Ancient Greek City States: Sparta

Figure 1.--French painter Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738-1828) painted this work, 'Femme spartiate donnant un bouclier à son fils' (Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son)bin 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Spartan mothers gave the shields to their sons, sending them off to war, and wxpecting them to be brave.

There were many similarities between Greek city states. Sparta was, however, organized much different than the other important Greek city states. Sparta as a society is roundly criticized by most historical studies. This is in part because Greek history largely comes to us from the Athenians. Left unsaid is the fact that Athens like other Greek states had economies that were supported by large slave populations. Sparta and Athens do, however, represent two diametrically opposed concepts of the Greek city state. The two societies had virtually opposite concepts of the individual's relationship to the state, a dichotomy that was fundamental to the struggles of the 20th century. Sparta was the largest of the city states in area, controlling almost all of the Peloponessian peninsula. While there were relatively few citizens, the Spartan state controlled a substantial population. It was militarily important because of its social structure. The Spartan military ruled over a small middle class and large population of workers or hellots--virtualy slaves tied to the land of the military elite and state. No marvelous works of art or architecture came out of Sparta, but Spartan military force was regarded as terrifying.



Life Style

Spartans avoided luxury and individual embellishment. They believed in a disciplines life of self-denial and simplicity. Spartans, male or female, were required to lead a life style designed to develop perfect bodies. The life of Spartans depended on his social status. Citizen soldiers were organized into brotherhoods or fraternal orders. Here they ate, slept in baracks, and continued to train. Even when they married, they did not live with their wives and children. Only at age 60 could Spartan soldiers retire and live at home with their family.

Social Structure

Spartan society ws divided into three principal social classes. The state was controlled by the "Spartiate" or native Spartans. These were families who could trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants. These were the families from whom Sparta's citizen-soldiers were drawn. They enjoyed full political and legal rights. Under the Spartiates were the "perioeci", meaning "dwellers around or about." These were foreign people or Spartiate that had not achieved the physical and military tests admitting him to full citizenship. The perioeci were a kind of buffer between the Spartans and the helots. They performed many essential functions that would have been dangerous to entrust to the helots. Because of their important Role in the Spartan state, they were given substantial freedom and conducted conducted the commercial life of Sparta. They could acquire property and lead decent lives. The Spartan state was base on the control of the large laboring class--the helots. The helots were not citizens and could not own land, but they provided the work force on which all productive activity was based.


Spartan soldiers would come to the homes of babies born to citizens. They were to make sure they were without defect and healthy. Babies who were deformed or unhealthy were taken away and exposed to the elements to die. Others might be raised as left to die on a hillside, or taken away to become non-citizen laborers called helots--virtual slaves. Exposing unhealthy babies was not uncommon in Greece, but it was a decision made by the child's parents. In Sparta it was a decision made by the state. Healthy babies were left with the mother, but assigned to a brotherhood or sisterhood, normally the same one to which the baby's father or mother belonged.


The most important outlyer in ancient Greece was Sparta which developed a very different education system. The goal of education in Sparta was to produce superbly conditioned and trained soldier-citizens. The emphasize on philosophy and the arts which was a major part of education in other Greek city states were not a major part of Spartan education. The education system for boys abd girls was very different. The focus was on the boys and the system was more one of traiuning than educating. Interestingly, the Sparans gave more attention to educating girls than any other Greek state. Children were trained to be members of a well-drilled, strictly-disciplined army capable of long, rapid forced marches. Girls were educated separately with a completely different program. Spartan boys left home at an early age. The lived and studied in severely disciplined groups and closely supervised by officers. Their education and training continued until age 18. The program was designed for boys at each age level and made increasingly strenuous physical demands. The boys of Sparta were obliged to leave home at the age of 7 to join sternly disciplined groups under the supervision of a hierarchy of officers. From age 7 to 18, they underwent an increasingly severe course of training. Sparta also had a very distinctive training program for girls. In fact, sharp contrast to other city states, Sparta provided training for girls and not just training in domestic skills a home. The girls at age 6-7 also began school. As for the boys, it was not an academic program. They received strenuous physical training, including running, jumping, throwing the javelin and discus, and wrestling as well as gymnastics. Much less is known about how the girls were trained. Apparently they lived, slept and trained in their sisterhood's barracks. No one knows for sure if the girls were subjected to as harsh a program as the boys.

Gymnopaedia Festival

Several ancients texts describe the Spartan Gymnopaedia festival. The descriptions vary. The different references vary which could reflect varing levels of accuracy or changes to the festival over time. That the e Gymnopaedia was an important annual Spartan festival is clear. Just what transpired at the festival is less certain. The festival involved dances, sports, and other events. In later years, the dance seems particularly important. The festival was staged in the summer when the weather for outddor sports and dances was propitious. The festival was dedicated to the gods. Most sources mention Apollo, but other gods are also mentioned. We know that the tradition extendds well back in antiquity. The Spartans honored their defeat by Argos at Hysiai (about 668 BC). The purpose was to appease thegods anf thus avoild another such defeat. No less a person than Plato in Athens praised the Spartan gymnopaedia explaining that the exercises and performances were an effective educational medium. The Spartans saw benefuit to exercising in the summer heat. The athletic events and dancing staged in the summer heat combined musical grace and warrior stamina, seen as a useful comnination. Ther was a military look to the dancing. It is not entirely cleared just where and for whom the rvents were staged. Nor is the nature of the events entirely clear. Here one can look at the general patten for such traditiions in ancient Greece. Sports and sports festival throughout Greece were normally reserved for men and boys. They were gymnos, meaning naked. This explains the name of the Spartan festival. Men and boys were normally the spectators at these public events. Sparta was different than the rest if Greece. Several sources report that Spartan girls and women exercised publicly in the nude. Just wjho the spectayors were is less clear. But modern authors suggest that the Spartan Gymnopaedia festival included women. Two separate festivals seem unlikely. So there may have well beem mixed events, most likely separate performances of male and female youth. The girls could thus demonstrarte their health and strength and this suirabikity for marriage and child birth. Other authors suggested that the Gymnopaedia was a way of promoting marriage, a serious concern in Sparta which would experience population decline. This was a serious problen in a military state. It should not be assumed that the sports were Olympic like events, They may have been more ceremonial than competitive.

Military Life

Spartan boys at age 18 became military cadets. It was here that military training became more intense. The age of 18 was a critical time in the life of Spartan boys. At age 18 they became military cadets. It was here that military training became more intense. Cadets at age 20 joined the state militia. This was a standing reserve available at a moment's notice when ever needed. Spartan youths between the age of 18-20, had to take a demanding test to assess their physical fitness, military skills, and leadership abilities. Youths who did not pass these examinations became "perioikos". The perioikos was the Spartan middle class. They could own property and conduct business dealings. They were not, however, allowed to participate in politics and were not considered to be citizens. Youths that passed the examination became full citizens and soldiers. Cadets passing their tests at age 20 joined the state militia. This was a standing reserve available at a moment's notice when ever needed. They lived in barracks, even if married. Each Spartan citizen-soldier was granted land, which he may have never visited. Here historians are unsure. The land of course was actually worked by helots. At age 30 a Spartan soldier became an "equal." He was then allowed to live in his own house with his own family. Spartans continued to serve in the military until age 60. Atvthe time of course, that was well beyondcthe average life span.


Sparta like many of the Greek city states appeared in the 9th century BC at the end of the Greek Dark Ages. Sparta was at first similar to other Greek city states, governed by a monarchy and small aristocracy. Spartan leaders found that they did not have sufficient fertile land to sustain their rapidly growing population. The solution was to invade neighboring Messenia. A 20-year war ensued in which the Spartans emerged victorious. Eventually the Spartans by the 7th century BC found themselves in control of a Messenian population that outnumbered them 10 to 1. A Messenian revolt supported by Argos almost destroyed Sparta in 640 BC. The Spartans turned the Messenian population into an hereditary class of agricultural laborers which were called Helots. The Spartan military state largely developed its distinctive character as way of maintaining control over the large Helot class that was tied to the land like medieval serfs. The helots lived miserable lives. They were totally controlled by the Spartiate. One day was set aside in which helots who proved troublesome could be legally killed. The helots worked small plots of land on estates owned by Spartans. Much of their production went to the master of the estate. What was left was kept by the helot farmer. They labored incessantly for little reward. The helots survived at the level of mere subsistence.

Foreign Relations

While the Spartiate dominated the helots, they lived in constant fear of the large helot population. Their anxieties were transferred to their neighbors, sometime with good reason. Neighboring states were concerned that they would meet the same fate as the Messenians. Sparta in the 6th century BC conquered neighboring Tegea. The Spartans, however, decided to peruse a policy, perhaps fearful of the danger of enlarging the helot population even more. Rather than annex Tegea, they negotiated an alliance under which Tegea would remain independent, but follow Spartan foreign policy, including war and military operations. Tegea committed to providing a fixed number of soldiers and arms. Sparta negotiated similar arrangements with other neighboring city states and came to control the Peloponnesus and rivaled the military power of Athens.

Sparta and Athens

Sparta and Athens do, however, represent two diametrically opposed concepts of the Greek city state. The two societies had virtually opposite concepts of the individual's relationship to the state, a dichotomy that was fundamental to the struggles of the 20th century.

Historical Assessments

The Spartans have been roundly castigated by most modern historians, disturbed by both the suppression of the Helots and the lack of freedom even for Spartan citizens--an early totalitarian society. This is also an artifact that Greek history largely comes to us from the Athenians. Left unsaid is the fact that Athens like other Greek states had economies that were supported by large slave populations. The Spartans are, however, not without their defenders, both contemporary and modern. The Spartans have been lionized for their discipline and commitment to a simple life style devoted to service of the state. Both Plato and Plutarch were impressed by the Spartan constitution. Surprisingly many 18th century scholars lionized the Spartans. Many of the American founding fathers were students of classical history and the political thought of Greek and Roman (especially Cicero) scholars. What may surprise some modern Americans is that many of the founding fathers saw Sparta and not Athens a the ideal. Many thought the unlimited direct democracy of Athens as dangerous. Rather Sparta with its Constitutional checks and balances aristocratic elite to limit the democracy was seen as the ideal for AMerica. Of course the Spartan control over the laboring Helots was view on sympathetically by Southern slave holders. The Spartans were also a favorite of the NAZIs in the 20th century.

NAZI Plans for the Occupied East

The German conquest of Western Europe during World War II occurred so rapidly that a well prepared and coordinated program did not exist on how to administer the occupied East. While there was considerable agreement in some areas such as the need to Germanize the East, there were differences as to how to this should achieved. There were elements in the SS who looked upon the Spartan city state of ancient Greece as to how the East should be administered.

Western Military Discipline

One of the salient features of the Spartan city state was a disciplined military force. This has been a hallmark of Western society and position in the modern world, including Alexander, Rome, and the imperialist expansion beginning in the 16th century. There have many many examples of this, beginning with the Spanish conquistadores. After Spanish power waned, French expansion beginning with Louis XIV through Napoleon dominated Europe. The NAZI German success at the onset of World War II is a further example.


Padfield, Peter. Himmler: Reichsführer-SS (Henry Holt: New York, 1991), 656p.

Sealey, Raphael. History of the Greek City States (University of California Press, 1977).


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Created: September 17, 2002
Spell checked: February 16, 2004
Last updated: 5:08 AM 3/18/2011