Sparta was a city-state* on the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece. A leader in the Greek world, Sparta was the chief rival of Athens during the Archaic* and classical* periods of Greek history. Many people in classical Greece believed that Sparta, with its strong sense of community, law and order, and great military capabilities, had the ideal form of government. Sparta was also noted for its unique dual kingship and its constitution—the Great Rhetra, which is believed to be the first written constitution.
The admirable characteristics of Spartan government and society, however, were achieved at a great price. The necessity to control their serfs*, called helots, turned Sparta into a police state. Maintaining such a tightly controlled society left little time for Spartans to develop or enjoy the arts or literature. By about 500 B.C., Spartan society came to an intellectual and cultural standstill, eventually leading to its decline and fall.
Beginnings. During the 900s B.C., people from northern Greece called Dorians invaded the fertile plain of Laconia in the southeastern Peloponnese*. By the 800s B.C., several Dorian villages banded together to form the town of Sparta. The town was protected by spectacular mountain barriers in every direction except the south.
Not content with the land they controlled around Sparta, the Spartans invaded neighboring Messenia around 735 B.C. After 20 years of fighting, Sparta gained control of Messenia’s fertile land and turned the Messenians into helots. Once subdued, the helots were required to give half the produce from the land to their Spartan masters. They were also given a permanent curfew and could be punished—or even killed—arbitrarily.
The conquest of Messenia transformed Sparta into a leading Greek city- state. The rich Messenian land made Sparta’s aristocracy* one of the wealthiest in Greece. With helots to do the hard labor, the city-state flourished militarily and began to extend its influence throughout the area through force or the threat of force.
By the 600s B.C., a Spartan constitution, called the Great Rhetra, delineated the duties of the Spartan government. The constitution gave primary authority to a council of elders drawn from the aristocracy. A citizen’s assembly, which consisted of all male citizens over the age of 35, was given veto power over legislation proposed by the council of elders. Both the council of elders and five elected magistrates* served as effective checks on the powers of the two hereditary kings. The kings, in turn, were primarily in charge of commanding the army.
Revolt and Reaction. In 669 B.C., Sparta suffered its first serious military defeat at the hands of Argos, which may have encouraged the helots to revolt. The helots outnumbered their Spartan masters seven to one, and the revolt was put down only after years of intense fighting. The Spartans’ continuing fear of another helot rebellion inspired some serious changes in Spartan society and government that eventually turned Sparta into a military state.
The rights of individuals were placed second to the common good, and great emphasis was placed on law and order. Land was divided equally among all adult male citizens, who were required to serve as professional infantrymen, called hoplites. Their main function was to prevent another helot uprising. The land was worked by the helots, who were rigidly controlled by the soldiers, and most of the crops they produced went to feed the army. Spartan children were raised under state supervision, the influence of the family was greatly reduced, and males received rigorous military training.
In addition to these internal reforms, Sparta in the late 500s B.C. established a confederacy* of other Peloponnesian city-states called the Peloponnesian League. By forming the league, Sparta was assured of the support of the member states in the event of another helot rebellion.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* serf peasant who owes service and loyalty to a lord
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece
* aristocracy privileged upper class
* magistrate government official in ancient Greece and Rome
* confederacy group of states joined together for a purpose
GROWING UP IN ANCIENT SPARTA
A boy in ancient Sparta was taken from his mother at the age of seven and sent to a military school. There he was given terrible food, a pile of reeds to sleep on, and a thin tunic to wear throughout the year—regardless of the weather. The long days were filled with strenuous military drills and physical training, and there were no breaks for holidays. Boys were taught to hide their emotions and were subjected to beatings to see how much pain they could withstand. A girl in classical Sparta fared only slightly better. She, too, was raised by the state, treated severely, and given rigorous physical training. But girls did not have to fight wars.
Sparta's Glory and Decline. By 500 b.c, Sparta had become a military superpower, and in the 480s B.C., it led other Greek city-states in the Persian Wars against the Persian Empire. Spartan soldiers and their leaders distinguished themselves by their great courage, especially the Spartan king Leonidas, who died while bravely defending the mountain pass at Thermopylae. Sparta’s leadership in the Persian Wars has been called the city-state’s “finest hour.”
However, Sparta’s glory was short-lived. In 464 B.C., a severe earthquake caused massive deaths and destruction and sparked another revolt of the helots. By that time, the lifestyle of the hoplites had become extremely lavish, and the gap between wealthy and poorer Spartans had widened. In addition, the adult male population had decreased, thus reducing the number of citizens. While Sparta was preoccupied with these internal problems, Athens was growing more powerful. Wary of Athenian domination, Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War against Athens in an attempt to regain control of the region. An alliance with Persia enabled Sparta to defeat the Athenians in 404 B.C.
The defeat of Athens was Sparta’s last major victory. Continuing rivalries with other Greek states led to Sparta’s defeat by Thebes in 371 B.C.—a crushing blow to Spartan society, which lost 400 of its remaining 1,200 citizens in battle. In addition, the victors forced Sparta to surrender the Messenian land and helots.
Over the next 200 years, Sparta attempted to regain its former military dominance, but without success. At the same time, the Spartan system of child rearing and military training fell apart, and the two kings were replaced by a single monarch. After the Romans conquered Greece in 146 B.C.,Sparta became a free city within the empire. However, Sparta never regained its earlier glory and eventually was overrun by the Visigoths in A.D. 396. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Government, Greek; Greece, History of; Monarchs, Greek; Slavery.)