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When the Dorians swept into Greece in about 1100 BC, many of them settled in the Peloponnesus. At some time during the next 300 years, five Dorian villages banded together to form the city-state of Sparta. The city was situated in the narrow Eurotas river valley. High mountains protected it so well that there was no need for city walls. In the 8th century BC, Sparta first extended its rule over Laconia, and then the city-state conquered neighboring Messenia.
The native peoples were reduced to a form of slavery or serfdom. They were called Helots and were bound to the land. The Helots were owned by the city-state, rather than by individual Spartiates (true Spartans). However, they farmed land that had been allotted to individual Spartan families. They had to contribute a certain portion of their crops to the family. The remainder they could keep.
A third class, the Perioeci (the provincial population and surrounding villages), these neighbors were also of Dorians descent, but they had no political rights in the Spartan city-state. However, they had a voice in local government. They were heavily taxed but were free to engage in business and commerce.
For a short time during the 7th century BC, Sparta was a center of culture and wealth. Then it suddenly became a military state. The change was probably the result of a revolt in Messenia, which Sparta put down with great difficulty. According to legend, the reforms themselves are traditionally attributed to Lycurgus, an early Spartan legislator.
The Spartan government combined elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.
There were two kings, who had limited authority at home but held supreme power when leading armies in the field.
The assembly elected a council of elders (the Gerousia) consisting of 30 members, including the kings. The 28 members were all over 60 and holding their positions for life. The elders were chosen by acclamation in the assembly and their duties included preparing business for the assembly, proposing legislation, advising the kings and trying criminal cases.
Direct authority was in the hands of the ephors, or overseers. Five ephors were elected each year by the assembly. The ephors presided over the assembly, as the chief magistrates, meeting foreign envoys and transmitting orders to commanders in the field. They submitted its measures to the popular assembly (Apella) and had the power to depose a king.
Ultimate power rested in the popular assembly, called the Apella, of which all Spartiates over the age of 30 were members. The members of the assembly shouted approval or disapproval of an issue, and the loudest shout won.
Neither the helots nor the perioeci had political rights. The state was therefore dominated by a ruling class of less than 10,000 (excluding women and children), forming an exclusively warrior caste called 'Spartiates'.
The political system of Sparta is thought to have been handed down by the lawgiver Lycurgus.
The Spartiates, outnumbered 20 to 1 by the Helots, lived in constant dread of a Helot revolt. To maintain their position, they had to become a full time army.
No Spartiate could own money, although revenues from their lands produced surpluses for the purchase of luxury items, given usually as dedications to the gods. This emphasis on simplicity, frugality and the denial of family life served to produce an outstanding fighting force that enabled Sparta to extend its power first over Lacedaemon and then the entire Peloponnese.
Family life was regimented from the day a child was born until his death. An official board decided if a newborn child was strong enough to make a good soldier. If not, he was left on a mountaintop to die.
At the age of 7 all boys were taken from their mothers and placed in military schools and brought up communally, with rigid discipline, flogging and a plain diet. They received little formal education, only physical and military training. Girls also underwent a program of rigorous physical training.
At 20, males joined one of 15 living in military barracks, ate meals together, fought together as a unit and shared common funds. At 20 he was also expected to marry. However, he had no family life. He visited his wife secretly. This was condoned, so long as one did not get caught, just as stealing was.
At 30 the man became a citizen. He was permitted to live at home with his wife but was subject to military duty until he was 60. He continued to eat at a public mess, contributing his share of food from his landholdings. Anyone who could not contribute lost his civil rights. Spartan women were free and independent, even taking part in athletic sports, which scandalised other Greeks.
Until the age of 60 every Spartan male was under the harsh control of the state. Only after that age could he hold office.
Foreigners were struck by the harshness and dreariness of Spartan communal life. One visitor, after a meager meal at the common mess, is alleged to have said, "Now I understand why Spartans do not fear death!"
However, Spartan institutions achieved their aim. The Spartans were able to withstand great physical trials and were fiercely proud of their city-state.
In the sixth century Sparta established the Peloponnesian League, known in antiquity as 'the Lacedaemonians and their Allies'.
By the time of the Persian invasion in 490 BC, the Spartan hegemony extended over Elis, Arcadia, Argolis, Sicyon, and Corinth; and Sparta was unanimously assigned the chief command. During the wars between Greece and Persia, Spartan forces backed by the League were vital in the defence of Greece. It was the Spartan king Leonidas, who with 300 troops, died gallantly while attempting to defend the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army led by Xerxes. Athens meanwhile had developed a fine naval force and defeated the Persians at the sea battle off Salamis. Although Spartan courage and force of arms won the subsequent battle of Plataea for Greece, Athens took the forefront in the continuing struggle with the Persians in Asia Minor and founded the Delian League which was later transmuted into the Athenian empire.
Conflict between Athens and Sparta came to a head with the Great Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC. Athens was finally defeated by Sparta, who crushed the Delian League and took over Athens' empire as her own, ruling it harshly. The rest of Greece resented Spartan domination and a revolt by Epaminondas of Thebes led to defeat by the Thebans at Leuctra (371). The liberation of Messenia completed the humiliation of Sparta.
Following the Macedonian conquest of Greece, Sparta retained sufficient independence to refuse participation in the Asiatic campaigns of Alexander; but her power continued to decline. Agis IV (244-241) attempted but failed to restore the 'institutions of Lycurgus'.
Cleomenes III (235-222) was more successful; but following his defeat at Sellasia in the latter year, Sparta was obliged to join the Achaean League.
The rise of Phillip II of Macedon meant the end of power for Sparta and the other Greek city states. Sparta and the Peloponnese later fell under Roman domination in 146 BC and the city itself was destroyed by the Visigoths in AD 395. Although there is a modern town on the site of Sparta, little today remains to tell of its ancient glory.
New Age Encyclopaedia, Seventh Edition edited by D. A. Girling, Bay Books, 1983. Volume 27, Page 41.
Merit Students Encyclopedia, Volume 8, P.F. Collier Inc, 1979. Page 256.
New Knowledge Library - Universal Reference Encyclopedia, Volume 28, Bay Books, 1981. Page 2668.