Students of Sparta will no doubt be familiar with the story of how Spartans would throw unhealthy babies over the mountain top. Our main source for this is Plutarch, who wrote glowing moralistic accounts about Lycurgus and Leonidas. Plutarch, also known by his Roman citizenship name, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, wrote his work Parallel Lives during the first century of the Roman empire. So, his story about the Spartan warrior society and agoge should be approached with caution, since not only was he far from his subjects, notions about Sparta had become romanticised among Romans who travelled to Sparta as tourists to observe their exotic customs.
Back to the story about the throwing of unhealthy babies.
Spartans did not throw deformed babies away: researchers (AFP, 10 December 2007)
The Greek myth that ancient Spartans threw their stunted and sickly newborns off a cliff was not corroborated by archaeological digs in the area, researchers said Monday.
After more than five years of analysis of human remains culled from the pit, also called an apothetes, researchers found only the remains of adolescents and adults between the ages of 18 and 35, Athens Faculty of Medicine Anthropologist Theodoros Pitsios said.
“There were still bones in the area, but none from newborns, according to the samples we took from the bottom of the pit” of the foothills of Mount Taygete near present-day Sparta.
“It is probably a myth, the ancient sources of this so-called practice were rare, late and imprecise,” he added.
Meant to attest to the militaristic character of the ancient Spartan people, moralistic historian Plutarch in particular spread the legend during first century AD.
According to Pitsios, the bones studied to date came from the fifth and sixth centuries BC and come from 46 men, confirming the assertion from ancient sources that the Spartans threw prisoners, traitors or criminals into the pit.
The discoveries shine light on an episode during the second war between Sparta and Messene, a fortified city state independent of Sparta, when Spartans defeated the Messenian hero Aristomenes and his 50 warriors, who were all thrown into the pit, he added.
So the story is probably a myth. Indeed it is difficult to fathom a warrior society as idealised by Plutarch – a society where violence against children was supposedly institutionalised, where helots were systematically terrorised, and whether men and women fit into rigidly defined roles and social exclusion against outcasts was systemically practised. Plutarch was just a recipient of a Romanised version of Sparta who happen to have access to some ancient sources about Sparta.
In some sense, the myth of a perfect Spartan warrior society is a dangerous myth. It has found echoes among the Hitler Youth during Nazi Germany, and more recently among a neo-fascist Greek organisation called the Golden Dawn, who recently invoked the story of the krypteia during one of their political gathering at Thermopylai. (London Review of Books, 14 January 2013) And of course, it is a story that fit your textbooks very neatly. History students should seek to challenge that myth.