Anthropology Essays - The Spartans


The Spartans

In the summer of 480 B.C a battle took place that would forever change the history of the Greeks and that would eventually influence the way in which the Western world looked at war. The Spartans took their stand against the massive army of Persians in a three day battle which resulted in the Persians taking the win but may have very well led to the Greeks winning the Greco-Persian War. A culmination of strong tactical skill and bravery contributed to the Spartans making a stand much longer and stronger than anybody could have ever predicted. The Persian king Xerxes led his massive army through the narrow mountain pass known as Thermopylae expecting no considerable fight on the part of the Spartans. The Persians bid to conquer Greece was significantly halted because of the Spartan resistance, which was led by Leonidas,followed by a small army of Spartans, amounting to no more than 300. But no matter the size of Spartas fleet, Sparta if not the strongest, was one of the strongest military powers in ancient Greece. And despite them being vastly outnumbered by the Persians at Thermopylae, they did indeed prove their military strength and sophistication which resulted in their near defeat of the Persian army.

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Greek culture was and still is up to today a heavy influence on the modern cultures of the Western world. It is because of this heavy influence of Greek culture in the western world, the knowledge of their history proves crucial to many aspects of our understanding of our own cultures. This heavy influence on the development of the western world could very easily be the reason that the Battle of Thermopylae and other battles surrounding it, have become of such importance and high level of study. The valiant stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae lead to the Greeks defeat of the Persians in the Greco-Persian war and enabled the further development of a culture from which the western world gains many of its principles and ideas. If the Spartans had not delayed the Persians at Thermopylae there may have been a very different ending to the Greco-Persian war. This being an important observation because the Greco-Persian war played such a crucial role in the history of Greece, a defeat could have resulted in a very different future for the western civilization.

The culture of Greece was one that strived for perfection in every sense of the word, but there was a dark side to the culture that so many have grown to praise. This dark side can be seen in the Spartans treatment of the Helots, who were in essence a Greek culture in their own, the Messenia’s, but early on became enslaved by the power Spartans who were in desperate need to acquire more land to deal with the burden of overpopulation. The Spartans held true and easily demonstrated as what is seen as Greece’s inability to incorporate. The poor treatment of the Helots lead them to begin a 30 year revolt, in which the Spartans took twenty years to take control of the situation. Fear of more events like this, is what turned Sparta into the war state that it became. The attempt to suppress the Helots, by the Spartans, in many ways assisted the Spartans in their attempt to defeat the Persians. No longer willing to undergo a similar revolt, the Spartans devoted a considerable amount of time and energy making certain to prevent all such events. It was because of these efforts that major components of Spartan culture, as we know it today, were all enforced. This can be easily seen in the devotion to physical perfection and warring techniques. And equally as important as their attempt to suppress the Helots was the contribution of the Helots in constructing their armor and warring tools. So despite the overwhelmingly poor treatment of the Helots, they played a crucial role in preparing the Spartans for the challenges to come and in the heat of battle. Even though they may have played an indirect role the affect that had on both the culture and the Battle of Thermopylae itself was indeed direct.

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The Greeks had a large influence on the development of western world in many respects. Whether it is an influence on science or art, to anyone who has studied Greece in the days of its glory the influences be easily pinpointed. These influences continue into the art of war. As previously stated, war was a constant in Greece so much so that it became imbedded in its very culture. Consequently the way in which war was conducted in ancient Greece has become a portrait of the way in which it should be conducted, and set a standard around the Western world for years to come. Despite war being one of the most immoral, barbaric, and most appalling of all human creations, the Greeks did the impossible, by successfully portraying war as something of beauty, patriotism, freedom and self-sacrifice. Therein lays a reason the significance of the Battle at Thermopylae. That one battle not only captured the spirit of the Greeks, more specifically the Spartans, in three days but became a turning point of the art of war. But the Battle of Thermopylae more importantly defended the very future of the modern world.

It was Spartan culture, which in many ways, influenced the Spartans ability to stand against the Persians as long as they did. To overlook the role of Spartan culture in relation to their stand at Thermopylae would be to overlook one of the most influential aspects of the battle. Spartan culture was one of great complexity having many intricate characteristics, which adapted to the situations that they held witness to. Spartans were people of extreme patriotic pride and military prowess, who sought perfection in every form. But equal to their patriotism was their oppressive tactics towards their captives. Spartans weren’t people who believed in the concept of freedom. The Spartans for several centuries, while in Laconia and Messenia, exercised a ruthless enslavement of other native Greeks, whose land they conquered. Sparta was a military aristocracy, who wasn’t a military state for the sake of being a military state. In many respects Sparta’s army, parallel to not other, was created and maintained for the sole purpose of suppressing the Helots. In theory it was because of Sparta’s ‘inability to incorporate’ that lead to their standing army.

Sparta’s military achievements are, no doubt, the most impressive of all their possible accomplishments. By the middle of the sixth century Sparta was already considered the strongest military force in Greece. Despite the brute strength the of the Spartan army, the Spartan were still worried that a revolt from their underclass (the Helots)would cripple their advancement as a society.

“The Helot underclass were always threatening to rise up in significant numbers against their masters. So, at the beginning of each new civil year Sparta’s chief elected officials, the board of five ephors (overseers, supervisors), formally declared war on them. If any Helots did choose to rebel, they might then be killed with impunity….”

The awareness of a possible revolt kept the Spartans military forces extremely strong. This tension between the Spartans and Helots, strongly prepared the military forces for both the expected and unexpected, a beneficial trait which played to their advantage at the Battle of Thermopylae. Another trait that played to their advantage was the educational system of Sparta. The agoge was instated into Spartan culture to both develop the physical and mental maturity of all Spartan boys and was a requirement for all Spartan males.