Through the Lens of History 2 – Society of Spears

13 August, 2009

Tis the Ides of August and thus time for:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 2: Society of Spears – The Spartans

In this issue we will explore one of the most militaristic states in history, the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Sparta.  The Spartans organized their state to support their military and in return the military insured the stability of the state.  This militarism shaped both the nature of the people and the way the state functioned.  The purpose of the Spartan state was to control the subject populations on which they depended: the helots (serfs) who worked their fields.

Part I – The History

The early history of Sparta is obscured but the Spartans became the dominate power in Laconia (the southernmost part of Greece) by the 7th century BCE and reduced its inhabitants to the status of helots.  The need to control the helots, who were prone to revolt, and to keep their neighbors in line led the Spartan to develop a society that emphasized martial virtues almost to the exclusion of all others.  Spartan training aimed to mold the Spartans into healthy and strong people, both men and women.  The Spartan women were taught to become healthy mothers and the men to become superb warriors.

Spartan training began at an early age for boys and girls alike, athletics taught them endurance and discipline.  A boy began military training at age five, leaving home to live in barracks and learn the basics.  At ten, the boy began competitions, at twelve he became a ‘youth’, his hair was cut and his training increased.  The youth was assigned an older Spartan who would act as his mentor and teacher; this relationship often lead to lifelong friendships.  The youths were denied shoes, to toughen their feet, and only allowed one cloak, to force them to learn how to endure the elements.  Only minimal food was provided, encouraging the youths to forage (or steal) additional food.  If caught stealing they were punished for being caught, not for the stealing itself.  All of this aimed to make a tough, self-sufficient warrior out of the Spartan.

At the age of 18, the Spartan man became a full citizen, a spartiate, his first year was spent training younger men, then he was assigned to one of the ‘messes’ of about fifteen Spartans of his age group who would eat and live together.  During this time a spartiate would be married off to a girl of about his own age but he would not be allowed to live with her, only slipping off to see her when he could.  At some point, around or after 30, he would finally be allowed to live in his own house with his wife.  However, a Spartan remained liable to be called up for military service for thirty years after the end of his training and there is record of a Spartan, Hippodamas, who died in battle at the age of 80.

Spartan girls participated in athletics and dance, sing and play musical instruments, learned the legends and traditions of Sparta and prepared to raise a family.  Spartan girls and women were better treated and fed than most (or even all) of their contemporaries in the other Greek city-states.  They could inherit and own property.  Spartan woman were athletic and strong, a fact remarked on by many ancient writers, participating in competitions among themselves and exercising throughout their lives.  The women of Sparta were also noted riders and breeders of horses (one, Cynisca, was the first woman to own horses that won races at the Olympic games).

The Spartan men fought as hoplites, heavy infantry armored in bronze breastplates carrying bronze faced shields and armed with spears and swords.  (It is from this period that the phrase “Return with your shield or on it” originated with the Spartans, telling the soldier not to be a coward.  The heavy shields were the first thing that a fleeing hoplite would abandon.)  The Spartans wore red cloaks which identified them both on and off the battle field, because of the Spartans red became the color of choice for military cloak throughout Greece.

Hoplites fought in a formation called a phalanx composed of multiple ranks of infantry that stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a solid wall of interlocked shields and projecting spears.  Each hoplite protected the man next to him as well as himself and iron discipline was needed to hold the formation.  Because of their training and focus on the military arts, the Spartans were, man for man, the best army in Ancient Greece.  This elite army was Sparta’s main tool of diplomacy, the reputation of the Spartan army made it very effective bargaining chip.

For Spartans, the two most important concepts were bravery and duty, warrior’s virtues.   Spartans did not abide cowards who were called tresantes, which means tremblers, and they were excluded from public life.  Symbolically, these were forced to wear colored patches on their cloak to identify themselves and they were not allowed to marry or hold public office.  Fearful of the spread of cowardice, the Spartan would not even allow the sisters of a tresantes to marry for fear that their children would also be cowardly.  It was said that a Spartan mother would kill her son if he returned from war a coward.

The Spartan government was unusual in that it had two lines of kings, both supposedly descended from Hercules.  In theory when a Spartan army marched one king led it while the other stayed behind to maintain the kingdom.  The kings were often highly competitive with each other, each having his own vision of what the Spartan state needed to do to succeed.

The kings were assisted in their governance by the Gerousia, consisting of 28 men over the age of 60 (chosen for life) and five Ephors, chosen annually, decided policy for Sparta.  Both the Gerousia and the Ephors were chosen by the Spartan citizens.  In practice, the kings were the most influential and powerful part of the government but their could be brought down by concerted action of the Gerousia.  The Spartan citizens were able to voice their opinions through the Assembly which could advise and direct actions, but the king and the Gerousia could set aside its decisions.

The majority of the Spartans, as far as we can tell, were very conservative and proud of their traditions, which sometime made them slow to adapt to changing circumstances.  Spartans disdained luxury for its own sake and did not even mint coins for their own use preferring a barter economy(though some of their kings had coins minted to pay outsiders).  The story that the Spartans used currency made of iron unfortunately appears to be untrue.  The culture of Sparta was that of an armed camp that devoutly worshiped their gods, they had dance and music, but little else of the high culture usually associated with the ancient Greeks, no theaters, no schools of philosophy.

The most famous battle of Spartan history is Thermopylae (480 BCE), where the 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas and supported by several hundred allied soldiers, held back the entire Persian army of Xerxes (estimated at 100,000 soldiers) at the narrow pass against assault for two days before they were overwhelmed and brutally slain.  The time gained allowed the rest of the Greeks time to organize a successful resistance to the Persian invaders.

Some of the most famous stories of the Spartans come from Termopylae.  The Spartan Dienekes was told that when the Persian fired their arrows, their number blotted out the sun.  He replied that it was good news, since they would be able to fight in the shade.  When King Leonidas was told to lay down his arms by the Persians, he replied, “Come and take them.”  After the battle, a tomb was constructed for the Spartans bearing the legend:

Go and tell the Spartans, passers-by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

After the defeat of the Persian invasion, the Spartans would go on to battle the Athenian Empire for dominance of Greece in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).  The Spartans were victorious but their era of Spartan dominance was short lived, Spartan manpower was used up at a great rate during this a period.  It literally took a generation to raise a new Spartan and continual warfare sapped the strength of Sparta.  Eventually, Sparta itself was invaded and much of the land returned to freed helots.  Sparta was never again able to rebuilt to its former status.  By the time of the early Roman Empire, Sparta became almost a theme park version of itself, displaying athletic contests, festivals and demonstrations of arms to curious Roman tourists before at last fading out entirely as a separate culture

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Sparta makes an excellent model for any warrior society, human or non-human.  Even as a human culture, there is something almost alien about the level of militarism and focus on physical perfection and discipline in Spartan society.   It could make people uncomfortable to visit such a place, allowing for interesting role-playing.

Characters could go, or be sent, to a Sparta analog to:
•    Convince the Spartans to send troops to aid against an invasion or some other vital military endeavor.
•    Hire Spartans to train or lead an army.
•    Learn new combat techniques.
•    Recover an important relic, magical or not, that the Spartans took as loot after a great victory in the past.

The Spartans will look down upon and be distrustful of men who are not warriors.  After all, what sort of man is not willing to fight for his country?  They might be fascinated by female warriors or repulsed by them, depending on how they presented themselves.

The Spartans may require their visitors to prove themselves in contests of arms, skill and endurance.  Races and wrestling contests would both be excellent choices as traditional Spartan contests.

A Spartan culture as a place of origin for a character would allow for many role-playing opportunities as he (or she) tries to come to grips with a world very different from the society he grew up in and was used to.

Supplemental d20 Material:

In OGL terms, a standard Spartan would be armed with a spear (used one-handed in defiance of usual OGL rules) and short sword and armored with a breastplate and a heavy shield.  Their weapon focus and specialization, if chosen, would usually be in the spear.  Other suggested feats for a Spartan warrior: Endurance, Improved Initiative, Run, Toughness.

New Feats
Spartiate [General]

You have survived the grueling and often brutal training required to be a Spartan warrior.  This intensive training gives you an edge in combat.

Prerequisites: Growing up in a Spartan-type culture, Strength 10, Constitution 12.

Benefit: You gain a +1 bonus to Initiative, a +1 bonus to Reflex and Will saves and a +1 bonus to Survival checks.  When wearing your national costume, you receive a +2 circumstance bonus to Intimidate checks.  You receive a +1 morale bonus to saves against Fear effects, this bonus is raised to +3 if you know you are being watched by other people (apart from those causing the fear).

If you do fail a save against a Fear effect, you use all bonuses from the Spartiate Feat for the duration of that Fear effect.

Special: Except when using your Intimidate skill or dealing with other warriors, you suffer a -1 penalty to all Charisma checks and Charisma based skill checks.

Usually this feat can only be chosen at 1st level and only by a Fighter (or similar class).

Spartan Woman [General]

You have been raised in the rigors of a warrior society, while not a warrior yourself you are still very tough in both mind and body.

Prerequisites: Growing up in a Spartan-type culture, Strength 8, Constitution 12, Wisdom 10.

: You gain a +1 bonus to Fortitude and Will saves.  You also gain a +1 bonus to Jump and Perform (dance) checks.

: Usually this feat can only be chosen at 1st level.

Both of the above feats are slightly more powerful than a basic feat.  In the case of the Spartan Woman feat, the additional bonuses (Jump and Perform) are limited enough that it is not particularly unbalancing.  However, the Spartiate feat is well above the usually curve which is why it includes a minor limitations, but primarily it should impose certain role-playing limits on a character who takes it.  A DM should be careful if she allows these feats in her game to make sure that they are not abused.

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