Sparta – origins

How Sparta became spartan

At the time of the Trojan War at the end of the Bronze Age, Sparta was already one of the leading towns in Greece. Helen, the actual cause of the Trojan War came from Sparta, where she was the wife of the king, Menelaus. Indeed Sparta lies in one of the few fertile valleys in the southern part of Greece known as the Peloponnese, and thus was inevitably always the site of a major settlement. (Click here for more on Mycenean Sparta)

However crucial change came in the eighth and seventh centuries BC when Sparta conquered its neighbour Messene which occupies the other major fertile valley on the western side of the Peloponnese separated from Sparta by the fierce mountain ranges of Taygetus. The Messenians were turned into an underclass called Helots, and in order to keep them subjugated, Sparta had to turn itself into a military state where the subjugation of the Helots became the prime object of life.

At first the results of the conquest were beneficial, and Sparta came to the forefront of the developments of archaic Greek society, and poets such as Tyrtaeus and Alcman were among the leading poets of archaic Greece. The artistic merits of archaic Sparta were only recognised in the early decades of the 20th century with the excavations by the British School of the shrine of Artemis Orthia. This was one of the oldest shrines in Sparta, rather remote from the rest of ancient Sparta, on the other side of the modern town from the Acropolis, down by the river. The temple was extensively altered by the Romans, but underlying the Roman alterations were found a huge number of votive offerings of the archaic period — terracotta masks, carved ivories, and above all, little lead figurines, which were found by the thousand. These are the offerings of ordinary pilgrims and tend to be somewhat crude, but nevertheless they are very lively. They caused a revelation, showing that Sparta at this time was artistically the equal of the other states of the emerging Greek civilisation. (Click here for Artemis Orthia

Two of the lead plaques found at the temple of Artemis Orthia, which first demonstrated the quality of early Spartan metalworking. Left is a musician(?), right a gorgon

However at the end of the sixth century, suddenly all the artistic produce ceases, its pottery becomes totally utilitarian, bronzes are no longer exported, and buildings were so utilitarian that none have survived. The Spartans apparently still continued to live in five villages scattered throughout the area of modern Sparta — there was no town centre. As Thucydides said perceptively, if a future generation were to visit Sparta, they would not believe that it was once the most powerful state in all of Greece. 

What happened to cause these changes? I believe that one of the least recognized aspects of the new constitution is that the Spartans rejected money. This was the time at the end of the sixth century, when the other states in Greece were suddenly adopting this strange new thing called money, and the strange and rather upsetting new economics that went with it. The Spartans were suspicious. This money-thing was very troubling. Their whole society had been set up to keep the Helots, the conquered Messenians, under control. Theirs was a very warlike, very structured society, and this money thing threatened to bring in a new flexibility which was very unsettling.

The trouble with money is that it brings choice. Under the  Spartan system, every Spartan was required to contribute to the mess a given amount of food acquired from his Helot: a medimnos of barley-meal every month, eight choes of wine, five minas of cheese, and half a mina of figs: Plutarch gives the exact amount, though we do not quite know what the measures mean.

Money does not come into this – the amounts are given by measures. However if money were to be introduced, he could go out and buy extra food for himself. He could also use the money to improve his home and perhaps find his home more comfortable than the communal mess. And above all, money always threatens to introduce the ‘middle-classes’ — small farmers, millers, and bakers, specialists who can live off their wits without being beholden to the state and therefore very suspect to those who wanted to introduce equality. And without perhaps putting it into so many words, the Spartans may well have sensed all this, and were suspicious.

I believe that there must have been a formal meeting in the Spartan assembly at which a debate took place and they formally decided not to use money. All the writers agree that Sparta rejected money — indeed there is no Spartan money, not until the third century — and the Greek writers accept that this was an important part of the constitution. However the corollary of this is that the money could not be rejected before money was invented, and therefore this could not have happened before around 525, the middle of the last half of the sixth century, when money reached mainland Greece. How far this rejection of money caused the other changes one cannot say. But I suspect that the rejection of money was part of a package in which Sparta deliberately rejected ‘civilisation’ and formalised the adoption of the other characteristics of its barbaric society (or ‘constitution’) .



On to Artemis Orthia


On to the Constitution