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The Dangerous Situation of Sparta

The distinctiveness of the Spartan way of life1 was fundamentally a reaction to their living in the midst of people whom they had conquered in war and enslaved to exploit economically but who outnumbered them greatly. To maintain their position of superiority over their conquered neighbors, from whom they derived their subsistence, Spartan men had to turn themselves into a society of soldiers constantly on guard. They accomplished this transformation by a radical restructuring of traditional family life enforced by strict adherence to the laws and customs governing practically all aspects of behavior. Through constant, daily reinforcement of their strict code of values, the Spartans ensured their survival against the enemies they had created by subjugating their neighbors. The seventh-century poet Tyrtaeus, whose verses exemplify the high quality of the poetry produced in early Sparta before its military culture began to exclude such accomplishments, expressed that code in his ranking of martial courage as the supreme male value: “I would never remember or mention in my work any man for his speed afoot or wrestling skill, not if he was as huge and strong as a Cyclops or could run faster than the North Wind, nor more handsome than Tithonus or richer than Midas or Cinyras, nor more kingly than Pelops, or had speech more honeyed than Adrastus, not even if he possessed every glory—not unless he had the strength of a warrior in full rush.”

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