Spartan culture is a great example of how a society’s infrastructure will directly affect both, its social structure and superstructure. It also serves as a warning that any society that becomes too rigid in its structure and too static in its values will not last long when confronted with more agile and adaptable cultures. This paper will explore why Sparta became the Hellenic army par excellence, how this worked to create a very specific social structure founded on martial values, and, finally, how that social structure would ultimately be the undoing of the culture.
In this paper I wanted to get a good general understanding of cultural anthropology and how it related to Ancient Greece, so I made sure that one of my references was an overview of the subject – Cultural Anthropology, The Human Challenge. This would lay the foundation for the research. I then sought out a book on Greek culture in general – The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jacob Burckhardt – and one about the great war between Sparta and Athens – The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan. It was through these two books where I learned most of the cultural details about Sparta, as well as some context in comparison to some of the other Greek states.
Like most Greek states of the Archaic and Classical Era, the Spartan city-state was a militaristic one. Sparta, however, took the idea to its extreme. In order to become the best soldiers, Spartan citizens had to dedicate their entire lives to the occupation. In fact to be a soldier – a hoplite – was the full infrastructure of Spartan society. While most Greek city-states looked down on labor, physical work, and even working for profit, they still had to work for a living, produce something. “The Spartans alone had no need to earn a living and devoted themselves exclusively to military training” (Kagan, 2004).
Burckhardt describes the Greeks as a people who came to believe that competition and conflict – the struggle or agon - was one of the highest values in life. “This way of life was incompatible with any economic activity; the agon occupied the whole of existence” (Burckhardt, 1998). While this can be found in their love of sports like wrestling, and the Olympic Games in general, and even in the pride they took in outfitting triremes or their own armor, one citizen trying to outdo the other, these activities were all centered around the individual. But in Greek culture the individual was always subordinate to the state, and the agon between states is war.
“It was a source of pride that no Spartan did anything except in the service of the polis” (Burckardt, 1998). Here again the Spartans took a general Greek value and multiplied it to the extreme. The State had total control even over the family unit. “They allowed only physically perfect infants to live; boys were taken from their homes at age seven to be trained and toughened in military school until they were twenty. From twenty to thirty they...