Sparta, also known as Lacedaemeon, is the capital city of Laconia in ancient Greece. Located in a fertile, mountain-walled valley, it is situated on the Eurotas River in the central finger of Peloponnesus. With its formidable army, the city-state is known to be the greatest military power in Greek history and Spartans were generally admired for their valor and Greek values.
Rise of Spartan Civilization
The little that is known of Spartan culture and civilization comes from historians of that time. About eighty years after the Trojan War, Sparta was invaded by the Dorian Greeks, whose invasions were said to have begun the state and culture of ancient Sparta. It was not long before Sparta conquered the countryside cities of Laconia and Messenia. It had allied with Athens against the threat of the Persian Empire invasion but after that, there was a series of rivalry between the two states, resulting in the Peloponnesian war. Following their victory over the powerful Athenian navy, Sparta became a great naval power. When Sparta was at the peak of its military power, it had subdued many of the key Greek states and by the end of the 5th century BC, Sparta was the strongest Greek city, having defeated the Athenian empire at war and invaded Persia. Spartan reign triumphed with the aid of alliances and invasions, and its empire covered most of the Peloponnesus.
While Athens was known for its silver mining which afforded them naval superiority, Sparta was mainly an agricultural state because of its inland location. Sparta is believed to have exported agricultural products such as wine and olive oil while their foremost imports were metals. Compared to Athens whose cosmopolitan lifestyle made them dependent on manufacture and trade, Sparta was more isolated and dependent on agriculture. The reforms made by Lycurgus in Sparta led to a redistribution of land to each citizen. Their conventional lifestyle included seeing that their lands were well-cared for.
Of its little recorded history, Spartan society can be considered primitive by ancient Greek standards. Life in Sparta life was fairly communal, they lived in barracks like buildings and went to a communal meal. These scattered settlements were similar to “dwellings used during Greece’s ‘Dark Age’ (1150–700 BC) which means that they were mostly thatched houses. Stone construction was reserved for public works such as temples, government halls, and gymnasiums (Wikipedia, “Constitution”).”
As a military state, fitness was a way of life in Sparta. The screening of future Spartan warriors began at childbirth, where their mothers were said to bathe the infant in wine to see if it were strong (Wikipedia, “Society”). As a child, their strength training began by exercise and acquiring fighting skills. To reduce the threat of revolution from their native citizens (helots), it was necessary for the state to maintain a well-trained force such that despite its size, the Spartan military was very strong.
The Spartan warriors are typically “armed with a wooden lance for the phalanx formation and a short sword for close fighting.” They wore a helmet, breastplate and greaves of bronze, with their shield strapped to the left forearm (Studyworld, “Spartan Warfare”).
The constitutional system of Sparta was a mixture of the military oligarchy, monarchy, democracy, and timocracy systems. Inhabitants of Sparta were of three classes: the helots, the perioeci and the Spartiate.
The helots were comprised of the native population who were used as serfs in agricultural slavery. As property of the Spartan state, they were subject to arbitrary brutal treatment. Meanwhile, the natives of Lacedaemonia who did not have full citizen rights were called perioeci. They are farmers, merchants, traders, and foreigners of Spartan society, who were allowed a larger amount of freedom than the helots. The citizens who had lineage to the original Dorian Greeks were the only ones allowed full political rights to the state. Called the Spartiate, these citizens had voting rights and were required to serve in the army as warriors (Adams, “The Spartan System”).
Sparta had two kings (dual monarchy) out of heredity, who actually held little rule over Sparta. Their political decisions were joined by the counsel below them, composed of 28 nobles who had completed their military service. Below the counsel was the democratic assembly of the Spartiate, which vetoed the rulings of the counsel above it. Beyond these groups was the Ephorate, comprised of five men who practically guided all aspects of Spartan life.
The women of Sparta enjoyed status, respect and power compared to their counterparts in the rest of the classical world. They were educated like their men and were substantially given physical training.