Sparta is a rather complicated, and rather interesting, Greek city state. Sparta spawned five ferocious tribes of the finest peloponnesian warriors in Hellen history, and was responsible for many modern day inventions including an early form of democracy.

Original Settlers

The Spartans were one of the very first Hellen tribes in Achaea. As early as 2000 B.C. there are records of the Dorians from Eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor) migrating across the sea to the Achaean peninsular. The Dorians landed on the south eastern coast of Achaea, and found it to be rather mountainous and unsuitable for settling. Thus, the Dorians continued further west, over the mountains, until they came to a large, fertile valley.

They descended into the valley and found a river, which is today known as the Eurotas River. Here they settled beside a fork in the river, and founded five small camps, one for each of the tribes. After this, no more Dorian settlers came due to the mountainous terrain, and instead settled in Illyricum. The people of Lacedaemon continued to grow regardless, and over the years the five tribes found themselves under contstant attack from other Anatolian settlers. The people grew into a warrior society, leading tough lives and producing tough warriors.

By the 10th Century B.C. the Dorian tribes had grown into distinct and large communities. They were the Eurypontians, Aegialens, Hyllaens, Pamphylians and Dymanatae. While they were seperately governed, they had almost identical cultures, and their ancestry was from the same Dorian settlers. At this stage, the other Anatolian settlers around the Dorian tribes had been united under the one tribe, the Messenians. The Dorians were continually harrassed as the Messeneans attempted to conquer their small holdings, and so the Dorians decided that they would return the offensive.

It was the Eurypontians and Aegialens who led the drive to unite the Dorian tribes under one banner, and it was achieved by 800 B.C. After some battles with the Messenians, the Dorians repelled the invaders and expanded their holdings. They founded a great city, Lacedaemeon, close to their original tribes, and they were united as one here. At this stage they were known as the Lacedaemeonians, although they still retained the identity of their individual tribes. They launched a massive campaign, and soon all of Messenia was brought beneath the hegemony of the Lacedaemonians. Lacedaemon was renamed to Sparta around this time, and the tribes now became known as the Spartans. Their hegemony was soon challenged, however, as the Messenians rebelled and regained some of their territory. Sparta still retained most of it however, and they were now the strongest military force in Achaea.

Geography

''_'''''''''''''''''''''''''''```````````````````````````````..................................
'/ \_'''#'''''''''''''''''''''_____```````````#``````````````..................................
/    \_Delphi''''''''''''''''/     \_```````Thebes```````,,,,,.........................#.......
       \'''''''''''''''''''''|       \_`````````````````,,,,,,,,,,,...____..........Athens.....
       /'____________''__''__/          \___  ____````,,,,,,,,#,,,,,_/    \_...................
\     /_/            \/  \/                 \/    \__,,____ Megara_/        \_.................
|                                                    \/    \,,,,,/            /.__.............
/                                                           \,,,,\            \/  \___.........
                                                  __________/====/                    \____....
                                                _/=============_/                          \___
                        _______                /_===========__/ 
                       /+++++++\_                \_=======_/   
                      /++++++++++\                 \_====/
                     /++++++++++++\_                 \===\
                    /+++++++++++++++\_               |===|
                   /++++++++++++++++++\_           _/====|
          /\_     /++++++++!!!++++++++++\_       _/======|
         /*++\___/+++++++++!!!!!!++!!+++++\_____/==#=====|____
        (***++++++++++++++++!!!!!!!!!!!!+++=======Corinth======\
        |*****+++++++++!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!+======================)
        |*************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!======================/
        |************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~=======~~~|
       /*****#*******!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~|         _
      /******Elis*****!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ \       /~\ 
     /****************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~#~~~~~~~~~~\      \~/
   _/*****************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~Argos~~~~~~~~~\____|~|_
  /*********************!!!!!!!!!!!#!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~\___
  |*****************#*****!!!!!!!Arcadia!!!!!!!!!~~~~~~~/\_~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~\
  \_*************Olympia**!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!__!!!!-----/   \__/\_~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~)
    \_********************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!_/!!!!!!----|          \_~|\~~~ ~~___/
      |*******************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!/!!!/!!!!----|            \//_~~~~/
      |_******$$$$$$$$$$$$---!!!!!!!!!!!-|-!!|!!-------\_              \~~/ 
        \_**$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$------!!!!!!!-|---)-----------\_            /~~\
          \_$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$-------------\--/--------------\_         (~~_/
            \$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$-------------\/--------(P)------\_        \/
             \$$$$$$$$#$$$$$$$-----(H)---# \_------------------\_
              )$$$$Messenia$$$---------Sparta\_------------------\_
             /$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$-----------------\-----___-----------\_
           _/$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$------------------)---/----------------\
         _/$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$---------------/---|-----------------/
        /$$$$$$$$$$$______$$$$$$$$-(H)-Eurotas(----/----------------/
       ($$$$$$$$$$_/      \$$$$$$$$-----River--\--/----------------(
        \$$$$$$$$/         |$$$$---------------_\/__----------------\
         \$$$$$$$|         |$$$---------------/     \----------------\
         /$$$$$$$|        /$$$---------------/       \------(P)-------)
        ($$$^$$$$|       ($$$------(H)------( Eurotas \--------------/
         \_/ \$$$|        \_-----------------\  Bay   /-------------/
              \$$$\         \_----------------)      /_/\_---------(
               \__/           \_------------_/            \---------\_
                                \_--------_/               \----------\_
                                  )-----_/                  \-----------\_
                                 /-----/                     \_-----------\_
                                 |-----|                       \_----_------\
                                 |-----|                         \__/ \------\
                                 |------\                              \----_|
                                /--(P)--|                               \--_/
                                |-------|                               (_/
                                \--__---|
                                 \/  \--/                         _
                                      \/                         /;\_
                                                               _/;;;;\_
                                                               |;;;;;;;\__
                                                                \;;;;;;;;;\
                                                                /;;;;;;;;__)
                                                               |;;;;#;;;/
                                                               |;Cythera|       
                                                               (;;;;;;;;|
                                                                \;;;;;;;\
                                                                 \;;;;;;;)
                                                                  \_____/

Key:

  • (H) - Helots (see Spartan Society)
  • (P) - Perioikoi (see Spartan Society)
  • --- - Spartan territory
  • !!! - Arcadian territory
  • $$$ - Messenian territory
  • ~~~ - Argolisian territory
  • *** - Elisian territory
  • +++ - Archaen territory
  • === - Corinthian territory
  • ,,, - Megarian territory
  • ... - Athenian territory
  • ``` - Theban territory
  • ''' - Delphic territory
  • ;;; - Cytherin territory

Note: ASCII is very limiting, I did my best to make it as realistic as possible. I believe it is fairly close to the true shape of Achaea.

Climate: Warm
Terrain: Mountainous
Traditional Crops:: Grapes, olives
Waterways: Eurotas River

Strategic Advantages: Sparta is positioned in a very strong defensive position. To its east and west run long, large mountain ranges, making first line defenses very easy. Should an attack from the east break the first line, the second line would make its stand behind the Eurotas River, another strong defensive point. Invasion by sea is also very difficult, as Athens discovered in the Peloponnesian Wars, as there are many small islands in the Eurotas Bay, and it is very rocky and rugged.

Spartan Society

Spartan society was the most unique of all the Peloponnesians. It was a very lawful society, and law breakers were scorned and ostracised from society. From day one a Spartan lived a harsh life. If a child was born deformed, with an uneven heart beat, uneven breathing, or even simply that the parents thought they looked weak, then they were left to die. They would be taken in baskets to the top of Mount Akaranis, where they would be left to starve or freeze, depending on the season. This harsh filtering meant that the entire race was bred for battle, but it also meant that they were very few in numbers.

Spartans

Spartans are males or females born to one of the five original Dorian tribes. They are the highest station in Spartan society. Males and Females live very different lives.

Males

If they manage to survive their birth, Spartan male children were treated very harshly as they grow. Until age six they all remain at home with their mother. At age seven the boys were taken to the barracks where they would be enrolled into a company with other boys. Each company would be lead by an older male (although he was still young) called a Prefect. The Prefect was chosen by the boys' fathers. The Prefect was with them at all times, and was very harsh. If they disobeyed they were beaten, they were only allowed to wear one set of clothes in all weathers, they were disallowed shoes, and they were fed very little, sometimes starved for days. This was all to condition them ready for battle; they would be more resistant to weather changes, able to climb and run barefooted and able to survive without much food.

At age thirteen they were taken out of their companies and their true training as a soldier began. They were taken to the gymnasium to learn wrestling, they were taught javelin and practiced combat with wooden sword and shield. At this age they no longer had a Prefect to control them, but were instead kept in check by Spartan men (all Spartan fathers had equal authority in disciplining another's child). At this age, the adolescent boys are encouraged very strongly to compete and brawl with one another. This is done to such an extent that most of an adolescent Spartan's time is spent in training so that they may beat their friends.

From age nineteen the boys have completed their training and become members of the Eireen. They are now full fledged soldiers, and fight in all Spartan battles, but not as front line troops. Eireen are almost full members of society, and are thusly endowed with more power and responsibility. They are appointed as Prefects to watch over the younger boys, are given the power to command helots and were responsible for ensuring that younger boys were encouraged to uphold Spartan doctrine. They continue to hold these same honours until they are thrity, however at twenty five they graduate to front line soldiers and are required to provide food for the mess.

Finally, at age thirty, a Spartan became a fully fledged Spartiate (a grown member of society). They were given a place in the assembly, allowed to grow their hair (to show they were Spartiates), could leave the barracks and return home to live with their family, and were permitted to shop in the market for themselves (they also had to shop for younger Spartans). Spartiates made up the elite ranks of the Spartan army, what we know as hoplites, or in Greek hopliota, while the younger Spartans made up the regular phalanx.

Females

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Spartan society is its women. From when they are young to when they are old, Spartan women were always at home, however they were given a remarkable amount of freedom when compared to other women during the time period. While young they were taught how to wrestle, run and do other gymnastic activities. They were taught to uphold Spartan doctrine and to encourage males to fight with honour. In fact, the biggest disgrace a mother could suffer was having her son or husband return from a battle in which he retreated; women were often known to be gleeful when a family member fell in battle, and mournful when they returned.

While men were encouraged to battle, women were encouraged to labour. Spartans who died were always buried without a headstone, except it was a male who died in battle or a woman who died in labour who were given a headstone with their name on it. This was the highest honour possible, and thus women toiled day and night to get work done. They would chop wood for the fire, keep the house in good repair, smith weapons and repair their family's armour. Coupled with their knowledge of wrestling, they were very tough, although they were never allowed to war.

There were little restrictions for a Spartan woman. They could wear as much or as little as they wanted, were permitted to show their naked bodies in public, could look a man in the face while talking to him, and even run, play, dance and grab at a man all they wanted. They were allowed to own land and could have their own money also. Marriage was one of the few things they did not have much choice in. All Spartan women would be put into a dark room with the Spartan men, and whoever the Spartan men grabbed was who they would marry.

Helots

When the Spartans conquered the Messenians, they didn't just subjugate them, they turned them into slaves. They became known as Helots, and they were tied to the land they were born on. In this way, Helots are the earliest form of a feudal serf known. They were treated with extreme disrespect, forced to toil for the Spartans, and were often used for practice exercises when training their younger Spartans.

Despite all this, Helots still had a remarkable amount of freedom. They were only required to give half their produce to their lord, and could do what they wished with the rest. They were allowed to own land and were not restricted from any aspects of society except government and the military. In fact, it was not unknown for there to be wealthy Helots with large plots of land. The Helots revolted a few times in Spartan history, but were quickly defeated.

Periokoi

After the first and second Messenian wars, Sparta turned its attention outwards to other territories. While the Helots were mostly from the territory bordering on Messenia, the Perioikoi came from most other territories conquered (see map above). Perioikoi means outsider, or foreigner, and they were treated with the same disrespect as Helots (although they were of higher social station than Helots).

Perioikoi were responsible for handling all trade with foreign Greek tribes. Although, Spartans strongly disliked diplomacy and trade, and thus there was very little of it to be handled. While socially better off than Helots, the Perioikoi did not have much of a market, and could not obtain riches like some Helots could.

Inferiors

Inferiors were a social rank that was beneath Spartan, but above Perioikoi. They were either Spartans who had disgraced themselves by retreating from battle or breaking the law, or a Helot who had honoured himself by prowess in battle. In either case they were demoted/promoted to an inferior. Inferiors could not participate in government, were treated with disrespect, but could own land and did not have to work.

Social Ladder

                   Spartiates
                   Eireen
                   Spartans
                   Inferiors
        Perioikoi            Perioikoi
                   Helots
                                                                    
Note: Perioikoi are on the side because that is how they were viewed, as outside the social structure.

Spartan Government

Of all the governments throughout history, Spartan government is definitely the most unique. it succesfully combined a monarchy with an oligarchy and a democracy. It had four echelons, the Kings, the Gerousia, the Ephors and the Assembly.

Twin Monarchy

There were always two Spartan Kings, one from each of two Dorian tribes that united the Spartans (the Eurypontians and Aegialens). They were hereditary and had the highest position in both society and government. However, in reality, their position was far more ceremonial, and little power accompanied it.

While the Kings could order or request anything, they could be easily controlled by the Ephors. The Kings were still important in Spartan society, as they led religious ceremonies and also led Spartan armies. Beyond this, however, the Kings rarely played a part in Spartan government.

Gerousia

The Gerousia were a council of thirty. This included the two Kings, and twenty eight Gerousa, meaning literally gentleman, but in this case meaning man over sixty. The Gerousia were elected by the Assembly, and had a fair amount of sway over the government.

The Gerousia had the power to veto a decision by the Assembly with a unanimous vote. This was a considerable power, although it was not ever as potent as it could have been. Firstly, the Gerousia rarely voted with unanimity, and secondly, the Ephors could control the Gerousia just as easily as they controlled the Kings.

Ephors

There were five Ephors, one from each of the original Dorian tribes. They were judges of sort, elected by the Assembly, and they had an immense amount of power. The Ephors had the power to fine any member of Spartan society on the spot, and exile any member of government, for misconduct. This was intended to reduce lawlessness and to eliminate corruption amongst the Gerousia and Kings. It did not quite work this way, however.

With the sway the Ephors held over the government, what they wanted to happen always happened. If a decision was made by the Assembly that they wanted to remain decided for, they would subtly threaten the Gerousia so that they would not veto it, and vice versa if they did not want the decision. If someone got too troublesome, they could simply exile them for it, and if they needed money they could simply fine someone. Thus, the real power lay in the hands of the Ephors.

Assembly

The Assembly was made up of all Spartiates (male Spartans over thirty). They made up the democratic portion of the government. The Gerousia would call the Assembly when a proposal needed to be voted on, and would call the matter out. They would all vote by acclamation, the Gerousia simply calling for all those against, and all those for, then making a decision as to which was louder. This was how Ephors and Gerousia were elected also.

Spartan Military

Most of this has already been covered in Spartan Society, as the two are so firmly integrated. Here I will describe the formation and layout of the Spartan hopliota.

Layout

All hopliota wore precisely the same armour and carried the same weapons. For the chest piece a heavy linen cuirass was worn, and for the sleeves, gloves and leggings, leather armour was worn. A large, round bronze shield was held, with a plumed bronze helm for the head. The only weapon that was carried was a bronze short spear and short sword. Apart from this, the only other article of clothing was a cape, which was usually red.

The peltasts, javelin throwers, wore no armour to speak of and loose clothing. They carried javelins, and simply pelted the enemy then retreated, thus they travelled light. Toxotes, archers, though these were used less by the Spartans than other Greeks. They wore light leather armour, or none at all, and carried composite bows. Spartan cavalry wore almost the same armour as hopliota, and carried short swords.

Formation

There were two known formations for the Spartan army. The first, described by Thucydidies, is based on units eight men deep. Four rows formed an enomotia, four enomotiai formed a pentekostis, four pentekosteis formed a lochos, and finally seven lochoi formed an army. Pentekosteis were led my pentekonter, and lochoi were led by a lochago. Thus, these units formed the following numbers:

  • Row - 8 Men
  • Enomotia - 4 Rows (32 Men)
  • Pentekostis - 4 Enomotiai (128 Men)
  • Lochos - 4 Pentekosteis (512 Men)
  • Army - 4 Lochoi (2048 Men)

The second known formation, described by Xenophon, is based on units twelve men deep. Two rows formed an enomotia, two enomotiai formed a pentekostis, two pentekosteis formed a lochos, four lochois formed a mora, and finally six morae formed an army. Morae were led by a ptolemarch. Thus, these units formed the following numbers:

  • Row - 12 Men
  • Enomotia - 2 Rows (24 Men)
  • Pentekostis - 2 Enomotiai (48 Men)
  • Lochos - 2 Pentekosteis (96 Men)
  • Mora - 4 Lochoi (384 Men)
  • Army - 6 Morae (2304 Men)

Dates are obscure, however it is believed that the former formation was used around 400 B.C., whereas the latter was used around 300 B.C. and later. It was these formations that were the basis for the much later Byzantine Infantry, they looked a little like this in practice (this was the standard formation, it may have changed to include more/less peltasts, toxotes etc.):



             //-------H-------//-------H-------//-------H-------//-------H-------//
             //-------H-------//-------H-------//-------H-------//-------H-------//
---C---                                                                                 ---C---
---C---      //-------P-------//-------P-------//-------P-------//-------P-------//     ---C---
      

                              //-------T-------//-------T-------//

Key:
//-----X-----// Pentekostis
---X--- Pentekostis
H Hopliota
P Peltasts
T Toxotes
C Cavalry

Fall of Spartan Hegemony

Despite being victorius over Athens in the Peloponnesian wars, the Spartans were beginning to wear out by the 4th Century B.C. The Parthians had only acted as a catalyst to their fall, but the one who swung the final blow was Alexander the Great. Greece was united as one beneath Macedonia under Alexander the Great. The Parthians were finally repelled, but Spartan hegemony was a thing of the past by mid way through the 4th Century B.C.

Now if the city of Sparta were to be deserted and only the temples and foundations of their buildings were left, I think that people living at a much later time would scarcely accept the Spartans' power as having been equal to their reputation for it.
Thucydides of Athens, late V century BC.

Thucydides was right: from what remains at Sparta, you could never infer how powerful she had been, and now she is little more than a stopping point for tourists heading to the Byzantine town of Mistra or down to Monemvasia. Yet there was a time when no one dared stand against the dreaded Spartan warriors who proudly bore on their shields a lambda, for “Lacedaemon”—Sparta’s ancient name. In classical times, the Spartans had a remarkable social and political organization (which was widely admired by her peers), most famous now for the astonishing training program designed to turn the Spartan youth into tough, stoic warriors through shared hardship and deprivation.

Perhaps the most famous story is that of the Spartan youth, who, in compliance with the dictates of his training, had stolen a fox to supplement his meager rations. Such theft was expected in the young to improve their stealth, but getting caught led to frightful punishment. The boy was caught but concealed the animal under his cloak (a Spartan’s only covering), making no visible sign as the fox tore into him except to fall dead when it reached his heart. We needn’t believe this folk story, but it revealingly depicts a Spartan ideal. We also recall the Spartan mother’s valedictory to her son as he left for the famous battle of Thermopylae: come back carrying your shield or borne on it. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus (later seventh century BC) gives us first-hand evidence of this developing ideology in what is probably the noblest expression of the exhortation to self-sacrifice (from poem 9):

“. . . And he who falls among the champions and loses his sweet life,
So blessing with honor his city, his father, and all his people,
With wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing has transfixed
That massive guard of his shield, and gone through his breastplate as well,
Why, such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
And all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed to with pride, and so are his children,
And his children’s children, and afterward all the race that is his.
His shining glory is never forgotten, his name is remembered,
And he becomes an immortal, though he lies under the ground,
When one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious War God
Standing his ground and fighting hard for his children and land.”

Why should the Spartans have chosen to live this way? Mostly it’s because they had essentially enslaved the people of a different ethnicity who lived around them, turning them into agricultural workers they called Helots; then they crossed Mt. Taygetos, which rises impressively behind the modern city, and helotized the neighboring Messenians. The Spartans took half the Helots’ produce, which freed them from want. Alas, this Faustian bargain forced them to live in a permanently militarized state in order to protect themselves from the vastly greater numbers of understandably hostile Helots surrounding them. A state of war was annually declared on the Helots, not because the Spartans wanted to slaughter them wholesale but because they wanted to be able to slay potential Helot leaders and rebels with impunity and no incursion of blood guilt.

Sparta was accordingly the great land power in classical Greece, just as Athens dominated the seas; indeed, this fact is what prompted Thucydides to the meditation recorded at the head of this entry. The famous defeat of the Persian invasion under King Xerxes in 480-79 BC had altered the outlook of the Greek cities permanently, and it was Athens’ resulting imperial ambitions, coupled with Sparta’s distrust of her, which led in great measure to the terrible Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) fought between the two and their respective allies. The war took away the Greeks’ innocence and ended Greece’s greatest age, ending with a humiliating total victory over Athens. Characteristically, the Spartan conservatism kept them from wiping out the Athenians, costing her the support of more sanguinary allies like Corinth. Only thirty-three years (371 BC) later, however, Spartan power was fatally crippled in the defeat at Leuctra where the flower of the all-too-small core of Spartan warriors was cut down. Sparta was successively stripped of her Messenian Helots (and thus her living) and fades rapidly from the historical scene.

Perpetual militarization left the Spartans no leisure to pursue the fine arts. The result was the forfeiture of a once vibrant literary and artistic culture, some remains of which can be seen in the local museum. The temple of Artemis (c. 700 BC: originally connected with coming of age rituals for girls) compares favorably with contemporary structures elsewhere in Greece; the museum contains first-rate artistic work both from this temple and from artisans of the premilitarization period. The lyric poetry of Alkman, a contemporary of Tyrtaeus, is among the best produced in Greece, and it is comforting to see in a Spartan’s poetry the sentiment (fragment 100):

“Counterbalanced against the iron is the sweet lyre-playing.”

Sparta had been populated in Mycenaean times and figures very prominently in Homer. “Tawny-haired Menelaus” was not only the king of Sparta but also the luckless husband of Helen of Troy. Greek heroes achieved that status not for their moral fineness but for operating on a (mythical) plane greater than the simply human. Accordingly, Menelaus and Helen, the two great Spartan characters from Homer’s epics, fittingly enjoyed a hero cult as semi-divine figures near Sparta in a late-eighth century (BC) shrine atop the ashes of a much earlier Mycenaean palace.


The lyric poetry is quoted from Richmond Lattimore's Greek Lyrics (Chicago1960).

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