Sparta is a city in Laconia, on the Peloponnese in Greece. In antiquity, it was a powerful city-state with a famous martial tradition. Ancient writers sometimes referred to it as Lacedaemon and its people as Lacedaemonians.
Sparta reached the height of its power in 404 B.C. after its victory against Athens in the second Peloponnesian war. When it was in its prime, Sparta had no city walls; its inhabitants, it seems, preferred to defend it with men rather than mortar. However, within a few decades, after a defeat against the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra, the city found itself reduced to a “second-rate power,” a status from which it never recovered.
The prowess and fearlessness of Sparta’s warriors has inspired the Western world for millennia and, even in the 21st century, has been incorporated into Hollywood films like “300” and the futuristic video game series “Halo” (where a group of super- soldiers are called “Spartans”).
Yet the real-life story of the city is more complicated than popular mythology makes it out to be. The task of sorting out what is real about the Spartans from what is myth has been made more difficult because many of the ancient accounts were written by non-Spartans. As such, they need to be taken with the appropriate grain of salt.
Although there is evidence of Bronze Age habitation not far from Sparta, it seems that the city itself was not founded until the early Iron Age, in the time after 1000 B.C. Four villages — Limnae, Pitana, Mesoa and Cynosoura, which are located near what would be the Spartan acropolis — came together to form the early city.
Historian Nigel Kennell writes in his book “Spartans: A New History” (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) that the city’s location in the fertile Eurotas valley gave its inhabitants access to an abundance of food, something its local rivals did not enjoy. Even the name Sparta is from a verb meaning “I sow” or “to sow.”
Although Sparta made efforts to consolidate its territory in Laconia, we also know that, at this early stage, the people of the city appear to have taken pride in their artistic skills. Sparta was known for its poetry and it pottery, its wares being found in places as far flung as Cyrene (in Libya) and the island of Samos, not far from the coast of modern-day Turkey. Researcher Konstantinos Kopanias notes in a 2009 journal article that, up until the sixth century B.C., Sparta appears to have had an ivory workshop. Surviving ivories from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta depict birds, male and female figures and even a “tree of life” or “sacred tree.”
Poetry was another key early Spartan achievement. “In reality we have more testimony to poetic activity at Sparta in the seventh century than for any other Greek state, including Athens,” writes historian Chester Starr in a chapter of the book “Sparta” (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
While much of this poetry survives in fragmentary form and some of it, such as from Tyrtaeus, reflects the development of the martial values that Sparta would become famous for, there is also work that appears to reflect a society concerned with art, rather than just war.
This fragment from the poet Alcman, which he composed for a Spartan festival, stands out. It refers to a choir girl named “Agido.”
There is such a thing as retribution from the gods.
Happy is he who, sound of mind,
weaves through the day
unwept. I sing
the light of Agido. I see it
like the sun, whom
Agido summons to appear and
witness for us. But the glorious chorus mistress
forbids me to either praise
or blame her. For she appears to be
outstanding as if
one placed among a grazing herd
a perfect horse, a prize-winner with resounding hooves,
one of the dreams that dwell below the rock…
(Translation by Gloria Ferrari, from Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta, University of Chicago Press, 2008)
War with Messenia and subjugation
A key event on Sparta’s road to becoming a more militaristic society was its conquest of the land of Messenia, located to the west of Sparta, and its conversion of its subjects to helots (slaves).
Kennell points out that this conquest appears to have begun in the eighth century B.C. with archaeological evidence from the city of Messene showing that the last evidence of habitation was during the eighth/seventh centuries B.C. before a period of desertion began.
The incorporation of the people of Messenia into Sparta’s slave population was important as it provided Sparta with “the means to maintain the nearest thing to a standing army in Greece,” Kennell writes, “by freeing all its adult male citizens from the need for manual labor.”
Keeping this population of slaves in check was a problem the Spartans would have for centuries with some deeply cruel methods employed. The writer Plutarch (who lived A.D. 46-120) claimed that the Spartans used what we might consider death squads.
“The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most discreet of the young warriors, equipped only with daggers and such supplies as were necessary. In the day time they scattered into obscure and out-of-the-way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught.”
(Translation by Bernadotte Perrin via Perseus Digital Library)
Spartan poetry written in the seventh century B.C. also hints at a move to a more martial society. Tyrtaeus writes:
Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.
Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war…
(Translation by Richmond Lattimore, from the book “Greek Lyrics,” University of Chicago Press, 1960)
The Spartan training system
The presence of large numbers of slaves relieved Spartan men from manual labor and allowed Sparta to build a citizen training system that prepared the city’s children for the harshness of war.
“At seven a Spartan boy was taken from his mother and raised in barracks, beneath the eyes of older boys,” writes University of Virginia professor J.E. Lendon in his book “Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity” (Yale University Press, 2005). “Boys were whipped to inculcate respect (aidos) and obedience; they went ill clad to make them tough; and they were starved to make them resistant to hunger …”
If they got too hungry, the boys were encouraged to try stealing (as a way of improving their stealth) but were punished if they got caught.
Spartans progressed through this training system until the age of 20 when they were allowed to join a communal mess and hence become a full citizen of the community. Each member of the mess was expected to provide a certain amount of foodstuffs.
Girls, while not trained militarily, were expected to train physically. “Physical fitness was considered to be as important for females as it was for males, and girls took part in races and trials of strength,” writes Sue Blundell in her book “Women in Ancient Greece” (Harvard University Press, 1995). This included running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing. “They also learned how to manage horses; they drove carriages in processions and at the Hyacinthia, a festival of Apollo and Hyacinthus, they raced in two-horse chariots.”
Kings of Sparta
Sparta in time developed a system of dual kingship (two kings ruling at once). Their power was counter-balanced by the elected board of ephors (who may only serve a single one-year term). There was also a Council of Elders (Gerousia), each member of which was over the age of 60 and could serve for life. The general assembly, which consisted of each citizen, also had the chance to vote on legislation.
The legendary lawmaker Lycurgus is often credited in ancient sources with providing the groundwork for Spartan law. Kennell notes, however, that he probably never existed and was in fact a mythical character.
War with Persia
Initially Sparta was hesitant to engage with Persia. When the Persians threatened Greek cities in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey, the Greeks who lived in those areas sent an emissary to Sparta to ask for help. The Spartans refused but did threaten King Cyrus, telling him to leave Greek cities alone. “He was to harm no city on Greek territory, or else the Lacedaemonians would punish him,” wrote Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.
The Persians did not listen. The first invasion by Darius I took place in 492 B.C. and was repulsed by a mainly Athenian force at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The second invasion was launched by Xerxes in 480 B.C., the Persians crossing the Hellespont (the narrow strait between the Aegean and Black seas) and moved south, gaining allies along the way.
Sparta and one of their kings, Leonidas, became head of an anti-Persian coalition that ultimately made an ill-fated stand at Thermopylae. Located beside the coast, Thermopylae contained a narrow passage, which the Greeks blocked and used to halt Xerxes’ advance. Ancient sources indicate that Leonidas started the battle with a few thousand troops (including 300 Spartans at its core). He faced a Persian force many times its size.
After spying on the Spartan-led force, and waiting to see if they would surrender, Xerxes ordered an attack. The “Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others, however, took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day,” wrote Herodotus. (Translation by George Rawlinson)
After this beaten force withdrew, Xerxes sent an elite unit called the “Immortals” after the Spartan-led force but they too failed. Herodotus noted the battle tactics the Spartans employed.
“The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skillful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy.”
Eventually a Greek man showed Xerxes a pass that allowed part of the Persian force to outmaneuver the Greeks and attack them on both flanks. Leonidas was doomed. Many of the troops who were with Leonidas withdrew (possibly because the Spartan king ordered them to). According to Herodotus, the Thespians decided to stay with the 300 Spartans by their own free will. Leonidas then made his fateful stand and “fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans,” Herodotus writes.
Ultimately, the Persians killed almost every Spartan. The helots the Spartans brought with them were also killed. The Persian army proceeded south, sacking Athens and threatening to break into the Peloponnese. A Greek naval victory at the Battle of Salamis halted this approach, the Persian king Xerxes going home and leaving an army behind that would later be destroyed. The Greeks led by the now dead Leonidas had prevailed.
When the threat from the Persians receded, the Greeks resumed their inter-city rivalries. Two of the most powerful city states were Athens and Sparta, and tensions between the two escalated in the decades after their victory over Persia.
This map shows the strategies of Sparta and its allies during the Peloponnesian War.
The Battle of Tanagra, fought in 457 B.C., heralded a period of conflict between the two cities that continued, off and on, for more than 50 years. At times, Athens appeared to have the advantage, such as the battle of Sphacteria in 425 B.C. when, shockingly, 120 Spartans surrendered.
“Nothing that happened in the war surprised the Hellenes so much as this. It was the opinion that no force or famine could make the Lacedaemonians give up their arms, but that they would fight on as they could, and die with them in their hands,” wrote Thucydides (460-395 B.C.). (Translation by J.M. Dent via Perseus Digital Library)
There were also periods when Athens was in trouble, such as in 430 B.C., when the Athenians, who were packed behind their city walls during a Spartan attack, suffered a plague that killed many people including their leader, Pericles.
Ultimately, the conflict between Sparta and Athens resolved itself on the sea. While the Athenians had the naval advantage throughout much of the war, the situation changed when a man named Lysander was named commander of Sparta’s navy. He sought out Persian financial support to help the Spartans build up their fleet.
He convinced a Persian prince named Cyrus to provide him with money. The prince “had brought with him, he said, five hundred talents; if this amount should prove insufficient, he would use his own money, which his father had given him; and if this too should prove inadequate, he would go so far as to break up the throne whereon he sat, which was of silver and gold,” wrote Xenophon (430-355 B.C.). (Translation by Carleton Brownson via Perseus Digital Library)
With Persian financial support, Lysander built up his navy and trained his sailors. In 405 B.C., he engaged the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, on the Hellespont. He managed to catch them by surprise, winning a decisive victory and cutting off Athens’ supply of grain from the Crimea.
Athens was now forced to make peace on Sparta’s terms. They had to tear down their walls, confine their activities to Attica and (as Lysander latter ordered) submit to rule by a 30-man body later called the “thirty tyrants.”
The “Peloponnesians with great enthusiasm began to tear down the walls [of Athens] to the music of flute-girls, thinking that that day was the beginning of freedom for Greece,” wrote Xenophon.
Sparta was now at the peak of its power.
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