The Truth and Myths Behind the Spartans

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A Brief History

On March 9, 2007, the American period action film titled 300 was released in both conventional and IMAX theaters in the United States of America.  The movie is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta (r. 489–480 BC), and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I (r. 486–465 BC) during the second Persian invasion of Greece.  As with any part of classic history, certain elements of historical Sparta are fabricated and romanticized.  From older television series to enormous hits like the film 300, the power of these warriors usually borrows heavily from reality but then diverges at key points to make a more engaging story for a modern audience.  So what do modern incarnations commonly get right, and where do they tend to diverge from the real historical record?

Digging Deeper

Training

Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, The Selection of Children in Sparta, 1785.  A Neoclassical imaging of what Plutarch (c. AD 46–c. 120) describes.

One of the biggest points where modern media likes to lean is the strict training undergone by Spartan troops.  The warriors among the Spartans were, truthfully, selected and trained from early childhood. According to some historians, this practice meant the inhumane discarding of weaker infants, while physical lessons starting as soon as the boy turned seven.

In effect, these youths entered a type of school. Up until age twelve, they were taught stealth, athletics, and intellectual exercises so they could best apply what they learned.  As a path both cruel and informative in pushing the narrative of Spartan strength, it makes a lot of sense that this custom is one of the more accurately reflected parts of Spartan childhood. This training is more than just a myth.

Gear

Above: A scene during filming of 300.  Below: The finished scene.  © Warner Brothers (2007).

Depending on where you look, the type of gear carried by Spartans into battle in their media representations can vary wildly.  They can either be extremely accurate or, sticking with the example of 300, incredibly off-base.

Real Spartan soldiers paid attention to their years of training, and that meant that going in battle bare-chested was seen as openly suicidal.  Instead, they wore suits of armor which covered their torso and faces almost fully, sometimes with additional plates covering their shins and forearm, which gave them more flexibility than later warriors in history, which is a far cry from the typical Hollywood portrayal.

Fighting for Freedom


Taken in a proper historical context, much of the supposed freedom which the Spartans fought to protect was not as pure as it might seem.  Protecting your homeland and guaranteeing the freedom of your people is admirable, but this righteousness is undercut if your people are brutal and unjust.

While we often see Spartans seen as the underdogs, as those who would fight against those who would bring cruelty, it should be noted that they were masters of cruelty in their own right.   To succeed in ancient Sparta meant you needed to rely on enormous quantities of slave labor.  These slaves were often kept in their own dedicated camps, with terrible living conditions and rights which were almost nonexistent.  So yes, they did fight for freedom, but this freedom was also the freedom to own people as property.

Fact and Fiction


It is no surprise that the media shows Spartans as a fictionalized version of who they really were.  The hindsight of factual history is, after all, one which tends to avoid the pitfalls of modern tribalism and inherent cultural bias. Being accurate to history in films and television would mean seeing historical figures and groups of people as deeply flawed and imperfect.

We like our heroes to be heroic and, just like today, individuals and societies who maintain moral purity are rare, if existent at all.  Question for students (and subscribers): Do you consider the ancient Spartans to have been heroes?  Why or why not?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Auerbach, Patrick.  Spartans: The True and Brutal Story Of How The Spartans Become The Strongest Warriors In History.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

Kremling, Mick.  The Spartans: 300 Quotes, Facts and Sayings of History’s Greatest Warriors.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae between Spartans and Persians from M. A. Barth – ‘Vorzeit und Gegenwart”, Augsbourg, 1832, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.

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About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland