Sparta (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
A precursor of genocidal regimes, ancient Sparta shared some characteristics with modern cases. Relevant features of its classical history include territorial expansion, war crimes, ethnic conflict, a tyrannical domestic hierarchy, and an agrarian, anti-urban ideology.
Sparta was an expansionist militaristic state in what is present-day Greece. Historian Paul Cartledge called it a "workshop of war" (Cartledge, 2001, p. 89). In the eighth century BCE, Sparta destroyed Aigys in its own region of Lakonia. Next, the conquest of neighboring Messenia doubled Lakonia's population and made Sparta the wealthiest Greek state, facing no invasions of its territory for more than three centuries. Sparta exploited Messenia from 735 to 370 BCE, crushing revolts in the seventh and fifth centuries. Messenians comprised most of Sparta's serflike labor force, the Helots.
In the sixth century, Sparta expanded across southern Greece, conquering Tegea, controlling Arcadia, defeating Argos, seizing Cythera; as Herodotus wrote, "subjugating" most of the Peloponnese (Cartledge, 2001, p. 119). Cartledge described Sparta as "a leader of the Greek world" by the year 500, when it directed the Peloponnesian League (Cartledge, 2001, p. 124). It played key roles in the Greek victories over Persia in 490 and 480, and its defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (43103) brought Sparta to its zenith. Eventually, however, a Theban invasion liberated Messenia in 370 and 369. Sparta lost its independence in 195, before Rome conquered all of Greece.
Ethnic Conflict and Expansion
Sparta's expansion exacerbated ethnic conflicts. Its ruling Ephors ritually declared war on the Helots, in what Cartledge called "politically calculated religiosity designed to absolve in advance from ritual pollution any Spartan who killed a Helot."
Early Athenian politician Thucydides described a Helot revolt at Mt. Ithome in the 460s, which produced "the first open quarrel" between Sparta and Athens. The Spartans had called on Athenian aid against the Helots. However, disheartened by failure of their combined assault on Mt. Ithome, "apprehensive of the enterprising and revolutionary character of the Athenians, and further looking upon them as of alien extraction," Sparta sent the Athenians home. The offended Athenians "allied themselves with Sparta's enemy Argos." The Messenian rebels surrendered to Sparta's conditions: "That they should depart from the Peloponnese under safe conduct, and should never set foot in it again; any one who might hereafter be found there was to be the slave of his captor" (Thucydides, I.102).
The warfare fostered increased brutality. According to Thucydides, on the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, "the Lacedaemonians butchered as enemies all whom they took on the sea, whether allies of Athens or neutrals." Spartan troops took Plataea and cold-bloodedly "massacred . . . not less than two hundred" of its men, "with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves." In 419, Spartans captured Hysiae, "killing all the freemen that fell into their hands" (Thucidides II.67.3, III.68.2, V.83). Spartan massacres ranged from what historians define as war crimes to racial murder and brutal domestic repression.
At the bottom of the social ladder, the Helots' agricultural servitude released every Spartan from productive labor. Bound to a plot of land, Helots worked "under pain of instant death"; even the local Lakonian Helots were often expendable (Cartledge, 2001, pp. 89, 24). Scholar G. E. M. de Ste. Croix wrote that Spartans could "cut the throats of their Helots at will, provided only that they had gone through the legal formality of declaring them 'enemies of the state'" (de Ste. Croix, 1972, p. 92). According to Thucydides, the Spartans had "raised up some Helot suppliants from the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus [in Lakonia], led them away and slain them" (Thucydides I.128). Cartledge noted that Helots were "culled" by Spartan youth as part of their training: the Krypteia, or "Secret Service Brigade" of select eighteen-year-olds, had to forage for themselves across the countryside, commissioned "to kill, after dark, any of the Spartans' enslaved Greek population of Helots whom they should accidentally-on-purpose come upon" (Cartledge, 2001, pp. 889). In the eighth year of the Peloponnesian War, Spartan forces massacred 2,000 Helots who had served in their army. Under a pretext, they were invited to request emancipation, "as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel" (Thucydides IV.80).
Above Helots on the social ladder were about eighty communities of skilled townsmen or Perioikoi. Free but under Sparta's suzerainty, they lacked Spartan citizenship rights, even though the Lakonian Perioikoi were "indistinguishable ethnically, linguistically and culturally from the Spartans" (Cartledge, 2002, p. 84); others were Messenian.
One-tenth of the polity's population, fewer than 10,000 people, were full citizens. These Spartiates, the male inhabitants of Sparta's five villages, trained there, barred from agricultural labor. Their occupation was warfare. The Spartiates paid common mess-dues out of the produce delivered to them individually by the Helots tied to working their private plots. Though their land was unequally distributed, Spartiates adopted simple, uniform dress.
From its beginnings, Sparta's system was almost totally agricultural, conservative, and land oriented. Thucydides reported four centuries later that Sparta was not "brought together in a single town . . . but composed of villages after the old fashion of Greece" (Thucydides I.10.2). Its closed system contrasted with the Greek city-states. Sparta favored autarchy over both trade and towns, carefully controlling commerce. Spartiates could not trade nor purchase a range of consumption goods. Cartledge wrote that Lakonia "was extraordinarily autarchic in essential foodstuffs, and its possession of abundant deposits of iron ore within its own frontiers may have been a contributory factor in its decision not to import silver to coin," a policy dating from c.550 BCE (Cartledge, 2002, p. 134). Until the early third century, Sparta coined no silver, unlike other Greek states in their prime. Iron spits apparently figured in Spartan exchanges. Plutarch asserted that the early Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus "introduced a large iron coin too bulky to carry off in any great quantity." Seneca said Spartans paid debts "in gold or in leather bearing an official stamp" (Bondanella and Bondanella, 1997, p. 387). Archaeologists have found few coins at Perioikic sites. Sparta, like Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea, seems to have been one of history's few states without a currency.
It was a demanding state. Rich or poor, the Spartiates or homoioi ("peers"), were subject to collective interests and obliged to undergo "an austere public upbringing (the agoge) followed by a common lifestyle of participation in the messes and in military training and service in the army" (Oxford Classical Dictionary online). The state, not individual landowners, owned the Helots who worked the Spartiates' private landholdings. The state alone could emancipate Helots. And it not only enforced communal eating and uniformity of attire, but according to Thucydides, "did most to assimilate the life of the rich to that of the common people" (Cartledge, 2002, p. 134; Thucydides I.6.4). The state prohibited individual names on tombstones (Cartledge, 2001, p. 117).
Ancient Greek historian Xenophon noted that Lycurgus had arranged for the Spartans to eat their meals in common, "because he knew that when people are at home they behave in their most relaxed manner" (Whitby, 2002, p. 98). Communal living facilitated state supervision. Spartan boys left home at age seven for a rigorous state upbringing. A Spartiate who married before age thirty was not allowed to live with his wife beyond infrequent secret visits. Fathers who had married after thirty lived most of their lives communally, with male peers. In Cartledge's view, Spartan women enjoyed "certain freedoms, including legal freedoms, that were denied to their Athenian counterparts, but they were not, to put it mildly, as liberated as all that" (Cartledge, 2001, p. 106).
Classical Sparta's fusion of the rhetoric of freedom with expansionist violence, racial xenophobia, domestic repression, and agrarian ideology recurred in the twentieth century. Praising Sparta for its "abandonment of sick, frail, deformed children," Adolf Hitler called it "the first racialist state" (Weinberg, 2003, p. 21). Pol Pot's communist Cambodia reproduced many ideological features of ancient Sparta, including expansionist militarism and war crimes, ethnic brutality, egalitarian rhetoric with a harshly exploitative tripartite social pyramid, an austere communal barracks lifestyle, and repression of the family unit.
SEE ALSO Ancient World; Athens and Melos; Carthage
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