Supplementals: God of War – Sparta, Warfare, and Mythology (Pt. 1)

Part I

Sparta and the Spartans

By: Staff

With the upcoming release of God of War: Origins Collection for the PlayStation 3, gamers will have the chance to relive Kratos’ half-decade-long journey in just three releases: God of War: Collection (includes updated versions of the first two PlayStation 2 releases), God of War III, and God of War: Origins Collections, which brings together and updates both PlayStation Portable releases (Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta). But for those who are looking to get into or go back and enjoy the journey of the infamous scarred Spartan warrior in his quest of revenge against the gods, there is a world behind the material and ethereal worlds of God of War.

Just as important as where Kratos comes from, it’s who he has to interact with. Unlike most mortals, Kratos often finds himself talking to and battling the gods. The Greek pantheon is one of the most popular and recognized of any culture, due not only to some of the more entertaining stories involving cannibalism, heaven-spanning battles, and general pettiness, but also from their adoption by the Romans. Zeus and Jupiter, Athena and Minerva, Poseidon and Neptune, whether from movies, books, or games, it’s hard not have run across at least a passing reference to them.

To fully explore the world of God of War, I’ll be touching on Sparta and the Spartans; warfare, notably the phalanx, a popular military formation that peaked in antiquity during the Hellenistic Age; and Greek mythology. Thanks to the work of Edith Hamilton, Plutarch, and Thucydides, among others, there is a wealth of information available for the curious out there—and, no doubt, future laconophiles.

“Were I not angry, I would have killed you.”
– Charillus, Eighth-century Eurypontid king [1]

I. Sparta and the Spartans
Kratos is a Spartan, an inhabitant of the Greek city-state Sparta located on the Peloponnese. To be more precise, he is a Spartiate, which is a full-fledged male citizen who has made it through the agoge, a brutal training regimen that culminates in the murder of a helot (slave), and been accepted into one of the public messes. This can all be inferred by his status as a commander. While no concrete dates are given for the God of War titles, it’s safe to assume that he is from the post-Lycurgan reformation as he doesn’t sport a mustache, which was one of the many laws given down by the mythical Spartan mythical lawgiver.

Sparta was unique in a number of ways, including their higher standing of women in society, eschewing of such luxuries as sweet treats, practice of walking at night without a torch to overcome their fear of darkness, and as the only Greeks in their day to enslave an entire Greek peoples, the Messenians.

Most of you probably know of Sparta through the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300.

For a people known for their brevity and plainness, giving rise to the modern usage of “laconic”—from the immediate region around the city, Laconia (or Lacedaemon)—for terse speech and “spartan” to denote simplicity, they had a complex society with an amalgamated government. Combining elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and limited democracy, the people had two kings, from the Agiad and Eurypontid dynasties, who were themselves subject to the five ephors, village leaders annually elected by the popular assembly. But there was also the Gerousia, a senate composed of 30 men, both kings and 28 men 60 or older, who were elected for life and consulted by the ephors. The younger Spartiates were represented by the Apella, the popular assembly of males 30 or older. In addition to electing the ephors, the Apella also elected the members of the Gerousia. But of course, Kratos isn’t worried about this, as he is a captain without regard for proper constitutional tradition, and all you’ll need to know throughout the game is that blades do the deciding.

“Either increase your strength, or reduce your self-confidence.”
– Archidamus, Son of Zeuxidamus, Fifth-century Eurypontid king [2]

To learn more about Sparta, you have the option to go with a collection of pithy sayings, courtesy of the first-century Greek biographer Plutarch (and edited by Richard Talbert, who provides some much-needed context) in Penguin Classic’s On Sparta. For those wanting a light, fun read, this is your best bet.

For those wanting to learn more about the lives of some famous Spartans, including Lycurgus, the man whom they attribute for their constitution and laws, Plutarch is again an invaluable resource in The Modern Library’s Plutarch’s Lives Volume 1. Volume 1,  the first of a biography series about character as much as history, also discusses the rascal Alcibiades, friend of Socrates and turncoat Athenian who defected to Sparta, and who would eventually defect from Sparta, during the 27-year struggle between Athens and Sparta known as the Peloponnesian War (discussed in greater detail in the next section). The Spartan general Lysander is also discussed, who was instrumental in bringing an end to the Peloponnesian War.

There are additional volumes that include more Spartans, but the first volume is an excellent starting point. A distinction between Lives and other biographies is that Plutarch gives a parallel Roman biography from one of her famous personages, and he then contrasts the two. The original, many-volume work is in fact referred to as Parallel Lives.

Being that two books are from Plutarch, and the former actually a compilation piece, there is some overlap between On Sparta and Volume 1. The overlap comes in the form of On Sparta included the Lives’ entries on both Lycurgus and, from a later volume, Agis and Cleomenes. While the history and comparison of Numa Pompilus (to Lycurgus) and the Gracchi brothers (to Agis and Cleomenes), On Sparta does include two very nice additions: a background history and discussion of Plutarch’s sources. The Modern Library’s release has some information on Plutarch and his work, it leaves most of the content up to Plutarch. The upside, of course, is that Numa’s history and his comparison with Lycurgus is covered; Agis and Clemenes and the Gracchi brothers, all reformers in their own right, are covered and contrasted in separate volumes. Each includes sound translations, and are actually excellent compliments to one another—one for the supplemental material, and the other for the complete character study.

Everyone wants to talk about a people’s rise, but their downfall can be just as interesting.  For more information on a subject rarely discussed but equally fascinating, Paul Cartledge and Antony Spawforth’s Hellenestic and Roman Sparta from Routledge covers Sparta after her decline. Included is history leading up to Roman Sparta, information on local government, and even a bit about her place in the Middle Ages. It’s the most academic of the three recommendations, but it allows for a more complete understanding of Sparta’s place in antiquity, rounding out Plutarch’s offerings by showing the city-state past her prime and living in a world ruled by Rome.

For those looking for a good documentary, there are plenty available, but not too many that I would mark out as good. Several came out in mid-2000, but they are more sensationalist than informative. A more subdued yet still engaging documentary is available from PBS and Paramount, The Spartans.

While there are still licenses taken with source material, there is also a lot more information to be gleamed from here than elsewhere. Most documentaries are hit and miss, very few are without fault, though I would say in those cases (as with this one), that’s due to time constraints and trying to keep a level of entertainment above a slideshow presentation but below CGI blood splashing around and impalings. At three hours long, you’ll get plenty on the war with and subsequent revolt of the Messenians, the Battle of Thermopylae, the Peloponnesian War, and some notable presenters.

“You may have the power to utter abusive words, but I’m able to do you real harm.”
– Cleomenes, Son of Anaxandridas, Fifth/Sixth-century Agiad king [3]

Next up: II. Warfare – Phalanxes, Phalangites, and Hoplites


[1] Plutarch. “Sayings.” Plutarch On Sparta. Penguin Classics, 1988. P. 157.
[2] Plutarch On Sparta. P. 131.
[3] Plutarch On Sparta. P. 142.
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