“Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing.”
—George Bernard Shaw,
Man and Superman
The Spartan politics for their inferiors: the crypteia
The Spartans kept themselves segregated from non-Spartans to keep their valuable essence undisturbed. Not only racism and aloofness, but the lack of mercy towards their slaves were for the Spartiate a vital necessity that soothed his paranoia in the short-term and also renewed it the long-term. Let us turn our attention, then, to the outcome of the acute racism among the Spartans.
The situation of caste stratification in Sparta was unique, because the life of the aristocracy was much tougher than the life of the people. That did not happen in other civilizations, where the common people wanted to take over the way of life of the dominant caste. The Helots did not want—in the least—to submit themselves to the ruthless discipline of the Spartan life compared with which the cultivation of the soil was simple, smooth and painless.
It was the ephors who, each year, with the greatest solemnity declared war on the Helots; that is, they authorized to kill freely without it being considered murder. Once a year, the Helots were beaten in public for no reason; each Helot should be beaten a number of times every year just to remember that he was still a slave. And when the government thought they had bred too much or suspected they planned uprisings, the crypteia or krypteia took place.
Crypteia is a word that means “hidden,” “occult” or even “secret” and “underground” (words with the particle crypto derive from this), taking the name from a test of the deep symbolism that many Spartan boys of instruction age had to submit. Alone, barefoot, without warm clothes and provided only with a knife, the chosen Spartan lad was thrown into inhabited Helot lands. He remained long time hiding in the daylight hours, obtaining his food from nature and living outdoors. During the dark hours, stealthy he stalked Helots and entered into their roads and their properties quietly and silently: killing as many of them that he could, stealing food and probably removing some bloody trophy that demonstrated the success of his hunt. Thousands of Helots fell this way throughout the history of Sparta and probably many young Spartans as well.
This ordeal has been considered as a military exercise or a baptism of blood and a warrior initiation ritual. Some have even elevated the importance of the crypteia institution to the level of initiation: a kind of secret service composed of the most fanatical cubs of promising Spartans, designed specifically to contain the growth of the Helots and keep them psychologically subjugated, and revitalize the tension between the two ends of the scale that made the Laconia State.
The young Spartan, after years of living in nature, had become accustomed to it. The long days of loneliness made his senses sharpen; get used to sniff the air, and feel like a real predator. At night he descended down the mountain to fall upon his victims with all the ferocity that his racism endowed; his training, and his natural disposition to sacrifice and death, hiding afterwards. After completing the mission he returned victorious to his home. This was the culmination of the guerrilla training, confirming that the Spartans were not herd animals but also lone wolves: great fighters in droves (not herd because the herd is hierarchical), and able to manage by themselves when needed: excellent collective soldiers in open warfare but also fearsome individual fighters in that elusive, dark, and dirty war so characteristic of the Iron Age.
This guerrilla training could have originated since the first Messenian war, in which the military formations were destroyed and they had to resort to hand strikes; ambushes and assassinations taking advantage of what the field (forest, mountains, towns) could offer, the tactical situation (unprotected, unarmed, distracted or careless enemy) and the environmental conditions (night, darkness, fog). But this mode of combat was also devised as a way of preparing to resist if Sparta fell under his enemies and suffered a military occupation. In the event of such a catastrophe, every Spartan male was ready to flee to the woods or forest with nothing; survive on his own, and run selective attacks and ambushes on the enemy. It was, therefore, a form of leaderless resistance. Another event taken into account was a Messenian rebellion in which the rebels withdrew to the fields; Sparta being embroiled in a nasty guerrilla war to hunt them down and exterminate them slowly. This, as we shall see, duly took place.
Another example that describes the lack of scruples of the Spartans with their inferiors is provided by the following incident, which occurred in 424 BCE.
The Spartan government had reason to believe that the Helots were going to rebel. After a battle in which the Spartans hired recruits, they liberated 2,000 of those Helots who had distinguished themselves for valor in combat. After having organized a banquet to celebrate it and placed laurels on their heads, the ephors ordered to kill them all. Those 2,000 men disappeared in the woods without a trace and no more was heard of them. And as the bravest Helots had been eliminated in this immense crypteia, Helot population, bereft of leaders, did not rebel. We can imagine the psychological effect that the massacre had on their compatriots. This story made evident how far the Spartans abandoned all chivalry, code of honor or moral behavior when they thought they were defending the existence of their people.
Another Spartan law with racist connotations was to prohibit hair dyes. In the rest of Greece dyes were common; as were blonde wigs, the methods of hair bleaching and the elaborate and extravagant hairstyles like those of Babylon or Etruria (and later in decadent Rome). At one stage of the devolution, when the original native breed in Greece was being diluted by miscegenation, the dyes and the concoctions for hair bleaching were highly prized, especially among women. The same would happen in decadent Rome: Roman wigs were made with the golden hair taken from female German prisoners.
In Sparta the influx of foreigners was jealously limited. It was only possible to visit Sparta for pressing reasons. Similarly, the very Spartans were rarely allowed to travel abroad, and even the slave trade was banned. This was motivated by the interest of the elite that its core would not be not corrupted by the softness of foreign customs. The Spartans undoubtedly were great xenophobes.