views updated Jun 11 2018



Distinct Characteristics. Sparta differed markedly from all other Greek states in several crucial respects. First, it remained a monarchy of a peculiar kind: two kings ruled at the same time during Sparta’s entire history as an independent state. Secondly, Sparta was never governed by tyrants. Thirdly, the social and economic system attributed to Lycurgus was unique in the Greek world, and in fact in all of recorded history.

Backward Region. Sparta was a hybrid of the Archaic “ethnos” or unincorporated state and city-state, sharing some features of both. The territory of Sparta, including Messenia, was one of the largest and among the most fertile in Greece. Its economic base was agriculture, without even the smallest admixture of export and import trade, at least in the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.), or of manufacture beyond what was needed domestically. In this sense Sparta remained backward for most of the fifth and fourth centuries. Like some ethnos-type states Sparta was not a great colonizer, the only place of some significance founded by her being Tarentum in southern Italy. Sparta was also not receptive to foreigners, and in fact was quite xenophobic. On the other hand, Sparta resembled a city-state like Athens; she had a central government, was the head of a military and political alliance, the Peloponnesian League, and played a dominant role in the politics and history of Greece.

Three Categories. With respect to its social structure the Spartan population was divided into three main categories. At the top stood the Spartans proper, full citizens who called themselves equals or peers and who were also known as Spartiates, to distinguish them from other Spartans like the “Dwellers Around.” The Spartiates were not all exactly equal; a small minority of them formed an aristocracy whose members were wealthier than the rest of the equals and had more social and political clout. Another segment of the Spartiates were called the “inferiors,” perhaps because their income, for whatever reason, was less than that of the other peers. Nevertheless, as a body the peers constituted an egalitarian elite, whose members owned all the land. They did not, however, work their land themselves, nor did they work at any other productive occupations. Instead, they spent all their time in physical exercise and military drill, and also in the governance of the state, as members of the Spartan assembly and senate. The Spartiates furnished the executive of the state, the two kings who were the commanders in chief of the army and were the chief religious officials of Sparta, and the five Ephors or “Overseers,” who ran the state from day to day.

Perioikoi. Below the elite Spartiates stood a class known as Perioikoi (“Dwellers Around”). The Perioikoi were true Spartans: together with the Spartiates they constituted the entire free Spartan folk. Both groups spoke the same Greek dialect and were included in the official designation of the Spartan state, the Lacedaemonians. The Perioikoi were in no way the subjects or dependents of the Spartiates. Like the Spartiates, they served in the army as heavily armored infantry, or hoplites, and they could participate in the Olympic Games, to which only free citizens were admitted. One of “the Seven Wise Men,” Cheilon, came from a Perioikic town, while the poets Xenodamus and Philoxenus came from the Perioikic island of Cythera.

Poor Lands. The mass of the Perioikoi were small landowners: after they occupied Laconia the Spartiates assigned the less productive land to them, while keeping the best fields for themselves. Forcing their weaker fellows to live on the poorer land was the Spartan version of colonization due to overpopulation: instead of being sent to live in new settlements overseas the Perioikoi were relegated to land in the hills or on the periphery of the country.

Differences. There was, however, an essential difference between Spartiates and Perioikoi. The Perioikoi had no political rights; they could not attend the popular assembly or hold political office. In all matters of domestic and foreign policy they had to abide by the decisions of the Spartiates. The political disqualification is probably to be explained by the fact that the distances between their homes and the political center of Sparta made it difficult for the Perioikoi to attend the assembly until they eventually lost their political rights through default.

Helots. The third large class of people living in Sparta, the helots, were the descendants of the Bronze Age (3000-1100 b.c.e.) or Mycenaean Age (1600-1200) Greeks, whom the Dorian Spartans subjugated when they occupied Laconia. The Greeks regularly referred to them as slaves, but the helots were quite different from the chattel slaves in other states. They certainly were not freemen, but they were not, strictly speaking, the property of individual Spartans, who were not allowed to buy or sell them. Nor could they be freed, except by the state. The helots, in short, belonged to the whole community. As an indigenous people not imported from outside, the helots were self-perpetuating: they had their own families and their own possessions, which were handed down from generation to generation. Equally importantly, the helots had their own religious cults and celebrated at least one religious festival of their own. In sum, the Helots possessed all the normal human institutions except freedom. As a result they were a privileged group as servile classes go; the ancient sources quite correctly describe their condition as “between slavery and freedom.”

Farming. The main activity of the helots was the cultivation of the farms belonging to their masters: they were the food producers of the Spartans, to whom they delivered a fixed quota of their crops. Beyond that the helots formed the labor force of craftsmen, vendors, fishermen, and transport workers who produced the other necessities of life, as for example the shoes known for their high quality throughout Greece. Finally, the helots also served in the Spartan army, at times forming sizable contingents in expeditionary forces.

Lycurgan Social Order. The entire population of Sparta was most profoundly affected by a regime, instituted at some time in the seventh century and attributed to the lawgiver Lycurgus, which governed daily life with a strictness and regularity unknown elsewhere in history. This regime, which determined the economic and social structures of Sparta for centuries to come, consisted of three parts: austerity, education, and discipline.

Austerity. The main component of Lycurgus’s austerity program was the regulation of consumption. Spartans were required to eat moderately; in effect they were put on strict rations of what was generally unappetizing food. Occasionally, as a relief from their dreary diet, the citizens were allowed to supplement it with venison from hunting expeditions. More abundant fare was also available during religious festivals. To ensure against overindulgence in food Lycurgus instituted the so-called common messes. Spartan men were required to contribute a ration of food to the mess and to take their meals there together for most of their adult life. The consumption of alcohol was also rationed. Drinking to excess during meals and at sumposia (drinking parties) was greatly frowned upon. Besides limiting consumption the common messes also had the purpose of maintaining the solidarity and morale of comrades in arms. At times they were also a venue for entertainment after dinner.

Dress Code. A series of rules regulated the dress of children and women and the personal appearance of the men. Adult males were expected to wear a standard type of garment made of coarse wool having the same color. Any attempt to decorate the drab cloak was met with the severest public censure. Specific rules regulated the heads of hair and beards of all adult males. The Spartans, in effect, had to wear a uniform; an adult male could always be recognized by his clothes and appearance alone. Women were required to obey certain specific regulations prohibiting the use of such things as cosmetics, perfumes, and dresses, appropriate only for prostitutes.

Properly. A Spartan could not build a sumptuous house for his family. In addition, he was forbidden to make free bequests or gifts of land and to own silver and gold. The possession of money was frowned upon; Sparta resisted the introduction and use of coinage longer and more stubbornly than any other Greek community. One or two of the rules about personal property proved untenable in the long run and were repealed in the fourth century. If the purpose of the rest was to prevent the accumulation of great wealth, they were ineffective. It was especially the women who became rich by inheriting from their parents and, when widowed, often from more than one husband.

Education. Young Spartans had virtually no family life. At age seven or eight boys had to leave their families and came to live together in barracks, where they underwent the training and instruction known as the agôgê. While in

the aôogê the young Spartans were divided into several age groups, each supervised by a person who was somewhat older than his charges. The Spartans had discovered an important truth: young people accept instruction and orders more willingly from someone close to them in age than from older men; they also more readily take a younger supervisor as their role model than an older one. During the years of their training the boys and teenagers were kept on a strict diet. Their rations were so small that they were encouraged to supplement them by stealing, an activity in which they learned stealth, slyness, dexterity, self-reliance, and endurance, all qualities highly prized by the Spartans and believed by them to foster self-discipline and self-control in a person. If they were caught stealing, the boys were beaten. Any violation of the discipline of the agôgê was punished promptly, usually by a thrashing. Flogging, especially of the young males, was commonplace at Sparta. Not all of it was punishment; ritualistic beatings of youngsters was a part of a religious festival in honor of the goddess Orthia, who is identified with Artemis.

Dress Code. A dress code was prescribed for members of the agôgê; it varied according to the age group. Younger boys were required to play in the nude, walk barefoot, and to have closely shaved heads. Later they were allowed only one garment, both in summer and winter. The Ephors inspected the dress of the youngsters daily and punished an improper appearance with a beating. Girls and young women, too, had to abide by a dress code, which appears to have been a little less rigorous. Both sexes were required to exercise; much of their day was spent in physical training. The educational program included choral singing and dancing; youngsters were taught to recite and sing from memory. They also learned the skill of making brief but incisive observations on any topic and to respond to remarks with brief and witty repartees. The males finished their education at age twenty and entered the ranks of the army. They remained on active service, living in army barracks, until they reached the age of thirty. At that point the Spartiate could live at home with his wife, but he was expected to continue taking his meals in the common messes.

Discipline. The lessons that the Spartans learned in the agoge laid the foundation of the famous discipline of the adult Spartans. The training of Sparta’s youth is regarded by most modern students of Spartan society as having the object of producing militarists slavishly devoted to the autocratic state. Although there is some truth in it, this judgment is an exaggeration. Their schooling did turn the young into strong soldiers obedient to authority and loyal to the state. However, it achieved a host of other beneficial effects as well. The habits ingrained into them in the agoge remained with the Spartans for life. They continued to practice moderation in food and drink and to engage in regular physical exercise well into old age. As a result the Spartans were the healthiest people in Greece, and so capable of enduring great hardships. These two habits, moderation and exercise, formed one of the cornerstones of the discipline. The other cornerstone was their intellectual training. It taught them to be prudent in their domestic affairs and deliberate and cautious in foreign policy. Calm in the face of misfortunes, the Spartans were slow to act, but once embarked on a course of action they became determined and persistent.

Attributes and Flaws. The Lycurgan social and economic organization had yet another salutary effect. It masked the differences and distinctions of wealth and pedigree existing among the Spartiates, who could call themselves each others’ peers with a great deal of truth. Although their equality was not absolute, it reduced rivalry and contentiousness among the peers; seldom, if at all, were there power struggles among them of the sort that occurred in other city-states, including the Athenian democracy. As a result Sparta never experienced tyranny or civil war; for several centuries its political, social, and economic systems proved remarkably stable. Yet the regimentation that achieved this stability came with a price: Sparta produced no philosophers, dramatists, and only a few poets, although her way of life was admired by some Greek thinkers. Spartan frugality also precluded the construction of magnificent temples and public buildings of the sort that many other Greek states were able to build. There was, furthermore, a somewhat darker side to the Lycurgan order than the absence of a vigorous cultural and intellectual life.

Food Consumption. As the farmers supplying food to the Spartiates, the Helots had larger quantities of food at their disposal than their masters. Yet the Helots, like the Spartiates, were required to limit their consumption, for several reasons: first, so as to conform to the official regime of austerity and not arouse envy and indignation in their masters; second, for the reasons of health noted above; and third, because lean, tough people make much better workers and soldiers than soft and corpulent ones. Accordingly the Spartans executed those helots who became overweight. This cruelty and other indignities inflicted on them have been explained as deliberate expressions of contempt for the helots on the part of their powerful masters, who thereby wished to demonstrate to the helots that they were indeed slaves, and as such a separate and inferior people, who must be kept segregated from the society of the Spartans.

Integration. In reality the restrictions of food and most other measures against the helots had exactly the opposite aim: to integrate them into the heavily regimented Spartan society. Like the Spartans themselves, the helots were required to wear garments and caps of animal skin, which amounted to a uniform. Again like their masters the helots were beaten, except that while the Spartan young could receive a thrashing at any time, the helots had to submit only to an annual beating. The daily freedom of movement and action of the helots was also restricted. Just as the Spartans had to be present at all times either in the barracks, the gymnasium, drill square, or mess hall, so also were the Helots required to be at work during the day, and inside their houses after nightfall. Those who violated the curfew were killed if they were caught.

Military Service. These arrangements illustrate that the Helots were subjected to a similar austerity and discipline as the free Spartans. As they also served in the Spartan army, their situation appears to have been similar to that of the Perioikoi: the helots took part in some version of the Spartan agoge, perhaps as low-ranking members of it.

Significance. The Helots were loaded down with a double burden: they had to endure the hardships of slavery while at the same time they were subjected to the rigors of regular Spartan society. The double form of servitude explains an ancient judgment that in Sparta “the slave is most slave.” On the other hand, as participants in the regime of austerity and discipline the helots were treated like the Spartans, and so were regarded as being “between slavery and freedom.”

Classical Period. Sparta’s social and economic system remained fundamentally the same in the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.), but there were some changes. Beginning at some time during the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404), and perhaps because of the casualties suffered in it, Sparta experienced manpower shortages; in the fourth century the number of Spartan soldiers had been reduced considerably. There were other changes as well. Earlier most land had been inalienable, but in the fourth century a Spartan could pass on land owned by him to another person as a bequest or as a gift. Now citizens also had permission to own gold and silver. Estates grew larger, and quite a few of them came to be owned by women. The women were free to marry whom they liked, they could inherit wealth, and they were free from restrictions on property. As land came to be owned by fewer people, some Spartans were forced from their farms and fell into debt. Those who could not afford to pay their share to the common messes were downgraded socially; others, unable to support a wife, refused to marry, thus contributing to the decline in population.

Spartan Empire. Despite these problems Sparta succeeded Athens as the dominant imperial power in Greece after the Second Peloponnesian War, governing an empire that extended well beyond her traditional vassal states in the Peloponnese. However, her empire, like that of Athens, did not endure. The shortage of soldiers weakened Sparta’s military power; she lost the battle of Leuctra in 371 b.c.e. to the Thebans, and with it her empire, including her prize possession, Messenia. Yet Sparta did not experience any social revolutions in the fourth century; there was only one conspiracy, and that was detected early and suppressed in time. After Leuctra the Thebans liberated those helots who had become their prisoners of war, but the system of helotry as a whole endured into the Hellenistic period. Despite the loss of the fertile Messenian plain, Sparta continued to be self-sufficient in food and most other commodities vital for daily subsistence.


Simon Hornblower, The Greek World 479-323 BC (London & New York: Methuen, 1983).

George Leonard Huxley, Early Sparta (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).

A. H. M. Jones, Sparta (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Humfrey Michell, Sparta (Cambridge: University Press, 1952).

Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson, eds., The Shadow of Sparta (London & New York: Routledge for the Classical Press of Wales, 1994).


views updated May 21 2018


A precursor of genocidal regimes, ancient Sparta shared some characteristics with modern cases. Relevant features of its classical history include territorial expansion, war crimes, ethnic conflict, a tyrannical domestic hierarchy, and an agrarian, anti-urban ideology.

Territorial Expansion

Sparta was an expansionist militaristic state in what is present-day Greece. Historian Paul Cartledge called it a "workshop of war" (Cartledge, 2001, p. 89). In the eighth century bce, Sparta destroyed Aigys in its own region of Lakonia. Next, the conquest of neighboring Messenia doubled Lakonia's population and made Sparta the wealthiest Greek state, facing no invasions of its territory for more than three centuries. Sparta exploited Messenia from 735 to 370 bce, crushing revolts in the seventh and fifth centuries. Messenians comprised most of Sparta's serflike labor force, the Helots.

In the sixth century, Sparta expanded across southern Greece, conquering Tegea, controlling Arcadia, defeating Argos, seizing Cythera; as Herodotus wrote, "subjugating" most of the Peloponnese (Cartledge, 2001, p. 119). Cartledge described Sparta as "a leader of the Greek world" by the year 500, when it directed the Peloponnesian League (Cartledge, 2001, p. 124). It played key roles in the Greek victories over Persia in 490 and 480, and its defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–403) brought Sparta to its zenith. Eventually, however, a Theban invasion liberated Messenia in 370 and 369. Sparta lost its independence in 195, before Rome conquered all of Greece.

Ethnic Conflict and Expansion

Sparta's expansion exacerbated ethnic conflicts. Its ruling Ephors ritually declared war on the Helots, in what Cartledge called "politically calculated religiosity designed to absolve in advance from ritual pollution any Spartan who killed a Helot."

Early Athenian politician Thucydides described a Helot revolt at Mt. Ithome in the 460s, which produced "the first open quarrel" between Sparta and Athens. The Spartans had called on Athenian aid against the Helots. However, disheartened by failure of their combined assault on Mt. Ithome, "apprehensive of the enterprising and revolutionary character of the Athenians, and further looking upon them as of alien extraction," Sparta sent the Athenians home. The offended Athenians "allied themselves with Sparta's enemy Argos." The Messenian rebels surrendered to Sparta's conditions: "That they should depart from the Peloponnese under safe conduct, and should never set foot in it again; any one who might hereafter be found there was to be the slave of his captor" (Thucydides, I.102–3).

The warfare fostered increased brutality. According to Thucydides, on the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, "the Lacedaemonians butchered as enemies all whom they took on the sea, whether allies of Athens or neutrals." Spartan troops took Plataea and cold-bloodedly "massacred . . . not less than two hundred" of its men, "with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves." In 419, Spartans captured Hysiae, "killing all the freemen that fell into their hands" (Thucidides II.67.3, III.68.2, V.83). Spartan massacres ranged from what historians define as war crimes to racial murder and brutal domestic repression.

Domestic Tyranny

At the bottom of the social ladder, the Helots' agricultural servitude released every Spartan from productive labor. Bound to a plot of land, Helots worked "under pain of instant death"; even the local Lakonian Helots were often expendable (Cartledge, 2001, pp. 89, 24). Scholar G. E. M. de Ste. Croix wrote that Spartans could "cut the throats of their Helots at will, provided only that they had gone through the legal formality of declaring them 'enemies of the state'" (de Ste. Croix, 1972, p. 92). According to Thucydides, the Spartans had "raised up some Helot suppliants from the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus [in Lakonia], led them away and slain them" (Thucydides I.128). Cartledge noted that Helots were "culled" by Spartan youth as part of their training: the Krypteia, or "Secret Service Brigade" of select eighteen-year-olds, had to forage for themselves across the countryside, commissioned "to kill, after dark, any of the Spartans' enslaved Greek population of Helots whom they should accidentally-on-purpose come upon" (Cartledge, 2001, pp. 88–89). In the eighth year of the Peloponnesian War, Spartan forces massacred 2,000 Helots who had served in their army. Under a pretext, they were invited to request emancipation, "as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel" (Thucydides IV.80).

Above Helots on the social ladder were about eighty communities of skilled townsmen or Perioikoi. Free but under Sparta's suzerainty, they lacked Spartan citizenship rights, even though the Lakonian Perioikoi were "indistinguishable ethnically, linguistically and culturally from the Spartans" (Cartledge, 2002, p. 84); others were Messenian.

One-tenth of the polity's population, fewer than 10,000 people, were full citizens. These Spartiates, the male inhabitants of Sparta's five villages, trained there, barred from agricultural labor. Their occupation was warfare. The Spartiates paid common mess-dues out of the produce delivered to them individually by the Helots tied to working their private plots. Though their land was unequally distributed, Spartiates adopted simple, uniform dress.

Agrarian Ideology

From its beginnings, Sparta's system was almost totally agricultural, conservative, and land oriented. Thucydides reported four centuries later that Sparta was not "brought together in a single town . . . but composed of villages after the old fashion of Greece" (Thucydides I.10.2). Its closed system contrasted with the Greek city-states. Sparta favored autarchy over both trade and towns, carefully controlling commerce. Spartiates could not trade nor purchase a range of consumption goods. Cartledge wrote that Lakonia "was extraordinarily autarchic in essential foodstuffs, and its possession of abundant deposits of iron ore within its own frontiers may have been a contributory factor in its decision not to import silver to coin," a policy dating from c.550 bce (Cartledge, 2002, p. 134). Until the early third century, Sparta coined no silver, unlike other Greek states in their prime. Iron spits apparently figured in Spartan exchanges. Plutarch asserted that the early Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus "introduced a large iron coin too bulky to carry off in any great quantity." Seneca said Spartans paid debts "in gold or in leather bearing an official stamp" (Bondanella and Bondanella, 1997, p. 387). Archaeologists have found few coins at Perioikic sites. Sparta, like Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea, seems to have been one of history's few states without a currency.

It was a demanding state. Rich or poor, the Spartiates or homoioi ("peers"), were subject to collective interests and obliged to undergo "an austere public upbringing (the agoge) followed by a common lifestyle of participation in the messes and in military training and service in the army" (Oxford Classical Dictionary online). The state, not individual landowners, owned the Helots who worked the Spartiates' private landholdings. The state alone could emancipate Helots. And it not only enforced communal eating and uniformity of attire, but according to Thucydides, "did most to assimilate the life of the rich to that of the common people" (Cartledge, 2002, p. 134; Thucydides I.6.4). The state prohibited individual names on tombstones (Cartledge, 2001, p. 117).

Ancient Greek historian Xenophon noted that Lycurgus had arranged for the Spartans to eat their meals in common, "because he knew that when people are at home they behave in their most relaxed manner" (Whitby, 2002, p. 98). Communal living facilitated state supervision. Spartan boys left home at age seven for a rigorous state upbringing. A Spartiate who married before age thirty was not allowed to live with his wife beyond infrequent secret visits. Fathers who had married after thirty lived most of their lives communally, with male peers. In Cartledge's view, Spartan women enjoyed "certain freedoms, including legal freedoms, that were denied to their Athenian counterparts, but they were not, to put it mildly, as liberated as all that" (Cartledge, 2001, p. 106).

Classical Sparta's fusion of the rhetoric of freedom with expansionist violence, racial xenophobia, domestic repression, and agrarian ideology recurred in the twentieth century. Praising Sparta for its "abandonment of sick, frail, deformed children," Adolf Hitler called it "the first racialist state" (Weinberg, 2003, p. 21). Pol Pot's communist Cambodia reproduced many ideological features of ancient Sparta, including expansionist militarism and war crimes, ethnic brutality, egalitarian rhetoric with a harshly exploitative tripartite social pyramid, an austere communal barracks lifestyle, and repression of the family unit.

SEE ALSO Ancient World; Athens and Melos; Carthage


Cartledge, Paul (2001). Spartan Reflections. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cartledge, Paul (2002). Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362B.C., 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. (1972). The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. London: Duckworth.

Kagan, Donald (1969). The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Kiernan, Ben (2004). "External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology." In The Road to the Third Indochina War, ed. Odd Arne Westad and Sophie Quinn-Judge. London: Frank Cass.

Kiernan, Ben (2004). "The First Genocide: Carthage 146 BC." Diogenes 203:27–39.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002). Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rawson, Elizabeth (1969). The Spartan Tradition in European Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.

Weinberg, Gerhard L., ed. (2003). Hitler's Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf. New York: Enigma.

Whitby, Michael, ed. (2002). Sparta. New York: Routledge.

Ben Kiernan


views updated May 29 2018


Type of Government

The Greek city-state of Sparta was governed by a system that comprised elements of monarchy, oligarchy (government by the few), and democracy. The government was headed by a dual monarchy with two kings who performed military, judicial, and religious functions. Legislative and judicial functions were carried out by the elective Gerousia (Council of Elders) and a democratic Assembly. Five ephors (overseers) supervised the kings and the legislative bodies.


Sparta was the capital of the state of Laconia in the southeastern Peloponnese region of ancient Greece. Historians believe the Spartan city-state was established during the ninth century BC, when several villages near the Eurotas River united.

Sparta distinguished itself from other Greek city-states in that it did not rely on overseas colonies to satisfy the needs of its growing population. Rather, Sparta sought to conquer its neighbors through military might. By the end of the eighth century BC, the Spartans had conquered Messenia to the west and controlled the entire Laconian plain, making it one of the largest and richest empires in the Greek world. In the following century the Messenians revolted against Spartan rule but were again defeated after decades of fighting.

To ensure control over the conquered territories, inhabitants of the Laconian plain were forced into servitude as helots, essentially hereditary slaves of the Spartan state. Residents in surrounding areas were known as perioikoi—they were considered free but were required to serve in the Spartan army and had no claim to citizenship. Thus, Spartan citizens were far outnumbered by the underclasses subject to their control.

This tenuous social structure gave rise to a highly regimented warrior culture that emphasized agoge (rigorous military training). Indeed, the Spartans became single-minded in their focus on military rule and developed the most powerful army in Greece. Sparta used its military strength to dominate the Greek world, culminating in a crushing defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars (460–404 BC). The period from 404 to 371 BC was known as the Spartan hegemony (dominance over other nations).

Government Structure

The Spartan government was headed by a dual monarchy. Two kings served as leaders of the military, presided over the Gerousia, and retained veto power over the Spartan Assembly. In addition, they performed important religious functions, serving as chief priests, conducting public sacrifices, and interpreting the oracles the Spartans believed were so crucial to their military success.

The dual kingship had two advantages. First, it provided a primitive form of checks and balances: The two kings had equal authority and often competed with one another, thus limiting the power of either monarch. Second, it ensured that Sparta would never be without a leader if one was killed in battle—in fact, after a famous dispute between the kings Demaratus (sixth to fifth centuries BC) and Cleomenes I (d. 490 BC) in 508 BC, the Spartans passed a law requiring one king to remain at home when the other was away in the field.

The Gerousia was composed of twenty-eight men over the age of sixty—the age at which obligatory military service ended—who served for life. Candidates for the Gerousia were elected by acclamation (a vote of cheers and applause rather than ballots). The body exercised important legislative and judicial functions, approving all legislative initiatives before their presentation to the Assembly and serving as a criminal court for the most serious offenses.

Each year, the Spartans elected five ephors, also by acclamation, to supervise the kings and the Spartan legislative bodies, to deal with foreign embassies, and to handle certain civil judicial matters. The ephors served only a single one-year term, and all their actions were reviewed by their successor, thus providing a check against corruption. Their chief duty was to ensure the kings followed the rule of law, though they also controlled the education and police functions of the Spartan city-state.

The Assembly, the most democratic component of the Spartan government, comprised all male citizens over the age of thirty. (Note, however, that the Spartan citizenry excluded roughly 95 percent of the people under Sparta’s control.) The Assembly met monthly to vote on bills passed forward by the Gerousia. There was no discussion or debate in the Assembly—members simply listened to each proposal and voted yes or no.

Political Parties and Factions

The two kings of Sparta were drawn from the two most prominent families: the Agiads and the Eurypontids. The kings served for life, with succession passing to the eldest male heir in each line. Both families claimed to be descended from Zeus through his son Heracles.

Major Events

Two wars were instrumental in setting Sparta on its path of conquest. During the First Messenian War (c. 735–c. 715 BC) Sparta invaded its neighbor to the west, Messenia, to gain control of its fertile lowlands. Sparta conquered the Messenians, making most of them helots. The Messenians revolted against Spartan rule during the next century in the Second Messenian War (c. 660 BC); even though the revolt was unsuccessful, it prompted a massive reorganization of Spartan society into the totalitarian regime for which it became known.

The determination of the Spartan army became evident during the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). In this legendary campaign, a small band of Greek forces under the leadership of the Spartan king Leonidas (d. 480 BC) attempted to hold back the invading Persian army, fighting to the last man. Even though the Greeks ultimately lost the battle, the Persians suffered tremendous losses. The Spartans’ refusal to surrender has been celebrated in myth and literature as an example of heroic resistance in the face of insurmountable odds.

The Peloponnesian Wars pitted the two leading city-states in Greece, Athens and Sparta, against one another for dominance of the Greek world. The main phase, known as the Second Peloponnesian War, lasted from 431 to 404 BC. Initially, the war was a stalemate between the Athenians’ superior naval power and the Spartans’ powerful army. However, the war turned in Sparta’s favor as the Athenians were unable to attack Sparta from the sea and spent themselves on other campaigns. In 404 BC Athens surrendered, making Sparta the superpower of the Greek city-states and initiating the period known as the Spartan hegemony.


Following its victory over Athens, Sparta set out to establish its own empire. The king during this period, the aggressive Agesilaus II (c. 444–360 BC), embroiled Sparta in conflicts with Persia and in the Corinthian War (394–387 BC) against Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos. The Spartans were finally defeated by Thebes, whose forces were led by the general Epaminondas (c. 410–362 BC) and allied with Athens, at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, bringing Sparta’s hegemony to an end.

Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History, 1300–362 BC. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2003.

Forrest, W. G. The History of Sparta, 950–192 BC. 2nd ed. London: Duckworth, 1980.


views updated May 29 2018


SPARTA , city in Greece; ancient city-state in the Peloponnesus, called Mistra in Crusader times. The earliest information on the relations between Sparta and the Jews is the letter said to have been sent by Areus, king of Sparta (309–265 b.c.e.), to the high priest *Oniasi (i Macc. 12:20–23). In this letter Areus sends his greetings to the Jews and proposes a full alliance in the words, "your cattle and goods are ours, and ours yours." It also refers to a written tradition that the two peoples are of the stock of Abraham (cf. Jos., Ant., 14:255; see *Pergamum). This was apparently included in one of those books dealing with the genealogy of the various nations, which were widespread in the Hellenistic era, or it may have been based on the well-known work of *Hecateus of Abdera. It is possible that the contemporary political situation, the relations between the *Ptolemies and Sparta on the one hand and the Jews on the other (idem, 109) forms the background to this alliance, as well as perhaps some sympathy of ideas (cf. Y. Baer, in: Zion 17 (1952), 35). Josephus, who quotes the text of the letter (Ant. 12:22–26), adds some details which do not appear in i Maccabees. i Maccabees (12:6–18) also quotes a letter of Jonathan the Hasmonean to the Spartans and (14:20–23) a letter of the Spartans to Simeon the Hasmonean. Some scholars regard these letters as either wholly or in part fictitious (see F.M. Abel, Les Livres des Maccabées (1949), 231–3). Corroborating evidence for these relations is to be found in ii Maccabees (5:9) which describes the flight of the high priest Jason to Sparta because its people were close to his. The inhabitants of Sparta are also mentioned in i Maccabees (15:23), but it is doubtful whether the existence of a Jewish settlement can be inferred from there, as some scholars have attempted to do. There is no explicit mention of a Jewish settlement in Sparta, though Jews were living in the Peloponnesus during the first century c.e. (Philo, Legatio and Gaium, 281).

[Uriel Rappaport]

During the tenth century there were Jews in Sparta; they were engaged in commerce. When a plague broke out in Sparta, the monk Nikon (10th century) refused to come to the village's aid as long as the Jews, who were an obstacle in the spreading of Christianity, were not expelled. His incitement was without effect. The presence of Jews is mentioned during the reigns of the Palaeologi emperors (1261–1453). When Sigismondo Malatesta conquered Mistra in 1465, he burnt down the Jewish quarter. There is evidence of the presence of Jews again during the 16th and 17th centuries. They were engaged in the silk industry and in commerce. The French author Chateaubriand, who visited Greece in 1806, mentions the Jewish quarter of Sparta. During the Greek Revolution (1821–1829), the Albanians, who invaded Peloponnesus, destroyed the Jewish community.

[Simon Marcus]


F.R. de Chateaubriand, Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, 1 (1859), 161, 166; M. Schwab, Rapport sur une Mission de Philologie en Grèce (1913), 117f.; A. Andréades, in: Economic History, 3 (1934–37), 1–23; Rosanes, Togarmah, 3 (1938), 129–200.


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Sparta City-state of ancient Greece, near the modern city of Spárti. Founded by Dorians after c.1100 bc, Sparta conquered Laconia (se Peloponnese) by the 8th century bc, and headed the Peloponnesian League against Persia in 480 bc. In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc), it defeated its great rival, Athens, but was defeated by Thebes in 371 bc, and failed to withstand the invasion of Philip II of Macedon. In the 3rd century bc, Sparta struggled against the Achaean League (a confederation of city-states), subsequently joining it but coming under Roman dominance after 146 bc. In ad 395 the Goths, led by Alaric I, destroyed the ancient city. Sparta was famous for its remarkable social and military organization.


views updated May 23 2018

sparta, sparto; spartita, spartito (It.). Score.

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