Plutarch wrote an article about the Spartans, as he tells us in his Life of Lysander, chap. xvii (443A). The only question, therefore, that can be raised is whether The Ancient Customs of the Spartans is that article. It is true that adverse judgement has been pronounced upon it, mainly because of some infelicities of language, and the character of the last chapter; yet, whether written by Plutarch or by another, it is in the main the work of Plutarch, and much of it comes from the same source as Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus. The body of facts and traditions here set down is, in great part, to be found scattered here and there in other writers, especially in the extant histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, to say nothing of other historians whose works are now lost. Much had been brought together, long before Plutarch's time, in the Constitution of Sparta, which is printed among the works of Xenophon.
A hint that various sources were used in making this compilation may be found in the fact that some of the verbs are in the present tense and others in the past.
To each one of those who comes in to the public meals the eldest man says, as he points to the doors, "Through these no word goes out."
A thing that met with especial approval among them was their socalled black broth, so much so that the older men did not require a bit of meat, but gave up all of it to the young men. It is said that Dionysus, the despot of Sicily, for the sake of this bought a slave who had been a Spartan cook, and ordered him to prepared the broth for him, sparing no expense; but when the king tasted it he spat it out in disgust; whereupon the cook said, "Your Majesty, it is necessary to have exercised in the Spartan manner, and to have bathed in the Eurotas, in order to relish this broth."
The Spartans, after drinking in moderation at their public meals, go away without a torch. In fact, they are not permitted to walk with a light either on this route or on any other, so that they may become accustomed to travelling in darkness at night confidently and fearlessly.
They learned to read and write for purely practical reasons; but all other forms of education they banned from the country, books and treatises being included in this quite as much as men. All their education was directed toward prompt obedience to authority, stout endurance of hardship, and victory or death in battle.
They always went without a shirt, receiving one garment for the entire year, and with unwashed bodies, refraining almost completely from bathing and rubbing down.
The young men slept together, according to division and company, upon pallets which they themselves brought together by breaking off by hand, without any implement, the tops of the reeds which grew on the banks of the Eurotas. In the winter they put beneath their pallets, and intermingled with them, the plant called lycophon, since the material is reputed to possess some warming qualities.
Affectionate regard for boys of good character was permissible, but embracing them was held to be disgraceful, on the ground that the affection was for the body and not for the mind. Any man against whom complaint was made of any disgraceful embracing was deprived of all civic rights for life.
It was the custom that the younger men should be questioned by the elder as to where they were going and for what, and also that the elder should rebuke the one who did not answer or tried to contrive plausible reasons. And the elder who did not rebuke a younger who did wrong in his presence was liable to the same reprimand as the wrongdoer. And anyone who showed resentment, if he was reprimanded, was in great opprobrium.
If anyone was detected in wrongdoing he had to go round and round a certain altar in the city, chanting lines composed as a reprehension of himself, and this was nothing else than his own self rebuking himself.
Moreover, the young men were required not only to respect their own fathers and to be obedient to them, but to have regard for all the older men, to make room for them on the streets, to give up their seats to them, and to keep quiet in their presence. As the result of this custom each man had authority, not as in other states over his own children, slaves, and property, but also over his neighbour's in like manner as over his own, to the end that the people should, as much as possible, have all things in common, and should take thought for them as for their own.
When a boy was punished by anybody, if he told his father, it was a disgrace for his father, upon hearing this, not to give him another beating; for they had confidence one in another, as the result of their ancestral discipline, that no one had ordered their children to do anything disgraceful.
The boys steal whatever they can of their food, learning to make their raids adroitly upon people who are asleep or are careless in watching. The penalty for getting caught is a beating and no food. For the dinner allowed them is meagre, so, through coping with want by their own initiative, they may be compelled to be daring and unscrupulous.
This was the object of the starvation diet. It was meagre both for the reasons given and purposely that the youth should never become accustomed to being sated, but to being able to go without food; for in this way, the Spartans thought, the youth would be more serviceable in war if they were able to carry on without food, and they would be more self-controlled and more frugal if they lived a very considerable time at small expense. And to put up with the plainest diet, so as to be able to consume anything that came to hand, they thought made the youths' bodies more healthy owing to the scanty food, and they believed that this practice caused the bodies, repressed in any impulse towards thickness and breadth, to grow tall, and also to make them handsome; for a spare and lean condition they felt served to produce suppleness, while an overfed condition, because of too much weight, was against it.
They were no less seriously concerned over their music and their songs. These contained a stimulus to awaken a spirit of pride and to afford an inspiring and effective impulse. Their language was simple and plain, consisting merely of praise of those who had lived noble lives, and had died for Sparta, and are now counted among the blessed, and also censure of those who had played the coward, and now, presumably, are living a tormenting and ill-fated existence; and therewith profession and boasting in regard to valour, such as was fitting for the different periods of life. So there were three choirs, corresponding to the three periods of life, which were made up at their festivals, and the choir of old men would begin with this song:
Young valiant men long days ago were we.
Then the choir of men in the prime of life would sing in response,
And that are we; look, if you will, and see.
And the third choir, that of the boys, would sing,
And better far 'tis certain we shall be.
Moreover the rhythmic movement of their marching songs was such as to excite courage and boldness, and contempt for death; and these they used both in dancing, and also to the accompaniment of the flute when advancing upon the enemy. In fact, Lycurgus coupled fondness for music with military drill, so that the over-assertive warlike spirit, by being combined with melody, might have concord and harmony. It was for this reason that in time of battle the king offered sacrifice to the Muses before the conflict, so that those who fought should make their deeds worthy to be told and to be remembered with honour.
If anyone presumed to transgress in any way the rules of the good old music, they would not permit this; but even Terpander, one of the oldest and the best harp-player of his time as well as a devoted admirer of the deeds of heroes, the Ephors none the less fined, and carried away his instrument and nailed it to a wall because he put in just one extra string for the sake of the variety in the notes; for they approved only the simpler melodies. Moreover, when Timotheus was competing at the Carneian Festival, done of the Ephors took a knife, and asked him on which side he should cut out the superfluous strings beyond the usual seven.
Lycurgus did away with all superstitious fear connected with burials, granting the right to bury the dead within the city, and to have the tombs near the shrines. He also abolished the pollutions associated with death and burial. He permitted the people to bury nothing with the dead, but only to enfold the body in a red robe and olive leaves, and all to treat their dead alike. He also did away with the inscriptions on tombs, except of those who had met their end in war, and also did away with mourning and lamentation.
Lycurgus also introduced the practice of banning all foreigners from the country, so that these should not filter in and serve to teach the citizens something bad.
Whosoever of the citizens would not submit to the discipline to which the boys were subjected had no participation in civic rights.
Some used to assert that whosoever among the foreigners would submit to such discipline as was enjoined by the constitution in accordance with the programme of Lycurgus might become a member of the division assigned to him at the beginning.
The selling of anything was not permitted; but it was their custom to use the neighbours' servants as their own if they needed them and also their dogs and horses, unless the owners required them for their own use. And in the country, if anyone found himself lacking anything and had need of it, he would open an owner's storehouse and take away enough to meet his need, and then replace the seals and leave it.
In wars they used red garments for two reasons: first, the colour they thought was a manly colour, and second, the blood-red hue causes more terror in the minds of theº inexperienced. Also, if anyone of them receive a wound, it is advantageous that it be not easily discovered by the enemy, but be unperceived by reason of the identity of colour.
Whenever they overcome their enemies by outgeneralling them, they sacrifice a bull to Ares, but when the victory is gained in open conflict, they offer a cock, thus trying to make their leaders habitually not merely fighters but tacticians as well.
To their prayers they add the petition that they may be able to submit to injustice.
And their prayer is that the gods give them fair and honourable requital for their good deeds, and that is all.
They worship Aphrodite in her full armour, and the statues of all the gods, both female and male, they make with spear in hand to indicate that all the gods have the valour which war demands.
Those fond of proverbs are wont to quote this on occasion:
Yer ain hand use when Fortune ye would call,
thus indicating that calling on the gods for aid ought to be accompanied by effort and action on one's own part, or else they should not be invoked.
They used to make the Helots drunk and exhibit them to the young as a deterrent from excessive drinking.
It was their custom not to knock on the outer doors but to call from outside.
The strigils which they used were not made of metal but of reeds.
They did not attend either comedy or tragedy, so that they might not hear anyone speak either in earnest or in jest against the laws.
Archilochus the poet, when he arrived in Sparta, they ordered to depart that very instant because they learned that he had written in his verses that it is better to throw away one's arms than to be killed:
Shield that was mine, fair armour, now gladdens the heart of some Saian;
Sorry I left it behind tangled in brush in my path;
But for myself I escaped from the clutches of Death. Let perdition
Take the old shield, for no worse surely I'll get the next time.
The temples and religious services were open to maidens and youths alike.
The Ephors fined Sciraphidas because he was wronged by many.
They made away with a man who wore the very coarsest clothing, because he inserted a border in his garment.
They reprimanded the young man from the gymnasium because he knew well about the road to Pylaea.
Cephisophon, who asserted that he could speak the whole day long on any topic whatsoever, they expelled from the country, saying that the good orator must keep his discourse equal to the subject in hand.
The boys in Sparta were lashed with whips during the entire day at the altar of Artemis Orthia, frequently to the point of death, and they bravely endured this, cheerful and proud, vying with one another for the supremacy as to which one of them could endure being beaten for the longer time and the greater number of blows. And the one who was victorious was held in especial repute. This competition is called 'The Flagellation,' and it takes place each year.
One of the noble and blessed privileges which Lycurgus appears to have secured for his fellow-citizens was abundance of leisure. In fact it was not permitted them to take up any menial trade at all; and there was no need whatever of making money, which involves a toilsome accumulation, nor of busy activity, because of his having made wealth wholly unenvied and unhonoured. The Helots tilled the soil for them, paying a return which was regularly settled in advance. There was a ban against letting for a higher price, so that the Helots might make some profit, and thus be glad to do the work for their masters, and so that the masters might not look for any larger return.
It was forbidden them to be sailors and to fight on the sea. Later, however, they did engage in such battles, and, after they had made themselves masters of the sea, they again desisted, since they observed that the character of the citizens was deteriorating sadly. But they changed about again, as in all else. For example, when money was amassed for the Spartans, those who amassed it were condemned to death; for to Alcamenes and Theopompus, their kings, an oracle had been given:
Eager desire for money will bring the ruin of Sparta.
Yet, nevertheless, when Lysander had taken Athens, he brought home much gold and silver, and they accepted it, and bestowed honours on the man.
As long as the Spartan State adhered to the laws of Lycurgus and remained true to its oaths, it held the first place in Greece for good government and good repute over a period of five hundred years. But, little by little, as these laws and oaths were transgressed, and greed and love of wealth crept in, the elements of their strength began to dwindle also, and their allies on this account were ill-disposed toward them. But although they were in this plight, yet after the victory of Philip of Macedon at Chaeroneia, when all the Greeks proclaimed him commander both on land and sea, and likewise, in the interval following, proclaimed Alexander, his son, after the subjugation of the Thebans, the Spartans only, although they dwelt in an unwalled city, and were few in number because of their continual wars, and had become much weaker and an easy prey, still keeping alive some feeble sparks of the laws of Lycurgus, did not take any part in the campaigns of these or of the other kings of Macedon who ruled in the interval following, nor did they ever enter the general congress or even pay tribute. So it was, until they ceased altogether to observe the laws of Lycurgus, and came to be ruled despotically by their own citizens, preserving nothing of their ancestral discipline any longer, and so they became much like the rest, and put from them their former glory and freedom of speech, and were reduced to a state of subjection; and now they, like the rest of the Greeks, have come under Roman sway.