War of Words – ‘Spartan’

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The Spartans were the foremost warriors of Ancient Greece, famed for their heroic stand at Thermopylae against the Persians in 480 BC. Schooled in war from childhood, the Spartan hoplite was skilled at arms, straightforward, courageous, and uncomplaining.

Unlike the inhabitants of other Greek city-states, who turned out to fight only when necessary, the Spartan was a full-time soldier, training constantly for battle.

The Spartans were well-known for their frugality, living simply with a minimum of comforts, and ‘spartan’ acquired the sense of extreme simplicity in lifestyle. The use of the term in the sense of simple or frugal appeared in the English brothers John and William Langhorne’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Agis (1770): ‘He kept close to the Spartan simplicity.’

‘Spartan’ also came to mean fortitude. Sir Arthur Helps, in his 1847 book Friends in Council, referred to Spartan insensitivity, writing of ‘a man who could bear personal distress of any kind with Spartan indifference.’

Subsequently, the term has retained the sense of stark simplicity. In its weekly edition of 25 September 1885, for example, The Times used it to describe food: ‘The fare is Spartan in its extreme frugality.’ ‘Spartan’ has been used to describe lightly furnished dwellings too, as well as plain, unlavish things more generally.

Following its victory over Athens in the exhausting Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Sparta gained hegemony over Greece. But this predominance was not to last long. Spartan heavy-handedness angered other Greeks, leading to a crushing defeat by the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Aristotle attributed the imperial failings of the Spartans to their having ‘practised no more fundamental skill than skill in war’. The simple, rugged life of the Spartans, it appears, brought with it substantial political and diplomatic limitations.

This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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