Chapter 21-24

XXI. THE RISE OF SPARTA.

The city of Sparta, founded in the days of the Pelasgians, and once ruled over by Menelaus and Helen, had fallen, as we have seen, into the hands of the Heraclidæ when they came back to the Peloponnesus after their exile of a hundred years. It was first governed by A-ris-to-de´mus, one of their three leaders; and, as records soon began to be kept, we know a great deal about the early history of this famous place.

As the town had formerly belonged to the Heraclidæ, and had been ruled by one of their ancestors, called Lac-e-dæ´mon, they called it by his name, and the country around it they named La-co´ni-a. Having won back the town by fighting, the Heraclidæ said that they would attend to war and politics, and make the conquered people till the ground.

The old inhabitants of Laconia, therefore, went on living in the country, where they sowed and harvested for the benefit of the Spartans. All the prisoners of war, however, became real slaves. They were obliged to serve the Spartans in every way, and were called He´lots.

When Aristodemus died, his twin sons were both made kings; and, as each of them left his throne to his descendants, Sparta had two kings, instead of one, from this time on. One member of the royal family, although he never bore the name of king, is the most noted man in Spartan history. This is Ly-cur´gus, the son of one ruler, the brother of another, and the guardian of an infant king named Char-i-la´us.

Lycurgus was a thoroughly good and upright man. We are told that the mother of the baby king once offered to put her child to death that Lycurgus might reign. Fearing for the babe’s safety, Lycurgus made believe that he agreed to this plan, and asked that the child should be given to him to kill as he saw fit.

Lycurgus, having thus obtained possession of the babe, carried him to the council hall. There the child was named king; and Lycurgus promised that he would watch carefully over him, educate him well, and rule for him until he should be old and wise enough to reign alone.

While he was thus acting as ruler, Lycurgus made use of his power to bring many new customs into Sparta, and to change the laws. As he was one of the wisest men who ever lived, he knew very well that men must be good if they would be happy. He also knew that health is far better than riches; and, hoping to make the Spartans both good and healthy, he won them over little by little to obey a new set of laws, which he had made after visiting many of the neighboring countries, and learning all he could.

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XXII. THE SPARTAN TRAINING.

The laws which Lycurgus drew up for the Spartans were very strict. For instance, as soon as a babe came into the world, the law ordered that the father should wrap it up in a cloak, and carry it before a council made up of some of the oldest and wisest men.

They looked at the child carefully, and if it seemed strong and healthy, and was neither crippled nor in any way deformed, they said that it might live. Then they gave it back to the father, and bade him bring up the child for the honor of his country.

If the babe was sickly or deformed, it was carried off to a mountain near by, and left alone; so that it soon died of hunger or thirst, or was eaten up by the wild beasts.

The Spartan children staid under their father’s roof and in their mother’s care until they were seven years old. While in the nursery, they were taught all the beautiful old Greek legends, and listened with delight to the stories of the ancient heroes, and especially to the poems of Homer telling about the war of Troy and the adventures of Ulysses.

As soon as the children had reached seven years of age, they were given over to the care of the state, and allowed to visit their parents but seldom. The boys were put in charge of chosen men, who trained them to become strong and brave; while the girls were placed under some good and wise woman, who not only taught them all they needed to know to keep house well, but also trained them to be as strong and fearless as their brothers. All Spartan boys were allowed but one rough woolen garment, which served as their sole covering by night and by day, and was of the same material in summer as in winter.

They were taught very little reading, writing, and arithmetic, but were carefully trained to recite the poems of Homer, the patriotic songs, and to accompany themselves skillfully on the lyre. They were also obliged to sing in the public chorus, and to dance gracefully at all the religious feasts.

As the Spartans were very anxious that their boys should be strong and fearless, they were taught to stand pain and fatigue without a murmur; and, to make sure that they could do so, their teachers made them go through a very severe training.

Led by one of the older boys, the little lads were often sent out for long tramps over rough and stony roads, under the hot sun; and the best boy was the one who kept up longest, in spite of bleeding feet, burning thirst, and great fatigue.

Spartan boys were allowed no beds to sleep in, lest they should become lazy and hard to please. Their only couch was a heap of rushes, which they picked on the banks of the Eu-ro´tas, a river near Sparta; and in winter they were allowed to cover these with a layer of cat-tail down to make them softer and warmer.

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XXIII. THE BRAVE SPARTAN BOY.

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XXIV. PUBLIC TABLES IN SPARTA.

The Spartan men prided themselves upon living almost as plainly as the boys, and, instead of eating their meals at home with the women and children, they had a common table. Each man gave a certain amount of flour, oil, wine, vegetables, and money, just enough to provide for his share of food.

Instead of having varied and delicate dishes, they always ate about the same things; and their favorite food was a thick dark stew or soup, which they called black broth. Rich and poor were treated alike, sat side by side, and ate the same food, which was intended to make them equally strong and able to serve their country.

The girls and women never came to these public tables; but the boys were given a seat there as soon as they had learned their first and most important lesson, obedience.

When the boys came into the public dining hall for the first time, the oldest man present called them to him, and, pointing to the door, solemnly warned them that nothing said inside the walls was ever to be repeated without.

Then, while the boys took their places and ate without speaking a word, the old men talked freely of all they pleased, sure that Spartan lads would never be mean enough to repeat anything they said, and trusting to their honor.

Although the Spartans had wine upon their table, they were a very temperate people, and drank only a very little with each meal. To show the boys what a horrible thing drunkenness is, and the sure result of too much drinking, the old men sometimes gave them an object lesson.

They sent for one of the meanest Helots or slaves, and purposely gave him plenty of wine. He was encouraged to go on drinking until he sank on the floor in a drunken sleep. Then the old men would point him out to the boys, and explain to them that a man who has drunk too much is unworthy of the love or esteem of his fellow-creatures, and is in many ways worse than a beast.

The Spartan boys, thus early warned of the evils of drinking, were careful to take but very little wine, and to keep their heads quite clear, so that they might always be considered men, and might never disgrace themselves as they had seen the Helots do.

When the boys had passed through the first course of training, they in turn became the teachers and leaders of the smaller lads, and thus served their country until they were old enough to go to war. When they left for their first campaign, all the people came out to see them off, and each mother gave her son his shield, saying,—

“Come back with it or on it.”

By this she meant “Come home honorably, bearing your shield, thus showing that you have never thrown it away to save yourself by flight; or die so bravely that your companions will bring back your body resting on your shield, to give you a glorious burial.”

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