Rise of Sparta

By Archdruid

Of all the cultures in the ancient world, few have had anywhere near the impact on western society that Greece has. Thanks in part to the Hellenistic era and in part to the wholehearted adoption of Greek culture by the Romans, the tiny, mountainous country that is Greece has left us with an enormous amount of cultural debt. Even more astounding than this accomplishment, however, is that it occurred even though Greece itself was rarely a unified state. Until Philip of Macedon, Greece was a collection of mostly independent city-states; almost every Greek polis had its own vibrant culture and 'personality', but among these, two stand out above all the others. Athens was the cultural center of Greece. We have innumerable records of the accomplishments of both Athens as a city and Athenians as individuals, and even two thousand years later the great building projects of Athens are a sight to behold. Sparta, the greatest military power in Greece, could not be more different from Athens, and yet stories of the Spartans remain a part of western civilization's collective psyche. Sparta in fact stands in stark contrast to almost every other city of Greece - unlike Athens, Corinth or even Thebes, Sparta produced little to no artwork and left behind very little except its reputation. This is a reputation, however, which has provided us with innumerable interpretations and representations of Spartans in popular culture, and the Spartan name has come to symbolize a number of very different things. When describing a person the term typically refers to their sense of discipline or bravery and is most often used as praise. Conversely, when describing a place the term 'Spartan' implies simplicity and a lack of amenities. Who were these brave warriors, and why did they leave so little behind? This essay will examine Sparta's development as the foremost military power in Greece, primarily by looking at Sparta's development and consolidation of power within the Peloponnesus and Sparta's system of government.

The early history of Sparta is clouded in mystery. Tradition defines the Sparta of Homer's Iliad as Mycenaean in origin, and the classical era Sparta as Dorian. This is often explained by the theory of the Dorian invasion, but like any theory, this can potentially be argued by those with alternative explanations. Further dividing ancient and classical Sparta is that circa 1200 BC all structures in the city were apparently burned to the ground. Whether or not the two were connected, the fact remains that the Sparta of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars was descended from the latter, and it is thus the latter on which this essay will focus.

Classical Sparta was descended from a collection of four villages: Cynosura, Mesoa, Limnae, and Pitana. To these a fifth - Amyclae - was added, and it is these five villages which subdued the entire Eurotas valley by 735 BC. It was not long after this, sometime amidst the eighth and seventh centuries BC, that Sparta conquered and effectively enslaved the Messenians. While the precise events of the conquest are largely unknown to us, it is clear that Sparta won, and the Messenians went on to form the helot class of Spartan society until approximately 370/369 BC. The helots were not technically slaves, but regardless of their technical status still they were used in a very similar role, providing all the lowest services in Sparta. Simultaneously, the Spartans created an elaborate ancestry for themselves, and took on the name 'Heraclids'. In so doing, they implied that they were descended from Hercules himself; thereby laying claim to much of Greece, regarding it as their entitlement. With Sparta expanding its influence, claiming ancestral connections entitling itself to most of Greece, and having proven itself capable of such cruelty as condemning an entire population to become helots, it is unsurprising that conflict would arise with other nearby poleis, some of which were in fact older and more established than Sparta itself. Foremost among these was Argos, and Pausanias tells us of a great Argive victory over the Spartans at Hysiae. While the veracity of Pausanias' record has been challenged and no other ancient author records the battle, the fact remains that whether or not Sparta and Argos engaged in military conflict this early, the possibility was always there. Intense and constant competition with a rival such as Argos would inevitably have an effect on the development of Spartan character, and may in part explain Sparta's development of such a militaristic society. In addition to competition with Argos, Sparta's treatment of the helots gave them another reason to develop in a militaristic fashion. Either shortly before or shortly after Hysiae, Sparta suffered from a revolt by the helots, resulting in the Second Messenian War. In fact, the helots would repeatedly prove themselves ready to revolt at a moment's notice, and Sparta's development as a military state may have had as much to do keeping the helots in line as it did with any external competition.

According to Thucydides, the Lacedaemonians 'obtained good laws at an earlier period than any other'. The reforms resulting in the Spartan government were significant, and are attributed by Plutarch to an individual known as Lycurgus. Lycurgus may or may not have existed - Plutarch suspected there were multiple men of the same name and similar goals, while some modern scholars have suggested Lycurgus may simply have been a Spartan creation based on Apollo. The precise date of the Lycurgan reforms is questioned, but generally regarded to be somewhere shortly after the conquest of the helots. Regardless of Lycurgus' actual nature, the reforms attributed to him were without a doubt the most important aspect of Sparta's rise to prominence. The reforms credited to Lycurgus are contained in a series of rhêtrai, literally sayings or pronouncements, and the first of these reforms was the creation of the Spartan Senate. Known as the Gerousia, the Spartan Senate contained thirty members, including the dual kings. The members of the Gerousia were invariably over the age of sixty, and held office for life, being elected by the damos, or Assembly - in this case free adult male Spartans, hardly representative of the population as a whole. The Gerousia held the real power within Sparta; it served as the ultimate authority on what was lawful or not, and was able to not only overturn decisions of the damos, but to try and condemned even the kings. Alongside the Kings and the Gerousia was the council of Ephors, which Herodotus tells us was also created by Lycurgus. There were 5 Ephors on the council, and they were elected annually; their purpose was to serve as a check against kings who might act inappropriately. Each month there was an oath-swearing between the Ephors and the Kings - on the part of the Kings, to uphold and obey the law, and on the part of the Ephors to support the king as long as he did this. Additionally, whenever a Spartan King went to war, two of the five Ephors went with him and were responsible for laying charges against him for any inappropriate conduct; the King would then be tried and sentenced by the Gerousia.

The Lycurgan reforms were not, however, limited to the political sphere - they were also responsible for establishing the way of life the Spartans were to adhere to for centuries to come, and it is in the societal arena that the Lycurgan reforms resulted in Sparta developing a truly unique culture. Spartan boys spent only seven years being brought up at home; once this time had elapsed they were organized into groups and assigned to the care of other Spartans only recently come to their own manhood. At the age of twelve each Spartan boy was expected to become close with an older male, who took on the role of mentor and lover. Until the age of eighteen it was the older male lover who was responsible for the success or failure of his 'pupil', at which point the elite of the youths would be divided into separate groups again depending upon their future. The entire process prior to the age of eighteen is referred to as the Agoge, or raising. The best of the eighteen year olds would be assigned to the Crypteia, a sort of secret police who focused particularly on the helots, often killing the most troublesome of them. Spartan women on the other hand lived with their mothers until marriage, were publicly educated in what was possibly a similar environment to the Agoge, and participated in athletic sports. The latter two aspects of a woman's life were unique to Sparta; no other Greek city and indeed few other ancient cultures provided for women in such a manner.

While Sparta's internal government was being reshaped, its competition with other poleis only increased. Not only had Sparta become a local power, but it soon began to flex its muscles in other territories - Herodotus tells of the Spartan plans to attack Arcadia and efforts to conquer Tegea, initially being defeated but eventually gaining the upper hand. Shortly after this, Sparta fought a battle with Argos in which each side produced 300 of their best soldiers, who then fought an indecisive engagement. After the battle, the Spartans and Argives met to determine the victor, but the only result was another battle which the Spartans won decisively. The motivation for these battles appears to be Argos wishing to regain some territory it had lost to Sparta, which would seem to indicate that Sparta had become the foremost power in the Peloponnesus by this time, and on several occasions Sparta ventured out of the Peloponnesus to effect a change of government within other Greek states, but the peak of Spartan power was not to come until it had formed the Peloponnesian League. The Peloponnesian League was not a league in the strictest sense; it consisted not of a series poleis allied to one another, but of Sparta and the poleis with which it had formed individual alliances of varying terms and conditions. In addition, it was not truly Peloponnesian - it contained several cities from outside the Peloponnesus, and some of those inside were not members (such as Argos). Despite the absence of Argos, the Peloponnesian League managed to establish itself as a power both within the Peloponnesus and without. Corinth was the most powerful member, second only to Sparta, and an early indication of their combined strength was their success in ousting Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos. Polycrates had allied himself with the newly arisen Persian Empire in Asia Minor, and the Persians had in turn defeated and destroyed the Kingdom of Lydia, a Spartan ally.

It was with the establishment of the Peloponnesian League that Sparta truly came into it's own as a power throughout Greece. Motivated by the constant threat of war with their neighbors, the Spartans established a society dedicated to survival and victory on the battlefield. Spartan society, however, was inherently contradictory. By turning the Messenians into helots, the Spartans both enabled and required themselves to develop such a militaristic culture merely in order to keep their servants in line. It is perhaps indicative of this dependency that after the emancipation of the Messenians in 370/369 BC, Sparta's power was largely broken, never to rule again. Despite this inherent contradiction in their society, the Spartans left behind a reputation of severity and near-invincibility with which nothing before or since can truly compare. While other cities of Greece shine forth for their artistic, philosophical, and architectural achievements, Sparta is known only for the fear and respect they inspired throughout the Mediterranean world, and in its own way Sparta has had as much impact on modern society as any other city in history.


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