NHA Logo

Sparta was one of the cities of the Peloponnesus that was created during the Dorian invasion. It was situated in a deep valley. The name Sparta meant sown land, and the city was built on good farm soil. Most of the cities in Greece were built on a high rocky place called an acropolis. But Sparta didn't need a mountain top to protect her. Sparta was surrounded by almost impassable mountain barriers and a long way from the sea. In fact, unlike most cities in Greece, Sparta had no fortress to protect her.

The Spartan form of government was a very rigid oligarchy. They had two kings, a Senate of Elders, a General Assembly and an executive board composed of five Ephors (elected officials). The General Assembly was comprised of free men over 30 years old. Unlike the Athenian system, their primary voice in the government really had to do with questions of peace or war. The rest of the issues of taxation, law and government were decided without debate by invited elders. The Spartans were fighters, not talkers.

The Spartans had three classes of people. The first class was the free men of Dorian origin, the second was the Perioeci, the natives from whom the Dorians had stolen their land and belongings, and the third were the Helots who were slaves. There were about 10,000 Spartan men, contrasted to 30,000 Perioeci men and around 30,000 Helots. The Perioeci were provided with land in the surrounding countryside, were forced to pay taxes and the fight in Spartan's wars.

Early in Sparta's history, the great Spartan leader, Lycurgus, wrote the Spartan constitution and made radical changes to the distribution of wealth in Sparta. In a bold move, he divided the farmland so that each Spartan male had enough land to support himself and his family. The Spartans were forbidden to engage in commerce or to pursue any trade. All of their time was to be spend in war, in gymnastics and martial exercises. The slaves of the Spartans did all of the work to support the farm, maintain the roads and public buildings, prepare food, and trade and sell products.

The money of Sparta was made of iron. Legend has it that Lycurgus planned it this way to discourage wasteful spending. The money was so heavy that it required a wagon with oxen to pull enough money to shop for a weeks food at the market.

It was the Spartan custom for the boys and men to eat at a common table. This was an outgrowth of the military lifestyle that all Spartans engaged in. Even the kings were required to eat with the rest of the men. The food was not wonderful. An Athenian once visited Sparta and reported that it is no wonder that the Spartans had such low regard for human life. He said, 'Death is preferable to life if one has to eat like a Spartan for a year.'

Children were regarded as belonging to the state. Babies were brought to the Elders and if the Elders decided that a child would grow up weak, it was left on a mountain to die. At the age of seven, all boys began their training to become soldiers. They were not taught to read or write. Literature was not valued, nor was art or science or any form of personal expression. The Spartan thought the Athenians were weak and silly because they focused so much effort on creating beautiful buildings and works of art. And even though the epic poem was created by the Greeks, the Spartan were only allowed to listen to poems about war.

The complete conditioning of all boys to be warriors was very effective. From an early age, boys were trained to run, wrestle, fight, throw spears and stalk. It is believed that boys were taught to stalk and kill slaves as part of their training. It is not surprising that the Spartans won many of the medals at the Olympics. As a part of their training, boys were taught to endure extreme pain. They were beaten to get them used to pain. They had to forage for food, stealing it or hunting for it. If they were caught, they were severely punished.

The Spartan constitution was written to enable a few men to control the lives and minds of a large population of people, with the goal of creating a great army of warriors. This was very effective, because Sparta nearly always won its wars. The most important event in Sparta's history was a war against Messenia, their neighbors to the south. For a total of 34 years, Sparta fought the Messenians. Eventually the Spartans won, enslaved the population and took their land. By overtaking these people, Sparta got control of the entire southern part of Peloponnesus peninsula. This was important because Sparta had no harbors, and winning Messenia gave them many harbors and shipbuilding facilities. Without the resources that the Spartans took from Messenia, they would never have been able to wage and win the Peloponnesian War. With the conquest of Messenia, Sparta got control of the Olympic games and were regarded by most Hellenes city-states as the natural leader of the Greeks.

Spartan watched the development of Athenian democracy and power and didn't like it. The Greeks began colonizing every shoreline in the known world and most colonies fashioned their governments after Athens. If the Spartans had an opportunity to harm the Athenians, they did. For example when the Persians attacked the Athenian protected city of Marathon, Spartan soldiers failed to appear until the battle was over. Their excuse was a superstition of about the waxing moon.

As Athens grew in power, they became pretty bossy with other city-states, especially those in their Delian Confederation. This association of independent city-states became a tool for Athens to extract money and ships from all of the league's members. When Athens had an argument with Corinth, Corinth asked Sparta to help them. Corinth and other city-states said that Athens was denying them certain liberties. The Spartans were already worried about the spread of Athenian power. They invaded the lands immediately surrounding Athens, called Attica, and burned and killed everything they encountered. The Spartans were unable to attack Athens, mainly because it was built on an acropolis, and because they ran out of supplies. They continued fighting the next year, and a terrible plague broke out in Athens and killed one fourth of the people. Unfortunately, the great Athenian leader Pericles died also.

The in one battle where the Athenians able to surround the Spartans was at a city called Pylos that the Spartans had captured. The Spartans surrendered to the Athenians, which was an unheard of thing. No one ever expected the Spartans to give up a fight. With this surrender, the image of the supreme Spartan warrior was broken. But it did not end the war. The Athenians were finally forced to surrender after 4 more years of fighting. They were betrayed by their own leader, Alchibiades, who ran away from the war to the Spartans. He told them how to best attack the Athenians. They followed his instructions and they trapped and destroyed most of the Athenian fleet.

The Spartans did not destroy Athens, but forced her to take down her walls and the walls around the harbor city of Piraeus. They made them give up all but 12 of their ships and to bind themselves to Sparta in both military and political matters.

During the Peloponnesian War, both the Athenians and Spartans were extremely cruel to the people who sided against them. Thousands of people died. Whenever each captured a city, it was burned to the ground and the people killed. The destruction of buildings and loss of food, animals, grain fields and people decimated Greece. All of Hellas wore the marks of the long war.

The Spartans only maintained their supremacy over Athens for 67 years. And although the purpose of the terrible war that Sparta waged against Athens was to restore certain "liberties" to the city-states of the league, the Spartans quickly assumed the role of tyrants. Although the Spartans threw out the Athenian constitution that had given them so much freedom, the Athenians only tolerated the tyrants for a few months before they instituted a new constitution of their own

Sparta was never again to play a major role in Greece politics. The effort spent on the Peloponnesian War weakened Sparta as well as all of Greece. When Phillip of Macedonia, a neighboring Greek city-state to the north, began gaining influence in Greece, the Spartans did not oppose him.

Click to Return to Ancient Greece Index