Sparta (Sparta in Doric dialect, Sparta in Attic dialect) was a city-state in Ancient Greece built on the banks of the river Evrotas in Laconia in the south-eastern part of the Peloponnese. It was a colony of the people of Boeotia who, due to overpopulation, abandoned central Greece and colonized the Peloponnese. It is known in world history for its military strength, its discipline and the large number of its slaves. She is also known in Greek mythology, especially for the myth of Helen of Beauty. Sparta’s military power was due to its system of lawsuits imposed by the legislation of Lycurgus, which was unique in Ancient Greece. Sparta’s historical period begins after the Dorian Descent around 1100 BC, (although archaeology suggests that the Dorian Descent was later) and ends during the Roman Empire. The area was already a colony of the people of Boeotia in prehistoric times, which explains the political institutions and traditions of Ancient Sparta. In fact, as can be seen from ancient traditions, its inhabitants never forgot their Boeotian origins.
During Classical Antiquity Sparta was one of the two most powerful city-states in Ancient Greece, along with Athens. Sparta began to emerge as a political-military power in Greece at the beginning of the Archaic Age after the end of the dark years of the Geometric Age and reached its absolute peak after its victory in the Peloponnesian War over Athens and its allies, when it succeeded in imposing its hegemony and influence over most of the ancient Greek world. Its hegemony did not last long and after its defeats by the Thebans in 371 BC at Leuctra and 362 BC at Mantinea it lost its old power, at the same time and with the rise of the kingdom of Macedonia it began to play a secondary role in Greek affairs. Some glimpses in the 3rd century BC did not prevent its decline, following the fate of the rest of the Greek world conquered by the Romans. However, during the Roman Empire it continued to be an attraction because of its rich history.
Ancient Sparta was located in the middle of the valley of Eurota (in the so-called Koili Lakedaimona, on the west bank of the river) and was surrounded by low hills (the acropolis and Klaraki in the north, Evangelistria in the west and Toubano and Xenia in the southeast) and by the stream of Magoulitsa (southwest). Originally it was made up of four comas-settlements: the Kynosoura, located on the two hills southeast of the city, the Pitani, located to the west (in the location of present-day Magoula), the Lakes, which extended east to the Evrotas, and the Messoa, the central settlement of ancient Sparta, which developed in the area around the ‘tomb of Leonidas’. Later a fifth settlement, Amykles, was added.
According to the historian Thucydides, in the 5th century BC, the Spartan state extended over two fifths of the Peloponnese, i.e. about 8,500 square kilometres, an area three times the size of Athens. It comprised two main regions, separated by mountain ranges.
Laconia, if we wish to define it strictly, is bounded to the west by Mount Taygetos, and to the south and east by the Myrtoo Sea. Its northern borders were unstable: in 545 BC Sparta, under its king Eschestratus, conquered the fertile plain of Kynouria, which, according to legend, had been colonised by Kynuros, son of Perseus of Argos. Since then, the boundaries of the region have passed from the outskirts of Thyria (near modern Astros), the area of the count of Tyros and Prasias were the natural boundaries and were never lost to Sparta, the southern part of Mount Parthenon, the valley of Evrotas (including Skyritida) and then the area at the foot of Chelmos, which is identified with Velminatida.
Messinia, which was conquered during the wars of the same name, is enclosed to the north by the Neda River and the Arcadian Mountains, to the east by Mount Taygetos, to the south by the Messinian Gulf and to the west by the Ionian Sea. It includes large mountain ranges, including the Kyparissia and Ithomi mountains. In the middle is the valley of Messinia, which is fed by the river Pamisos.
The Laconian State originally consisted of four comas called Conura, Limnai, Mesoa and Pitana. A fifth, a few kilometres away, Amyklei, was added at an unknown time.
The traveller Pausanias provides rich information on the mythological origins of many of the above characteristic place names. According to the Spartan narrative, the first king of their country (which was not called that at the time) was Lelegaeus. From his name, the inhabitants were called Leleges. The king had two children, Mili and Polycaon. The latter married the daughter of the king of Argos, Triopas, the beautiful Messene. She, realizing that her husband, as second-born, would never assume the throne, urged him to leave the country. Crossing the mountains they discovered a large and fertile plain. There they built a city, Messina. Polycaon became king of that country which he also named after his wife, Messinia.
In Sparta, Lelegas was succeeded by Mylis and Mylis by Eurotas. This ingenious king inspired a magnificent project. The valley in which his country was situated was flooded by a river forming a large lake. By building a canal, the river was confined to its bed, leaving the fertile valley free. Thus the river was named after the king, Eurotas. Eurotas left no male descendants, but he did have a daughter, Sparta. Her fiancé, Lacedaemon, was named heir. This king gave his name to his country. For his capital he built a city, which he named Sparta, honoring his wife. He also gave the great mountain that separated his country from Messinia the name of his mother, Taygetis. Finally, his son, Amyclas, left his name in history, building a city known as Amyclei.
It is noted that the descendants of these persons were, according to oral tradition, the heroes of the Trojan cycle: Helen, Clytemnestra, Dioscuri and Penelope.
It is difficult for modern scholars to reconstruct the prehistory of Ancient Sparta, as the written sources are very distant in time from the events, which had already been greatly distorted by oral tradition. However, the earliest definite evidence of human settlement in the area of Sparta is the discovery of pottery dating to the Middle Neolithic period near Koufovouno, about two kilometres south-west of the city. These are the earliest traces of the original Mycenaean Spartan civilisation referred to in the Iliad.
This culture seems to have fallen into decline towards the end of the Bronze Age, when Greek warrior tribes of Dorians from Epirus and Macedonia descended and settled in the Peloponnese. The Dorians apparently began to expand the borders of Spartan territory before they even established their own state. They fought against the Dorians of Argos in the east and southeast, and the Arcadian Achaeans in the northwest. There is also evidence that Sparta itself, extremely inaccessible due to the topography of the Taygetos valley, was considered sufficiently secure by that time, which is why it was never fortified.
Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC the Spartans experienced a period of anarchy and internal conflicts, of which both Herodotus and Thucydides give evidence. As a result, they embarked on a series of political and social reforms which they later attributed to a semi-mythical legislator, Lycurgus. These reforms mark the dawn of Classical Sparta.
During the Second Messenian War, Sparta emerged as a great power both locally and nationally. In the following centuries, the reputation of Spartan military power was unmatched. In 480 BC, a small force of Spartans, Thespians and Thebans led by King Leonidas fought a legendary battle to the end at Thermopylae against the colossal Persian army, inflicting countless casualties before finally being surrounded. The superiority of the equipment and military skill of the Spartan phalanx’s hoplites was again demonstrated a year later when the Spartan army, this time in a quorum, led a combined force of Greek cities against the Persians at Plataea.
The decisive victory at the Battle of Plataea ended the Persian Wars, as well as the Persian ambition to expand into European territories. Although the battle was fought by an army of men from every corner of the Greek world, credit was given to Sparta, which, in addition to being the protagonist at Thermopylae and Plataea, was the de facto leader of the Greek campaign.
During the late classical period, Sparta together with Athens, Thebes and the Persian Empire were the main powers fighting each other for supremacy. As a result of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, traditionally a land-based civilization, became a powerful naval power. At the height of its power, Sparta defeated many of the major Greek city-states, eventually succeeding in overpowering the mighty Athenian fleet. By the end of the 5th century BC, Sparta stood out as the power that had defeated Athens and invaded Persia, a period known as the “Spartan hegemony”.
In the Corinthian War Sparta faced a coalition of the most important Greek states: the city of Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos. Initially this alliance was supported by Persia, whose territories in Anatolia had experienced a Spartan invasion and was thus on the lookout for further expansion of Sparta in Asia. Sparta managed to achieve a number of land victories, but several of its ships were destroyed at Knidos by the Greco-Phoenician mercenary fleet that Persia provided to Athens. This greatly wounded the Spartan navy, though it did not end her ambitions to expand into Persian territory until Conon from Athens sacked the Spartan coastline and provoked the ancient Spartan fear of a revolt by the Helots.
After a few more years of war, the “King’s Peace” was signed, according to which all the Greek cities of Ionia would remain independent and the Asian borders of Persia would no longer be threatened by Sparta. The results of this war were the possibility of intervention in Greek affairs acquired by the Persians, but also the confirmation of the hegemonic position which Sparta held in the Greek political system. Sparta fell into decline after a crushing defeat of its army by Epaminondas’ Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. This was the first land battle lost by a Spartan army in full quorum.
As citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta was called upon to face the problem of the existence in its territories of an overabundance of free citizens, the so-called “Homoi”. The alarming decline in the number of Homoi in Sparta, often referred to in the sources as ‘oliganthropy’, is noted by Aristotle.
Hellenistic and Roman Sparta
Sparta was never able to replace the number of adult men it lost at Leuctra in 371 BC, and in the revolutions of the Eilotes that followed. Furthermore, the arrogant attitude she continued to take, refusing to ally with other Greek states unless she was in charge led to her partial isolation from the rest of Greece, making her unpopular with the rest of the Greeks. However, it continued to remain a powerful force in the region for another two centuries; neither Philip II nor his son Alexander even attempted to conquer Sparta. Although alone it could not pose a significant threat, but the capabilities of its army remained so great that any attempted invasion would mean excessive losses. Even during its period of decline Sparta never ceased to claim that it was the ‘defender of Hellenism’, nor did it lose its laconic spirit while boasting that no one could conquer it. A historical anecdote has King Philip II sending a message to Sparta saying: “If I invade Lacedaemonia, I will raze the city of Sparta to the ground”. The answer he received was a simple “If.”
Even when Philip created a Panhellenic army under the pretext of uniting all of Greece against the Persian threat, the Spartans chose not to participate willingly. They were in no way interested in joining forces with a panhellenic alliance if they were not going to lead the effort. Herodotus relates that the Macedonians were also descended from the Dorians and thus were a closely related race to the Spartans. However, this was of no consequence. Thus, after the conquest of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great sent to Athens, on the Parthenon, 300 Persian armour with the following inscription.
Antipater who prevailed after the death of Alexander in the Kingdom of Macedonia and managed to easily subordinate to his power all the city-states of southern Greece that had apostatized from Macedonian rule. He then asked Sparta to peacefully accept Macedonian rule, but the Spartans refused and Antipater marched into the Peloponnese with an army that was too large for Greek standards. After breaking the resistance of the Arcadians, he attacked Laconia. In the battle of Selassia he was able to defeat the Spartan army. The defeated Spartan forces withdrew to Gythio to regroup. Taking advantage of this gap, he entered the unaffected Sparta; but political problems in Macedonia forced him to withdraw after he had previously burned and looted the city. The Spartan army tried to attack him during the retreat of his forces to Megalopolis. But they suffered a miserable defeat. The campaign did not result in the conquest of Laconia, but Messinia was lost from Sparta’s control and passed into Macedonian rule, while the Helots were freed from the Spartan yoke. During the Carthaginian Wars, Sparta allied itself with the Roman Republic.
At the end of the 3rd century, there will be a revival in the political leadership of Sparta. As Agis IV, and his successor Cleomenes III, will try to bring Sparta back into the limelight. The former will try to bring back the legislation of Lycurgus, which in his time had been killed, but he will be assassinated. The second, will temporarily restore prestige to Sparta, and will initially achieve significant successes against the Achaean League, but will be defeated at the battle of Sellaia in 222 BC and will be forced into exile, which will mean the end of independent Sparta. Cleomenes will be described by many as “The last great man of Sparta”.
Sparta’s political independence came to an end when it was forced to join the Achaean League. It did not participate in the League of Freethinkers, although its port, Gythio, belonged to it. In 146 BC Greece was conquered by the Roman general Leucius Mommio. During the Roman occupation, when Sparta was known as Lacedaemon or Lacedaemonia, the Spartans continued their way of life, although their city became something of a tourist attraction for the wealthy Romans who came to see their “exotic” habits, described by Pausanias. There is a hypothesis that after the great destruction of the Roman imperial army at the Battle of Adrianople (378), a Spartan phalanx met and defeated a force of Visigothic invaders.
Unlike other cities of Laconia which were abandoned in the 4th century AD, both Sparta and Gythio continued to be inhabited, despite earthquakes (such as the one in 375), the Gothic invasions in 395 under Alaric and Vandal raids in 468 under Yzerius and the plague epidemic of 541-43. Towards the end of Justinian’s reign, however, the city was deserted, although it is possible that the citadel continued to be used. The site of Sparta was considered inadequately fortified and prone to long-term blockades because of its great distance from the port, and with the move of the capital to Constantinople, ships from Gythio now had to sail around Cape Malea.
Due to the above-mentioned reasons, the city authorities proceeded not only to move the city, founding Monemvasia, but also to reorganize the settlements of southeastern Laconia. The reorganization included settlement in the mountain passes of Parnonas and migration from Gythio. The Chronicle of Monemvasia mentions that part of the population relocated to Sicily. Since the reconstruction, movement and settlement of the population in the new location must have been completed several years later, it is possible that the two cities coexisted for some time.
A basic component of Spartan society was obedience to the rulers and the laws. The Law in Ancient Sparta was supreme, and clearly defined both the obligations and the rights of the Lacedaemonians. Its ultimate goal is to create a society of exemplary citizens and dedicated soldiers. He also sought to ensure that the city would be self-sufficient, protecting it from external and internal threats. It is noteworthy that Sparta is the city-state that demonstrated the longest lasting constitution and political stability. Until the entry of the Romans into the political affairs of Greece, it never experienced a foreign conqueror, nor an internal tyrant, nor political changes, nor social unrest, as the rest of the Greeks, with the exception of course of the frequent revolutions of the Helots.
The political organization of Sparta borders on fiction. The first legislator and founder of the political system is said to be Lycurgus, a person who, according to many, does not exist. A dominant feature of his legislative work is that he did not introduce a plethora of laws, but institutions, on the basis that laws change over time according to circumstances. Rather, institutions, traditions in the simplest sense, are incorporated into people’s way of life and have eternal validity. According to Pindar, Lycurgus received a divine mandate to write his laws by consulting the Oracle of Delphi. Pythia assured him that his laws were excellent. According to tradition, before he departed on this journey he swore to the citizens to continue to observe his laws, at least until he returned. When he received the confirmation he desired, he resolved never to return to the city. He subjected himself to starvation, and shortly before he died he swore to his servants to scatter his ashes to the wind. Thus he never returned, living or dead, to Sparta, and the citizens, true to their oath, never changed his laws.
Great Rhetra & Eunomia
The laws of Lycurgus, known as the “Great Rite”, introduced to the city of Sparta the so-called “Eunomia”, the result of which was their particular way of life. The latter formed a form of democracy, based on absolute equality between the “peers”: social equality, equality in the soup kitchens (thus equality of wealth), equality within the opulent phalanx. Of course, Sparta was not a form of democracy in the sense of its Athenian counterpart. More correctly it was a mixed constitution, in which an aristocracy ruled. Democracy-equality was limited among those who had the right to be called citizen-citizens. On their side coexisted kingship (two kings), oligarchy (senate) and tyranny (curators).
And the rights of citizenship were not granted simply by inheritance: every young man had to prove by his morals that he deserved to possess them, by successfully completing a rigorous educational process, while conforming to the traditional frugal lifestyle of the Laconians. The very fact that civil rights were not granted to just any random person was intended to make the Spartan aware of the importance of his privileges, but also to understand that from them came a series of obligations. By extension, the legislation also shaped the morality of citizens, which was expressed as an aversion to wealth and unnecessary luxuries, as philanthropy and bravery in battle, as well as military ethics. Showing cowardice in battle was considered the worst dishonourable act, punishable by the loss of the right to claim office and social outcry. The interest of the citizens was concentrated exclusively on one virtue, the martial, an orientation that can perhaps be interpreted in view of the Spartans’ Doric origin, as well as the ancient fear of the possibility of a revolt of the Helots.
Since the reforms of Lycurgus and ever since, Sparta had two kings. One belonged to the dynasty of the “Agiades”, the other to that of the “Euripodidae”, two families which, according to legend, descended from the twin descendants of Hercules, Eurysthenes and Procles respectively. The families had to be distinguished from each other in any case: both the use of common names and marriages between their members were strictly forbidden. Even their tombs were located in different places: Pitana, one of the comas that made up the city of Sparta, was home to the tombs of the Agiades, while the Euripodides, on the contrary, were buried in the Lakes. The two kings were equal, though, since Eurysthenes was the elder of the twins, we are provided with a theoretical primacy of the Ayatids.
Access to the throne was hereditary, not based on personal merit. In the order of succession, the son preceded the brother because, although the latter was an elder, the son born while his father was on the throne preceded those who did not enjoy that status. It was not, therefore, a strict favouring of the first-born, but what the Byzantines called “purpureogenesis”. However, it seems that the Spartans interpreted this rule quite freely. Plutarch even notes that those who were raised to become kings were exempt from Spartan education. Since the education of young boys began at the age of seven, the heir would have been recognized from infancy.
The powers of the kings were both military and religious. Xenophon writes: “the king had no other duty in the campaign than to be the priest of the gods and the general of the men”. In the early years of the institution, the king could wage war in the country of his choice. One king limited the power of the other. In 506 BC, the “Partition of Eleusis” took place: king Demaratus abandoned the campaign he was conducting with Cleomenes I against Athens. Since then, Herodotus tells us, a law was passed in Sparta under which both kings were not allowed to accompany the army on campaign. In the 5th century it is Apella who votes for war, and from at least the 4th century, it is the ephors and elders who decide on mobilisation.
However, during the campaign the kings had increased freedom of movement, so much so that Aristotle calls Spartan kingship “hereditary chief strategy”. In war, the king had the powers of commander-in-chief, commanded the other generals, could negotiate a truce, and fought in the front rank of the right wing surrounded by his honor guard. He had the right of life and death over his soldiers, including civilians. He remained, however, under the supervision of the tribunes, and might be judged upon his return to the city. He was still regarded as one of the members of the Senate. Finally, the kings were priests of Lacedaemon Zeus or Heavenly Zeus and presided over public sacrifices.
The Senate was a body of 28 men, aged 60 and over (when military service was completed), elected for life by the Apella. Its members were also the two kings, so it consisted of 30 people in total. The main criterion for their selection was their military virtue. Although practically any of the free citizens of Sparta, irrespective of wealth or social status, could be elected, traditionally it was made up of people from old aristocratic families. Election to the Senate was considered a great honour, enjoyed by the most distinguished men ( kaloi kagathoi ). Isocrates mentions that Lycurgus decreed that their election should be made with the same care that the Athenians once elected the members of the Supreme Court.
After the death of a member, the candidates for his successor appeared in turn before the Apella, which met for that very purpose and expressed its preference by a vote of similar intensity. The elected judges in this procedure heard the voices from an adjoining building without seeing the candidate being judged. In this way, the candidate with the loudest shout was declared an ‘elder’. Although one might consider this unusual mode of election fair enough, some ancient writers, such as Aristotle, consider it uncertain at best.
The Senate played an important role in the political life of the state, having the power to prepare laws for passage, as well as having the legislative initiative. Furthermore, its members could veto the decisions of the Apella, perhaps at a time when the curators also had legislative powers. In general, it was a body responsible for domestic policy and was not subject to anybody’s scrutiny for its decisions. The Senate was also the highest judicial authority, which tried criminal cases, having the power to impose the death penalty or the loss of a person’s civil rights. In conjunction with the appellants, members of the Senate could even criticize the kings.
The five ephoroi were a group of officials in Ancient Sparta who had the task of supervising the kings and the inhabitants of the city, especially as far as the observance of traditions was concerned. It is not known exactly when this institution was created and by whom. What we do know is that they were elected by Appella for a one-year term, on the first new moon after the autumn equinox. One of the five, known as the “eponymous curator”, gave his name to the year and to the official documents.
The first responsibility of the ephors was the maintenance of public order. They kept a close watch on the inhabitants and the villagers, having the right to decide on matters of life and death concerning the latter. Among their responsibilities was the supervision of morals and the physical appearance of the Spartans. Young men were also a class of citizens who were closely monitored: the curators checked their physical condition every ten days and their clothing and bedding daily.
They also controlled other state officials, including kings, and had the power to impose fines, imprisonment or the death penalty. They also supervised the foreign policy of the state and the implementation of the decisions of the Apella (of which they were presidents). They also had the power to take decisions in times of crisis.
Their power was so great that Aristotle compares it to that of tyrants ( isotyranos ). They even had the right to remain seated before kings. However, they theoretically represented the people. The Roman orator Cicero likened them to the “Tribunes of the Plebs” in Roman society. Every month the kings swore to uphold the laws and the bailiffs to maintain the kingdom. Even the power of the curators was not without limits: they could not be elected a second time and their term of office was evaluated by their successors, who could even impose the death penalty on them if they committed a serious offence.
By the term Apella is known the assembly of the “Homoii”, i.e. all free male Spartans who held political rights. Apparently its role was quite limited, to the point that Aristotle makes no reference to it when he lists the democratic elements of the Spartan constitution.
Its role is not clear to modern scholars, nor is the minimum age of participation in it. Possible versions are both the age of 20 (joining the army and participating in soup kitchens) and that of 30 (ability to start a family and hold public office). We do not yet know the frequency of these meetings. The Great Rite simply refers to a meeting ‘from time to time’ at the confluence of the rivers Evrotas and Onos. A commentary in Thucydides claims that it was held every month when there was a full moon.
Apella had no legislative initiative: ordinary citizens were not involved in the drafting of resolutions, nor did they have a say. They were limited to the election of paediatricians, elders and curators, and to the acceptance or rejection of resolutions proposed by the latter two chambers and the kings. These usually dealt with matters of war and peace, libations, foreign policy and the liberation of émigrés. The Apella also decided who would be appointed general of a campaign. The election to accept or reject proposals was by acclamation. Only if the presiding officer was in doubt as to the volume of voices were the supporters of each opinion divided on one side or the other and a count was taken.
In Sparta there were no social classes, in the sense of those that existed in Athens and other cities, i.e. farmers, merchants, craftsmen, etc. The basic distinction of the inhabitants was between “Homoios”, “Poikoios” and “Iliotes”.
Spartan citizens were a minority part of the total population of the city-state. According to Isocrates, it was the 2,000 Dorians who invaded Laconia, simple supposition sans valeur réelle. Aristotle states that the Spartans were 10,000 in number at the time of the first kings. Là encore, il est difficile de porter foi à ce chiffre rond. The first reliable account is provided by Herodotus : around 480 BC, King Demaratus estimated the number of mobilizable hoplites at just over 8,000 – later, 5,000 Spartan hoplites were present at the Battle of Plataea. Ce nombre décroît tout au long du Prototype:S-, principalement en raison du tremblement de terre de 464 av. J.-C., qui selon Plutarque, détruit le gymnase, tuant ainsi tous les éphèbes, et de la révolte des Hilotes (10 ans de guérilla).
Members of the higher rank in Ancient Sparta were the Homoioios. Homoios meant equal or eupatrid. These were also the legal Spartan citizens whose basic obligation was to participate in the community and be good warriors. The duty of the homoi was to be engaged only in the military and not to be engaged in anything else. The other jobs, such as agriculture, animal husbandry, crafts and trade, were mainly done by the local people. While the heavy work was done by the villagers. Due to the constant conflicts and wars that Sparta was involved in, the number of Spartan citizens, that is, Spartan citizens, was decreasing dramatically. In 480 BC, Sparta had 8,000 homoi, according to Herodotus. By the end of the 4th century BC, their number had dwindled to less than a thousand, due to the constant conflicts and probably the Spartans’ refusal to unite with the peripatetics and helots. Aristotle believed that the decline in the number of Spartan citizens resulted in the inevitable decline of Sparta in his time.
The perioecians were a social group consisting of families living with relative autonomy in towns or comas in the wider periphery of the city, but without a say in the handling of state affairs. They were engaged in productive activities in which the homoi were not engaged, i.e. they practised the professions of craftsman, carpenter, farmer, herdsman and merchant. They were the only ones who were allowed to travel to other cities, although their economic activity was limited because of the strict Spartan guardianship.
They had the right to make their own laws and not to follow Spartan legislation, which in any case prevailed. They had no political rights, nor did they participate in assemblies. But they paid taxes and were obliged to serve in the Spartan army as heavily armed soldiers.
The Helots were the lowest social class in Ancient Sparta. They were not the typical slaves that existed in the rest of Ancient Greece, as in Athens. Their form of slavery was not private, but belonged to the Spartan state, for which they worked. The origin of the Helots is not entirely clear. It is believed that they were descendants of the earlier inhabitants of Ancient Sparta who were enslaved with the arrival of the Dorians. It is also known that the Messenians also became Helots when they were enslaved by the Spartans after their defeats in the Messenian Wars. The Spartans could not sell them, nor free them, while they mainly did the agricultural work on the land of the Homonians and had to give part of their harvest to the state. They lived with their families and sometimes followed the Spartan army into battle as lightly armed soldiers. Distinction in battle could mean the liberation of the helot and his family. Because of their numerical superiority (it is believed that they outnumbered their peers about twenty to one), they were capable of creating rebellions, which was the old fear of the Spartans, who always kept large numbers of soldiers in Sparta to quell rebellions. Although Epaminondas freed the Messenian helots by seizing Messenia from Sparta, the institution of the helots in Laconia was maintained until the 2nd century BC.
Xenilasia was a Doric institution that existed not only in Sparta, but also in Doric Crete. It was the institution that forbade the hospitality of foreigners in the city of Sparta without the special permission of the Spartan State. The Spartans believed that they would keep the Doric character of the city if they kept all foreigners out of it. Furthermore, it was believed that if they kept foreigners out of the city, there would be no danger of revealing the true number of Spartan citizens. There were, of course, the exceptions to friends, allies or Laconians, such as Alcibiades, when he escaped from the ship carrying him to Athens for trial, and of course the Laconian historian Xenophon.
Social status of women
Women enjoyed great privileges in Ancient Sparta, which is surprising if we compare the position of women in Sparta with that in Athens and the other Greek cities of antiquity. Because the man was away from home for a long time, the woman in Sparta was emancipated to a degree unthinkable at that time. Men were always left behind to control the helots. She exercised like boys and men and was known for her athletic abilities. She participated in wrestling, naked, like the men, and trained in the discus and javelin. She also attached great importance to dances. This kind of training for women was a component of Spartan eugenics, so that they could become conscientious mothers and raise strong children. Plutarch reports that when someone mocked the Spartan women, Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, replied We dominate our men because we are the only ones who bear men.
The references to the Spartan woman present her as virtuous and heroic. There are stories that want Spartan women to stoically accept the killing of their newborn children if they are not able-bodied, and to kill their sons themselves if they coward in the face of the enemy. Others look at the marks on the dead bodies of their children, to ascertain whether the wounds honour or dishonour them, affirming the famous or tane or on tais. The women of Sparta enjoy the absolute respect of the society in which they live, while in no other city is the same degree of freedom and equality observed. In times of war, power was exercised by women, while men were absent. The power of the Spartan woman derives from the legislation of Lycurgus, which gives women the right to own land, thus providing them with the financial means to be anointed heads of the family.
Institution of marriage
In Ancient Sparta, dowry was not customary, marriage was not combined with a religious ceremony and the choice of a partner was more a personal matter than a parental one. Spartans and Spartan women had the opportunity from childhood to meet many times at the numerous religious festivals, which included dance, music and gymnastic displays, and in which often both boys and girls took part naked. Athenaeus records that before marriage, Spartans used virgins as lovers used underage boys. For the Spartans the legal age of marriage began at 20 years when they completed the lawsuit, but they were only entitled to a clergy allowance from the state, where they lived with their family, after the age of 30. For young Spartan women the age of marriage was shortly after the onset of menstruation, at about fifteen, which was the usual age in Ancient Greece. The most common way of marriage was the abduction of the bride, often with the consent of the father. The bridesmaid would cut the abducted girl’s long hair, dress her in a tunic like the boys of the lawsuit, and leave her waiting for the groom in a dark room. The bridegroom would come after the soup kitchen and have intercourse with her. If he was over 30 years of age, when he was entitled to receive a lot from the town, his wife no longer lived in his house, but if he was younger the wife still lived with her parents and he could only visit her secretly at night and then return to his barracks until he was 30 years old and received his own lot. Plutarch says that in this way they kept the will for their mate and never lost the freshness of love, and that sometimes this strange relationship lasted so long that many men did not see the mother of the children in the light of the sun until legal age. Further, a man might ask a family for a woman to be the mother of their children, and this was a special honor for the woman’s family. The main purpose of marriage in Sparta was procreation, so that the males born would become the warriors of Sparta. A man in Sparta was considered “immortal” only when he had male children, because it was believed that this was the only way to continue the lineage. Mothers who lived without their husbands had no problems, as the law recognized them as equal to other women. They could even inherit their parents’ property, and as a result many of them were independent and prosperous. Spartans who did not have children were treated disparagingly by others, and were required at festivals to sing songs that said they deserved the disparaging treatment.
The Spartan culture was the most basic characteristic of Ancient Sparta, a characteristic that made Sparta completely different from the other Greek cities and showed perfectly the purely military character of the Lacedaemonians and the formidable military machine that the city of Sparta had. When a child was born, it was bathed in wine to determine its strength and given to the elder Spartans, who examined the baby’s body and determined whether the child was able-bodied or not. Children who were born sickly or crippled were left in the “Apothecaries” (probably coinciding with Caiaphas, which more recent research has shown to be a place of execution of criminals and rebels). . The parents raised their male child only until he was seven years old, when the responsibility for his upbringing was assumed by the Spartan State. From the age of seven, Sparta’s boys were hardened. From thirteen they were taught to fight, to survive, to eat little, to wear the same garment in all seasons of the year. They ate Black Life but were encouraged to steal for their food, and would only be punished if they were caught, precisely because they were caught. They also had to sleep on reeds cut from the banks of the Evrotas, and talk a little and be concise, (laconic). All this was under the supervision of the pedonome, who had one child, usually the strongest and most courageous, the ireena, as the leader of the children. They received their baptism of fire at Krypteia, where they got their first taste of warfare in Sparta itself. The Spartan education lasted until they were twenty years old, a total of twelve years.
Krypteia, was a social phenomenon, or in other words an institution, of Ancient Sparta, during which young Spartans, almost unarmed, hid during the day and at night they made raids against the enemy. Ancient sources are scarce and conflicting on the subject. Modern historians also give various interpretations of the phenomenon. Some believe that this was done to control the Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans. Others believe it was a kind of military training for young Spartans, and others that it was a rite of passage into manhood. In one view, it was simply an application of a night-time curfew for the elites.
The Spartan army was, perhaps, the most formidable war machine of the ancient world. This war machine, with its incredible discipline and training, managed very well for centuries to cover its biggest and most basic shortcoming, which was, of course, none other than its numerical composition. The Spartan hoplites always wore a red cloak, because it covered the blood if they were wounded and also, according to Lycurgus, it somehow frightened the enemy. In battles the Spartan hoplites did not wear sandals, but went barefoot, in order to keep the phalanx more stable. In Sparta there was a perception that soldiers had to return from battle victorious or dead, although there was no law condemning those who abandoned the battle, but they were then marginalized by society, such as Aristodemus who fled Thermopylae on Leonidas’ orders to warn that the Greeks were surrounded. It is significant that before they went into battle, when the mother handed the shield to her son, she would say “or tan, or on it”, which meant “either with it he would return victorious or on it dead”.
The military structure of the Spartan Army was as follows: the leader of the army was one of the two kings who led the campaign from 506 BC onwards. Second in rank was the warlord, who was the leader of one of the total of six moles of the Spartan Army. Third in rank was the captain who was the commander of a company, which was 1
The Spartans’ armament was not very different from that of the other Greeks, with the only difference being the tunic and the red chlamys. At the time of the Peloponnesian War, all Spartan shields had the letter L (lambda) written on them, representing Lacedaemonia. It is also characteristic that they left their hair long and combed their hair before battles, which was considered at the time to be a predominantly pre-Spartan characteristic. In the Archaic period they wore a Corinthian helmet, periwigs and a bronze breastplate, although after the Persian Wars, when wars became more open, they replaced the bronze breastplate with the linen breastplate or the lighter exombe. Their main weapons were the spear, the shield and the sword. In the reign of Cleomenes III, in the 3rd century BC, the Spartan army was equipped with the Macedonian saris.
The economic model of Sparta was based on a philosophy that prevented the concentration of wealth. In theory, at least, it prohibited the Homoi from engaging in any productive activity, a sector to which the peripheral inhabitants and the Helots were restricted. The latter had the task of exploiting the ‘lots’, i.e. the homoi’s estates, to which they paid a share (‘apophora’). The perioikoi, as was the case in many Greek cities, were farmers and perhaps craftsmen and merchants.
Again, in theory, the use of currency was discouraged through a series of measures. Initially, currency was rendered useless: rations were provided by the state, luxuries and works of art were considered unacceptable. Then, Spartan currency was deliberately made unusable: there were no gold and silver coins, only a kind made of iron, of a value disproportionate to its weight, so that a cart was required to carry a sum equal to ten minae (or a thousand drachmas) and, moreover, this currency had no validity outside the city. Finally, wealth was despised by conviction.
In fact, the majority of historians believe that in archaic Sparta there was no law prohibiting coinage. Plenty of evidence testifies that the Lacedaemonians used coins during the classical era as well. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, the city itself found itself in a dilemma as to whether or not to issue silver coinage. It was finally decided to keep the iron coinage for certain transactions and to introduce the use of precious coins for state affairs only. Finally, Sparta followed the example of other cities in the early 3rd century BC, when King Areus I, following the example of the kings of the Hellenistic period, minted a coin in his own name and shape.
Despite the spirit of equality expressed in Lycurgus’ reform, wealth was distributed in a very unequal way among the Spartans. Herodotus mentions persons of distinguished descent who were among the wealthiest in the city. In the 4th century BC Aristotle notes that some had accumulated great wealth, while others had almost nothing, and that land was in the hands of only a few citizens. Furthermore, according to Plutarch, only some of the citizens owned land in the 3rd century BC.
Religion was an important part of the life of the ancient Spartans, perhaps more so than in other cities. This is evidenced by the number of temples and shrines mentioned by the traveller Pausanias. In addition to these, there are various funerary monuments, many in number, since the Spartans buried their dead within the city’s perimeter, some of which were of a cult nature: for example those of Lycurgus, Leonidas I and Pausanias I.
Worship and deities
In Ancient Sparta, female deities occupied a prominent position: of the 50 temples named by Pausanias, 34 are dedicated to goddesses. Athena, with a large number of invocations, is the most venerated of all. Apollo had few shrines, but his importance was special: he played a role in all the major religious festivals, while the most important religious monument in Laconia was the ‘Throne of Apollo’ at Amykles. It is also worth noting the special honour given to Gelotas, a secondary deity of the ancient Greeks, who personified laughter.
Honours were also paid to the heroes of the Trojan cycle. According to Anaxagoras, Achilles received divine honours and there were two sanctuaries dedicated to his name. Also deified were Agamemnon, Cassandra (under the name of Alexandra), Clytemnestra, Menelaus and Helen. The worship of Helen and Menelaus was, according to Pausanias, at the so-called “Menelaion” in Ancient Therapne. The worship of Helen probably began in Archaic times, replacing an earlier goddess.
The worship of Castor and Polydeuces, the twin sons of Zeus, was also important. Pindar considers them ‘stewards of Sparta’, as tradition names the city as their birthplace. Their duality recalls that of the two kings. A series of miracles were attributed to the Dioscurians, mainly related to the salvation of Spartan troops.
Finally, Hercules was considered in Ancient Sparta something of a national hero, but also a protector – god of youth. Legend had him helping Tyndareus to regain his throne. He was also believed to have built the temple of Asclepius in the city. The twelve labours of the hero often appeared in Spartan iconography.
The Spartans, like the rest of the Greeks, sacrificed to their gods in order to appease them and seek their help. It is known that before every battle, the Spartans offered sacrifices to the god Eros, which was not only a custom of the Spartans, but also of the Dorians of Crete. Many have tried to link these sacrifices with the institution of paedophilia. Unlike other Greek cities, Sparta did not require animals for slaughter to be beautiful, healthy or even able-bodied.
Ancient Sparta had many festivals, like the rest of the ancient Greek cities, some of which had some special characteristics, such as the celebration at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthias, which was one of the strangest in Ancient Greece, due to the protests of Spartan teenagers at the altar of the goddess. At the sanctuary of Apollo at Amycleos there was a common worship of Apollo and Hyacinth, due to the relationship between the two gods. These celebrations included lamentations for Hyacinth and music and dances for Apollo. Karneia or Karneas was perhaps the most important festival of the Dorians, dedicated to Apollo Karneios. Gymnopedias were associated with the worship of Apollo, although not associated with this particular festival. Many athletic games were held on the days of Carneia. Other festivals of Sparta were the Aegatoria in honor of Zeus and Apollo, the Agrania in honor of the dead, also celebrated in other cities of the Greek world, the Athanaea in honor of Athena, the Alkideia, the Amycleia in honor of Apollo and the Dioscuri, Brasidia in honour of the fallen general Brasidas, Gymnopadia in honour of Apollo, Artemis and Leto, where annual athletic games for children were held, Damia in honour of the goddess of euphoria, Damia, the Passports in honour of Zeus, which was a purely Doric ceremony. There were also the Elenia, in honour of Helen and Menelaus, where there was a great procession of virgins to Menelaio in Therapni. The Spartans had many festivals which they shared with the rest of the Greeks.
The building of the modern city on the site of ancient Sparta, the natural disasters (mainly the earthquake of the 4th century AD) and the raids (mainly by the Goths in 394) left little trace of the city. Thus, today, the archaeological finds of Sparta are disproportionately small compared to the glory and power the city had in antiquity and late Roman times.
Most of the findings are found in the acropolis of ancient Sparta, a low and wide hill, which was the political, religious and economic centre of the ancient city.
On the northwestern slope of the ancient acropolis, excavations by the English School of Archaeology brought to light parts of the sanctuary of Athena, the most important sanctuary of ancient Sparta. It was so called because its inner walls were covered with copper sheets, bearing reliefs. This place was a place of worship from the Geometric to the Roman period. Initially, a temple with an altar had been created and in the 6th century BC a small temple with a precinct was built, which housed the statue of the patron saint Athena. Public gatherings, parades and equestrian competitions were held in the sanctuary.
On the south-western side of the hill of the Acropolis, under the sanctuary of Athena, excavations by the English School of Archaeology have brought to light parts of a large Roman theatre with a capacity of 16,000 spectators, which was in use until the end of the 4th century AD. It is the third largest and one of the most impressive theatre structures in the ancient world.
The theatre had two parts: the main theatre in the lower part, with thirty rows of seats, and the epitheatre, with another seventeen rows. The hollow – the total opening of which is 140 m long – is made of white marble and dates from around 30 BC-20 BC. Its construction was based not only on the natural characteristics of the terrain, but also on the work carried out with the construction of the retaining walls. At the top of the hollow, a frontage to the sanctuary of Chalchioikos Athena or a perimeter stoa was built to protect the spectators.
The floor of the horseshoe-shaped orchestra, which has a diameter of 25 m., was paved with marble slabs, alternately white and red. Of considerable interest are the honorific inscriptions on the east gallery.
In the acropolis, a circular structure has been revealed by archaeological excavation. It is a retaining wall surrounding a natural outcrop of the hill. Many people identify it with the Skiada, where the people used to gather, while others identify it with the Gaspepton (sanctuary of the Earth).
Next to the theatre and the sanctuary of Athena of Chalchioikos, the ruins of the great Basilica of Christ the Saviour are preserved. According to tradition, its erection is attributed to Saint Nicholas of Metanoia. However, it is an early Byzantine church of the 7th century AD, from which, as was the case with the churches of that period, the temple separating the sanctuary from the main church is missing. The narthex, the chapel, the bell tower and a number of other buildings are later additions. The church served for many centuries as the metropolis of Lacedaemonia.
On the outskirts of the acropolis of Sparta and at the northern limits of the present city, the ruins of a peculiar temple-like structure, the Leonidaion (5th century BC), are preserved. It is built with large limestones and is divided into two chambers. Local tradition considers it to be the tomb of Leonidas, but it is known that his remains were transferred from Thermopylae and buried further north, near the theatre. According to some indications, it is identified with the temple of Apollo of Karneos.
On the curbs of the hill of the acropolis, behind the national stadium of the city, remains of a wall of the late Roman period (late 4th century AD) have been uncovered. The destruction of Sparta by the earthquake of 375 and the threat of Gothic invasions prompted the inhabitants to build a high wall, which enclosed only the Roman citadel. This wall played a decisive role in the following centuries of barbarian invasions.
Sparta remained undivided until the first decades of the 3rd century BC. It even boasted that it had its men as its walls. The first incomplete constructions date back to the end of the 4th century, but the first real fortifications were part of the defence programme of Cleomenes III and were built in the early 3rd century BC, under the threat of Demetrius the Poliorceman and Pyrrhus. The wall, which protected the entire city, with a perimeter of about 9 km, was completed during the reign of Nabis (207 BC-192 BC). A second strong fortification wall was built in the later Roman period to protect the city from the raids of the barbarians. It enclosed only the hill of the citadel and had tall square towers. This wall was preserved with several repairs in later years.
- Αρχαία Σπάρτη
- 1,0 1,1 Θουκυδίδης, «Ιστορία του Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου», I, 10, 2
- Cartledge 2001a, σελ. 6
- Cartledge 2001a, σελ. 4-5
- Cartledge 2001a, σελ. 92-93
- Cartledge 2001a, σελ. 65
- Klaus Bringmann: Die soziale und politische Verfassung Spartas – Ein Sonderfall der griechischen Verfassungsgeschichte? In: Karl Christ (Hrsg.): Sparta (= Wege der Forschung. Band 622). Darmstadt 1986, S. 448–469, hier S. 448; Ernst Baltrusch: Sparta: Geschichte, Gesellschaft, Kultur, München 2010, S. 27–35.
- Spartas Militärmacht war zeitweise jeder anderen in Griechenland überlegen, sodass Sparta, zumal in der Auseinandersetzung mit den Persern, auch in dem Ruf stand, Beschützer und Anwalt Griechenlands (προστάτης τὴς Ἑλλάδος) zu sein. (Christian Meier: Kultur, um der Freiheit willen: Griechische Anfänge – Anfang Europas? München 2009, S. 177)
- ^ Edmond Lévy, Sparta, Mottola, Argo, 2010, pp. 5-6.
- Hansen, Mogens Herman & Nielsen, Thomas Heine: ”345 Sparta”, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis. An Investigation Conducted by The Copenhagen Polis Centre for the Danish National Research Foundation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-814099-1.