Athens and Sparta

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Athens and Sparta




Two Cities . Athens and Sparta came up with different solutions to the challenges facing the early Greek poleis. In the eighth century b.c.e. the two were in many ways similar, both dominated by aristocratic families who led the cities both militarily and culturally; however, the two cities had differences, too. The Attic countryside surrounding Athens was accessible from the outside, and the political identification of its citizens was fairly weak. Despite the sunoikismos, the political unification of Attica under the legendary Theseus, only the ancient religious ties to Athena and her sanctuary on the Acropolis drew

the Athenians together. Economic inequalities among those living along the coast, on the larger inland plains, or in the hills seemed more important than Athenian identity and unity. Sparta, on the other hand, was in Laconia, an out-of-the-way corner of the Peloponnese, the large peninsula that forms southern Greece. It had a large, indigenous population of slaves, the Helots, whom the Spartans had suppressed in their earliest history and on whose labors they depended for their livelihood. Although Laconia is relatively large, only those living in the few closely neighboring settlements in its center on the Eurotas River were recognized as Spartans. The people inhabiting the surrounding areas were referred to as perioikoi, “those living around.”

Military State . In the course of the eighth and seventh centuries, instead of sending out settlements abroad in order to alleviate population pressures and develop trading opportunities, the Spartans took another strategy. They conquered the neighboring area of Messenia, on the western side of Mt. Taygetus, in a war that lasted twenty years (740-720 b.c.e.). However, when they attempted to overpower their northern neighbors in Argos, the Spartans lost a disastrous battle at Hysiae in 669 b.c.e. They lost so many men that they were almost powerless when Messenia revolted, and they were forced into another war, which lasted thirty years, against the Messenians (650-620 b.c.e.), during which they committed themselves to military pursuits in an extraordinary way. Sparta became a closed society, intensely jealous of its security and suspicious of outside influences.

Equals . The Second Messenian War also brought political reforms. The land of Messenia, which had originally been allotted only to the wealthy, was now allotted equally to every male Spartan at birth. They considered themselves homoioi (equals). There were no doubt still inequalities, which became painfully clear in times to come, but equality among the Spartans was the great idea of the Spartan political system. As in other Greek poleis, it stemmed from the idea that within the Spartan hoplite phalanx each man was equal. Each Spartan male was assigned to one of several eating clubs, sussitia, to which he made contributions from his land allotment, and he identified himself more with them than with his family or geographical area.


“Having established a sanctuary of Syllanian Zeus and Athena, having ‘tribed tribes and obed obes,’ and having established a Gerousia (Senate) of thirty members, including the (two) chief leaders (kings), from season to season, they are to hold Assemblies between Babyca and Knakion in order to introduce and reject measures. And the damos is to have lordship and power.’ Later a clause was added: “if the damos takes a crooked decision, the elders and chief leaders are to be removers.”

Source: Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 6 (circa 46-circa. 120 C.E.)

Legendary Lawgiver . Sparta’s constitution was ascribed to a legendary lawgiver, Lycurgus, who was inspired by an oracle of the god Apollo. The ancient sources differ widely over when Lycurgus lived and what exactly he did, but Plutarch provides the text of an early document, known as the Great Rhetra, which seems genuine, if not altogether clear. To Lycurgus was traced the Spartans’ pride in eunomia,good government, or more literally, a good legal system. A Spartan saying was “good men need few laws.” Because of their homeland, the Spartans were called Laconian, or simply “laconic,” which in English means someone who uses few words.

Good Government . Sparta had a mixed constitution. Within groupings of tribes and obes, the specific configurations of which remain a mystery, their constitution had royal, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Its two kings, who came from the same two families generation after generation, the Agiads and Eurypontids, provided the royal element. They led Sparta’s armies in war and were given various other privileges. The Gerousia, or senate, had twenty-eight members, besides the kings. They were all over sixty years of age and elected for life by the assembly from the most noble households. In providing the aristocratic element, the Gerousia prepared measures for discussion before the assemblies. It also heard criminal cases and in time gained the power to overturn decisions of the assembly. So the democratic element (damos is the form of demos in the Spartan dialect, which is called Dorian), which was originally sovereign, later had its powers checked. All male Spartan citizens over thirty who had completed Sparta’s famously rigorous training and education, known as the agoge, and were members of one of the sussitia formed the assembly. The assembly met in remote locations such as Babyca and Knakion so that there would be no distractions. The assembly did not officially discuss the measures presented to it by the Gerousia; it only voted for or against. Some informal discussion, however, must have taken place.

Overseers . Missing from the Great Rhetra, but well known in the historical period, was the annually elected board of five ephors, who were overseers of the kings. Each month they exchanged oaths with the kings to uphold their rule so long as the kings reigned according to the laws. Most scholars believe that the ephors were established sometime later than the Great Rhetra; however, their office may have existed from the beginning, but many have been seen originally only as an accessory to the kingship, as a sort of unofficial means of communication between the kings and the deliberative bodies in executive matters.

Rival . Athens grew more slowly than many other Greek states, including Sparta, but once its development gathered momentum, the size of its population and landmass led it to become one of the most dominant poleis. Evidence from the clearing of graves from the Athenian agora (gathering place or market) suggests that the identity of Athens as a civic center was increasing about 700 b.c.e. At some point, alongside or in place of the traditional office of basileus (king), there developed that of the annually elected arkhôn (ruler or magistrate), who had executive responsibility. Originally elected for life, but then later for ten years, the archonship became an annually elected office by 682 b.c.e. In time, Athens selected three such annually elected archons: the eponymous archon, who gave his name to the year in which he served; the archon basileus, who took over many of the traditional and religious roles of the king; and the polemarch, who had responsibility for war. Only members of the wealthiest families could be elected to these offices. They were the Eupatrids, “sons of good fathers.” After their year of elective office, the archons joined the Areopagus Council, which ruled the city. Later, six more annually elected magistrates were added, the thesmothetai, whose name suggests that they originally had some responsibility connected with recording laws or judicial decisions.

Social Classes . Besides their geographical divisions, Athenians were also divided ethnically into four tribes that were common to all Ionian Greeks. Athens had no indigenous slave population like the Spartan Helots, so there was social stratification only among the Athenians themselves. Some Athenians were enslaved to others. The slaves were referred to as hektemorioi or “sixth-parters,” though the exact meaning of this term is unclear. Presumably they paid a rent of one-sixth, or perhaps five-sixths, of the harvest on the land they worked. If they got behind, they could be sold as slaves, even away from Athens.

Conspiracy of Cylon . Athens was also being challenged by its neighbors, such as Megara, and had a need for the sort of hoplite soldiers that could only be supplied by a thriving middle class. This situation created tensions of the sort that were being resolved in many poleis by the seizure of power by tyrants, who championed the causes of the common people against the aristocrats. In Athens, about 632 b.c.e., an aristocrat and Olympic victor named Cylon, who was married to the daughter of the tyrant of Megara, tried to seize power by taking control of the Acropolis. After the coup had failed, Cylon’s supporters sought refuge as suppliants, invoking the protection of the gods. They were told by magistrates of Athens that their suppliancy was recognized and that they should come down from the Acropolis. However, when they did so they were massacred. A trial was held and the eponymous archon Megacles and his entire family, the Alcmaeonids, were banished from Athens in order to rid the city of the religious pollution, or miasma. Even the family’s graves were dug up and their contents removed from Athenian territory. In time the Alcmaeonids returned to Athens, and many of Athens’s most illustrious leaders, including Cleisthenes, Pericles, and Alcibiades, belonged to this family, which was nonetheless haunted by the miasma.

Draco . One consequence of Cylon’s attempted coup was the setting down for the first time a set of laws for Athens, the so-called Constitution of Draco. This now written form of Athenian traditional laws was a major step in the administration of justice and might have lessened the power of the aristocrats, but the laws were later regarded as having been harsh (which resulted in the English word draconian referring to harshness). Draco’s laws did little to alleviate the tensions that Athens faced. Only one part of his law code survived, that concerning homicide, a part of which was later inscribed during a reorganization of Athenian laws.

Athenian Lawgiver . As tensions continued to rise, relief was sought finally in 594 by turning the city over temporarily to a single man who served as both archon and reconciler. This man was Solon. He used poetry to communicate his ideas about the nature of Athens’s problems and his solutions for them. Much of this poetry survives, and in it, Solon talks about the horoi (marker stones) that indicated that land was “enslaved,” about Athenians who were enslaved and sold abroad, and about the “crooked judgments” that led to this enslavement. His principal methods of solving the problem were the seisakhtheia, the “shaking off of burdens” by which he presumably canceled debts; the reorganization of the class system by wealth rather than birth; and the empowerment of the courts as a check against the power of the magistrates.

Four Classes . The seisalchtheia forbade the enslavement of Athenians that resulted from debt, and it freed and repatriated many who had been enslaved. The reorganization of Athens’s classes broke down some of the antiquated power structures and gave recognition to the upwardly mobile members of the new mercantile and manufacturing classes. According to Solon’s system, the Athenians were divided into four classes by wealth. The Pentakosiomedimnoi, or five-hundred-bushel class, were the wealthiest. The Hippeis, or Knights, could produce at least four hundred bushels from their land. The Zeugitai, or Yoke Class, could produce two hundred bushels, and the Thetes, or Laborers, were the lowest, and most numerous class. Although only members of the highest classes could be elected to office in Athens, Solon allowed anyone who wished (not just the victim) to seek restitution for injustices. He also allowed for appeal of any decision to the law courts, in which all the classes participated, and he gave many more rights to the lower classes. In the law courts, the poorer classes could use their numbers to check the power of the rich.

Geographical Inequalities . Solon might have used his enormous powers to become a tyrant, but he consciously resisted that temptation. After reforming Athens’s political system, he left the city for ten years. Despite the breadth of Solon’s reforms and the huge respect that his name was given in later generations, however, Athens’s political strife, or stasis, continued, based mainly on geographical inequalities. In some years no chief magistrate was elected. One archon who was elected to the annual office attempted to stay on and did so for three years before he was removed. In 580 b.c.e. a temporary solution was found through the appointment of a board of ten, who served jointly as archon. The board consisted of five aristocrats, three farmers, and two laborers. The three groups represented not only economic divisions but also Athens’s geographical divisions: the central plain, where the wealthiest landowners were; the shoreline, with its less wealthy farmland; and “beyond the hills,” whose leaders likely came from the towns beyond the ring of mountains surrounding Athens itself. The last group actually included a wide range of people— laborers, tradesmen, those freed from slavery by Solon’s cancellation of debts, and recent immigrants. Many were refugees from the prosperous and advanced coastline of Asia Minor, which was coming under the control of the Lydians, and, after 547 b.c.e., the Persians.

A New Tyrant . Peisistratus’s rise to power as tyrant was by no means smooth. He rose first through a bit of political chicanery, staging an assault on himself to justify getting bodyguards and then using them to seize power in 561 b.c.e. After five years he was thrown out, but he soon returned with the help of a marriage alliance with the daughter of the leader of the shore group. When he refused to consummate the marriage after six years, however, he was again driven out. He returned finally in 546 b.c.e. at the head of an army of friends and mercenaries and drove out his opponents. During his ten years away from Athens, Peisistratus had fostered many connections throughout Greece, which he continued to utilize during his tyranny.


Even if a man kills another unintentionally, he is exiled. The kings are to adjudge responsible for homicide either the actual killer or the planner; and the Ephetai are to judge the case. If there is a father or brother or sons, pardon is to be agreed to by all, or the one who opposes is to prevail; but if none of these survives, by those up to the degree of first cousin, if all are willing to agree to a pardon; the one who opposes is to prevail; but if none of these survives, and if he killed unintentionally and the fifty-one, the Ephetai, decide he killed unintentionally, let ten phratry members admit him to the country and let the fifty-one choose these by rank. And let also those who killed previously be bound by this law. A proclamation is to be made against the killer in the agora by the victim’s relatives as far as the degree of cousin’s son and cousin. The prosecution is to be shared by the cousins and the cousins’ sons and by sons-in-law, fathers-in-law, and phratry members.

Political Identity . The Peisistratid tyranny, that of Peisistratus and his sons Hippias and Hipparchus, who succeeded on his death in 527, was obviously not a time in which Athens’s politics could develop at an institutional level. Peisistratus and his friends and family were in control, even though he allowed the normal mechanisms instituted by Solon to function. The archons were always elected under their supervision and usually from their ranks. This situation meant that the Areopagus Council, which had effective legislative control, was gradually filled up with Peisistratus’s people. However, in less obvious ways their tyranny was crucial for the development of Athens’s democracy. Peisistratus imposed a tax of 5 percent on all produce and used the proceeds to finance a large public works program. This tax served to increase the role of the polis in Athens’s economy, to provide a new sort of employment, and to achieve a great degree of economic stability and prosperity. Peisistratus also cleared Athens’s agora (gathering place or market) of private dwellings in order to achieve a proper civic center. He began the minting of Athenian coinage, and he also used legislation and loans at especially good rates to keep all agricultural land under production in the most effective ways. Under his leadership Athens’s farmland shifted somewhat away from grains and into olives, whose oil could be processed and sold abroad at a much higher added value. He also sent out traveling courts through the countryside of Attica, so that the polis took over judicial functions from local aristocrats. Besides building programs on the Acropolis and in the central agora, Peisistratus and his sons also put polis money behind the large festivals, like the yearly Panathenaia, which was celebrated with pomp every fourth year, and the Dionysia, where Athens’s theatrical traditions were born. Besides making him popular, these actions fostered a stronger sense of Athenian identity than had existed before. Instead of relying on the aristocrats, Athenians now relied on their polis to pursue prosperity.

Tyrannicide . In 514 b.c.e. Athens’s tyranny changed. One of the sons of Peisistratus, Hipparchus, was assassinated, and as a result, his brother Hippias imposed harsh measures on the Athenians, harsh enough for the Athenians ever after to condemn even the notion of tyranny. The family of Alcmaeonids, which had led the shore group in Athens before being driven out by Peisistratus, managed to persuade the Spartans to rid Greece of tyrants, so the Spartans marched on Athens and eventually forced Hippias to withdraw. He went to Asia Minor and enjoyed the protection of the Persians.

Father of Democracy . In Athens, with the withdrawal of the Peisistratids, Athens’s old regional conflicts began to resurface. Legislation was introduced to outlaw “those of impure descent,” which meant the immigrants from Asia Minor and the Alcmaeonids, whose family still suffered from the miasma associated with the massacre of the followers of Cylon more than a century before. The legislation was resisted, but tensions remained, principally between the Alcmaeonids and the other old aristocrats. These tensions were resolved when Cleisthenes, the leader of the Alcmaeonids, “brought the demos into his hetairia” (In this context, demos refers to the mass of citizens in the lower classes; hetairia refers to the aristocratic social clubs that formed the basis of political alliances in Athens.) The demos had been the backbone of the Peisistratids’ support until their tyranny became despotic; now it would govern itself.

Power of the People . Despite attempts by aristocrats to reenlist the Spartans to drive out the Alcmaeonids, the demos insisted on its independence, and after shedding some aristocratic blood and besieging the Spartans on the Acropolis, they allowed the Spartans to withdraw and won their democracy. Cleisthenes was the reformer who gave Athens’s democracy its definitive shape, although little is known about his life, especially after he was elected archon in 508. His most important step was to redefine Athenian citizenship. From now on, the Athenians would be no longer divided by the traditional divisions into four tribes, which were dominated by the aristocrats with their brotherhoods, or phratries, and their control of many of Athens’s priesthoods. Instead, the Athenians now had ten tribes, membership in which depended entirely on geography, on which demos (town or area) they lived in. (The word for town was also dêmos, but modern scholars call these towns or areas demes [pronounced “deems”] in order to distinguish them from the demos, which became either the mass of citizens of the lower classes or the entire citizen body. Since Athenian politics increasingly worked on the principle of one man/one vote, and the lower classes greatly outnumbered the upper classes, these two meanings were not that distinct in practice.) To cut through Athens’s geographical strife, Cleisthenes constructed each of his 10 tribes from the 139 or so demes in the city center, along the shore, and from the rich plains areas. Each tribe consisted of demes from each of these three areas. To cut across Athens’s old family squabbles, Athenians began to identify themselves not with their patronymic or father’s name, which identified their family, but with their demotic name, which identified their deme.

Military Service . At eighteen years of age, every Athenian male was taken by his father before his local deme assembly, which voted on whether to accept him as a member. Once accepted, he spent the next two years in military training and on garrison duty with the other members of his tribe, drawn from all three of Athens’s regions. The sort of close male bonding that this arrangement encouraged, which was maintained through entire lifetimes, served to break down Athens’s geographical tensions.

Governing Bodies . Each of Athens’s ten tribes elected fifty members to Athens’s Council, or Boulê, which was expanded from four hundred to five hundred members. To make up the fifty, each deme elected a specific number of Council members each year. This Council met regularly and oversaw the administration of the polis, as well as preparing motions to go before Athens’s Assembly, or Ekklesia, which was the sovereign body, making all the important decisions. All Athenian males over eighteen took part in the Assembly. The political year was divided into ten “months,” during each of which the Council members from each tribe formed an executive body, a prutanis, which governed the city. Each day one of the fifty would officially be “president.”

Court System . Athens’s courts were also selected by tribes. Each year six thousand Athenians took the Heliastic oath to serve as judges, and each day the courts sat, up to five thousand of them being called to serve in courts that could number from hundreds to thousands. An elaborate lottery system was used for the selection of dikastai (judges) immediately before they heard and decided their cases. This procedure, and the great numbers involved, ensured that the judges could not be bribed.

Ostracism . Cleisthenes is also said to have introduced ostracism, no doubt to prevent the return of tyranny. Each year at the same time, the Athenian assembly voted whether to conduct an ostracism. If the vote passed, then one month later every Athenian citizen went to the agora and deposited a piece of broken pot, an ostrakon, on which he had written the name of someone he wanted to see ostracized. If enough votes were cast, then the “winner” was required to leave Athens for a period of ten years. He need not have done anything wrong. In fact, some sources report that the individual was ostracized simply because his greatness disturbed the political balance of the democracy. Except for the period 480-450 b.c.e., few people were ever actually ostracized in Athens, but the potential for the use of ostracism was thought to be an indication of the strength of Athens’s democracy.

Equality . In the early years of Athens’s Cleisthenic democracy, much power must still have been in the hands of the Areopagus, whose members, as former magistrates, all belonged to the wealthiest classes. Its role was to protect the constitution, which could give it quite far-reaching powers. The power of the dêmos, although officially sovereign through the assembly of all Athenian citizens, still had to establish itself in practice. Yet, the label that Cleisthenes’s reforms took, isonomia (“equality before the laws” or “a legal system based on equality”), laid the foundation for Athens’s demos to achieve its sovereignty in practice as well as formally.


Moses I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985).

J. T. Hooker, The Ancient Spartans (London: Dent, 1980).

Chester G. Starr, Individual and Community: The Rise of the Polis, 800-500 B.C.E. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

David Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

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Athens and Sparta

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