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Saturday, July 14, 2012

“Nothing in Excess” or Ares Chained

It was the Spartan Statesman Chilon the Wise who coined the laconic phrase “nothing in excess.” Yet the degree to which this philosophy dominated Spartan culture is often overlooked.

It will come as no surprise to scholars of Sparta that Spartan culture proscribed, for example, economy in the use of words, in drinking, in eating, in making love and in dress and decoration.  By the end of the fifth century BC, the Spartans were infamous for the lack of decoration on their clothes and homes. Meanwhile, their preference for pithy, precise expression rather than verbose eloquence, had given rise to a contemporary cult of “Laconic” expression.  Likewise, the Spartan disdain for excessive drinking was legendary to the point where Spartans were willing to blame the madness of a king (Cleomenes I) on nothing more than drinking his wine neat. When it comes to food, Xenophon claimed that boys of the agoge received short rations, while grown men in the syssitia were fed a restricted diet. According to Plutarch even sex was inhibited in Sparta, with newlyweds forced to engage in various tricks and deceit in order to come together.

Most ancient commentators praise Sparta’s culture of “less is more.”  Xenophon claims that the short rations of the agoge helped boys to grow tall, while the syssitia’s rigid regime kept men from growing fat.  Plutarch suggests that Spartan marriage customs increased affection between young couples by restricting their ability to sate passion, apparently on the assumption that too much sex leads to disinterest.  Certainly, Spartan prudery was viewed by philosophers as more admirable than the reverse.  The benefits of teaching children silence were, of course, widely eulogized and Laconic speech particularly praised by Plato and the philosophers.

Modern commentators, in contrast, are more likely to focus on the harshness of Spartan society. Sparta is frequently compared to totalitarian societies in which freedom is sacrificed for conformity and the state is ever-present.  The emphasis is on children torn away from their parents, on young men confined to barracks rather than living with their wives, on adults with no choice of profession, and soldiers expected to die rather than retreat even in hopeless situations.

Yet Chilon’s admonishment applied to excessive cruelty, brutality, rigidity, hatred and violence as much as to excessive luxury, food or sex!  Nothing in excess means exactly that.  Sparta was no Taliban state in which pleasure, music and sport were forbidden. On the contrary, in Sparta music and dance were valued nearly as much as valor on the battlefield.  

Even war itself was not adored, but rather seen as a dangerous passion that –just  like appetite and lust – needed to be controlled. This attitude was symbolized by a temple in which Ares was chained. Spartans feared an unleashed God of War as much – if not more – than they feared an uninhibited Aphrodite. The cult of Aphrodite, after all, first took root in Lacedaemon, on Kythera, and according to some sources the Spartans sacrificed to Eros on the eve of battle – not to Ares.

Yet arguably the greatest evidence that Spartan society was not grim was the fact that Sparta had a temple to laughter and so a cult of happiness. To my knowledge, no other ancient city-state shared this open and explicit adulation of happiness. To be sure, Sparta also had a temple to fear, and it would be wrong to argue that Spartans “adored” fear.  Rather, temples were built to all supernatural forces which mortals needed to respect.  The Spartans knew that fear was powerful and could seize control of even the bravest heart, therefore it was a force to reckoned with and respected, like death itself.  The significance of a temple to laughter is that it shows that Spartans, far from scorning the light side of life, joy and humor, recognized the power of laughter no less than that of fear.  Unlike any other ancient society that I know of, it placed enjoying life on a par with the undeniably dark forces of death and fear. (See also: Loving Life inLacedaemon.)


  1. Could the economic crisis rather than some particular style, be the cause of the ''infamous'' plain clothing, small rations, lack of decoration...Since all of those indications come only from Xenophon who writes in time of the big crisis in Sparta from which they will never recover.

    What is more, archeology does not support the plain life idea..There is a number of bronze parts, art pieces, art representations..and nothing is that plain. It is difficult for me to grasp their plain houses and plain clothing with such an elaborate and ornate mirrors,vessels etc...Speaking about Archaic time,both high and late...

    What is more, I really don't see how could their children grow strong as they did with small rations..

    Although general idea of restriction (who can know what is ''small'' for them) is okay with me.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more! I have tried to make the point several times that Xenophon's description of Spartan rations was comparative -- not absolute. He was comparing Spartan restraint to Athenian excess. He was saying -- as we know all too well in a society plagued by increasing child obesity -- that a healthy diet is not a diet in which a child (or adult) eats everything they want! I do not believe for a moment that the Spartans actually suffered from an inadequate or even scanty diet and still produced such patently healthy hoplites. (See earlier blog entries on Spartan physical appearance, the Spartan messess and diet etc.)

    As for decoration, to my knowledge the most beautiful objects of Laconian origin or found in Laconia date from the Archaic period. There may have been a shift in culture or an economic crisis occassioned by the combination of earthquake, helot revolt and thirty years war with Athens. Or, the evidence of later artwork and craftsmanship may simply have been lost due to flooding, earthquakes etc. As I understand it, the archeological digs only uncovered the layers of settlement that ended at the start of the 5th Century, because the upper layers had been washed away/destroyed and there is a huge gap in the archeological record. Certainly, in the Hellenistic age, Spartans were living a luxurious life-style similiar to that of other Greeks.

  3. Okay so we basically agree. I feared you overemphasized something often misinterpreted, but the more I read this excellent blog, the more I get what your general views on Spartans are, and I happen to agree with you.

    Most of artifacts really are Archaic, but it is enough to conclude their world in golden age, which I think is Archaic age, was not plain..Sure, they did not live a luxurious life, or went over the top with it, and did have certain standards,and principles of nothing in excess..But they were far from being Templars, or Medieval monks, and certainly not the same appearance as Helots. After all archeology is much more concrete than literary sources, decades later...

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