|Province:||Province of Lacedaemonia|
|Location:||37° 4′ 15″ N, 22° 25′ 33″ E|
|Elevation: (center)||210 m|
|Name of inhabitants:||Spartan sing.|
|Address of administration:||2 Gortsologou St.|
Sparta 231 00
Sparta (Greek Σπάρτη) was a city in ancient Greece, whose territory included, in Classical times, all Laconia and Messinia, and which was the most powerful state of the Peloponnesus. It is also the name of a modern town some kilometres away from the ancient site. (Technically, Sparta was the name of the ancient town; Lacedaemon, Greek Λακεδαίμων, was the city-state. Sparta is now normally used for both.)
The city of Sparta lay at the northern end of the central Laconian plain, on the right bank of the river Eurotas. The site was strategically located; guarded from three sides by mountains and controlling the routes by which invading armies could penetrate Laconia and the southern Peloponnesus via the Langhda Pass over Mt Taygetus. At the same time, its distance from the sea—Sparta is 27 miles from its seaport, Gythium—made it difficult to blockade.
Main article: History of Sparta
Sparta had the best army in ancient Greece; and was the most powerful state before the rise of Athens, a naval power, after the Persian Wars. Sparta and Athens were reluctant allies against the Persians, but became rivals thereafter. The greatest series of conflicts between the two states, which resulted in the dismantling of the Athenian Empire, is called the Peloponnesian War. Spartan attempts to control Greece and take over the Athenian role of 'guardian of Hellenism' ended in failure. The first ever defeat of a Spartan hoplite army at full strength at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. By the time of the rise of Alexander the Great in 336 BC, Sparta was a shadow of its former self, clinging to an isolated independency. She was eventually forced into the Achaean League.
Spartans continued their way of life even after the Roman conquest of Greece. The city became a tourist exhibit for the Roman elite who came to observe the "unusual" Spartan customs. Following the disaster that befell the Roman Imperial Army at the Battle of Adrianople, the Spartan phalanx met and defeated a force of raiding Visigoths in battle. This is considered the last noteworthy deed of the Spartans.
We know little of the internal development of Sparta. Many Greeks believed there had been none, and that "the stability of the Spartan constitution" had lasted unchanged from the days of Lycurgus. The Spartans had no historical literature or written laws, which last were, according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus; and Sparta was an oligarchy, and therefore secretive. The state was ruled by 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).
There are several legendary explanations for this unusual dual kingship, which differ only slightly; for example, that King Aristodemus had had twin sons, who agreed to share the kingship, and this became perpetual. Modern scholars have advanced various theories to account for the anomaly. Some theorize that this system was created in order to prevent absolutism, and is paralleled by the analogous instance of the dual consuls at Rome. Others believe 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;" although this is usually explained by the (equally legendary) descent of Aristodemus from Hercules.
The duties of the kings were mainly religious, judicial and military. They were the chief priests of the state, and performed certain sacrifices and also maintained communication with the Delphian sanctuary, which always exercised great authority in Spartan politics. In the time of Herodotus (about 450 BC), their judicial functions had been restricted to cases dealing with heiresses, adoptions and the public roads. Civil cases were decided by the ephors, and criminal jurisdiction had been passed to the ephors, as well as a council of elders. The dual kings' power was exercised mostly in the military sphere, rather than in the judicial sphere.
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 over time. Dating from the period of the Persian wars, the king lost the right to declare war, and was accompanied on the field by two ephors. He was supplanted also by the ephors in the control of foreign policy. Over time, the kings became mere figure-heads except in their capacity as generals. Real power was transferred to the ephors and to the gerousia. Causes 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 the state's administration. They also lay 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. Another cause lay in the loss of prestige suffered by the kingship, especially during the 5th century, owing to these aforementioned quarrels, to the frequency with which kings ascended the throne as minors making the creation of regencies necessary. The dual kingship's prestige also suffered due to the fact that the kings were, rightly or wrongly, suspected of having taken bribes from the enemies of the state at one time or another.
Military service and training
The origins of the powers exercised by the assembly of the citizens, or apella, are virtually unknown, due to the paucity of historical documentation. The ordinary Spartan was essentially a soldier, trained to obey and endure; he became a politician only if chosen as ephor for a single year. He could be elected a life member of the council after his sixtieth year, in which he would be free from military service.
Sparta was, above all, a military state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, a child was brought before the elders of the tribe, who decided whether it was to be reared or not. If found defective or weakly, the baby was dropped off a cliff called the Apothetae, or Place of Rejection. In this way attempts were made to secure the maintenance of high physical standards in Sparta. From the earliest days of the Spartan, the claim on his life by the state was absolute and strictly enforced.
Until the age of seven, boys were educated at home and were taught to fight their fears as well as general superstition by their nurses, who were prized in Greece. Their training was then 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, and ball-games, with music and literature occupying a subordinate position. This tireless emphasis on physical training gave Spartans the reputation for being "laconic," short in words, a word derived from the name of their homeland of Laconia. Education was also extended to girls. Both sexes exercised naked. Women, however, could not compete according to the Olympic rules. There were also contests to see who could take the most severe flogging, an ordeal known as diamastigosis.
At the age of thirteen, young men were sent off into the countryside with nothing, and were expected to survive on wits and cunning. This was very probably, in origin, an old initiation rite, a preparation for their later career as elite soldiers.
At the age of twenty, the Spartan began his military service and his membership in one of the dining messes or clubs (in Greek 'syssition' or 'phyidition'), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member and where all meals were taken. The Spartan exercised the full rights and duties of a citizen at the age of thirty. Only native Spartans were considered a full citizen, and needed to undergo the training as prescribed by law, and participation in and contribution to one of the dining-clubs. Those who fulfilled these conditions were considered peers, (homoioi) citizens in the fullest sense of the word, while those who failed were called lesser men, and retained only the civil rights of citizenship.
Spartiates were absolutely debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the periokoi, and were forbidden (in theory) to possess either gold or silver. Spartan currency consisted 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 Spartans. But this attempt to equalize property proved a failure: from the earliest 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 more independent than in other Greek societies, and were able to negotiate with their husbands to bring their lovers into their homes. According to Plutarch in his work Life of Lycurgus, men both allowed and encouraged their wives to bear the children of other men, due to the general communal ethos which made it more important to bear many progeny for the good of the city, than to be jealously concerned with one's own family unit. For this reason, Plutarch claims that the concept of "adultery" was alien to the Spartans, and relates that one ancient Spartan had said that it was as possible to find a bull with a neck long enough to stand on a mountain top and drink from a river below, than to find an adulterer in Sparta.
Full citizens, released from any economic activity, were given a piece of land (klaros), which was cultivated and run by the Helots. As time went on, greater portions of land were concentrated in the hands of large landholders, but the number of full citizens decreased over time. Citizens had numbered 8,000 at the beginning of the 5th century BC, but had decreased by Aristotle's day to less than 1,000, and had further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BC. Attempts were made to remedy this situation by creating new laws. Certain penalties were imposed upon those who remained unmarried or who married too late in life. These laws, however, came too late and were ineffective in affecting the general trend.
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. A better "show" is put on by Byzantine Mistra, with its grass-grown streets, its decaying houses, its ruined fortress and its beautiful churches. Until the early twentieth century, the chief ancient buildings at Sparta were the theatre, of which, however, little showed 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.
The remaining archaeological wealth consisted of inscriptions, sculptures, and other objects collected in the local museum, founded by Stamatakis in 1872 (and enlarged in 1907). 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 digs were attempted in the area of Sparta proper; partial excavation of the round building was undertaken in 1892 and 1893 by the American School at Athens. The structure has been since found to be a semicircular retaining wall of Hellenic origin that was partly restored during the Roman period.
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 as several medieval fortresses were being surveyed. In 1906, excavations began in Sparta itself, yielding many finds, which have been published in the British School Annual, vol. xii. sqq.
A small circus described by Leake 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 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, dating from the 9th to the 4th centuries BC., 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, the site has produced the longest extant archaic inscription of Laconia, numerous bronze nails and plates, and a considerable number of votive offerings. 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 262 AD, was also investigated. Besides the actual buildings discovered, a number of points were situated and mapped in a general study of Spartan topography, based upon the description Pausanias. 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. The settlement was roughly triangular in shape, with its apex pointed towards the north. Its area was approximately equal to that of the "newer" 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 southern Peloponnese was Spartan territory. With an area of 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 much arable land. Earliest archeological evidence testifying settlement in Sparta dates from around 950 BC.
Around 750 BC, Sparta began expanding slowly but steadily. The subjugated population of Laconia either became Helots or Periokoi. The Helots kept their farmland but were required to deliver half of their output to the Spartan state, while the Periokoi were inhabitants of cities that remained autonomous, save in matters of foreign affairs and military actions. The Periokoi formed a vital part of Spartan society. As Spartans were forbidden non-military pursuits and occupations, the Periokoi worked as traders, craftsmen, and artists. From 650 to 620 BC, 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 Ancient Greece.
From 550 BC onwards, the goals of the Spartan cosmos – toughness of body and mind as well as military efficiency – seem to have been achieved. Sparta did not suffer under the rule of any tyrant or dictator, and its phalanxes were considered undefeatable. "Spartan" remains synonymous for anyone rigorously self-disciplined or courageous in the face of pain, danger, or adversity. However, Sparta was a nation closed off from the influence of other nations, with few foreign imports and ideas, creating a barren cultural world, devoid of great works of music and literature.
Prior to modern times, the site of Sparta was occupied by a relatively small village that lay in the shadow of Mystras, a more important (Byzantine) settlement nearby. In 1834, after the Greek War of Independence, King Otto of Greece decreed that a city was to be built on the site of Sparta and bear its name (pronounced Sparti in Modern Greek). The city was designed with the intention of creating one of the most beautiful cities in Greece through the use of tree-lined boulevards and parklands. At present, Sparta is the administrative capital of the prefecture of Laconia.
Sparta is the center of an agricultural plain whose focus is the Eurotas valley. It is the local center for the processing of goods such as citrus and olives.
|Year||Communal population||Change||Municipal population||Change|
- W. G. Forest. A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C.. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968.
- Ernle Bradford. The Battle for the West-Thermopylae 480. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.
- traveljournals.net - Sparta
- GTP - Sparta
- GTP - Municipality of Sparta
- GTP - Ancient Sparta
- Indexmundi - Sparta
- Sparta's Journal - An academic Journal for Sparta
- ancient Sparta - extensive black and white photo-essays of the site and related artifacts