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The Spartan Common Messes

Each Spartan Equal had to gain entry to a group that dined together at common meals, in a “common mess”1 (sussition), each of which had about fifteen members. If not blackballed when he applied, the new member was admitted on the condition that he contribute a regular amount of barley, cheese, figs, condiments, and wine to the mess from the produce provided by the helots working on his family plot. Some meat was apparently contributed, too, because Spartan cuisine was infamous for a black, bloody broth of pork condemned as practically inedible by other Greeks. Perhaps it was made from the wild boars Spartan men loved to hunt, an activity for which messmates were formally excused from the compulsory communal meals. If any member failed to keep up his contributions, he was expelled from the mess and lost his full citizen rights. The experience of spending so much time in these common messes schooled Sparta's young men in the values of their society. There they learned to call all older men “father”2 to emphasize that their primary loyalty was to the group and not to their genetic families. There they were chosen to be the special favorites of males older than themselves to build bonds of affection, including physical love, for others at whose side they would have to march into deadly battle. There they learned to take the rough joking of army life for which Sparta was well known. In short, the common mess took the place of a boy's family and school when he was growing up and remained his main social environment once he had reached adulthood. Its function was to mold and maintain his values consistent with the demands of the one honorable occupation for Spartan men: a soldier obedient to orders. Tyrtaeus enshrined the Spartan male ideal in his poetry: “Know that it is good for the polis and the whole people when a man takes his place in the front row of warriors and stands his ground without flinching.”

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