Like the majority of the history of classical Greece, the history of Sparta actually begins with the end of another great civilization, that of the Mycenaeans. Mycenaean Greece was a regional power that first arose in around 1600 BCE, and for the next 500 years would dominate the territory that would eventually go on to become Greece. Building upon the advances of the Minoan culture, which had dominated modern-day Greece throughout the period known as the Middle Bronze Age, the Mycenaeans would go on to create a highly organized and powerful civilization. This civilization, though some of its ideas and traditions would be absorbed by the later classical Greek societies, was distinctly different from them.
There is a purported history of Sparta in Mycenaean times, as set forward by Homer is his work The Iliad. According to this ancient epic poem, Sparta was already a thriving center of ancient Greece during the Mycenaean period of its history. Its king, Menelaus, is portrayed in the poem as the husband of Helen of Troy and the brother of Agamemnon, the ruler of the Mycenaeans. Recent archaeological finding have suggested that there was a Mycenaean center of power in Laconia (the region surrounding Sparta) during this time period which may have served as the inspiration for Homer's Sparta. Whether this is true or not, it is important at this point to differentiate Homeric Sparta from the Sparta of better-established Classical Greek history. Because the Spartans themselves were Dorians (see information of Dorian Invasion below), it is almost certain that the Spartans of later Greek history were an ethnic group that moved into the Peloponnese after the Mycenaean collapse. While the non-citizens and slaves living under Spartan rule in Laconia may have been descended from the “Spartans” described by Homer, there is little doubt that neither the classical city-state nor its dominant population existed in Laconia during this earlier era of Greek history.
Much like other civilizations in the Mediterranean region at the time, the Mycenaean civilization would decline with the massive event known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the 12th century BCE. There are many competing theories as to the exact cause of the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, though there is much reason to believe that, like the other societies that were ultimately destroyed by it, the collapse in Greece was probably caused at least in part by a group known as the Sea Peoples. This enigmatic group, though it seems to have affected and indeed disrupted the entire power structure of the ancient world at the time, has never been satisfactorily identified. What is known, however, is that the Sea Peoples, whoever they may have been, contributed heavily to the downfalls of both the Hittite empire and the ancient kingdom of Egypt, among other civilizations in the region at the time. Because the Mycenaean Greeks were geographically close to these regions where raids by the Sea Peoples were common, there is every reason to think that they would have been affected by them as well.
Another idea that has been put forth as the cause of the Mycenaean collapse separates it from the collapses of other Late Bronze Age civilizations around the same time. This theory links the collapse of the Mycenaeans to a hypothesized event known as the Dorian Invasion. This event, based upon a myth of the ancient Greeks that detailed the taking of the Peloponnese Peninsula by an ethnic group known as the Dorians, has been used as a possible explanation for the sudden appearance and spread of a culture identifiable as the forerunner of that of the Dorian city-states of Greece in the classical era, as contrasted with earlier Mycenaean culture. This so-called invasion, however, was more likely a spread of a set of cultural ideas and a migration of peoples from within Greece itself than the result of an actual incursion from outside forces.
Along with Dorian culture came the Dorian, sometimes called Doric, dialect of ancient Greek. This was a distinguishable dialect of the Greek language that appears to have come into widespread use as the Dorian culture spread across certain parts of Greece, particularly the Peloponnese. This dialect replacement has been used as validating evidence for the theory of the Dorian Invasion, but it does not definitively prove that any sort of general invasion took place, only that the customs, language and culture of the Dorian Greeks were spreading across the peninsula at the time. The same phenomenon could easily have been accounted for by a migration of Dorians from their presumed homelands in northwestern Greece into the Peloponnesian region. Thus, the exact manner of the coming of the Dorians and what role they played in the downfall of the Mycenaeans remains an open question.
Regardless of whether or not the Dorian Greeks bore responsibility for the decline of Mycenaean civilization, however, their arrival in the Peloponnese is a critical event in the history that precedes that of Sparta. This is because the Spartans themselves were, in fact, of Dorian origin and spoke the Doric dialect of Greek. Had whatever events led to the migration or invasion of the Dorians into southeastern Greece not occurred, the history of Sparta as we know it today would not have occurred. The Spartans themselves certainly believed that they had come into the Peloponnese with the Dorians in an event that they termed the Return of the Heraclidae, a reference to the Spartan mythological belief that they, the Dorian Spartans, were the direct descendants of the Greek demigod and hero Heracles (better known to the wider population of the modern world by his Roman name, Hercules).
Following the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the possible invasions of the Dorian Greeks and the Sea Peoples that may have caused or accompanied it, Greece as a whole entered a period which is known as the Greek Dark Ages. This was period that was very much analogous to the state of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire roughly 1500 years later, during which the power vacuum left by the sudden collapse of a highly advanced and organized civilization (in this case, that of the Mycenaeans) resulted in a long period of societal stagnation at a lower level of advancement. In Greece, this period would persist for nearly 300 years, spanning the time period between roughly 1100 BCE and 800 BCE.
It was during this time period that the site that would go on to become the city of Sparta itself would be founded. The site chosen for the city was in the Eurotas river valley, and was probably selected for its excellent defensive characteristics. Even though this river valley had been inhabited more or less continuously since the Neolithic era, the ground that the city itself sat on does not appear to have been previously settled, as no remains dating back beyond the very early stages of this Dark Age period have been found there.
Early histories describing the founding of Sparta have suggested that the Dorians had built their city on or near the site of an earlier Mycenaean center, probably the same one that was immortalized in The Iliad. Archaeology in Sparta itself, however, had largely failed to bear out this claim, suggesting that it may well have been part of the mythology surrounding the formation of the city. However, in 2015, a nearby Mycenaean palace complex was discovered that may shed new light on this piece of history. The large palace, which is thought to date back to the 16th or 17th century BCE, may well be a part of the earlier Mycenaean Sparta that is described as having predated the Dorian Spartans.
Despite this revelation regarding the history of the area surrounding Sparta in the centuries before the Dorian migration into the Peloponnese, the site of Sparta itself appears not to have been settled prior to about 1000 BCE, putting the date of its founding well after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. At this time, the site is thought to have consisted of two close villages that would eventually grow together to form the city of Sparta. Doubtless, the proximity of these villages would have made for a high degree of cooperation between them. Two further villages appear to have been founded somewhat later, creating a network of population centers that would eventually become a single urban hub.
During this period, Sparta is not thought to have exerted anything resembling the military power that it would one day come to wield. Instead, it, like many of the other Greek city-states at the time, was still in its infancy. During the Greek Dark Ages, there is little evidence of the highly organized and sophisticated civilization that would come to define Sparta during the Classical Period. This is unsurprising, given that it was growing from smaller settlements into a larger center of population. In the semi-mythical history surrounding the foundations of Sparta, this period is also known as one of extreme volatility during which there was no law or order. These histories may or may not be entirely accurate, as the Spartans themselves kept no records of their own history, instead relying on a sophisticated oral tradition of history. According to that tradition, however, it was out of this lawless period that the man to who classical Sparta would owe its very identity would arise.
This man, supposedly named Lycurgus, was a Spartan citizen during the time of the late dark ages, probably living sometime during the late 9th or early 8th century BCE. There is much debate as to whether or not Lycurgus was a real historical figure or simply a mythological personification of the development of Spartan society into its eventual final form. Many scholars, however, tentatively accept that Lycurgus was most likely a real figure in the history of Sparta, probably an important leader of this remote period of Greek history who began the process of shaping the Dorian city-state into a warrior society. According to Plutarch's history of his life, which is almost certainly an apocryphal tale rather than a truly historical account, Lycurgus was a king of Sparta who, upon the birth of his nephew who held a truer claim to the throne by virtue of bloodline succession, set out on a journey around the Mediterranean. Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, ventured to Crete, Asia, Egypt and Spain, in all places learning important lessons about the structuring and governing of various societies. Part of this story, at least, may be based in real history, as the historian Herodotus noted the possible origin of the Spartan laws that Lycurgus would go on to enact as the island of Crete.
Upon his return to Sparta, Lycurgus is said to have put these lessons to use, transferring what he had found in the far-flung civilizations of the world that surrounded Greece into use within the framework of the Spartan state. The greatest of these reforms, again according to Plutarch's later interpretation of earlier historical accounts, was to create the Spartan legislative assembly, a body that would balance its own power against that of the two kings who, at any one time, would reign in Sparta. This two king system, consisting always of one king from the Agiad and one king from the Eurypontid house, was an anomaly in the ancient world, and may well have evolved from the tribal leaders of the two original villages that first joined together to form the city of Sparta. This legislature, numbering 28 elders elected for life in its upper house (plus the two kings, to total 30) and consisting of all eligible Spartan citizens in its lower house, would give protections against absolute monarchy and protect the rights of the free citizens of Sparta. Five ephors, or representative citizens, were also elected annually to form a third governing power.
The reforms of Lycurgus, however, were not believed to have simply stopped with the formation of balancing bodies to the power of the kings. Indeed, nearly the entire character of classical Sparta is attributed to the reforms of the state which he enacted. His next move was one that would forever separate the Spartan society from those of other Greek city-states. Seeing a high degree of inequality in wealth between the various men of Sparta, Lycurgus is said to have instituted what may have been the first historical socialist state. According to Plutarch's account, Lycurgus “obtained of them to renounce their properties and to consent to a new division of the lands, and that they should live all together on equal footing, merit to be their only road to eminence.” Having done this, Lycurgus is said to have redistributed the lands formerly held by the various Spartans into equal plots. These were the plots of land that would eventually become those granted to each Spartan citizen as a farm. From this point onward, no acquisition of greater amounts of land than that granted by the state would be possible.
Lycurgus continued to chip away at the more traditionally free-market system of ancient Sparta by requiring that all men eat in commons, rather than dining at home. The men who had once been wealthy, therefore, were forced to eat and drink at the same tables and of the same food and drink that were shared by all Spartans. Clearly, we can see in the story of Lycurgus the formation of the later Spartan hatred for all things that made citizens materially unequal. This was one of the great constraints on personal freedom in ancient Sparta, though one that would also serve it in its later military ambitions.
From here, Lycurgus would go on to ban the traditional monetary system of Sparta, which is recorded to have been based on gold and silver, typical of contemporary economies. Instead, he allowed only money in the form of iron pieces to continue to exist. Iron, being worth much less than gold or silver in the popular mind and by virtue of being so common, carried less value and was therefore not worth hoarding. Between this and the redistribution of land evenly throughout the society, Lycurgus would have accomplished a nearly total realignment of the wealth within Sparta, almost certainly against the will of those who were initially robbed of it. Later generations would come to view this system as the norm, but it would almost certainly have had to be imposed by threat of force in its earliest days, as it would have greatly violated the previously-held freedoms of the Spartan citizens.
With this banning of essentially all forms of tangible wealth, Lycurgus also drove from the Spartan state all sellers of non-essential goods and services. Those who worked precious metals, created most forms of artwork or sold services that were of benefit to the individual and not the state quickly became obsolete within the new structure of Spartan society. Because of the already difficult question of whether or not all of these reforms were truly the work of a single man and the lack of contemporary historical records for these events, it is impossible to tell whether or not this was actually a formal decree or simply an economic side-effect. Certainly, with monetary wealth no longer extant in Sparta, such craftsmen would have done well to relocate themselves in order to ply their trades in more accommodating environments. Archaeological finds in Sparta also throw doubt on this point, as works of art, particularly bronzes, have been found at the site. Many, however, have suggested that it was not the Spartans but the non-citizen earlier populations that had been subjugated by the Dorians, known as the Perioeci, that were responsible for these works.
Finally, Lycurgus is said to have instituted a measure that, politically speaking, may have been the master stroke that allowed the overbearing state of Sparta to function as it did in the Classical Period. This was the method by which the laws he set forth against luxury and wealth would be conveyed to the younger generations. Lycurgus forbid these laws from ever being written, in order to keep the teaching and learning of them a matter exclusively of oral tradition. Because no easy reference of written laws could ever be found, each Spartan citizen was required to know these laws by heart and would have had to in order to function within his or her own society. In this manner, Lycurgus ensured that the thorough necessary memorization of the laws would help to further indoctrinate the youth of Sparta into their practice by the time they grew to be fully fledged members of the society.
How much of the preceding supposed history of Lycurgus is true will likely never be known, as the lack of direct source material from the Spartans themselves makes it virtually impossible to ascertain its validity with any high degree of reliability. Whether it reflects historical fact, myth, or some combination of the two, however, does not affect the regard in which the Spartans held Lycurgus and his reforms. This lawgiver was seen as the very founder of the Spartan way of life that would come to be so utterly distinct from the other Greek city-states and would allow the Spartans to enjoy the successes that they would see later in their history.
From the basis of the laws of Lycurgus and the already powerful military tradition of the Dorian tribes, the society of Sparta was formed. From this point in the development of the city-state forward, its primary goal was the expansion of its territory throughout the plains surrounding them. As the Spartans increased their own territorial claims, they would certainly have become progressively more skilled in the arts of war, gradually developing into the martially based society that they were by the Classical Period. This expansion coincides roughly with the end of the Dark Ages in Greece and the beginning of what is known as the Greek Archaic Period. During this period, populations are thought to have grown at a greatly elevated rate, ushering in further development of the urban city-states.