Genetics and the Decline of Sparta

Posted on May 3, 2013

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plutarchThe quest for genetic purity may have been Sparta’s Achilles heel.

When I encountered Plutarch’s Lives a decade or two ago, I was surprised to find an old history lesson embedded there.  I was surprised because Plutarch is not what I would call a reliable source.  He presents Romulus and Remus (who were supposedly raised by wolves and are the mythical founders of Rome) as historical figures, for instance, and discusses their lives.  I was surprised because what Plutarch says about ancient Sparta had been summarized in my old junior high textbook (The Ancient and Medieval World) and presented as fact.

You may be familiar with how—according to the classic description of ancient Sparta—sickly children were taken and placed outdoors to die.  Plutarch describes it this way:

A father had not the right of bringing up his offspring, but had to carry it to a certain place called Lesché, where the elders of the tribe sat in judgment upon the child. If they thought it well-built and strong, they ordered the father to bring it up, and assigned one of the nine thousand plots of land to it; but if it was mean-looking or misshapen, they sent it away to the place called the Exposure, a glen upon the side of Mount Täygetus; for they considered that if a child did not start in possession of health and strength, it was better both for itself and for the state that he should not live at all.

It is clear from historical sources that Sparta was an intensely militaristic state.  It famously fought and won the Peloponnesian War against Athens and was important in assisting the Greeks to hold off the expansionist Persian Empire.  But the famous city state declined in importance after losing the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C.  In his Politics, Aristotle refers to this battle—“a single blow”—and the reason for Sparta’s decline:

the state did not succeed in enduring a single blow, but perished owing to the smallness of its population. They have a tradition that in the earlier reigns they used to admit foreigners to their citizenship, with the result that dearth of population did not occur in those days, although they were at war for a long period; and it is stated that at one time the Spartiates numbered as many as ten thousand.

A base population of 10,000 is not very many for a country engaged in constant warfare, especially if you have a strict rule for determining citizenship which doesn’t allow foreign blood.  There were certainly enough people in Sparta to maintain a genetically healthy population, but by the time of Leuctra, most of these people were Helots, a subject people who the Spartans kept in slavery.  As with foreigners, no child with a Helot parent could be a Spartan citizen.  The Helots expanded under these rules.  The Spartans shrank.  After the Battle of Leuctra, Sparta turned its attention more and more to simply keeping its Helot population under control, and no longer had the numbers to engage in extra-territorial conquests.

Official nazi artThe tough-guy militarism of the Spartans spawned a lot of admirers over the centuries.  Admiration for Sparta even has its own name, Laconism, and among the most famous of Laconites was Adolph Hitler.  He wrote:

Sparta must be regarded as the first Völkisch State. The exposure of the sick, weak, deformed children, in short, their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more humane than the wretched insanity of our day which preserves the most pathological subject, and indeed at any price, and yet takes the life of a hundred thousand healthy children in consequence of birth control or through abortions, in order subsequently to breed a race of degenerates burdened with illnesses.

Hitler also shared Sparta’s views on racial purity, of course.

Being schooled in eugenics—a creed—rather than science, Hitler may not have seen the logical connection between Sparta’s extremely restrictive notions of citizenship and their practice of putting sickly children out to die.

It’s sheer speculation at this distance, of course, and we don’t know how real and universal Spartan eugenic practices were.  But if Spartans really did put sickly children out to die, their ever-shrinking population and the consequent ever-increasing inbreeding in that population, might have provided one reason why they did so.

Over the course of time, and especially with a  shrinking, socially-stratified population (social stratification is inevitable in warrior societies) after awhile everybody in Sparta would be more-or-less mating with cousins.  The unavoidable outcome of that would be a proliferation of genetic ailments among Spartan citizens—and so, for people who think that way (and one can imagine a warrior society thinking that way) a reason to expose sick children to die.

The Spartans may have murdered their own children, in other words, not so much to improve the stock of Spartans, but to prevent the population from being overburdened with genetic issues because of self-inflicted inbreeding.

Somehow all of that doesn’t seem like “tough-guy” anymore.  Really-stupid-bigoted-guy-who-brought-about-his-own-destruction seems more apt.

It’s not a very inspiring view of Sparta, of course.  Still, it’s a lot more enlightening and pertinent, whether verified or not, than the one accepted by Hitler, Plutarch or my junior high history textbook.  That it could be true—and the science is clear even if the history is not—is enough to merit a discussion.

Given the example of Hitler, and the West’s ongoing infatuation with all that is Ancient Greece, the value of a lesson in historical genetics is obvious.  The enforcement of genetic purity not only leads to a bunch of singularly nasty laws, (as in Nazi Germany) it also represents a genetic dead end.  Legislating genetic purity is not just politically undesirable or politically incorrect, in other words, it is genetically undesirable.  Any limited group of people practicing such a regime through too many generations will inevitably degrade, shrink and sicken.

That’s not a very good recipe for homo superior.  The Spartan idea was a failure from the start.

Posted in: history, politics