Go Tell the Spartans,
By Nestor Komar.
I was going to write an article concerning one of the latest club seminars but was diverted by a historic novel that I was reading. Entitled "The Gates of Fire", it retells the historical ancient Greek battle at Thermopylae. Here a small force of three hundred Spartan warriors, along with their retinue and a number of other representatives from various Greek City States were able to hold the massive Persian Army of King Xerxes said to number in the millions. By the time the Spartans were overwhelmed, they had put to the sword over 20,000 Persian warriors and had bought enough time for the Greeks to prepare their navies to fight and ultimately win a crucial naval battle at Salamis Bay.
You may ask what this has to do with martial arts? In fact, the training techniques of these famous warriors may be of some interest to students of any fighting discipline.
The Spartans were considered the finest fighting force in the known world. Many armies were greater in size and others had great courage and valour, but none could come close to the Spartans on the battlefield. The greatest reason that their reputation exists even today is because of their training techniques. Let us examine some of their methods and try to relate them, in some small way, to our current practices.
The common practice of the day was for armies of Greek City states to train once a year. Farmers and statesmen would gather for a few days each year for manoeuvres. The Spartans, on the other hand, trained year round as they were skilled in the martial arts first and foremost. After their service to the city was complete, these warriors could then tend their fields and flocks. This was a force of men under constant alert to the threat of war, prepared to fight on a moment's notice. The greatest defence was a strong offence. Similarly, we train constantly in preparation for our battles (kumite) by constantly practising fighting situations. Our drills are different but the philosophy is the same. You cannot fight like a machine unless you are trained to do so.
Let us examine the type of training Spartans were subjected to. Very early in life, Spartan boys were matched to a mentor (usually one of the elite Peer troops or if he were lucky to one of the Knights of the King's Bodyguard-among them many early Olympic champions). These mentors were responsible for schooling the boys in the fighting arts as well as Spartan philosophy. As the boys grew a little older they became squires to the master in training. The squires maintained the master's armour, weaponry, field kit and rations during any campaign, but were also expected to train in the meantime as a group under drill instructors called "eirenes". During drill, eirenes could not be contradicted by a Peer or a Knight (very similar to our tradition of giving our entire attention to the sensei holding the class even though there may be a number of senseis on the floor). The eirene was often brutal in his drills. This brutality was not laid on with malice but was done to ensure that the students were steeled for the strenuous task of fighting while carrying 80 lbs. of armour for any number of days or weeks.
An example of the type of endurance training was grinding the tree. (The actual name of this exercise is much more derogatory in nature.) The students would locate a stout oak tree and position their shields in the back of the student in front of them and push forward against the tree while marching in unison. The idea was that if the squires transferred their body force from shield to body to shield to body etc. as in a chain, they could literally push the tree down. Sometimes this went on for days, as the student's ground against each other until the task was complete. Many squires died under this drilling. Thankfully we do not follow this type of rigorous philosophy.
The purpose to the exercise was to prepare the warrior in the Spartan close-knit fighting technique. In actual battle, the warriors would march quick-step, six to ten deep, with their shields locked behind each others' backs with long spears protruding from between the shields. This wall of force would literally push over the opposing army, with the front lines stepping over the falling opposition not unlike a line of army tanks. Not until the fifth row back did the warriors actually dispatch the fallen foe with short sword or spears. These soldiers in the rear rows were called harvesters as they applied a scything or swinging action. Head lopping was called topping while slicing arms or legs was called limbing. Squires followed behind in a clean up action, passing up weapons to replace broken swords, spears or shields. One can only imagine the spectacle and the horror of this devastating, machine-like fighting force. Thus the tree grinding exercise was most appropriate in preparing the Spartan for what would be a regular fighting technique.
The Spartan warrior would very often go on manoeuvres called oktonyktia or eight nights. Twelve hundred men would march in full pack and armour for four nights, bivouacking during the day. During the next four days and nights they drilled almost continuously, breaking only for short rests. They ate half rations for the first four days, had no food for the next two and no food or water for the last two days. The experience was designed to prepare the warrior for marching to a battle and finding that the countryside had been razed to deny food and drink to their army. Thus these warriors would have to fight under the worst conditions possible. The Spartans were always prepared for a hostile reception and were trained to live with it, ignoring basic human needs for sustenance and rest. Their goal was to win whatever the cost as they saw that the price of losing would be the loss of their state that they pledged to defend with their shields and their lives. The Spartan would vow to march home holding his shield high in victory or to be borne upon his shield in death.
On a much smaller scale we prepare for some future battle, whether formally organized in tournament or for our own protection and for others. If you are not preparing to win, then you must be content with the consequences of loss.
Spartans studied the science of fear, which they called phobologia, in an effort to stabilize their minds in preparation for conflict. They hoped to create the inner state of aphobia or fearlessness. Fearlessness was not considered to be courage or bravado but a state in which fear could not play upon the mind of the warrior. This would create a state of self-composure, which they called esoteric harmonia. Such a state would allow each fighter, equally self-composed, to join ranks and fight as one man. Outside of fighting, esoteric harmonia should produce "concord and harmony," in which each individual, securing his own noblest expression of character, donates this to each other". Self-composure and relaxation are important to us in fighting since our attacks are more effective when the begin from a relaxed and composed state. Many of our exercises start from a state of equilibrium only to culminate in an explosive technique. Karate trains us to isolate ourselves from extraneous outside influences and to focus on the tasks set out to us by our senseis. How many times have our senseis told us at the beginning of classes to empty our mind of the day's problems and to focus on breathing and relaxing? Many of us experience a form of esoteric harmonia in Karate that tends to carry through in our daily lives.
In many ways we are not too far removed from the ancient warrior of 2300 years ago. We train, albeit for different reasons and with different techniques, for successful combat in the ring and for the combat we find in our complex daily lives.Back for More Great Reading