Harsh Lessons from the Ancient Greek City-State of Sparta



The Lacedaemon Valley, Sparta. Site of the Menelaion, the ancient shrine to Helen and Menelaus, overlooking the later Doric city of Sparta. Mount Taygetus is seen in the distance. Photo: Heine Schmitz, own work. CC BY-SA 2.5

The long and (mostly) illustrious history of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta defines the word “legendary.” Going beyond truth, it has merged with heroic tales which almost defy belief. The toughness of its warrior class, by any measure, was unmatched in history.

But part of what made the ancient city-state so powerful and successful led to its demise and forms an illustrative example of what can happen when a ruling class is too harsh in the way it treats the weakest members of society and excludes them from it.

A City-State Centered Around Total War

Originally settled by Doric peoples from the southeastern part of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, at its peak, Sparta was a city that was geared toward total warfare like no other place on earth had ever been before, or has ever been since. With a warrior class that lived for one purpose — to serve the state — and all other individuals subservient to it, Sparta succeeded in conquering lands and peoples and defending its borders, but at a terrible cost that eventually brought it to its knees.

The ancient city-states of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Map by Jkan997/CC BY-SA https://Creative Commons.org/licenses/BY-SA/3.0

Sparta was completely oriented toward the military, with its warrior class ruling all others. Almost no one who did not belong to its warrior class was allowed to be a citizen.

This alone would have led to the downfall of the state, since those lost in battle could only be replaced by their sons, in effect. The city-state was at his most powerful in the fifth century BC, with a population of up to 35,000 citizens, plus helots (enslaved peoples, mostly from Messenia, who had been vanquished by the Spartans in war) and others who lived in the city but were not citizens.

King Leonidas of Sparta. Photo credit: pxfuel

The year 480 BC saw Sparta’s greatest moment, as 300 of its warriors under the great King Leonidas, and along with several hundred other allied forces, fought a far larger army of Persians under Xerxes at Thermopylae. Although they technically lost the battle, with their forces completely decimated, they inflicted so many casualties on the enemy that this later led to their defeat at the Battle of Salamis, ending the threat of Persian invasion of the West forever.

Sparta thereafter declared itself, with great accuracy, as the “defender of Hellenism.” But the die had been cast in the makeup of the state, as the helots and other noncitizens began to vastly outnumber the Spartans themselves. The historian Thucydides wrote that “Spartan policy is always mainly governed by the necessity of taking precautions against the helots.”

In a grim display of the absolute disdain the Spartans had for these people, once a year, upon the inauguration of the Ephors, or local rulers, a ritual war was declared on the helots and Spartan citizens were allowed to kill them without fear of retribution.

Topographic map of Sparta by J. D. Barbié du Bocage from “Travels of Anacharsis,” published 1817. This map was drawn based upon the interpretation of ancient texts and is not an accurate representation from archaeological evidence. Public domain.

The historian Myron of Priene characterized the situation of the helots in Spartan society at the time, in the middle of the third century BC: “They assign to the helots every shameful task leading to disgrace.

“For they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap and wrap himself in skins and receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves. Moreover, if any exceeded the vigor proper to a slave’s condition, they made death the penalty; and they allotted a punishment to those controlling them if they failed to rebuke those who were growing fat.”

The Helot Wars

As far back as 464 BC, however, the tide was turning, as the Spartan army, thought to be one of the most well-trained on earth, was forced to fight against an insurrection of the downtrodden helots.

During the Third Messenian War, after seizing their peoples’ ancient stronghold of Mt. Ithome, the helots fought their erstwhile masters but eventually were forced to capitulate. According to the historian Plutarch, this led to further draconian restrictions on the helots who remained, including the formation of the Crypteia, thought to be a type of secret police which was tasked with terrorizing the helots in the Laconia countryside.

In 371, Spartan forces were defeated by Theban commander Epaminondas at the battle of Leuctra, in Boeotia. This pummeling led to him freeing the helots of Messenia, while the helots who lived in Laconia, where Sparta is located, were then freed by the reforming kings Cleomenes III (235-222 BC) and Nabis (207-192 BC).

Some say the old Spartan officer class had begun to die out as early as one century after the death of Alexander, in 323 BC.

In 195 BC, the Laconian War brought Sparta into battle once more, as Aetolians murdered the Spartan tyrant Nabis, seized the city and began looting its ancient palace.

The remaining Spartans were able to drive the Aetolian forces out of the city, but the general Philopoemen, from Megalopolis in Arcadia, then entered Sparta and demanded that it enter the Achaean League, which was in a coalition with Rome.

Many of the soldiers under Philopoemen were political exiles of Sparta, and the new ruler was quick to reestablish their citizenship after his takeover. He then abolished the existing laws and the educational system of the city once and for all, relegating them to the dustbin of history. Achaean laws and societal norms then became the dominant force in the city.

The reduced state of Sparta as a Roman outpost

After Rome defeated the Achaean League, it made Sparta a free city within its Empire.

However, Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, in their work The Birth of Classical Europe, (2011: New York, Viking Penguin) speak of what soon became of the once-proud city state,  founded almost one thousand years before its takeover by the Romans.

By the end of the second century AD, the authors say, Roman tourists visiting Sparta would look on as participants reenacted the most violent and showy parts of the ancient Spartan agoge, the rigorous education and training program that was the rule for all Spartan boys except for the firstborn sons of the ruling houses.

The Romans even had their own “expounder of Lycurgan customs,” according to Price and Thoemann, who functioned as a tour guide for the Roman tourists.

However, the violent, bloody, and even deadly exercises and games that Romans so loved to witness all over their Empire were actually “inventions of the later first century AD, developed to satisfy non-Spartan expectations of what the Lycurgan education ought to have been like,” according to Price and Thonemann.

It has also been reported by historians that Romans were known to visit the ancient temple of Artemis Orthia, on the south bank of the Eurotas River in Sparta, and observe the rites there, possibly as a kind of entertainment.

In 214 AD a unit of Spartans was reported to have joined the Roman general Caracalla’s army and fought using a mix of traditional Spartan phalanx and Roman Pila weaponry.

Tragically, just as happened in the rest of Western Europe, Sparta was invaded and sacked by the Visigoths in the next century, ushering in a dark age for its remaining citizens.

Triumphed over by Visigoth leader Alaric I in 396 AD, the ancient city state saw its once-proud inhabitants sold off as slaves themselves. However, a remnant of its original Doric peoples somehow survived even through this devastation, with their possible descendants existing even today in places such as the Mani peninsula, according to some scholars.

The modern Greek city of Sparta was refounded in 1834 by way of a royal decree handed down by Otto, the king of Greece. It still exists today and is host to a new museum which boasts a large repository of artifacts from the illustrious and long history of the once-great city-state.