The ancient Greek city of Sparta has taken on the mantle of a legend. It was renowned for its apparently invincible hoplite1 warriors. History books classify Spartan society as 'brutal', 'culturally, economically and politically stagnant', and so on. The problem is, Greek history is most commonly supplied to us from the other great city-state of Greece, Athens - Sparta's traditional enemy. The two were complete opposites, and one of the best examples of this was in their concepts of the individual's relationship to the state. Spartan society saw service to the city as the citizen's greatest role, while Athens prized its inhabitants' civil liberties and individuality. The rivalry, then, between Sparta and Athens, which would erupt into the Peloponnesian War2 , was also an ideological and cultural one.
The Founding of Sparta
Between 1100 and 900 BC, central Greece was subjected to the immigration of the Dorians, a culturally unsophisticated (in comparison to the Mycenaean Greeks) but fierce people coming from what is now Albania. The Mycenaean civilisation which preceded them melted away and the Dorians settled in the southern part of the Greek peninsula, at Sparta. The town was divided into four villages - Cynosura, Mesoa, Limnae and Pitana. The area had been of little importance in Mycenaean culture, but the Dorians would transform it.
About half way through the 8th Century BC the Dorians had grown confident enough to expand. They incorporated the settlement of Amyclae, a couple of kilometres to the south, into their growing city. Then they began to look west, over Mt. Taygetus, where the rich city-state of Messenia lay.
The Messenian War
In 725 BC the Spartans, after a series of skirmishes and raids against Messenia, marched over the Taygetus Mountains and annexed all its territory. The Messenians occupied a fertile plain and the Spartans found themselves with more than enough land to support themselves and their newly conquered people. However, the conquered did not give up without a fight. They obtained an alliance with the city-state of Argos, and revolted in 640 BC. And not only did the Messenians come close to victory, they also came close to razing the city of Sparta itself to the ground.
This was what transformed Sparta into what it is known as today. They eventually won the war against the Messenian rebels, after the eleven year siege of the stronghold of Ira, and found themselves at the forefront of the society of Greek city-states which was beginning to form, and which would come to power in the Classical Period. Controlling the territory of a subject population that outnumbered their own by ten to one, they were in a dangerous position. So the Spartans took up a new political system as dramatically revolutionary as Athenian democracy in the east.
The Messenians formed the majority of the Helots3 (agricultural slaves) which gave Sparta its economic power. They lived a life similar to that of the medieval peasant, working on small plots of land on estates owned by Spartans; part of their produce went to the master of the estate, and the remainder went to the Helot farmer and his family. There is no question that the life of the Helots was a miserable life. Labour was long and hard and the Helots always lived right on the border of subsistence4.
This wasn't the only change - the society itself metamorphosed. The military and the state became the centre of every Spartan's existence, their raison d'être. The state determined whether children, both male and female, were strong when they were born; weaklings were left in the hills to die of exposure. This in itself was a reasonably common practice in the Greek world, but Sparta changed it into a state responsibility rather than a domestic activity.
Every male of Spartan (and Dorian, if one goes back far enough) blood was a warrior, and nothing else. The Spartan soldier spent his life with his comrades. He lived in barracks and ate all his meals with his fellow soldiers. He also married, but he was forbidden from living with his wife. It was an Athenian joke that Spartans had children before they even saw the face of their wives. The marriage ceremony involved an unusual ritual: at the end of the ceremony, the man carried his wife off as if he were taking her by force (do not mull too much on this point - women had great status in Sparta, as we shall see). Only at the age of 30 did the Spartan become an 'equal', and was allowed to live in his own house with his own family — although it was still compulsory to serve in the military. Military service ended at the age of 60.
So how did the soldier survive? How did Sparta manage to feed herself when all her young men were full-time warriors? It is true that each soldier was granted a piece of land, the kleros, but he rarely if ever saw it. This land was farmed, of course, by the Helots. The Helots were essentially what allowed the rise and rise of Sparta.
A New Society
Spartan life was governed by the principles of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of the Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. While the Athenians and many others thought the Spartans were insane, the life of the Spartans seemed to hark back to a more basic way of life. Civilisation was often seen as bringing disorder, weakness, and a decline in morals. Spartan society, then, exercised a profound pull on the surrounding city-states who admired the order of Spartan life; the new Spartan virtues had always been considered worthy by the Greeks.
Every Spartan was a servant of the state. The individual lived (and died) for the state. Their way of life was designed to serve the state from their childhood to the age of 60 and onwards, either in the army or as part of the governmental system. The combination of this ideology, the education of Spartan males, and the disciplined maintenance of a standing army gave the Spartans the stability that had very nearly been lost in the Messenian revolt.
The Spartan Male
At the age of seven, every male Spartan was sent to a military and athletic school, the Agoge. These schools taught toughness, discipline, endurance of severe pain (very severe pain), and survival skills. At the age of 18, members of the Agoge, now considered fully-fledged warriors and servants of Sparta, were subjected to a harsh system of selection to pick out those who would become officers, members of the royal guard, and even future members of the Spartan council. Some of these formed the Krypteia, or Special Operations Executive5 who were charged with keeping the Helots thoroughly cowed. Spartan men under 16 lived with their families, but once they passed this age they lived together in a barracks, whether they were married or not, until they were 30 years old. They were allowed to live with their families after this, but still ate together in the communal mess6 up to the age of 60, when their spell of military service was ended. After the age of 12, the Spartan teenager was expected to take a young adult warrior as his lover and teacher (called an 'inspirer'; the child was the 'hearer'). Though the relationship was usually sexual, it was more than that; responsibility of educating the youth in the Spartan way of life fell mostly on this mentor.
The Spartan Female
It is a paradox that this soldier-centered state was the most liberal state with regards to the status of women. While women did not go through military training, they were required to be educated along similar lines. The Spartans were the only Greeks to take seriously the education of women. They even instituted it as state policy. This was not, however, an academic education (just as the education of males was not an academic education); it was a physical education which could be gruelling. Infant girls, once deemed strong enough to become part of Spartan society, were subjected to physical and gymnastics training to ensure they would in the future produce strong and healthy children to become soldiers. This education also involved teaching women that their lives should be dedicated to the state. In most Greek states, women were required to stay indoors at all times (though only the upper classes could afford to observe this custom); Spartan women, however, were free to move about, and had an unusual amount of domestic freedom from their husbands. After all, he didn't live at home until the age of thirty.
Society and Government
Spartan society was divided into three main classes. At the top was the Spartiate; the native Spartans who could trace their ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. The Spartiate served in the army and were the only people who enjoyed the full political and legal rights of the state. Below the Spartiate were the Perioeci, or 'dwellers around or about'. These were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the Helots. Because of this vital function, they were accorded a great deal of freedom, far greater than that of the Helots. Trade and commerce were the responsibility of the Perioeci, as the Spartan citizens were not allowed to trade. At the bottom, of course, were the Helots.
Spartan government was an odd affair. It had a monarchy, but even this was not a run-of-the-mill one. Its overwhelming characteristic was stability. This was, after all, what the people craved, and continued to crave after the Messenian War. At the very top of the hierarchy was a small group of five Ephors ('overseers'), collectively known as the Ephorate. For all practical purposes, the Ephorate governed Sparta, for these five men led the council, ran the military, ran the educational system, ran the infant selection system, and had veto power over everything coming out of the council or the assembly. They even had power to depose a king; however, they needed powerful divine proof (in the form of omens or oracles) to exercise this power. Whenever a king left the city to lead an army into battle, two Ephors went with him to supervise his conduct and report back to the other three, and to initiate legal proceedings if necessary. The authority of the Ephors meant the monarchy could never become overly powerful; though this in turn meant that monarchs were constantly on edge and defensive. Internal disputes meant Sparta could not always present a united front against its enemies.
Then came the monarchy - a dual one. Two kings held office at the same time. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the dyarchy originated from the twin sons of King Aristodemus, who founded the two royal houses (the Agiads and the Eurypontids). Since the twins were so similar it was impossible to tell which was older - the one who would inherit the throne - so the twins' mother was consulted. She wanted the best for both her sons (and for both of them to become king if at all possible) and so she told the Spartans she did not know. The Spartans sent to the Oracle of Delphi for a solution to the quandary, and she answered that both children should be seen as kings, but the greatest status given to the elder. In the end, it was a Messenian named Panites who suggested they find out by watching the mother and observing which child was treated better (which was washed and fed first, and so on), and whether she consistently tended one first. They found she did indeed do this, and took the child to whom she gave the greatest attention, declaring him first-born. He was named Eurysthenes, and the other was called Procles. The son of Eurysthenes was Euryphon (hence Eurypontids), and the son of Procles was Agis (hence Agiads). However, it is more likely the dual monarchy was decided on as a compromise between the two leading tribes of Dorians. The Spartan crown was not necessarily passed on from father to son - it could be passed on to the eldest male relative born during the previous king's reign. The dual monarchy did create some problems. There was traditionally a great enmity between the houses, so once again there was another element of internal conflict in the governmental system.
Below the monarchy was a council - the Gerousia - which was composed of the two kings plus 28 nobles, all of whom were over 60; that is, retired from the military. The council debated and set laws and governed foreign policy, and was also the supreme criminal court. The Spartiate selected the council and could even veto council proposals. This strange combination of hierarchal tiers means that the Spartan government, described in modern terms, was a democratic timocratic monarchical oligarchy.
The Rise of Sparta
But the real power lay with the Helots.
They were the oil in the system, but they were also the ones who could put a spanner in the works. The Spartans therefore feared anything that might stir them into revolt. So in the 6th Century BC, the Spartans began to set their military sights on neighbouring states. However, when they conquered their neighbour Tegea, they negotiated with their defeated enemies rather than annexing their land and people. They demanded an alliance of sorts (albeit a one-sided one - few responsibilities were laid on Sparta, while the Tegeans became essentially Sparta's protectorate). Tegea would follow Sparta in all its foreign relationships, including wars, and would supply Sparta with a fixed amount of soldiers and equipment. In exchange, the Tegeans could remain an independent state. This was a brilliant diplomatic move. With this method, Sparta formed alliances with a huge number of states in the southern part of Greece (called the Peloponnese), and had become the major power in Greece when the Persians invaded in 490 BC. Their power eclipsed that of any other Greek city-state. The other great city of Ancient Greece, Athens, had little power at this time though it was the Athenians who first showed that the Persian army had 'many people, but few men among them' at the Battle of Marathon.
After this, the Spartans played a prominent role in the other large battles of the Greco-Persian Wars7 (Thermopylae, Plataea and Mycale), and generally led the alliance of city-states opposing the invasion. Sparta and its Peloponnesian League of allies still held its position of power after the Persians had been pushed out of Greece, but the power of Athens, who had also played a key part in the war, was also rising (to the point where Athens had a great empire of cities scattered across the Aegean Sea and an unmatched navy), and the rivalry between these two states would soon erupt into war once again.
In 465 Sparta was struck by a massive earthquake which left much of the city in ruins. The Messenian Helots (and two Messenian Perioecic towns) took this as a heaven-sent opportunity to take back their freedom and revolted. The length of the revolt is much debated among historians, with some sources saying ten years, others four. At any rate, the revolt ended up with a prolonged siege by the Spartans of Mt. Ithome in Messenia, a natural fortress where the Helots had chosen to make their stand. It was also the place where the first Messenian revolt in the 7th Century BC was finally put down. Eventually the Helots were defeated and subdued, but some of the survivors fled north to the Athenian city of Naupactus, where they were allowed to settle. Athens was actually Sparta's ally at the time, and sent 4,000 soldiers to help put down the revolt, but the Spartans sent them away, made uneasy by their 'revolutionary spirit'8. This was one of the reasons why the Helots were received at Naupactus: the Athenians were insulted by dismissive attitude of the Spartans.
The Peloponnesian War
In no other war were so many cities captured and unpeopled, whether by barbarians or in battles between the Hellenes, nor were so many people murdered or driven from their homes.
The Peloponnesian War9 divided most of the Greek world into the allies of Sparta and the allies of Athens, as shown by this map. The Spartans had been looking for an excuse to start the fighting, and after Athens gave assistance to the city of Corcyra, an enemy of Corinth, it had its chance. From 432 to 404 BC Greece would be at war.
It was the Spartans who made the first move of the war, moving into Athens' home territory of Attica with the goal of starving the city of its grain supply; this, they hoped, would either starve their enemies into submission or force them out into a pitched hoplite battle at which the Spartans excelled. Unfortunately, they did not reckon with the advantages of having an empire as far reaching as that of Athens. Thanks to the Long Walls, which linked Athens to its port city of Piraeus, and its powerful navy, Athens could import all the grain it needed from its other territories. In fact, Attica could only support around 75,000 people with home-grown supplies. The rest of the grain to feed the 250-300,000 people living there came from the Aegean island of Lemnos and Athenian colonies on the Black Sea coast, Cyprus and north Africa. So as long as Athens retained its naval supremacy, it had all the food it needed. Meanwhile, Athens was free to launch raids into the Peloponnesian lands of its enemies.
By 428 BC, the Peloponnesians were growing weary of this method of warfare, which was obviously doing little damage to their enemy. Athens, on the other hand, was growing increasingly bold, and in 425 BC the Athenian Demosthenes established a camp within Messenia itself. Demosthenes had brought with him soldiers from Naupactus (men of Messenian descent), in an attempt to encourage further revolts. This was successful, and the Helots wrought havoc among Spartan holdings in Messenia. The Spartans reacted immediately and sent a roving task force of soldiers (probably from the Krypteia) into the area to stop the raiders. They also sent Brasidas.
The Spartan Brasidas was a belligerent man, but a great commander also, and he was to prove the main thorn in Athens' side. He was allowed to recruit an army with included Helots10. Brasidas was so eager for war that he undermined any attempt on either side to negotiate. In 422 BC he was killed in fighting around Amphipolis.
In 418 BC the two sides met in a huge battle at Mantinea. The Spartan army, much changed from the old days of the Persian Wars due to the inclusion of so many Perioeci and Helots, won a decisive, but hard-fought, victory, proving their supremacy as fighters of pitched battles. The Spartans used this victory to invest heavily in a large fleet of ships, which was what eventually won them the war. The traditional king of the seas, Athens, was defeated and its empire fell apart. The Spartans installed oligarchic government in all the cities of the empire, replacing the old democracies.
After the unconditional surrender of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta became the undisputed major power among the Greek city-states. Stripped of its navy and its empire, Athens simply became just one more city under the political control of its more powerful neighbour in the south. Sparta didn't rule the city-states of Greece as if it were an empire and so this period is called the Spartan Hegemony. It did, however, exercise considerable influence over the domestic and foreign decisions of these independent states. It exercised, then, hegemonic rule.
The Spartan Hegemony
The period of Spartan hegemony saw the first years of the maturing of Greek philosophy. Socrates, who looms large as a principle founder of Greek philosophy, had come to the end of his years when the Age of Pericles closed. He was put to death in 399 BC. Plato, his pupil, who more than anyone else is responsible for synthesising earlier Greek philosophy into a single system, began his activities as a philosopher and teacher in these years. Based in Athens, his school, the Academy, would become the intellectual centre of Greece in the decades to follow.
Though Sparta held, for a time, the whole of Greece in its hand, it like all things, could not last. The fortunes of all the Greek cities were constantly changing, and new challenges were presenting themselves to the greatest city in Greece.
The greatest challenge was not from Sparta's constant rival, Athens, but from Thebes, which had, in 378, transformed itself from an oligarchy into a moderate democracy, and reformed its military system.
The brilliant Theban philosopher and general Epaminondas oversaw many of these reforms, including the creation of the Sacred Band, an elite hoplite force of 150 homosexual couples (each couple fought next to each other in the battle line), intended to prove a match in every respect to even the fearsome Spartan warriors. Thebes managed to enlist the aid of Athens, which was longing for a return to the glory days of its empire, and led an army against the Spartans and their allies in 371. Epaminondas, faced with an army of similar size and skill, won the day with tactical brilliance, leaving the Spartan army in ruins.
Cleombrotus, one of the kings at the time, was killed along with 400 of the 700 Spartiate males at the battle. Since there were only about 1,000 remaining before the battle, Sparta was now in dire straits. The Helots, aided by Epaminondas, revolted once more and overcame the weakened Spartans, taking back Messenia.
Without the economic driving force provided by the Helots, Sparta was crippled, and it would never rise to its old greatness again. It would be absorbed, with little real resistance, into the Roman (and after Rome's fall, Byzantine) Empire.
The Spartan Myth
Sparta was one of the few cities of Greece not to be walled. Walls, like archers, were considered effeminate by the Spartans; men were the preferred means of defence. It is this attitude that has become romanticised over the years (though the more practical reason for having no walls could have been that any encircling rampart would separate the fifth constituent village of Amyclae from the rest of the city).
The heroic last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae in the Persian Wars was what Sparta was famous for, and this fame only grew as the centuries passed. The Scottish historian George Buchanan (in 1579) praised the Spartan kings (especially Leonidas) for their basic lifestyle, criticising modern kings for living in so much luxury. In 1580 Michel de Montaigne wrote:
There are triumphant defeats that rival victories. Salamis, Plataea, Mycale and Sicily are the fairest sister-victories under the sun, yet they would never dare compare their combined glory with the glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men in the pass of Thermopylae.
Such admiration lives on today. Leonidas was praised by Hollywood in the 1960 film The 300 Spartans, and there are plans for a new film based on Steven Pressfield's 1998 novel, Gates of Fire. It seems that even now, millennia after its humiliating fall from power, Sparta lives on.
Some of the men who defined Sparta and directed the course of its history, from its foundation, through its period of dominance after the Peloponnesian War, to its decline and fall, are listed here.
The name of Lycurgus is shrouded in mystery - there is some speculation as to whether he ever actually existed as a man, for in several sources (including Herodotus' Histories) he is described as a god. It is widely acknowledged that he was not a king, but otherwise his status in Spartan society is uncertain. He is credited with reforming the political and social systems of Sparta sometime in the seventh century BC. These reforms included:
- Organising the Gerousia and the Spartiate (then called the damos) assemblies.
- Dividing Spartan territory into 9,000 plots of land of roughly equal size: one for each of the 9,000 Spartan males. Each Spartiate male was equal.
- Organising the Spartan legal system, writing some of the fundamental Spartan laws and setting down the rights which every Spartan citizen should enjoy.
King Cleomenes I
Reigning from circa 520 - 490 BC, Cleomenes was one of the few Spartan kings to really challenge the supreme control held over the monarchy by the Ephors. His father, Anaxandridas II, was married to two women when his second wife bore him. He had married his second wife when his first was presumed infertile (no children had been forthcoming), but he loved her so much he refused to divorce her. So, as a result of this most 'un-Spartan'11 behaviour, Cleomenes found a rival to the throne in the form of his younger half-brother Dorieus, who was the son of Anaxandridas's first wife. Since he was not heir apparent, Dorieus had not been exempted from the Agoge (like most crown princes), and his claim to the throne rested largely on his andragathie ('manly prowess'). The Spartans, however, kept their customs and received Cleomenes as their king after Ananxandridas' death. Dorieus left Sparta soon after, trying (unsuccessfully) to found a colony in either north Africa or Sicily.
Cleomenes also made an enemy in the form of his Eurypontid co-ruler, Demaratus (reigned circa 515 - 491 BC). This enmity came to a head in 506, when Cleomenes attempted to rid himself of Athens' irritating democracy by installing a puppet tyrant, a move Demaratus opposed. As we will discover, Cleomenes had a talent for making enemies. In 494, at Sepeia, he destroyed an army from Argos, with whom Sparta was often at odds, killing around 6,000 Argive citizens. Argos had been Sparta's great enemy in the Peloponnese for a long time and the two states were often at war. Cleomenes had developed fierce anti-Persian tendencies, while Argos remained neutral12.
As the years passed he became increasingly troublesome, meddling in the politics of both Sparta and the other Greek cities. He made enemies of many, including, fatally, the Ephorate. He went at least slightly mad, and took to poking his staff of office into the faces of passers-by. According to Herodotus, he was such an embarrassment that he was put into the stocks under the guard of a Helot. He managed to persuade the Helot to give him a knife, with which he freed himself and then committed suicide by slicing himself to pieces from the feet up. Whether this story is true or not is open to debate; another, perhaps more probable, cause of death was that he was murdered on the orders of his heir, Leonidas.
King Leonidas I
Perhaps the most famous of all the Spartan kings, Leonidas' name has gone down in history as that of the king who led the 300 Spartans to their deaths at Thermopylae, on the orders of the Ephorate.
He married his predecessor Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo, who gave him an heir, Pleistarchus. Despite her husband's advice to 'marry a good man, and bear him good children', which he gave her before he went to his death at Thermopylae, she does not appear to have ever remarried.
Gorgo is one of the few women in Spartan history to be ascribed any great role. Hers began in 500, when she would have been eight or nine. Her father, Cleomenes, was being offered a huge sum of money by Aristogoras of Miletus to send Spartan troops to aid a revolt of the Ionian Greek cities under Persian control in Asia Minor. Before Cleomenes could make a decision, Gorgo is said to have warned him against being corrupted by this foreigner. She makes a further intervention in the course of Spartan history around 15 years later, when a messenger arrives in Sparta bearing a wax tablet, apparently blank. No-one could guess the significance until Gorgo told the authorities to scrape off the wax, upon doing which they found a message written in ink on the wood beneath. It was a message sent by the exiled ex-king Demaratus, warning Sparta of the Persians' plans to invade Greece.
Pausanias took the reins of power after the death of Leonidas since Pleistarchus was still under age. Leonidas was his uncle; and where Leonidas was famous for a defeat, Pausanias was famous for his victory in commanding the largest Greek army ever at Plataea. After the Persians were driven out of Greece Pausanias remained the overall commander of the Greek alliance and set up a head-quarters at Byzantium, from where he could strike against Persian holdings in the Aegean islands and Asia Minor.
He was recalled to Sparta in 478 after his allies found his arrogance too much to bear, but he returned to Byzantium, without authorization, the following year. He ordered chronicles of his life to be written, praising his achievements and generally downplaying the role of anybody else in the defeat of the Persians. He was relieved of his command shortly after, but remained in Byzantium where it was rumoured he was taking up Persian ways. He was summoned home by the Ephors again in 469 after being accused of intriguing with Helots. We do not know the precise nature of the supposed intriguing, but Pausanias took fright and sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena in Sparta, only to be walled up and starved to death.
Lysander was a man with ambition - enough ambition to plan his way to the throne of Sparta, despite the fact he was not a member of either of the royal houses. It was also he who could be credited with the final defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. In 407 he was appointed Nauarch13 and in 405 dispatched into the Aegean to defeat the Athenians at sea; he was helped financially by his personal friend the Persian prince Cyrus. His mission was a convincing success, and Athens was completely defeated. Lysander was by then an influential figure in Sparta, and had plenty of opportunities for expanding its power.
In about 400, with Sparta now ruler of Greece, war with Persia was once again on the horizon as Cyrus had been overthrown by his older brother Artaxerxes II. The Eurypontid throne was being contested, and Lysander backed his old friend Agesilaus, hoping to rule Sparta through him. However, once Agesilaus was on the throne, things did not go according to plan. In 396, Agesilaus himself took command of the anti-Persian forces in Asia Minor, and Lysander was left with nothing. But in 395, an alliance of city-states including Thebes and Athens declared war on Sparta, and Lysander was appointed as one of the two principal commanders of the Spartan forces in this war (the other being the Agiad King Pausanias). However, due to Lysander's wish to win his victory alone, his forces failed to link up with those of Pausanias', and he was killed in battle.
When Agesilaus returned from Persia in 394 he claimed (very publicly) that he had found a papyrus outlining a proposal Lysander was presumably about to make that the Spartan monarchy should be thrown open to all Spartiate males, and that succession should not be confined to the two houses. This weakened the power of Lysander's supporters and meant this could never become a reality. Lysander's dream of becoming king of all Sparta never came true.