Final Lessons From Sparta

For the past three weeks, I’ve been detailing the history of Sparta. Now we shall see what lessons can be drawn from Sparta’s story. Sparta serves as an excellent case study exhibiting both the rewards that can be reaped from adhering to the ways of our ancestors and the perils of meddling with the natural structure of society.

One of the key benefits of a traditional society is domestic tranquility. Not only is civil violence kept to a minimum, but social disruption in general is rare and limited; people respect authority figures and work within established structures to address problems. This tranquility allows people a great deal of freedom within the bounds of tradition, as well as psychological peace of mind, something people today seem to find elusive. Additionally, with social disruption kept to a minimum, those problems which do arise are much more easily solved.

The way a traditional society achieves tranquility is by not changing over time—the way things are done today is the same way they were done years before. However, the wider world does change, both slowly and suddenly. This opens traditional society to the charge that it will not be able to adequately respond to changing circumstances. As the world turns, the social structures designed to deal with certain circumstances become obsolete, and if a society is too tradition-bound, it will fail to adapt and be subjugated or destroyed.

Sparta puts the lie to this claim. For two hundred years, Sparta held political supremacy and embodied Classical virtues. Piety, respect for authority, hierarchy, proper gender roles, and reverence for traditional were all foundational elements of Spartan society for most of its history. At the same time, the Spartans were cutting-edge innovators, capable of adjusting to a wide variety of circumstances. We might say that Sparta squared the circle, combining adherence to tradition with adaptability, but the dichotomy between conservatism and innovation is actually false.

There is, in fact, no such thing as “changing circumstances”; there are only ever specific circumstances which change. A society does not have to be prepared to change in response to any and all possible new situations but only the ones likely to arise. And social institutions designed in accordance with human nature are unlikely to need changing.

The Spartans did well but still made a variety of mistakes. The Lycurgean reforms of the 7th and 6th centuries were in their day radical changes and so inevitably went too far in their extent. Most of these errors were not fatal to Spartan society, but they were at least mixed blessings.

Consider economics: redistribution of land among Spartan citizens made all of them fantastically wealthy by the standards of the time; giving the state ownership of these lands and restricting use of gold and silver served to fix the distribution of wealth with minimal dissatisfaction. Everyone was happy when the reforms went into effect (everyone but the helots at least), and the costs of acquiring more wealth were so high that no one seriously tried for a long time. Spartan socio-economic arrangements were thus extremely stable.

Sparta’s empire was another conservative measure. The Spartans conquered Messenia in order to get rich; they achieved supremacy in Greece in order to stay rich. The Spartan economy was agricultural, which limited its overall wealth, but it could support the Spartan army, which could in turn acquire whatever money Sparta required, at least at first. However, during the Peloponnesian War, Sparta had to rely on Persian generosity to pay for mercenaries and a fleet; when the Persians stopped paying, the Ionians footed much of the bill. Sparta’s lack of monetary wealth thus had its good and bad aspects: it helped maintain peace in Sparta but handicapped maintenance of her empire.

Another failure was in the structure of Sparta’s empire. When she rose to supremacy in the 6th century, Sparta did not incorporate her allies into her own political system; they remained completely autonomous and only depended on Sparta for protection. After Sparta defeated first Argos, then Persia, and finally Athens, the allies saw little need to remain loyal to Sparta. The Ionians appreciated the Spartans for continuing to defend them against Persia, but the helots showed more loyalty to the Spartans than did their other allies.

The most damaging of the Spartans’ errors was their attempt to all but abolish the family. Families existed in Sparta, most notably the royal houses, but they were deemphasized and weakened. Aside from the kings, husbands and wives lived separately and met only occasionally to perform their marital duties. A son was raised by his mother almost exclusively until age seven, at which point he entered the agoge and remained there for the next thirteen years. When he entered adulthood, a Spartan man was given a section of state-owned land for his subsistence until his death.

Spartans effectively had no families. Their material needs were met by the state from the cradle to the grave. A man had no way to improve the position of his children and thus no reason to even try. He also had no need for children to take care of him in his old age and thus little reason to have any. Eliminating the family contributed to Sparta’s internal harmony, since families and clans did not compete with each other for power as much as they did in other cities, but waning social energy in Sparta in the late 5th and early 4th centuries and a shrinking population owed much to the Lycurgean reforms.

There are several lessons we can draw from Sparta’s experience. The first is that inventiveness is not overly limited in a traditional society. Just because a people revere the old ways of their ancestors, respect authority both human and divine, and are suspicious of utopia-peddlers does not mean they cannot deal with new circumstances. A procedure-obsessed bureaucracy will be paralyzed in the face of the unfamiliar, but a society with institutions embodying the insights of genuine social science, whether passed down by our ancestors or discovered through painstaking researches, will not.

Second, hierarchy is highly conducive to social harmony. Polybius claims the great virtue of democracy is that it gives no one cause for grievance, whereas hierarchical social arrangements led to resentment and conflict. In Sparta there was a certain amount of resentment—the mothaces felt underappreciated and during the 360s Agesilaus uncovered a plot by a Spartan and several perioikoi who “wanted to eat the Spartans raw”—but conflict was extremely limited. After the Second Messenian War in the early 7th century, even the helots revolted en masse only once for a brief period in the 460s. Hierarchy in Sparta involved moderation from above and deference from below, rather than grinding oppression.

Third, a successful society will eventually encounter the problem of incorporating outsiders into its own political structure. There are good ways of doing this and bad ways; handing out citizenship to all and sundry is a particularly bad one. The key is to provide goods to one’s allies while also imposing substantial burdens. Both the costs and benefits of alliance with Sparta were low, making Sparta’s allies both interested in superior alternatives and free to pursue them. By contrast, the helots remained loyal, despite their subject position because they saw no possibility of improving their situation.

Sparta’s experience also counts as further evidence that those who believe the nations of Europe should allow in all and sundry–hoping that these people will not foment revolt in the future–are deluding themselves. The hordes seeking to enter Europe will have no loyalty to the states in which they settle because all those states will do is provide benefits. More than a few migrants and their descendants will realize that there is tremendously more wealth and power to be had by looting their new countries and proceed to do so.

Fourth, limiting economic changes can lead to social order and stability, but there is a price paid: reduced wealth over time. According to free-market fundamentalists, this price is never worth paying. The Spartans disagreed and did quite well for themselves for over two hundred years. The trade-off between stability and wealth is not absolute and straightforward, and a wealthy but unstable society is more likely to be conquered by another, poorer society with greater assabiyah.

At the same time, the Spartans went too far in fixing their economic arrangements. An agricultural economy is not nearly as productive as a commercial one, and the greatest rewards from political supremacy are to be reaped in favorable trade agreements. Whether Sparta could have done better by diversifying her economy and suffering a bit more instability is difficult to say given her unique position, but the most successful empires—Persia, Carthage, Rome—did so and not only rose to greater heights than Sparta but also lasted longer.

Finally, the family is an absolutely indispensable social technology. Despite being initially greater than any in Greece, the Spartan population shrank over time because there is simply no substitute for the family when it comes to encouraging and regulating reproduction. The helots multiplied while the Spartans dwindled. For inculcating virtue and respect for tradition the Spartans had alternatives aplenty, but quality does not completely make up for quantity.

In August of 479 B.C., Regent Pausanias, commander of the allied Greek army, found himself in a horrid pickle. For weeks the Persians had refused battle and instead harried his supply lines. To make matters worse, when he ordered a tactical withdrawal, almost the entire Greek army marched in the opposite direction. The Athenians under Aristides at least held their position, but while Pausanias tried to sort out the confusing situation, there came the final misfortune. Seeing the Greeks in confusion and the Spartans isolated, the Persian commander Mardonius seized this opportunity to destroy the most dangerous Greek troops and attacked.

The Spartan general must have thought, “Finally!” The Persians preferred to fight at range, so Pausanias dispatched his light infantry to skirmish and draw them closer. When the Persians were too close to escape, Pausanias ordered his hoplites to charge. The Persian light infantry broke and ran immediately, and while the heavy infantry was well-trained and well-equipped, the Spartans outclassed them. Contrary to Spartan custom, Pausanias then led his men in pursuit and assailed the Persian camp. The camp walls held the Spartans for a time, but after being reinforced by Aristides, Pausanias broke through and slaughtered the Persian army.

The battle of Plataea decisively confirmed the freedom of the West. For the next two-and-a-half millennia, the fate of the West was to be determined by Westerners. We owe the Spartans admiration and gratitude on two counts: not only for their example of personal and political virtue, but also for securing the very existence of Western civilization, until the present day at least.

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  1. Yes!

    This tranquility allows people a great deal of freedom within the bounds of tradition, as well as psychological peace of mind, something people today seem to find elusive.

  2. David Grant,

    good, interesting and thought-provoking article series. I am in the process of thinking how the lessons can be applied to our situations. I will save links to these articles and reread them to absorb them better. Hopefully you continue your exploration of history, whatever era it may be.

    Spartans should have emphasized economy more, but we should not single mindedly pursue any one societal goal, say economic success, empire, power, grandeur, etc. We should always ask first, “Is this good to our people’s long term success and existence?”, and then find a optimal balance between different factors. The decline and destruction of peoples, countries and empires often start by accentuating one-sidedly one or a couple of favored factors, and ignoring, neglecting, oppressing, destroying, despising, de-emphasizing, weakening, etc. other important factors.

  3. … I.e. the optimal balance means there must be little inefficiencies here and there. If, say, economy is pursued at the expense of everything else, it will give short term efficiency in the economic sphere, but erode, weaken or destroy other important things. In the long term the economic efficiency will be lost too. Thus to maintain and increase long term efficiency of economy, one must accept little short term economic inefficiencies here and there. And hence to maintain and increase the overall viability of the system, the balance means there must be little inefficiencies everywhere in the system. Western liberals dont understand this, the Japanese understand this much better, but not perfectly.

    1. The Greeks had a saying: “Nothing to excess.” What makes a good society, just like what makes a good man, is a plethora of interconnected factors. Different societies have different strengths, of course, but you will never find a long-lived, one-trick empire.

      The Classical Liberals actually had a good idea with the “Long-run Harmony of Interests.” In essence, even though people’s short-run interests frequently conflict, everyone benefits in the long-run from things like political stability, protection of private property, national defense, etc. Thus, social arrangements assuring these goods ought to be generally assented to and form the constitution of any society. These men also believed that democracy would make it harder for people to pursue their short-run interests through politics, and thus politics in a liberal democracy should center around securing these long-run goods. Reality was not kind to their delusions.

  4. You didn’t mention the man that destroyed Sparta, King Nabis, he killed the Spartan Royal families and their descendants and made a revolutionary Government hellbent in conquering the whole Greece.

    Nabis is a mysterious character who seems to have come from the Near East claiming to be descendant of ancient Spartan king but this is obviously is a lie, the name Nabis is the biggest clue, its the Greek way of pronouncing the Semitic word Navi/Nabi which means “Prophet”.

    From Moses to Lenin the Hebrew prophets are agingna unrelinting War against independent gentile power structures.

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