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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Screw the Spartans

This started out as an uncontrolled rant. I'm making an effort to turn into something more constructive and less vulgarity filled. We'll see how that works out.

I was inspired after scrolling through my Facebook feed and coming across an "inspirational" image with something about how a Spartan solider carried this and that and didn't worry about numbers on a scale because they were so fucking tough blah blah blah...

Or something like that.

My immediate visceral reaction was something like "enough with the fucking Spartans already!" And while I've written a little bit about this before, I feel like I need to expand on it a bit, because I think it's something that's actually important for everyone involved in the physical fitness or martial arts communities to consider.

Why in the world, of all the warrior cultures that have existed since the dawn of mankind, are we insisting on glorifying the Spartans?

Yes, Spartan culture did produce some very tough, effective fighters. That is a matter of historical record, and was often acknowledged by their contemporaries. Spartans were the tough guys of ancient Greece. For example, they allowed eye-gouging and biting in their version of Pankration (ancient Greek naked MMA), because they were just that hardcore, yo.

And yes, 300 of them showed up at Thermopalaye and made an awful movie featuring abs and some extras from Stargate SG-1. But I digress.

In all seriousness: if you actually examine Spartan culture for more than about thirty seconds, it becomes pretty obvious that these people lived a lifestyle which was a)completely antithetical to our own and b) pretty awful.

Yes, they produced great fighters, but they produced them by subjecting them to a system of forced indoctrination and abuse that frequently killed the warriors it was supposed to be producing. The Spartan "education" system looked more like something of the movie Solider than it did any kind of modern schooling. And probably created the same kind of emotionally stunted psychopaths shown that movie.

Their government was a military dictatorship that governed an apartheid slave state. The warriors that everyone loves to go on about were supported by an enormous population of slaves whose job was, frankly, to do everything BUT go around and kick ass. Of course, if you're a minority warrior caste trying to run a state where your slaves outnumber you ten to one, you worry about little things like slave uprisings; which is why the Spartans created a secret police who would occasionally disappear people in the middle of the night.

Yeah, that's right. The Spartans are like the hipsters of oppressive dictatorships. They had secret police before secret police were cool.

The whole 300 thing? The Spartans teaming up with the rest of Greece to fight off the Persians was the ancient world equivalent of two domestics turning on a police officer. The "freedom" they were fighting for was the freedom to keep kicking the shit out of each other without some jack-ass despot coming along and making them play nice. I'm not saying the Persians were fantastic people here, but lets be real. The Spartans were not fighting for "freedom" as modern westerners understand it. Indeed, our entire way of life would have seemed completely alien to them. If anything, our society has more in common with that of Athens, Sparta's long-time rivals for power.

The Athenians actually had a democracy. They also valued philosophy, literature, education, and rhetoric. Their army was composed of armed adult citizens who, when not fighting, did other productive things for their society. Yeah, it wasn't all sunshine and roses there either, and ancient Athenians would find it odd that we don't keep slaves and give women full rights...but they are a lot closer to our own society than we are.

But this is not about glorifying Athens. This about NOT glorifying Sparta.

Rodney King has spoken eloquently about the problems of modern MMA culture, and how it places an excessive emphasis on effective fighting skill to the detriment of the practitioner's long-term mental state. The glorification of Sparta, to my mind, is a symptom of, and contributor too, the same problem.

Look, all ancient cultures have their problems, and truthfully, I'm not really in favor of glorifying any of them. But I also understand the need and impulse to seek out icons and heroes to draw strength and inspiration from. I'm not suggesting we should completely abandon those ideals or inspirations.

But really? The SPARTANS? There's very little redeeming about them. Once you get past the fighting skill, and a couple of impressively bad-ass quotes, there's nothing. No attempts at philosophy, no sense of balance in life. No idea that being a warrior is about being anything more than a hyper-efficient killing machine.

I think we can find better people to be inspired by.


Maija said...

Nice rant :-)
You are right that we get so enamored by moments in history, real or mythical, and grasp on to them as models for values we wish to emulate, glossing over the nastier bits that create the true reality ... but such is the human condition.

On the one hand, I like you, find it incredibly annoying, on the other, I wish we could be more discerning about the multilayered, and gray nature of the world, instead of always simplifying into black and white.

The Spartans certainly were hard and dangerous warriors, and were much feared in the ancient world for their fighting ability. They were also, as you say, part of a rigid culture run on shame, abuse, and fear. They had no use for individual heroics and discouraged independent thinking and behavior.
All these parts, and more, create the whole picture. Everything has a price .... and perhaps that is what we forget.

Here's a nice piece about Spartan culture, and their fall from power:

"Spartan society has often been idealized, in large part because of its long record of military success. The Enlightenment social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau took Sparta as his model for his influential book The Social Contract. American revolutionaries in 1776 and French revolutionaries in 1789 looked to Sparta as an idealized 'republic of virtue.' Since then, innumerable local sports teams have been nicknamed 'Spartans,' and some American towns boast the name 'Sparta.' But it is important to remember that the real, original Sparta broke with a sharp snap because it could not bend. The Spartans failed to rebound after Leuctra because they could not find a way to deviate from entrenched habits of rigid hierarchy, state terrorism, and social conformity. Leuctra was Sparta's fate because those habits led the Spartans to surround themselves by enemies abroad, while simultaneously feeding the angry hunger of those restive internal subjects who would happily have eaten the few remaining Similars raw."

Jake said...


Interesting piece. It's odd to me that democratic revolutionaries would have looked to Sparta as a source of information.

You're right that it's easy to fall into a "black/white" view on all of this. Everything, particularly history, is much more complicated than that.

Glad you enjoyed the rant :-)