Sparta, an original ancient Greek city

Sparta  (in Greek Spárti) was a city of ancient Greece, capital of Laconia and the most famous city of the Peloponnese. It marked the spirits from Antiquity by its austere character, its violent model of education imposed on young Spartans, but also with the fate reserved for the majority of the Lacedaemonian slave population (the helots).

In the 5th c. av. AD, Sparta maintained a long rivalry with Athens (Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC) from which it emerged victorious. But, after a period of hegemony, its power was stolen from it by Thebes (Leuctra, 371 BC). The expansion of Macedonia put an end to its political role. Incorporated into the Roman Empire in 146 BC. BC, it was destroyed by the Visigoths in the 4th century. of our era.

The origins of Sparta.

The Spartans, Lacedaemonians and Laconians should not be confused. The term “Laconian” is a geographical term: Laconia is the region of Sparta, the territory and even the landscape of the Spartan city. The inhabitants of Laconia are the Laconians, it is a rather broad term. A more restricted nucleus is that of the Lacedaemonians, a word of very ancient origin since the term Lacedaemon is already found in Homer. It is a word that designates the fighters of Laconia and therefore the inhabitants of Sparta. These Lacedaemonians are the Spartans who fight in the army and also include the perices (the latter are not full citizens). Finally, the hard core are the Spartans. A few thousand men at the beginning, it shrinks until it becomes a minority

If a settlement of this region of the Peloponnese from the 16th century to the Mycenaean period is attested and that the city is mentioned in the Homeric work, it is however necessary to wait for the establishment of the Dorians in the peninsula so that Sparta really enters the ‘Story. The Dorian city seems to have come from a Theban colonial enterprise. But the foundation of Sparta is also the fruit of a synoecism around 770-760 and also results from the subsequent annexation of Amycleia, supported by the tribe of the Aegids of Theban origin.

The Spartans quickly extended their hegemony over Laconia. To justify this conquest and this right to enslave, they created legends which are linked to the gesture of the Heraclides, descendants of Heracles. Heracles succeeds in saving the power of King Tyndareus who was threatened by his brother. Heracles would therefore have reigned jointly over Sparta, which is why the Spartans will claim to be descendants of Heracles. The Heraclids leave Sparta, are driven out, and take refuge in the Peloponnese. The return of the Heraclides dates from the 11th century BC. During the classical period, the legend spread that the kings of Sparta were Heraclides, while the people came from the Dorian invasion.

In the 7th century, the Spartans conquered after many fights and not without difficulty the south of the Peloponnese: the two wars of Messenia in particular lasted about twenty years each and had numerous political consequences. Many Spartans swarm overseas and sometimes found colonies in the Cyclades (Thera, Melos), or in southern Italy (Taranto) or settled in other cities, particularly in Crete. But the “continental” power of Sparta is ensured thanks to “the laborious annexation of Messenia” which allows the city to have significant land wealth on the basis of its prosperity.

Sparta, a monarchy?

The Lacedaemonian constitution (politeia) is extremely complex since it contains both monarchical, oligarchic and democratic elements. It is a constitution that the ancients describe as mixed, unlike Athens, which is a radical democratic constitution. Aristotle in his book Politics describes this Constitution. The term monarchy for Sparta is improper, because it implies the power of a single monarch, whereas in Sparta there is not a single king but several permanently. We must speak of a double royalty. With its two parallel dynasties, the organization of Sparta is unique in all of Greece. These two royal dynasties are called the Agiades and the Eurypontides.

Throughout the history of Sparta, we will have this double royalty, and the Spartans explained it with difficulty by two twins who would have come out of their mother’s womb at the same time, which would have made it impossible to know the oldest. This double kingship would have prevented tyranny on several occasions and would therefore have been seen as a safeguard. During Spartan history, there are examples of rivalries between the two kings when one of the two showed too much ambition, in fact the second was always there to remind him that power had to be shared. The Spartans never supported tyranny.

Political organization of the ancient city

The main political body considered by Aristotle as an aristocratic authority is the Council of Gerontes: the Gerousia. The Gerontes are the old men, twenty-eight in number to which are added the two kings, so there are thirty. It is an aristocratic council that has a lot of powers. Entry requirements are quite restrictive. You must be over sixty years old. There is also a financial aspect: it is the richest who are chosen.

Moreover, there is an election, which is an aristocratic designation. A Géronte is elected for life, he has no accountability to the people. In other words, the Gerontes fear practically nothing, which is different from Athens where a magistrate must participate in the re-edition of the accounts. The Gerontes are the most corrupt body according to Aristotle. Originally, it is a Tribunal: the most important Tribunal of Sparta which judges cases of murder. The Gerousia also has political powers similar to those of the Boulè.

In the 5th and 4th centuries, the probouleutic function was transferred to the ephors. This no doubt because of the corruption and the Géronte way of life. The ephors therefore take more and more power with the college of the five ephors.

These magistrates seem to have been recruited, at least some of them, among the people. Gradually, they become masters of the most important cases (except the murders which remain for Gerousia: civil law cases, contracts, questions of property, become legal cases in the hands of the ephors who are only five and who judge each individually the business. Little by little, they are transformed into a kind of permanent government controlling all the life of the city, from where the judgment emitted by Aristotle who considers that it is a form of collegial tyranny. The ephors are elected for one year.

Not only do they judge civil law cases, but they also ensure respect for order, traditions and morals. They become a kind of political police responsible for monitoring, like spies, citizens, and identifying possible plotters against the regime: in particular the perices and helots. They are also responsible for watching the gerontes and the kings. They have the powers to bring a case against a king who can be tried for treason. Some kings were condemned to death by the ephors.

The assembly, named Ekklèsia then Apella has powers in Sparta, but the texts are too brief on the extent of its powers. Originally it was the kings who declared war, but from the Peloponnesian War (431 at least), it was the assembly of homoioï (assembly of the people) who declared war. The people decide against the advice of the king.

Education of young Spartans

The education of young Spartans within the agôgè is based on discipline, rough living and permanent emulation. As in other Greek cities, education begins at the age of seven. Sparta stands out on the duration of training. In Athens, for example, education ends between the ages of twelve and fourteen. In Sparta, it can last up to twenty years, and in a certain way up to thirty years. At each “stage of formation”, the Spartan attains a new “status”. At thirty, the Spartan is described as hebontes or neoi, whereas when he enters the agôgè he is still only a paidès. He is still under the authority of the pedonome and cannot travel abroad.

In addition to the “normal” course, namely the teaching of art, letters, poetry, writing, the accent is very quickly placed on learning about collective life. From the age of seven, children are grouped together and encouraged to work together. Around the age of twelve, they sleep together on straw mattresses that they themselves had to make with their own hands, using reeds. The children are divided into age groups. Very early, the paidès must obey and have a good bearing. Discipline is strict. The fact that they are permanently confronted with respected chiefs and not with slaves, reinforces this idea of ​​respect. Each child is subject to the authority of any citizen who attends his training. The pedonome and the whip-bearer can inflict many punishments on the paidès,

Education in the hard way intensifies further from the age of twelve, which constitutes a sort of stage within the agôgè. Xenophon openly criticizes the softness of the other cities which “soften the feet of children by giving them sandals”. In Sparta, the paidés walk barefoot and have only one coat for the whole year. They receive only a small quantity of food which they must complete with plunder. We are witnessing “ritual thefts”, like those of cheese. But like any ritual, it should not take place at any time, under penalty of correction. Through flight, we want to encourage the Spartan’s spirit of watchman and hunter.

But this collective life also conceals fierce “competition” between young people. Everyone aspires to become the best soldier and why not become one of the three hippagretes, leaders of the royal guard made up of three hundred hippeis. Xenophon again, on the subject of this internal competition, specifies that “because of their rivalry, they play fists wherever they meet”. But the clashes are also part of the agôgè and follow a very precise rule, where each citizen has the right to separate the combatants.

In addition to the ties between the paidés, relationships are forged with older Spartans. We then witness what could be called “educational pederasty”. Even if philosophers like Plutarch or Elien assure that sexual relations with young boys were punishable by exile or even death, other texts suggest that this type of relation was not only practiced but admitted in Sparta. Moreover Plato condemns in the Laws “the love against nature” practiced in Sparta. In any case, these pederastic relationships played a major educational role within the agôgè because they encouraged the substitution of the parental model and favored rapprochements as well as mutual aid.

Sparta and Athens, two comparable cities

Athens and Sparta are two city states in which political rights are strictly and completely reserved for male individuals who are no longer children in the eyes of the law. A child in ancient Greece had no legal rights. These are two States which have in common the total exclusion of the majority of the individuals living in the territory, and not only of the metics or slaves. Since archaic times, women have been excluded. We know thanks to the discovery of several political decrees, that a woman was rich enough to pay for the construction or repair of certain public buildings, in particular the Bouleuterion which was the main building (2nd century BC).

However, the woman will never sit there. One of the main intrinsic characteristics of all Greek cities is the exclusion of women from the political domain throughout Antiquity. Children are considered at birth as non-citizens who must go through stages, with a number of years that can vary depending on the city (18-20 years in Athens and Sparta). This age is a legacy of antiquity, which is obvious today. The exclusion of foreigners is total, from all political rights, whether in Athens or Sparta, as well for national political life (boulè, ekklésia) than local (at the level of the demes, the markdowns are local magistrates).

Women of Sparta

In these two cities, citizenship and its corollary (total absolute freedom) is reserved for a very small minority, those who defend the city. This male privilege is therefore reserved for those who fight. But women never go to war. In Athens, the metics are excluded from the heavy infantry (elite corps of hoplites, 10,000 in Athens in the 5th century, for 30,000 citizens). Light infantry fighters are peltasts, metics take part in them. They are almost as numerous as the citizens.

Discrimination between men and women extends widely in the legal field, in what today would be called criminal law or civil law. The main inequality concerns ownership. In Athenian law, a woman never owns anything. She is only the intermediary, the link that transmits part of her father’s fortune to his boys. She is only the custodian of this strictly masculine heritage, hence the creation of a particular legal category of epiclere daughters. A situation essentially similar to Sparta (where the epiclera girls correspond to the patrouchoi girls). From the legal point of view, in Athens as in Sparta, the girl is an eternal minor. With a slight nuance…

We know that in certain Dorian countries, in Crete, women benefited from a somewhat different situation. We know this thanks to the discovery of the Gortyn code: a code of law discovered by archaeologists, in an archaic alphabet. This Gortyn code dating at least from the 5th century BC tells us about the legal status of women. In this Dorian city (Gortyne), the woman must inherit half of the property compared to her brother.

Most historians think that this law guaranteed the financial security of the daughter, by preventing the father from despoiling them in relation to their dowry, without however comparing the status of major to them. Others, less numerous, think that women are no longer minors in this city. Apart from this nuance brought by the code of Gortyn, women are eternal minors on the political and legal point.

Spartan Citizenship

To be a Spartan, one must be a legitimate son. Citizenship in Athens, as in Sparta, is based on the right of blood. You have to be a grown man and have the right parents. The father and the mother, genetically, have an indigenous ancestry (genos). No Greek city was governed by jus soli. Lysias is a metic given to Athens who lived around 400 BC, and who had the profession of a logographer (modern lawyer). He devoted much of his fortune inherited from his father, to defend Athenian democracy. His money helped finance the rebellion against the regime of the Thirty. As a reward, a decree gave him citizenship before being quashed for a formality. In Athens as in Sparta, the right of blood is undoubtedly the result of a recent evolution, that is to say of

When Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 508/7, the opponents of the regime reproached him for having made many foreigners domiciled in Athens citizens en masse. It was still possible, it seems, to naturalize domiciled foreigners, echoing an old jus soli. In 451, the Athenian Assembly votes, on the initiative of Pericles, an extremely important law: only children whose father is Athenian and whose mother is a citizen will be citizens. This law is accompanied by the mass radiation of several thousand Athenian citizens whose mother was not of Athenian origin. According to some sources, this law would therefore have been retroactive.

Presumably, we can see there the evolution of mentalities and the withdrawal of a civic body into itself. Citizenship becomes a privilege to be defended. From the 5th century BC, the Greek city was no longer intended to expand, citizenship must remain in the hands of a minority. It is the opposite evolution in Roman history, where Rome absorbs the neighboring cities.

Society and politics

From the political point of view, one notes in the two cities the absence of political caste between the citizens. The function of magistrate is never hereditary, except for kings. It is the disappearance of the dynastic principle. No religious caste either, that is to say that will be priests (with some exceptions) only citizens drawn by lot or, it seems, elected in Sparta. The subject is quite controversial. This egalitarianism contrasts with Egypt, India and the Near East of that time. There is also a deep distrust of leaders. The offices, in the two cities (except the gerontes and the kings), are annual.

This is the case for all the Athenian magistracies, it is the case for the main magistracy of the Spartan state (the ephors). This distrust of the magistrates is accompanied by their possible application: trials are being held against the magistrates in the two cities. In Sparta, the magistrates control each other, but the principle is the same: the magistrate is not all-powerful. We are the opposite of what medieval and modern monarchies will be. This distrust of leaders is not the prerogative of democracy: Sparta is an oligarchy. It was born with the oligarchies, when Homeric kings were replaced by aristocratic councils in which families shared power.

Accompanied by a bursting and a balance of powers (rise in power of the ephors). Pausanias writes a pamphlet on the rise to power of the ephors. In these two cities, the assembly of the people possessed considerable powers during the classical archaic period and the Hellenistic period: declarations of war or ratification of peace, and voting on laws directly, as well as the election of the principal magistrates. From this point of view, Athens, like Sparta, are democracies, like most Greek cities.

The emergence of Sparta on the Greek scene

The first conflicts of Sparta opposed it to Messenia (province in the south-west of the Peloponnese) and to Argos (city located in the north-east). The Messinian War ended around 668 BC. AD by the rout of the Dorians of Messenia, most of whom were reduced to the status of helots. During the wars against the descendants of the Achaeans and against the Dorians of Argos, the Spartans were very often victorious, mainly against the Achaean league.

Sparta asserts itself more and more on the Greek scene. It defends its interests by supporting oligarchic regimes favorable to the city and by forging alliances with neighboring cities. The consolidation of its power and the neutralization of potential threats are the keys to its less conquering diplomacy. However, thanks to its military power, it appears more and more as a recourse and a defender of Greek interests. The Peloponnesian league established around 525 is a manifestation of this foreign policy.

At the turn of the 6th century, Cleomenes I (520-488) had a more ambitious foreign policy. Sparta intervenes more willingly outside the Peloponnese as in Athens to try to restore the Pisistratids but also in Aegina because its inhabitants had accepted Persian domination. This last expedition proves to be a failure and leads to the fall of Cleomenes I. But troubles inside the Peloponnese led by Messenians, Arcadians and Argives persist. Sparta crushes Argos in 494.

However, troubles in Messenia persist until the 460s. However, Sparta, aware of the limits of its power, refuses distant expeditions. After the refusal of previous requests for help from Plataea in 579 or from Samos in 516 against an external enemy, Sparta agreed to help Athens in 490 in the first Persian war, although it could not intervene militarily.

Peloponnesian War and the fall of Sparta

Raised in an austere discipline, the Spartans became a race of fierce and ascetic warriors, able to sacrifice themselves for patriotism, as shown by the three hundred heroes who died at Thermopylae during the Persian Wars, but unable to adopt a sensible political and economic program. The Peloponnesian War which broke out in 431 BC. BC brought the rivalry between Sparta and Athens to its climax. For more than two decades, the Spartan army will face the formidable Athenian thalassocracy.

After the defeat of Athens in 404 BC. J.-C., Sparta dominated Greece. But his inflexibility led to a new war in which Sparta was defeated by the Thebans commanded by Epaminondas (371 BC). The city is stripped of its power and its territorial possessions, and brought back to its original borders. Subsequently, Sparta became part of the Roman province of Achaia and appears to have become prosperous again in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. The city itself was destroyed by the Goths commanded by Alaric I in 336 AD. J.-C.

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