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Athens and Sparta: Compare the Differences

Updated on October 30, 2014
Sparta, Greece
Sparta, Greece | Source

Geography and Mythology of Sparta

Sparta was located in the southern area of the Peloponnese, a peninsula shaped like a hand reaching into the Mediterranean Sea. Like many other ancient civilizations, Sparta was located in a valley along a river. The region, known as Lacedaemonia or Laconia, was named after the first Greek king of the territory. Legend says that Lacedaemonia was a son of Zeus by Taygete, one of the daughters of the Titan Atlas. The capital city was named after his wife Sparta. The valley enjoyed the protection of a large hill area to the north, Mount Taygetus to the west, and Mount Parnon to the east. Though it was surrounded by hills and mountains, there was enough fertile land for farming.

Source

Geography and Mythology of Athens

Athens, by contrast, was located on the central plain of Greece and surrounded by Mount Parnitha, Mount Penteli, Mount Hymettus and Mount Aegaleo. The area was not good for farming, but its location on the Aegean Sea made it ideal for fishing and trade. Like Sparta, Athens too had a child of Zeus involved in its formation. Mythology says that the people of the region were looking for a patron. Both Athena, daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom and warfare, and Poseidon, god of the seas, applied. Each offered a gift to the people of the city to win them over and become patron. Poseidon struck his trident into the ground producing a saltwater spring. Athena created an olive tree. The people of Athens accepted the tree and named the city for their new patron.

Spartan Government

Sparta's main focus was on military and maintained an oligarchy form of government to run things. An oligarchy is a form of government where a select few people govern, and the decisions in an oligarchy usually benefit those in control. As an example, freeing slaves in Sparta would not benefit those in control, so it would never be approved even if there were more slaves than Spartans.

Sparta had an Assembly that included all male citizens of the city-state, but, unlike Athens, it was actually the Council of Elders that made decisions for the people. This council was made up of two kings who came to the position through birth (sons of the prior kings) and twenty-eight older men from aristocratic families. In reality, the Spartan Assembly could only vote on items approved by the Council of Elders, but the Council always had the authority to override anything approved by the Assembly. This means that 30 men in the city-state held all of the power over the people.

Athenian Government

Athens formed the world's first known democracy. A democracy is a form of government where the people make decisions and govern themselves. All citizens of Athens participated in governing the city-state making it a direct democracy, the people govern directly. While this sounds like a wonderful idea, one must remember that a "citizen" was defined as a free man over the age of 18. Neither slaves nor women had the rights of citizenship. As you might imagine, allowing all citizens to govern on a daily basis could easily result in nothing ever being accomplished. Athens, therefore, selected 500 citizens over the age of 30 to serve for one year on the Council of 500. This group met every day to see to the needs of the city-state while the entire Assembly met every ten days. Even getting 500 people to agree on issues seems like an impossible task.

Spartan Coin
Spartan Coin | Source

Spartan Economy

Sparta did very little in the way of trade with other city-states as they did not trust anyone but other Spartans. This means that Sparta needed to provide everything for its citizens. To do this, Sparta relied on its three basic levels of society. Each level had a role to play in providing the people of Sparta the resources, or basic needs, for survival.

At the top, of course, were the citizens, the men of Sparta who all served in the military and government until the age of 60. In other words, the men of Sparta lived their lives preparing for and engaged in battle leaving no time for anything else.

Non-citizens, called the Perioeci, made up the next group. The Perioeci were any men who were not Spartan but also not a slave. These men could join the military if they chose but were not part of the government. Many of these men worked as craftsmen creating items such as clothing, tools and weapons.

The remaining level of society were the helots. These were slaves of Sparta. Sparta was better able to grow the food needed to feed its people than Athens, but there were times when other measures were necessary. With the main focus of the Spartans being their military, they solved their resource issues by conquest of their neighbors. Sparta would invade a nearby village, turn the villagers into helots and force them to grow crops for Sparta. Of course, it is not easy to maintain control over a large number of slaves, but with every Spartan male being a highly trained warrior, they managed.

Athenian Coin
Athenian Coin | Source

Athenian Economy

By contrast, Athens relied heavily on trade. They lacked the fertile land required to produce the food needed to sustain large numbers of people, but their olive oil, pottery, honey and other items were in demand in other city-states and foreign lands like Egypt.

Within Athens, goods were traded at an outdoor market place called the agora, or gathering place. It would be similar to a flea market today. Sellers would set up tables to display their goods for shoppers to view. Athens created coins, called drachma, to be used as payment in the agora.

Athens eventually started a process of colonization, creating territories in other parts of the world under their control. The first colonies were across the Aegean Sea in what is modern day Turkey. Athenians would farm in these colonies and send the produce home to Athens.

Leonidas - Spartan King and Warrior
Leonidas - Spartan King and Warrior | Source

Spartan Education

Both boys and girls received an education in Sparta, which is different from most city-states in Greece. All children received military and athletic training, but at age seven, boys left their homes to begin their formal military education. Reading and writing were part of this education, but the skills of battle were far more important.

Spartan studies culminated in a final exam at about age 20. Once a young man proved himself a worthy Spartan soldier, he became a citizen but, despite having a family of his own, continued to live in barracks type housing with his fellow warriors until the age of 30. At the age of 30, a Spartan male could live at home with his wife and children in addition to holding public office. He could retire at age 60 if he lived that long.

Athenian Warrior
Athenian Warrior | Source

Athenian Education

In Athens, an education was necessary only for citizens. For this reason, only boys received formal schooling. Girls received homemaking training from their mothers. Schooling for boys started at about the age of seven, and the quality of the learning was based on the family's ability to pay with boys from wealthy families attending private lessons.

At age seven, studies focused on reading, writing, arithmetic, music and dance. Once a young boy reached the age of 12, his studies focused on sports, like wrestling and discus throwing. Military training began at age 18. Athens did not maintain a military as the men needed to hold down other jobs during non-war time. They relied on their young men to stop working and go into battle as needed.

Spartan Women

Unlike the women of Athens, Spartan women were not trainied in domestic arts (housekeeping). There were plenty of helots for that type of work. Women focused on their physical strengths. This was not only to produce strong, healthy children but also to fend off invaders and helot revolts when their husbands were away in battle.

Spartan women were allowed many rights that other women of Greece were denied including: speaking to men who were not their husband, keeping their property after a divorce and even getting a divorce from their husbands.

Athenian Women

Though Athenian women and Spartan women shared the status of non-citizen, the similarities between the two stop there. Women of Athens were under the control of their fathers until they reached the age of marriage and under the control of their husbands once they wed. The only way for a woman to obtain any type of freedom was to never marry. Even then, she could never obtain the rights of a citizen.

Women were required to stay home, care for and educate the children, cook, weave and maintain the home for their husband. An Athenian woman could only leave her home when accompanied by her husband and she was not permitted to speak to men who were not her husband or father.

Conclusion

As you can see, despite the close proximity, Athens and Sparta were quite different in all areas of their culture. Athens positioned itself as a world player through trade and colonization while Sparta positioned itself as a military force to be feared. In the future, these factors would bring the two city-states together for the protection of Greece despite their constant fighting with one another. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, they would forever be linked in the study of ancient history.

Which Would You Call Home

Given the information about life in the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta, which would you rather call home?

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