Watching 300 last week it struck me how, like most things, pretty much everything everyone thinks they know about Sparta is wrong.
Like, for example, everyone knows the Spartans were uniquely cruel in exposing children to the elements if they were considered weak.
In the opening sequence of 300 the Spartan priests hold up a baby, judging whether it was healthy enough to be allowed to survive. The implication of the portentious voice-over is that the decision whether to expose the child and allow it to die was based entirely on his fitness for battle.
Except the Spartan tradition of exposure wasn’t unique in ancient Greece, indeed exposure seems to have been a shared phenomenon across the Greek city states of the classical era – although how commonly it was practised in any state is subject to question. It’s worth noting that less than a century after the time covered in the 300 Sparta would be led by Agesilaos, a small, physically unimpressive man who was lame from birth. Perhaps the Spartans weren’t quite as ruthless in their pursuit of physical purity as the legend would have it.
The Athenians (the cuddly, democratic Greeks with their lovely art and philosophy) also exposed unwanted children. The difference was that, in the Athenian tradition, families chose to expose their children for personal reasons rather than the decision being taken for the good of the community as a whole. The result was that, in Athens it was almost always daughters, whatever their state of health, who were exposed (put in clay pots and left by the road in the Athenian way) because the cost of a dowry and marriage rituals could involve in the splitting up of family estates.
Now neither of these methods are ones that I’d want to advocate as a way of treating babies – but it does cast an interesting light on the Spartan tradition. If, living in a land with limited resources – as ancient Greece certainly was – a people have to make the choice about which of their children should live, how should they choose? Should the choice be made based on the needs of individual families – driven by a desire to preserve their private wealth and maintain their status? Or should a society set some rule by which it makes that decision for the good of the community as a whole?
Both options are horrible, neither are a perfect or desirable solution, but at least in this light the Spartan choice is understandable not as the inhuman thinning of a population on the basis of some pseudo-eugenics, pre-genetics breeding programme but the common response of a society to a common threat. Here, at least amongst the Spartiate class, is a fundamental equality of opportunity (the right live beyond birth) that is not based on the wealth of your individual family or their immediate economic need but on the needs of the society as a whole.
Coming next, 300 and the Ephors – the misrepresentation of Spartan democracy.