Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meal. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. The Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship.
Yet while the fact of these ancient fraternities is well established, the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.
This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide much more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to undermine family structures and influence.
The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is two-fold. First, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stressed the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta! If Sparta was essentially conservative, than no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. The experience of 5,000 years of history supports this fact. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.
The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is hardly a good way to undermine family structure! It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but also a fact that most men in the Western world today also eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home among their work colleagues rather than their family. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.
I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.
Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it.