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Ancient Sparta

Updated on October 31, 2009

Sparta was a city in ancient Greece, situated in the Eurotas Valley in the southern Pelopon­nesus. It was renowned in antiquity as the strongest land power in Greece. The modern town, which had a population of 10,523 in 1971, was built in 1834 on the site of the ancient city. It is the capital of Laconia and has an economy based upon olives and oranges.

Classical Sparta never was an impressive city, and the few visible ancient remains are in poor condition and mostly from late antiquity. In the 5th century B.C. the historian Thucydides wrote that, if Sparta were deserted, with only its tem­ples and the foundations of other buildings re­maining, future generations would hardly believe that its power had been so great. However, the Byzantine town of Mistra, founded about 1250, which is about 4 miles to the west, is spectacularly well preserved.

Early History

In the Mycenaean Age (1600-1200 B.C.), Sparta was an important city. Helen, wife of its king, Menelaus, was said to have been abducted from Sparta by Paris, thus provoking the Trojan War. Starting probably in the 11th century B.C., Dorian invaders overran the area. Between then and about 800, few details about its history are known, but it is clear that these Dorian conquerors followed an unusual policy, which colored the whole of Sparta's later history. When they divided up the newly acquired land, they reduced the previous rural inhabitants to a state of serfdom. These serfs were called helots, and they were bound to the land and continued to work it to support their Dorian masters. The inhabitants of other towns throughout Laconia, both pre-Dorian and Dorian, were left free, but these people, called perioeci, had no political rights and were expected to serve Sparta in war.

In the 8th century, when more settled condi­tions, the reopening of trade routes, and espe­cially the increase in population brought on an extensive overseas colonization movement from many Greek cities, the Spartans again found an unusual solution. They crossed the mountains, conquered Messenia, reduced the inhabitants to the status of helots, and distributed the land and its people among the surplus Spartan population. The only Spartan colony, Taras (modern Taranto) in southern Italy, was founded about 700 to remove some political malcontents.

For a time after the conquest of Messenia, Sparta was very prosperous, and it became a cen­ter of culture, attracting foreign poets and artists. But in 668 the Spartans were defeated by Argos, their perennial enemy, and then were faced with a long and desperate revolt of the Messenians. By the time this was put down, the Spartans had reorganized themselves into a military society, which was perpetuated through fear of further helot uprisings.

In the 6th century Sparta spread its influ­ence throughout much of the Peloponnesus, first by defeating the Arcadian city of Tegea and then by a policy of helping to overthrow tyrants in other cities. The Spartans no longer incorporated conquered territory but rather supported oligar­chic governments in other cities and forced them to become allies in what came to be known as the Peloponnesian League. Toward the end of the 6th century the able King Cleomenes I tried to extend Sparta's influence further, especially by his expulsion of the tyrant Hippias from Athens. His policy failed, since most Spartans thought only of controlling the Peloponnesus to prevent any helot revolt and to contain Argos, which had been decisively defeated about 546. Yet Sparta, by 500, was recognized as the pre­mier land power in all Greece.


During this early period, Sparta developed a unique set of social and political in­stitutions, which were later attributed en masse to a semimythical lawgiver, Lycurgus. The Spar­tan citizens, who were a small minority among the helots and perioeci who supported them, were devoted to the military and to the state, which even had the right to decide whether a newborn baby should live or die.

From the age of seven a Spartan boy was educated and trained by the state to become a soldier, with emphasis upon discipline and physi­cal fitness. At the age of 20 he went into the army, living a frugal, communal existence in a barracks with a small, closely knit group of friends (syssition), supported by the produce of his land worked by helots. Although he could marry, he continued to live in the barracks until he was 30. Thereafter, he could set up a home but still ate at the barracks until the age of 60. The whole citizen body was, in effect, a profess­sional army, with a great advantage over the ordinary Greek citizen-soldiers. The girls also underwent physical training. Spartans spurned all luxuries, culture, and nonmilitary pursuits. The state did not even coin money; all trade and manufacturing were in the hands of the perioeci.

Such training naturally made the Spartans very conservative. This shows in their govern­ment, which became frozen into a rather primi­tive form. They had two hereditary kings, from two separate families, who were primarily lead­ers of the army, although they also had religious duties. They, together with 28 old men elected for life after they reached 60, formed the council (gerousia), which in reality directed much of Spartan policy. In theory this council merely decided what matters should be submitted for approval to the assembly of all adult male citi­zens (apella), but the latter body was generally a "rubber stamp." There were also five officials called ephors, elected annually by the assembly. These ephors had wide judicial and administra­tive powers, supervised the training and disci­pline of the citizens, and controlled the helots with the help of young men organized into a body of secret police (crypteia).

Persian and Peloponnesian Wars

When the Persians threatened Greece in the early 5th cen­tury, Sparta refused to yield. In 490, during the first Persian invasion, the Spartans promised help to the Athenians. But, because they could not march before the end of their festival of the Carneia, they arrived at Marathon only after the Athenian victory there. When Xerxes led a much larger Persian army against Greece 10 years later, the Spartans helped organize the Greek resistance and were elected to the command of the com­bined forces, not only on land but also at sea, even though the majority of the Greek ships were Athenian. Although the Spartans preferred to try to stop Xerxes' hordes at the narrow Isth­mus of Corinth, they sent north one of their kings, Leonidas, with 300 Spartans to organize and lead the defense of the pass at Thermopylae. There the Spartans distinguished themselves in the fighting and then died to a man rather than retreat, even though they knew they were about to be surrounded.

Even though a defeat, this heroic defense against such great odds inspired the Greeks in their further resistance and greatly enhanced the military reputation of the Spartans. At the cru­cial naval battle of Salamis in the same year, the Spartan Eurybiades was nominally in command, but the strategy that brought victory to the Greeks was that of the Athenian, Themistocles. In 479 the Spartan regent, Pausanias, was in command of the combined Greek forces at the decisive land victory at Plataea, which was due in large part to the fighting qualities of the Spartan hoplites.

Pausanias led further operations against the Persians, freeing Greek cities from Cyprus to Byzantium. His autocratic behavior soon brought complaints from the other Greeks, and his ambi­tions worried the conservative Spartans, who re­called him in 478. With the immediate threat to Greece itself removed, the Spartans readily drew back into the Peloponnesus and relinquished command of the offensive against Persia to the Athenians, who now led the newly formed Delian League. When Athens grew strong and was threatening to turn that league into an empire, Sparta considered interfering. In 464 Sparta was at the point of helping Thasos against Athens when their own city was destroyed by a major earthquake, and the helots revolted.

In 461, when Adi ens allied itself with Argos and challenged Spartan supremacy on land, a war was declared that lasted until 446. It was fought desultorily, and the only major battle was won by the Spartans at Tanagra in 458. Athens eventually recognized that it could do better by devoting its energies to control of the sea, and in 445 a 30-year peace was signed, in which Athens recognized Sparta's supremacy on land, while Sparta accepted Athens' naval empire.

Peloponnesian War

The "30-year peace" lasted only until 431, when Sparta again declared war on Athens, partly at the urging of its allies, but primarily, according to the contemporary his­torian Thucydides, because of its fear of Athens' growing power. The first 10 years of the Pelo­ponnesian War were a stalemate, since Sparta's land power and Adiens' sea power could hardly come to grips with each other. When the Spar­tans invaded Attica, the Athenians followed Pericles' plan of withdrawing behind their walls and refusing battle. Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet ravaged the coast of the Peloponnesus. Athens' seizure of Pylos in Messenia, along with the unprecedented capture of about 120 Spar­tans, was offset by Sparta's acquisition of Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in Thrace.

Although peace was made in 421, it was an uneasy one. By 418 the Athenians were allied with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis against the Spar­tans. At Mantinea, Sparta reestablished its mil­itary prestige by decisively defeating the army of this coalition. After Athens attacked Syracuse in Sicily in 413, Sparta renewed the war and established a permanent fort at Decelea in Attica. Athens met with disaster in Sicily in 413, but the war dragged on in Greece and Ionia until 404. It ended only after Lysander, the most able of the Spartan admirals, built up his fleet with Persian aid, destroyed the Adienian fleet by catching it on the beach at Aegospotami, and starved Athens into surrender.

Later History

Sparta now dominated the whole Aegean area but soon came into conflict with the Persians. The latter responded by build­ing up and aiding an anti-Spartan coalition consisting of Athens, Corinth, and Thebes. The en­suing war in Greece was inconclusive until 387, when, at the price of handing over to Persia the Greek cities of Ionia, Sparta was recognized as the arbiter of Greece. Under its able King Agesilaus II, Sparta exercised this power in a highhanded fashion until 371, when the Thebans shocked the Greek world by defeating the Spar­tans at Leuctra. It was the first time in over two centuries that Spartan soldiers had lost a set bat­tle against other hoplites.

The Thebans followed up this victory by in­vading the Peloponnesus and freeing Messenia, dius eliminating the land and helots that sup­ported about half of Sparta's citizens. Sparta was never again a first-rate power. It remained inde­pendent, but all its efforts were spent in futile attempts to regain Messenia and to dominate the Peloponnesus. Sparta did not join Athens and Thebes in opposing the expansion of King Philip II of Macedon and, alone of the Greek states, refused to join the League of Corinth set up by the victorious Macedonian to wage war on Persia. In 331, however, Sparta attempted a solitary and futile war against Macedon. Its army declined drastically, as its citizens took service as mer­cenaries. For the first time the city had to be walled for protection.

By the middle of the 3rd century there were only 700 adult male Spartans, as compared to about 10,000 in the 5th century. For a brief period (229-222), Sparta regained predominance in the Peloponnesus after King Cleomenes III re-divided the land and created many new citizens, but it was soon crushed by Macedon. When Rome interfered in Greece, the Spartans were at first its allies. But after Sparta helped precipitate the Syrian War (192-189) by appealing to Antiochus III the Great to "free" Greece from Rome, Sparta was forced into the Achaean League. When the league was broken up in 146, Sparta became a subordinate ally of Rome.

Sparta enjoyed a revival of prosperity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. through the favor of Roman emperors and was even allowed to re­store, in form at least, its old system of training. But the city was destroyed in 396 by the Visi­goths under Alaric, and the population was scat­tered during the later Slavic invasions. The more easily defended Mistra took Sparta's place until the town's refounding in 1834.


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