The Spartiates As Charismatic Cult

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 2, 2011, 1-18.

The Spartiates As Charismatic Cult

William Blake Tyrrell

Distinguished Professor of Classics

Michigan State University


Spartan culture revolved around maintaining control over the Helots, a hostile population living among them and exploited as slaves. To this end, the Spartans developed a social system that reproduces the methods and institutions of a charismatic cult. Boys were taken from their families at 7 years old and placed in a system that formed their minds and bent their personalities to serve the cult’s purpose of making warriors. Individualism was suppressed beneath the constant surveillance of the group. When the Spartans felt the need for a founder, they invented Lycurgus on the pattern of the typical cult founder. The Spartans, however, left wealth under the control of individual households managed by women. The women hoarded their resources and had fewer children. As a consequence, the Spartans failed a major function of every cult: They did not recruit sufficiently.

Foreigners wrote almost all the evidence extant for ancient Lacedaemon, but Lacedaemonians influenced everything that foreigners said about them.[1] Spartiate propaganda and the glosses upon it by legions of commentators created what François Ollier described in his monumental study on the idealization of Sparta in ancient Greece with the felicitous title Le Mirage spartiate.[2] Scholars have been left to tease substance out of the illusion. One thing, at least, remains certain. The Spartiate system, or, more specifically, the laws of the founder Lycurgus, dictated every aspect of a Spartiate’s life, creating a closed and cohesive group of men who professed to be homoioi, equals or similars.

This study examines the evidence for Spartiate society from the perspective of the modern charismatic cult. Its purpose is to gain insights into, and form a unified picture of, that society through the model of the modern cult. Marc Galanter has described the cult group as “a functionally integrated whole,” by which he means that a cult group acts as a system and, like systems generally, resembles a factory.[3] The cult takes in recruits as raw material, transforms them according to its purposes, monitors their progress and that of the system, and sends them out as products or output to execute its tasks. Such systems are neither democratic nor open to individual freedom of expression and thought, but, rather, they curtail the fullness of the human spirit for the benefit of the group to the point of total control over its members. Evidence for cults provides a framework that, when imposed upon the evidence for Spartiate society, conjures up a powerful organization that is flawed from its outset. Spartiates processed recruits and monitored members in ways homologous with practices and programs of cults. Their system received boys at 7 years as initiates. It trained their bodies and re-formed their minds, involving itself in every aspect of their lives from birth to death. But it did not eliminate personal wealth and property; and both, by encouraging personal ambitions, undermined the dependency of members upon the group. Thus, it was not the exceptional control that the system exerted, but its failure to achieve total control, that brought about the demise of their enterprise.

Cults arise in times of social upheaval that precipitate in individuals a sense of loss of psychological integration within themselves and with the world.[4] Leaders come forth with beliefs and behaviors validated and sanctioned in their minds and those of their followers by the higher authority of new knowledge, greater scientific truth, or divine revelation. They provide individuals with relief from uncertainty and ties to something bigger and tangible. Their devotees constitute a charismatic cult that has formed around a person who they believe possesses charisma—that is, supernatural powers or divinely endowed knowledge and authority. The leader accepts that this charisma compels him (the vast majority of leaders are male) to undertake a mission that those who devote their lives and resources to him are permitted to share.[5] To obtain enlightenment from the leader, however, adherents must give him their absolute loyalty and devotion. To that end, they frequently are required to sever relations with their families and friends and adopt the unconventional lifestyle advocated by the leader, who may assume control even of sexual relationships and children. Members undergo a program of persuasion, variously called “brainwashing, thought reform, coercive persuasion, mind control, ... coercive influence and behavior control, and exploitative persuasion.”[6] This process removes the individual’s sense of self and replaces it with the identity prescribed by the cult. Members assume the opinions and often the personal traits of the leader as their own, which is but one of the many strategies the latter develops to promote cohesiveness of the group. Control of the psychological boundaries of the followers is reinforced by control of their physical boundaries. Family and friends are shunned as outsiders, nonmembers to be manipulated and deceived. The group gains direction from the leader’s purpose for it as well as from the need to recruit new members and to raise financial resources. The latter activities not only promote the cult’s continued existence; they are also its chief output.

Origins of the Spartiate Cult

During the first half of the seventh century, the Spartiates abandoned the imperialism they had pursued since their advent into the Eurotas River valley. They capitalized upon institutions already present in some form to reorganize their society. They based citizenship upon possession of an allotment of land, formed the common mess, revamped an initiation ritual for youth into the agôgê, and established the limited egalitarianism of the homoioi. This development culminated after 600 b.c.e. in what M. I. Finley calls the “sixth-century revolution.”[7] Before that, Spartans were “the worst governed of nearly all the Greeks,” as they told Herodotus, and afterward, “they were well governed” (1.65.2, 5). Finley describes the “revolution” as “a complex process of some innovation and much modification and re-institutionalization of the elements which appear to have survived ‘unchanged’” from earlier, unattested times.[8] A defining moment, as it were, in the evolution toward eunomia (good order) came with the defeat of the Tegeans (ca. 550 b.c.e.). Instead of incorporating the Tegeans’ land and reducing its inhabitants to Helots, the Spartiates concluded a treaty that bound the Tegeans to answer their call to arms without reciprocity. Reasons are not difficult to imagine: fear of the Helots driven home by their revolt of 670 b.c.e.,[9] the need for constant vigilance within their own territory, desire for a buffer zone against the Helots, and a growing awareness of the necessity to preserve Spartiate lives. Spartiates had acquired sufficient land to support themselves and could not sustain an increase in the number of Helots to be held in check. They therefore gave up seeking to win by force and began trying not to lose what they had won. To concretize and ensure the security they sought, they developed structures designed not to effect freedom but “the escape from freedom” that characterizes modern cults.[10] If Lacedaemonian society at large had too many self-motivated elements (perioeci,[11] Spartiate women, Helots) to be a cult, the Spartiate system did not.

The social psychology of the Spartiates after Tegea may be gleaned from what the Corinthians said to their descendants before the allies at Sparta in 432 b.c.e. (Thuc. 1.70.2): “[The Athenians] are innovative and quick to think something up and put into action whatever they decide, while you are quick to keep what you have and to think up nothing and to accomplish less than what must be done.[12] Admonishing the recalcitrant Spartans on the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Corinthians, while referencing the Athenians, may well have been speaking about the Spartiates of the archaic period. Those men practiced at home and abroad an aggressive imperialism that reaped for them the largest land mass of any Greeks. At home, they opened their towns to foreign visitors, musicians, poets, and philosophers. They made Sparta a city of lovely choruses, a “Big Easy” with gigs and patrons for the seeking. Artisans working in metal produced images and tripods that surpassed those of other Greek centers.[13] Strife at home between rich and poor, between the landed and those without land, and the political drives of kings and aristocrats both enlivened and flawed their society. Their treatment of the Helots alone, a self-centered abuse of fellow Greeks that far exceeded any ordinary act of hubris, had to have been born of arrogant confidence and their conviction in themselves as aristoi. But this social psychology of domination apparently faltered before the threat of revolt by the numerically superior Helots and by the Spartiates’ inability to get along with one another. They evidently came to feel that, as they were, they could not meet the challenge created by their ambition and success, and voluntarily relinquished the lifestyle common to aristocrats across Greece. In effect, they fled from freedom by forming a group that presented a united front to the Helots.[14] They chose “good faith,” in A. W. Gomme’s translation,[15] “which makes you trust each other, both in public and private affairs,” but which simultaneously renders them more untrusting of others. “Good faith” fosters the security not possible in the open Sparta of lovely choruses that the citizen before you is an homoios, someone who has been trained to act like you and indoctrinated to think like you regarding the Helots and outsiders. The impulse that turned proactive Spartiates into members of a closed group was the desire to be safe at home and to keep home safe, and the certainty that their lifestyle at the time could accomplish neither. They merged their individual identities into a cult group identity whose strength and vigilance maintained control over the Helots by policing the boundaries of Spartiate minds and bodies. Spartiates took for themselves a way of life that despite, or, more properly, because of, its confines gave those who survived its rigors a utopia of freedom from toil for a livelihood, from daily life with women and the troubles of a household, and from the disorienting chaos of hoplite combat. Hence, Critias observed that, in Lacedaemon, men were “especially free,” an appraisal that Plutarch echoed with “in Lacedaemon, the free man is especially free” (Libanius, Oratio 25.63; Plut. Lyc. 28.11).

Cult Leader

The cult leader assumes the role of leader on his own—he is self-appointed.[16] He claims to have special knowledge, exercises persuasion and determinism to induce others to follow him, and inspires devotion through his aura of omniscience and spirituality, his charisma. He does not derive his power from his followers but demands that they recognize it and surrender to it and to the mission that he has set for himself. Charisma derives from neither tradition nor formal locus of power; it is personal to its bearer and revolutionary, bringing about changes in social and political conditions and in the attitudes of those who follow him.[17]

There is no evidence for such a leader among Lacedaemonians, although the cult model predicates one. Still, but apparently not until the fifth century, Lacedaemonians held Lycurgus to be the founder of their group and the lawgiver who rescued them from the chaos of the dysnomia (bad order) they had come to regard as old Sparta. Myths put into words what everyone already knows, and around the beginning of the fifth century, mythmakers began focusing on the figure of Lycurgus what Lacedaemonians knew their founder should be like and should do.[18] Their mythmaking created in Lycurgus the bearer of charisma who embodies the essence of the cult leader and his role. Lycurgus is said to have a “nature fit for leading and ability to attract men” (Plut. Lyc. 5.1). He rules by virtue of inner qualities and not by established powers, not even those of the kingship. During his brief reign as king, many obey him more out of respect for his aretê (personal excellence) than his royalty (Lyc. 3.7). He puts himself on a course to become leader when he leaves Sparta on his own volition to study the laws and forms of government in Crete. In quest of knowledge, he travels to the ends of the world, to Spain in the west, Libya in the south, and Asia and India in the east (Lyc. 4). He returns to Sparta intent on “immediately shaking up the present situation and changing the form of government, since there is no use or advantage in revising the laws piecemeal” (Lyc. 5.3). Margaret Thaler Singer points out that “cult leaders claim to be breaking with tradition, offering something novel, and instituting the only viable system for change that will solve life’s problems or the world’s ills.[19] Lycurgus obtains divine sanction for his knowledge from Delphi, when the Pythia, calling him “beloved of the gods” and “more god than human,” grants him the eunomia that will be “the best by far of all other forms of governance” (Lyc. 5.4; see also Xen. Lac. Pol. 8.5). He gradually wins over the best men to his system (Lyc. 5.3) with the same powers of persuasion and charm that induced Thales to visit Sparta (Lyc. 4.2) and Spartans to redistribute their land equally (Lyc. 8.3). But Lycurgus cannot persuade them to divide their personal wealth.[20] The cult leader endeavors to strip devotees of their wealth or direct it toward the cult to engender dependency and a sense of helplessness.[21] But because Lacedaemonians acquired and retained movable property (Lyc. 9.1), Lycurgus fails. In this regard, the Spartiates do not fit the model of the cult; on the contrary, personal wealth funded individual patronage of other Spartiates and relationships with foreigners, which belied the egalitarianism of the homoioi and the solidarity of the group.

Because the structure of a cult is authoritarian, “the personality of its leader is all important. Cults come to project the ideas, style, and whims of the leader and become extensions of the leader.”[22] Their leaders focus the emotions of love, devotion, and allegiance upon themselves. David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians, for example, exercised absolute power over his followers by drawing upon his religious training, the cherished American right to bear arms, the claim to direct communication with God, the ability to seduce women of all ages, and his own “delusional grandiosity.”[23] It was Koresh’s compulsion to exclude outsiders and defend the group’s boundaries that led to the arming of his compound and the fatal standoff in Waco, Texas. A leader like Koresh could never voluntarily relinquish dominance or veneration, but the mythical Lycurgus wants his Spartiates to be devoted not to himself but to the group. Since he is not historical, he does not put his stamp on the group; rather, the mythmakers formed his personality in the image of the existing system. Humor, for example, played an important role in dispensing praise and blame in the messes and elsewhere (Plut. Lyc. 12.6–8, 14.5–6).[24] Consequently, Lycurgus has a sense of humor, erects a statue of Laughter, and introduces jesting into drinking parties and other entertainments (Lyc. 25.4). Lycurgus reflects Spartan laconicism by being a man of few words (Lyc.19.6), and, as founder, he is an authoritarian leader. “Nothing was left undone or neglected, but he mixed in every necessity some emulation for excellent conduct and criticism for bad” (Lyc. 27.5). Reflecting the involvement of the group, he intrudes upon every part of his followers’ lives, from the inspection for viability at birth (Lyc. 16.1) to arrangements of their funerals (Lyc. 27.1–4).

Lacedaemonians held Lycurgus to be their lawgiver but attributed the founding of Sparta itself to King Aristodamos whose charismatic authority derived, they believed, from the hero and ultimate founder, Herakles, son of Zeus (Hdt. 6.52.1). Charisma belongs to the individual and perishes with him unless it is somehow made permanent by radical changes in its nature.[25] Aristodamos is probably mythic, but royal charisma is historical, possessed by a dyad of kings. It appears most prominently in the customs of their funerals and the imperative that their bodies (and theirs alone of Lacedaemonians) be returned home for burial (Hdt. 6.58).[26] Lacedaemonians effectively stabilized royal charisma, allowing it to survive the individual by making it hereditary. “Recognition is no longer paid to the charismatic qualities of the individual, but to the legitimacy of the position he has acquired by hereditary succession.”[27]

Sometime during the first part of the seventh century, when other revolutionary changes were being implemented, the Lacedaemonians divided the royal charisma between two aristocratic families (Hdt. 6.51). Each line zealously defended its descent from Herakles, for upon that descent rested its authority (Thuc. 5.16). For the same reason, charisma had to be transferred within each family by a strict rule of succession: The oldest son born while his father held the throne became king (Hdt. 7.3.3).[28] Accordingly, the possession of charisma elevated the royal houses above the others and accounts for the honors and privileges accorded them.[29] As for the group itself, leadership was henceforth embroiled in the dual effort to limit, and resist limiting, the prerogatives and influence of the kings. In being led by kings whose charisma as war chiefs was maintained but institutionalized, the Spartiates conform to the model of the cult.


Cults expend a great deal of energy in identifying and converting potential members. Increasing numbers of members convey legitimacy and reinforce the devotion of present members. The process of conversion, “transformation” in Galanter’s terminology, represents the “input stage” of the system and, as such, assaults the recruit’s psychological stability:

Since an intensive mobilization of a charismatic group’s psychological and material resources may be directed at the conversion of members, they [i.e., resources] can create deep turmoil in the individual convert. On the one hand, the group is intensely seductive in its attempt to attract new members; on the other, it demands a disruption of antecedent social ties and a metamorphosis in the convert’s world view.[30]

The cult requires a catastrophic change in the lifestyle of the recruit that is best carried out under conditions that manage the recruit’s environment and time.[31] The subject is isolated from family, familiar surroundings, and support structures in order to keep him or her unaware of the gradual changes that erase individuality and personality. Cult leaders impose a daily routine that prescribes when and what to eat, when to sleep, what clothes to wear, the rituals to perform, and the tasks, usually repetitive and time-consuming, to be carried out. The devotee of Krishna, for example, has his or her head shaven except for a topknot, is dressed in Hindu fashion, and is permitted only spicy Indian food, an abrupt change from the appearance and diet of the cult’s typical recruit. The latter is soon expected to witness belief by chanting ceremoniously in public and, at every opportunity when alone, to perform the japa, chanting the names of Krishna six times a day while keeping count by sliding each of 108 beads along a prayer necklace.[32] “Leaders know,” Robert Levine explains, “a crammed schedule not only restricts a recruit’s mind from dangerous wandering but leads to internalizing thoughts and feelings that are conducive to the group.”[33] With his behavior channeled toward forming an attachment to the group, the recruit will come to believe that he or she is attached to the group, inseparable from it, and happy and safe only when in the company of members of the group. Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, speaks from experience: “The leaders cannot command someone else’s thoughts, but they know that if they command behavior, hearts and minds will follow.”[34] To this same end, the Spartiates take over the lives of their young recruits and by manipulating their behavior shape them into members of the group, physically fit, aggressive, obedient soldiers unique among the Greeks.

The process of conversion for the Spartiates began with the admission of boys of 7 years into the agôgê (Plut. Lyc. 16.7). The term is Hellenistic, but the practices it describes reach far back into the Spartiate mentality.[35] The agôgêserved the group as its initial means for transforming the psyche of its subjects. It carried out the “systematic manipulation ... of social and psychological influences under particular conditions” designed to control the minds of the boys, alter their behavior, and make them into tools for the group’s policies.[36] It did not educate boys for their benefit or form them into well-rounded citizens capable of independent thought and decision-making.[37] True to its name, the agôgê was “a leading” of the boys like herds (Lyc. 16.7: agelai) of cattle toward obedience (archesthai). “Agesilaos was led through the so-called agôgêin Lacedaemon, a hard and painful teaching of the young to obey” (Plut. Ages.1.2).[38] Every cult has an agenda patterned “to get you, the recruit or member, to obey and to give up your autonomy.”[39] Through the agôgêand its liberal use of pain, the Spartiates began the process of thought formation of recruits who, the language implies, were animals to be tamed. Simonides, a visitor to Sparta, picked up the contemporary imagery in calling Sparta damasimbrotos (man-taming): “through its customs, man-taming Sparta more than others made its citizens obedient to the reins like horses, and tractable by the hand” (Plut. Ages. 1.3).

The boy was removed one day from his natal home, placed under the supervision of a paidonomos (superintendent of youths), and “stabled” in barracks with other boys and away from his family (Xen. Lac. Pol. 2.2; Plut. Lyc. 17.2). Having a Spartan mother who endured formal training herself (Xen. Lac. Pol. 1.3–4; Plut. Lyc. 14) and had her pride of motherhood and lessons for him about his father’s shield (Plut. Mor. 241 f, 240 e), he no doubt knew something about what lay ahead. Nonetheless, he must have felt isolated and traumatized by the break with his old life. The oikos was dominated by women, all of whom, free or Helot, had exercised a measure of authority over him since his birth. His father and other men may have lived in the house, but they were not its masters. The boy perhaps enjoyed companions, boys of his age and younger, and even his sisters.[40] In the savagery of the herd, he fell under the constant scrutiny and critical eye of older males for the first time. He had to be like everyone else—tease, provoke, and fight tooth and nail against others in the bid for the upper hand in combat and the approval of those watching: “The elders were examining the boys as they played, and by spurring them on to fights and struggles, they intentionally were trying to evaluate the penchant of each boy for boldness and resolve to fight in the clashes” (Plut. Lyc. 16.9).

The boy had to give as good or better than he received or risk being branded as timorous and cowardly.[41] Should he misbehave, he was whipped (Xen. Lac. Pol. 2.2). Not everyone could have withstood the abuse of the agôgê, and horror stories of those who fell short must have circulated to inspire and terrify the boy.

As the boy grew older, his training intruded more deeply upon his sense of self. His hair was cut close to the scalp. His sandals were removed, and he walked barefoot. He exercised naked. At 12 years, he entered a graduated program organized by age that would see him through his twenty-fourth year.[42] He was forbidden a tunic; a single cloak served him through all the seasons. He no longer oiled his body and rarely bathed. He slept with the others organized by platoon (ilê) and company (agelê) on rushes that he had broken off by hand without a knife from the river Eurotas. During the winter, he was granted the luxury of augmenting his bedding with shoots of a plant reputed to have a warming effect. Shaving his head and depriving him of most of his clothing further dehumanized the boy and separated him from Helot, perioeci, and other Greek boys, marking his surrender to the group.[43] His diet, although probably no different from the usual fare, was dispensed sparingly to keep the boy hungry, thus encouraging him to steal, which required him to be bold, wily, and deceitful. Individual resourcefulness, however, was contained by the prospect of a beating in the case of failure (Lyc. 17.5–6).

At 12 years he was compelled by the leadership of the Spartiates to accept an older youth as his lover and expected to submit to the painful intimacy of anal penetration (Plut. Lyc. 17.1, 18.7–8).[44] Despite the reticence of the sources (Xen. Lac. Pol. 2.13), theirs was a licit sexual relationship and one bearing a strong element of education that bound the lover’s success with that of the boy: “The lovers shared the boys’ reputation with them for good and ill. It is said that once, when a boy let loose an ignoble word while fighting, the lover was punished by the leaders” (Plut. Lyc. 18.8).

The lover had not long left behind the pain and hardships of the agôgêand could recall his own suffering. He could offer comfort and fellowship not readily available elsewhere. To judge from the fact that lovers tended to the domestic needs of youths under 30 (Plut. Lyc. 25.1), and that the Lacedaemonians marshaled lovers with their erômenoi (beloveds) in the lines of battle (Xen. Sym. 8.35), these relationships could be long lasting.

The emotional attachment possible in the boy’s relationships with his erastês may have compensated in part for the psychological abuse of the agôgê; still, it advanced the group’s goal of programming the boy. Insight into this relationship may be gained from a comparison with the sponsorship of a new recruit by an established member of Alcoholics Anonymous, the charismatic-like group founded by Bill W.[45] Alcoholics Anonymous does not promote sexual relations between its members, but its system of sponsors acts to instruct the recruit in the messages and rituals of the group and reinforces dependency upon it. The sponsor, someone who struggles against alcoholism and, with the group’s support, remains sober, instructs the recruit in its practices and beliefs. In return, the sponsor’s own commitment to sobriety and the group is confirmed by the recruit’s repeated narrative of personal degradation while under the influence of alcohol and by the redemption and hope derived from joining the group. Over time, the recruit adopts its message and becomes dependent upon the group which, for its part, is reluctant to let the recruit leave.

That a Spartiate mother had access to her son during the agôgê, as H. Michell suggests,[46] is unattested and hardly likely because her presence would divert his attention and generate interference. Despite resemblances, the agôgêwas not a British public school.[47] The physical abuse of the agôgêhardened the boy’s body at the same time it wore down his resistance to the messages of the group’s ideology. Physical fatigue accelerates the effectiveness of thought-programming, so recruits are often kept busy with repetitive, mind-dulling tasks.[48] Inevitable doubts and misgivings over whether the boy would pass muster or flounder in disgrace kept him unsure of himself, agitated, and receptive to praise and blame and therefore vulnerable to programming. Unaware, he conceded to the group’s prescription of who he was. Transformation was reinforced by punishments to inhibit his old self and rewards to promote the new. Since the agôgêinculcated obedience to orders, daring, and reliability in combat, the boy was probably punished for not acting aggressively. This practice is most dramatically seen in the encouragement given to stealing and the whipping meted out for being caught (Xen. Lac. Pol. 2.7). The boy would absorb the message that deception is efficacious and acceptable, as did the boy who would rather have died than admit to stealing a fox cub (Plut. Lyc.18.1). Stealing, Anton Powell proposes, had the ultimate purpose of training the boy for the guerrilla war against the Helots.[49]

During the agôgê, the boys were conditioned to eschew the oratory exercised by other Greeks before they had even heard any speeches, and to favor concise pithy phrases. Spartiates despised prolixity, and no boy would be long in learning that indulging in it resulted in a bitten finger (Plut. Lyc. 18.5). The boys practiced their skills at dinners presided over by their eirên and in the common messes where they competed in expressing their views of proper behavior among the men as succinctly as they could (Lyc. 12.6–7, 18.3–6, 19.1–5). They learned how to jest tastefully and shun the obscenity and vulgarity their elders associated with the Helots (Plut. Lyc. 12.6–7, 28.9). In this way, Spartiates preempted from their youth at a tender age language and laughter, fundamental expressions of humanity and individuality. A similar molding of recruits takes place in the early stages of their membership in the cult:

this language [the group’s jargon] serves the purpose of constricting members’ thinking and shutting down critical thinking abilities. At first, translating from their native tongue into “groupspeak” forces members to censor, edit, and slow down spontaneous bursts of criticism or oppositional ideas. This helps them to cut off and contain negative or resistive feelings.[50]

Unwittingly, the boys came to reduce issues to Spartiate “groupspeak,” apothegmatic phrases and truisms, and like the recruits of a cult, changed without realizing what was happening. In short, they went along to get along. They learned in the way learning takes place among cults:

The cult leaders make it seem as though what is going on is normal, that everything is the way it’s supposed to be. This atmosphere is reinforced by peer pressure and pre-modeled behavior, so that you adapt to the environment without even realizing it.[51]

The effect of loading language with determiners of thought—clichés, jargon, and reductive definitions—has been effectively explored by Jay Robert Lifton’s characterization of the brainwashing carried on by the Chinese communists.[52] The Chinese leaders constricted linguistic ability and, because language is “central to all human experience,” narrowed the thinking of their subjects. “This is what Hu [a victim of thought reform] meant when he said ‘using the same pattern of words for so long ... you feel chained.’ Actually, not everyone exposed feels chained, but in effect everyone is profoundly confined by these verbal fetters.[53] The Spartiates did not reach these extremes, but take over language they did. In deliberately rejecting the pandemic oratory of Greece, they trained themselves to speak and inevitably to think in a formulaic manner. In a notable instance, they professed not to understand the Samians’ lengthy speech. When the Samians returned with a bag, saying “Bag needs flour” (Hdt. 3.46), the Spartiates acceded to their request but not before excising “bag” as redundant. The Spartiates’ laconicism limited discussion; helped abort discordant thoughts, thus promoting the harmony that their leaders prized (Plut. Lyc. 27.9); and, by concealing their opinions, encouraged others to underestimate their intelligence.


“Monitoring” in Galanter’s model of the cult as a system entails the observation and regulation of the system’s parts, namely, its members, to ensure their proper function.[54] It is carried out by the leadership that dictates policy and assigns duties and obligations. The leader quickly gages the moods and attitudes of his followers. For their part, members identify their best interests with those of the group and ideally accept voluntarily the wisdom and directives from above without question or deliberation. Galanter cites as an example members of the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church who were married en masse in 1982 after a 3-year period of sexual abstinence.[55] Soon afterward, they were ordered to break up their homes for a recruitment drive across the United States. The newlyweds responded with enthusiasm, and even after the effort proved a failure, they did not voice resentment toward the leadership. The likely reality that the drive was not working because young people rejected what the cult offered was suppressed, and the emphasis shifted to local recruitment. The close contact of the leadership with its adherents precluded any ill will, and the latter’s unquestioned obedience allowed their reactions and views to be manipulated.

Plutarch praises Lycurgus’ “noble and blessed gift of ... an abundance of leisure” (Lyc. 24.2). Yet neither Lycurgus nor the system he emblematizes left Spartiates long to their leisure. Constantly monitoring their behavior, the group filled the time of its youth, adults, and elders as much as possible with its business and dulled their minds with its ideology. Spartiates were to observe the boys and teach them useful things and receive, in their turn, instruction from their elders (Lyc. 24.1) to make themselves more useful. Men under 30 were not to frequent the agora, a source of distractions, but to have their domestic needs seen to by others (Lyc. 25.1). Elders were expected to haunt the gymnasia and leschai (social clubs) in order to spend their time with one another in a seemly manner without mention of wealth and commerce, but dispensing praise and blame in a light-hearted and humorous banter (Lyc. 25.2–3). The oldest living repositories of the group’s ideology, they held themselves responsible for inculcating that ideology as wisdom in an unceasing campaign against individuality in favor of social cohesiveness. Boring and repetitive? But that was precisely the point. Cults “can control you just as effectively by having you go to work every day with instructions that when not working—on your lunch hour, for example—you must do continuous mind-occupying chanting or some other cult-related activity.”[56] In this way, the cult is always “with” the individual who loses autonomy and feels powerless and alone when not surrounded by the members of the cult.

Wealthy Spartiates dressed simply and adapted their life style to that of ordinary citizens (Thuc. 1.6.4). Their pretense was but one in the general effort to promote public harmony. Spartiates contended that their governance, long established in place, was free of the dissension that plagued other cities (Thuc. 1.18.1).[57] The image was founded in part upon the cooperation between citizens and their leaders. Both purposively sought to prevent social differences from surfacing. The people elected a college of five ephors who wielded in the year of their office extensive powers.[58] The ephors were not bound by laws but left to their own wisdom to reach judgment of individual cases and decide by simple majority. This method avoided the hairsplitting and subtleties generated by a legal system and depended upon the ephors’ monitoring the mentality of the group. By the same token, the group trusted their leaders to formulate policy and voted on their proposals by shouting (Thuc. 1.87.2). The motive again seems to be the avoidance of differences that the exactitude inherent in a vote by ballot would create between happy winners and discontented losers. Everyone cried out, and the day went to those who, feeling more intensely about the issue, cried more loudly.[59]

The ephors showed their control over the group and ability to act cohesively because of its homogeneity in their reaction to the news of the defeat at Leuktra. Plutarch reports in his Agesilaos (29) how ephors, although realizing that the loss meant the end of Spartan power and empire, did not interrupt the dances of the festival of the Gymnopaidiai. They privately informed the relatives of the dead of their losses. In the morning of the next day, the members of the group went along with their leaders and sought relief in its ideology. The relatives and friends of the slain in denial about their defeat appeared in public to glory over their loss, while the fathers and women of the survivors remained at home. The ephors were able to regulate the behavior of the people because of their closeness as a group, thus avoiding a general panic of the sort that struck the Athenians after the Aegospotami (Xen. Hell. 2.2.3).

Boundary Control

In an intolerant, even hostile world, the charismatic cult must control its boundaries in order to maintain its beliefs and its integrity. Parents and relatives seeking their children, exmembers demanding retribution, and a general public thrown on the defensive by its strangeness assault its very existence. As Galanter points out, the leader withdraws with his group to a remote location and limits access to his following:

[Boundary control] includes not only the screening of people but also of information, since information is a potent determinant of behavior. If a charismatic group is to maintain a system of shared beliefs markedly at variance with that of the surrounding culture, members must sometimes be rigidly isolated from consensual information from the general society that would unsettle this belief system.[60]

The leader encourages, often demands, as a test of loyalty that his devotees sever all ties with their families and turn their whole attention and resources over to him. He may assert command by pairing off members and by regulating permission to have children. David Koresh, for example, sought to create a substitute family by assuming the roles of husband for the women in his following and parent for the children.[61] Members develop an obsession with secrecy and a siege mentality of “us against them” that may be encouraged by the leader to promote his hold over them. Followers, already conditioned to dependency upon the leader and the comforting security of the cult’s beliefs and sanctuary, develop “a double ethic” of honesty to one another and deceit toward outsiders.[62] And when the prying eyes of the community or media can no longer be deflected, the cult manipulates its image to foster openness and stave off further probing.[63] Much of this behavior is evidenced among the Spartiates.

The Spartiate group defended its borders against intrusion from the outside by forbidding members to leave Lacedaemon and by expelling foreigners (Plut. Lyc. 27.6–7). Lacedaemonians abroad might “acquire foreign habits and imitate life styles not formed by the paideia and different ways of governance,” while foreigners in Lacedaemon could become “teachers of something bad” (Lyc. 27.6–7). Plutarch’s description of Lycurgus’ reasons for boundary control anticipate those given above by Galanter:

With foreign bodies must come into the city foreign words, and new words bring with them new judgments from which would grow many emotions and choices out of tune with the established governance imagined as a harmony. Therefore Lycurgus thought that the city must be guarded more closely against being filled up with corrupt habits than against being filled with diseased bodies entering from the outside. (Lyc. 27.8)

Paranoia over the individual Spartiate’s commitment to the paideia may have motivated the Spartiates’ actions before Mount Ithome in 461 b.c.e. In the immediate aftermath of a devastating earthquake of 464 b.c.e, the Lacedaemonians twice invited foreigners to aid them against the Helots.[64] The Athenians responded in both instances by sending hoplites. The first expedition apparently remained for a short time. The second, bogged down by stiff resistance, faced a prolonged operation before the Helot stronghold. Suddenly, the Athenians were asked to leave. The Lacedaemonians, it was said, suspected them of being “innovative” and sympathizing with the enemy. The incident at Mount Ithome became for Thucydides a significant step toward war between the Lacedaemonians and Athenians (1.102.4). Focused on this meaning, he abbreviated his account, causing scholars to chastise him for gaps in his narrative and for silence over the reasons for the expulsion of the Athenians. The context for the suspicions of the Lacedaemonians, however, was not the future conjured by Thucydidean hindsight but the situation beneath the fort held by the Helots on Mount Ithome. Outsiders were treading Laconian soil. A protracted siege offered manifold opportunities for discordant words and judgments to infiltrate and disrupt the social harmony, and for foreigners to form assessments of their numbers and weaknesses. How susceptible Spartiates were to influences from their allies is not known, but it is not necessary to know. What matters is their sense of being intruded upon and the fear aroused by the group’s boundaries breached, so that its workings were exposed to public eyes. Those eyes needed no ulterior motives to be suspected; Lycurgus regularly expelled foreigners to protect the citizens from evil practices (Plut. Lyc. 27.6–9). The ephors and other leaders, already having lost control over their physical boundaries and anxious for their psychological boundaries and in disregard of how the Athenians would respond, acted abruptly to reassert mastery by expelling the most threatening sources of discordance. For their part, the Athenians may have discovered the Spartiates’ promise to the people of Thasos to invade Attica (Thuc. 1.101.1), and therefore had come to protect their interests by being near the Lacedaemonians. They feigned surprise or, perhaps, were genuinely taken by surprise and had nothing to do with their banishment beyond providing the Spartiates with a credible cover.[65] The Spartiates’ closed system rendered them paranoiac toward outsiders, a consequence that complicated matters, often to their political or military disadvantage. Here, it may explain why they were willing to blatantly insult the Athenians.

Spartiates could not help but be wary of the perioeci and Helots who remained outsiders but whose borders they shared within their home territory. Xenophon, friend and proponent of Sparta, concluded that Helots would “gladly eat them, even raw” (Hell. 3.3.6). Each year, part of the inauguration ceremony of the ephors consisted of a declaration of war against the Helots, “so that their destruction would be free of pollution” and the fear of a curse (Plut. Lyc. 28.7). The Spartiates regularly left on military expeditions under the blanket of night (Hdt. 9.10.1), their “obvious targets of deception ... the Helots, who were to be kept in the dark as to how many of their masters were going away.”[66] These measures manifest Spartiate anxiety and the thrust of the group’s primary goal of controlling Helots. By mistreating them with arbitrary beatings to remind them of their servitude, humiliating them with forced drunkenness and lewd dancing, and killing them at will, the Spartiates asserted their dominance (Myron Priene in Jacoby 1962: 106 f. 2; Plut. Lyc. 28.8–9; Isoc. 12.181). They accepted Helot degradation as the norm and appeared confident in their ability to browbeat, bribe, or otherwise subdue any Helot resistance. As Michael Whitby concludes, “For the average Spartiate[,] helots ... were there to be beaten.”[67] However, deep discontent among the Helots endangered the Spartiates’ way of living as well as their lives, and should it erupt, would be hard to suppress with their small numbers.[68] Their haste in summoning allies against the Helots in revolt betrays the fragility of their position. Spartiates valued Helots and depended upon them for their daily bread. Helots and perioeci served in the army and augmented its ranks for battle. The system could not function without their support, however begrudged. The dilemma could be neither ignored nor avoided. If Spartiates maintained their superiority by their very presence and demeanor as warriors and masters, their apparent confidence must surely have been heavily tinged with concern over the incessant threat posed by Helots, the outsiders in their midst.

Like members of charismatic cults, Spartiates freely misled and lied to outsiders. Their generals were uninhibited in plying deception and falsehood against the enemy and considered themselves, once war was declared, free from the restraint of religious scruple. So notorious were they for these tactics that the Athenian general Ipicrates refused to credit the death of the Spartan Mnasippus without an eyewitness. “He suspected that it was reported to deceive him, and thus he remained on guard” (Xen. Hell. 6.2.31). The use of disinformation, in fact, characterized the Spartiate military as a whole. Anton Powell has reviewed the evidence, so a few examples will suffice.[69] Spartiates projected themselves as stupid soldiers of few words who failed to understand the lengthy and involved speeches favored in negotiations with other Greeks. They wore their hair long to appear taller and their hallmark red cloak to capitalize upon their reputation as consummate soldiers and redoubtable foes, so that their mere appearance in the ranks would frighten the enemy. By emphasizing the asperity of their upbringing and intense training, they concealed the extent to which their military prowess depended upon tactics and strategy, things that could be learned without the deprivations of the Spartiate way of life.

Spartiates had formal structures for defending the internal borders of their group against the competition posed by the oikos and against intrusion or presence of inferiors: inspection of male infants shortly after birth, the agôgê, the sussistion or common mess, the army, and marriage. Elders of the tribe screened the physical condition of male infants for eligibility. Ignoble and deformed infants were exposed in a cleft on Mount Taygetus (Plut. Lyc. 16.1–2). Boys in the agôgê, as we have seen, were always under the eye of older males. The agôgê released the boy at 18 years but did not achieve transition into his adult role of citizen and soldier. This did not come until he reached 30 years. Before then, at the age of 20, he had to pass another crucial step in the group’s evaluation of his performance and spirit by being elected to a common mess of some 15 men (Plut. Lyc. 12). All members had to approve his admission; those who were not chosen were banished to an exile of sorts in their own country. On the other hand, those who gained entrance subjected themselves to an instrument for observing and maintaining their programming that lasted the rest of their days. “No one was let alone to live as he wished” (Plut. Lyc. 24.1). In effect, the mess mirrored the relations of Spartiates to other Greeks in being open and competitive with one another but secret and deceptive toward outsiders. Members sought others like themselves and diligently prodded one another to be “pure Spartiates,” that is, Spartiates who lived by, and up to, the beliefs of the group. Members were expected to police themselves and others, ever on guard against falling short of the purity demanded by this absolute standard. Under such systems as theirs, as Lifton remarks, “All ‘taints’ and ‘poison’ which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.”[70] Plutarch cites as an example the wealthy man who ate at home before attending the mess (Plut. Lyc. 10.5). Messmates kept a sharp eye for anyone without an appetite, and on recognizing the signs, reproached him with “lack of discipline” for not resisting his wife’s delicacies and with “being soft” for not stomaching the common fare. They rebuked him for not being a pure Spartiate. His behavior became “negative feedback” or information to be returned to the system as a resource for implementing improvements.[71] In the secrecy of the mess, feedback acted as a stimulus toward strengthening the system and preventing the shortcomings of members from disrupting the picture of harmony among the Spartiates as a group.

The immediacy of the common mess in the daily lives of the Spartiates inserted the group into nearly every activity that occupied the youth. Duty to the mess contributed to a conscious program to leave him nothing of his own. “Lycurgus on the whole tried to accustom the citizens not to want or comprehend living privately” (Plut. Lyc. 25.5). The group prescribed the food the youth ate and with whom he ate it (17.6–8), the way that he shaved his moustache (Plut. Cleom. 9) and grew the hair on his head (22.2; Xen. Lac. Pol. 11.3), how he spent time and where, where he slept and with whom, how he married and had sexual relations with his wife (Xen. Lac. Pol. 1; Plut. Cleom. 15;), how he was buried (27.1), and how long he could be mourned (27.3). To remain a messmate, the Spartiate had to pay monthly dues of food and drink to the mess. Should he make sacrifice of first fruits or go hunting, he was expected to send a portion to his messmates. Some Spartiates, perhaps more than a few, worried periodically about securing their share for the mess, since failure to supply the required contribution brought expulsion from the group.[72]

Aristotle sensibly thought that the public coffers should have funded the messes as they did in Crete (Pol. 1271a 28–29), but he missed an overriding concern. The group had to remain always and uppermost in the minds of the Spartiates. Its members, like those in cults, could not lose sight of the fact that without the group they had and were nothing. To look elsewhere and openly for public endowment would cut deeply into the group’s power. The system could not free itself from the corruption of wealth; but in using wealth as a means of admission, it let wealth subvert its own cohesiveness (Arist. Pol. 1271a 26–37).

Some boys surely succumbed to the harshness of the agôgê, while not every youth secured a place in a mess. With the absence of evidence, their lot in life can only be surmised; but not so the fates of “tremblers,” men who fled battle or surrendered to the enemy, and of the bachelors who ran from marriage. Both were made into an antipode, the trembler of the hoplite and the bachelor of the virgin maiden. Spartiates pursued honor and a suitable marriage; they prided themselves upon their personal appearance and especially upon the scarlet cloak and long hair of the warrior; they wore the shaved mustache as a badge of courage and membership in the group. Once stigmatized as a man unwilling to marry, the bachelor was condemned to disgrace and barred from the quest for honor and marriage; he was forbidden to cleanse himself and forced to dress in ragtag clothing; he wore his beard half-shaved, half-unshaved (Xen. Lac. Pol. 9; Plut. Ages. 30). During warm weather, virgin girls appeared nude under the eyes of young men in processions and at festivals (Plut. Lyc 14. 4–6). The girls on occasion poked fun at the youths, criticizing some, encouraging others, and the youths shrunk from their jibes and basked in their praise. The bachelor was forced to parade naked around the agora in the depths of winter while he sang songs whose words justified his punishment for flouting the laws. No youth respected him despite his age or attainments. One youth refused to give up his seat for the general Derkyllidas, saying, “You have sired no son to give his place to me” (Plut. Lyc. 15.3; see also Xen. Lac. Pol. 9.5).


At 18 years, select “graduates” of the agôgêcontinued their paideia through the krypteia:[73]

The leaders of the youths sent out those who seemed to be the most prudent, with daggers and a minimal supply of food and nothing else. Scattered about by day in hideouts, they waited until the fall of night when they emerged onto the roads and slew any Helot they seized (Plut. Lyc. 28.4).

The Scholiast to Plato’s Laws (633 b) adds that the boys were unarmed and roamed the mountains for a year, staying out of sight and feeding themselves by thievery. Those who were seen were punished. Pierre Vidal-Naquet has shown how the kryptos functions as an anti-hoplite and as “the cunning killer of Helots.”[74] Paul Cartledge, for whom the krypteia formed part of the agôgêfrom its inception, aligns its practice of slaying Helots with Thucydides’ famous pronouncement about the mentality of the Lacedaemonians: “So far as the Helots were concerned, most Spartan institutions had always been designed primarily with a view to security” (4.80.3).[75] The statement prefaces Thucydides’ account of the stealthy removal of some two thousand Helots whom the Spartiates considered likely insurgents (4.80.3–4). The brutality and careless disregard of Helot life, both by youths leaving childhood and mature adults, reveal not only the object of the agôgêbut also the chief goal and output of the Spartiates. As Cartledge summarizes it, the agôgê’s “principal aim and function, admirably served by the climatic Helot-culling, was to initiate Spartan boys and youths into Spartan manhood in such a way that they internalized the values of the adult citizen warriorhood.”[76] The agôgêdid not primarily aim at instilling obedience and aggression. These were the means to the end. Rather, it took boys and made them into murderous instruments for controlling the Helots, “who abided, sitting in wait for the disasters” of the Spartiates (Arist. Pol. 1269 37–39).

Spartiates as a group produced soldiers. The group occupied its members most completely through recurrent military drills so demanding that campaigning against an enemy brought respite (Plut. Lyc. 22.3). Nothing specific has been reported about these exercises, but all Spartiates and other Lacedaemonians spent much time on the training fields. Thucydides marks their “practiced skill” (4.33.2: empeiria), while his Pericles contrasts them with Athenians who face the same dangers of war without the “laborious training” suffered by Lacedaemonians from youth (2.39.1). Aristotle attributed the Spartiates’ success to the fact that they trained and fought against enemies who did not train (Pol. 1338 b 25–29). By its very nature, however, hoplite fighting required little training, being a strong-arm push of heavily armored men in tight formations against one another until one side broke.[77] Nonetheless, Lacedaemonians practiced and drilled at moving the column and battle line until they “executed most readily maneuvers that seemed difficult to arms instructors” (Xen. Lac. Pol. 11.8). Skill and efficiency in formation mastered by practice defined the Spartiate soldier in the field. “The Lacedaemonians are no worse than any men while fighting individually,” Herodotus’ Demaratus tells Xerxes, “but when massed in formation, they are the best of all men” (7.104.4). Other Greeks quaked on seeing aligned against them the lambda of the Spartan shield. All Lacedaemonians prided themselves on their proficiency, holding themselves superior to other Greeks because of it, as the story of Agesilaos’ demonstration shows (Plut. Ages. 26.7–9). Sitting the allies and Lacedaemonians down separately, Agesilaos asked each to stand as he called out the craft that the soldier followed at home. When he finished, only the Lacedaemonians were sitting, because only they practiced no craft but war. Perhaps apocryphal, the test demonstrates their difference from other Greeks, and in this difference, we see how military drills fit into the Lycurgan regimen and into the framework of the cult.

Battle interrupted the lives of other Greeks for whom it was a dreaded necessity to have done with as quickly as possible. But the Spartiate system instilled in its members a courage that F. E. Adcock describes as “a cool steadiness born of ingrained rigorous discipline that shuts the mind to fear.”[78] A profound effect took over the Spartiates, one that combing of their hair at Thermopylae triggered (Hdt. 7.208.3). This simple physical act relaxed the man and reminded him of who he was and of his place in the ranks. The repetitive action of military maneuvers executed in the company of men upon whom one depended for survival forged trust in them for the fighting and a certainty that they would crush any enemy. One success engendered a confidence that led to another success. Soon they come to believe that they were unbeatable, and became unbeatable. As they approached the enemy, a calm came over them that the model of the cult suggests altered their consciousness and moved them out of themselves. Not that they were drugged; hoplites who indulged in alcohol before battle were in greater danger from mental fog.[79] Rather, they entered a zone of comfort and strength produced by training that assured them that they knew what they were doing in the chaos of battle. In this, they not only far surpassed the usual Greek farmer pressed into the hoplite ranks; they also anticipated the modern soldier whose training enables him to walk into the murderous fire of cannon or machine gun. They marched into battle in step and singing a hymn to Castor, and the pipers kept the beat, Thucydides says (5.70), to keep gaps from opening in the ranks. Even so, the pipers’ rhythms and the disciplined synchronicity of the soldiers governed their fears and melded them into a formidable killing machine. The conscious mind released control to the body and the training instilled in it by practice. The body “knows” what to do and, when uninhibited by thinking, fear, or caution, releases the fighter to become robotic in coordination of shield and spear and in step with others. This altered state of consciousness, the group’s quintessential output, made Spartiates “dreadful” to fight (Lysias 16.17), an awesome sight to stand and await:

When the phalanx had already been marshaled and the enemy were watching, the king sacrificed a she-goat and passed the command for all to deck themselves with garlands. He ordered the aulos players to play Castor’s melody. At the same time, he began the marching paean, so that it was simultaneously a solemn and astonishing sight to see them marching to the beat of the aulos and not opening up gaps in the phalanx or creating any disturbance of their spirits. Calmly and cheerfully they were led into danger in time to the melody. (Plut. Lyc. 22.4–5)

Plutarch goes on to imagine the psychology of such men, surely aware that other Greeks before battle were not in such a happy state: “Neither fear nor excessive emotion are likely to arise in men so disposed but a steady frame of mind with hope and courage that the god is with them” (Lyc. 22.6).

The Spartiate warrior fought to prove himself homoios, like the others of the group, a pure and true Spartiate. The group, like the cult, did not program him to think for himself or consider himself an individual separate from it. At Pylos, a force of some one hundred twenty of these men and other Lacedaemonians were cut off from their way of fighting. At first, the group was prepared to betray its allies to get them back (Thuc. 4.15). When that failed, its leaders ordered the captives to decide for themselves, “provided you do nothing dishonorable” (4.38.3). They thus turned the decision into a test of loyalty with the implied question: Were captured Spartiates prepared to die “for the Lacedaemonians’ words” like Leonidas at Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.228.2)? Left to themselves, the foiled warriors chose to live and endure captivity. On returning to Lacedaemon, they evidently thought the episode past and resumed their lives with full rights, some even holding office. Their behavior, however, had rendered them socially ambiguous. Although Spartiates, they had not shown the Spartiate manner to the outside world. The group had two options toward its members, admittance or rejection. Fearing that the former captives would foment revolution in the conviction that they had been diminished by what had happened, the group deprived them of their rights of citizenship and expelled them (Thuc. 5.34.2). Later, it readmitted them (5.34.2), perhaps out of the need for men or the recognition of the effects of wealth in diminishing the hold of the group upon individuals. Whatever the motives, they were at first discounted by the group in the face of its paranoia over the solidarity of members, a priority which, in turn, hints at its doubts over the hold of its ideology on its product when released from the paideia.

A Cult Perspective on What Went Wrong

Sometime during the seventh century, Spartiates came to believe that their lifestyle inadequately addressed the dangers brought by their military success in Messenia. They formed themselves into a close-knit community held together by strong beliefs and commitment of the individual to the group’s behavioral norms. In the process, they discovered and developed techniques like those modern cults use to control their members: inspired leadership with a mission, reform of the devotees’ minds, monitoring for conformity, and control of the group’s boundaries. But their leaders stopped short of fully taking control over their members’ lives by leaving in place the pursuit of personal property. The leader of the cult strips devotees of their economic resources in order to eliminate freedom of choice and secure dependence upon himself. The Spartiates not only left untouched the acquisition of wealth; they also founded citizenship upon the possession of land, and membership in the common mess upon the produce of that land. Wealth is divisive. Among the Spartiates, it caused individuals to think apart from the group and created an atmosphere of competitive acquisition that undid the egalitarianism of its members. The Spartiates from Pylos, it should be noted, were specifically deprived of the right to buy and sell real property (Thuc. 5.34.2). Their atimia was aimed at removing them from the competition for land. Over time, the pursuit of wealth corroded the ideology of to homoion by intensifying the differences between rich and poor. It fostered the oikos as a counterweight to the group and fed among the wealthiest Spartiates a consuming greed for land,[80] while reducing others to poverty and disenfranchisement, with the result that fewer Spartiates remained full citizens. Secondly, land-greedy Spartiates became reluctant to divide their estates among multiple heirs, which led them to have fewer children. Unlike the cult that has the community at large for its seminary of new members, the Spartiate group allowed itself only one resource for citizens: the boys of their oikoi. A dearth of soldiers may have enabled the Thebans to overwhelm the Spartiates at Leuktra; but afterward, the Spartiates fell out of power so abruptly because, long before 371 b.c.e., they had been producing too few boys for the agôgêand too few full citizens for the army to sustain the group. They failed to carry out the sine qua non of a cult: recruitment and retention of members. They went wrong not because they were a cult, but because they were not enough of a cult.


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Whitby, Michael. (1994). Two shadows: Images of Spartans and Helots. In Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson (Eds.). The shadow of Sparta (pp. 87–126). London and New York: Routledge for The Classical Press of Wales.

About the Author

Wm. Blake Tyrrell is Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. He is the author of A Legal and Historical Commentary to Cicero’s Oratio Pro C. Rabirio Perduellionis Reo (1978); Medical Terminology for Medical Students (1979); Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking (1984); The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (2004); Suda’ Life of Sophocles (2006); Word Power: Building a Medical Vocabulary (2009); co-author with Frieda S. Brown of Athenian Myths and Institutions: Words in Action (1991), and with Larry J. Bennett of Recapturing Sophocles’ Antigone (1998); and articles on Roman history, Greek and American mythmaking, and Greek tragedy. A book-length study of the Platonic Socrates, Sacrifice of Socrates: Plato, Athens, Girard, is forthcoming with Michigan State University Press.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 2, 2011

[1] Notable exceptions are the stele of the late fifth-century equestrian Damonon (Hodkinson, 2000, pp. 303–307) and the fragments of the studies of the third-century Sosbius (Jacoby 1954, p. 3 B 595). Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the ancient Greek are those of the author. A translation may be found for the ancient works most cited in the following editions of the Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard University Press: Herodotus. Translated by A. D. Godley. 1926. Reprint 1975; Plutarch, Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. 1914–1926. Reprint 1967–1975; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Charles Forster Smith. 1921–1930; Xenophon, Scripta Minora. Translated by W. Heinemann. 1962. Abbreviations for classical works are standard and may be found in Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Edited by Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie; and with the cooperation of many scholars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940. The following abbreviations occur frequently: Hdt. (Herodotus); Plut. Lyc. (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus); Plut. Ages. (Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos); Thuc. (Thucydides, History of Peloponnesian War); Xen. Lac. Pol. (Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians).

[2] Ollier, 1933–1943.

[3] For the cult group as a social system, see Galanter, 1999, pp. 92–109. The quotation is found on page 92.

[4] Galanter, 1999, p. 227.

[5] Singer with Lalich (1995, p. xxx) defines cult as “a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision-making to that self-appointed leader.” For the nature of cults, see Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 3–28, 52–82; Galanter, 1999, pp. 92–119; 227–229. For charisma, see Weber 1968, pp. 1111–1120.

[6] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 53.

[7] Finley, 1968, pp. 144–145. Cartledge (1987, p. 15) sets the “unique package of reforms” that converted Spartans into “the first hoplite republic in Greece” in the mid-seventh century.

[8] Finley, 1968, p. 145.

[9] See Oliva, 1971, p. 47: “That the Spartans were in constant fear of such a rising can be seen from the comment by Thucydides [4.870.3] that most measures taken by the Spartans had to take into account the need to watch the Helots.”

[10] Fromm (1965 [orig. 1941], p. 163) describes “escape from freedom” in the form of “authoritarianism” as “the tendency to give up the independence of one’s own individual self and to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual is lacking.”

[11] The perioeci (neighbors) were free inhabitants of Laconia who possessed civil but not political liberty.

[12] Powell (1989, pp. 186-187) points out the difficulties that Thucydides may have experienced in interpreting Spartan sources. In this case, Thucydides may have been uncharacteristically open to the usual Athenian image of the dull Spartan.

[13] Tigerstedt, 1965, pp. 1.39–44; Ehrenberg, 1968, pp. 36–41.

[14] The comment by de Ste. Croix (1972, p. 91) is germane: “Like Fafner, who after appropriating the Rhinemaiden’s treasure was obliged to turn himself into a dragon and live a nasty life in a cave, the Spartans could never again relax and enjoy the cultural and intellectual life which was the birthright of so many other Greeks of the propertied classes.”

[15] Thuc. 1.68.1; Gomme 1959, p. 227.

[16] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 8.

[17] Weber, 1968, pp. 1111–1117.

[18] Tigerstedt, 1965, pp. 70–73.

[19] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 9.

[20] For a discussion of “movable wealth,” see Hodkinson, 2000, pp. 151–182.

[21] Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 65; 93–96.

[22] Singer and Lalich, 1995: xx.

[23] Galanter, 1999, pp. 168-171; the quotation is found on page 169.

[24] David, 1989, pp. 1–25.

[25] Weber, 1968, pp. 1211–1122; 1135–1139.

[26] Cartledge, 1987, pp. 109–110; 338–340.

[27] Weber, 1968, p. 248.

[28] Weber, 1968, p. 1137: “Lineage charisma, however, does not assure the unambiguous identification of a successor. This requires a definite rule of succession; hence the belief in the charismatic importance of blood relationship must be implemented by the belief in the charisma of primogeniture.”

[29] For these, see Michell, 1964, pp. 113–115; Cartledge, 1968, pp. 107–110.

[30] Galanter, 1999, p. 93.

[31] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 10.

[32] Judah,1974, pp. 88–89;177.

[33] Levine, 2003, p. 204.

[34] Hassan, 1988, p. 59.

[35] For the agôgê, see Cartledge , 1987, pp. 20-33 and 2001, pp. 79-90. On the term Hellenistic, see Kennel, 1995, pp. 113–116.

[36] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 62. For a description of the tactics of thought reform, see Lifton, 1961, pp. 419–437; Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 52–82.

[37] See Aristotle (Pol.1338 a) who criticized Spartiate education for this failure.

[38] Plutarch (Ages. 20.2) records that Agesilaos arranged for Xenophon’s sons to undergo the agôg so that they would learn what was best, namely, to be led and lead. Each activity was to be carried out in subservience to the laws.

[39] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 65.

[40] Pomeroy, 1997, p. 58.

[41] Finley, 1968, p. 153: “a depreciation in status could . . . follow from failure at some stage in the agôge.”

[42] For the program, see Michell, 1964, pp. 166–173; Tazelaar, 1967, pp. 127–153.

[43] The shaven upper lip of the Spartiate (Plut. Cleom. 9) and the all-but-shaven head of the Hare Krishna (Judah, 1974, p. 84) function in the same way. Each modification of the devotee’s appearance contributes to the final product by developing in the devotee the consciousness of having surrendered to the group, becoming inseparable from it and distinguished from outsiders.

[44] See Cartledge, 2001, pp.:86–87; 94–97 for the evidence for Spartan pederasty.

[45] For Alcoholics Anonymous as a charismatic group, see Galanter, 1999, pp. 211–225.

[46] Michell, 1964, pp. 167–168.

[47] Harley 1934, pp. 129–139

[48] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. xxiii: “Eventually, these groups [cults and cultic groups] subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments that block critical and evaluative thinking and subjugate independent choice in a context of strictly enforced hierarchy.” See also pp. 64–65.

[49] Powell, 1989, p. 186.

[50] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 70.

[51] Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 64–65.

[52] Lifton, 1961, p. 429.

[53] Lifton, 1961, p. 430.

[54] Galanter, 1999, pp. 96–97.

[55] Galanter, 1999, pp. 97–99.

[56] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 65.

[57] Hooker, 1989, pp. 129–132.

[58] For the powers of the ephors, see Michell, 1964, pp. 126–131.

[59] Powell, 2001, pp. 242–243.

[60] Galanter, 1999, p. 105.

[61] Galanter, 1999, p. 169; Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 251–253.

[62] Singer with Lalich, 1995, p. 9.

[63] Singer with Lalich, 1995, pp. 229–233.

[64] See Meritt, Wade-Gery, and McGregor, 1950, pp. 163–164; Oliva, 1971, pp. 152–162; Fine, 1983, pp. 346–348.

[65] Thuc. 1.102.3–4: “The Lacedaemonians sent them away alone of their allies, not making clear their suspicion, but saying that the Athenians were no longer needed. The Athenians recognized that they were not being sent away for any good reason.”

[66] Powell, 1989, p. 181.

[67] Whitby, 1994, p. 111. The disdainful Spartiate is not distinct from the threatened Spartiate, as Whitby suggests; rather, the one shadows the other.

[68] For the Helots as “a permanent and indeed growing threat to the diminishing body of Spartiates,” see Cartledge, 1979, 2002, p. 141.

[69] For Spartan mendacity, see Powell, 1989, pp. 173–192.

[70] Lifton, 1961, p. 423.

[71] For feedback as “one way for a system to obtain information on how well it is carrying out its primary task,” see Galanter, 1999, pp. 103–105.

[72] For the common mess dues, see Hodkinson, 2000, pp. 190–199.

[73] For the krypteia, see Oliva, 1971, pp. 45–47; Cartledge, 1987, pp. 30–32.

[74] Vidal-Naquet, 1986, pp. 112–114.

[75] Cartledge, 2001, pp. 88–89; the translation is his. Powell. 1989: 181: “A curfew would explain why the krypteia reportedly involved killing Helots caught on the road at night.”

[76] Cartledge, 2001, p. 89.

[77] Anderson, 1991, pp. 28–30; Hanson, 1989, pp. 171–176.

[78] Adcock, 1962, pp. 10.

[79] On the day of the battle of Leuktra, Kleombrotos and his men were “a little excited” and perhaps confused by the wine that they had drunk during lunch (Xen Hell. 6.4.8). Many entered battle inebriated from drinking wine (Hanson, 1989, pp. 126–131). Plutarch, probably aware of the practice, reports that Dionysius issued wine to his troops (Dion 30.3–4).

[80] Cartledge, 2002, p. 271.