In the 6th century BCE, Sparta started to become noticeably more militant and frugal than their neighboring Greek cities. These changes were attributed to a semi-mythical man named Lycurgus, who lived anywhere from as early as the 9th century BCE up to the 6th century BCE, when the changes in Sparta became visible. Whatever the cause, Sparta’s culture changed dramatically, with Spartan citizens strategically banned from doing manual labor so that they could devote more time to training their bodies and minds for war. King Agesilaus II of Sparta (r. 400-360 BCE) was said to have explained the Spartan culture for war in an interesting way to his allies. During a meeting of his coalition forces, Agesilaus gathered the allied troops together and told them all to stand up if their profession was announced. After shouting many jobs—potters, smiths, carpenters, builders, laborers, etc…— the Spartans soldiers were the only warriors still sitting down, as soldiering was their sole profession.
With this attitude and mindset, cowardice was not tolerated in Sparta. They had such pride in their military might that they did not build a defensive wall around their city, and they allegedly bragged that none of their women had ever seen the smoke from an enemy campfire. They also teased other Greek cities about how few foreign dead were found near Sparta, for few could, or would, attack the Spartan homeland, whereas heroic Spartan dead were scattered throughout Greece. From the 6th century BCE until the early 4th century BCE, Sparta’s arrogant mindset was backed by spectacular military victories, which increased Spartan pride and created an illusion that the Spartans were unbeatable on the battlefield.
With such pride and devotion to war, the Spartans had little pity for the man who did not meet the high standard that was demanded of a Spartan warrior. Evaluation began as soon as a Spartan was born. According to the Greek-Roman historian Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), Spartan newborns were brought to a meeting called a lesche, where the elders would determine the fate of the child. If healthy, Plutarch wrote that the child would be approved for upbringing and granted a portion of land. If the elders disliked what they saw, the newborn was allegedly condemned to abandonment at Apothetae, “the place of rejection,” located near Mount Taygetus. If infants were not spared for weakness, neither would grown adults be spared for cowardice. Sparta’s fluid definition for cowardice did not just describe a person who failed to face their fears, but also applied to soldiers who fought bravely in a battle but survived when the Spartan leadership and citizenry thought they should have died in a final last stand.
As long as Sparta kept alive its reputation as an undisputed infantry power, most Spartans could accept such a view on cowardice. After all, the Spartans thought themselves to be unbeatable on a pitched battlefield, so they presumably believed dramatic final stands would be the rare exception, not the norm. With such confidence in their armed forces, the Spartans thought that the only honorable way to fight was to win the battle or to literally die trying. That meant that if a lone Spartan warrior survived while his comrades died in battle, the rest of the Spartan community would call that survivor a coward.
Plutarch wrote of at least six ways that the so-called cowards were ostracized by the Spartan community:
- They were disqualified from holding a Spartan office.
- Women were discouraged from marrying a man who was labeled as a coward.
- It was deemed disgraceful for a Spartan man to marry a close female relative of an accused coward.
- Accused cowards were commanded to live in a shabby and unwashed state.
- Accused cowards supposedly were forced to maintain an odd physical appearance. This supposedly included a requirement to shave off half of their mustaches and to wear easily recognizable patchwork cloaks.
- Finally, Spartan citizens could apparently strike and beat accused cowards without fear of repercussion or reprimand.
In the 4th century BCE, Epaminondas, a gifted military leader from Thebes, finally forced the Spartans to reevaluate their treatment of the so-called cowards. Epaminondas wrecked havoc in the Peloponnesus for several years, shattering Sparta’s carefully cultivated illusion of invincibility on land. The Thebans defeated a Spartan army at Tegyra (c. 375) and later won an even more significant battle against Spartan forces at Leuctra, in 371 BCE. Epaminondas followed that up by invading the Peloponnesus and besieging the city of Sparta, itself, not once, but at least twice in separate campaigns, the first in the winter of 370-369 BCE, and the second in 362 BCE. Facing so many defeats, countless Spartan warriors could have been classified under Sparta’s definition of cowardice. Therefore, to reassure his men and to avoid a mutiny, King Agesilaus II gave his defeated troops a pardon.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Statue of an Ancient Spartan, [Public Domain] via maxpixel.net).
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.