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10 Reasons Sparta – Not Athens – is the Cradle of Western Civilisation

Updated on June 9, 2017

The two great polis of Ancient Greece represent vastly differing approaches to governing and to life generally. Whilst it is perhaps the common assumption that it is to the Athenians that we owe many of the ideas and customs that make up our own society and culture, upon closer inspection we may find that their Peloponnesian rivals – so often portrayed as crass barbarians with little relevance to the modern world – can tell us more about ourselves than we might have previously assumed.

Not only do we often have highly inflated ideas about the nature of Athenian society and politics, we also frequently underestimate the extent to which many seemingly modern ideas – both popular and unpopular – can be found in the peculiar and unusual customs of the secretive world of Ancient Sparta.

Protectionism

Unlike the free-trading Athenians, the Spartans had no interest in commercial activities whatsoever and Spartan citizens were forbidden from engaging in trade or manufacture. Slaves – known as helots – worked the land to provide food, and the perioeci – free craftsmen who lived on the outskirts of Sparta – would exchange furniture and weapons in return for Spartan military protection. The Spartan policy was one of self-sufficiency: the idea of relying on foreign trade to provide for the population was considered dangerous and un-Spartan, so the state took active measures to manage and direct the entire productive process.

Post-Enlightenment, Western liberal-democracies have generally sought to define themselves in terms of free-trade and internationalism. Within this context, Spartan autarky may appear to be anachronistic and irrelevant – particularly when compared with Athenian openness and trade. However, it is worth considering that the dominant economic theory in the West pre-Enlightenment was protectionist mercantilism, and it was on the back of this theory that most of the modern powerhouses were built. Protectionism has also been an important concept in other Western ideologies, some of which – like fascism – have shaped the course of world history. State-sanctioned protectionism has certainly played a larger role than free-trade in the history of the West.

Equality

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, the Spartans had made ‘one parcel of all their territory’ and ‘divided it up’ equally. At the end of their education, all male Spartan citizens – known as Spartiates – were allocated one of the nine-thousand equal lots that Sparta was divided into. Every man had ‘a prescribed regimen and employment in public service’. Even meals were a communal affair, with citizens being expected to dine at public messes and not at home. The consequence was a society with an ‘abundance of leisure’ and where ‘wealth awakened no envy and brought no honour’.

Whilst this description paints a picture of a communistic society very different from our own, the ideal of material equality as something to aim for has been a major one in the West. Marxists and other socialists have had an immense impact on Western thought, and more than a few have – controversially – cited Sparta as a historical example of a functional communist society.

Culture

Although Athens is rightly remembered as the cultural capital of the ancient Hellenes, Sparta’s reputation as a state of philistines entirely devoid of any culture is surely undeserved. Whilst the Spartans placed greater emphasis on military strength and societal order, the natural impulses which foster the creation of art were no doubt still alive in the hearts and souls of the people.

Sadly there is virtually nothing left of Spartan literature or poetry, but ancient sources confirm that it did exist – and that it was in fact rousing and powerful. Spartan music and literature supposedly dealt with serious themes like patriotism and honour, and served as a passionate and edifying expression of brotherhood and unity amongst the Spartan people.

Education

Athenian education, with its emphasis on literature and the arts, may at first glance appear to be more relevant to the modern world than the infamous Spartan agoge, where children as young as seven were forced to undergo strenuous physical and military training. But whilst it can hardly be argued that Spartan education was as rounded as its Athenian equivalent, it was certainly more egalitarian. Education in Athens was private, and although costs were usually low enough to allow children from even the poorest backgrounds to receive a few years of schooling, it is plainly true that the well-born had significantly greater access to education – and, in turn, significantly improved life chances.

Education in Sparta was provided in full by the state, and was equally available – and compulsory – for all male citizens. A full state education programme was also provided for girls, who in Athens were restricted to being home-schooled in domestic skills. Whilst neither system exactly offers a blueprint for the modern Western world, the values and lessons of education in Sparta, whilst different, are at least as significant as those in Athens.

Young Spartans underwent strenuous physical training
Young Spartans underwent strenuous physical training

Women

The superior access to education enjoyed by girls in Sparta compared to Athens was one of many ways in which women played a far greater role in society.

Women in Athens had very few rights: they were not entitled to attend the assembly, own property or choose their own husbands. In fact, they were actively encouraged to remain indoors and away from public life altogether. Spartan women by contrast enjoyed an unprecedented amount of freedom and respect. They were entitled to own and inherit property, and were legendary throughout Greece for the active role they played in public life. Gorgo, Queen of Sparta and wife of Leonidas, was once asked why it was that Spartan women thought they could rule men. Her unapologetic response is now famous: ‘Because we are the only women who give birth to real men.’

Mixed Constitution

Athens is generally seen as the first great democracy of the ancient world, and consequently we like to imagine that our own society is built in its image. In reality, democracy is but one of many powerful ideas which have shaped the Western world.

Sparta’s mixed constitution included a democratic assembly of the entire citizenry, but it also ensured that political power was shared between various other bodies. The kings provided religious and military leadership, the ephors – an annually elected council of five – performed most of the executive duties of government, and the gerousia – a council of elders who were elected for life – performed judicial functions and proposed legislation for the assembly to debate. This concept of power sharing would be the defining characteristic of the Roman Republic, which in turn inspired the architects of the oldest codified constitution in the modern world, the constitution of the United States.

The idea of power sharing greatly influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States
The idea of power sharing greatly influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States

Representative vs Direct Democracy

It is easy to identify the early principles of Western democracy in the Athenian constitution and overlook the many shortcomings and pitfalls. The direct democracy of the fickle Athenian assembly gave rise to exploitive demagogues and was often callous and brutal.

A fine example of the bellicose and capricious nature of Athenian democracy came in 415 BC, when the young politician Alcibiades – appealing to Athenian vanity – convinced the Athenian assembly to launch a major campaign against Sicily on the premise that it would be an easy victory. The subsequent defeat was immense and humiliating, costing Athens 200 ships and thousands of hoplites. It is widely accepted to have been the turning point in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which Athens eventually lost.

With executive decisions in Sparta being made not by the entire assembly but rather by an elected council of ephors, it is fair to say that government here was generally comparatively stable and measured. It would certainly be stretching the truth to say that Sparta was a democratic society, but it is clear that the Athenian system was not without many faults of its own. Either way, it is hard to deny that our modern liberal democracies have borrowed at least as much from Sparta’s representative system as they have from Athens’ direct democracy.

Stability

Building on the previous two points, it is worth acknowledging the longevity and stability of Spartan government and, in turn, the Spartan way-of-life. When most of us think of Ancient Athens we are thinking of a brief and volatile period during the fifth century BC during which Athens transformed the Delian League into an empire before losing to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

The image we have of Sparta was formed over a much longer period of time (Lycurgus, the great mythical lawgiver who established the Spartan government and lifestyle, was said to have lived in the ninth century BC). High ideals and revolutions have played major roles in Western history, but so too have periods of order and stable government. When considering the importance of the latter, Sparta rather than Athens should be our inspiration.

Athenian Franchise

As we have already seen, the constitution of Sparta did contain many democratic elements. Whilst the point is often made that male Spartan citizens – who had full rights to vote at the assembly – were heavily outnumbered by the helots and the perioeci, it is usually forgotten that full male Athenian citizens were also heavily outnumbered by the wider population of Athens.

In fact, it is estimated that no more than 30% (and probably more like 10-20%) of the Athenian population could participate in the democracy. It is therefore likely that the franchise in Athens – the great democracy of the ancient world – was not actually much wider than in Sparta.

Spartans at Thermopylae

It cannot be denied that much of the Western cultural tradition can be traced to Athens, while the Spartans left us with virtually no art, architecture or literature to speak of. But whichever corner of Greek history we find ourselves exploring, the famous warrior-people of the Lacedaemon shall always deserve special credit.

In 480 BC, King Xerxes of Persia led an enormous army into Greece (ancient sources claimed the army numbered over one million, but modern estimates range between 100,000 and 300,000). A Greek coalition army of 7,000 men, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, marched north to block the only road by which the Persians could advance at the small pass at Thermopylae. The Greeks blocked the pass for two days before Leonidas – seeing that he was outflanked – dismissed the majority of the army and remained behind to guard their retreat with only 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans. This tiny force held out for another day against overwhelming odds, and their heroic last stand is widely considered to have inspired the remaining Greek forces to continue their valiant defence of their homeland until their eventual victory.

Had the Greek army failed, the art and culture of the Hellenic world would have fallen under Persian despotism, and the fledgling experiments in democracy would have been extinguished. For everything that has come since, we owe the Spartans.

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    • Daniel17White profile image

      Daniel White 5 months ago

      Very interesting article and take on how Greek history influenced the West. While Sparta did have mandatory education for all male citizens, it was mostly focused on war rather than a "traditional" education. Also, while Thermopylae was important, it could be argued that the Athenian victory at Salamis was more culturally important. While Termopylae is the image of bravery and overcoming desperate odds, Salamis ended the Persian War and caused Aeschylus to write "The Persians", which contributed to the development of Western dramas as well as contributing much to our understanding of Greek ideals concerning culture, hoplites, war, and the Persians. Overall great article and I would recommend reading Victor Davis Hanson's "The Western Way of War" as he touches on some of your points to argue how Ancient Greece directly created Western Civilization.