In ancient Greece, violent internal conflict between bordering neighbors and war with foreign invaders was a way of life, and Greeks were considered premier warriors. Most Greek city-states surrounded themselves with massive defensive walls for added protection. Sparta in its prime was a different story, finding walls unnecessary when it had an army of the most feared warriors in the ancient world. So what was Sparta doing differently than everyone else to produce such fierce soldiers?
To answer that question, we turn to the written accounts of that time. There are no surviving written accounts from Spartans themselves, as it was forbidden for Spartans to keep records, so we have to rely on those of non-Spartan ancient historians, like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch. These stories may be embellished and depict Sparta at the apex of its power, so take them with a grain of salt.
For Spartans, the purpose for their existence was simple: to serve Sparta. On the day of their birth, elder Spartan leaders examined every newborn. The strong healthy babies were considered capable of fulfilling this purpose, and the others may have been left on Mount Taygetus to die. Every Spartan, boy or girl, was expected to be physically strong, mentally sharp, and emotionally resilient. And it was their absolute duty to defend and promote Sparta at all costs. So in the first years of their lives, children were raised to understand that their loyalty belonged first to Sparta, and then to family.
This mindset probably made it easier for the Spartan boys, who upon turning seven, were sent to the agoge, a place with one main purpose: to turn a boy into a Spartan warrior through thirteen years of relentless, harsh, and often brutal training. The Spartans prized physical perfection above all else, and so the students spent a great deal of their time learning how to fight. To ensure resilience in battle, boys were encouraged to fight among themselves, and bullying, unlike today, was acceptable. In order to better prepare the boys for the conditions of war, the boys were poorly fed, sometimes even going days without eating.
They also were given little in the way of clothing so that they could learn to deal with different temperatures. Spartan boys were encouraged to steal in order to survive, but if they were caught, they would be disciplined, not because they stole, but because they were caught in the act. During the annual contest of endurance in a religious ritual known as the diamastigosis, teenage boys were whipped in front of an altar at the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. It was common for boys to die on the altar of the goddess.
Fortunately, not everything was as brutal as that. Young Spartans were also taught how to read, write, and dance, which taught them graceful control of their movements and helped them in combat. While the responsibilities for the girls of Sparta were different, the high standards of excellence and expectation to serve Sparta with their lives remained the same. Spartan girls lived at home with their mothers as they attended school. Their curriculum included the arts, music, dance, reading, and writing.
And to stay in peak physical condition, they learned a variety of sports, such as discus, javelin, and horseback riding. In Sparta, it was believed that only strong and capable women could bear children that would one day become strong and capable warriors. To all Spartans, men and women, perhaps the most important lesson from Spartan school was allegiance to Sparta. To die for their city-state was seen as the completion of one’s duty to Sparta. Upon their death, only men who died in battle and women who died in childbirth were given tombstones. In the eyes of their countrymen, both died so that Sparta could live.