Plutarch’s Lives: Lycurgus – The Spartans Were Totally Gay!

So the most recent reading has been Plutarch’s lives, and the Britannica editors suggest reading four : Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Lycurgus and Numa compared, Alexander, Caesar. Well, I started in on this reading and realized that trying to take it as one reading would be far too extensive and complicated for a single entry. So, I am starting with Lycurgus.

Lycurgus was “the lawgiver of Sparta,” according to Plutarch, and the one who made Sparta into what we know it as today – a formidable, military state. Much of this entry is really about Sparta more so than about Lycurgus the man, but in ascribing all the Spartan institutions to Lycurgus, Plutarch seems to follow the theory that most history is as a result of the actions of great men.

The Spartans have an image of being tough, hardcore warriors, and it seems that plenty of people think they might be worthy of emulation. The graphic novel 300 and the film of the same name led to a lot of interest in the Spartans recently. The Michigan State University mascot is the Spartan.

A more telling example might be an interview from “Fighting on Guadalcanal,” a 1943 booklet produced for the troops heading to the Pacific Theater in World War II, in which one Marine sergeant who served in the Army says he likes the Marines better because they are “more Spartan-like.”

The historical record seems pretty clear that the Spartans were tough guys, but I don’t think we want to emulate the Spartan state, which was essentially, if we take Plutarch’s view of it, essentially a large, permanent military camp.

“No one was allowed to live after his own fancy; but the city was a sort of camp, in which every man had his share of provisions and business set out, and looked upon himself not so much born to serve his own ends as the interest of his country.”

Sparta was a place where infants were thrown into a gorge if they a committee decided they looked to weak, a practice which led mothers to bathe their infants in wine to give them a more robust appearance. When Spartan boys turned seven, they were taken away from their families and enrolled in a military company for their education, in which their elders would provoke fights between the kids to see who was the strongest. The military education continued throughout their lives, and even as men, they lived as soldiers and subjects of the state, rather than free men. There was virtually no ornamentation or luxury.

Now, I admit that I am probably a softie, but I have to say, I would not have liked living in Sparta or any state like it. I don’t think the Spartans would have much use for a guy interested in hanging out and reading the great books. (How much our own society cares for this thing is a whole different debate.)

And what about this “totally gay” part? Okay, I admit I did that in part for the ratings. But seriously, one of the reasons I am tackling this is that there seems to be some potentially interesting precendent from the Spartans on this.

In the film 300, the Persian king was portrayed as gay, because, according to the director, Zack Snyder: “What’s more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?” (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20014479,00.html)

But the Spartans themselves encouraged boys to have lovers in their cohorts, and when they did marry women, they had a strange custom, according to Plutarch.

“After this, she who superintended the wedding comes and clips the hair of the bride close around her head, dresses he up in man’s clothes, and leaves her upon a mattress in the dark; afterwards comes the bridegroom, in his everyday clothes, sober and composed, as having supped at the common table , and entering privately into the room where the bride lies, unties her virgin zone, and takes her to himself; and after staying some time together, he returns composedly to his own apartment, to sleep as usual with the other men.”

Dressing your wife like a man when you go to be with her seems a little odd to me. But maybe this is more common than I think.

The Spartan also would allow other men to sleep with their wives and sleep with other men’s wives if it looked like that would produce strong children. It was kind of free-thinking of them, but very darwinistic as well. I have heard of other tribes where men who distinguish themselves in some way are allowed to choose, or be chosen by, any woman in the tribe as a way making sure there are strong generations to come.

Thinking about this reading in context of the modern day, it makes me wonder whether the whole gays in the military issue is a fuss over nothing. While I’ve always thought that those in the service would be mature enough to serve with homosexuals, this reading makes me think that if the best warriors from Ancient Greece didn’t have a problem with it, and they had a much harder go of it than our guys do today, then maybe the U.S. military could handle it as well.

Also, if thinking about these bad-ass warriors being unafraid of homosexuality means that it might lessen homophobia elsewhere, then that is a good thing.

Now, even though I wouldn’t want to be a Spartan, that doesn’t mean I find them completely without merit. I will dig into that in my next entry.

Next Time: Spartan Lessons on Comportment, Leadership, and Perseverance

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