Prior to visiting Sparta, we had viewed “300,” the animated movie about the 480 BCE battle of Thermopylae, the clash between the Spartan-led, Greek city-state alliance and the Persian Empire. While the Spartans lost this battle and almost every warrior in it, their heroic last stand inspired their allies, the Athenians, to drive out the Persians and prevent them from conquering Greece. The film does a good job of capturing the Spartan ideals of discipline, austerity and honor as well as detailing historic events. As we drove to Sparta we felt our kids had a good foundation for learning more about this important culture. When we arrived in town, however, we looked around and asked ourselves: Where are the Spartans?
Where we expected to see ruined castles and fortresses we saw quite a few multi-story apartment buildings lining the town’s modern streets. Where we thought we’d see serious, athletically-proportioned citizens purposefully marching to some important task, we saw smiling youngsters hanging out in trendy cafes. There was a clear disconnect between the modern town we were seeing and its illustrious reputation. The only reminders of Sparta’s glorious past were the King Leonidas statue in front of the soccer stadium and the unimpressive ruins of Ancient Sparta behind that stadium. It was almost as if Sparta wanted to forget its militaristic past. Completely unimpressed, we decided to skip boring Sparta and stay in Mystras, the ancient Byzantine capital about 5 miles away.
The Spartans were conservative, xenophobic and a little strange. Spartan obligations to the state overrode any duty to self or to family. Spartan nurses taught babies to not be afraid of the dark, to not cry or scream and to not throw tantrums. From the age of six, boys were removed from their homes and subjected to a tough state-sponsored education that instilled obedience, discipline and resourcefulness. By sixteen they were part of a secret police force, by twenty they began military service and by thirty they were full citizens. It’s clear that self-actualization was not a Spartan value. The austerity of their lifestyle gives us our word "Spartan." The Spartans also had a reputation for extreme economy in the use of language, and the term "laconic" derives from the Spartan aversion to long speeches. (Lakonia is the region surrounding Sparta) In the hands of the Spartans, however, brevity could be put to good effect. When Philip II of Macedon sent the Spartans a letter threatening to “raze Sparta if he captured the city,” the Spartans’ letter allegedly returned with the one word reply: "If"
The next morning we toured Byzantine Mystras and afterwards took a drive up to the Langada Pass. The beautiful pass is between Sparta and Kalamata and cuts through the spectacular Langada Gorge, the place where Spartans left babies who were too weak or deformed to make the cut as Spartan warriors. The gorge was beautiful and at several points in the winding road, dramatic tunnels and rock overhangs were cut into the granite and limestone. We saw some rock climbers with technical gear but no abandoned babies left in the wilderness. That night, we went back to Sparta to have dinner. We found a small diner, sat down, ordered four souvlaki gyros and looked around us. At the table next to us a pack of teenage boys slouched in their chairs and sat around with bored expressions. 2,500 years ago these kids would be members of the secret police force, with impending military service on their minds. The only thing on the minds of these kids that evening was winning the attention of the young waitress serving them. It made us again wonder: where are the Spartans?