My favorite story about Sparta that is the one where men stuff weasels down their shirts.

It was a real thing! Plucky young Spartan men tested themselves in various ways to see who was bravest, or at least, able to endure huge amounts of pain without flinching. Plutarch writes about this in Customs of the Sparta where he says:

The boys in Sparta were lashed with whips during the entire day at the altar of Artemis Orthia, frequently to the point of death, and they bravely endured this, cheerful and proud, vying with one another for supremacy as to which one of them could endure being beaten for the longer time and the greater number of blows. And the one who was victorious was held in especial repute. This competition is called ‘The Flagellation,’ and it takes place each year.

Right, that was a super fun competition for them, and, like Christmas, they wished it happened every day, not just once a year. But in the intervening days the boys did the weasel thing, stuffing those animals down their shirts and seeing who could keep them there the longer. Weasels aren’t like kittens. They claw (and bite, I think) you if you clutch them inside your clothing.

A lot of young men died from this. Self inflicted death by weasel wounds was a serious problem in Sparta.

Well, it was a time before television.

Sad the producers left this activity out of  the 300. 

Look, I want to point out that movie was somewhat misleading. Not because the men shouted, “Tonight we dine in hell!” I am 100% certain at some point someone in a Spartan army said that. Spartans liked brave, and simultaneously dismal, phrases. Have you heard the Spartan anthem?

No? You say you don’t live in 800 BCE? That’s interesting.

Greek City states had anthems, and the Spartan one is my favorite. The old men in the crowd sang the first verse which went:

Young valiant men long days ago were we

And then the men in the army sang:

And still are we; look, if you will, and see

And then the boys sang:

And better far ’tis certain we shall be.

They also wore red into battle so they could continue fighting (to DEATH) despite being wounded as, dressed in that color, the  blood would be unnoticeable unless the enemy actually saw it spurting.

They were really brave. Even the children. One of their attributes that is, weirdly, repeated in everything you read about Spartans, from Plutarch to Herodotus, is that “Spartan children aren’t afraid of the dark.” I mutter this to myself when I sleep with all the lights on in my apartment after watching American Horror Story.

afraid of the dark

Not if you're Spartan.

So, the violence isn’t misleading in 300 at all. I bet those red-shirted men yelled all the time. Even in the dark. The violence is likely accurate. But, the romance is conspicuously lacking in the movie, because, supposedly, in the band of 300, which was a real army known for its fighting prowess, they were all gay. Like, all of them. Well, maybe not every single one, but they were said to fight harder because they were defending their beloveds. They did not mean their beloved back home the way people do now.

No yellow ribbons in Sparta. Only bloodlust and winning and a lot of bisexuality.

Like, a ton. So much so that women had to dress as men on their wedding nights. Here is how that worked, according to Plutarch:

“In their marriages, the husband carries off his bride by a sort of force; nor were their brides ever small and of tender years, but in their full bloom and ripeness. After this, she who superintended the wedding comes and clips the hair of the bride close round her head, dresses her up in man’s clothes, and leaves her upon a mattress in the dark; afterwards comes the bridegroom, in his everyday clothes, sober and composed, as having supped at the common table, and, entering privately into the room where the bride lies, unties her virgin zone, and takes her to himself; and, after staying some time together, he returns composedly to his own apartment, to sleep as usual with the other young men.”

Now, I’m not saying I necessarily find that attractive, because I would really like a wedding gown, but I will say that Spartans were really cool and secure in their sexuality because it was not a culture where sexuality mattered at all.

And they were apparently really good husbands once you got over that “lying in the dark pretending to be a boy” thing. Sparta was one of the only Greek city-states where women were literate and accorded rights, the logic being that it was necessary to have strong women to raise strong sons.

To that end, husbands were pretty cool with you sleeping with other men provided they were stronger men. Fidelity wasn’t required of women, since the emphasis was always on producing the strongest children. So if a man was not physically strong, or was feeble in some other way, he would encourage his wife to find a stronger man to impregnate her. He would then care for the children as if they were his own.

Today this approach seems like a weirdly progressive fantasy society, although not necessarily one I would like to live in. Personally I really like it when men open doors; just so into that. But because I read so much historical writing that involves men treating women as dainty lady-birds, I find the fact that 3000 years ago women were being treated as, well, if not quite as fighting equals at least as people, really interesting .

The Spartans, unlike people in any other society for a very, very long time were inclined to treat everyone, male or female, as an equal providing they contributed to society. It’s telling that, when it came to religion, Plutarch says:

“They worship Aphrodite in her full armour, and the statues of all the gods, both female and male, they make with spear in hand to indicate that all the gods have the valour which war demands.”

Brave. Good husbands and fathers. In favor of equal rights. Also, super buff and topless a ton. If you can overlook the weasel scars.

Additional Reading:

On The Kings of Sparta, Herodotus

Classics Technology Center: Ancient Weddings

Plutarch, Custom of Spartans