Molon Labe and the Spartans

Molon Labe Bumper Sticker

Maybe you’ve seen the above bumper sticker, or something similar, on cars in your area.  I know I have.  “Molon labe” means “Come and take them,” and refers to an incident during the Persian invasion of Greece by the emperor Xerxes.  Xerxes told the Greeks to lay down their arms and surrender, and King Leonidas of Sparta replied, “Molon labe,” a classic example of Laconic rhetoric.

I dislike this bumper stickers, for a few reasons.  Firstly, I admire the Spartans for many reasons, despite their glaring flaws, and I don’t admire the type of people, typically conservative Republicans, although there are exceptions, who put these bumper stickers on their car.  Secondly, I really dislike when people try to put a jersey on a corpse and say that someone’s on their team, and I feel these people are using the imagery of the Greeks against the Persians without any deep understanding of the circumstances.  Xerxes was not, shockingly, the Spartans’ legally elected president, for example.  Thirdly, and the greatest reason, is that the Spartans are just in such opposition to so many of the ideals that the conservatives support that you might as well invoke Roger Williams to support a theocracy.  If there’s been a more communist state in the history of the world, I’m personally unaware of it.

In defense of that third reason, I thought it might be instructive to go through some of the ways that Spartans and Republicans would vehemently disagree.  Hopefully the next time someone uses this expression, you can call them out on it.  Just a note: throughout this, I’ll use “Spartans” to refer to the Spartiates.  If I need to mention Helots or Perioikoi, I’ll do so explicitly.

Leonidas at Thermopylae

1) State-mandated, infantical euthanasia – Considering the conniptions that Republicans go into over voluntary, and even medically necessary, abortion, I can’t imagine what they think of the Spartans’ practice of exposing weak and sickly babies to the elements, believing that weaklings weren’t useful to the state.

 Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so‑called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.
Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch

Lycurgus2) Extreme governmental regulation – Now, I support government regulation.  I think that a government responsible to its citizens is a far more trustworthy steward than a company beholden solely to its shareholders.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better.  The Spartans, and indeed, many ancient governments, regulated many activities that even the most regulation-loving progressive would find a bit odd.  For instance, the period of mourning was limited to eleven days.  On the twelfth day, you sacrificed to Demeter and got over it.  You were unable to inscribe a name upon a tombstone unless it belonged to a man who died in a war or a woman who died in childbirth.  All Spartan males had to dine communally, except in certain extreme circumstances.  Even Agis, the king of Sparta, was refused permission to eat at home with his wife when he came back from a campaign.  The EPA doesn’t look so tyrannical now, does it?

3) Institutionalized polygamy – Oh, yes.  While adultery was said to be unknown in Sparta, one of the lesser known aspects of Spartan life is that spouse swapping was perfectly fine.  Sometimes a husband would allow, or even invite, a man whom he respected to sire a child with his wife.  Since the state ended up raising Spartiate children, it was no great additional burden to raise another’s child.  Due to the Spartan’s focus on eugenics, the goal of this was not primarily pleasure, but the production of fine children for Sparta.  Additionally, Polybius relates that at times, several men, sometimes brothers, shared one wife, and the children were regarded as equally all of theirs.

Lycurgus was said to be the one who had introduced this fixation on producing the best possible citizens, even though he himself recognized the importance of good training over good breeding.  In fact, he criticized men who spent so much time and energy searching for the best animals for breeding, yet left the breeding of men, a far more important endeavor, to chance and jealousy. One example of this openness to sharing spouses can be seen in the following anecdote:

A man sent to a Spartan woman to ask whether she were inclined to look with favor upon seduction; she replied, “When I was a child I learned to obey my father, and made that my practice. Then when I became a married woman, my husband took that place. So if the man’s proposal is honorable, let him lay the matter before my husband first.”
Sayings of Spartan Women, Plutarch

On a side note, the Spartans were also considered to be especially fond of anal sex, with both men and women.  Aristophanes even jokes about it in Lysistrata.

Agesilaus in Egypt4) Communism and Equality of Outcome – Here, I mean communism with a small “c,” but there’s really no better term for it.  I also hate to use the expression “equality of outcome,” since I associate it entirely with people without empathy for the out-group, but it fits here.  Among the Spartiates, the Spartans always strove for total equality.  You could use a graph of their Gini coefficient as a ruler.  I touched upon their meals, but everyone was expected to eat the same food, together.  Luxuries were avoided.  The only tool that could be used to fashion a door was the saw, and only an axe could be used to make the roof.  Low quality iron was used for currency, being impossible to hide, difficult to steal, and unworthy of envy.  Spartans were actually forbidden from what we would consider jobs, relying on their Helots to farm.  When Lycurgus first established his government, he redistributed the land of Sparta into equal lots, no man having more or less, and although this system broke down over time as demographics changed, it remained a Spartan ideal, and would-be reformers hearkened back to it.

5) State Military Only – This is probably the most damning.  After all, this phrase is often employed in America in questionable service of the Second Amendment, with its supporters claiming that an armed populace is necessary to prevent a tyrannical government.  The Spartans would not have been okay with this.  The Spartans were, to put it mildly, rather pro-government.  They gladly went to war for their kings, with Olympic victors being granted the special privilege of marching at his side.  Their highest loyalty was to the state and its laws, under which even the kings lived.  Demaratus, one king, was even exiled, and went to the court of Xerxes.  One Spartan, upon learning that he had missed the cut for a special honor limited to three hundred men, went away joyful that Sparta had three hundred greater than he.  After Lysander’s death, a speech of his was discovered that supported making the kingship elected rather than hereditary, and the ephors convinced the king to bury the speech with Lysander, fearing that its contents might provoke dissension.  Anyone who wanted to arm the citizenry, or worse, the Helots, against the government would have been considered a traitor and most probably executed.

I think these cover the most salient points.  I hope you’ve learnt a little about the Spartans today, and hopefully a little bit about the utility of researching whom you’re quoting.

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