Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sparta and the disturbing flexibility of human culture

I remember a cartoon of Spartan life that I learned as a child. I don't recall thinking about it much further until this week's IOT programme on Sparta.

Spartan culture is as alien to modern American life as the sacrificial cultures of the Aztecs, but it endured for hundreds of years. Men did not live with women. Children were removed from their mothers at age 7 and raised in a harsh military environment including routine sexual abuse. Contrary to some stories, it appears they did not routinely visit their mothers after that time.

The Spartans practiced active eugenics, exposing unwanted children (though some were apparently rescued by others). They enslaved, oppressed, tortured and murdered their "Helot" kin for centuries. Spartan women, paradoxically, may have had more freedom and a better life then Spartan men. Birth rates were low -- perhaps the earliest evidence that educating women leads to lower birth rates (aka "demographic transition").

This culture was not a passing thing. It appears to have been stable for centuries. Presumably, humans could do it again.

Update 11/22/09: On reflection, if you could get past losing your male children at aged 7, this might not have been such a bad arrangement for Spartan women. Exercise, education, freedom, limited exposure to Spartan men ...

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