We Is Sparta!

To some, the Spartans represent the ultimate warriors — fierce, fearless, liberty-loving, physically-ripped superhero-esque figures. The epitome of rough and ready virility.

To others, the Spartans are a repugnant people — brutish, cruel, one-dimensional proto-totalitarians. Holders of slaves, exacters of infanticide, practitioners of pederasty.

Neither view captures the complexities — not to say conflicting accounts — of the city-state known anciently as Lacedaemon.

Courageous warriors? Surely the Spartan reputation for martial prowess was well-earned. But the Spartan warrior did not fight in the way we most often idealize — in single combat, for individual glory — but rather subsumed as one cooperative member of a larger phalanx.

Nor was the Spartan man a one-trick pony, possessed solely of martial skill and knowledge. Rather, he was an aristocratic gentleman, schooled not only in war, but in music, singing, dance, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and disciplined comportment as well. He was a literate lover of both sports and poetry, physical sparring and oral repartee. As opposed to the image of a barren, artistically and intellectually austere culture, the philosopher Sphaerus asserted that “no one was more devoted to music and song,” Spartan dance and choral festivals attracted visitors from near and far, and Socrates argued that “The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta.”

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