ridiculously small, a warrior caste of about 12,000 like the guards in Plato’s creepy ideal state. Trade was allowed for about 50,000 Perioeci who had no political power but who were permitted to acquire wealth. Agriculture was handled by roughly 200,000 serf peasants, the Helots.

Athens was different, but not much better. Captured slaves made up a third of the population. Foreigners could never acquire citizenship, even if your name was Aristotle. Women remained uneducated, property less, and unprotected by the law. The Spartans, however, thought otherwise. In Sparta, women ran the household, administered estates, could inherit, had a say in politics, and chose their husbands and sexual partners.

What Sparta myths can you bust? Leave a comment.

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