The wider world: Sparta

The view from Sparta

The view from Sparta

Suppose the city of Sparta were 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. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnese, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Greece. But 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 Greece… (Thucydides)

Sparta was a prominent city-state, situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. Around 650 BC, it rose to become the dominant military land-power in Greece. At its peak around 500 BC the size of the city would have been some 20,000 – 35,000 free residents, plus numerous helots and perioikoi (“dwellers around”). At 40,000 – 50,000 it was one of the largest Greek cities; in comparison, however, according to Thucydides, the population of Athens in 431 BC was 360,000 – 610,000.

Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system and constitution, which completely focussed on military training and excellence. Its inhabitants were classified as Spartiates (Spartan citizens, who enjoyed full rights), mothakes (non-Spartan free men raised as Spartans), perioikoi, and helots (state-owned serfs, enslaved non-Spartan local population). Spartiates underwent the rigorous agoge training and education regime, and Spartan phalanges (battle lines) were widely considered to be among the best. Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights and equality with men than elsewhere in the classical world.

Given its military pre-eminence, Sparta was recognised as the overall leader of the combined Greek forces during the Persian Wars. Between 431 and 404 BC, Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, from which it emerged victorious, though at great cost of lives. Sparta’s defeat by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC ended Sparta’s prominent role in Greece. However, it maintained its political independence until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC. Thereafter it underwent a long period of decline, especially in the Middle Ages, when many Spartans moved to live in nearby Mystras.

Sparta was the subject of fascination in its own day, as well as in the west following the revival of classical learning. This love of or admiration for Sparta is known as Laconism or Laconophilia.


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