When Darius was ruler over the great Persian Empire he turned his eyes to a collection of little states in Greece. There were about 160 of them, all small, no more than cities, and each with a strong wall built all around them so that enemies might be kept out.
Darius wanted to add them to his empire. The little city states were fiercely determined that he should not.
Two of these Greek city states helped more than any others to fight off the Persian kings. One was called Sparta, the other was Athens.
Sparta, unlike the other powerful city states, had no walls. Its citizens were were always ready to defend their city, and therefore, it was said, there was no need to build a wall. Every Spartan was a professional soldier. Slaves did all the work that the Spartans had no time to do.
Sparta had two kings at a time, who reigned jointly, and they commanded the armies when war was declared. Though the real rulers were the Ephors, who were chosen by the Spartans themselves or publicly elected.
The Spartan Boy
Spartan's males were born and bred to be warriors. As soon as they were born they were taken before the city council. The babies were examined carefully. All strong, healthy children were sent back to their mothers. Weakly ones were thrown out on the hillside to die, for Sparta wanted one but strong men.
Until he was seven years old a Spartan was allowed to live with his mother. Then he was taken away from her and sent to the training-house, where he learnt how to be brave and bold. His life was brutal, but he was not allowed to cry or complain.
He was made to walk barefoot, and Sparta was a mountainous country so it was very painful. He was allowed to wear one thin garment, whether it was winter or summer. His bed was a rough scattering of rushes which he had to get from the riverside himself.
Learning to be a Soldier
The young Spartan never had enough to eat. They would have to hung and kill wild animals. And cook the meat himself.
He was allowed to steal whenever he could. To train them to steal in war-time as soldiers. But the youths had to learn to steal without being caught. If a boy was discovered to have been stealing was punished very severely, but not for stealing. He was punished for being caught.
Spartan youth were whipped in public, so that thtye might show how much pain they could bear without crying out or flinching.
The drilling, running, wrestling, jumping and practicing with spear and sword went on until the boy was sixteen. He then left the training-house and went to the barracks to be a proper soldier. He lived there until he was sixty, when he was allowed to leave and have a home of his own. He married at thirty but however much he loved his wife and children he could not make his home with them.
Come back with your shield, or on it
In time of war the strict rules were withdrawn, and the Spartans were allowed to do very much as they liked, they could feast and live well, but there was a reason for this. If they treated the men hard in peace time, and well in war-time then they would always long for war. And the Spartans loved war, they lived for it.
When Spartan went to battle their mothers gave them their shield with these words: "Come back with your shield, or on it". That meant they must come back victorious or dead. To lose your shield meant you surrendered or abandoned it to flee.
There once lived a little Spartan boy who was very hungry. He went to the garden of a man who kept pet animals, and stole a young fox. He meant to take it home, kill it, and cook it for his dinner.
He stuffed the animal into his shirt, and held it there, so that no one might see it, for he knew that if he were found out he would be severely punished. Then he started walking along the road back to the training-house.
On the way he met a man who stopped to speak to him. The young fox began ti bite the boys chest and scratch him with its claws, causing him great pain. But he dared not say a word.
He stood there talking to the man, letting the fox hurt him without a cry or complaint. When at last he got to the training-house he was so badly bitten that he died.
That was the sort of courage that every Spartan boy was taught to show.