Sparta maintains a certain place in our modern psyche as a culture so alien to us that it fascinates throughout the ages. Sparta of c700-371 was a state based upon the principles of military excellence and perfection, dependent upon a system of slave labour and alliance systems in which the aim was to avoid war to ensure survival. By building such a dominant and fearful force, Sparta was often able to avoid conflict. Her system of governance and culture still fascinate and surprise people today, so it is only right that we have a discussion here about the Spartan system.
My main source that I will be using is Xenophon’s Politeia of the Spartans, translated by J. M. Moore (1975).
Sparta was a city situated in the Peloponnese of Greece, the most southern part of the Greek peninsular. As you can see from the map below, Sparta is situated in the South-Eastern Peloponnese, in Laconia.
Over the eighth-century BCE, she fought a series of wars with Messenia, her westerly neighbour, and by the end of the century had subdued them, making them helots, or Greek slaves. The Spartan enslavement of fellow Greeks was a peculiarity in Ancient Greece, and something you weren’t seen to properly do. The enslavement of the Messenian helots allowed the Spartans to create a system of life in which the pursuit of military dominance was paramount.
As they possessed vast amounts of Helots who could till the land, Spatran Males were able to concentrate solely on the business of military training. The life of a Spartiate warrior began with the checking of a new born to see if there were any deformities or frailties in the child, and would be discarded if so. At the age of 7, a Spartiate boy citizen would be taken from his family and put through the Agoge system. This system would toughen up the boy, seeing him enter a world where his skills of combat, education and socialising would be directed by the state. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, young men would be placed into a communal system, where bonds would develop under the supervision of elder young Spartiates. Each young Spartiate would be put under the guidance of an older male system, and some argue that this took on a form of sexual nature. At the age of eighteen, the Spartiate, if successful, would be admitted to a mess hall in which all provided equal amounts of food. These men would eat, sleep and live together until the age of 30, creating a strong bond.
Sparta never possessed a large army, perhaps numbering at its height roughly 10000 citizen soldiers. Their image as a strong military power meant that they rarely fought, and they felt the need to not have a city wall as they believed the men provided the wall of the city. In order to call upon greater numbers of men, the Spartans would call upon the Perioikoi, Lakonians who were not full Spartiates but were freemen, or upon their Peloponnesian League allies.
Sparta became the dominant Land based power, and took the leadership of the Greek cities during the Persian Wars of 480/79 BCE, whilst Athens provided the leadership of the navy under a Spartan general. After a failed undertaking in the Ionian Greek part of Anatolia, Sparta recalled her general Pausanias, and took no further part in the war against Persia. In the meantime, the Athenians took over from the void left by the Spartan withdrawal, forming the Delian League in 478 and continuing to attack Persian landholdings in Anatolia.
J.M.Moore, ‘Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy’, (L.A; University of California Press, 1975)
Terry Buckley, ‘Aspects of Greek History 750-323BC: a source based approach’, (London; Routledge, 1996)
Paul Cartledge, ‘The Spartans: An Epic History’, (N.Y; The Overlook Press, 2003)
Philip de Souza, ‘The Peloponnesian War 431-404BC’, (Oxford; Osprey Publishing, 2002)