The great scholar, Plutarch (c. 50-120), was a polymath born in Roman-controlled Greece. Though he wrote prolifically on theology, philosophy and other topics, he is best known for his series of biographies on important figures from ancient Greece and Rome, known together as the Parallel Lives. Interestingly, Plutarch’s biographies on the people who shaped the city of Sparta provide much of what we know about daily life in ancient Sparta.
According to Plutarch, a mysterious man named Lycurgus brought about the famous ascetic militancy that came to define ancient Sparta. Plutarch freely admitted that the accounts about Lycurgus presented more of a myth than man, and that accurately dating Lycurgus’ life was nearly impossible. At best, Lycurgus could be said to have lived as far back as the 9th century BCE, in the time of Homer, or as late as the 6th century BCE, when Sparta started to become noticeably more militant and luxury-opposed than their neighbors. No matter the date of Lycurgus’ life, the Spartans attributed their new lifestyle to his teachings.
One of the more notorious elements of the ancient Spartan way of life was how the elders would reportedly decide which newborns lived or died. Plutarch wrote that Lycurgus imposed a system of state-sponsored eugenics, where procreation was encouraged among pairs who would bring about strong children—even if extramarital affairs were required to do so. In this societal model, children were not raised for the sake of a family, but rather for the protection and longevity of Sparta. As such, Plutarch reported that Spartan parents did not have the right to decide if their children were worthy of joining the community. Instead the newborns were brought to a meeting called a lesche, where the elders would determine the fate of the child. Plutarch wrote that, if healthy, the child was guaranteed a portion of land and was approved for upbringing. If the elders disliked what they saw, the newborn was condemned to abandonment at Apothetae, “the place of rejection,” located near Mount Taygetus.
Even though the fate of their child was out of their hands, Plutarch wrote that some Spartan mothers were impatient, or perhaps anxious, about the lesche and therefore devised their own tests to evaluate the vigor of their infants. In one such test, the baby was bathed not in water, but in undiluted wine. According to Plutarch, the mothers could get a sense of their child’s fate based on the baby’s reaction to the potent alcohol. Lycurgus’ ideal baby supposedly would endure the stinging, staining and powerful fumes, while the weak would allegedly lose control of their senses or stiffen in discomfort.
Despite the obvious ethical issues with the extreme Spartan attitude toward children, Plutarch wrote that nurses from the Spartan culture were coveted in other regions of Greece. The Spartan nursemaids had talents that any parent would dream about—Plutarch listed that they were skilled at teaching children not to be fussy about their food, could root out childhood fears of the dark and even specialized in stopping temper tantrums and fits of crying. Nevertheless, these enviable abilities by far did not make up for the horrid system of Spartan child culling.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Wine selling advertisement and prices, “Ad Cucumas” shop, ancient roman painting in Herculaneum, Italy. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.