The Spartans — the Lost Tribe of Israel
Who were the Spartans — the people concerning whom the lines between mythology, legends, and facts have been washed out in the sand of the turbulent scene of history?
What do we know about the Spartans and what we know about them, is it a matter of mythology, legends, or of facts? This will be the subject of our study.
Mythology of Lakedaimon
In antiquity Sparta was known as Lakedaimon (Λακεδαίμων), while the name Sparta referred to its main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnesus, today’s Greece.
Lakedaimon was a mythical king of Lakonia, a region of today’s southern Greece. According to the Greek mythology, Lakedaimon was the son of Zeus, who married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas. Lakedaimon named the country after himself and the city after his wife—Sparta.
According to Herodotus, Book I, 56.3, the prehistory of Sparta is difficult to reconstruct because the literary evidence was written far later than the events it describes and is distorted by oral tradition. This civilization seems to have fallen into decline by the late Bronze Age, when Makedonians from the north invaded the Peloponnese and subjugating the local population.
Note: Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) was an ancient Greek historian who is widely considered to have been the first writer to have treated historical subjects using a method of systematic investigation—by collecting his materials and then critically arranging them into an historiographic narrative. Because of this, he is often referred to as “The Father of History”.
Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the Spartans experienced a period of lawlessness and civil strife. As a result, they carried out a series of political and social reforms of their own society. Those changes of their society were attributed to their lawgiver, Lycurgus. As we said above, these reforms marked a new beginning of the history of Classical Sparta. These reforms marked the beginning of the history of Classical Sparta.
History of Classical Sparta
In the Second Messenian War (from 685 to 668 BC) between the ancient city-states of Messenia and Sparta, Sparta established itself as a local power. During the following centuries, Sparta’s reputation as a military force was unequalled as its peak was around 500 BC.
At the peak of its power in the early 4th century BC, Sparta had subdued many of the main Greek states and even invaded the Persian provinces in Anatolia (today’s Turkey), a period known as the Spartan Hegemony. Between 431 and 404 BC, Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, from which it emerged victorious.
Even more, during the Corinthian War, Sparta faced a coalition of the leading Greek states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos.
In later Classical times, Sparta along with Athens, Thebes, and Persia were the main powers fighting for supremacy in the northeastern Mediterranean. Later, Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to conquer Sparta itself.
The Spartans’ culture
At its peak, Sparta had some 20,000–35,000 citizens, plus numerous a slave class, the helots, and others who were neither slaves nor citizens. The helots were Greeks, originally from Laconia and Messenia, who had been conquered by the Spartans and turned into slaves.
As Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta increasingly faced a helot population that vastly outnumbered its citizens. The Spartans were a minority of the Lakonian population. The largest class of inhabitants were the helots.
The helots were originally free Greeks from the areas of Messenia and Lakonia whom the Spartans had defeated in battle and subsequently enslaved. In contrast to populations conquered by other Greek cities, the male population was not exterminated, and the women and children turned into personal slaves.
In ancient times, Sparta had a reputation for the severe and highly disciplined way of life for all its citizens to keep them ready for war at any time and at any cost. Military and physical training was required for both men and women.
As Sparta was centered on a warrior culture, it was above all a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Male Spartan citizens had only one occupation: soldier. Indoctrination into this lifestyle began early.
Spartan boys started their military training at age seven. At age twenty, Spartan males became warriors and remained on active duty until age sixty. Sparta was unique for its military proficiency marked by strict self-discipline and self-denial.
Decline of Sparta
Despite the military prowess, Sparta’s dominance was short-lived.
In 371 BC, Sparta suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. In a further blow, an invasion into Spartan territory led to the liberation of the Messenian helots, who had been enslaved by the Spartans for several centuries. Sparta would continue to exist as a second-rate power in a long period of decline, though it maintained its political independence until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC.
In 396 AD, Sparta was sacked by the Visigoths who sold its inhabitants into slavery.
The Spartans in Book of Maccabees
Who were the Maccabees (Hebrew for “hammers”)?
The Maccabees were followers of Judas Maccabeus who headed the revolt in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 168—161 BC, which led to freedom for Israel. The Maccabees gave the name to four books which are received as canonical books in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Church, along with others, but are included in the Apocrypha by the Protestants (i.e. Geneva and KJV Bibles), which. however, later were removed from it.
In 1611 KJV with Apocrypha we find probably the only reference in the Scripture concerning the ancient Spartans. In the Apocrypha of KJV, we read.
Jonathan the high priest and the elders of the nation, sent a letter to the Lakedaimonians (Lacedemonians) for the renewing of brotherhood and friendship between the Jews and the Spartans, because it was a long time past since the Spartans sent their letters. In that letter, the Jews very clearly addressed the Lakedaimonians as “our brethren”, as the Lakedaimonians addressed the Jews likewise to signify that they were all brethren,
Jonathan the high priest, and the elders of the nation, and the priests, and the other of the Jews, unto the Lacedemonians their brethren send greeting: There were letters sent in times past unto Onias the high priest from Darius, who reigned then among you, to signify that ye are our brethren, as the copy here underwritten doth specify. At which time Onias entreated the ambassador that was sent honourably, and received the letters, wherein declaration was made of the league and friendship. Therefore we also, albeit we need none of these things, that we have the holy books of scripture in our hands to comfort us, Have nevertheless attempted to send unto you for the renewing of brotherhood and friendship, lest we should become strangers unto you altogether: for there is a long time passed since ye sent unto us. We therefore at all times without ceasing, both in our feasts, and other convenient days, do remember you in the sacrifices which we offer, and in our prayers, as reason is, and as it becometh us to think upon our brethren … (1Ma 12:6-11 KJVA)
We should also note here the statement the Jews made in their letter, namely, “Therefore we also, albeit we need none of these things, that we have the holy books of scripture in our hands to comfort us”.
See also the same account in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 5, verse 8 by Flavius Josephus where we find, “although we did not need such a demonstration, because we were satisfied about it from the sacred writings”.
What “sacred writings” the Jews are referring to we do not know. The Hebrew original being lost, we cannot certainly judge to which part of the Scripture the Maccabees referred since that part of the Bible is probably lost.
At any rate, the Jews were satisfied out of the Scripture that the Jews and Lakedaimonians were of kin and the Lakedaimonians were satisfied, too, since we see them having written their own letter to their kindred concerning the renewing of the brotherhood.
And this is the copy of the letters which Oniares sent.
Areus king of the Lacedemonians to Onias the high priest, greeting: It is found in writing, that the Lacedemonians and Jews are brethren, and that they are of the stock of Abraham: Now therefore, since this is come to our knowledge, ye shall do well to write unto us of your prosperity. We do write back again to you, that your cattle and goods are our’s, and our’s are your’s We do command therefore our ambassadors to make report unto you on this wise. (1Ma 12:17-23 KJVA)
In their response, the Spartans undoubtedly called themselves not only brethren to the Jews but also that that they were of the stock of Avraham, their patriarch. With that letter the friendship and the brotherhood between the Jews and the Spartans were renewed with which we receive the proof that those two nations were of one stock: the stock of Avraham.
And when it was heard in Rome and in Sparta that Jonathan the high priest was dead, the Romans and Spartans were very sorry. But as soon as they heard that his brother Simon was made high priest in his place, they wrote to him in tables of brass, to renew the friendship and league which they had made with Judas and Jonathan his brethren (1Ma 14:16-19).
And this is the copy of the letters that the Lakedaimonians sent:
The rulers of the Lacedemonians, with the city, unto Simon the high priest, and the elders, and priests, and residue of the people of the Jews, our brethren, send greeting: The ambassadors that were sent unto our people certified us of your glory and honour: wherefore we were glad of their coming, … (1Ma 15:20-21 KJVA)
The Gadites — the fearless warriors
Our patriarch Ya’akov (Jacob) begat two sons by Zilpah, Leah’s maid. The one Leah named Gad, meaning “good fortune” saying, בְּגָד “with good fortune”.
And Zilpah Leah’s handmaid bore Jacob a son. And Leah said: ‘Fortune is come!‘ And she called his name Gad. (Gen 30:10-11 JPS)
The name גָּד Gad, comes from the verb גּוּד gud akin to the verb גָּדַד gadad, to crowd; also to gash (as if by pressing into); assemble (selves by troops), gather (selves together, self in troops), according to Strong Dictionary, and as KJV reads,
And Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a son. And Leah said, A troop cometh: and she called his name Gad. (Gen 30:10-11 KJV)
On his departure from Canaan Ya’akov received the promise, that YHVH would make him a great nation in Egypt and bring him back into the Promised Land (Gen 46:3-4). Upon his sick-bed, the fulfilment of this promise was in his thoughts and longings, when the patriarch declared what would befall his sons in the last days (Gen 49:1). Concerning Gad he said,
Gad, a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel. (Gen 49:19 JPS)
The name Gad reminded the patriarch of גְּדוּד gedud, troops, the pressing host, an army, which would invade the land, would גּוּד gud, press him and overcome him, but he, Gad, would גּוּד gud, press, overcome at the last (lit. upon their heel); KJV has it, “at last”.
The attacks of such invading army Gad will bravely overcome and press their heel, that is put them to flight and pursue them.
The fulfillment of this prophetic promise we find in,
The sons of Reuben, and the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, as many as were valiant men, men able to bear buckler and sword, and to shoot with bow, and skilful in war, … (1Ch 5:18-19 JPS)
And of the Gadites there separated themselves unto David to the stronghold in the wilderness, mighty men of valour, men trained for war, that could handle shield and spear; whose faces were like the faces of lions, and they were as swift as the roes upon the mountains; … and they put to flight all them of the valleys, both toward the east, and toward the west. (1Ch 12:9-16 JPS)
And this is the blessing with which Mosheh blessed the children of Israel before his death (Deu 33:1). Concerning Gad he said,
Blessed is he who enlarges Gad. He dwells as a lion, and shall tear off the arm, also the crown of the head. (Deu 33:20)
According to the Rabbinical tradition [Jonathan Ben Uziel], tearing the arm [of his prey, together] with the head, was fulfilled as anyone slain by the Gadites could be easily identified: they used to cut off the head together with the arm in one blow.
In the conquering of Canaan, the Gadites were going in front of the people to battle, because they were brave and mighty, and the enemies were falling before them, as Mosheh instructed them (Deu 3:18).
When Mosheh instructed the tribes of Reuben and Gad, he knew he would not enter the Land with the children of Israel. Therefore, he instructed them to go in front of the people and be the first to meet the enemy on the battle field, because he knew what the Gadites were capable of in war: they were tearing the arm with the head.
Also, to testify even further about the military prowess of the Gadities, Midrash Rabbah states that Gad’s stone was an agate and the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white, and on it was embroidered a military camp, in allusion to the verse “Gad, a troop shall troop upon him” in Gen 49:19.
However, in the days of lawlessness in the Land (in the days of reign of King Yehu), YHVH began to rend away certain portions from the kingdom. And Hazael smote them in all the borders of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites. This we read in 2Ki 10:32-33.
Those were the days when the decline of the Northern Kingdom of Israel began. Consequently, all ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom would be exiled and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire and would be known in the history of Israel as the lost tribes of Israel.
King Yehu of the Northern Kingdom of Israel reigned for twenty-eight years (841-814 BC). The first tribes to be smitten and taken in exile were those on east side of the Jordan: the two and half tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menasheh.
Since the invasion of the Assyrians took place in the reign of King Yehu, the tribe of Gad was cut off some time during that period: 841-814 BC, but not in the later part of Yehu’s reign, as some historians suppose. After that little is known of these three tribes and more particularly the tribe of Gad.
Again, per Herodotus, the prehistory of Sparta is difficult to reconstruct because the literary evidence was written far later than the events it describes and is distorted by oral traditions.
In other words, what we know about the early life of the Spartans is very scarce. Much of it is lost, distorted, or never recorded. However, it is our duty to reconstruct to our best knowledge the truth about the people who called themselves “of the stock of Avraham”.
By now, we should have noticed some similarities between the historical records about the ancient Spartans and Gadites. And this is the hypothesis of the present author.
The Gadites were cut off from Israel supposedly in the early reign of King Yehu (c. 840-830 BC). The early records of the Spartans were circa between the 8th and 7th centuries BC when the Spartans experienced a period of lawlessness and civil strife, later attested by Herodotus, when they began to carry out a series of political and social reforms.
It is very plausible that after the Gadites were cut off and exiled, or perhaps during the invasions of the Assyrians, some of them managed to escape through Anatolia and settled in what is now south-eastern Peloponnesus, today’s Greece. Thus, the Gadites became Lakedaimonians (Lacedemonians).
The names Lakedaimon (Λακεδαίμων) of the mythical king of Laconia and Sparta are according to the Greek mythology and, as Herodotus stated, the history of Sparta had been written much later, perhaps, as part of the Greek mythology.
We should recall that in the census before entering the Land, the Gadites were numbered 40,500 males twenty years and older. At Sparta’s peak the entire population was 20,000–35,000 citizens. Therefore, if we are correct in our hypothesis, only small portion of Gad managed to escape into the new land.
It is also very plausible that between the mid-9th and 8th century BC, the Gadites lost or began to lose their language and became Hellenized by adopting Greek cultural life but have kept their consciousness of being “of the of Avraham”.
In their new land, the Spartans experienced hardship and in order to survive they carried out reforms of their society. Those reforms were mainly in the structure of the Spartan society and more particularly in warfare, in which they were very skillful. Thus, the new Spartans (former Gadites) became fearless soldiers than ever before.
Another similarity between the Gadites and the Spartans is that the Spartan males became warriors at age twenty, a law we find in the Torah of Israel.
The Spartans are not Greek
Even though the Gadites had adopted the Greek names of their new country and the Greek life style of the local inhabitants, they did not identify themselves as Greek, but as Hebrews of the stock of Avraham, claiming the patriarch as a common ancestor of the Jews and the Spartans.
The only evidence we have that the Spartans are Hebrews is found in the Book of Maccabees, which evidence is the corner-stone in our hypothesis.
At the peak of their power the Spartans subdued many of the Greek city-states, as Athens being the principle enemy. Even more, during the Corinthian War, the Spartans faced a coalition of the leading Greek states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos. When the ancient Greece was united under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great headed for the conquest of the East, he did not even attempt to conquer the Spartans or to ask them to join him.
Had the Spartans considered themselves Greek, they would have joined the other Greek tribes to become one nation; but they had not.
Had they considered themselves Greek, they would have stated it in their letters to the Jews and like the Romans would have sought friendship, not kinship; but they had not.
Moreover, even the Greeks did not consider the Spartans Greek; had they considered them, what would have been more natural for Alexander to attempt to have the most proficient and self-disciplined warriors on the battle field.
In conclusion, we have the most convincing evidence found in the Book of Maccabees that the Spartans are descendants of Avraham and close kindred to the Jews. Whether the Spartans were the Gadites, we cannot know with certainty, but YHVH knows.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.