Late in the summer of 480 B.C., a sweat-soaked King Leonidas of Sparta stood in the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae, days into a brutal battle with a Persian army ten times the size of his own Greek forces. When Persian King Xerxes had demanded his surrender two days prior, Leonidas replied, “Molon labe.” Come and take them. For two days, the Greek defendants held their ground. But now, Leonidas found himself desperately trying to counter a flanking maneuver led by the Greek traitor Ephialtes. Foreseeing defeat but resolute despite it, Leonidas ordered the majority of his army to withdraw to fight another day. Yet, someone must stay behind to protect their retreat. Leonidas and 300 of his Spartan warriors selflessly volunteered for the task. The small band successfully protected their comrades’ retreat, but in the end, they were overrun. All fell, to a man. What could the Spartans of Leonidas have in common with the warriors of the Samurai and the Sioux? The answer is warrior ethos, but there is more. Here are three things the Spartan, Samurai and Sioux have in common.
What Is Warrior Ethos?
Warrior ethos is defined by the U.S. Air Force Academy as the “embodiment of warrior spirit.” Ethos is a derivative of the same Greek word for ethics, and for the warrior comprises a code of conduct that guides his values and actions. It is often an oral code, passed down from one warrior to the next. Warrior ethos dictates not just how a warrior should behave towards his enemies, but also how he should relate to his people and overcome his own weaknesses. It is a philosophy that must balance the encouragement of active aggression with voluntary self-restraint. This tension lies at the core of warrior ethos.
Despite significant cultural and era differences, similarities in warrior ethos pervade even between the phalanx-forming Spartans of ancient Greece, the katana-wielding Samurai of feudal Japan, and the equestrian Lakota Sioux archers of the American Old West. Each of these cultures regularly engaged in warfare and were no strangers to hand-to-hand combat. Each developed an ethos unique to their geopolitical contexts, yet with striking similarities. Here are three things that the Spartans, Samurai, and Sioux have in common.
Three Things That The Spartans, Samurai, And Sioux Warriors Have In Common
1. Honor And The Way Of Death
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Though the Lakota Sioux were phenomenal archers, there was more to warfare than killing enemies from a safe distance. Personal honor strongly dictated how war was fought by demanding demonstrations of bravery and skill. The well-known practice of counting coup topped the list of impressive battlefield acts. A warrior counted coup by approaching and physically touching an enemy without causing him harm. Each successful coup was rewarded with an eagle feather and a higher status of honor amongst the warrior’s people. In counting coup, the Sioux warrior voluntarily risked death for the sake of personal honor.
It is common for warrior cultures to value honor even above death highly. Spartan mothers commonly told their sons, “Return with your shield, or carried on it” to discourage them from the cowardice of abandoning their heavy shields to flee battle. This instruction was especially pertinent given the Spartan phalanx formation of interlocking shields to form a shield wall. The phalanx was nearly impregnable–unless one of its members broke rank. As Plutarch explained, Spartan warriors who lost their shields received the death penalty, because “the shield protects every man in the line.” Discipline and loyalty to one’s comrades were key aspects of retaining one’s personal honor in the Spartan warrior ethos.
The Samurai warriors also considered personal honor to be more important than survival. For him, honor required loyalty to his lord, or daimyo. This loyalty extended beyond life. The Samurai’s unwritten warrior ethos, known as the code of Bushidō, emphasized a willingness to die for one’s daimyo or cause. Loyalty unto death was so central for the Samurai that they were expected to commit ritual suicide (seppuku, or junshi) if their honor was compromised. A Samurai named Daidoji Yuzan (1639-1730) wrote down 56 lessons from the oral code of Bushidō, each articulating strict tenants that must be followed to maintain personal honor. The very first lesson is titled, “Make Life Replete, Constantly Thinking of Death”, and the last is titled, “Great Loyalty that Surpasses Junshi.”
2. The Highest Duty is to the People
Spartan society revolved around the military defense of the people. Boys joined the army barracks at seven years old and didn’t leave active duty until age 60. Men were required to live in the communal barracks until age 30, whether or not he was married. Women, too, participated in this aspect of warrior ethos. Their highest duty was to birth sons to become warriors. Babies with physical defects or other flaws were left on hillsides to die from exposure. Spartan warriors learned from a young age that loyalty to the people was paramount; it was more important even than family.
Samurai warriors comprised the elite warrior class in Japan. The peak of martial skill, they also served as role-models for the people in every other area of life. The Bushidō code highly valued selflessness, self-discipline, high levels of scholarship, and ethical behavior. Using these virtues, Samurai were expected to maintain peace and order within society. For example, during the Edo period, Samurai served as the fire brigade in Edo (modern Tokyo), complete with fire uniforms. They were the first respondents to other crises such as floods and were responsible for disaster relief. Throughout multiple periods of instability, Samurai warriors acted as a stabilizing force by militarily upholding Japanese society’s pillars, serving as ethical examples for the lower classes, and protecting the people from disasters.
While the Sioux highly valued personal prowess in battle, the warrior’s highest duty was to defend his people. The warrior was, after all, not just a warrior; he was also a hunter, provider, and contributing member of society. This is demonstrated by the four virtues held in the highest esteem by the Lakota Sioux: bravery, generosity, wisdom, and fortitude. Young men who proved exceptional in these areas were elected to an elite committee called the Shirt Wearers. They were responsible for putting the welfare of the people above all else. Likewise, all Sioux leaders–both military and civilian–were voluntarily followed based on their reputation and character. As such, leaders were chosen not only for their personal qualities but also for their dedication to defend the people.
3. Spartan Warriors: “He Who Sweats More In Training Bleeds Less In War”
Samurai training began in childhood with a combination of Bushidō, Zen Buddhism, and kendo (“the Way of the Sword”). Because of the Samurai’s preoccupation with dying, young trainees were conditioned not to fear death. This included exposing the child to intense temperatures, assigning him difficult tasks, and familiarizing him with executions. He was taught rigorous emotional control and contempt for physical pain. This combination of high pain tolerance and low regard for persona safety created an almost reckless warrior in combat. Throughout different eras, Samurai warriors were trained in mounted archery, spears, military tactics, martial arts, guns, and, of course, swords.
Lakota Sioux warriors also began training in childhood amidst a legacy of hero stories. He was taught generosity, loyalty, courage, and self-mastery. All men in the camp participated in mentoring young men in warrior ethos and encouraging them to compete in all things. Wrestling, running, and hunting comprised a boy’s upbringing. He underwent a series of rituals to make him into a man and a warrior, including crafting his own weapons, counting his first coup, and going on a vision quest. For the vision quest, the Sioux warrior went into the plains alone and fasted for two to seven days, during which he might be visited by a spiritual guide who would aid him in war.
After joining the army barracks at age seven, Spartan boys underwent a militaristic education known as the agōgē. Their regime involved athletics, hunting, and the basics of reading and writing. At age 12, boys were stripped of their clothing, turned out into the elements, and forced to scavenge their own survival. In addition to these trials of hardship, Spartan adolescents were ritually flogged to teach endurance and pain resistance. After beginning their official military training at age 20, Spartan warriors learned to wield the dory spear and shield and backup swords. Because of their intense discipline and military training, Spartans were renowned as tough warriors with one of the most sophisticated armies in the ancient world.
Warrior Ethos As A Way Of Life
Warrior ethos permeated every aspect of a warrior’s life, far beyond the battlefield. Spartans, Samurai, and Sioux fully embraced the virtues of selflessness, loyalty, discipline, honor, integrity, courage, and duty. Warriors from these cultures were elite, trained from an early age in the most advanced military techniques available. They held themselves to demanding standards of both physical and ethical excellence, more than willing to sacrifice their own lives for the honor of protecting the people. When the 300 Spartans were told that the Persian arrows would be so many as to block out the sun, Spartan leader Dienekes replied, “Good news, for if the Medes hide the sun then we shall fight them in the shade.”
As demonstrated by Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors, warrior ethos demanded that they resolutely face death and never lose the will to victory. Even 2,500 years later, he and his men serve as a heroic example of courageous resistance against impossible odds. If you travel to Thermopylae today, you’ll see the spirit of warrior ethos inscribed on the Leonidas monument in two simple words: “Molon labe” or “Come and take them.“