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The city of Sparta ( Doric Σπάρτα; Attic Σπάρτη Spartē) was a city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the River Eurotas in the southern part of the Peloponnese. Between c. 650 and 362 B.C. it was the dominant military power in the region, and as such was recognised as the overall leader of the combined Greek forces during the Greco-Persian Wars. Between 431-404 B.C., it was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. By the year 362 B.C., Sparta's role as the dominant military power in Greece was over, but the so-called Spartan myth continues to fascinate Western culture. The majority of inhabitants of Sparta were helots who, every autumn during the Crypteia, could be killed by a Spartan citizen without fear of blood or guilt.
Lacedaemon, or Lakedaimon, Grk. Λακεδαίμων or Λακεδαιμωνία Lacedaemonia, in historical times, was the proper name of the Spartan state as used by Thucydides in his histories. Homer and Herodotus use only the former, and in some passages seems to denote by it the Achaean citadel, the Therapnae of later times, in contrast to the lower town Sparta. Lacedaemon is now the name of a province in the prefecture of Laconia.
In Greek mythology, Lacedaemon was a son of Zeus by Taygete, and was married to Sparta the daughter of Eurotas, by whom he became the father of Amyclas, Eurydice, and Asine. He was king of the country which he called after his own name, Lacedaemon, while he gave to his capital the name of his wife, Sparta. He was believed to have built the sanctuary of the Charites, which stood between Sparta and Amyclae, and to have given to those divinities the names of Cleta and Phaenna. An heroum was erected to him in the neighbourhood of Therapne.
The recorded history of Sparta began with the Dorian invasions, when the Peloponnesus was settled by Doric Greek tribes coming from Epirus and Macedonia through the northeast region of Greece, submitting or displacing the older Achaean Greek inhabitants. The Mycenaean Sparta of Menelaus described in Homer's Iliad was an older Greek civilization, whose link to post-Mycenaean Sparta was only by name and location. What is widely known today as ancient Sparta refers to state and culture that were formed in Sparta by the Dorian Greeks, some eighty years after the Trojan War. It did not take long for Sparta to subdue all cities in the region of Laconia and turn it into its kingdom. In the 7th century BC it also incorporated Messenia.
In the 5th century BC, Sparta and Athens were reluctant allies against the Persians, but after the foreign threat was over, they soon became rivals. The greatest series of conflicts between the two states, which resulted in the dismantling of the Athenian Empire, is called the Peloponnesian War. The city-state Athens' attempts to control Greece and take over the Spartan role of 'guardian of Hellenism' ended in failure. Following the defeat of Athens, Sparta briefly became a great naval power.
The first ever defeat of a Spartan hoplite army at full strength occurred at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, after which Sparta's position as the dominant Greek city-state swiftly disappeared with the loss of large numbers of Spartiates and the resources of Messenia.
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 independence. During the Punic Wars Sparta was an ally of the Roman Republic. Spartan political independence was put to an end when it was eventually forced into the Achaean League.
During the Roman conquest of Greece, Spartans continued their way of life and the city became a tourist attraction for the Roman elite who came to observe the "unusual" Spartan customs. Supposedly, following the disaster that befell the Roman Imperial Army at the Battle of Adrianople ( AD 378), a Spartan phalanx met and defeated a force of raiding Visigoths in battle. There is, however, no genuine evidence of this occurring.
Modern Sparti owes its existence to an 1834 decree of King Otto of Greece.
Rise and decline
In the Second Messenian War, Sparta established itself as a local power in Peloponnesus and the rest of Greece. During the following centuries, Sparta's reputation as a land-fighting force was unequaled. In 480 BC a small force of Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans led by King Leonidas (approximately 300 were full Spartiates, 700 were Thespians, and 400 were Thebans; these numbers do not reflect casualties incurred prior to the final battle) , made a legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae against the massive Persian army, inflicting a very high casualty rate on the Persian forces before finally being encircled. The superior weaponry, strategy, and bronze armor of the Greek hoplites and their phalanx again proved their worth one year later when Sparta assembled at full strength, and led a Greek alliance against the Persians at Plataea.
The decisive Greek victory at Plataea put an end to the Greco-Persian War along with Persian ambition of expanding into Europe. Even though this war was won by a pan-Greek army, credit was given to Sparta, who besides being the protagonist at Thermopylae and Plataea, had been the de facto leader of the entire Greek expedition.
In later Classical times, Sparta along with Athens, Thebes and Persia had been the main powers fighting for supremacy against each other. As a result of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, a traditionally continental culture, became a naval power. At the peak of its power Sparta subdued many of the key Greek states and even managed to overpower the powerful Athenian navy. By the end of the 5th century BC it stood out as a state which had defeated at war the Athenian Empire and had invaded Persia, a period which marks the Spartan Hegemony.
During the Corinthian War Sparta faced a coalition of the leading Greek states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos. The alliance was initially backed by Persia, whose lands in Anatolia had been invaded by Sparta and which feared further Spartan expansion into Asia. Sparta achieved a series of land victories but many of her ships were destroyed at Cnidus by a Greek-Phoenician mercenary fleet that Persia had provided to Athens. The event severely damaged Sparta's naval power but did not end its aspirations of invading further into Persia, until Conon the Athenian ravaged the Spartan coastline and provoked the old Spartan fear of a helot revolt.
After a few more years of fighting, the "King's peace" was established, according to which all Greek cities of Ionia would remain independent, and Persia's Asian border would be free of the Spartan threat. The effects of the war were to establish Persia's ability to interfere successfully in Greek politics and to affirm Sparta's hegemonic position in the Greek political system. Sparta entered its long-term decline after a severe military defeat to Epaminondas of Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra. This was the first attested time that a Spartan army would lose a land battle at full strength.
As Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta started facing the problem of having a helot population vastly outnumbering its citizens. The alarming decline of Spartan citizens was commented on by Aristotle. Yet even during her decline, Sparta never forgot its claims on being the "defender of Hellenism" and its Laconic wit. An anecdote has it that when Philip II sent a message to Sparta saying "If I enter Laconia, I will level Sparta to the ground," the Spartans responded with the single, terse reply: "If."
Even when Philip of Macedon created the league of the Greeks on the pretext of unifying Greece against Persia, Spartans were excluded of their own will. Philip, who was well aware of Spartan stubbornness, chose not to put his hegemony at risk by attempting to take Laconia by force. The Spartans, for their part, had no interest in joining a pan-Greek expedition if it didn't mean Spartan leadership. According to Herodotus the Macedonians were a people of Dorian stock, akin to the Spartans, but that didn't make any difference. Thus, upon the conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great sent to Athens 300 suits of Persian armour with the following inscription "Alexander son of Philip, and the Greeks - except the Spartans - from the barbarians living in Asia".
Sparta never fully recovered from the losses that the adult male Spartans suffered at Leuctra in 371 BC and the resulting helot revolts, nonetheless it was amazingly able to limp along as a regional power for over two centuries. Both Philip II and his son Alexander the Great never even attempted to conquer Sparta: it was too weak to be a major threat that needed to be eliminated, but Spartan martial skill was still such that any invasion would have risked potentially high losses, so none was attempted. Eventually, the increasing power of the Roman Republic to the west began to encroach on Greece, playing off the internal rivalries between Macedonia, the Aetolian League, and the Achaean League (with which Sparta was allied). Ultimately, in 146 BC Greece was fully conquered by the Roman general Lucius Mummius, through no particularly innovative strategy but basically because Greece had become too fractured and exhausted from internal divisions to resist foreign invasion.
Little is known 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. Because most Spartan laws were passed down orally and committed to memory, little is known about Spartan society. Spartan society was considered primitive by ancient Greek standards. Settlements were scattered and mirrored the dwellings used during Greece's 'Dark Age' (1150–700 BC) which means that they were mostly thatched houses. Stone construction was reserved for public works such as temples, government halls, and gymnasiums. What we do know of Spartan society comes from historians of that time. Sparta's constitutional system was mixed: it was composed of elements of monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic systems.
The Spartans had no historical records, literature, or written laws, which were, according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus (excluding, of course, the 'Great Rhetra', supposedly given by Lycurgus himself). The Doric state of Sparta, copying the Doric Cretans, developed a mixed governmental state. The state was ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and Eurypontids families, both descendants of Heracles and 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 for being the oldest in existence (Herod. vi. 5). The origins of the powers exercised by the assembly of the citizens, or apella, are virtually unknown, due to the paucity of historical documentation and Spartan state secrecy.
There are several legendary explanations for this unusual dual kingship, which differ only slightly; for example, that King Aristodemus 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. Other theories suggest that this was an arrangement that was met when a community of villages combined to form the city of Sparta. Subsequently the two chiefs from the largest villages became kings. Another theory suggests 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 Heracles. Either way, kingship in Sparta was hereditary and thus every king Sparta had was a descendant of the Agiad or Eurypontids family. Accession was given to the male child who was first born after a king's accession.
The duties of the kings were primarily religious, judicial, and militaristic. 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 to a council of elders. By 500 BC the Spartans had become increasingly involved in the political affairs of the surrounding city-states, often putting their weight behind pro-Spartan candidates. Shortly before 500 BC, as described by Herodotus, such an action fueled a confrontation between Sparta and Athens, when the two kings, Demeratus and Cleomenes, took their troops to Athens. However, just before the heat of battle, King Demeratus changed his mind about attacking the Athenians and abandoned his co-king. For this reason, Demeratus was banished, and eventually found himself at the side of Persian King Xerxes for his invasion of Greece twenty years later (480 BC), after which the Spartans enacted a law demanding that one king remain behind in Sparta while the other commanded the troops in battle.
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 in 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 because the kings were, rightly or wrongly, suspected of having taken bribes from the enemies of the state at one time or another.
After the ephors were introduced, they, together with the two kings, were the executive branch of the state. Ephors themselves had more power than anyone in Sparta, although the fact that they only stayed in power for a single year reduced their ability to conflict with already established powers in the state. Since reelection was not possible, an ephor who abused his power, or confronted an established power centre, would have to suffer retaliation.
The difference with today's states is that Sparta had a special policy maker, the gerousia, a council consisting of 28 elders over the age of 60, elected for life and usually part of the royal households, and the two kings. High state policy decisions were discussed by this council who could then propose action alternatives to the Damos, the collective body of Spartan citizenry, who would select one of the alternatives by voting.
Not all inhabitants of the Spartan state were considered to be citizens (part of Demos). Only the ones that had followed the military training, called the agoge, were eligible. However, usually the only people eligible to receive the agoge were Spartiates, or people who could trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the city although there were two exceptions. Trophimoi or "foster sons" were foreign students invited to study. Xenophon sent his two sons to Sparta for their education as trophimoi. The other exception was that sons of helots could be enrolled as syntrophoi if a Spartiate formally adopted him and paid his way. If a syntrophos did exceptionally well in training he might be sponsored to become a Spartiate himself.
Others in the state were the perioeci, who can be described as civilians, and helots who were the state owned serfs that made up 90 percent of the population. Because descendants of non-Spartan citizens were not able to follow the agoge, and Spartans could lose their citizenship if they couldn't afford to pay the expenses of the agoge, the actual number of the Spartan citizens was constantly reduced, known as oliganthropia.
Military and foreign policy
The Lacedaimonians were the only people in ancient Greece to employ a core army of full-time soldiers. Their state institutions and system of education were designed for the purpose of creating these superbly-trained soldiers. The whole army consisted of these heavy armed elite soldiers and several times their number of light armed helots and other conscripts. In later times these were augmented with mercenaries. The Spartans used, among other emblems, the red Greek capital letter lambda (Λ) (displayed on their shields) as an identification as the people of Lacedaemon, their home city-state or polis.
Sparta, by the 4th century BC, was the most powerful nation in all of Greece. Unlike many of the Greek city-states it had only one colony, Taras, and most of its power came from alliances with other regions. Sparta was not an empire: no tribute was paid except in times of war. What Sparta essentially formed was a league, and they chose their allies strategically. For example, Sparta favoured Corinth because of its naval fleet, and indeed Corinth sat on the ithsmus between Attica and the Pelopennese, an important strategical position, seeing as any Infantry invasion would have to go through Corinth. The allies would vow to have the same friends and enemies, follow Sparta wherever they led, and not go to war unless all the allies were in consensus. The league's governmental structure was an oligarchy run by aristocrats; it met in Corinth and was led by Sparta. The Congress, as it was called, consisted of representatives from each of the allied city states who each held one vote.
The Spartan world
Around the middle of the 6th century BC, the southern Peloponnese was Spartan territory. 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.
Classical sources tell us that Sparta was founded in the 10th century BC. It consisted of the four villages of Pitane, Mesoa, Limnai and Konooura, which were later united under one government.
Around 750 BC, Sparta began expanding slowly but steadily. The subjugated population of Laconia either became helots or perioeci. The helots kept their farmland but were required to deliver half of their output to the Spartan state, while the perioeci were inhabitants of cities that remained autonomous, save in matters of foreign affairs and military actions. The perioeci formed a vital part of Spartan society. As Spartans were forbidden non-military pursuits and occupations, the perioeci 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. The term "Spartan" still remains synonymous for anyone rigorously self-disciplined or courageous in the face of pain, danger, or adversity. According to Byzantine sources, some parts of the Laconian region remained pagan until well into the 10th century AD (see Maniots), and Doric-speaking populations survive until today.
Sparta was, above all, a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, the mother of the child bathed it in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the elders of the tribe by the child's father. The elders then decided whether it was to be reared or not. If found defective or weak, the baby was left on the wild slopes of Mount Taygetos - also known as Apothetae, or as the Place of Rejection - to die; but it was also common for these rejected children to be adopted by the helots. In this way the Spartans attempted the maintenance of high physical standards in their population. From the earliest days of the Spartan citizen, the claim on his life by the state was absolute and strictly enforced.
It was customary in Sparta that before the Spartan citizen males would go off to war, their wives or another female of some significance would present them with their shield and say: "With this, or upon this" (Ancient Greek: Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς)—meaning Spartans could only return to Sparta in one of two ways: victorious or dead. If a Spartan hoplite were to return to Sparta alive and without his shield, it was assumed that he threw his shield at the enemy in an effort to flee; an act punishable by death or banishment. It is interesting to note that a soldier losing his helm, breastplate or greaves (leg armour) was not similarly punished, as these items were personal pieces of armour designed to protect one soldier. However, the shield not only protected the individual soldier but in the tightly packed Spartan phalanx was also instrumental in protecting the soldier to his left from harm. Thus the shield was symbolic of the individual soldier's subordination to his unit, his integral part in its success, and his solemn responsibility to his comrades in arms—messmates and friends, often close blood relations. It could not be lost.
Burials in Sparta were also considered an act of honour, and marked headstones would only be granted to Spartan soldiers who died in combat during a victorious campaign (or females who died in service of a divine office or in childbirth).
A strong emphasis was placed on honour and carrying out acts because it was the 'right thing to do.' Xenophon wrote about the Spartans as he observed them during an Olympic game:
An elderly man was trying to find a place to sit and observe the Olympic Games, as he went to each section. All the other Greeks laughed as he tried to make his way through. Some ignored him. Upon entering the Spartan section all the Spartans stood and offered the elderly man their seats. Suddenly the entire stadium applauded. All the Greeks knew what was the right thing to do, but the Spartans were the only ones who did it.
Though most discussion of Spartans centers around its citizens, the helots (in Classical Greek Εἵλωτες / Heílôtes) were the majority inhabitants of Sparta (over 80% of the population by some estimates). Helots did not have voting rights and economically supported the Spartan citizens.
The helots were ritually mistreated and humiliated. Each year, the helots were ritually flogged, apparently for no other reason than to affirm their servitude.
Each autumn when the Ephors took office, they routinely declared war on the helots, (Aristotle cited by Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 28, 7), thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without repercussion. Most of the time, this was done by kryptes (sing. κρύπτης), graduates of the difficult agoge who took part in the Crypteia.
In 425 BC, 2,000 helots were also massacred in a carefully staged event. Thucydides states:
"The helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished."
Myron of Priene also indicates that helots who became too fat were put to death, with their masters fined for letting them get fat.
Spartan citizen boys left home for military boarding school at the age of seven and were required to serve in the army until age of thirty. Then they passed into the active reserve, where they remained until the age of sixty. Spartan education from the ages of seven to thirty emphasized physical toughness, steadfastness in military ranks, and absolute obedience to orders. The ordinary Spartan was a citizen-warrior, or hoplite, 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. Men were encouraged to marry at the age of twenty but could not live with their families until they left their active military service at age thirty. The Spartans perfected the craft of hoplite warfare. They called themselves "homoioi" (equals), pointing to their common lifestyle and the discipline of the phalanx, which demanded that no soldier be superior to his comrades.
When the Spartans began military training – aged seven – they would enter the agoge system for the education and training—everything from physical training such as hunting and dancing, to emotional, and spiritual training. At that age they would have to go through what was known as the gauntlet. They would have to run around a group of older children, who would flog them continually with whips, sometimes to death. As they were lightly clothed, and had no bedding to speak of, children would often put thistles in their pallet because the prickling sensation made them feel warmer. On leaving the agoge they would be sorted into groups, whereupon some were sent into the countryside with nothing and forced to survive on their skills and cunning; this was called the krypteia, believed to be an initiation rite to seek out and kill helots who were considered to be troublesome to the state, or were found to be wandering the countryside with no good reason.
At the age of twenty, the Spartan citizen began his membership in one of the syssitia (dining messes or clubs), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartan exercised the full rights and duties of a citizen at the age of thirty. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens, 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 citizens, " and retained only the civil rights of citizenship.
Spartan citizens were debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the perioeci, 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 Spartan citizens. 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, partly through the custom of krypteia.
Full citizens, released from any economic activity, were given a piece of land ( kleros), 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 declined. Citizens had numbered 10,000 at the beginning of the 5th century BC, but had decreased by Aristotle's day (384–322 BC) 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 reversing the trend.
Perhaps the most widely known event on the efficiency of the Spartan war-machine is related to the Persian Wars. The Spartan stand at the Battle of Thermopylae has been repeatedly cited in a military grand strategy context as a role model concerning the advantages of training, strategy and bravery against extremely overwhelming odds and is often referred to as the greatest last stand of a military force in documented history.
Role of women
Political, social, and economic equality
Spartan women enjoyed a status, power and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. It is estimated that women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property in Sparta. The laws regarding a divorce were the same for both men and women. Unlike women in Athens, if a Spartan woman became the heiress of her father because she had no living brothers to inherit (an epikleros), the woman was not required to divorce her current spouse in order to marry her nearest paternal relative. Spartan women received as much education as men, as well as a substantial amount of physical education and gymnastic training. They rarely married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased. It was possible for them to appear entirely nude even publicly, which they did customarily only at festivals, as did the men.
Women, being more independent than in other Greek societies, were able to negotiate with their husbands to bring their lovers into their homes. According to Plutarch in his 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. However, some historians argue that this 'wife sharing' was only reserved for elder males who had not yet produced an heir.
Many women played a significant role in the history of Sparta. Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, heiress to the throne and the wife of Leonidas I, was very powerful within the government and, as Herodotus records, famously assisted both her father, Cleomenes, in resisting a bribe and later was responsible for Sparta decoding the warning the Persian forces were about to invade Greece when, after Spartan generals could not decode a wooden tablet covered in wax, she ordered them to clear the wax, revealing the warning. She played an important role at war time. When asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men, she stated, famously, it was because only Spartan women give birth to real men.
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 official 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. The Dorians were the first to practice nudity in athletics, as well as oiling the body during exercise to enhance its beauty, a costly practice which broke with the customary frugality of the Spartans. According to Plato this practice was introduced from Crete to Sparta, and then to the rest of Greece. The Dorian Cretans had most likely inherited it from Minoans.
Between leaving the agoge and joining the syssitia a select few young men were arranged into groups, and were sent off into the countryside with nothing, and were expected to survive on wits and cunning. It was assumed that they would steal their food, yet anyone caught stealing was severely punished. Many speculate that this was to teach the young Spartans stealth and quickness. If you were caught, it was concluded that you were not quick enough or silent enough. This was called the crypteia, secret (ritual). This was very probably, in origin, an old initiation rite, a preparation for their later career as elite soldiers. Other sources claim that the crypteia (or krypteia) was an "adolescent death squad" made up of the most promising young Spartans. Their job was to roam the countryside killing helots at night in order to instill fear in the slave population and prevent rebellion.
Spartan men were required to marry at age 20 after completing the crypteia. A Spartan wedding was not highly ritualized and consisted of the intended bride being abducted with simulated violence. After the wedding night the husband remained living in his barracks and would have no further contact with his wife except for the purpose of procreation. This was ritualized with the wife having to shave her head and dress in male clothing while the husband would wait until his friends had gone to sleep before leaving the barracks to do his duty and then returning before they were aware of his absence.
Training in music and literature occupied a subordinate position. The tireless emphasis on physical training gave Spartans the reputation for being “ laconic”, economical with words, a word derived from the name of their homeland of Laconia. Education was also extended to girls, in the belief that strong and intelligent mothers would produce strong and intelligent children. Thus modern day historians, with the corroboration of ancient writers, tend to conclude that Spartan women were among the most educated in the ancient Greek world. Both sexes exercised nude and because of this a strong emphasis was placed on the physical fitness of men as well as women. Despite their physical fitness, women could not compete in the Olympic Games, according to the Olympic rules (they competed in the Heraea Games instead). There were also contests to see who could take the most severe flogging, an ordeal known as diamastigosis.
Poor knowledge on Spartan traditions is the result of Sparta's secrecy. Most modern theories are based on assumptions derived from ancient sources and parallels drawn between Sparta and contemporary Dorian Greek societies such as Crete. Some scholars assume that the custom of pederasty paralleled the mentoring relations between Spartan males and adolescent boys, common in Dorian societies. Some of the ancient scholars seem to have supported an opposing view: the Laconophile Xenophon, who had lived in Sparta and had close relationships with leading Spartiates, e.g. Agesilaus, writes that Lycurgus efficiently managed to cultivate chaste pederasty in the Spartan society. Aristotle also wrote that Sparta belonged to the type of military society that was based on heterosexual relationship, unlike other Greek states of his time. Cicero furthermore asserts that, "The Lacedaemonians, while they permit all things except outrage (stuprum, i.e. "illicit sexual intercourse", OLD) in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers.' However, according to one author, an examination of the historical details reveals that "references to particular homosexual attachments of Spartans are conspicuous even by Greek standards".
According to Aristotle, the Spartan military culture was actually short-sighted and ineffective. He observed:
It is the standards of civilized men not of beasts that must be kept in mind, for it is good men not beasts who are capable of real courage. Those like the Spartans who concentrate on the one and ignore the other in their education turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of city's life, end up making them inferior even in that.
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 around 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 10 km (Polyb. 1X. 21). The late Roman wall enclosing the acropolis, part of which probably dates from the years following the Gothic raid of AD 262, 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 of 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.
In Sparta, infants were examined at birth and if they were extremely deformed, cachectic or sickly they were placed in the Apothetae ( Greek language, ἀποθέτας), meaning "depository" as Plutarch describes. This practice was part of the Spartan institution known as agoge. This was a chasm under Taygetus. Criminals of the worst kind and sometimes even prisoners were thrown in a pit known as Kaiadas( Greek language, Καιάδας) in the same mountain in an account by Thucydides. Much later, Suda, a Byzantine Greek historical encyclopædia from the 10th century AD, mentions the same fact, that evildoers were thrown in this pit. There is some confusion between the Kaiadas and the Apothetae regarding the fate of the exposed infants. This exposure was practiced in other Greek regions as well, including Athens.Some of the exposed infants were saved and became θρεπτοὶ δοῦλοι meaning "house-born", "house-nourished" slave by being adopted by families. Adolf Hitler considered Sparta to be the first " Völkisch State, " and much like Ernst Haeckel before him, praised Sparta due to its primitive form of eugenics practice of selective infanticide policy which was applied to deformed children.
- Agis I - king
- Agis II - king
- Agesilaus II - king
- Cleomenes I - king
- Leonidas I (c. 520- 480 BC) - king, famous for his actions at the Battle of Thermopylae
- Cleomenes III - king and reformer
- Lysander ( 5th- 4th century BC) - general
- Lycurgus ( 10th century BC) - lawgiver
- Chionis ( 7th century BC) - athlete
- Cynisca ( 4th century BC) - princess and athlete
- Chilon - philosopher
- Helen - of the Trojan war, Queen of Sparta