The Origins of the Olympics and the First Modern Olympics for Kids

Have you ever been in front of a crowd? If you have, what did it feel like? Can you imagine thousands of people watching you, waiting to see what you do? Also imagine if you were competing in your favorite sport. That sounds really intimidating, doesn’t it? This is what it feels like for someone participating in the Olympics, which will be held again this month! 

Believe it or not, the Olympics are a tradition that have ancient roots, all the way back to 7th century BCE Greece, over 2,500 years ago! They happen every 2 years and switch between the Winter and Summer games. Usually around 200 countries come together to participate. It is an amazing show of worldwide unity and putting aside differences to celebrate sport and achievement.

The Ancient Olympics were part of a festival to honor the Greek god Zeus, who was the father of all the other gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. They were held every 4 years at Olympia, which was named after Mt. Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. The competitors came from everywhere in the Greek world. From Iberia, present day Spain, to the Black Sea, near Turkey.

Although some sources say that it’s possible that the Olympics began in the 9th or 10th century BCE, the agreed upon year the Olympics started is 776 BCE. It is said that the only event for the first 13 festivals was the stadion, a foot race 600 ft long. The first recorded person to win the race was a cook from the city of Elis. I thought it was pretty cool that a cook won the first race. Eventually other sports were added which included running races, jumping, wrestling, boxing, horse-related events, discus, and so on.

The Olympics were held in Ancient Greece for almost 1200 years. The Olympics became less frequent starting in the 2nd century BCE when the Romans invaded Greece. Sometimes they would interfere by trying to declare themselves the winner. Not very fair, right? The Olympics came to an end in 393 CE when Emperor Theodosius I declared an end to all pagan festivals. Pagan began festivals that celebrated the Greek gods.

It was 1,500 years until the Olympics finally returned. A man from France named Pierre de Coubertin was visiting the ancient Olympic site in Greece when he had an idea. He was very interested in physical education and wanted others to be, too. He thought that starting the Olympics games back up would inspire others to be physically fit, too! 

He shared his idea to start the Olympics in November 1892. Two years later he got permission to create the International Olympic Committee, which is the same group in charge of the Olympics even to this day! A Greek man named Demetrius Vikelas was elected to be the first president. Through Coubertin and Vikelas’ hard work, and many people across the world donating, enough money was raised to help Greece host the Olympics. Two years later in 1896 they held the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece. People from all over the world came to watch the first modern Olympics and over 80,000 people filled the stadium during opening ceremonies! More people attended this event than any sporting event in history. There were 280 people participating from 14 different countries. Some of the different sports were cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, racing, weightlifting, tennis and wrestling. 

During the first modern Olympics winners were awarded silver medals and the runners up were awarded copper medals. As you may know today the medals are gold, silver, and bronze. The United States won 11 silver medals and Greece won the most medals overall, 46. Runners up were Germany, France and Great Britain. A highlight of the Olympics was Greek marathon runner, Spyridion Louis, winning the marathon and the most competitive participant was German wrestler, Carl Schumann, who won 4 events. 

The first winter Olympics were held in 1924. For 70 years, both the Summer and Winter Olympics were held during the same year. It wasn’t until 1994 that they were split and began switching every 2 years.

There are many symbols around the Olympics, like the flag and the motto that have deep meaning.

The Olympic flag was originally created by Coubertin in 1913. It is a white background with five rings: blue, yellow, black, green and red. The five rings were to represent the 5 continents: Europe, Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. Coubertin chose those colors because together they represented the colors of all the countries participating. He took the rings interlocking from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, interlocking rings symbolized to Jung continuity and the human being. It was a flag created to represent everyone, truly an international symbol.

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger” It was suggested by Coubertin at the original International Olympic Committee meeting. It was a saying that a friend of his, Henri Didon, who was a priest and a teacher came up with. Coubertin said “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” It was officially introduced at the 1924 games. 

The Olympic creed was said by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, in a sermon during the 1908 Olympics. He said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The Olympic Anthem is played when the Olympic flag is raised and even though it was performed at the first modern Olympics in 1896, it wasn’t made the official anthem until 1958. It was composed by Spyridon Samaras; the words are from a poem by the Greek writer Kostis Palamas. The poem is a celebration of the Olympics, and the sense of a worldwide friendship that comes with Olympics. A small part of it says, “As now we come across the world/To share these Games of old/Let all the flags of every land/In brotherhood unfold   Sing out each nation, voices strong/Rise up in harmony/All hail our brave Olympians/With strains of victory”. The anthem shows just how much the Olympics are meant to unify us.

Anciently, the prize for winning (only first place was recognized anciently) was a kotinos, a wild olive branch intertwined to form a circle. The kotinos was made from a sacred olive tree by the temple of Zeus near Olympia. But of course now first, second and third place are awarded medals. The front of the medal shows an image of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and the back shows the host country of the games. Olympic diplomas are then given to fourth through eighth places. 

There is a modern Olympic tradition that was introduced at the Berlin Games in 1936. Months before the games are held, a torch is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. To do this the Sun is used to light the torch using a parabolic reflector (kind of like a giant mirror shaped like a bowl). The torch is then taken out of Greece to the host country and travels around before the games, staying lit the entire time. Sometimes on it’s way to the host country it is taken to really exciting places. The flame has gone underwater, to the North Pole and even to Outer Space! It has been carried by both famous people and ordinary people. The first day of the Olympics is called Opening Ceremonies. The day of Opening Ceremonies it is taken to a cauldron that is used to light the ceremonies. Here all of the participants parade around the stadium carrying flags representing their different countries. It’s an exciting day for the participants and for the world!

Today the Olympics includes many more sports than the first modern Olympics which beyond the traditional sports include basketball, baseball, volleyball, BMX, diving, soccer, hockey, karate, skateboarding, surfing, and trampolines.

The Olympic games come from the desire to be a part of something more, and while no country is perfect, it is incredible to see what we can accomplish when we work together, instead of apart. As we go into this exciting worldwide tradition this month and next, think about what you can do to contribute to unity in your world. Unity or to unify means to come together, to work together, to be one. Think about what this means as a family, friends, in your school and community. Our small efforts always have a bigger effect than we think they will. How can you make a difference?

Also, as you watch the Olympics, think about sports you are interested in, or might be interested in! Physical activity is good for your body and mind. Studies show that exercising makes you happier! When you move about and play and exercise chemicals in your brain are released that make you feel better and feel less stress. Isn’t that cool? I know for me it feels to get out and run or ride my bike or swim with my kids. It clears my mind and it gives me added strength or energy. Spend some time thinking about how you might add more physical activity to your life, and maybe by watching the Olympics you’ll be inspired to try a new sport.

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha For Kids

Close your eyes and imagine you’re a prince or a princess, living in a giant, luxurious palace. There your parents make sure that you have everything you could ever want or need: lots of toys, fine clothes, the best education. You’re surrounded by beautiful gardens and expensive things. You have servants to clean up after you, bring your food, and help with everything. When you’re not learning from private tutors, you spend your days swimming, practicing archery and swordsmanship, and riding horses. The palace is so massive, it’s your entire world and you never even need to leave. 

Now imagine you decide to give that all up. You’re not happy with that life. You wonder if life has a greater meaning. You wonder if possessions can ever make people truly happy and content. This was the life Siddhartha Gautama found himself in. You might have heard of him: now, we call him Buddha. 

The story of how Siddhartha became Buddha begins even before his birth. Siddhartha’s father was king of a small kingdom in northern India in the sixth century BCE over 2,500 years ago!  Several years before Siddhartha was born, the king was visited by sages, or wise men, who told him his son would be either a great king, or a great holy man. Of course, Siddhartha’s father wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and be a great king.  So when Siddhartha was born in 567 BCE, his father decided to shelter his son from the world, so he wouldn’t know about suffering and death. He thought that if Siddhartha never saw bad things in the world, he wouldn’t want to fix them, and so he wouldn’t want to become a holy man. 

So Siddhartha grew up surrounded by all the comforts and privileges money could buy. When he became a young man, he married a woman named Gopa. He seemed to have it all, but the plan Siddhartha’s father made for him to become a great king was about to fall apart. Instead of accepting the life of luxury that he was given, Siddhartha grew restless living in the palace. One day, he asked his father to let him go on a chariot ride to see the city around the palace. His father agreed, but told the chariot driver to stay in the richer parts of the city, close to the palace, to avoid letting Siddhartha see people who were poor or suffering. 

Siddhartha set out in the chariot with his driver. Before long, they saw an old man, slowly hobbling along the road, looking as if he might fall over at any moment. Siddhartha had never seen such an old man, and he asked his driver what was wrong with him. 

His driver replied, “He is very old. His body has grown weak with age. You too will grow old someday. All people do.”

Siddhartha was disturbed, but asked him to drive on. Later in the ride, they saw a sick man lying by the side of the road. He was groaning and looked very unhappy. Again, Siddhartha asked what was wrong with the man. 

His driver replied, “He is sick with a terrible disease. Everyone gets sick sometimes. Someday, you will get sick.”

Siddhartha felt terrible, seeing this man suffering, but they continued their ride through the city. 

On their way back to the palace, they came across a funeral procession. People were crying and moaning. For a third time, Siddhartha asked his chariot driver what was happening.

Again, his driver replied. “Someone has died, and these people are his friends and family. They are mourning for him.”  

When Siddhartha returned home, he could not stop thinking about the old man, the sick man, and the funeral. He thought about these things happening to his father and mother, to his wife, and to himself. He realized that all the treasure in the palace, all the servants waiting on him, all the beautiful things surrounding him, could not prevent him or anyone else from the sad things he sad. He realized that he wanted to find a way to help people overcome suffering. 

Once he realized these things, Siddhartha knew he could no longer live an easy life in the palace. So one day, he said goodbye to his family, and set out to find the cause of suffering. He cut his hair and lived as an ascetic – someone who chooses to live in poverty and simplicity. He studied meditation with great holy men and discussed the problem of suffering with them, but after many years of living this way, he still didn’t know why it happened, or how he could prevent it.

Finally, he decided to sit and meditate under a bodhi tree. He vowed not to leave until he had the answer to the problem of human suffering.  Siddhartha sat meditating day and night, still and calm as a statue, for six days. On the sixth day, he opened his eyes and realized he understood the nature of suffering. He became enlightened and from then on was known as Buddha, which means awakened one. 

For the rest of his life, Buddha travelled throughout India, teaching others about what he had discovered. He taught people the four noble truths he had realized about suffering. The first truth is that everyone suffers and has hard things happen to them. It’s just part of life. 

The second truth is that we suffer because we are always wanting more, and trying to hold onto what we have. This might sound surprising. Didn’t he start his quest because he saw people who were suffering because they were old, sick, and dying? Buddha thought that the real reason we suffer is not because bad things happen to us, but because we allow negative feelings and desires to take over our thinking. If we’re sick, we lie around feeling sorry for ourselves, and wishing we were well. But then when we’re healthy, we think of other things we want, but don’t have, and we still suffer. 

Think about a time when you really wanted a new toy or game. It probably felt very unfair that you didn’t have it, and then, if you did get it, you might have been happy for a short time, but then you were just back to normal and wanted something new. We become attached to things, or even ideas of things, and those things are not permanent. This keeps us spending all our time wanting things we don’t have, and worrying we’ll lose what we do have. He taught that things like toys and games and other things we might buy don’t really make us happy deep down and any happiness we do feel doesn’t last.

The third truth is that we can overcome suffering. Once we overcome suffering, Buddha thought, we could reach a state of nirvana, or perfect peace and happiness, just as he did when he meditated under the bodhi tree. 

Finally, the fourth truth tells us how to overcome suffering. The way Buddha thought we overcome suffering is by following what he called the “eightfold path.” I won’t go over all eight parts of the path, but basically, to follow the eightfold path, we must always try to improve ourselves: this means being kind and honest; try not to harm anyone or anything; and act with compassion. We must also learn to pay attention to their own thoughts. As we pay attention to our thoughts we can better understand the thoughts that make us feel sad. This helps us think in a new way. This paying attention to our thoughts is called meditation.

Buddha taught that following the eight-fold path creates good karma.  Karma is the idea that everything you do has a consequence, whether good or bad. Kind actions tend to have positive consequences, and unkind actions, negative consequences. This isn’t a consequence like a reward or a punishment – it’s just a thing that happens as a result of an action. He taught that by building up a lot of good karma, you can reach nirvana, a state of true enlightenment. 

Buddha spent the rest of his life travelling around India, teaching what he had discovered to anyone who wanted to learn. He encouraged his followers to try out the practices he taught for themselves, to see how well they worked, and to gather in communities to learn and help each other. Community was important, because Buddha knew that to be truly happy, people need to feel compassion and kindness for both themselves and others. This is called metta in Buddhism.

After its beginnings in India, Buddhism spread throughout South and East Asia, and was practiced widely in Tibet, Bhutan, Thailand, China, and Japan, among others. Today, people around the world practice Buddhism in different forms. For some it’s a religion, but for others it’s simply a way of looking at life.

Like Buddha taught, you can take the time to meditate each day. Meditating is a good chance to breathe deeply and slow your thoughts. It can also help you look closely at your thoughts. Your thoughts often lead to how you’re feeling. So if you have lots of negative thoughts those may be causing negative feelings. Breathing deeply and clearing your mind can give you the positive energy you need to help yourself and help others. There are a lot of great ways to start meditating. You can find videos, podcasts and apps, that can get your started. But the simplest way is to just set a timer and try and sit and relax during that time while breathing deeply. 

Also, like Buddha taught, remember that things that we buy won’t always make us happy. Toys eventually break, or they go out of fashion, and we’ll always want something new. Think about how you might turn your attention to more important things like spending time with your family and friends, learning something new, or doing good for others. These are things that last longer and will give you greater, deeper joy.   

I hope you enjoyed this episode about Buddha. Be sure to check in next Monday for a new episode!

Sources

Fields, Rick. “Who Is the Buddha?” in: Tricycle, Spring 1997. https://tricycle.org/magazine/who-was-buddha-2/

Meyers, Rachel. Curiosity Chronicles: Snapshots of Ancient History. Little Monster Schooling, 2017.

Nagaraja, Dharmachari. Buddha at Bedtime.Watkins, 2016.

The History of the Pyramids of Egypt for Kids

Imagine the year is 1932 and you are in Egypt with a team of archaeologists exploring the ancient pyramids.  As you enter a dark dark hallway, you use torches to light the way.  Ahead is your guide, a local Egyptian, who is showing the way deeper and deeper into the pyramid.  It is dark and you are scared, but you keep going.  The hallway smells very musty; there has not been fresh air in this hallway for many years.  As you turn a corner, you see the door to a tomb.  You push back stones and other debris and after pushing forward with your torch, the next room lights up and it is overflowing with ancient treasures. You can’t believe your eyes! You see gold and gems and more artifacts than you’d ever have imagined. And lying in the center is the greatest discovery of all — a mummified Egyptian king! 

The Egyptian Pyramids are some of the most amazing man-made structures in history. At the time that they were built, Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful civilizations in the world.  A civilization is the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area. The Egyptian pyramids were built over 4,000 years ago, but they still remain a mysterious and amazing piece of history. They also give us an idea of the wealth and glory of Ancient Egypt.

Thousands of years ago, Egypt was a poor country.  Then it started to grow in population and wealth around 3,000 BC. The Nile River is how Egypt became more wealthy as it could farm using the river and trade with other peoples. As Egypts power and wealth grew, so did the power and wealth of its kings. Kings in ancient Egypt held a unique position.  They were seen as being ½ human and ½ god. The Egyptian people believed that the king was someone who was chosen by the gods to work between the gods and people on earth. 

Ancient Egyptians believed that when the king died, part of his spirit remained in his body. Because they saw the king as working with the gods, they believed they needed to take care of the king’s body after his death and preserve it as much as possible. This is why the ancient Egyptians started to make mummies.  They wrapped the king’s bodies to keep it safe. Mummies are bodies of a human beings or animals that have been preserved.

After a king died, the Egyptian people mummified the body and buried the king with the things that they thought he would need in the afterlife.  This included gold, food and other valuable things. The Egyptians believed that the riches would go to the afterlife with the king and that the king could use the things he was buried with to care for himself and his relatives in the afterlife.

Around 5,000 years ago Egyptian people began creating royal tombs called “mastabas”, which came before the pyramids.  Mastabas were caves carved into rock and covered with a flat-rock roof.  Egyptians at the time put the mummified dead body of a king after he had passed away into the mastabas and covered it with the flat rock roof.  This became a preserved little room for the mummy and his things before he moved to the afterlife.

Eventually mastabas were made into bigger structures that were more beautiful and could house more things.  

In 2630 B.C., an architect and priest named Imhotep designed a mastaba for the King Djoser.  It was build up into a small “step pyramid” and was later considered to be the oldest known pyramid in Egypt.  It was built in the city of Saqqara.  At that time, king’s usually started the building of their masabas while they were still alive and would oversee the work.  King Djoser asked Imhotep to design this structure, which pyramid builders then put together.  It had six stepped layers of stone and was 204 feet or 62 meters high.  It was the tallest building of its time.

After King Djoser, the stepped pyramid became popular and Egyptian kings going forward had similar buildings constructed. Because these tombs were built while the kings were still alive, and ancient Egyptians lived much shorter lives than people do today, pyramids were often started for kings but not finished. Many kings died before they were complete, and the project would then be abandoned.

The first smooth-sided pyramid was built in Dahshur for King Sneferu in the late 2500s B.C.  It was called the Red Pyramid because of the colour of the blocks used to build the pyramid’s core. Pyramid’s started to be built with smooth angled sides to symbolize rays of sun.  They were designed to help the king go up to heaven and join the gods after they died.

The most famous pyramids in the world today are the Great Pyramids of Giza.  They are located near the Nile River in Cairo city. The oldest and biggest of the three Giza pyramids is the “Great Pyramid”.  It was built for King Khufu around 2570 B.C. It was originally 481.4 feet or 147 meters tall and is the largest pyramid in the world.  Do you know why there are three small pyramids lined up next to the Great Pyramid?  They were built for King Khufu’s queens. Ancient Egyptians usually built mastabas close to their family so that they could be with each other and support each other in the afterlife.

The middle pyramid at Giza was built for King Khufu’s son. This is the pyramid on which the Great Sphinx is carved.  The Great Sphinx is a carved statue of a man’s head with the body of a lion. It was a guardian for the King’s son’s tomb and was also the image of the god Horus.

The third of the Great Pyramids was built for the King’s grandson. It is the shortest of the three Great Pyramids. Later, future kings started to build their pyramids smaller than the Great Pyramid, and would build them closer in size to this smaller one.

Have you ever thought about the incredible amount of work and high level of design that would be required to successfully build a pyramid? For the Great Pyramid, about 2.3 million blocks of stone had to be cut and carried to the site.  It took 20 years to build the biggest of the pyramids and 20,000 to 100,000 men worked on it!

Beginning in about 2350 B.C., pyramid builders began to write about things that happened during the king’s life on the walls of the king’s tomb.  These were inscribed “hieroglyphics” or ancient symbols or writing.

From 2300 to 2100 B.C., pyramids continued to be built in Egypt but they were usually smaller and less well built than the earlier pyramids. This was because the wealth and power of the Egyptian kings was less and less during this time. The last king that built pyramids in ancient Egypt was Pepy II.  He became king when he was just a young boy and he ruled for 94 years. He built a shorter pyramid at Saqqara before his death.  After he died, the wealth of Egypt was getting smaller and people no longer saw the king’s as half-gods as they used to. 

In later years, Egyptian kings’ built pyramids again but they were never as big or amazing as the great pyramids.  But the mysteries of the ancient Egyptian pyramids carried on and still interests people around the world today. Most of the bodies and treasures from the old pyramids have been removed now, either by tomb raiders or by people wanting to protect them.  You can find some of these items in museums today. Millions of people continue to visit the pyramids each year to see these amazing structures that teach about Egypt’s rich and amazing past. 

Take some time to think about what it took to build these pyramids. The architects who built them had to understand math and physics and spent a lot of time drawing out plans and preparing before anyone started moving stones. Imagine the hard work and determination it took to work on these pyramids for many years. You should try designing your own pyramid with a pencil and paper. What would it look like? How many rooms would it have inside? Would it have any secret passages. 

Also, would you like to travel to Egypt one day and see the Great Pyramids?  Maybe someday you will travel to Egypt and step inside one of these amazing historical structures!

History of Athens and Sparta for Kids

Greek Parthenon

Close your eyes and imagine you’re walking down an ancient, stone road. In the distance, you hear music and the voices of people gathering and singing songs. You join the crowd along the road and slowly walk up a very tall hill. At the top of the hill is a magnificent white building supported by gigantic marble pillars. People are streaming into the building as they clap their hands, sing and celebrate. Inside the temple, you gaze up at an enormous statue of Athena, the greek god who protects your city. You place a wreath of flowers and food at her feet as an offering. Others around you do the same. Today is Panathenia, the festival celebrating Athena’s birthday. It’s the most important holiday of the year in the city of Athens.

Tonight we’re going to learn about Athens and Sparta, two of the earliest civilizations in Western History. Athens and Sparta were located in what is now known as Greece in Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. 

Around 2,500 years ago Greece had over 1,000 city-states. A city-state was like a very small country. Athens and Sparta were two of the most powerful. At the time the Persian Empire controlled Greece and many of the city-states. But the Greek city-states wanted to be free of Persian rule, so they went to war and eventually beat the Persians during the Battle of Marathon. After the Greco-Persian War Athens and Sparta grew in number of people and in wealth.

Even though they lived nearby each other, the people of Athens and Sparta couldn’t be more different. The people of Athens were known for their love of wisdom and subjects such as philosophy, history, science, and art. The word philosophy is a Greek word that means “love of wisdom.” The earliest and most famous philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were Greek. They spent their days studying the world around them and reflecting on their own thoughts. One of Socrates most famous quotes was an “unexamined life is not worth living,” which means we should focus on trying to understand our own thoughts and motivations and trying to make sense of the world around us. Inscribed on the Temple of Delphi were the words: “know thyself.” As we come to understand our own minds and intentions, we can improve ourselves and likewise the world around us. The philosopher Aristotle was known for studying nature and making observations about it. He was fascinated by the world around him. 

During its Golden Age Athens formed one of the first democratic governments, which means large groups of people made decisions for their city-state rather than a single ruler. This style of government was ahead of its time and later influenced the democratic governments we enjoy today, ruled by the people instead of a king. One of their leaders was named Pericles. Pericles was a talented speaker who loved wisdom and was known for thinking rationally, which means making decisions based on truth rather than strong emotions. The people loved Pericles and he led them to make good decisions for Athens. Most children were able to attend school and taxes were used to make the city a better place. The Athenians built beautiful temples to the Greek gods. The Parthenon was the most famous temple whose ruins can still be seen today on Acropolis Hill. Inside the Parthenon, they built sculptures of the goddess Athena and Zeus, the god of sky and thunder. 

The Athenians wrote stories about their gods, which became known as Greek Mythology. Each of the gods had personalities and behaved like humans. Sometimes they were angry, sometimes they were happy, and even threw parties. In the stories, the gods fought wars and often used humans to do the fighting for them. The Athenians used their gods to explain acts of nature like hurricanes and the crash of thunder. The stories often also included moral stories to teach how people should behave. Some of the other well-known gods were Poseidon, god of the sea, Hera, goddess of marriage and family, and Ares, god of war. 

The theater was also very popular in Athens. The people loved to gather and watch plays and listen to songs and music. Some of the great playwrights of the time were Sophocles, Euripedes, Aeschylus (ES-kul-us), and Aristophane. 

The Athenians loved art and wisdom, but to protect themselves and secure their freedoms, they also built a powerful navy. A navy was important because Greece was located on the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by islands and other coastal city-states, which often attacked each other. Athen’s navy was made up of triremes (tri-remes), huge wooden warships that carried 170 rowers manning 3 banks of oars. The ships were 100 feet long and 20 feet wide. At one point Athens had over 400 warships and 80,000 sailors that protected their coasts. All young men joined the military when they were 18.

Athens wasn’t the only powerful city-state in Greece at the time. Sparta was another very powerful city-state, but they couldn’t be more different than their neighbors. The Spartans were ruled by two kings and a small group of leaders who controlled the people by force. They prized military strength above all else. They were all about being strong and dangerous — a true warrior society. At the age of 7, Spartans joined a military school called the Agoge (ah-go-gey), that trained to be tough and fierce. They went everywhere barefoot, so their feet could be strong. They ate bland food and wore uncomfortable clothes to toughen them. They learned how to wrestle and fight as soldiers. They were taught self-control and to be courageous in the face of danger. All Spartans were expected to devote their lives to their city-state above all their personal wants and needs.

Sparta was made up of three groups: the Spartans, who were full citizens and full-time soldiers, the Helots, who were slaves to the Spartans, and the Perioeci (peer-ee-oh-see), skilled craftsmen who built things such as homes and weapons of war.

Spartan soldiers were called hoplites. In battle, they wore bronze helmets, breastplates, and red cloaks. They carried large round shields, and a spear or sword. They were truly fierce warriors and were known for their tight fighting formation called a phalanx. In a phalanx, hoplites stood close together with their shields overlapping to form a single wall of armor. Then they attacked together as one body. 

One of the most famous Spartans was King Leonidas, who led his army against the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. According to Greek historians, when Leonidas saw they were losing he sent most of his troops home, but stayed with 300 soldiers to fight a much larger army of Persians for three days. Leonidas and the other Spartans fought bravely, but the Persians found a way around them and eventually won. Even though Leonidas and his army lost, they would forever be remembered for their courage to continue fighting even when they were outnumbered.  

Spartan women were known for being strong-minded and independent. They were also expected to be fit and physically strong. They received some education and competed in games such as javelin throwing and wrestling. They also enjoyed dancing and singing and were able to own their own property, which wasn’t common in other parts of Greece.

Sadly, Sparta and Athens didn’t get along. As they grew more powerful, Athens tried to control the other city-states like Sparta, who wouldn’t stand for it. In 431 B.C. Sparta and its allies attacked Athens in what became known as The Peloponnesian War. Athens had a strong navy, but Sparta was stronger on land and besieged Athens. A siege is when one army surrounds the city of its enemy. During the siege a plague also hit Athens and many of its people didn’t survive, making the city even weaker. Surprisingly, Athens survived the siege, but the war went on another 15 years. Athens tried to use its navy to beat Sparta, but in 405 B.C. the Spartan general Lysander and his armies finally beat Athen’s navy and besieged the city once again. This time they conquered. Athens had to surrender and join the new Spartan Empire. 

Eventually Sparta faced its own problems, like the revolt of its slave class who didn’t want to be ruled anymore. By around 300 B.C. the more powerful empire of Alexander the Great conquered Greece and the Sparta, too. 

Even though Athens lost the war against Sparta, their ideas about philosophy and history and science and art spread throughout Greece and beyond. Later the Roman Empire admired Greek thought and culture and it’s beautiful sculptures were admired through the ages. During the Renaissance Greek culture was rediscovered by the Italians and once again the philosophy of Socrates and Plato was read. In fact, you can read their writings today and they have formed the foundation of modern philosophy.

Tonight think about the values of each of these amazing groups of people. Neither were perfect, but you can take what is best about them and apply it to your own life. The Athenians loved the mind and wisdom. What does it mean to you to “know yourself”? Spend some time thinking about your own thoughts and why you do things or maybe why you were upset about something the other day. As you come to know yourself first, you can better manage yourself, and in turn help those around you.

Also think about Aristotle and how curious he was about the world around him. He studied every living thing he saw: the sky, the trees, the birds and other animals. He made observations about them and continued learning and sharing his ideas with others. 

The Greeks loved beauty and found ways to express it through their sculptures. You could do the same by drawing beautiful things around you.

The Spartans were dangerous and aggressive, but we can take their values of courage, strength and apply them to ourselves. Spartan children didn’t always get what they wanted, this taught them to have self-control. Sometimes when we get everything we want, we don’t appreciate things as much. They also found ways to strengthen their bodies by running and swimming and doing sports. It’s important to keep your own body strong and healthy. Think of ways you can be physically fit like a Spartan.

Spartans also had courage and continued to fight even when they were outnumbered. The struggles you face may not always be physical, it may just be a problem you’re trying to solve or something you’re trying to be better at, but you can continue trying and persevering even when it seems like you can’t win.

May you have the mind and heart of an Athenian and the strength and courage of a Spartan!