Friday, June 27, 2008



Spartan militarism and the well-being of the state depended on sexual love between men.
Stanley J Pacion

SPARTA.This article represents an historical essay which was originally published in the medical journal, Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, Volume IV, August 1970, pp.28-32. The journal is now defunct, and its availability is severely circumscribed since it is usually found in the archive stacks of university, medical libraries where access to the general public is often denied. Still I was pleasantly surprised to find the many online references
to this article.

I have taken this opportunity to edit and rewrite the essay, but I have also tried to retain its original content and style. Its analytical style operates under the school practice commonly referred to or called, explanation du text. The only bibliographical source I use here comes from a book commonly entitled, PLUTARCH'S LIVES. I see, Project
Gutenberg uses the Arthur Hugh Clough edition, which has the original John Dryden translation from the Greek and the Project calls its online version, Plutarch: Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans.

I remember one of my professors of classics commenting that what we really knew about these figures from the ancient world could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I will have more to say about my academic training and my professors of classics later in this series on sex in antiquity. The triumph of Christianity and barbarian invasions of Europe meant the destruction of the greater part of the ancient world's literature. Very little of these ancient primary sources remain. For Sparta this central fact proves doubly true since even the archaeological evidence is scant. The ancient Spartans were interested in military might, not monuments and architecture. But there is no doubt that Plutarch does retain both the book knowledge, then extant in the ancient world libraries, and what was preserved in the oral tradition. So it is to his Lycurgus that I turn to abstract the quality and meaning of life under the Spartan constitution.

Writers have consistently depicted Spartan society as one of military heroism, of rugged, masculine self-reliance and hard-nosed practicality. Even at this date the adjective “Spartan” remains synonymous with words like brave and austere.

Yet there is another part of the traditional image of ancient Sparta, one not so commonly acknowledged. It is the rigidly controlled Sparta, a state based on a constitution which aimed to repress individuality for the sake of communal ends. State control extended even to the sexual lives of the citizen-soldiers and the women. The entire state was geared toward military efficacy and both homosexual and heterosexual expression were governed by the aim of increasing military effectiveness.

One of the first and greatest shapers of our image of Sparta is the Greek moralist and historian, Plutarch, who lived during the period of the first Roman Caesars, 46AD - 120AD. Plutarch’s sketch of the Spartan state appears in his life of Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver and founder of Sparta, who lived somewhere between 700-630BC. Thus some seven hundred years separate the historian biographer and the establishment of the Spartan constitution. While there is little doubt that Lycurgus [image right] was a real historical figure, the claim that he was founder of Sparta and the author of its constitution has its source in legend. Plutarch’s Lycurgus and the Sparta he fashioned represents the traditional folk story, handed down for the generations, of a great man in a dark, remote age. Plutarch’s Sparta is, therefore, not history, though there may be some historical evidence for his account. But neither is it simply fiction or legend. Plutarch himself readily admits that nothing can be said about Lycurgus to which there would be anything like common consent. Lycurgus remains a figure steeped in historical controversy.


In spite of the emphasis Lycurgus placed on regulating sexual relations, the popular image of Sparta admits hardly a trace of it. The major Utopian philosophers who eagerly adopted Lycurgus's other, especially his communal and military reforms into their respective systems make no note of his sexual arrangements. The intellectual tradition in the West has strangely abbreviated Plutarch’s pagan image of Sparta. While idealizing its martial ideals, it has censored its way of love. Even today the Wikipedia article on Lycurgus makes no mention that the primary force of his legislation involved insuring strong sex/love based bonds between men. Constitutional law of ancient Sparta mandated homosexuality. The soldier-citizens were lovers. Sex and love were used to foster allegiance, man to man, so to foster, augment the fighting spirit. The time has come -- it is actually long overdue -- to call a halt to this bowdlerization.

If for the sake of propriety Spartan marriage practices have been read out of the popular image of the society in the West, it is little wonder that its institutionalized homosexuality has received the same treatment. Yet in Plutarch’s Sparta homosexuality formed the cornerstone of the commonwealth. Older men choose young male lovers. There was no real age of consent in ancient Sparta. Childhood innocence had no meaning in the warrior state. All aspects of the life cycle were subjoined to the aim of making soldiers fit for war and the preservation of the common weal. Its practice was such an integral part of Spartan life that Plutarch writes: “By the time they were come to this age (twelve years old) there was not any of the more hopeful boys who had not a lover to bear him company.” Without a realization of the profound male love relations that animated it, no understanding of Spartan society is possible. Sparta was a homosexual state by law. As such Plutarch's account of its constitution represents a vital chapter in queer history.

Like other institutions in Plutarch’s Sparta, homosexuality had as its end the preservation of the state. Lycurgus believed that love ties between men who were comrades-in-arms increased allegiance to their ranks. In a word, homosexual love promoted battlefield determination -- lovers joined in the battle field side-by-side, the lawgiver felt, made for better soldiering -- and all the better fostered the love of state.

Spartan marri
age law reflected this belief. As we shall see, infrequent heterosexual relations permitted by the state and the sharing of wives were intended to break down familial attachments. The Spartan male developed no sense of responsibility toward either wife or child. Duty was directed to the commonwealth, to all its wives and children alike. By permitting male companionship to be the only source of permanent sexual gratification, Lycurgus guaranteed that love would remain in the service of the state.

Homosexuality also had the function of promoting good conduct among Spartan men. Because he viewed self-esteem as insufficient spur to honor, Lycurgus ordered lovers accountable for each other’s actions. Plutarch gives a good instance of this edict’s application: “Their lovers and favourers, too, had a share in the young boy’s honour or disgrace; and there goes the story that one of them was fined by the magistrate because the lad who he loved cried out effeminately as he was fighting.” In Sparta no behavior had consequence only to self, but always directly involved an individual dear to oneself as well. Homosexuality, by making glory as well as disrepute doubly felt, guaranteed the state optimum performance from its soldiers.

To provide ample opportunity for acquaintance and the forming of passionate attachments, Lycurgus legislated mandatory communal meals for the Spartan male. These common eating halls had two named in Greek and Plutarch comments on both of them: “…the Cretans called them andria, because only men came to them. The Lacedaemonians (The Spartans) called them phiditia, that is, by changing l into d, the same as philitia, love feasts, because that, by eating and drinking together, they had the opportunity of making friends.”

Beside the communal meal, barrack or company life provided other opportunity for securing intimate male friendship. Its effect on marriage indicated its force in shaping Spartan life. A feeling of dread characterized the martial arrangement. The young husband, Plutarch reports, visited his bride “in fear and shame, and with circumspection.” The possibility of incurring the anger of jealous, tough barrack-lovers was more than sufficient reason for the caution and apprehension of the Spartan bridegroom. Institutionalized homosexuality created a life under continuous surveillance. A watchful and ever-present lover policed every action. There was not a time or place in Plutarch’s Sparta without someone present to put a man in mind of his duty, and punish him if he neglected it.

The life of the Spartan male, therefore, was one of constant dilemma. Though encouraged into homosexuality from youth and conditioned to it by the institutions in which he lived, the law nonetheless required him to marry. Lycurgus not only excluded bachelors from participation in the greatly appreciated naked processions of women, but also prescribed, “…in wintertime, the officers compelled them [the bachelors] to march naked themselves round the market-place, singing as they went a certain song to their own disgrace, that they justly suffered this punishment for disobeying the laws. Moreover, they were denied that respect and observance which the men paid their elders.” The need for children as well as the preservation of duty to the state inspired this contradictory legislation for Sparta. A frustrating, anxious, unfulfilled life was its product. Lycurgus may well have created the psychological source of the violence on which Spartan militarism rested.

Marriage and Women

It has often been observed that one of the key institutions for social control is marriage. Plutarch’s Sparta proves no exception to this general rule. Lycurgus legislated marriage with a special gusto, dictating the time, the length, even the qualifications of the marriage partners.

In Plutarch’s Sparta the citizen was educated for marriage. The right to love was an acquired property. Men and women earned intimacy by observing the precepts of the law. Though marital educational provisions applied equally to both sexes, the success of the marriage institution seemed largely dependent on the rearing of women. To secure their fitness for marriage, Lycurgus ordered maidens to exercise by calisthenics, wrestling, running, spear-throwing, and casting the dart. “And to the end he might take away their overgreat tenderness and fear of exposure to the air, and all acquired womanishness, he ordered that the young women should go naked in the processions, as well as the young men, and dance too in that condition at certain solemn feasts, singing certain songs, whilst the young men stood, around, seeing and hearing them.”

The ostensib
le aim in this kind of training was eugenic, “… that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and withal that they, with this greater vigor, might be the more able to undergo the pains of childbearing.” For Lycurgus a simple principle governed human heredity: the issue of physically healthy children. Proper marital education for women insured the Spartan state a future supply of well-endowed soldiers.

The training of women also had another purpose in Plutarch’s Sparta. The naked public processions and naked exercises of women were incitements to marriage. The well-being of the state rested on not only the quality of its children, but also the quantity. Lycurgus, therefore, viewed celibacy as tantamount to crime. If the nudity of maidens were not sufficient inducement to move a man from bachelorhood, it became the means by which to punish him: “… those who continued bachelors,” Plutarch writes, “were in a degree disfranchised by law; for they were excluded from the sight of those public processions in which the young man and maidens danced naked…”

Lycurgus made no provision, however, for female celibacy. The meaning of the omission is difficult to determine from Plutarch’s account. It may reflect either a belief in the natural heterosexual lasciviousness of women, or a lack of female choice in the matter.

The wedding night also fell under the jurisdiction of Lycurgus’ legislation. In a tender passage Plutarch describes the legally prescribed ritual of consummation in Spartan society: “… she who superintended the wedding comes and clips the hair of the bride close around her head, dresses her up in mans’ clothes, and leaves her upon a mattress in the dark; afterwards comes the bridegroom, in his every-day clothes, sober and composed as having supped at the common table, and, entering privately into the room where the bride lies, unites her virgin zone, and takes her to himself; and after staying some time together, he returns composedly to his own apartment, to sleep as usual with the other young men.”

Plutarch’s portrayal of the wedding-night ritual set the whole tone for the Spartan marriage. Because the law required military exercises during the day and confinement to barracks at night, relations were difficult and rare. “And so he continues to do so, spending his days, and, indeed, his nights with them [the men], visiting his bride in fear and shame and with circumspection, when he thought he should not be observed; she, also, on her part, using her wit to help and find favorable opportunities for their meeting when company was out of the way.” The imposition was so severe, Plutarch adds, that a husband would sometimes have a child by his wife before he ever saw her face by daylight.

Lycurgus’ reason for imposing this hardship on marriage was, again, the well-being of the commonwealth. Lycurgus viewed marriage as a delicate institution, easily ruined by too active an application. Human emotions, though hotly triggered, were apt to burn themselves out in any permanent relationship. Hence the good marriage, indeed the utopian one, brought together couples, “… with their bodies healthy and vigorous, and their affections fresh and lively, unsated and undulled by easy access and long continuance with each other; while their partings were always early enough to leave behind in each of them some remaining fire of longing and mutual delight.”

By allowing marriage to import the fullest measure of delight, Lycurgus preserved the institution’s viability. He thereby insured a constant source of soldiers for the commonwealth. But Lycurgus’ restriction of sexual relations also shows hint of eugenic purpose. Both healthy and vigorous bodies as well at potent emotions, Plutarch writes, attended the moment of conception. Children who embodied the spark of their original conception was the prime aim of Lycurgus’ marriage law for Sparta.

Lycurgus’ use of marriage for the procurement of good children extended even into his notion of fidelity. While his economic reforms had dictated a community of goods, his social reforms provided for a community of wives. The basis for this sharing of married women was not orgiastic, rather it reflected the belief that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth.

To insure fine breeding, Lycurgus would not allow his citizens, the future arsenal of the state, begot by first comers, but by the best men that could be found. The preservation of the commonweal, the best citizen soldiers gave wife swapping a new meaning. No narrow emotions were allowed under the Sparta constitution. All matters, including sexual favors and the begetting of children, were mandated to insure warrior of the best calibre. It has been often remark that in ancient Sparta soldiering went under the banner "one for all, and all for one" that motto extended to intimacy. The whole idea of private relations, private property, was an anathema to the Spartan value system, and excluded under constitutional law.

“Lycurgus allowed a man who was advanced in years and had a young wife to recommend some virtuous and approved young man; that she might have a child by him, who might inherit the good qualities of the father, and be a son to himself. On the other side, an honest man who had love
for a married woman upon account of her modesty and well-favouredness of her children, might, without formality, beg her company of her husband, that he might raise, as it were, from his plot of good ground, worthy and well-allied children for himself.” Neither adultery nor adulterers existed in Plutarch’s Sparta, for the concept had no meaning. In a state whose very existence depends upon a high birth rate, fidelity was a sentiment of little consequence.

The Masculine Ideal

In Plutarch’s account of the Spartan commonwealth the love of men was transformed into the love of the masculine. The brunt of Lycurgus’ legislation fell on anything which might be considered feminine. The exercise he ordered for women, though eugenic and disguised by the abstraction of equality, hid femininity beneath a muscular, masculine frame. The naked open-air processions dried the skin, removing all traces of womanly softness. For Lycurgus, only the masculine was worthy of affection. It will be remembered that the bride in Plutarch’s portrayal of the wedding night ritual had closeclipped hair and was dressed in man’s clothes. The well-being of the state, the health of the entire commonwealth depended on its correspondence to the masculine. Hardness, the hard body, was the supreme value in a state where warrior conditioning was the first and only ideal. This was the aim and meaning of Lycurgus’ legislation for Sparta.