Ever since Gerard Butler inspired millions of “bros” of all ages to start doing sit-ups in his iconic role as King Leonidas (Frank Miller’s 300), the fitness industry has been flooded with Spartan themed workout programs. While the fitness industry has a bad habit of being dominated by fads and gimmicks, is there anything we can learn about fitness from the historical Spartans? Are these 300 workouts and Spartan Races grounded in any kind of reality?
For about 400 years, the word “Spartan” was synonymous with absolute physical prowess on the battlefield. The sky over Greece bore witness to the crippling fear inspired by the thunderous march of the sons of Heracles, the mighty Spartan phalanx. The wall of spears, shields, and muscle that obliterated all who would dare oppose it what preserved by a core set of values that are often overlooked by the modern observer, but it is the system brought forth through the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus that allowed for the unparalleled success of the Spartan War machine.
The entire structure of Spartan society was organized in such a way that the Spartiate (full Spartan citizens) were focused on nothing other than perfecting their abilities as warriors. Spartans didn’t farm, cook, or maintain their buildings. The only purpose of a Spartiate was to be the ultimate realization of a true warrior.
Throughout the peak of Spartan civilization, there were approximately 10,000 Spartiate. These were supported by the Perioeci (free people, but not citizens) who were the craftspeople of Sparta, and by the Helots who were the descendants of enslaved Messenians. Perioeci and Helots comprised the bulk of the Spartan population which was estimated to be around 300,000 to 400,000 in total.
In the time of the Spartans, that prowess was the literal difference between life and death. This is a big part of the reason why the Spartan society was essentially set up in such a way that Spartiate could operate as the professional athletes of their time. Given that the Spartans had the ability to focus solely on their physical and military training it only makes sense that they would stand out from other warriors, but merely having free time is by no means a guarantee it will be put to proper use.
There must have been at least a few things they were doing right with their physical training to stand out so profoundly from other contemporary professional warriors and many of these lessons apply to our own experience in the modern world. Fortunately, the stakes aren’t quite as high!
So what are the key takeaways the historical SPARTANS can teach us about physical fitness?
Let’s dive in… THIS. IS. HISTORY:
1. Fitness isn’t just a young person’s game
Because the Spartiate made up such a small percentage of Spartan society, and the glue holding the entire social experiment together was the fighting ability of the individual Spartan, it was crucial that every Spartan be fit for combat as long as physically possible. This was even built into their laws. Lycurgus mandated that every Spartan citizen be fit for battle until the age of 60. That’s right, a Spartan citizen was expected by law to be fit enough for hand to hand combat, in full bronze armor, under the blazing heat of the Mediterranean sun up to the same age people in the modern world are typically adjusting their knee braces before shuffling through the doors of a buffet.
There’s not a whole lot about basic human biology that’s changed from the 5th century BC to modern times. This means that the same kind of physicality imbued in the citizen-soldiers of ancient Sparta is lying dormant within all of us. Age is by no means a reason to give up on being fit and healthy – there are even studies demonstrating the ability of Octogenarians (80-90 year olds) to experience muscle hypertrophy with resistance training! Aging does not have to define the way we use our bodies to experience the world around us.
Thankfully we don’t have to use our bodies to deal with spear-wielding enemies trying to turn us into a shishkabob, but the same physiological adaptations the Spartans gained from their lifestyle of constant training well into the later stages of their life cycle are the ones we can use ourselves to live active and healthy lives in the modern world.
2. Having a “tribe” helps
What’s the biggest fitness tribe out there? If you guessed Crossfit, you’re probably right. There are a million different opinions on Crossfit and they are usually intensely polarized. Whether you’re a fan of Crossfit or not, you can’t deny the fervent energy that Crossfitters have as it relates to being a part of that brand.
Crossfitters have loyalty to their “box”, and to all the people sweating it out alongside them through their often grueling workouts. There really is a bond that develops when people share a common struggle; especially when that struggle is linked to physical exertion. This is seen throughout all kinds of highly physical team sports as well, think “Friday Night Lights” and Football in the United States, and Rugby through much of the rest of the world. The bonds go deep.
So what does having a tribe of fellow fitness enthusiasts have to do with ancient Sparta? A lot actually.
One of the institutions that Lycurgus (The legendary law giver credited with creating the laws of Sparta) brought to Sparta was the Syssition. The Syssition was a common mess hall that could be thought of almost as a clubhouse for Spartans warriors to hang out at. At the Syssition combat units of Spartans would eat their meals together and socialize between their military drills and physical training sessions, strengthening their sense of loyalty to one another and further developing “team chemistry.”
Lycurgus feared the danger of private living in regard to the fitness of his envisioned society of brother-warriors.
“… so that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home, reclining on costly couches at lavish tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies, by surrendering them to every desire…”
From the words of Lycurgus, it’s clear that pre-reform Sparta had some issues with gluttony and a lack of willpower – this led to many instances of near-annihilation at the hands of their rivals the Messenians.
The bonds formed within companies of Spartans at the Syssition certainly played into their effectiveness as a society of warriors, and translate into the modern world as a sense of accountability and belonging when you become a part of a “Fit Tribe.” You can find that same kind of connection in so many places whether it’s an accountability group for tracking macros, your strongman or CrossFit facility, or even in a recreational sports league. It’s all about pushing your physical limits and overcoming adversity with a group of like-minded people on the same mission.
3. Fitness helps maintain a strong society
All throughout the world nations are facing a tremendous problem in obesity. Citizens of their respective countries are breaking down prematurely due to preventable health problems and placing major economic strain on their societies as a result. In 2012, Type 2 diabetes in the US alone cost approximately $245 billion. It’s going to take time for concepts such as tracking macros, reverse dieting, and an evidence-based approach to exercise and nutrition to catch on. The way things are going with global health it won’t be a moment too soon, and from his ancient grave, Lycurgus would validate the warning signs all around us.
It’s obvious that Lycurgus understood the importance of physical fitness as part of a strong society. Every Spartan underwent was the Agoge – a 13 year-long rite of passage and veritable physiological forge that crafted the bodies and minds of future Spartan warriors. Such a tremendous investment of time and training into literally every citizen of the City-State of Sparta resulted in robust people that had no need of fear for their rival neighbors in a brutally violent time.
However, all of this fell apart after the Spartans defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War (Big fight between Sparta and Athens after the Persians were booted out of Greece, Sparta won and took control over the entire Athenian trade empire).
After that victory, Sparta fundamentally changed as a society, and one of the many changes that took place was that it was no longer mandatory for Spartan citizens to participate in the Agoge. It only took about 3 generations after the reforms for Sparta to fall apart and become unrecognizable when compared to their high water mark as a society of unparalleled warriors.
Fighting ability and effectiveness on the battlefield was one of the core traits that made Sparta such a force to be reckoned with – so we have to ask ourselves, what is the modern-day equivalent? What is the true cost on a society of citizens that aren’t reaching their full potential in their fields as a result of being burdened by their own bodies? Surely it’s a financial drain on the economy, but likely that’s just scratching the surface of much deeper problems.
If nothing else, this lesson should at least serve as an ominous warning shot across the ocean of time.
4. Exercise can start at a young age
While we don’t recommend giving your kids bronze age weapons and armor and telling them to have at it, we do highly recommend encouraging them to be physically active!
Spartan children started the Agoge at age 7 when they were grouped together into Agelai which roughly translates to “herds.” In these agelai the boys would eat, sleep, live and exercise together, all the while crafting their bodies to withstand the next stage of development that was to come five years later at the age of twelve. Those who proved themselves to be worthy of this advancement entered into the next stage of the Agoge.
The period of age between twelve and eighteen saw even more brutal changes as the physical aspects of Spartan warrior life reached a new level of intensity. A boy going through this phase of training was only allowed one tunic each year and was forbidden to wear a cloak. The boy would be cold, dirty, and hungry, searching for sustenance and literally fighting to survive.
These kids were basically living the ancient equivalent of Navy Seal training for six years starting at age twelve. Quite the contrast to doing Fortnite dances and complaining about slow WiFi.
Though the demands on their growing bodies were extreme, it should be noted that Spartan kids weren’t just perfecting their physical craft. During the Agoge, they were also taught things like philosophy and music – these were incredibly well rounded little warriors with minds equally as sharp as the points of their spears.
It’s easy at a young age to seek the path of least resistance as the comfort you likely experienced as a toddler just a few years back still rests warmly on your memory. However, kids are more than capable of developing physically and mentally even at young ages, and that growth if allowed to flourish can give them major advantages over their sedentary and coddled peers.
5. Kicking butt isn’t just “for the boys”
Living in the modern world and arguably the most progressive time in human history, it’s easy to forget the full depth of the struggles women faced throughout history. Just for perspective, women’s suffrage in the United States wasn’t even ratified until 1920, and if you rewind the clock of history further back, it becomes all too common of an occurrence that the most basic human rights were routinely denied to women. This was NOT the case in ancient Sparta.
The Agoge was crucial in the development of a young Spartan man, but it must not be forgotten that Spartan girls endured extensive training as did their brothers. Spartan women were regarded in the ancient world as being far more powerful and influential than their contemporaries throughout the Greek world. Not only were women encouraged to develop their intellect and refine their bodies, but they also had the right to own land – pretty much unheard of throughout most of the ancient world.
This balance between men and women was also reflected by the laws regarding Spartan marriage. A Spartan girl was not allowed to marry or have children until she was eighteen years of age.
This was largely to ensure the production of healthy babies through a fully matured and capable mother, but it also led to Spartan girls entering into a marriage of their own accord at a more emotionally stable time in their lives. Since the majority of the time their husbands spent was either at the Syssition, training or on a campaign, women had the responsibility of assisting with non-military matters.
Strong and confident women were the norm in ancient Sparta; strength in all aspects permeated throughout the women of this city and earned them a parallel reputation to their male counterparts.
A truly great and powerful society respects the women in it just the same as men, another powerful lesson from history that we need to listen to and learn from!
The Spartans have been gone now as a culture for over 2,000 years, but the lessons we can learn from them are applicable to this day.