When the government announced the new “Better Health” campaign to encourage Britons to lose weight through more exercise and less sugary food, I could not help but think about the ancient Spartans, who, as anyone who has seen the film 300 would know, were famous for their muscular physique. Films aside, the historical accounts of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae provide one of the most striking illustrations of Spartan athleticism. When the Persian king Xerxes sent spies to see what the Spartans were doing, he was stunned to hear that they were exercising naked as they awaited the Persian onslaught. Exercise was such an important part of Spartan life that it was normal for them to continue their daily exercises even while on military campaign, and the Spartans are even said to have “invented” the ancient Greek habit of practising sport naked!
Sport was a vital part of the brutal state-sponsored Spartan education system, which was compulsory for all citizens. Spartan boys received training in athletics, dancing, ball games (including the violent “sphairomachia” or “battle-ball”), bare-knuckle fighting, and perhaps even knife fights! Spartan girls received physical training too, and were known as “thigh-flashers” because of the skimpy outfits they wore as they engaged in running, throwing, and the notorious Spartan “rump-jump”, whereby girls would jump up and kick their own buttocks, first with one foot, then the other, followed by both at the same time. Spartan men spent much of their leisure time training in hunting, boxing, sprinting, jumping, acrobatic dancing while wearing 30kg of bronze armour, the discus and the javelin, and ball games. The Spartans so valued sport that they accorded the honour of serving alongside the king in battle to victors at the Olympic Games.
Like the government’s new policy, the Spartans too were as interested in diet as they were in exercise. Adult citizens dined together each night in common messes, with citizens contributing monthly rations of barley, cheese, figs, olive oil, and wine produced on their own estates. The main course was famously plain, consisting of unbaked barley burgers, the notorious “black broth” (a type of blood soup), and a meat portion. Outside of religious holidays when the dietary rules were relaxed Spartans shunned cakes and sweets. The fourth-century BCE Spartan king Agesilaus once dismissively “regifted” sweetmeats to his helot slaves deeming such extravagances unfit for Spartans. Agesilaus no doubt would have approved of our government’s plan to remove chocolate, crisps, and sweets from supermarket checkouts!
But whereas the Prime Minister has stated that the government wants “to be sympathetic to people, to understand the difficulties that people face with their weight”, and that the rules will not be imposed “in an excessively bossy or nannying way”, the Spartans readily indulged in what we today would call “fat-shaming”. On occasion Spartan girls were forced to dance and sing naked in front of all the young men so that they would be “ashamed to be fat or weak” and the shaming culture cut both ways, with the girls singing songs praising the young men who were strong, and mocking those who were physically weak. The Spartans strictly controlled the boys’ diet to ensure that they would have tall, slim bodies, and Spartan officials inspected the young men naked every ten days to ensure that they remained slim. They even fined a certain Naucleides for growing too fat!
Thinking about all of this made me wonder what the Spartans would have made of the government’s other new food campaign: “Eat out to help out”, which is designed to help the economy by encouraging Britons to pay to eat in restaurants rather than at home. In a manner of speaking, “eat out to help out” was a core Spartan value, as Spartan men were required by law to eat out with their fellow citizens every night in order to foster a sense of community. But the parallel goes deeper. Some critics have suggested that the “Eat out to help out” campaign will undermine the push for healthier eating by making high-calorie fast food cheaper, and similar mixed messages were at play in Sparta. For while the rhetoric at Sparta was about eating in moderation, modern scholars have calculated that the Spartans’ monthly food contributions would have provided each citizen with around 6,429 calories per day. This is as many calories as consumed by modern Olympians in training, and that was before they touched the “afters” course, which was actually another meat portion, and might also include wheat bread and other high calorie offerings. This high calorie intake and the demand for slender bodies seems as contradictory as encouraging modern Britons to exercise more at the same time as giving them half price vouchers for fast food outlets. But with food and physical well-being – not to mention bodily appearance – being such subjective topics, it is no wonder that when governments try to legislate mixed messages can creep in. But at least we know that state-mandated Spartan style fat shaming is not on today’s menu.