The Spartan experience: from the 8th century BC

The political institutions of Sparta, notorious for their lack
of conventional humanity, are said by ancient Greek historians to have
been introduced by Lycurgus. But he is probably a figure of legend.
Sparta seems to have delevoped gradually as a practical response to
unusual circumstances.

The valley of the Eurotas river, unusually fertile for Greece, is a rich prize conquered in the 12th century BC by Dorians
– few but fierce invaders compared to the settled people they
overwhelm. A military society is one way of stabilizing such a
situation, with an elite group of soldiers keeping the villagers hard at
work. When Sparta emerges in history, in the 8th century, a system of
this kind is firmly established.


The peasants of Sparta, known as helots, are serfs owned by the
state. They do all the manual work of the community, enabling the
citizens – an exclusively military caste – to concentrate on warfare and

At the age of seven the sons of all Spartan citizens
leave home to enter a state education system in which the emphasis is
on courage and discipline. Corporal punishment is used not only to
punish but also as a test of endurance. This schooling continues to the
age of twenty, but there is no evidence that learning to read is part of
the curriculum. Girls in Sparta are educated in the same austere
virtues, training them to be good wives and mothers. Unlike the boys,
they are allowed to live at home.


On graduating from this regime, at the age of twenty, a Spartan
becomes a member of a group of men, something like an officer’s mess,
with whom he will spend most of the rest of his life – leaving them only
from time to time, after marriage, for the requirements of conjugal

Gainful employment plays no part in this manly existence.
Spartan citizens are forbidden by law to engage in any money-making
activity. Instead each is provided by the state with a lifetime interest
in a plot of land. This is farmed for him by the state’s slaves. The
warrior lives off the produce.


Sparta is able to provide for its citizens in this way thanks to the
conquest of Messenia, a rich plain to the west beyond Mount Taygetos.
Messenia is annexed in the 8th century. In the 7th, after an uprising
against Spartan rule, the Messenians are reduced to the status of helots
– more than doubling the amount of land available to support the
Spartan army.

Sparta is both strengthened and weakened by this
form of exploitation. The weakness derives from the permanent danger
that the helots will rise in revolt against their military masters. On
several occasions they do so. The constant threat prevents this rigid
society from relaxing or developing.


One of the stranger Spartan traditions, which survives through the
centuries, is shared rule by two kings. Each crown is hereditary within a
family, dating back perhaps to the time when neighbouring villages
coalesced to form the original city-state of Sparta. Spartan armies are
nearly always led into battle by one of the kings.

The Spartan
kings, even when in agreement, do not wield absolute power. The state is
governed by a well balanced combination of two kings, five ephors, a
council of elders and an assembly of all the citizens (see Ephors and elders). An accepted part of the system is that the kings can be tried by due judicial process, and in practice they quite often are.


Leaders of the Greek world: 6th – 5th century BC

By the middle of the 6th century Sparta is the strongest city-state
in Greece. She now assumes a leadership role, involving her neighbours
in a defensive alliance which becomes known as the Peloponnesian League.
The terms accepted by members of the league are that they will fight
under Spartan leadership in any joint campaign and that they will send
troops to Sparta in the event of an uprising by the helots.

In return they acquire the protection of the most formidable army in Greece.


Politically the leadership of Sparta is attractive to the
aristocratic families who still control most Greek city-states. The
chief threat to their interests is from tyrants, seizing power on behalf of a newly enriched class.

ruled by an aristocracy within a constitutional framework, is unusually
secure against any such upheaval. There is no risk of a new commercial
class developing, for there is no commerce (even coins are banned). So
Sparta becomes associated with a policy of opposing tyrants – even
deposing them. Her first major clash with Athens comes in 510, when one of the Spartan kings, Kleomenes, marches north to drive out the tyrant Hippias.


In 480 the threat from Persia brings Sparta and Athens together,
with most of the other city-states of mainland Greece, in a rare show of
unity. During the Greco-Persian wars the leading position of Sparta is acknowledged by all.

the time the Persians withdraw at the end of 480, soundly defeated,
Sparta’s military reputation has been enhanced at Thermopylae and
Plataea. The Athenians, by contrast, have lost their city, laid waste by
the Persians. Yet on balance it is the Athenians who emerge stronger.
The navy which routs the enemy at Salamis is largely theirs. And it is
becoming evident that control of the Aegean Sea is the best defence
against Persia.


The Delian League: from 478 BC

A shift in the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is
emphasized in 478, when representatives of Athens and other Aegean
states meet on the island of Delos to form a coalition, subsequently
known as the Delian League. Members will subscribe to a common fleet,
either by contributing ships and crews or in a minority of cases by a
tribute of money. One of the aims is to liberate the Greek territories
held by Persia on the east coast of the Aegean.

is not interested in membership, having little in the way of a fleet. So
Athens is unmistakably the leader of this new Greek alliance.


In its early years the Delian League grows in strength, achieving
several significant victories against Persia. This in itself is alarming
to Sparta. Even more so is the way Athens begins to treat the League as
an Athenian empire, with its fleet at the automatic disposal of Athens.

The behaviour of Athens towards its supposedly equal
allies is soon that of an imperial bully. States which attempt to bow
out of the league are forcibly retained. Annual subscriptions are
demanded instead of ships. Most significant of all, in about 454 the
accumulated funds of the League are transferred from Delos to Athens.


Build-up to the First Peloponnesian War: 478-460 BC

Sparta is having difficulty in retaining the loyalty of the members
of its own Peloponnesian League, several of whom adopt democratic
governments hostile in principle to the Spartan oligarchy.

troubles are compounded by a devastating earthquake in 464. Indirectly
it brings to a head the simmering hostilities between Sparta and Athens.


The earthquake destroys much of the city of Sparta and kills many
Spartiates – the Greek term for Sparta’s warrior citizens. The helots
seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. The Spartans manage to contain
the rebels in the region of Mount Ithome, in Messenia, but they lack
the strength to defeat them. They appeal to their allies for help.

Athens, at this stage technically an ally of Sparta, is among the city-states which send an army.


Instead of welcoming this Athenian support, the Spartans send the
soldiers back to Athens without involving them in the campaign. The
precise reason is not known, but is probably political. The decision
follows the news that Athens is in the process of introducing a more radical democracy,
a measure profoundly offensive to aristocratic Sparta. The episode is
interpreted as a snub by the Athenians, who are constitutionally
inclined to distrust Sparta.

after this event Athens makes provocative alliances with two
city-states opposed to Sparta. Open hostility breaks out in 460, the
year commonly taken as the start of the First Peloponnesian War.


Mutual destruction: 5th – 4th century BC

The war is spasmodic and has a built-in element of stalemate. Athens
tends to win battles at sea; Sparta and her allies are stronger on
land. In 446 a Thirty Year Treaty is agreed, in principle safeguarding
the status quo. Sparta recognizes the Delian League, which has by now
unmistakably evolved into an Athenian empire. Athens, in turn, will not
take steps to diminish the Peloponnesian League.

The peace makes possible the heyday of Athens under Pericles,
but it lasts for only half its intended thirty years. Athens is unable
to resist interfering in Peloponnesian affairs. Amid recriminations as
to which side has broken the treaty first, war resumes in 431 BC.


The war continues in fits and starts for more than twenty years.
Neither side establishes a clear advantage until, from 414, the Persians
intervene on the Spartan side. By 404 the Athenian fleet has been
destroyed, and a punitive peace treaty is imposed on Athens. Sparta is
once again the undisputed leader of the Greek city-states.

more than a century Greece has been torn by lethal squabbles as cities
change sides, betray treaties, make surprise attacks on each other,
impose new forms of government or encourage treachery. The Greek
invention of politics seems like the poison in the brew. This has been a
century of political intrigue elevated to the status of war.


Sparta, from 404 BC, has the opportunity and the strength to impose
some sort of unity on Greece, but her hidebound social structure is
ill-equipped to provide the necessary leadership.

Athens recovers sufficient prestige to put together, in 377, a revised
version of the Delian League. This alliance proves strong enough to
defeat the Spartan navy off Naxos in 376. A few years later the Spartan
army receives a terminal blow when overwhelmed by a smaller number of
Thebans, thanks to the revolutionary tactics of Epaminondas, at Leuctra in 371. In 369 Epaminondas liberates Messenia, the neighbouring territory long exploited by the Spartans and the basis of much of Sparta’s strength.


A slow decline: from the 4th century BC

In the mid-4th century Sparta offers no resistance to the Macedonian
invaders. Alone among the Greek city-states, she is allowed to maintain
a sulky independence.

remains technically a free city through most of the Macedonian era and
even into the Roman empire. The traditional political system, associated
with the name of Lycurgus,
lasts until 188 BC – though increasingly seen as a curiosity. The
rigorous training of young men even survives as a tourist attraction in
the Roman empire. An ordeal by flogging is one of the Spartan customs
which can be viewed in the temple of Artemis.


Almost no trace survives today of ancient Sparta. Unlike the
cultured Athenians, these brisk military men set little store by fine
buildings. They were proud that their city was defended by men rather
than masonry. The site of the temple of Artemis can be still be
identified, but only because the Romans build a theatre there.

location of Sparta has remained in almost continuous use. In the Middle
Ages a magnificent Byzantine city develops on a hill three miles away,
at Mistra. The present town of Sparta, with about 10,000 inhabitants,
was built in 1834 as a gesture of pride in the new independence of Greece.

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