A Spartan leaves the field carrying his shield, or being borne upon it
In the south of Greece lies a city known as Spartan. In The centuries pre-dating the birth of Christ, Sparta grew into one of the most powerful city states in Greece. This was down to many factors, most notiably the training of the Spartan army into a warrior class, known as the Homoioi. These formed the upper class of Sparta, and formed a social elite in Spartan society.
The Hoplites1 formed into a class known as the Homoioi, which when translated roughly stands for "Peers". It is from this simple word that we can ascertain the true nature of the Spartan warriors that ruled Sparta and for a time much of Greece as well. The Homoioi could be directly compared to medieval Knights - whilst wealthy, they were bound by a warriors code, with serfs (the Helots) to do menial labour for them in return for the protection of their Homoioi.
The city of Sparta was the capital of Lakonia (also known as Lacedaimon) and because of this Spartans (of all classes) are occasionaly refered to collectively as the Lacedaimonians.
Birth and childhood
A Male Spartan childhood was potentially short and brutal, or long and brutal. A new born child would be taken within the first few days to the five Ephors2 who would quickly judge whether the child was fit to live through various tests, the nature of which has never been recorded. If the child was judge unfit the baby would either be thrown into a nearby gorge or left in the wild. The luckier ones would become Helots.
Those that past the test were returned to thier mothers to live a normal life like any other Greek child. At the age of five though they where taken to a training camp. The children ate and slept there, much like a boarding school, and it was forbidden during this training for the Spartan to see any women. Due to the length of military service, it was therefore highly unlikely for the child to see his mother again, and more unlikely for him to ever see his father3. However this was not considered unusall and indeed mothers took great pride in the knowledge that thier loved ones were to become Homoioi.
It was probibly where the origin of this statement came from:
A Spartan leaves the field carrying his shield, or being borne upon it
The Spartan ideology amongst the Homoioi dictated that a Spartan came home either victorious (carrying his large heavy shield) or being bourn upon it dead, back to his family by his comrades in arms. This ideology was drilled into children from birth, and has been said to have influenced many of the battles the Spartans have faught in, against all odds but never retreating.
It is important to note here that a Spartan male child would never have embarked upon the road to becoming a Homoioi unless he was of noble blood. Unless his father was a Homoioi, and his mother came from Homoioi lineage, the the child had no chance of becoming a Homoioi. In time this was forced to become lax by the decrease in numbers, and only parentage from a Homoioi was necessary.
The Spartan army was unique in its style. Every Spartan male was a soldier first and foremost. This started straight from birth, when children were brought before the local elders. They would then decide whether the child was strong and fit (as a Spartan should be) or weak, in which case it was usually put in some other career that the Spartan way of life had no place for (like sailing). Uptil the age of seven the boys were educated at home. After that they were trained by the state, or more specifically under a Raioo~huos4. These would train the boys in martial disciplines and atheletic pursuits, and were trained under a harsh unforgiving discipline which gave them a respect for authority. One of the strangest things about this training were the contests to see who could take the most severe beating before crying out in pain. Whilst not heavily documented, it is said that some died during this process, refusing to give in to such sevre beating and admitting defeat .
At the age of twenty a Spartan began his active military service as a Hoplite. At this age he also gets the right to vote. As in the training school, he remains in a barracks (even if married) upto his thirtith birthday. However it was permitted for Homoioi to sneak out to see thier wives, as long as they were not caught.
The Homoioi were not permitted to take part in any form of agricultural or buisness activites as this was seen below the Homoioi, as was sailing which formed the basis of its chief competitors culture - Athens. To do such tasks the Homoioi had Helots5. This allowed him to effectively do such tasks, however only agriculture was ever truely considered.
Like all Greek warriors of the era, Spartan Homoioi faught in a phalanx. This was usually between 8 to 13 men wide at the front, and usually a minimum of five deep. The Homoioi of Sparta were usually equiped far better then and normal Greek Hoplite. This was due in part to the fact that Spartan Homoioi, whilst responsable for ensuring that the equipment was well kept, didnt buy there own. Instead the state bought there armour for them once they reached the rank of Homoioi. This armour would consist of a large breast plate made usually of bronze, and a Hoplon6. Coupled with thier elite training, the Homoioi became an unbreakable wall, as seen most potently at the Battle of Thermopylae. In effect, each Spartan Homoioi was trained to the point of being high ranking official, versed in tactics and strategy much like a captain from any other city state in Greece. The other city states, whilst fearful of this, acknowledge the skill of the Spartans and it was common that a Spartan general to lead a combined Greek force against foreign invaders.
The Homoioi were expected to stay and fight on the battlefield against all odds and if necessary, die there as well. Indeed the idea of fighting to the death, like those at Thermopylae, became so ingrained into the culture of the Spartans that the Homoioi, regiment runners, and even generals would refuse orders from there peers or from there battle-king if it was an order to withdraw.
This had two effects in general warfare. Whilst fighting against Spartans the enemy knew that they had a tough battle, as the Spartans would never withdraw. In turn however, this could result in hundreds of Spartans being surrounded and massacred in bulk - contrary to warfare of the time, but following the trend set by Thermopyale.
It was in the dying days of Spartan rule - where Phillip of Macedon, later followed by his son Alexander the Great began to reshape the world - that these inherent flaw became most apparent. With ever more stringent tests, the once mighty 10,000 strong cadre of Homoioi at the time of Thermopyale, had been reduced to less then a 1000. When Athens rallied the other city-states of Greece to fight the Spartans, thier simply wasnt enough Homoioi to stop them. When the Spartan king commited 400 of his troops to battle against far superior forces, they were slaughtered to a man, leaving Sparta defenceless and Spartan dominance over.
The Homoioi were the first real glimpse of trained soldiers. No state before had focused so completely on warfare as the Spartans had, and it caused ramifications for years to come.
Argueably it was warfare where they caused the biggest impact. No country has ever trained an army like the Spartans, and only a few kept regularly trained soldiers. This idea of training an army and military service was argueably a huge influence to Roman ideology.
The Spartans did however have a darker side to thier ideologies. Slavery was common place, comming from conquered people. They were also the founding fathers of eugenics - a system where the strongest survive to give thier traits to new Spartans. It was because of this particular aspect the Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, admired the Spartans.
The Spartans certainly impressed Hitler. In February 1945, he told Martin Bormann7:
And if, in spite of everything, the Fates have decreed that we should once more in the course of our history be crushed by forces superior to our own, then let us go down with our heads high and secure in the knowledge that the honour of the German people remains without blemish. A desperate fight remains for all time a shining example. Let us remember Leonidas and his 300 Spartans! In any case, we are not of the stuff that goes tamely to the slaughter like sheep. They may well exterminate us. But they will never lead us to the slaughter house!
It wasn't only Hitler that admired the Spartans. Many events have run along similar lines, such as the Alamo and Rouke's drift. It is quite possible that without this example many cultures and traditions we take for granted today such as the protection of a trained army, and the success of the Roman empire may never have happened and may never have existed.