Spartan History: Syssitia and How Brotherhood is Born

The Spartan culture made an impact on the world in many ways. The most significant of these is how they came to be united as a society, and also how their fraternity was forged upon this bond. This was not just through force or strength, but it was done in part by shared experiences such as hunting and festivals where members would share food with one another and learn from each other’s expertise.

The “how many years did a spartan boy spent in the agoge” is an interesting question. The answer is that Spartan boys would spend 10 years in military training, and then another 20-30 years as a soldier.

Poster by Art of Manliness about Spartan's brotherhood.

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Welcome back to our Spartan Way series, in which we explore the teachings that the ancient Spartans can offer contemporary men – not in their specifics, but in the underlying principles that may still be extracted and used today.

“The Spartiates were a seigneurial class endowed with leisure and committed to a shared way of life oriented on the development of particular masculine qualities.” These Spartans produced music together. They could only do so much on their own. They sang and danced together, they worked out, they competed in sports, they boxed and wrestled, they hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they rested. Their environment was rough and tumble, but it wasn’t devoid of elegance or defined by a bleak austerity mindset, as some have assumed. Theirs was, in reality, a life of enormous affluence and pleasure, spiced by a strong but friendly competition. They were attributed with eudamona—the pleasure and prosperity that everyone desired—and made them the envy of Hellas because of the way they combined music with gymnastics and fellowship with competitiveness.” The Spartan Regime, Paul Rahe

No man can win any conflict, of any type, by himself; he needs the help of his allies. The Spartan phalanx was the first time this fact was truly and viscerally brought to life.

Spartan hoplites were recognized by the massive wooden shield they wore on their left arm; weighing 15 pounds and measuring 3 feet in circumference, it was “an burden more ungainly and uncomfortable than we are apt to think,” according to Spartan researcher Paul Rahe. When facing the adversary, the shield “left the right half of [the soldier’s] body unprotected and exposed, and it stretched beyond him to the left in a way of little value to him as a solo performer,” according to the soldier. “When infantry outfitted in this manner were acting on their own, cavalry, light-armed soldiers, and enemy hoplites in formation could easily make mincemeat of them,” according to the report.

The shield of a hoplite was only useful when it was one of several in a phalanx formation. The right half of the guy on his left was shielded by his shield, while the right half of his body was protected by his neighbor’s shield. Individual glory wasn’t important in Phalanx battle. Each soldier need the assistance of the guy next to him. Each fighter was vulnerable and weak on his own, but united in the phalanx, their shields created an interlocking wall of soldiers capable of deflecting enemy strikes and pushing forward in power.

A phalanx was only as strong as its weakest link in this framework of mutual dependency, and each man had to completely trust the brother next to him to give his best; if everyone held together, fatalities were substantially reduced; if one man came apart, he exposed everyone to greater risk. As a result, it was critical to maintain unity and allegiance.

 

What drove the Spartan warrior to refuse to be the weak link in the fight and to maintain his ground?

One major source of motivation was shame. Shame has become a terrible word in contemporary times, yet few forces drive action more forcefully than shame. In an honor group, men not only strive for excellence but also avoid dishonor; in an honor group, men not only strive for excellence but also avoid disgrace. According to Isocrates, the Spartans worried passionately about keeping the esteem of their peers — their fellow equals; “nothing can inspire horror like the possibility of being reproached by their fellow citizens.”

A Spartan warrior betraying his brethren in battle would bring dishonor not just to his colleagues, but also to his whole community. Returning home a coward, as the Spartan poet Tyreatus puts it, was the greatest dishonor:

“Those who dare to stand by one another and march into the van where the battle is hand to hand, few perish, and they protect the throng behind them.” Men who quiver, on the other hand, lose all virtue. No one can put into words or calculate the miseries that befall a man once he has been disgraced.”

While the dread of being humiliated was a tremendous motivator for a Spartan warrior to hold the line in combat, he was also motivated by a higher force: love for his brothers-in-arms, who were also his friends and family.

Many of Lacedaemon’s distinctive institutions and customs contributed to this devotion.

It sprang in part from the fact that men grew up together in the agoge, experiencing both its (often neglected) delights and its well-known sorrows. It sprang in part from the need that all males under the age of 30 spend the night at the barracks rather than at home.

The syssitia — Lacedaemon’s brotherly, all-male fraternity — was undoubtedly the most powerful factor binding Spartan men together for the rest of their lives. Dinners for gentlemen.

The Syssitia and the Brotherhood of the Bread-Breaking

The syssitia, which was formerly known as andreia — literally “belonging to males,” as Rahe notes, “was not only a dining arrangement.” It was an exclusive men’s club, a cult, and the Spartan army’s fundamental unit all at the same time.”

If a Spartan male wanted to join the Homoioi, he had to join one of these eating clubs by the age of 20. Each mess had roughly 15 members, and each, like contemporary fraternities, had its own “character” — with links to family lines, personality types, political and philosophical leanings, and so on. The recent agoge grad had to apply to the syssitia he wanted to join, and its members would vote on his admittance; the vote had to be unanimous, otherwise the applicant would be blackballed. If you were approved, you were given a lifetime membership.

Once a guy was welcomed into a mess, he had to eat there every evening – even monarchs couldn’t skip without a good reason.

 

Each dining club member contributed to the mess’s supplies, which were used to prepare the nightly meal, which mostly consisted of a “black soup” prepared from pig, salt, vinegar, and blood.

“Once the stipulated meals had been finished,” Nigel M. Kennell adds, the club’s members indulged in the “essentially Greek tendency for competitive shows of charity.” “Before serving, the cooks announced the name of the day’s donor to his grateful companions so that they might appreciate his hunting prowess and diligence for them,” according to the syssitia’s rules. “Foods that had to be either raised/grown on their land or hunted themselves could have included wild game, olives, fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, and wheat bread.”

Spartan messmates conversed openly about both civic and personal matters over this plain cuisine (and occasional luxuries), as well as moderate wine consumption (drunkenness was frowned upon). While Athenian men discussed politics and philosophy in public in the agora, Spartan men did it privately, among comrades they respected and trusted, with their daily meals offering a quiet, comfortable setting in which to do so.

Men of all ages and stages of life were members of a mess, and the elderly taught the young; as Kennell writes, the syssitia “became the main vehicle for reinforcement of Sparta’s aristocratic military culture” in Sparta.

However, Syssitia talks were far from solemn; Spartans themselves were far from the solemn and humorless drones we often imagine them to be. Lacedaemon was one of only two Greek city-states to construct a shrine to Zeus, the god of merriment. Spartan children were taught “Laconic” wit (more on this kind of speech later) from a young age, ostensibly to improve their ability to zing each other: “Immediately from infancy on they practice speaking tersely, then good-natured bantering back and forth,” according to Heraclides.

“In common life, laughter and derision were not unfrequent at the public tables; to be able to bear ridicule was considered the mark of a Lacedmonian spirit,” wrote Karl Otfried Müller, “and to be able to endure ridicule was considered the mark of a Lacedmonian spirit.” 

Teasing (which includes the awarding of nicknames) is a paradoxical method of displaying the durability of their connections, since it has long constituted much of the unique camaraderie that exists amongst males. Men will exchange insults to toughen one other up while testing and improving their relationships; being able to trade good-natured jabs without offending either party signals a high degree of trust.

Simultaneously, some gallows humor assisted the Spartans in dealing with the more serious parts of their martial profession. “It is easier to exercise psychological honesty regarding sad parts of human life with the protective shield of laughter,” Edith Hall writes in Introducing the Ancient Greeks. “[The Spartans] employed keen Laconic humor to help sustain the spirit of their military society.”

 

The men would raise the paean after eating, laughing, and joking, singing collectively as a group and then individually singing portions of Tyrtaeus’ words.

The Spartans’ companionship developed via sharing nightly meals in their dining clubs eventually proved to be a benefit in battle, helping to foster the cohesiveness required for phalanx warfare success. “The object of the common tables was to promote a social and brotherly feeling amongst those who met at them; and especially with a view to their becoming more confident in each other, so that on the day of battle they might stand more firmly together, and abide by one another to the death,” according to Thomas Arnold.

However, the benefits of the syssitia were not restricted to battle; it also provided a lifetime source of companionship and support in times of peace.

The Spartan dining clubs were known as pheiditia, which was presumably derived from philitia, which meant “love-feast.”

Make sure to listen to our Sparta-themed episode with Paul Rahe: 

 

 

 

The Spartan warrior beliefs are a common part of the Spartan culture. The Syssitia is one of the most important institutions in Sparta and how it was born will be discussed. Reference: spartan warrior beliefs.

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