“To breed, to bleed, to lead.” —The law of the English aristocracy of old.
At age twenty, after thirteen years of an atrocious training that tanned their bodies for the rest of their lives, with scarred skin and crossed backs for the whipping, young Spartans reached the critical point in their lives. In case they did not successfully pass the final phase of instruction they became perioeci or perioikoi. The others were destined for a solemn ceremony in which the diverse military communities called Syssitias (which could be defined as communal meals, guilds or Army clubs), formed to recruit members among the recently promoted. The Syssitias had from fifteen to twenty members. Some had more prestige than others, and they tried to keep up their fame by recruiting the new “promotion.” Evaluating a candidate took into account his reputation, his toughness, his skill with weapons, his courage, his audacity, his presence, his fitness and intelligence.
The candidate presented himself in the table of the Syssitia he aspired to join. Syssitia members then deposited small pieces of bread in an urn. The contents of the urn were inspected, and if only one of the pieces had been deliberately flattened by one of the members, the candidate was rejected. Often it was the case that the best young, the most promising and famous, were disputed by several prestigious Syssitias, while the less remarkable were incorporated into the less demanding. In any case, it was rare that a young Spartan was denied entry to any Syssitia. But in the unlikely event of being rejected by all, the young man in question became hypomeion (inferior). An outcast who ate alone because of being rejected even by the most mediocre Syssitias implied that the candidate was undesirable for his comrades. He had the option to clean his honor through courageous deeds, or to fall in battle.
Joining a Syssitia meant that the member happened to be accepted by their peers as a Spartiate with all obligations, but would not acquire full citizenship rights until age thirty. That is, after thirteen years of training and after entering the Army, there were still ten years of “probation” which coincided with the period of greatest biological flourishing.
Note that the criterion of the age of majority at twenty, and that other issues such as purity in matters of sex was shared by the Germans. Julius Caesar said about them in Gallic Wars:
From childhood they devote themselves to fatigue and hardships. Those who have remained chaste for the longest time receive the greatest commendation among their people. They think that, by doing this, growth is promoted… And to have had knowledge [sex] of a woman before the twentieth year they reckon among the most disgraceful acts. However, there is some hypocrisy in them in body issues, since men and women bath naked together in rivers and in their dresses so much of the body remains naked.
What is said here is exactly valid also for the Spartans who, as Indo-Europeans of tradition, drank from the same sources as the Germans. From an early age there was suffering, stimuli, glory and camaraderie to clear the path to manhood when it arrived, following aidos morale (“modesty,” “decency”). And even when maturity had arrived sexual abstinence was maintained until the young man was spiritually able to take control of his instincts. The end of all the preparatory stages was to accumulate energy and testosterone to grow; to complete without interference the biological alchemy that takes place in the male body during this stage.
In each Syssitia the member was required to provide food in the form of barley, wine, cheese, flour, figs, quinces and other fruits. If the member failed repeatedly to provide rations he was expelled from the Syssitia and degraded to perioeci or hypomeion. It was easy to get rations: they came from the parcel of land (kleros) that each soldier was assigned, a plot of land that he almost never saw; worked by helots, and managed by his wife. Throughout all the state Sparta had 10,000 parcels of which about 6,000 were in the territories of conquered Messenia.
At age of twenty, therefore, after having entered these military Syssitias, young soldiers were incorporated in the Spartan phalanx. They would be part of it, if they survived, until their sixty years: gradually ascending the ladder of command, merit and experience. They would spend most of their lives committed to the Army, although their operational period would be ten years, between twenty and thirty. From thirty they were allowed to live at home with their wives and perform public tasks to become citizens and enter the Assembly. Until then, they lived in military barracks and made all their meals with their Syssitia fellows. When they had free time they supervised the instruction of the younger generation and tried to teach them useful things, encourage them for the fights to discover the capabilities of each child, and maybe even learn something from them occasionally. Other times they were given to the company of their elders to learn from them something useful, or to hear their stories and their reflections.
The Syssitias were very important institutions in Sparta, for when the men were not waging war, they were training for warring better. And if not, they socialized with their comrades in these “clubs.” Only as a fourth place were family relationships ranked. The Syssitias were presided over by a statue of the god of laughter, introduced by the same Lycurgus. There the Spartan developed his humor and his sharp and terse conversations. There, men of every age and condition mingled. It was impossible, thus, the emergence of the “generation gap” since all generations shared their experiences and concerns. There were no distinctions of wealth, only of valor itself, and the experience was taken into account when assessing a man. They were united by the fact of having passed the instruction, having had similar hardships, and being male Spartans. They were proud to be joining the phalanx alongside those who had amply demonstrated their toughness, bravery and righteousness. That was what made them brothers.
It was of immense importance that each Spartan contracted marriage and had many children, and in fact they imposed fines and penalties for late marriage and there was even a tax of bachelorhood. As for celibacy, it was a clear crime in Sparta, and it was not even conceived. They were occasions of groups of girls beating up wandering bachelor men of already certain age. Other witnesses recounted how in winter single males and females and even couples without children were stripped naked and forced to march through the city center singing a song about how fair it was their humiliation, because they had failed to fulfill the law.
Being single at a certain age—around twenty-five—was a disgrace comparable to cowardice in battle, since Spartan femininity was completely healthy, pure and trained to provide exemplary wives and proud mothers. These women were perfectly at the height of a Spartan. Under the natural viewpoint prevailed in Sparta, it was a crime that existing perfectly healthy girls a lad deprived the race of offspring. Plutarch tells a revealing anecdote about it. A famous and respected Spartan general called Dercyllidas came at a meeting and one of the young Spartans refused to relinquish his seat, as he should, “because you do not leave a child that would relinquish it [the seat] to me.” The young man was not reprimanded or punished, because he was right.
High rates of birth were favored through incentives and awards to large families, plus the releasing of communal pay of those who had more than four healthy children. This, along with the practical obligation to marry, was aimed at encouraging the multiplication of the race.
The same occurred in the Nazi SS, where we can see how they tried by all means to multiply the progeny. Like the Spartans, the SS favored the high birth rate among its members, punishing those who did not reproduce. Some single officers were even threatened with expulsion, and were given a year to get married. In other cases, when a fighter of the SS had lost all his brothers, he was often allowed a leave period to ensure a large family before returning to the front. The alleged reason was that the State was interested that his blood would not be lost for the future. This policy healed the previous genocide of countless chaste, good men in medieval Europe: particularly the members of military-religious orders such as the Templars. Both the Spartans and the SS were a sippenorden, i.e., a racial order or religious-military order: racial clans who wanted to be eternal on earth; materially eternalized through their children and their descendants.
We gather, in any case, that the Spartan population growth should not be as great as many imagine, because despite its abundant children many died in eugenic selection and childrearing, and others during the instruction or infectious diseases expected by natural selection.
With respect to the superfluous, the Spartan philosophy was: “If it is not essential, it is a hindrance.” Everything that was not necessary for survival was banished with disdain. The jewels, ornaments, extravagant designs, garish colors and other burdens and distractions, were excised from Sparta. The luxury and decor were nonexistent. To the Spartans it was strictly forbidden to trade with gold or silver, and the possession of it was severely punished, as well as the use as ornaments or jewelry.
The Spartan state itself refused to make coins of any kind. As tool for exchange of goods (that is, money), iron bars were used (Laconia had important iron mines). They were so big, ugly and heavy that few people wanted to accumulate them, hide them, or possess them (we could add also to count them, pet them and watch over them with curiosity as did the greedy with the beautiful gold coins). Moreover, the bars were not accepted outside of Sparta. Plutarch says, referring to the Spartan “currency” that “no one could buy with it foreign effects, nor it entered the trading ports, nor reached Laconia any wordy sophist, greeter or swindler, or man of bad traffic of women or artificer of gold and silver” (Life of Lycurgus, IX).
In short, it was not easy to fiddle with this money; nor deal, bribe, steal, smuggle or enter into contracts with foreigners; nor could vices appear such as gambling or prostitution. The greedy was exposed, as it needed a barn to store his entire fortune. And if someone happened to cut the handle bars and hide them, the manufacturers of these—when it was red-hot—dipped in vinegar, which made it lose ductility and could not be worked or molded.
I cannot resist noting that the use of iron as money in Sparta is archetypal and symbolic. While other states abandoned themselves in the gold, Sparta adopted the rough metal. While other, softer states often aimed at recreating the golden age in its nostalgic narcosis, Sparta adapted itself to the hard times of the Iron Age. Sparta, really, was a true daughter of the Iron Age: a jewel among ferments of decomposition of the autumn evening light. It was in Sparta where the understanding of a type of superior wisdom was kept: not the golden and regressed and senile wisdom, but the new wisdom of iron.
Thanks to all the measures of sobriety, coarseness and austerity, Sparta escaped the cosmopolitan, false soothsayers, jewelers, merchants, liars, drug dealers and other eastern specimens, who refused to go through a state where there was virtually no money; the little that existed was an unwanted burden to his owner, and its inhabitants were all proud, xenophobic and incorruptible soldiers.
Plutarch said that for the Spartans “money lacked interest or appreciation.” Both the contempt of material and fleeting pleasures like money itself points to an ascetic, anti-materialist and anti-hedonistic society. Nietzsche repeated, like other Eastern teachers: “Whoever has little is in no danger that he will be owned. Praise that simple poverty!” The Spartans were taught that civilization itself, with its luxuries, comforts, riches, its effeminacy, lust and complacency, was a dilutional factor: something countless times certificated by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who admired the ascendant and uncontaminated world of the barbarians, of which the Spartans were the ultimate, more refined and perfected expression. Sparta did not have to be contaminated by this dangerous Eastern influence, first because it had the abundant labor of the helots and because, for racial reasons, it did not allow immigration and the slave trade. Sparta saw itself as the repository of ancient Greek, and especially, Dorian customs and thus they also saw the other people of Hellas—except Athens.
From age twenty-five Spartans were allowed to eat with their wives, occasionally. From age thirty (the age at which the growth hormone decays) Spartan discipline relaxed, especially on the “communal” aspects. The Spartan left, then, the military barracks and went to live in his home with his wife and children (though by now probably some of his sons would be suffering under state supervision and instruction). They joined the Assembly, a popular organism to be discussed later, performing any duty of the state, a responsibility assigned to him: like army commanders, harmost (military governors) among the perioeci, envoys from Sparta abroad, etc. They passed, then, to be citizens with all the rights and all the duties.
At sixty years old, if he came to that age and if he had the honor of being selected, the Spartan became part of the Senate. Being senator was for life. Spartan old age enjoyed immeasurable respect from the countrymen, who unconditionally revered their elders as repositories of wisdom and experience, and as a link connecting the past with the present, just as the youth is the bond that unites the present with the future. The Spartans revered the elders even if they were not Spartans. As an example of the latter we have a story that happened in the theater of Athens while some Spartan ambassadors were inside. An old man entered the theater and no Athenian rose to cede the seat, acting as if they didn’t know. However, upon arrival at their place of honor all the Spartan ambassadors rose in unison to cede the place. And then the Athenian audience applauded the noble gesture. “All Greeks know good manners,” said one of the ambassadors, “but only the Spartans behave in accordance with them” (Life of Lycurgus, IX).