Thanks to 2007’s epic film 300 – and the corresponding graphic novels – more people than ever know about Spartans. Unfortunately, much of the information people think they know isn’t accurate. What about Spartans throwing babies off cliffs; did that really happen?
Spartans didn’t really throw babies off cliffs. While it’s true that elders inspected Spartan babies for defects and issues, those found lacking weren’t tossed over a cliff. Instead, their parents would abandon them to the elements, where they’d die from exposure or be adopted by other families.
This article will explore the reasons behind the popular myth that Spartans threw babies from cliffs and outline whether or not there is any evidence to support the theory. It will also detail children’s treatment at the hands of the Spartans and discuss how they were raised to become some of the world’s greatest warriors.
Is There Any Evidence That Spartans Killed Imperfect Babies?
Although the Spartans probably didn’t throw their “unfit” babies off cliffs, that doesn’t mean they always kept them. Obviously, some babies with ailments were kept. For example, King Agisilaos, one of Sparta’s most well-known kings, was born with a lame leg.
However, it was common practice in the ancient world to abandon babies with defects, deformities, or other perceived weaknesses. This practice was more evident in Athens than in Sparta, but that doesn’t mean Sparta didn’t similarly treat imperfect babies.
There is some evidence to suggest that Spartans abandoned imperfect babies, which sometimes led to their deaths. Children were trained for battle from a young age in Sparta, and those children who couldn’t fight were often left to die. Some did; others were rescued and adopted by other families.
The famous Greek-Roman historian Plutarch mentions this practice in Life of Lycurgus.  Plato also discusses the act of abandoning lame babies in two of his most famous works, Theaetetus and Republic. Even Aristotle talks about the practice of infanticide in Politics.
All of these works are largely considered early historical accounts and exist as proof that Athenians, Greeks, and by extension, Spartans abandoned imperfect babies, leaving them to die.
Where Did the Idea of Spartans Killing Babies Come From?
The idea that Spartans killed lame babies comes directly from Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, where he explicitly states that imperfect babies were taken and thrown into “a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus.” The opening scene of the movie 300 reinforced this idea for many people.
Although the movie 300 was pure fantasy, the idea that Spartans were fierce warriors trained from childhood to be soldiers was not. The Spartans were a race of elite warriors, and they were trained from very young ages not just to fight but to be victorious. Much like the Vikings, Spartans did not fear death; instead, dying in service to Sparta was their highest honor.
In such a culture, strength, agility, and battle prowess were valued above everything else. It’s easy to see why some people would assume that Spartans would automatically discard any babies born with defects that would make that soldier lifestyle an impossibility.
Interestingly enough, an archaeological excavation at the foot of Mount Taygetus (Mount Taygete) did reveal hundreds of skulls and bones from people who’d been tossed off the cliff to die in the deep chasm.  The discovery of the skeletons and partial skeletons further cemented the infanticide myths in many people’s eyes.
However, further excavation and study of the remains found at Mount Taygete revealed that none of them belonged to infants or children.
Instead, after over half a decade of intense study, archaeologists finally determined that all of the bones belonged to 46 different men, all between the ages of 18 and 35. According to the archaeologists, historians, and scholars, they were likely the bones of criminals, traitors, and executed prisoners.
Another theory is that the bones were from Messenian soldiers who attacked Sparta during the second war between the two countries. Under the leadership of Aristomenes, 50 warriors attacked Sparta and were defeated. Afterward, the Spartans allegedly threw them into the pit at the foot of Mount Taygete.
How Did Spartans Treat Children?
Spartans treated children like soldiers in training. Babies were never coddled; mothers opted for a ‘tough love’ approach instead. When they turned seven, boys were taken from their families and raised in a “military-style” education program. Girls remained home but underwent rigorous training, too.
This life of seeming harshness began early in Spartan children’s lives. Mothers washed babies in wine instead of water to “test their constitutions,” and they were left alone to cry themselves to sleep rather than coddled and soothed. 
The military education camps for boys aged seven to nine taught them everything they needed to know to become “skilled warriors and moral citizens,” including:
- Rigorous athletics
- Stealth tactics
- The arts of warfare and battle strategy
The girls’ training was just as intense, though their subject matter differed. Their education sought to make them strong women, as all Spartan women were expected to become mothers. Anything that could make a young girl stronger and better able to handle pregnancy and childbirth was something she learned about, studied, or practiced.
These things included the following:
- Throwing discus
- Throwing javelins
- Other activities that would be associated with track and field in modern times
When boys turned 12, their training was intensified. They were stripped naked, given a single red cloak, and thrown out of the city. They had to sleep outside, hunt, scavenge, or steal food, make their own shelter, and fend for themselves in every way.
Furthermore, though they were encouraged to steal food to help them survive, they were punished severely with floggings if someone caught them. The boys were also encouraged to fight and steal from one another.
It was truly an “only the strongest survive” type of situation. On top of all that, there were also ritualistic floggings meant to toughen the boys up. The practice was called diamastigosis and was considered a test of endurance.  Occasionally, the boys would die from injuries received from the floggings.
None of this was seen as cruelty, however. Instead, the harsh conditions under which they were raised made them some of the strongest, fiercest, most incredible warriors of the age.
Spartans didn’t throw babies off cliffs, but they sometimes abandoned those who couldn’t survive a soldier’s rigorous lifestyle. It was considered an act of mercy.