How to become an Ancient Spartan Warrior

Sparta was a city state in the southern part of ancient Greece separated from the mainland by the Gulf of Corinth. Being a Spartan was tough, but that’s how the citizens wanted it. Spartans conquered a lot of land and people around their city state. Each Spartan had a portion of land farmed for him by slaves known as helots. To keep the helots in check, the Spartans created the best military in ancient Greece.

They kept their military strong by raising boys to become warriors. When a male child was born, Sparta’s elders demanded to see him. If he seemed unhealthy in any way, the elders took the boy to the woods and left him there to die. If, however, the child had no obvious flaws, he continued to live with his parents until the age of 7.

Spartan_helmet_2_British_Museum

Spartan helmet exhibited at British Museum. Photo by John Antoni, April 24, 2012.

At 7 years old, boys were enrolled in a state run school. The school didn’t require the students to learn how to read and write or do math. Instead, the students spent all of their time playing sports and learning military skills, such as how to use weapons. This might sound like fun, but the constant competition often became exhausting. Boys were forced to compete in wrestling and boxing matches. If a student lost, he was humiliated. Though they were young, they were being toughened up to serve in the military.

Another way of making the boys tougher was by not feeding them much food. Without enough food, the boys had to creep out at night and either find and kill wild animals or steal from the kitchens. The experience gave them skills needed in warfare, like how to move around stealthily in the dark and how to live off the land. Students also were not allowed to wear shoes, even in the winter.

During the last couple of years at school, students joined the Krypteia, Sparta’s intelligence agency. The goal of the Krypteia was to spy on the helots in case they were planning an uprising.

To complete their education, each student was sent out at the age of about 20 to assassinate a helot in the Spartan conquered land of Messinia. The young Spartan was sent out unarmed and without food. If he was successful, he was judged ready to be a full Spartan citizen. At this point, the young man joined a men’s club called the Syssitia where he would continue to practice warfare.

 

Training for the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

“If you have worked in a manner worthy of coming to Olympia, and have done nothing in an offhand or base way, proceed with good courage; but as for those who have not so exercised, go away wherever you like.” These were the instructions given to athletes and their trainers at the Olympic games in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks took sports very seriously. Like today, training was important for athletes if they wanted to be successful at the Olympics.

Male athletes (no women competed in the early Olympics) spent ten months training before arriving at the site for the games. Whether they competed in sprints, wrestling, boxing, or another sport, practicing for the Olympic games made it tough for a young man to get a full time job. If he won at the Olympics, however, he would have fame and fortune.

A typical day for an athlete training for the Olympics involved going to the gymnasium. The gymnasium was different from today’s gyms. Back then gyms housed a covered running track, but the other facilities were outdoors and open to the public. After an athlete arrived at the gym, he took all his clothes off and stored his belongings in the changing room. Then a paid “rubber” covered the athlete’s body in olive oil. The athlete performed warm-up exercises which were often accompanied by flutes. A coach supervised the athlete’s workout routine, which varied depending on the sport he competed in. For example, runners built up their strength by putting on heavy pieces of armor as they went around the track. Boxers practiced on punching bags made of animal skin and stuffed with grain or sand.

Coaches remain an important part of an athlete’s training to this day, but in ancient Greece a coach who trained a winning athlete was revered and received equal credit for his student’s accomplishments. The ancient poet Pindar described the crucial role of training to an athlete’s success: “not to be prepared beforehand is stupidity, for the minds of the unpractised [sic] are insubstantial things.” Most coaches were former athletes who not only instructed an athlete on his sport routines, but also focused on diet, hygiene, and physical therapy.

Like the athletes themselves, coaches were most concerned with winning and they used some interesting techniques to motivate their students. For example, one coach told his love-struck student that the girl would marry him if he won. Spurred on by this promise, the student beat out the competition. Another coach stabbed an athlete who gave up during a boxing match.

The ancient Olympics had no team games, and no second or third place finishers. Victory brought an athlete and his coach honor. Most of the Greek city states could also be counted on to reward their winning athletes with money and other special privileges, such as free food and tax-exemption.