Sparta: Powerful Ancient Greek City-state

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Sparta, one of Ancient Greece's most famous settlements, was formed initially from the coming together of four villages in what was then a territory called Laconia, in the Eurotas valley.

The city-state thrived on the banks of the Eurotas River. To the west was Mt. Taygetus; the east was Mr. Parnon. Much of the remainder of the surrounding area was hilly, giving Sparta a geographic advantage that it never surrendered. According to many historians, Sparta itself was never conquered. Sparta was, technically, land-locked, although it had a harbor on the Laconian Gulf, Gytheio.

In ancient times, the city-state was known as Lacedaemon; indeed, the famed works of Herodotus and Thucydides referred to the Spartans as Lacedaemonians. In Greek mythology, Lacedaemon (one of many sons of Zeus) was king of a country that he named after himself and his wife was named Sparta.

Laconice was a term used to refer to the overall region surrounding the city-state and, especially, the lands under Spartan control.

Spartan women had high status, high visibility, and high amounts of learnings. Unlike women in other city-states, Spartan women knew how to read and write and were good with numbers. This augmented their status as property owners; many women shared ownership of property with their husbands or owned property outright. Divorce allows treated men and women equally in terms of inheritances and property division.

Spartan soldiers

The Spartan legacy is one of military prowess and discipline, but the city-state was also one of culture: remains of finely crafted pottery and ivory sculptures pay testament to this. Some Spartan poetry survives, in mostly fragmentary form; known Spartan poets were Alcman and Tyrtaeus.

Like any other Greek city-state, Sparta had more than barracks. Archaeological digs have turned up remains of temples (including votive offerings), an acropolis, a theatre, and other trappings of a highly advanced civilization.

The Spartan city-state was largely an oligarchy, with powerful families ruling the roost on behalf of the king(s). From an initial one king, the Spartan monarchy evolved into a dual kingship.

The political system included:

  • a board of ephors, who served a one-year term and decided civil and criminal cases
  • a council of elders, the members of which were older than 60 and served for life, serving generally to advise the kings of matters of state policy
  • the general assembly, made up of all citizens of the city-state.

The rule of law was a powerful tradition in Sparta. Many sources say that a man named Lycurgus was instrumental in creating many of the city-state's earliest legal traditions.

Citizens had the highest amount of freedom, rights, and privileges under the laws. A citizen had the right to a fair trial and to become a member of the Assembly and to become a judge. Some sources say that citizenship was dependent on proof of descent from a settler, a sort of genetic prerequisite; an exception could be made if a non-descendant was adopted by a descendant. Regardless of their ancestry, citizens had to have completed the agōgē, the military education process for which Sparta is so well known.

Another class of Spartan were the periokoi. They did not have full citizen rights, but they also were not enslaved. They existed politically in between citizens and slaves.

The road to Sparta's military prowess and disciplinedominance as a military power began with the conquest of Messenia, a land west of Sparta. Spartan soldiers won a hard-fought victory and then subjugated the Messenians, making them into helots, or slaves. This act of conquering is generally thought to have taken place by the beginning of the 7th Century B.C.

One important consequence of this enslavement of the Messenian peoples was that it brought back into the Spartan society a large labor force; this essentially freed up Spartan adults, males specifically, to pursue more and more military pursuits.

The helot population has long been regarded as several times larger than the Spartan population, and the history of Sparta is punctuated with more than one helot revolt. One particularly violent revolt followed in the wake of a series of powerful earthquakes, in 465 B.C. and 464 B.C. An alarmed Spartan government called for help from other city-states but made a point of refusing help from Athens, its arch-rival.

Helots worked the land and performed other menial roles. Some helots served as serfs in service to soldiers on campaign. One prime example of this was the very large number of helots who accompanied the Spartan force to the triumphal battle of Plataea, which effectively ended the Greco-Persian Wars in 479 B.C.

Helots could not vote but could have families and own property; some sources say that some helots were allowed to keep up to half of the fruits of their labor. In time, it was possible for helots to buy their freedom, as evidenced by one well-known example that occurred in 227 B.C., in which 6,000 slaves paid their way out of slavery.

Spartans still treated helots cruelly, however. One particular example of this was the annual tradition of ephors, on taking office, declaring war on helots and promising not to punish anyone who killed them. Young soldiers were also given this opportunity on a more regular basis, as part of a secret police force known as the Crypteia.

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