If Athens represents the glory that was Greece and the triumph of democracy, we need at this point to consider the antithesis of Athens: Sparta.

Whereas Athens achieved democracy on the back of the economic freedom given to it by money and the market economy, Sparta was the state that rejected money, rejected democracy and became a hugely successful militaristic monstrosity whose successes were much admired by the champagne socialists of classical Athens. Sparta produced a society that was the very opposite of Athens, rigidly organised with a state education system dedicated to training for war, and very successful in producing the finest warriors in Greece. How did Sparta do it?


The Menelaion: is this the site of Mycenaean Sparta? This mound was erected around the eighth century BC as a hero’s shrine. Bronze trinkets with the name of Helen were found there.

Sparta occupies the best land in the Peloponnese, the fertile valley of the river Eurotas, which flows down to the sea, surrounded on either side by high mountains. In the Mycenaean period, Sparta was one of the leading kingdoms of Greece. Indeed Helen, whose rape or abduction was the cause of the Trojan War, was the wife of Menelaus the King of Sparta.

Sparta - Mycenean palace

This large Mycenaean house – or is it really a small Palace? – lies adjacent to the Menelaion.  Is this really is the site of the Palace of Menelaus, the Mycenaean King of Sparta?

True there is a slight archaeological problem in that there is no sign of a Mycenaean palace at Sparta. The best known Mycenaean site lies halfway up a mountain five miles to the east of Sparta, where a large house, or rather a small palace has been excavated, with adjacent to it an 8th century shrine or heroon known as the Menelaion: numerous lead tablets have been found there, inscribed with the name of Menelaus, suggesting that in the 8th century at least it was thought to have been the house of Menelaus and the home of Queen Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Map of Peloponnese

Map of the Peloponnese to show how Sparta lines in the valley of the River Eurotas, the most fertile valley in the Peloponnese. Note Messene in the adjacent valley, separated from Sparta by Mount Taygetus.

Down to the 8th century, Sparta was a fairly normal Greek state. But then Sparta began to diverge. The divergence began when  Sparta conquered its neighbours, the Messenians, who lived to the west in the second most fertile valley of Peloponnese, but separated from Sparta by the formidable mountain range of Mount Taygetus.

Now in the Greek world, the concept of the city-state was normally sacrosanct, and when one city defeated another in war, the defeated city nevertheless retained its identity. Sparta formed the exception, for Sparta destroyed the fledgling state of Messene and made the Messenians serfs, or helots as they called them. Thence forward, the whole Spartan state was devoted to the necessity of producing fearsome warriors dedicated to the task of keeping the Messenian ‘helots’ in subjection, so that the helots produced the food on which the Spartans lived.

To do this, they set up a special way of life  known as the Lycurgan system, named after a mythical lawgiver, Lycurgus. This was centred round a formidable state education system known as the agoge. This began at birth when the elders inspected the new-born child and if it was not fit,  it would be taken away and exposed on the mountain. The child stayed with its parents until the age of seven when it was taken over by the state education system when they were enrolled in a herd controlled by a leader and a squad of assistants equipped with whips. The training was tough: they were only allowed one cloak a year, and from the age of thirteen they were no longer allowed a tunic. They had to go barefoot and were given the minimum of food. If they wanted more food, they were encouraged to steal it, though if they were caught stealing, they were soundly whipped, not for stealing, but for getting caught. It was, I suppose, a form of primitive capitalism: if you wanted to accumulate capital (i.e. food) you first had to undergo the risks of getting whipped.

As they grew up, the young men would act as the secret police who would be sent out into the countryside as hidden assassins, hiding up by day but at night they would murder any helots whom they caught. Frequently they would go through the fields, killing any helots who stood out for their physique and strength.

Paedophilia was also encouraged. At the age of 12, boys were adopted by youths of 20 who would look after them – and it was accepted that this included introducing them to the delights of sex. The elder ‘lover’ acted as a tutor , and it was thought obvious that there should be a sexual relationship between teacher and pupil. In this way a firm bond would be established which would serve them well on the battlefield. However if  when a boy was beaten, he cried out with the pain, it would be his lover who was punished.


The Spartans were great believers in equality – indeed the full-blown Spartans were called the ‘Equals’ because all were equal to each other. There were indeed plenty of other people who were not equal –  the surrounding farmers, the perioikoi, who did much of the work and below them the helots – but the actual Spartans were all equal. The land was divided up, and each Spartan was given an equal lot: the helots were attached to the lots, and not to the Spartans, so they belonged to the state. Equality was followed in their domestic arrangements. Families are the biggest obstacle to egalitarianism, so the Spartans discouraged family life. Families did not live together but the men lived in common messes known as sussitia, or eating together places, and every Spartan had to bring a fixed amount of food from his lot to the communal messes. No sussition has ever been excavated in Sparta — it would be very interesting to excavate one, though what is apparently a men’s house and eating place has been found at Azoria on Crete, where they also spoke Greek with a Dorian accent and where one of the towns, Gortyn, had a law code with elements similar to that of Sparta.

Equality also extended to marriage. Thus at Sparta, married men were not allowed to spend the whole night with their wives, but instead they had to creep out of their barracks to visit and have intercourse with their wives and then return to the barracks, hopefully without anyone seeing them. Wife swapping was encouraged. If a young man fancied an older man’s wife, he could ask the older man if he could sleep with his wife, and if a child was produced, the older man would as a matter of course bring it up as his own. There was a eugenic element in all this, in that the strongest and fittest young men and the fittest women produced the most children,  and the children thus produced would themselves be strong and fit. It is important that you should not have sex with your wife too often, so that when you did have sex, you would be at the peak of your performance.


Young Spartans, exercising. This famous painting by Degas, now in the National Gallery,  was originally painted in 1860, though then later updated by the artist. The picture data shows semi-naked Spartan girls taunting naked Spartan boys.

Their treatment of women wins praise from many feminists, for to a considerable extent, both sexes were treated alike: women were toughened by making them run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin so that they could bear their pregnancies successfully. It was said that the mythical lawgiver Lycurgus did away with prudery, making the young girls no less than the young men grow used to walking nude in processions. Indeed there was a spectacle known as the gymnopaedia in which the young men and girls would dance naked in a circle with the women making fun of the young men if they did not dance lewdly enough. However one should perhaps note that the women lived most of the time without their husbands who only visited occasionally and briefly when they wanted to have sex. Furthermore their sons were taken away from them at the age of seven and educated separately – though presumably they were allowed to keep their daughters. One wonders whether in practice the separation of the sexes was so rigorously enforced.

The Sources

There are two sources for our knowledge of Sparta. One is the biographer Plutarch (AD 50 – 120) who wrote a series of parallel lives, one of which was the life of Lycurgus, the more or less mythical Spartan lawgiver to whom the Spartan constitution was always attributed. The other is the adventurer and writer Xenophon, best known for his description of how he led a group of Greek mercenary soldiers back from the Black Sea to Athens. He went to live near Sparta and a constitution of Sparta is attributed to him — though it is not up to the standard of the rest of his writings.

Plutarch was both fascinated and puzzled by Sparta, but it is due to him that we know so much about how Sparta worked, and the supposed founder of its constitution, Lycurgus. Lycurgus was an ancient law giver, basically almost entirely mythical to whom the entire Spartan constitution was attributed. Plutarch quotes an ancient document known as the ‘Great Rhetra’ or Saying, written in an almost untranslatable ancient Greek, laying down the origins of the Spartan constitution.

Sparta had two hereditary kings, one from each of the two leading families – the Agids and the Eurypontids one of whom acted as the General in battle. However much of the power lay with the Gerousia, or Council of Elders: thirty in number including the two kings. The elders were all over sixty and were elected for life, the electing being done by the General Assembly in a method too childish to be reported according to Aristotle, but apparently it was by shouting. The system of checks and balances was further extended by the election of five ephors who were elected by the Assembly annually – you could not be elected twice, but two of the ephors always accompanied the king in battle. Every year the ephors declared war on the helots so that the Spartan secret police could kill any helot with impunity.

Finally there was the Assembly consisting of all male citizens over thirty who met once a month at full moon. Only the Gerousia (the Council of Elders) could introduce motions and speak to them, but the Assembly could then vote on them. However it was laid down in the Great Rhetra that if the people spoke ’crookedly’, the Gerousia and the kings are to be ‘removers’.

This Spartan constitution was greatly admired by the later Greek theorists because it was the prime example of the mixed constitution, which was considered to be the best constitution, being a mixture of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, and the Spartan constitution was a mixture of all three.

The Archaeology

Village Sparta 150

There was no proper town at Sparta, but instead there were five villages which never properly joined up. Note the temple of Artemis Orthia, centre right, near the river Eurotas. Source: Cartledge, Sparta and Laconia

Archaeologically, on the ground, Sparta is fascinating for the absence of remains. The great historian Thucydides famously remarked that if anyone were to visit the remains of Sparta they would have no idea that Sparta was once a great city. Sparta was in fact made up of five separate villages which never properly merged into a single city, not at least until Roman times. The best known archaeological site is the Temple of Artemis Orthia which lay just outside the main settlements

Sparta Orthia-001_150

The Temple of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. In Roman times it was turned into a theatre where spectators could watch Spartan youths being flogged

A crucial story in the study of ancient Sparta is formed by the finds from the temple of Artemis Orthia. Orthia was a local goddess in the Southern Peloponnese — there is also a temple to Orthia at Messene — but she was later assimilated with the better known goddess Artemis. The temple began very early, perhaps as early as the ninth century BC, but became famous or perhaps notorious as the scene of one of the Spartan initiation ceremonies in which boys and young men were flogged.

Two versions of the ceremony have been recorded. Xenophon records that cheeses were placed on the altar and the boys had to run the gauntlet to steal the cheeses. Pausanias gives a different version, in which the boys were beaten at the altar. The priestess stood by carrying the wooden statue of the goddess, and if the boys were not beaten hard enough she would complain that the statue was getting heavy and that the goddess demanded more blood, and they should be beaten harder until they bled.

In the Roman period, it became a very popular spectator sport to see boys and young men being flogged in this way, and in the third century AD, the temple was enclosed by a theatre where spectators could watch the floggings. The building of the theatre had the fortunate by-product in that earlier remains were preserved under the later seating, and early in the 20th century the site was excavated by the British School at Athens with remarkable results.


Some of the figurines found at the shrine of Artemis Orthia, demonstrating that in archaic Greece,  Sparta was one of the leading centres of art and culture.

Large numbers of offerings were found, revealing that in the early period, that is the eighth to sixth centuries BC, the artistic standards of the offerings made at the temple were very high indeed — as fine as anything found anywhere else in Greece at that time. Spartan metalwork was particularly admired and Spartan bronzes were exported widely.

In the archaic period Sparta was also the home to poets: the best known of these is Tyrtaeus whose work is lost except for quotations, but who wrote martial verses during the first Messenian War (743-724 BC). A later poet, Alcman (circa 600 BC) was famed for his lyric poetry.

Up to this date therefore Sparta was definitely one of the leading Greek cities with an interesting constitution, fine poets and a great artistic tradition: the equal of any other Greek state. But the conquest of Messenia and the social structure imposed by the necessity of keeping the helots in suppression was taking its toll and during the sixth century Sparta became very different from the other Greek states.

The culmination came when Sparta rejected money. I would argue that it was a deliberate rejection, for Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus rejected money.  However this could not have happened until the concept of money had been invented, presumably around 550-525 BC when Athens adopted money. Thus if Lycurgus rejected money, he could not have lived until money was invented, around the mid-sixth century; or at least that is when Lycurgus was invented, or perhaps an earlier lawgiver figure was reinvented and his system was codified.

The Spartan rejection must have been quite deliberate: there must have been a debate in the Council of the Elders, who then brought it forward to be ratified in the Assembly. But certainly there is no Spartan money until the third century BC, when the reforming kings Aegis IV and Cleomenes III introduced money, and Sparta became semi-normal. There are a few references to iron spits being used as money and notoriously the Spartan kings and ephors were periodically bribed by the Persians – but Sparta never produced any money of its own.

Sparta-Theatre 056_150

The primary archaeological site in Sparta today is this Roman temple overlooking the modern town of Sparta

It was more than just money. Plutarch assures us that gold and silver were banished and as a result gold and silver ornaments vanished, theft and robbery became unknown and pimps and beggars vanished from the streets, as did the teachers of rhetoric – a pet hate of the opponents of democracy at Athens – perhaps the equivalent of the bankers or advertising agents of today. Foreign imports also vanished, as indeed can be seen from the archaeology. Sparta cut itself off from the outside world.

The new system however – perhaps rather it was the codification, the clarification of the old system – was an immediate success, and the closing years of the sixth century and the opening years of the fifth was the time of the Spartan’s greatest success notably under its great though erratic king Cleomenes, who successfully helped the Athenians eject their tyrant Hippias which led the way to Athenian democracy. The Lycurgan system had immense influence on many Athenian intellectuals such as Xenophon and later Plutarch, and the whole system has consciously or unconsciously formed the basis of totalitarian ideals ever since: Plato’s Republic is surely at least a nod to the Spartan system.

Ultimately however the system must be seen as barbarian. Family life was rejected as leading to too many inequalities. Education was wholly in the hands of the state, and a communal way of life was in force with the males living in communal messes. This enforced egalitarianism however was only made possible as part of a strict caste system with the three main castes, the Spartiates at the top, then the allies, the Perioikoi who lived around Sparta forming a great mass at the centre, and the Helots at the bottom doing all the hard work. In the sixth and fifth century, Greece became the world’s first civilisation; but within that civilisation, Sparta became the world’s most outstanding example of barbarism. But now we must move on to the greatest episode of Sparta’s success – the Persian Wars.

On to The Persian Wars

(For the earlier version, click here)

28th December 2015