By: C. Rose Widmann
March 20th, 2023
“That city is well fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.” — Lycurgus of Sparta
When the Greek King Pyrrus turned his sights on Sparta in 272 B.C.E., he saw a city sparsely defended. The Spartan Army was on campaign in Crete, and reinforcements would take time to arrive. Anticipating little resistance, Pyrrus ordered his troops to rest the night, allowing unlikely Spartan heroes to rise up and defend their city.
A similar situation occurred the night of February 13th, 2023 C.E. when the order was given for those on campus at Michigan State University to “Run. Fight. Hide.” as a mass shooting event unfolded. In the chaos, an army of modern-day Spartans rose to the defense.
I was in the IM West Sports building at a fencing event when the alerts began to come in. We sheltered in place in our fencing armory, partly because it was the safest place we could think of, and partly because it was comforting to be in our space during times of turmoil. After a while, we were moved into the inner workout rooms so that staff could lock down the rest of the building. Some of us took swords with us, knowing that our weapons wouldn’t be of use against bullets, but feeling the need to defend ourselves anyway.
After gathering together, staff requested volunteers to build defenses at the doors in case of a breach. In 272 B.C.E., defenses looked like women and elders digging trenches and sinking wagons into the Earth to stop Pyrrus’ advance. That night, we rolled weights and benches over to the doors, and closed the gaps with whatever we found.
During the Siege of Sparta, there was discussion of sending the women and children to Crete to wait out Pyrrus’ attack. Spartan nobility dissuaded that idea, and the Spartan women aided in the city’s fortifications. When IM West staff asked for volunteers to man the entry points they asked for “men,” and then they asked for anyone with hand-to-hand combat experience. Volunteers of every gender identity stepped up.
Those of us who didn’t, or couldn’t, volunteer looked on as those who did armed themselves as best they could with what they could find. Hand weights, plate weights, bars, and even chains from belts and machines became weapons of defense as we waited and listened to the news. I even saw someone in my huddle pick up a dumbbell and wrap it in a coat so they could swing it in self-defense if needed.
At one point, we were all silenced and asked to move toward the emergency doors. Staff had heard a loud noise outside and were taking preventive measures. We sat wherever we could; treadmills, benches, ellipticals, medicine and yoga balls. We could hear loud noises on the outer doors as well as the sounds of helicopters overhead. Due to the number of reports being made, we had no idea if we were actually under attack, or where the gunman was on campus. Rumors of bomb threats and false fire alarms circulated among the groups huddled in the workout center. Each sound heightened the tension and fear in the room, and all we could do was wait.
While the historical Spartans fought for days before relief came, our siege only lasted a matter of hours before our release. Our injuries and casualties are nowhere near the estimated historical numbers of the Siege of Sparta, but the loss of three Spartans and the injury of five are nearer and rawer to our collective heart. We aren’t, after all, a community trained for battling in a phalanx. We’re a University with a commitment to the Arts, renowned STEM programs and we participate in football rivalries instead of conquests and wars.
A common sentiment amongst some of my peers is that it was, and is, only a matter of time before we all experience a mass shooting. But that only serves to add to the shock, anger and guilt we as a community have been processing since February 13th. There is no simple, quick solution to ending the violence our campuses, schools and businesses have experienced, and will continue to experience. This uncertainty can dim the hope that the survivors of these horrific events must hold onto to thrive.
I am holding on to the image of the modern Spartan, and my hope for institutional change lies with them. When I was frightened and sitting in the dark of IM West, I looked around and saw a volunteer at a sentry post. This image has stuck with me through the aftermath of that night and beyond. The volunteer was holding a plate weight like a shield, and a bar like a spear. In the dim light, their hoodie created a ridge over their head like a helmet, and they looked every bit the modern Spartan defending their home and people. Because of them, I was able to hope for an end to that long night, and hope for the healing process to begin.
I am immensely grateful to that person, and to every volunteer and staff member who kept us safe that night. While there is no immediate answer to the violence, the outpouring of love and support has shown that in the wake of tragedy, our modern Sparta will continue to stand.
C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a 2nd-year MA student in Arts and Cultural Management. They have been an editor and writer for The Current since 2021. When not reading or writing, they are competing for both the MSU club fencing and gymnastics teams. Insta: @C.rosewidmann