The Spartans only used music and songs for military purposes.
From popular eighteenth-century epics about the Battle of Thermopylae to Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 (and the Zack Snyder movie based on it), if we get a hint of the music of the Spartans, it will be the military aulos-player that is the focus . Take, for example, these lines from Richard Glover’s Leonidas (ll. 372-378; 1st ed. 1737, extended edition 1770):
He scarce had finish’d, when the ensigns broad
Of Lacedaemon’s phalanx down the vale
Were seen to wave, unfolding at the sound
Of flutes, soft-warbling in th’ expressive mood
Of Dorian sweetness, undorn’d. Around,
In note of welcome ev’ry shepherd tun’d
His sprightly reed…
But what is an aulos? First of all, it is not a “flute”, as Glover calls it, but two separate double-reed blown pipes that are played at the same time. It can be played softly and slowly, but also quick and brashly. If you’re not familiar with the aulos, the ancient Greek double-pipes, I recommend you have a look at this website.
Use of the aulos in a military context
The Spartans’ use of the aulos in military contexts is a key part of the reason why it is often assumed that the Spartans only used music of military purposes.
The claim that the Spartans were only interested in military music is tied most closely to two Athenian sources. First, in Thucydides’ discussion of the opening of the Battle of Mantinea (5.69-70), while the Argives get a pre-battle speech to pep them up, the Lacedaemonians sing war-songs that urge them to remember their training. Thucydides further contrasts the Spartans with the Argives, who march into battle “highly-strung” and “with heated-passion”. His account was an obvious influence on Glover’s lines from Leonidas quoted above, and probably influenced the scene from Snyder’s 300 too (Thuc. 6.69-70; transl. author):
the Lacedaemonians advance slowly, accompanied by many double-pipes players (such is their custom), not for the goodwill of the god, but in order that they might advance evenly and keep their rhythm going, lest their formations are broken up (the sort of thing that always happens to very large forces when they make their advances).
There is a twofold purpose for music in the Spartan military at Mantinea. One: singing war songs recalls their training and provides morale and motivation. Two: advancing to the double-pipes (aulos) helps to keep them together, and thus was presumably seen as a potential defence against creating any weak-points in their ranks.
The second text is from a speech by the Athenian orator Lycurgus (not to be confused with the legendary Spartan lawgiver of the same name). Lycurgus’ speech seems to align with Thucydides’ account of Mantinea. He describes the Spartans’ custom of singing the songs of Tyrtaeus (ca. mid-seventh century BCE) at the camp of the Spartan king before battle, and provides a quotation (Lycurg. in Leocr. 107 = Tyrtaeus fr. 10, ll. 20-27, transl. Gerber).
(…) Do not abandon
and run away from elders, whose knees are no longer
nimble, men revered. For this brings shame,
when an older man lies fallen among the front ranks
with the young behind him, his head already white
and his beard grey, breathing out his valiant spirit in
the dust, clutching in his hands his bloodied genitals—this
is a shameful sight and brings indignation
to behold—his body naked…
Try to imagine a large group of people half-singing this song-poem all together in the adrenaline rush of pre-battle preparations or in their nightly messes. The easy and repetitive rhythms of the verses (dum du du and dum dum) would have provided a powerful aid to memorising the lyrics and would have helped everyone stay in time as they performed as a military chorus. The rhythms used to chant or sing Tyrtaeus were inverted for the embaterion or Melody of Castor, used to accompany the Spartans’ marches or advances. That melody used anapaests (du du dum) rather than dactyls (dum du du).
The plot thickens
However, while Sparta might have provided the most popular or famous examples of military music, most states (including the Spartans) also used trumpet (salpinx) players in the military: they were often employed in a less melodic role sounding signals. But apparently the Cretans used the lyre and the aulos, and the Lydians used pan-pipes and auloi when going into battle (Ps.-Plut. De Musica, 26; Ath. Deip. 627d; Ephorus ap. Strabo 10.4.20 and Polybius 4.20.6).
Earlier evidence, roughly contemporary with Tyrtaeus and Alcman, shows an aulos-player accompanying troops engaged in battle on the so-called Chigi Vase, a Protocorinthian wine jug found in an Etruscan tomb north of Rome.
Yet the aulos was an instrument used in virtually any setting you can think of, so Herodotus’ claim that in Sparta aulos-players were a hereditary profession does not mean that he is referring to aulos-players dedicated to playing in the military.
The earliest surviving fragments of an aulos from Greece were found in Sparta at the sanctuary of Orthia, a goddess connected with aspects of fertility, nature, and rites of passage for the Spartan youth. The fragments were inscribed: “Achradatos, to Orthia”. Musicians are depicted among the small lead votives dedicated at the same sanctuary, sometimes shown naked, sometimes in elaborate costumes.
If other poleis used music in military contexts and the Spartans used music in non-military contexts, perhaps there might be a claim that the performance of convivial or religious music at Sparta mattered less than in other poleis. This is countered with a few comparisons. In Athens, around a thousand citizens would compete in dithyrambic contests each year at just one festival.
At Sparta, the number of citizens taking part in choruses is difficult to estimate but a probably early fourth century BCE description of the Hyakinthia festival talks about mass performances of different kinds. This is one of the events (Polycrates BNJ 588 = Athenaeus, Deip. 4.139 d-f; trans. Bayliss):
(…) very many choruses of young men come in and sing some of the local compositions; and dancers mixing among them perform motions in the ancient fashion to the [aulos] and the song (…)
It is unlikely that the “very many choruses” of the Hyakinthia would have involved quite as many as a thousand citizens and their children, but if we assume that the choruses of the Spartan Hyakinthia were organised by the five obai (tribes) of Sparta, with each obe contributing a chorus of boys and one of men, then between 250 and 500 Spartans might have participated.
When Sparta’s smaller citizen population is considered, this is roughly equivalent to the thousand dithyrambic performers at the Athenian Dionysia. Both Athenian and Spartan choruses had a purpose-built theatre to perform in too (Herodotus 6.67 and 6.21).
While we often think of theatres as venues for drama, they were just as frequently used to stage choruses, virtuoso solo musicians, and other forms pageantry, to say nothing of their political and religious uses. The Spartans had another venue for musical performances too, the Skias, comparable to the Odeon in Athens.
Bearing all of this in mind, why does the idea that the Spartans only had music for military purposes still persist?
Why the idea of military music persists
This is where the effects of the so-called “Spartan mirage” begin to be seen, distorting ancient and modern perceptions of music in Sparta. For example, Lycurgus the orator, who talked about the Spartans performing Tyrtaeus, says that “they took no account of other poets” (Lycurg. inLeocr. 107). This is demonstrably false. Perhaps Lycurgus meant that Tyrtaeus was their most important poet, but it is clear hyperbole to say that they took no account of other poets.
What about Alcman, the late seventh century BCE Spartan poet included by the Alexandrians in the lyric cannon? He famously wrote songs for choruses of Spartan women. There is a reasonably long line of other poets associated with Archaic and Classical Sparta too. One of the earliest works of Greek chronological history was Hellanicus of Lesbos’ “Karneian Victors”, about the victors of the musical contest at the Karneia, one of Sparta’s premier festivals in worship of Apollo, and a musical contest of pan-Hellenic significance.
Many people can easily read Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch (who often focus on Spartan music and its uses in the military). Fewer people have access to Tyrtaeus, Alcman, Pseudo-Plutarch’s De Musica, the fragments of Greek historians, and excavation publications and catalogues (which provide us with a more rounded picture of what music in Sparta was like).
In the Archaic period, Sparta was one of the top places for professional musicians to compete. At the Karneia music contest it often transpired that the winning musician came from Lesbos. This led to a saying among the Spartans, “[coming] after the singer from Lesbos”, an idiom for coming in second place (Cratinus, Cheirons, fr. 263 K-A).
Of course, the lack of subtlety in modern popular representations of Sparta leaves no room for the notion that at Sparta music had multiple outlets, uses, performers, styles, and audiences, only some of which have been discussed here.
For all these reasons, we rate the claim as false.
- M. West, Ancient Greek Music (1992).
- A. Barker (ed.), Greek Musical Writings. Vol. 1. The Musician and His Art (1989).
- C. Calame, “Pre-classical Sparta as Song Culture”, in: A. Powell (ed.), A Companion to Sparta, Vol. 1 (2018), pp. 177-201.
- J. Franklin, “The Lesbian Singers: Towards a Reconstruction of Hellanicus’ Karneian Victors”, in: D. Castaldo, F.G. Giannachi, and A. Manieri (eds), Poesia, musica e agoni nella Grecia antica/Poetry, Music and contests in ancient Greece. Atti del IV Convegno Internazionale di Moisa/Proceedings of the 4th Annual Meeting of Moisa, Lecce, 28-30 ottobre 2010 (2012), pp. 719-764.