Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Spartan Gifts

Did the Spartans give gifts? 

Obviously, gifts were an important feature of most ancient societies. Gifts were an important component of diplomacy, with monarchs or cities exchanging gifts as gestures of good will. Gifts were given to the gods, and to victorious athletes. Gifts were a feature of the cult of hospitality and friendship, and gifts were given to favored prostitutes and slaves. Gifts played a much more significant role in ancient Greek society as a whole than they do in ours today. 

But what about Sparta? In Sparta, after all, conspicuous consumption was disdained. Spartan laws prohibited the minting of gold and silver coins, and in the 5th Century BC, even the wearing of gold and silver was allegedly proscribed.  While there is good reason to think that descriptions of Spartan austerity are greatly exaggerated, there is no reason to think that Sparta was not comparatively less extravagant in the use of luxuries and display of wealth. 

In a society which frowned upon the display of wealth, gifts would necessarily have a different character than in a society, like Athens, where flaunting wealth was an essential component of social status and political power. For example, an Athenian Olympic victor was fed for the rest of his life at civic expense, was granted a front-row seat at all public festivals including the plays, and received other material rewards as well. Sparta's Olympic victors received only one reward: the privilege to "stand in front of their Kings in the line of battle" -- i.e. automatic membership in the elite unit, the Hippeis, or royal guard. 

In short, Spartans had the same cultural traditions of gift-giving, but very likely gave gifts that were more immaterial and practical. Personally, I picture public gifts being mostly "honors" -- prominence of place in processions or at festivals, or election to positions of prestige (committees judging the singing and dancing contests, for example) or ceremonial functions -- the Kings' cup bearer, the Kings' marshal, etc. Personal gifts were more likely to be practical things, game, honey, and other products from a man's kleros, or possibly a hunting dog or livestock. 

Gifts to women, on the other hand, were probably more conventional, things like jewelry, expensive fabrics, perfumes etc.  We know Athenians viewed Spartan women as particularly extravagant and luxury loving, and Aristotle blamed their love of wealth for the downfall of Spartan society. 

For those of us living today, however, gift-giving is a traditional aspect of the "Holiday Season," and our gift-giving is more materialistic than symbolic. So for any of you who would like to give a gift with a Spartan theme, I have created a few products. I'm just getting started, actually, but I hope you'll like one or the other of my t-shirts and mugs. You can look, select and buy online at: or

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