Sparta (Doric Σπάρτα; Attic Σπάρτη Spartē), or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population.
Lecture 8: Sparta
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Central to Spartan history was the figure of Lykourgos, but whether he was a mythical or perhaps a historical figure is uncertain. He was the lawgiver who supposedly established both the "Great Rhetra" and the military system which was the basis of Spartan power. Lykourgos was said to have modeled the Spartan constitution on that of Crete... While the Spartans saw him as a historical figure, it is more than possible that he was in fact a legendary creation.
Each Spartan was expected to provide his own weapons and armor. Due to the large expense of good equipment the Spartans would frequently pass down weapons, armor and particularly shields within families. It would not be unusual for a man to go to battle equipped in his fathers and grandfathers, often even fighting on the same exact battlefields. This added even more weight to their commitment to fight, to drop your ancestral weapons and shield and run would be seen as a disgrace on multiple levels.
Of the early history of Sparta we rely on very few legends. It is said to have been founded by Lacedaemon, the son of Zeus and Taygete, who married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas.
From Homer we also know that the "koili Lacedaemon" (hollow Lacedaemon), the territory between the mount Taygetos and Parnon, had as king Menelaos, the younger brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen, which was abducted by Paris to Troy and thus starting the long and painful famous war.
Sparta was a warrior society in ancient Greece that reached the height of its power after defeating rival city-state Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Spartan culture was centered on loyalty to the state and military service. At age 7, Spartan boys entered a rigorous state-sponsored education, military training and socialization program. Known as the Agoge, the system emphasized duty, discipline and endurance.
In taking Messenia they had also acquired a subject population which required constant vigilance. The helots, in fact, became the "millstone" around the Spartans' neck, especially when the Spartans were away on campaign, and the helots' tendency to revolt was a factor which had to be considered in all Spartan foreign policy. In addition to adopting a military way of life to keep the helots under control, the Spartans also buttressed their control over the Messenians by a system of alliances, in which their allies had to come to their assistance if the helots revolted; in this way many Peloponnesian states came within Sparta's sphere of influence by the end of the sixth century.
Sparta's citizen numbers were suffering an irreversible decline, owing in particular to the earthquake of c.464 and losses during the Peloponnesian War, but also to a social strcuture which was not conducive to the frequent fathering of children.... Sparta's shortage of citizens was due to the downgrading of potential citizens as well as to a shortage of citizen births. There were some attempts to stimulate the birth rate within the existing social framework (e.g. wife-sharing; privileges for fathers of many sons); sons of "inferiors" and some others could be brought up with the "equals" as mothakes.
The Spartiates were better trained than the other Greek hoplites, but as army numbers were maintained by increasing the proportion of non-Spartiates the Spartiates' skill will not have counted for much. Leuctra showed suddenly that Sparta had been "punching above its weight" and was no longer to be feared; its conduct since the Peloponnesian War had won it enemies rather than friends.
In terms of its membership, the assembly was the most democratic organ of Spartan government, for it included all adult male citizens. It met once a month at full moon, outdoors. Unlike the Athenian assembly, however, the Spartan assembly did not debate; citizens listened to a proposal made by the gerousia and simply voted to accept or reject it, without discussion. The Spartan was trained to obey and to conform, not to take sides in public debate.
Like Sparta's social and educational system, its government was much admired by contemporaries. It consisted of monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic elements: These constituted the kind of system political theorists like Aristotle called a mixed constitution. Spartan conservatism made for a reluctance to abandon traditional institutions like monarchy and the council of elders when other Greek poleis had either abolished or redefined the functions of these institutions and had decreased the importance of hereditary power in government. The various organs of government and shared offices were designed to serve as checks and balances to one another, minimizing the danger that the government would take too rapid, radical action.
The Spartans’ constant military drilling and discipline made them skilled at the ancient Greek style of fighting in a phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the army worked as a unit in a close, deep formation, and made coordinated mass maneuvers. No one soldier was considered superior to another. Going into battle, a Spartan soldier, or hoplite, wore a large bronze helmet, breastplate and ankle guards, and carried a round shield made of bronze and wood, a long spear and sword. Spartan warriors were also known for their long hair and red cloaks.