Sparta- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (12)

Sparta had a profound influence on the subsequent philosophy of Greece through Plato and Aristotle, so Russell takes a chapter to explain their fascinating culture. We will see the politics of Sparta replicated in the Politics of Plato, and even as far in the future as Nietzsche’s thoughts on culture.


Sparta had no interest in being a part of Greek culture on the larger scale, they were interested merely in being Sparta. Their sole occupation was that of military power and war. They conquered nearby cities and took shocking numbers of prisoners, who were made into slaves. These slaves lived a serf-like life in Sparta and were referred to as Helots. With the Helot culture, we see a rather strange proto-socialist system emerge.

Each man in Sparta was given a piece of land, on which they were required to grow grain and produce wine among other things. Each man in Sparta was also allotted a Helot, chosen by drawing lots. The Helots were made to work the land and produce the grain and wine. A predetermined amount was given to their master, then they were allowed to keep any surplus.

The Helots were generally unhappy with their servitude to the Spartans, and would attempt many revolts. The Spartans had secret police who would keep track of particularly ‘problematic’ Helots and arrest them. Once a year, Sparta would also wage a war against the Helots to keep their numbers down to a suitable level. Because of Sparta’s culture of warmongering, the Helot wars kept the Spartans in good shape.

In the 8th Century BCE, Sparta turned the entire country of Messenia into Helots. These Helots were bred for the Spartan citizens and allotted as extra serfs. The Helots and allotted land were both for the everyman, the aristocracy had their own land and serfs.


As we have seen, Sparta were collectively a military force. This is demonstrable by their social system as a whole. Children were inspected by the state at a young age, any sickly children would be culled. The remaining children would be schooled to the age of twenty. They would learn a little about history and the sciences at school, but their education would be predominantly a military education. They would be taught to work through great physical pain, they were given strength and stamina training, weapons and hand combat training, all from the age of four. The children were given beds made of straw and thistles to teach them endurance. They were taught to steal, and were encouraged to do so. Any child who was caught stealing was punished for being caught.

Between the ages of twenty and thirty they would leave their boarding schools and live in ‘men’s houses’. This would be their ten years of compulsory military service. After the age of thirty, they were free citizens, and could live in their own homes with their allotted land and Helots.

They were encouraged to marry, and those who didn’t marry and have children were seen as transgressing against the state. The social cohesion and perfect functioning of the state were seen as far more important than individual lives. Therefore, anyone who didn’t marry and have children was punished and publicly shamed. The bodies of the citizens were the property of the state. If an older man was married to a younger woman, for example, it was his duty to let her have children with a younger man. Often suitable candidates were chosen by governors.

Women and men did gymnastics together, naked. This was compulsory for all citizens up to the age of thirty. Just as men were given education in pain endurance and war up to the age of twenty, women were taught to fight too, they were also trained in raising children, and were prepared for child birth. Sparta, despite its demagogic state control over its citizens, allowed women to vote just as much as men, and their opinions were equally valued.

Homosexual love, as well as ‘traditional’ marriages, was also encouraged, if not compulsory. It was thought good for older men and women to have romantic relationships with younger men and women because it taught them life with a role model. If the young boy/girl was ever in trouble with the state or police, their older male/female lover would also be punished.


Spartan politics was bizarrely complex. TO begin with, they had two kings. One king ruled in times of war, whilst the other king ruled in times of peace. Beyond the two kings, there was a council made from thirty people. This council consisted in the two kings, along with twenty-eight members of the aristocracy. The kings would propose laws, which were then discussed by the larger council.

Next there was an assembly. This was a larger council, made from the common citizens for Sparta. The members of the assembly were drawn by lots. Once a council had decided on a new law, or proposed a course of action, an assembly would be drawn, and they would be asked to give a yes/no verdict.

Beyond this, there were also six Ephors. Ephors were also chosen by lot. Two Ephors would accompany a king wherever he went. They wold make sure that the king had the best interests of the state at heart, and make sure that the king wasn’t breaking any laws. The Ephors didn’t have power over the council or assembly, but they did have influence over the kings, who had power within the council.

Sparta’s legacy

Sparta’s legacy has influenced many people, and was studied widely in the centuries following the fall of Sparta (371 BCE at war with Thebes). There were many mistakes regarding this though. Aristotle was correctly adamant in emphasising the point that Sparta’s reputation simply seems too efficient to be true. We have learned that People were easily bribed, and they resented the state for strict control. Ephors were particularly easily coerced by money, and were thought to have a corrupting influence over the kings.

Plato believed in the Myth of Sparta, rather than the reality of it. It really was as powerful a force in the battlefields as we believe it to be, but society wasn’t as happy as it was painted. Plutarch spread many of these myths. He taught that Sparta was established by Lycurgus, who wrote all the laws, and planned everything else which produced Sparta. Lycurgus, in fact, never existed, he was a social myth. It is thought that the people of Sparta probably believed in him, but this was likely the state inventing a token idol for the citizens.

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