Ruthless Facts About Spartans, Ancient Greece's Legendary Warriors

October 19, 2023 | Miles Brucker

Ruthless Facts About Spartans, Ancient Greece's Legendary Warriors

Spartans, known for their high level of discipline and warrior training from a young age, were among the most feared combatants in the Greek world. At the height of Sparta’s power, it was commonly accepted that “one Spartan was worth several men of any other state". Theirs is one of the most widely respected armed forces cultures that has ever made its presence felt on Earth. Which is quite significant, given the human tendency for aggressive actions. But beyond what we've all seen in movies like 300, what went into creating this singularly impressive nation? Here are a few things you might not have known about these legendary warriors.

1. Birth Of A Nation

The iconic Spartan army was the brainchild of a legendary lawgiver named Lycurgus, who organized their culture and brought them to prominence. Lycurgus referred to Sparta as having “a wall of men, instead of bricks". Visualize the Great Wall of China, but rather than stones and mortar stacked before you, it's thousands of exceptionally strong Spartan warriors, honed from birth to become experts in delivering fatal blows. That was Sparta's primary method of self-defense.


2. Early Enrolment

The Spartans held a ruthless reputation in the ancient world, and were noteworthy for their absolute efficiency in combat strategies, which remains significantly remembered today. But a reputation like that doesn't come easily. All Spartan citizens were expected to be professional warriors, and children were taken from their residences at the age of seven to commence training.

These children were put in the agoge system. There, they lived communally, studied fighting as well as reading and writing, and were fed, according to Xenophon, "just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough".

Sad But True FactsPxHere

3. Not Above The Law

Even though the kings of Sparta came from royal bloodlines, they were still judged as civilians and held to the same laws of the community.

Before we go forward, and start to see some of the less-tasteful things that characterized Spartan culture, let's take a moment to appreciate how forward-thinking that was. Most historical monarchs enjoyed lifestyles and powers similar to those of a Galactic Overlord. Good for the Spartans, keeping things equal.

Court roomFlickr

4. Pumping Iron

Pursuit of material wealth was discouraged by Spartan law, so coins were made out of iron instead of gold or silver. This made stealing difficult, because iron is heavy. Also, good luck outrunning the Spartan you just robbed.

Ancient coinWikimedia Commons

5. Beauty Standards

Being a little bit chubby was not an option in Sparta. Spartan warriors were expected to be strong and fit, and every 10 days, young men were required to stand in public, unclothed, so their bodies could be inspected. Those who failed to meet standards of physical fitness were beaten and censured. Individuals in the armed forces also maintained strict diets due to their emphasis on physical fitness as both a matter of dignity and a means to sidestep punishment.

Spartan warrior uniformPixabay

6. Speak No More

Spartans were rockstars even for their time, and the ancient world had a word for the obsession with the Spartan way of life: Laconism or Laconophilia, since the Spartans were also sometimes called the Lacedaemonians because of where they lived. Moreover, the word "laconic," which refers to a sharp, terse wit, comes from the Spartan economy of speech.

Brain illustrationPixabay


7. For Sparta

For a long time, Sparta fought the Greek city-states of Athens and Thebes as well as the Persian Empire for supremacy over the ancient world. But following the Peloponnesian conflict, Sparta curiously discovered themselves evolving into a strong naval force. They promptly conquered their rivals, even defeating the mighty Athens, to establish a Spartan hegemony by the end of the 5th century BC.

Spartan warriorPixabay


8. Runaway Baby

Cowards were not treated kindly in Sparta. They would have to give up their seats to non-cowards and often would not be able to find a woman to marry.

Greek Persian duelWikimedia commons

9. The Consequence Matches The Wrongdoing

According to Plutarch, another punishment for cowards was that they had to “go around unkempt, wearing cloaks with patches of dyed cloth, and with one side of their beard shaved". So cowards were punished by being forced to be hipsters.

Half beard shaved

10. Preparation Is The Key To Success

Like armies in other Greek states, the Spartan army was infantry-based, and fought using the phalanx formation. They didn’t introduce any real innovations to the formation, but their constant training and discipline just made them better at it.

Phalanx formationwikipedia

11. Shields up!

Shields were of very high significance, and a soldier who lost their shield was severely punished. This was because shields weren’t seen as just there to protect the individual, but there to protect the entire army.


12. Hide Your Delicates

Although in films Spartans went into battle with bare chests, in reality they often wore full body armor because they weren’t movie stars who wanted to show off their abs. That said, Gerard Butler did have exceptional abs. The armor they wore was the same hoplite equipment used by their Greek neighbors. The only difference was the crimson tunic and cloak.

Portrait of spartan warrior standing and looking at camera in red cloak and helmet with water drops

13. Stupid Hippies

Spartans were also famed for having long hair. To the Spartans, long hair was the symbol of a free man. Of course, to other Greeks, by the 5th century BC, long hair meant having pro-Spartan sympathies. Personally, I would have grown it out. Given the choice of which Greeks to impress with my grooming habits, I'm going to go with those known for their aggressive combat tactics. Just saying.

Long hair manPexels

14. Finding Dory…In Your Face

The Spartans' main weapon was the dory spear, which was seven to nine feet in length with a wooden handle, an iron spearhead, and a bronze butt-spike for counterbalance. You may have noticed this tidbit in 300. The bronze butt-spike, also known as a “lizard-killer,” was there to both allow the Spartan to stand up the spear up and also use it as a secondary weapon if his spear broke. Additionally, it could be used to vertically stab their fallen enemies as they marched past them.

Back view of man in Spartan helmet and red long cloak standing with round shield and spear in hands looking away

15. Priority To The End!

Losing was simply not an option for the average Spartan warrior. Theirs was a culture that revered success on the battlefield, to an almost unbelievable degree. Similar to samurai, Spartans were expected to kill themselves rather than surrender or face utter disgrace.

spartans factsMax Pixel

16. Choosing To End One's Life En Masse Was Not considered?

The Spartans indeed capitulated in the Battle of Pylos during a particularly disastrous engagement where many Spartans were captured by the Athenians. This event shook the Greek world, as it was commonly believed that Spartans would never surrender.

Battle Of Thermopylae.

17. If At First You Don’t Succeed

If a married Spartan woman was childless, the government could order her to do something horrific. They could force her to see if another man could do a better job at impregnating her. Women had little choice in the matter, as Spartan law was strict about encouraging new children since they had to keep replenishing the population that they kept sending to die in wars. Likewise, another ruthless law allowed a childless man to request another man's wife if she had previously borne strong children.

spartans factsPixnio

18. A Glass A Day

The grape-based drink was cherished in ancient Sparta, enjoyed but never to be excessively consumed. The Spartans would typically enjoy a beverage with or after most meals, which was often diluted with water. Children were cautioned to remain clear-headed and consider the risks associated with intoxicating substances. Indeed, helots would be compelled to imbibe excessively to illustrate the detrimental impacts of intoxicating beverages.

spartans factsPixabay

19. A Slave By Any Other Name

Spartans had slaves known as "helots," who acted as farmers, servants, and generally performed any other task that could distract Spartans from their combat endeavors. Helots were usually conquered Greeks, and with each new conquest, Spartans would gain more helots.

The hands of a slave in an attempt to release placed on rocks.woff, Shutterstock

20. But Who Oversees The Law Enforcement?

The Spartans utilized a clandestine group known as the Krypteia whose responsibility was to maintain control over the Helots. They would kill any helot found in the countryside during the night and any helots who looked too strong and fit during the day. Perfect for the helot who likes to go to bed early and hates exercise.

spartans factsWikimedia Commons


21. Trust Issues

Spartans even had locks on their doors because they didn't really trust the helots, which is odd, considering if you can't trust a people you've conquered and would engage in lethal sport with, then who can you trust?

spartans factsFlickr

22. Classy

While helots were primarily responsible for agriculture, individuals from the lower class known as Perioikoi (who weren't involved in any combat roles or recognized as full citizens), took care of manufacturing, laboring, and other trade jobs. In fact, full Spartan citizens were forbidden to participate in trade or menial labor.

spartans factsWikipedia

23. Big Government

The ephors were a branch of Spartan government with no Greek equivalent. Elected from their population of male citizens, the role of the ephor was to balance the role of the king. So if the king were president, the ephors were The Senate, The House, and the Supreme Court all rolled into one.

spartans factsWikipedia

24. Gender Roles

Women in Sparta had much more freedom compared to Greece. Women would engage in physical training side by side with the men, often as a preparation for the intense event of childbirth.


25. Getting A Head

The only Spartan citizens who were honored with headstones following their burial were warriors who fell in battle and women who perished during childbirth (or fulfilling a divine duty).

Spartan warriorPixabay

26. A Healthy Marriage

Spartan men were allowed to marry post the age of 20, however, they had to reside in special communal dwellings until they turned 30. Consequently, those who got married would have to live separately from their wives for a few years, a situation which some might not find too disagreeable...

marriage.jpgThe Blue Diamond Gallery

27. Quality Control

You don't keep your population physically flawless without being disgustingly ruthless. It's a simple fact: over time, you're going to have a few kids who are born a little different. Spartans didn't stand for that. Infants were given thorough inspections, and if any defects were found, they were left to die.

spartans factsWikimedia Commons

28. Victory?

The events of the famous Battle of Thermopylae were depicted in the film 300. The battle came to define the struggles of the Greek city-states in their wars against the vast Persian Empire and their king, Xerxes. Even though it wasn’t a victory for the Greeks, it was used to hold up the heroism, endurance, and sacrifice of the 300 Spartans who fell holding off hundreds of thousands of Persians. 

Back view of victorious warrior in long red cloak and gladiator helmet posing with heavy shield


29. Accurate, But Also Inaccurate 

In 300, one of the iconic scenes of the film was the scene where Persian messengers demands a gift of “earth and water". In response, Leonidas and his men cast the messengers into a well. According to Herodotus, this did actually happen, but not with Leonidas. This scene occurred prior to the invasion of Greece by Xerxes’ father, Darius I—long before Leonidas was king of Sparta.

Decorative panel with sphinxes from the palace of Darius I at Susa 522-486 BCFlickr

30. Two Kings To Rule Them All

Sparta had two kings from two different ruling dynasties. Their explanation was that the hero and demi-god Hercules (from whom legend claimed all Spartan kings descended) sired two twin sons. The pair then formed the bloodline for the two royal houses, Agiad and Eurypontid.

Two crownsWikimedia Commons


31. Chore Wheel

The kings had defined duties; one would journey into battle with the warriors, while the other would manage affairs at home. I wonder if they decided which was which with a spirited game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors". During the period of Persian conflict, the two Spartan kings were Leonidas and Leotychidas.

Contrary to what 300 might have told you, King Leonidas wasn’t a man in his prime with a Scottish accent. According to historical sources, Leonidas was said to have been an aging man at the Battle of Thermopylae, in his late 50s and maybe even as old as 60! To be frank, his advanced age coupled with his determination in battling Persians till the brink is what makes his story more compelling than that of a young man's - though casting him might pose a bit of a challenge.

Spartan warriorFlickr

32. Love Or Banishment

According to some sources, relationships between adult males and adolescent boys were common, and were often formed between mentors and mentees. However, if a relationship was purely physical, both men could be banished. Which is an odd stance to take, frankly.

spartans factsMax Pixel

33. Cool Whip

Spartan boys were flogged with whips for an entire day, and would compete with each other to see who was capable of resisting the highest number of lashes.

spartans factsWikimedia Commons

34. Oops, I Did It Again

While these flogging sessions were intended to be harmless (to a certain extent), on occasion they did inadvertently lead to loss of life. Which is hardly surprising. Anyone who's experienced even a mild/accidental belt snap on the skin can testify that it is not a fun time. And that isn't even comparable to what these people were going through.

Old Spartan helmet on rocks with sunset skyDavid C Azor, Shutterstock

35. Survivor

You might think you had a tough childhood. And I won't presume here: you could have had a really, really difficult time. But I bet you it wasn't prospective-Spartan-warrior tough. By the age of 12, Spartan boys were expected to be able to survive in the wild with nothing. Like, no Internet or anything.

spartans factsMax Pixel

36. Survival Of The Sneakiest

Though survival urged the boys to resort to pilfering, severe punishment awaited them if they were apprehended. Which feels a bit confusing and unfair. You've got all the adults in your life repeatedly assuring you that taking a little bit of food is not just encouraged, but absolutely essential. But then you try it out, and suddenly you've got someone pulling out the spanking-paddle. We'll say it again: being a Spartan youth was absolutely not a picnic.

spartans factsPexels

37. Fight Puppets, Fight!

Children were also encouraged to fight at a young age and many times, older men and teachers would deliberately create conflicts between the boys to promote fighting, not unlike a reality TV show. Except in this reality show, the fights were very, very real. Incapacitating injuries were not exactly rare, and deaths happened.

Expressive boy with sword dressed in dark armour with cloakFXQuadro, Shutterstock

38. But Don’t Forget To Learn

Children were also coached on reading and writing, and they were taught battle songs sung during Spartan combat operations. They were also encouraged to compete against each other in various sports (much like in Hogwarts).

spartans factsPxHere

39. Justice Is Blind

During the famous last stand against the Persians in Thermopylae, a Spartan named Aristodemus suffered from a disease of the eyes and was too ill to fight. When he returned to Sparta, he was branded a coward. Later, he fought at the Battle of Plataea and shed the brand of coward…by dying horrifically.

spartans factsshutterstock

40. Brevity Is The Soul Of Sparta

King Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father, once campaigned against the Greek city-states. Having conquered most of southern Greece, he sent a message to Sparta, which read, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city". The Spartans, in characteristically terse fashion, replied with a single word: “If". Suffice it to say, Philip did not attack Sparta.

spartans factsWikimedia Commons

41. My Handsome Wife

On their wedding day, Spartan women shaved their heads and dressed in men’s clothes and sandals. Thereafter, prospective brides positioned themselves alone in the dark on a pallet, in anticipation of their grooms coming to whisk them away in the silence of the night. The groom then snuck into the room and consummated the marriage. Done. Married. Some historians believe these brides dressed like men and lay in darkened rooms because the Spartan warriors were so unused to females that they needed to be eased into the way a woman actually looked.

spartans factsWikipedia

42. Beauty Is But A Light Switch Away

Because of the nature of these consummations, many Spartans became fathers before ever seeing their wives in daylight. One can only imagine there were a whole host of awkward morning-after conversations.

spartans factsWikipedia

43. Inspired

King Nabis of Sparta used an iron maiden-like device that was made out of a mold of his wife. Its purpose was to force obedience upon those unwilling to take his orders. A disobedient underling would be placed in the device, and the doors slowly shut, allowing the metal spikes to pierce their skin. At that point, most suddenly had a change of heart about whether or not they wanted to listen to commands. But for those who delayed excessively... their end was unavoidable.

spartans factsPxHere

44. You Go, Gorgo

If you thought that the Spartan King Leonidas was fierce, you should get a load of his wife, Queen Gorgo. Again, Spartan women enjoyed a great deal of freedom and education in Spartan culture, and Gorgo took full advantage of this. She often gave advice to her male relatives, and even once helped the Spartan army decode a secret message. When a foreign woman once asked Gorgo why Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men, Gorgo replied quickly, "Because we are the only women who are mothers of men".

spartans factsPixabay


45. Glory Days

The Spartan supremacy began to wane with the Battle of Leuctra, which was the first instance a full-strength Spartan army lost a land battle. The Spartan decline was also hastened by the helots, who began to outnumber full-blooded Spartans and, none too happy with the way their masters had treated them, started to revolt. Even so, Sparta held on for two more centuries, but never achieved the same glory they once had. Today, however, their fierceness lives on.

spartans factsWikipedia


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

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