Sparta (Doric Greek: Σπάρτα, Spártā; Attic Greek: Σπάρτη, Spártē) was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece. In antiquity, the city-state was known as Lacedaemon (Λακεδαίμων, Lakedaímōn), while the name Sparta referred to its main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. Around 650 BC, it rose to become the dominant military land-power in ancient Greece.
Given its military pre-eminence, Sparta was recognized as the leading force of the unified Greek military during the Greco-Persian Wars, in rivalry with the rising naval power of Athens. Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War (between 431 and 404 BC), from which it emerged victorious. The defeat by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC ended Sparta's prominent role, though it maintained its political independence until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC. It then underwent a long period of decline, especially in the Middle Ages, when many Spartans moved to Mystras. Modern Sparta is the capital of the Greek region of Laconia and a center for processing citrus and olives.
Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system and constitution introduced by the almost mythical figure of Lycurgus. He configured the entire society in order to maximize military proficiency at all costs, focusing all social institutions on military training and physical development. Its inhabitants were classified as Spartiates (Spartan citizens with full rights), mothakes (non-Spartan free men raised as Spartans), perioikoi (free residents engaged in commerce), and helots (state-owned serfs, enslaved non-Spartan local population). Spartiates underwent the rigorous agoge training and education regimen, and Spartan phalanx brigades were widely considered to be among the best in battle. Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights and equality with men than elsewhere in classical antiquity.
Sparta was the subject of fascination in its own day, as well as in Western culture following the revival of classical learning. The admiration of Sparta is known as Laconism or Laconophilia. Bertrand Russell wrote:
Sparta had a double effect on Greek thought: through the reality, and through the myth.... The reality enabled the Spartans to defeat Athens in war; the myth influenced Plato's political theory, and that of countless subsequent writers.... [The] ideals that it favors had a great part in framing the doctrines of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and National Socialism.
The earliest attested term referring to Lacedaemon is the Mycenaean Greek 𐀨𐀐𐀅𐀖𐀛𐀍, ra-ke-da-mi-ni-jo, "Lacedaimonian", written in Linear B syllabic script,[n 1] being the equivalent of the written in the Greek alphabet, latter Greek, Λακεδαιμόνιος, Lakedaimonios (Latin: Lacedaemonius).
The ancient Greeks used one of three words to refer to the home location of the Spartans. First, "Sparta" refers primarily to the main cluster of settlements in the valley of the Eurotas River. The second word "Lacedaemon" (Λακεδαίμων) was also used sometimes as an adjective and is the name commonly used in the works of Homer and the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. The third term "Laconice" (Λακωνική) referred to the immediate area around the town of Sparta, the plateau east of the Taygetos mountains, and sometimes to all the regions under direct Spartan control, including Messenia.
Herodotus seems to use "Lacedaemon" for the Mycenaean Greek citadel at Therapne, in contrast to the lower town of Sparta. This term could be used synonymously with Sparta, but typically it denoted the terrain in which the city was located. In Homer it is typically combined with epithets of the countryside: wide, lovely, shining and most often hollow and broken (full of ravines), suggesting the Eurotas Valley. "Sparta" on the other hand is the country of lovely women, a epithet for people.
The population were often called Lacedaemonians. This epithet utilized the plural of the adjective Lacedaemonius (Greek: Λακεδαιμὀνιοι; Latin: Lacedaemonii, but also Lacedaemones). The ancients sometimes used a back-formation, referring to the land of Lacedaemon as Lacedaemonian country. As most words for "country" were feminine, the adjective was in the feminine: Lacedaemonia (Λακεδαιμονία, Lakedaimonia). Eventually, the adjective came to be used alone.
"Lacedaemonia" was not in general use during the classical period and before. It does occur in Greek as an equivalent of Laconia and Messenia during the Roman and early Byzantine periods, mostly in ethnographers and lexica glossing place names. For example, Hesychius of Alexandria's Lexicon (5th century AD) defines Agiadae as a "place in Lacedaemonia" named after Agis. The actual transition may be captured by Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (7th century AD), an etymological dictionary. He relied heavily on Orosius' Historiarum Adversum Paganos (5th century AD) and Eusebius of Caesarea's Chronicon (early 5th century AD) as did Orosius. The latter defines Sparta to be Lacedaemonia Civitas but Isidore defines Lacedaemonia as founded by Lacedaemon, son of Semele, relying on Eusebius. There is a rare use, perhaps the earliest of Lacedaemonia, in Diodorus Siculus, but probably with Χὠρα (‘’chúra’’, "country") suppressed.
Sparta is located in the region of Laconia, in the south-eastern Peloponnese. Ancient Sparta was built on the banks of the Eurotas River, the main river of Laconia, which provided it with a source of fresh water. The valley of the Eurotas is a natural fortress, bounded to the west by Mt. Taygetus (2,407 m) and to the east by Mt. Parnon (1,935 m). To the north, Laconia is separated from Arcadia by hilly uplands reaching 1000 m in altitude. These natural defenses worked to Sparta's advantage and contributed to Sparta never having been sacked. Though landlocked, Sparta had a harbor, Gytheio, on the Laconian Gulf.
Lacedaemon (Greek: Λακεδαίμων) was a mythical king of Laconia. The son of Zeus by the nymph Taygete, he married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas, by whom he became the father of Amyclas, Eurydice, and Asine. He named the country after himself and the city after his wife. He was believed to have built the sanctuary of the Charites, which stood between Sparta and Amyclae, and to have given to those divinities the names of Cleta and Phaenna. A shrine was erected to him in the neighborhood of Therapne.
Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. Their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages, like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show.
Until the early 20th century, the chief ancient buildings at Sparta were the theatre, of which, however, little showed above ground except portions of the retaining walls; the so-called Tomb of Leonidas, a quadrangular building, perhaps a temple, constructed of immense blocks of stone and containing two chambers; the foundation of an ancient bridge over the Eurotas; the ruins of a circular structure; some remains of late Roman fortifications; several brick buildings and mosaic pavements.
The remaining archaeological wealth consisted of inscriptions, sculptures, and other objects collected in the local museum, founded by Stamatakis in 1872 and enlarged in 1907. Partial excavation of the round building was undertaken in 1892 and 1893 by the American School at Athens. The structure has been since found to be a semicircular retaining wall of Hellenic origin that was partly restored during the Roman period.
In 1904, the British School at Athens began a thorough exploration of Laconia, and in the following year excavations were made at Thalamae, Geronthrae, and Angelona near Monemvasia. In 1906, excavations began in Sparta.
A small circus described by Leake proved to be a theatre-like building constructed soon after AD 200 around the altar and in front of the temple of Artemis Orthia. Here musical and gymnastic contests took place as well as the famous flogging ordeal (diamastigosis). The temple, which can be dated to the 2nd century BC, rests on the foundation of an older temple of the 6th century, and close beside it were found the remains of a yet earlier temple, dating from the 9th or even the 10th century. The votive offerings in clay, amber, bronze, ivory and lead found in great profusion within the precinct range, dating from the 9th to the 4th centuries BC, supply invaluable evidence for early Spartan art.
In 1907, the sanctuary of Athena "of the Brazen House" (Chalkioikos) was located on the acropolis immediately above the theatre, and though the actual temple is almost completely destroyed, the site has produced the longest extant archaic inscription of Laconia, numerous bronze nails and plates, and a considerable number of votive offerings. The Greek city-wall, built in successive stages from the 4th to the 2nd century, was traced for a great part of its circuit, which measured 48 stades or nearly 10 km (6 miles) (Polyb. 1X. 21). The late Roman wall enclosing the acropolis, part of which probably dates from the years following the Gothic raid of AD 262, was also investigated. Besides the actual buildings discovered, a number of points were situated and mapped in a general study of Spartan topography, based upon the description of Pausanias.
The Menelaion is a shrine associated with Menelaus, located east of Sparta, by the river Eurotas, on the hill Profitis Ilias (Coordinates: ). Built early 8th century BC it was believed by Spartans to be the home of Menelaus. In 1970 the British School in Athens started excavations in an attempt to locate Mycenaean remains in the area around Menelaion. Among other findings, they uncovered the remains of two Mycenaean mansions and found the first offerings dedicated to Helen and Menelaus. These mansions were destroyed by earthquake and fire, and archaeologists consider them the possible palace of Menelaus himself.[better source needed] Excavations made from the early 1990s to the present suggest that the area around Menelaion in the southern part of the Eurotas valley seems to have been the center of Mycenaean Laconia. The Mycenaean settlement was roughly triangular in shape, with its apex pointed towards the north. Its area was approximately equal to that of the "newer" Sparta, but denudation has wreaked havoc with its buildings and nothing is left save ruined foundations and broken potsherds.
The prehistory of Sparta is difficult to reconstruct because the literary evidence was written far later than the events it describes and is distorted by oral tradition. The earliest certain evidence of human settlement in the region of Sparta consists of pottery dating from the Middle Neolithic period, found in the vicinity of Kouphovouno some two kilometres (1.2 miles) south-southwest of Sparta. These are the earliest traces of the original Mycenaean Spartan civilisation represented in Homer's Iliad.
This civilization seems to have fallen into decline by the late Bronze Age, when, according to Herodotus, Macedonian tribes from the north (called Dorians by those they conquered) marched into the Peloponnese and, subjugating the local tribes, settled there. The Dorians seem to have set about expanding the frontiers of Spartan territory almost before they had established their own state. They fought against the Argive Dorians to the east and southeast, and also the Arcadian Achaeans to the northwest. The evidence suggests that Sparta, relatively inaccessible because of the topography of the Taygetan plain, was secure from early on: it was never fortified.
Nothing distinctive in the archaeology of the Eurotas River Valley identifies the Dorians or the Dorian Spartan state. The prehistory of the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Dark Age (the Early Iron Age) at this moment must be treated apart from the stream of Dorian Spartan history.
The legendary period of Spartan history is believed to fall into the Dark Age. It treats the mythic heroes such as the Heraclids and the Perseids, offering a view of the occupation of the Peloponnesus that contains both fantastic and possibly historical elements. The subsequent proto-historic period, combining both legend and historical fragments, offers the first credible history.
Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC the Spartans experienced a period of lawlessness and civil strife, later attested by both Herodotus and Thucydides. As a result, they carried out a series of political and social reforms of their own society which they later attributed to a semi-mythical lawgiver, Lycurgus. These reforms mark the beginning of the history of Classical Sparta.
In the Second Messenian War, Sparta established itself as a local power in the Peloponnesus and the rest of Greece. During the following centuries, Sparta's reputation as a land-fighting force was unequalled. At its peak around 500 BC, Sparta had some 20,000–35,000 citizens, plus numerous helots and perioikoi. The likely total of 40,000–50,000 made Sparta one of the larger Greek city-states; however, according to Thucydides, the population of Athens in 431 BC was 360,000–610,000, making it much larger.[n 2]
In 480 BC a small force led by King Leonidas (about 300 full Spartiates, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans, although these numbers were lessened by earlier casualties) made a legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae against the massive Persian army, inflicting very high casualties on the Persian forces before finally being overwhelmed. The superior weaponry, strategy, and bronze armour of the Greek hoplites and their phalanx fighting formation again proved their worth one year later when Sparta assembled its full strength and led a Greek alliance against the Persians at the battle of Plataea.
The decisive Greek victory at Plataea put an end to the Greco-Persian War along with Persian ambitions to expand into Europe. Even though this war was won by a pan-Greek army, credit was given to Sparta, who besides providing the leading forces at Thermopylae and Plataea, had been the de facto leader of the entire Greek expedition.
In later Classical times, Sparta along with Athens, Thebes, and Persia were the main powers fighting for supremacy in the northeastern Mediterranean. In the course of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, a traditional land power, acquired a navy which managed to overpower the previously dominant flotilla of Athens, ending the Athenian Empire. At the peak of its power in the early 4th century BC, Sparta had subdued many of the main Greek states and even invaded the Persian provinces in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), a period known as the Spartan Hegemony.
During the Corinthian War, Sparta faced a coalition of the leading Greek states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos. The alliance was initially backed by Persia, which feared further Spartan expansion into Asia. Sparta achieved a series of land victories, but many of her ships were destroyed at the battle of Cnidus by a Greek-Phoenician mercenary fleet that Persia had provided to Athens. The event severely damaged Sparta's naval power but did not end its aspirations of invading further into Persia, until Conon the Athenian ravaged the Spartan coastline and provoked the old Spartan fear of a helot revolt.
After a few more years of fighting, in 387 BC the Peace of Antalcidas was established, according to which all Greek cities of Ionia would return to Persian control, and Persia's Asian border would be free of the Spartan threat. The effects of the war were to reaffirm Persia's ability to interfere successfully in Greek politics and to affirm Sparta's weakened hegemonic position in the Greek political system. Sparta entered its long-term decline after a severe military defeat to Epaminondas of Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra. This was the first time that a full strength Spartan army lost a land battle.
As Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta increasingly faced a helot population that vastly outnumbered its citizens. The alarming decline of Spartan citizens was commented on by Aristotle.
Sparta never fully recovered from its losses at Leuctra in 371 BC and the subsequent helot revolts. Nonetheless, it was able to continue as a regional power for over two centuries. Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to conquer Sparta itself.
Even during its decline, Sparta never forgot its claim to be the "defender of Hellenism" and its Laconic wit. An anecdote has it that when Philip II sent a message to Sparta saying "If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta", the Spartans responded with the single, terse reply: αἴκα, "if".
When Philip created the league of the Greeks on the pretext of unifying Greece against Persia, the Spartans chose not to join, since they had no interest in joining a pan-Greek expedition unless it were under Spartan leadership. Thus, upon defeating the Persians at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander the Great sent to Athens 300 suits of Persian armour with the following inscription: "Alexander, son of Philip, and all the Greeks except the Spartans, give these offerings taken from the foreigners who live in Asia".
During Alexander's campaigns in the east, the Spartan king Agis III sent a force to Crete in 333 BC with the aim of securing the island for Sparta. Agis next took command of allied Greek forces against Macedon, gaining early successes, before laying siege to Megalopolis in 331 BC. A large Macedonian army under general Antipater marched to its relief and defeated the Spartan-led force in a pitched battle. More than 5,300 of the Spartans and their allies were killed in battle, and 3,500 of Antipater's troops. Agis, now wounded and unable to stand, ordered his men to leave him behind to face the advancing Macedonian army so that he could buy them time to retreat. On his knees, the Spartan king slew several enemy soldiers before being finally killed by a javelin. Alexander was merciful, and he only forced the Spartans to join the League of Corinth, which they had previously refused.
During the Punic Wars, Sparta was an ally of the Roman Republic. Spartan political independence was put to an end when it was eventually forced into the Achaean League after its defeat in the decisive Laconian War by a coalition of other Greek city-states and Rome and the resultant overthrow of its final king Nabis. Sparta played no active part in the Achaean War in 146 BC when the Achaean League was defeated by the Roman general Lucius Mummius. Subsequently, Sparta became a free city under Roman rule, some of the institutions of Lycurgus were restored, and the city became a tourist attraction for the Roman elite who came to observe exotic Spartan customs.[n 3]
In 214 AD Roman emperor Caracalla, in his preparation for his campaign against Parthia, recruited a 500-man Spartan cohort (lokhos). Herodian described this unit as a phalanx, implying it fought like the old Spartans as hoplites, or even as a Macedonian phalanx. Despite this, a gravestone of a fallen legionary named Marcus Aurelius Alexys shows him lightly armed, with a pilos-like cap and a wooden club. The unit was presumably discharged in 217 after Caracalla was assassinated.
In 396 AD, Sparta was sacked by Visigoths under Alaric I who sold inhabitants into slavery. According to Byzantine sources, some parts of the Laconian region remained pagan until well into the 10th century AD. Doric-speaking populations survive today in Tsakonia. In the Middle Ages, the political and cultural center of Laconia shifted to the nearby settlement of Mystras, and Sparta fell further in even local importance. Modern Sparti was re-founded in 1834, by a decree of King Otto of Greece.
Sparta was an oligarchy. The state was ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, both supposedly descendants of Heracles and equal in authority, so that one could not act against the power and political enactments of his colleague.
The duties of the kings were primarily religious, judicial, and military. As chief priests of the state, they maintained communication with the Delphian sanctuary, whose pronouncements exercised great authority in Spartan politics. In the time of Herodotus c. 450 BC, their judicial functions had been restricted to cases dealing with heiresses, adoptions and the public roads. Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as "a kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship" (Pol. iii. 1285a), while Isocrates refers to the Spartans as "subject to an oligarchy at home, to a kingship on campaign" (iii. 24).
Civil and criminal cases were decided by a group of officials known as the ephors, as well as a council of elders known as the gerousia. The gerousia consisted of 28 elders over the age of 60, elected for life and usually part of the royal households, and the two kings. High state decisions were discussed by this council, who could then propose policies to the damos, the collective body of Spartan citizenry, who would select one of the alternatives by vote.
Royal prerogatives were curtailed over time. From the period of the Persian wars, the king lost the right to declare war and was accompanied in the field by two ephors. He was supplanted by the ephors also in the control of foreign policy. Over time, the kings became mere figureheads except in their capacity as generals. Political power was transferred to the ephors and gerousia.
The Spartan education process known as the agoge was essential for full citizenship. However, usually the only boys eligible for the agoge were Spartiates, those who could trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the city.
There were two exceptions. Trophimoi or "foster sons" were foreign students invited to study. The Athenian general Xenophon, for example, sent his two sons to Sparta as trophimoi. Also, the son of a helot could be enrolled as a syntrophos if a Spartiate formally adopted him and paid his way; if he did exceptionally well in training, he might be sponsored to become a Spartiate. Spartans who could not afford to pay the expenses of the agoge could lose their citizenship.
These laws meant that Sparta could not readily replace citizens lost in battle or otherwise, which eventually proved near fatal as citizens became greatly outnumbered by non-citizens, and even more dangerously by helots.
The helots were originally free Greeks from the areas of Messenia and Lakonia whom the Spartans had defeated in battle and subsequently enslaved. In contrast to populations conquered by other Greek cities (e.g. the Athenian treatment of Melos), the male population was not exterminated and the women and children turned into chattel slaves. Instead, the helots were given a subordinate position in society more comparable to serfs in medieval Europe than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece.
Helots did not have voting or political rights. The Spartan poet Tyrtaios refers to Helots being allowed to marry and retaining 50% of the fruits of their labor. They also seem to have been allowed to practice religious rites and, according to Thucydides, own a limited amount of personal property. Initially Helots couldn't be freed but during the middle Hellenistic period period, some 6,000 helots accumulated enough wealth to buy their freedom, for example, in 227 BC.
In other Greek city-states, free citizens were part-time soldiers who, when not at war, carried on other trades. Since Spartan men were full-time soldiers, they were not available to carry out manual labour. The helots were used as unskilled serfs, tilling Spartan land. Helot women were often used as wet nurses. Helots also travelled with the Spartan army as non-combatant serfs. At the last stand of the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greek dead included not just the legendary three hundred Spartan soldiers but also several hundred Thespian and Theban troops and a number of helots.
Relations between the helots and their Spartan masters were sometimes strained. There was at least one helot revolt (c. 465–460 BC), and Thucydides remarked that "Spartan policy is always mainly governed by the necessity of taking precautions against the helots." On the other hand, the Spartans trusted their helots enough in 479 BC to take a force of 35,000 with them to Plataea, something they could not have risked if they feared the helots would attack them or run away. Slave revolts occurred elsewhere in the Greek world, and in 413 BC 20,000 Athenian slaves ran away to join the Spartan forces occupying Attica. What made Sparta's relations with her slave population unique was that the helots, precisely because they enjoyed privileges such as family and property, retained their identity as a conquered people (the Messenians) and also had effective kinship groups that could be used to organize rebellion.
As the Spartiate population declined and the helot population continued to grow, the imbalance of power caused increasing tension. According to Myron of Priene of the middle 3rd 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 (κυνῆ / kunễ) and wrap himself in skins (διφθέρα / diphthéra) 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 vigour 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".
Plutarch also states that Spartans treated the Helots "harshly and cruelly": they compelled them to drink pure wine (which was considered dangerous – wine usually being cut with water) "...and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs..." during syssitia (obligatory banquets).
Each year when the Ephors took office, they ritually declared war on the helots, allowing Spartans to kill them without risk of ritual pollution. This fight seems to have been carried out by kryptai (sing. κρύπτης kryptēs), graduates of the agoge who took part in the mysterious institution known as the Krypteia. Thucydides states:
"The helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished."
The Perioikoi came from similar origins as the helots but occupied a significantly different position in Spartan society. Although they did not enjoy full citizen-rights, they were free and not subjected to the same restrictions as the helots. The exact nature of their subjection to the Spartans is not clear, but they seem to have served partly as a kind of military reserve, partly as skilled craftsmen and partly as agents of foreign trade. Perioikoic hoplites served increasingly with the Spartan army, explicitly at the Battle of Plataea, and although they may also have fulfilled functions such as the manufacture and repair of armour and weapons, they were increasingly integrated into the combat units of the Spartan army as the Spartiate population declined.
Full citizen Spartiates were barred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the Perioikoi. This lucrative monopoly, in a fertile territory with a good harbors, ensured the loyalty of the perioikoi. Despite the prohibition on menial labor or trade, there is evidence of Spartan sculptors, and Spartans were certainly poets, magistrates, ambassadors, and governors as well as soldiers.
Allegedly, Spartans were prohibited from possessing gold and silver coins, and according to legend Spartan currency consisted of iron bars to discourage hoarding. It was not until the 260s or 250s BC that Sparta began to mint its own coins. Though the conspicuous display of wealth appears to have been discouraged, this did not preclude the production of very fine decorated bronze, ivory and wooden works of art as well as exquisite jewellery, attested in archaeology.
Allegedly as part of the Lycurgan Reforms in the mid-8th century BC, a massive land reform had divided property into 9,000 equal portions. Each citizen received one estate, a kleros, which was expected to provide his living. The land was worked by helots who retained half the yield. From the other half, the Spartiate was expected to pay his mess (syssitia) fees, and the agoge fees for his children. However, we know nothing of matters of wealth such as how land was bought, sold, and inherited, or whether daughters received dowries. However, from early on there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became more serious after the law of Epitadeus some time after the Peloponnesian War, which removed the legal prohibition on the gift or bequest of land. By the mid-5th century, land had become concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, and the notion that all Spartan citizens were equals had become an empty pretence. By Aristotle's day (384–322 BC) citizenship had been reduced from 9,000 to less than 1,000, then further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BC. Attempts were made to remedy this by imposing legal penalties upon bachelors, but this could not reverse the trend.
Sparta was above all a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the Gerousia by the child's father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to be reared or not. It is commonly stated that if they considered it "puny and deformed", the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae (Gr., ἀποθέται, "Deposits"). This was, in effect, a primitive form of eugenics. Sparta is often viewed as being unique in this regard, however, anthropologist Laila Williamson notes that "Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.":61There is controversy about the matter in Sparta, since excavations in the chasm only uncovered adult remains, likely belonging to criminals.
When Spartans died, marked headstones would only be granted to soldiers who died in combat during a victorious campaign or women who died either in service of a divine office or in childbirth.
When male Spartans began military training at age seven, they would enter the agoge system. The agoge was designed to encourage discipline and physical toughness and to emphasize the importance of the Spartan state. Boys lived in communal messes and, according to Xenophon, whose sons attended the agoge, the boys were fed "just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough." In addition they were trained to survive in times of privation, even if it meant stealing. Besides physical and weapons training, boys studied reading, writing, music and dancing. Special punishments were imposed if boys failed to answer questions sufficiently 'laconically' (i.e. briefly and wittily).
There is some evidence that in late-Classical and Hellenistic Sparta boys were expected to take an older male mentor, usually an unmarried young man. However, there is no evidence of this in archaic Sparta. According to some sources, the older man was expected to function as a kind of substitute father and role model to his junior partner; however, others believe it was reasonably certain that they had sexual relations (the exact nature of Spartan pederasty is not entirely clear). It is notable, however, that the only contemporary source with direct experience of the agoge, Xenophon, explicitly denies the sexual nature of the relationship.
Post 465 BC, some Spartan youth apparently became members of an irregular unit known as the Krypteia. The immediate objective of this unit was to seek out and kill vulnerable helot Laconians as part of the larger program of terrorising and intimidating the helot population.
Less information is available about the education of Spartan girls, but they seem to have gone through a fairly extensive formal educational cycle, broadly similar to that of the boys but with less emphasis on military training. In this respect, classical Sparta was unique in ancient Greece. In no other city-state did women receive any kind of formal education.
At age 20, the Spartan citizen began his membership in one of the syssitia (dining messes or clubs), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartans were not eligible for election for public office until the age of 30. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens and were obliged to undergo the training as prescribed by law, as well as participate in and contribute financially to one of the syssitia.
Sparta is thought to be the first city to practice athletic nudity, and some scholars claim that it was also the first to formalize pederasty. According to these sources, the Spartans believed that the love of an older, accomplished aristocrat for an adolescent was essential to his formation as a free citizen. The agoge, the education of the ruling class, was, they claim, founded on pederastic relationships required of each citizen, with the lover responsible for the boy's training.
Spartan men remained in the active reserve until age 60. Men were encouraged to marry at age 20 but could not live with their families until they left their active military service at age 30. They called themselves "homoioi" (equals), pointing to their common lifestyle and the discipline of the phalanx, which demanded that no soldier be superior to his comrades. Insofar as hoplite warfare could be perfected, the Spartans did so.
Thucydides reports that when a Spartan man went to war, his wife (or another woman of some significance) would customarily present him with his hoplon (shield) and say: "With this, or upon this" (Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς, Èi tàn èi èpì tàs), meaning that true Spartans could only return to Sparta either victorious (with their shield in hand) or dead (carried upon it). Unfortunately, poignant as this image may be, it is almost certainly propaganda. Spartans buried their battle dead on or near the battle field; corpses were not brought back on their hoplons. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that it was less of a disgrace for a soldier to lose his helmet, breastplate or greaves than his hoplon, since the former were designed to protect one man, whereas the hoplon also protected the man on his left. Thus the shield was symbolic of the individual soldier's subordination to his unit, his integral part in its success, and his solemn responsibility to his comrades in arms – messmates and friends, often close blood relations.
According to Aristotle, the Spartan military culture was actually short-sighted and ineffective. He observed:
It is the standards of civilized men not of beasts that must be kept in mind, for it is good men not beasts who are capable of real courage. Those like the Spartans who concentrate on the one and ignore the other in their education turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of city's life, end up making them inferior even in that.
One of the most persistent myths about Sparta that has no basis in fact is the notion that Spartan mothers were without feelings toward their off-spring and helped enforce a militaristic lifestyle on their sons and husbands. The myth can be traced back to Plutarch, who includes no less than 17 "sayings" of "Spartan women," all of which paraphrase or elaborate on the theme that Spartan mothers rejected their own offspring if they showed any kind of cowardice. In some of these sayings, mothers revile their sons in insulting language merely for surviving a battle. These sayings purporting to be from Spartan women were far more likely to be of Athenian origin and designed to portray Spartan women as unnatural and so undeserving of pity.
Sparta's agriculture consisted mainly of barley, wine, cheese, grain, and figs. These items were grown locally on each Spartan citizens kleros and were tended to by helots. Spartan citizens were required to donate a certain amount of what they yielded from their kleros to their syssitia, or mess. These donations to the syssitia were a requirement for every Spartan citizen. All the donated food was then redistributed to feed the Spartan population of that syssitia. The helots who tended to the lands were fed using a portion of what they harvested.
Plutarch reports the peculiar customs associated with the Spartan wedding night:
The custom was to capture women for marriage(...) The so-called 'bridesmaid' took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man's cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom – who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always – first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
The husband continued to visit his wife in secret for some time after the marriage. These customs, unique to the Spartans, have been interpreted in various ways. One of them decidedly supports the need to disguise the bride as a man in order to help the bridegroom consummate the marriage, so unaccustomed were men to women's looks at the time of their first intercourse. The "abduction" may have served to ward off the evil eye, and the cutting of the wife's hair was perhaps part of a rite of passage that signaled her entrance into a new life.
Spartan women, of the citizenry class, enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. The higher status of females in Spartan society started at birth; unlike Athens, Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers. Nor were they confined to their father's house and prevented from exercising or getting fresh air as in Athens, but exercised and even competed in sports. Most important, rather than being married off at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan law forbade the marriage of a girl until she was in her late teens or early 20s. The reasons for delaying marriage were to ensure the birth of healthy children, but the effect was to spare Spartan women the hazards and lasting health damage associated with pregnancy among adolescents. Spartan women, better fed from childhood and fit from exercise, stood a far better chance of reaching old age than their sisters in other Greek cities, where the median age for death was 34.6 years or roughly 10 years below that of men.
Unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore dresses (peplos) slit up the side to allow freer movement and moved freely about the city, either walking or driving chariots. Girls as well as boys exercised, possibly in the nude, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia ("Festival of Nude Youths").
Another practice that was mentioned by many visitors to Sparta was the practice of “wife-sharing”. In accordance with the Spartan belief that breeding should be between the most physically fit parents, many older men allowed younger, more fit men, to impregnate their wives. Other unmarried or childless men might even request another man's wife to bear his children if she had previously been a strong child bearer. For this reason many considered Spartan women polygamous or polyandrous. This practice was encouraged in order that women bear as many strong-bodied children as they could. The Spartan population was hard to maintain due to the constant absence and loss of the men in battle and the intense physical inspection of newborns.
Spartan women were also literate and numerate, a rarity in the ancient world. Furthermore, as a result of their education and the fact that they moved freely in society engaging with their fellow (male) citizens, they were notorious for speaking their minds even in public. Plato, in the middle of the fourth century, described women's curriculum in Sparta as consisting of gymnastics and mousike (music and arts). Plato goes on to praise Spartan women's ability when it came to philosophical discussion.
Most importantly, Spartan women had economic power because they controlled their own properties, and those of their husbands. It is estimated that in later Classical Sparta, when the male population was in serious decline, women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property in Sparta. The laws regarding a divorce were the same for both men and women. Unlike women in Athens, if a Spartan woman became the heiress of her father because she had no living brothers to inherit (an epikleros), the woman was not required to divorce her current spouse in order to marry her nearest paternal relative.
Many women played a significant role in the history of Sparta. Queen Gorgo, heiress to the throne and the wife of Leonidas I, was an influential and well-documented figure. Herodotus records that as a small girl she advised her father Cleomenes to resist a bribe. She was later said to be responsible for decoding a warning that the Persian forces were about to invade Greece; after Spartan generals could not decode a wooden tablet covered in wax, she ordered them to clear the wax, revealing the warning. Plutarch's Moralia contains a collection of "Sayings of Spartan Women", including a laconic quip attributed to Gorgo: when asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men, she replied "Because we are the only women who are mothers of men".
Laconophilia is love or admiration of Sparta and its culture or constitution. Sparta was subject of considerable admiration in its day, even in rival Athens. In ancient times "Many of the noblest and best of the Athenians always considered the Spartan state nearly as an ideal theory realised in practice." Many Greek philosophers, especially Platonists, would often describe Sparta as an ideal state, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money. The French classicist François Ollier in his 1933 book Le mirage spartiate (The Spartan Mirage) warned that a major scholarly problem is that all surviving accounts of Sparta were by non-Spartans who often excessively idealized their subject.
With the revival of classical learning in Renaissance Europe, Laconophilia re-appeared, for example in the writings of Machiavelli. The Elizabethan English constitutionalist John Aylmer compared the mixed government of Tudor England to the Spartan republic, stating that "Lacedemonia [was] the noblest and best city governed that ever was". He commended it as a model for England. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau contrasted Sparta favourably with Athens in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, arguing that its austere constitution was preferable to the more sophisticated Athenian life. Sparta was also used as a model of austere purity by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
A German racist strain of Laconophilia was initiated by Karl Otfried Müller, who linked Spartan ideals to the supposed racial superiority of the Dorians, the ethnic sub-group of the Greeks to which the Spartans belonged. In the 20th century, this developed into Fascist admiration of Spartan ideals. Adolf Hitler praised the Spartans, recommending in 1928 that Germany should imitate them by limiting "the number allowed to live". He added that "The Spartans were once capable of such a wise measure... The subjugation of 350,000 Helots by 6,000 Spartans was only possible because of the racial superiority of the Spartans." The Spartans had created "the first racialist state".
Certain early Zionists, and particularly the founders of Kibbutz movement in Israel, were influenced by Spartan ideals, particularly in education. Tabenkin, a founding father of the Kibbutz movement and the Palmach strikeforce, prescribed that education for warfare "should begin from the nursery", that children should from kindergarten be taken to "spend nights in the mountains and valleys".