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Peloponnesus Cities

Sparta from Space

Sparta (Grk. Σπάρτη) was an ancient city in Greece, the capital of Laconia and the most powerful state of the Peloponnesus. The city lay at the northern end of the central Laconian plain, on the right bank of the river Eurotas. The site is strategically sited, guarded from three sides by mountains, and controls the routes by which an army can penetrate Laconia and the southern Peloponnessus and the Langhda Pass over Mt Taygetus connecting Laconia and Messenia. At the same time its distance from the sea—Sparta is 27 miles from its seaport, Gythium—made it difficult to blockade.

History of Sparta

Sparta was the main superpower in ancient Greece before the rise of Athens after the Persian Wars. Initially Sparta and Athens were reluctant allies, but soon became rivals. The second and third conflicts between them, which resulted in the dismantling of the Athenian Empire, is generally known as the Peloponnesian War. Spartan attempts to take over from the Athenians as 'the guardians of Hellenism' ended in failure, and the first ever defeat of a (full strength) Spartan hoplite army at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. At the time of Alexander of Macedon; Sparta was a shadow of its former self, and was eventually forced into the Achaean League.


Little is recorded of the internal development of Sparta. This want of information was attributed by most of the Greeks to "the stability of the Spartan constitution", which had lasted unchanged from the days of Lycurgus. It is, in fact, due also to the absence of historical literature in Sparta, to the small part played by written laws which were according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus, and to the secrecy which always characterizes an oligarchical rule. At the head of the state stood two hereditary kings, of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, equal in authority, so that one could not act against the veto of his colleague, though the Agiad king received greater honour in virtue of the seniority of his family (Herod. vi. 5).

This dual kingship, a phenomenon unique in history, was explained in Sparta by the tradition that on Aristodemus's death he had been succeeded by his twin sons, and that this joint rule had been perpetuated. Modern scholars have advanced various theories to account for the anomaly. Some suppose that it must be explained as an attempt to avoid absolutism, and is paralleled by the analogous instance of the consuls at Rome. Others think that it points to a compromise arrived at to end the struggle between two families or communities, or that the two royal houses represent respectively the Spartan conquerors and their Achaean predecessors: those who hold this last view appeal to the words attributed by Herodotus (v. 72) to Cleomenes I: "I am no Dorian, but an Achaean."

The duties of the kings were mainly religious, judicial and military. They were the chief priests of the state, and had to perform certain sacrifices and to maintain communication with the Delphian sanctuary, which always exercised great authority in Spartan politics. Their judicial functions had at the time when Herodotus wrote (about 430 BC) been restricted to cases dealing with heiresses, adoptions and the public roads. Civil cases were decided by the ephors, and criminal jurisdiction had passed to the council of elders and the ephors. It was in the military sphere that the powers of the kings were least restricted.

Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as "a kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship" (Pol. iii. I285a), while Isocrates refers to the Spartans as "subject to an oligarchy at home, to a kingship on campaign" (iii. 24). Here also, however, the royal prerogatives were curtailed in course of time: from the period of the Persian wars the king lost the right of declaring war on whom he pleased, he was accompanied to the field by two ephors, and he was supplanted also by the ephors in the control of foreign policy. As time went on the kings became mere figure-heads, except in their capacity as generals, and the real power was transferred to the ephors and to the gerousia. The reason for this change lay partly in the fact that the ephors, chosen by popular election from the whole body of citizens, represented a democratic element in the constitution without violating those oligarchical methods which seemed necessary for its satisfactory administration; partly in the weakness of the kingship, the dual character of which inevitably gave rise to jealousy and discord between the two holders of the office, often resulting in a practical deadlock; partly in the loss of prestige suffered by the kingship, especially during the 5th century, owing to these quarrels, to the frequency with which kings ascended the throne as minors and a regency was necessary, and to the many cases in which a king was, rightly or wrongly, suspected of having accepted bribes from the enemies of the state and was condemned and banished.

Military service and training

In the powers exercised by the assembly of the citizens or apella we cannot trace any development, owing to the scantiness of our sources. The Spartan was essentially a soldier, trained to obedience and endurance: he became a politician only if chosen as ephor for a single year or elected a life member of the council after his sixtieth year had brought freedom from military service.

Shortly after birth the child was brought before the elders of the tribe, who decided whether it was to be reared: if defective or weakly, it was dropped off a cliff called the Apothetae, or Place of Rejection.

Thus was secured, as far as could be, the maintenance of a high standard of physical efficiency, and thus from the earliest days of the Spartan the absolute claim of the state to his life and service was indicated and enforced. Till their seventh year boys were educated at home. There was emphasis on fighting fears and superstition. Spartan nurses were prized in Greece. From that age, their training was undertaken by the state in the agoge system and supervised by the paidonomos, an official appointed for that purpose. This training consisted for the most part in physical exercises, such as dancing, gymnastics, ball-games, etc., with music and literature occupying a subordinate position. Spartans had a reputation of being "laconic", short in words. Education was also extended to girls. Both sexes exercised naked. Women however could not compete by the Olympic rules, while Spartan men were very successful. There were also contests to see who could take the most severe beating. From the twentieth year began the Spartan's liability to military service and his membership of one of the dining messes or clubs, composed of about fifteen members each, to one of which every citizen must belong and contribute, and where all meals must be taken. At thirty began the full citizen rights and duties. For the exercise of these three conditions were requisite: Spartiate birth, the training prescribed by law, and participation in and contribution to one of the dining-clubs. Those who fulfilled these conditions were the peers, citizens in the fullest-sense of the word, while those who failed were called routtoves (lesser men), and retained only the civil rights of citizenship.

Spartiates, also known as homoioi (the "Similars"), were absolutely debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the perioeci, and were forbidden (in theory) to possess either gold or silver, the currency consisting of bars of iron, thus making thievery and foreign commerce very difficult and discouraging the accumulation of riches. Wealth was, in theory at least, derived entirely from landed property, and consisted in the annual return made by the Helots who cultivated the plots of ground allotted to the Spartiates. But this attempt to equalize property proved a failure: from early times there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became even more serious after the law of Epitadeus, passed at some time after the Peloponnesian War, removed the legal prohibition of the gift or bequest of land. Helots were ruthlessly controlled, primarily through the secret police or Krypteria.

Women were freer than in other Greek societies; they negotiated with their husbands to bring their lovers into their homes.

Later, a greater concentration of land was in the hands of large landholders and by the middle of the 3rd century s.c. nearly two-fifths of Laconia belonged to women. Hand in hand with this process went a serious diminution in the number of full citizens, who had numbered 8,000 at the beginning of the 5th century BC, but had sunk by Aristotle's day to less than 1,000, and had further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BC. The Spartans did what they could to remedy this by law: certain penalties were imposed upon those who remained unmarried or who married too late in life. The decay, however, was too deeply rooted to be eradicated by such means and at too late a period in Sparta's history.


There is a well-known passage in Thucydides which runs thus:

"Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame.

"Their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages, like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show" (i. 10, trans. Jowett).

The first feeling of most travellers who visit modern Sparta is one of disappointment with the ancient remains: it is rather the loveliness and grandeur of the situation and the fascination of Byzantine Mistra, with its grass-grown streets, its decaying houses, its ruined fortress and its beautiful churches, it remains as a lasting and cherished memory. Until (?)1905 the chief ancient buildings at Sparta were the theatre, of which, however, little shows above ground except portions of the retaining walls; the so called Tomb of Leonidas, a quadrangular building, perhaps a temple, constructed of immense blocks of stone and containing two chambers; the foundation of an ancient bridge over the Eurotas; the ruins of a circular structure; some remains of late Roman fortifications; several brick buildings and mosaic pavements. To these must be added the inscriptions, sculptures and other objects collected in the local museum, founded by Stamatakis in 1872 and enlarged in 1907, or built into the walls of houses or churches. Though excavations were carried on near Sparta, on the site of the Amyclaeum in 1890 by (?)Tsounas, and in 1904 by Furtwängler, and at the shrine of Menelaus in Therapne by Ross in 1833 and 1841, and by Kastriotis in 1889 and 1900. Organized work was tried in Sparta itself except for partial excavation of the round building undertaken in 1892 and 1893 by the American School at Athens. The structure has been since found to be a semicircular retaining wall of good Hellenic work and partly restored in Roman times.

Menelaion, Sparta

In 1904 the British School at Athens began a thorough exploration of Laconia, and in the following year excavations were made at Thalamae, Geronthrae, and Angelona near Monemvasia while several medieval fortresses were surveyed. In 1906 excavations began in Sparta itself with results of great value, which have been published in the British School Annual, vol. xii. sqq

A small circus described by, Leake but subsequently almost lost to view, proved to be a theatre-like building constructed soon after AD 200 round the altar and in front of the temple of Artemis Orthia. Here musical and gymnastic contests took place as well as the famous flogging-ordeal (diamastigosis). The temple, which can be dated to the 2nd century BC rests on the foundation of an older temple of the 6th century, and close beside it were found the scanty remains of a yet earlier temple, dating from the 9th or even the 10th century. The votive offerings in clay, amber, bronze, ivory and lead found in great profusion within the precinct range from the 9th to the 4th century n.e. and supply invaluable evidence for early Spartan art; they prove that Sparta reached her artistic zenith in the 7th century and that her decline had already begun in the 6th. In 1907 the sanctuary of Athena "of the Brazen House" (Chalkioikos) was located on the acropolis immediately above the theatre, and though the actual temple is almost completely destroyed, fragments of the capitals show that it was done in style, and the site has produced the longest extant archaic inscription of Laconia, numerous bronze nails and plates and a considerable number of votive offerings, some of them of great interest. The Greek city-wall,built in successive stages from the 4th to the 2nd century, was traced for a great part of its circuit, which measured 48 stades or nearly 10km. (Polyb. 1X. 21). The late Roman wall enclosing the Acropolis, part of which probably dates from the years following the Gothic raid of A.D. 262, was also investigated. Besides the actual buildings discovered, a number of points were fixed with great facility, the study of Spartan topography, based upon the description Pausanias left us. Excavations showed that the town of the "Mycenean" period was situated on the left bank of the Eurotas, a little to the south-east of Sparta, was roughly triangular in shape, with its apex towards the north: its area is approximately equal to that of Sparta, but denudation has wreaked havoc with its buildings and nothing is left save ruined foundations and broken potsherds.

The Spartan world

Around the middle of the 6th century BC the whole southern part of the Peloponnese belonged to Sparta. With its 8,050 square kilometres it was the largest state in Greece. The territory was divided into two parts (Laconia and Messenia) which were separated by the Taygetos mountain range. Unlike other Greek cities Sparta controlled a lot of good arable land. Earliest archeological evidence testifying settlement in Sparta dates from around around 950 BC.

Classical sources tell us that Sparta was founded in the 10th century BC. It consists of the four villages Pitane, Mesoa, Limnai and Konooura which are later organized under singular leadership.

Around 750 BC the expansion of Sparta was proceeding very slowly. After time Sparta subjugated the population of Laconia, and they either became Helots or Perioeci (neighbours). The Helots kept their farmland but had to deliver half of their output to Sparta, whereas the Perioeci were inhabitants of cities which remained relatively autonomous but in matters of foreign affairs and military actions were dependent on Sparta. The Perioeci formed a vital part of Spartan society. As Spartans were forbidden to do anything except train for war, the Perioeci were the traders, craftsmen and artists of Lacedaemon society. From 650 to 620 Sparta brought Messenia under its control. In the first third of the 6th century Sparta was defeated by the city of Argos and later by Tegea. It was against the backdrop of the Messenian war and the following defeats that the unique Spartan way of life developed, which made Sparta famous in the hellenic world and until the present day.

The Spartan population can be classified into two groups. Only the Spartiates had citizen status. At their peak they only numbered 9,000 adult males, and under the laws of Lycurgus they (in theory) were classed as equals. They were released from any economic activity meaning that each of them was given a piece of land (klaros) which was cultivated and run by the Helots.

The Spartiates were forbidden to trade or to learn any craft. That was the job of the Perioeci. The maintenance of this system served to uphold the social, military and political order of Sparta. Very important is that parental ties and relationships were restrained. At the age of seven boys were taken out of the family and educated by the state. In two age groups (from 7 to 12 and 13 to 19) the boys were educated in the art of war and physical strength, endurance and the promotion of cunning and craftiness. This education process worked by operating a permanent competition mode. Furthermore the boys learned total subordination towards group leaders, elders, and the State. A characteristic feature for the second age group was that the young men were sent away into the country with nothing, and were expected to survive on wits and cunning. This was very probably an old initiation rite, a preparation for their later career as elite soldiers. With the fulfillment of their 20th year the Spartiates are obliged to do war service. They still live together with men of the same age until their 30th birthday, even if they marry. From then on the Spartiates get the right to vote, can live in their houses but have to take their meals together in groups. The whole system is secured by hard social sanctions such as the dismissal out of a meal group or the loss of their citizen rights.

This strong social order is represented in the military order on the battlefield. It is virtually impossible for a Spartiate to leave his position in the battle phalanx of hoplites. At the same time a strict string of orders guarantees precise military deployment and enables the battle phalanx to react especially quickly and strategically.

There were two kings who enjoyed special treatment during meals, performed public sacrifices and were leaders in war. They were controlled by two ephores who took care that the kings didn't break laws and accompanied them in battles. Each year new ephores were elected. Finally there was the gerusia, which consisted of Spartiates over 60 years old who were elected through acclamation for lifetime. The gerusia was the council that judged in questions of state affairs and capital crimes and prepared public gatherings. This assembly of all Spartiates (apella or ecclesia) decided over new laws, alliances, war and peace.

From 550 onwards the goals of the Spartan cosmos – inner consistency, a compact unit and military efficiency – seem to be achieved. There is no tyranny in Sparta and their battle phalanx is said to be undefeatable. Impacts of this system are a closing of the Spartan community towards other nations. Foreign imports to Sparta stop, and works in the field of music and literature cease to be created.

Related Topics

Classical Sparta: techniques behind her success, Anton Powell

Spartan Reflections, Paul Cartledge

Spartans: a new history, Nigel M. Kennell

Hellenistic and Roman Sparta, a tale of two cities, Paul Cartledge, Antony Spawforth


  • Paul Cartledge Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BC Routledge; 2005 ISBN: 0415262763
  • Paul Cartledge , Hellenistic and Roman Sparta , Routledge; 2001, ISBN: 0415262771
  • Thomas J. Figueira, Spartan Society. Swansea: 2004. ISBN 0954384571.
  • A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C., W. G. Forest, W. W. Norton & Co., NY, 1968.
  • Die Dorier (The Dorians), Karl Otfried Müller (1824).
  • The Battle for the West-Thermopylae 480, Ernle Bradford, McGraw-Hill Book Co., NY, 1980.


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