Athens and Sparta: What’s the Big Deal?




Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.12.2016
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (10.01.2013)

After the Aegean Bronze Age collapse, writing ceased for the most part in the Greek world, though they continued speaking their language through the Greek “Dark Ages”.  Writing started again c.800 BCE, first by Homer and then Theseus. The Panathenaic Games began in 776 BCE, and the Greeks began showing tremendous energy. They developed poleis (autonomous city-states) and organized sports – but remember the religious nature of the games. The Panathenaic Games was a religious festival. Colonization, the use of coinage, and the development of Hoplite warfare all emerged during this Archaic Age between 750 and 500 BCE.


Greek Colonies c.550 BCE (left), Eridanos River (right) / Creative Commons

Ancient Greeks did not pursue colonization as it is largely thought of today. Most people today are familiar with colonization used for empire building, pursuit of religious freedom, and many other purposes. But the Greeks began colonizing for one primary reason – starvation (land hunger). They needed to settle more land to feed growing populations. Remember that the Greek landscape was not conducive to irrigation and large-scale agriculture. They had one river that could be crossed with a couple of steps and was dry during the summer. Populations in city-states had to be kept at modest levels to sustain them. During the Archaic Age, populations began to rise and people began to starve. They weren’t seeking to create a mercantile system or to conquer more land – they simply needed more land to farm for food. Citizens of poleis (city-states) were sent out to colonize new areas.

They did not have to fight for independence from their home polis.  It wasn’t akin to settlers in America from England later in revolution for independence from England.  Greek colonists were to start an entirely new poleis with their own system of administration and laws.  They were independent and autonomous from the start. Their polis of origin was called a metropolis (“mother city”). The metropolis would send citizens out to form an apoikia – a home away from home. Each apoikia became a new polis. These new poleis would send citizens out to form even more. However, they didn’t colonize the entire Aegean coast in all lands. They were not welcome in some places already occupied by others. There was no colonization on the land bridge, for example, in modern Israel. The “Sea Peoples”, part of the Bronze Age massive influx, were long gone at this point, and now the Assyrians ruled that area. The Assyrians had a ruthless reputation and these small groups seeking a place to establish their apoikia and new subsequent poleis wanted no part of the Assyrians. Plato once joked that because of colonization the Greeks lived like toads around a pond – they never went inland and settled only along coasts.

If the new colony was successful, they had a new beginning and both they and their metropolis were advantaged. For Greeks as a whole, this was a good idea. When poleis populations increased to the point that they needed to decrease their number, laws were created that – on pain of death – every house with several sons had to send one out with others to create a new apoikia. They would kill those who refused because they could not continue to feed them. Women were not mentioned, and we assume men were sent out and married indigenous women or had women sent to them from their metropolis.

During this colonization process, as they sent ships to other lands, Greeks became aware of other people and cultures in areas with which they had not been familiar. Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians, and other poleis may have hated each other, but as Greeks they all spoke the same language, had the same gods and goddesses, the same traditions – they had a shared or common culture. They used the word Hellenes to describe themselves as a whole. They also used a word for all others they met who were not Greek – Barbarians. They did not mean the word as people who were uncivilized, crude, etc. It simply meant people who didn’t speak Greek and were said to produce “ba-ba” sounds. Aristotle wrote about how they conducted trade with Barbarians by using gestures and other methods. They would gradually get to know each other and interact more readily. Some Greeks would even learn Barbarian languages and vice versa. It wasn’t until much later in Rome and elsewhere that the word became denigrating. Trade was also a consequence of colonization. New poleis would trade back and forth with their metropoleis. Greek unity as a whole – among different poleis and different metropoleis – wasn’t political but instead cultural. Colonization resulted in commercial and economic as well as cultural changes.

Around 600 BCE, the Lydians (in western Anatolia (just east of Ionia, neighbors of the Greeks) invented coinage. Greeks didn’t invent coinage but quickly adopted it from the Lydians, and it became a standard form of exchange. Each polis aspired to mint its own coinage and facilitate its own trade. Coinage helped Greeks expand trade.

Before this, wealth was measured by how much a person owned and was the measure of status, but coins changed the equation. Wealth could now be measured and stored. People may not have owned much or any land, but they could build ships and establish trade networks to become wealthy in their own right. Coinage always transforms a society as an alternative form of wealth.

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Athens Coin c.454-404 BCE (left), Sicily Coin c.465-446 BCE (center), Corinth Coin c.330-300 BCE (right) / Creative Commons

At first, all coinage with gold or silver and each polis minted its own. Coinage accelerated trade because goods being traded no longer had to be weighed to establish value. Images were initially only on one side of the coin but gradually went to both sides. Athenians put Athena, their patron goddess, on one side and an owl, Athena’s totem animal, on the other with an olive branch to symbolize their primary export.

Coins became advertisements for poleis – which gods/goddesses each had as a patron, which industry each pursued, etc. Herakleion put Hercules on theirs, Corinth added Pegasus. Adding a crab would indicate crabbing as primary industry. These coins spread messages. They were tools of mass communication and identification. At this point, no individuals other than gods and goddesses were depicted on coins. As powerful kingdoms rose later, only gods and industry symbols were still at first placed on coins. It was with Alexander the Great that a king replaced a god/goddess on a coin. Transformation from mortal to immortal was replicated on coins, and by the 4th century BCE, living kings had their portraits on coins to identify them as not only kings but also divine. Coins were a reflection of the cities that produced them. Greeks would also carry coins in their mouths because they didn’t have trousers with pockets, and they would spit them out to use them.

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Hoplite Soldiers (left), Corinthian Greek Helmet c.495 BCE (right), Phalanx (right) / Creative Commons

Hoplite warfare changed Greek society in terms of how they fought their battles. Warfare depicted by Homer (Homeric warfare) was largely symbolic with only a few heroes fighting in hand-to-hand, man-to-man combat, avenging their honor as well as in personal challenges. A very small group of fighters decided the outcome. During the Archaic Age, some Greeks began fighting differently with a new tactic that spread rapidly among poleis – the introduction of Hoplite warfare. The word “Hoplite” derives from the name of the shield soldiers strapped onto their left arm, the hoplon. Though the shield was important in hand-to-hand combat, it had to be small so that it could be slung around the neck and leave the arms free to fight. But this new tactic changed the engagement from man-to-man combat to units fighting as groups in a well-ordered infantry formation called a phalanx. Homeric warfare was man-to-man where the individual was important, and Hoplite warfare changed this to group combat where the fighting unit was important. They had helmets with eyeholes but no earholes that would feel like the head was in a bucket. Not many orders were yelled out in Hoplite battle because they couldn’t be heard through the helmets and fighting. These soldiers were protected by helmet from head to neck. They were protected by helmets from the head to neck, by a larger shield from the neck to the knees, and by shin guards from the knees to the feet. They used this heavy armament to be protected from head to toe.


Chigi Vase, c.650-640 BCE, Museo di Villa Giulia, Rome

The major offensive weapon was a spear that was not thrown but instead gripped halfway up and held upright with the shield in front as they would advance and stab at the enemy. Hector and Achilles, in spite of how Homer described them in his time (not what would have been theirs in the Trojan War), would never had worn such armor, and they threw their spears. Hoplite armies would advance upon each other in this phalanx formation, and victory would go to the side that maintained cohesion and did not break rank. They did not want anyone trying to flee out of fear, but they also did not want an individual to step forward heroically on his own – unlike in Homer’s stories. They worked as a team. Those in front of the phalanx were pushed forward by those behind, advancing whether they wanted to or not. Music was used to keep everyone in step, and this tradition kept with armies from then on – as we know from as recently as the American Revolution with drummers and fifes.

Every time people change how they wage war, they change society. Society always reacts to how war is fought. Most people did not fight in Homeric combat in stories dated prior to 650 BCE. Only a few among them – the heroes – fought and claimed the glory. Hoplite warfare meant many more would fight. Prior to this, only those who owned property (the wealthy) would fight for two reasons: 1) They had the most to lose and therefore to fight for with their property endangered; those going to battle with them would demand their presence at the front; and 2) It was thought foolish to give weapons and training to those didn’t own anything because they would use these things to take what the wealthy had. Fighting was only among the middle and upper classes who could afford their own weapons. Poor poleis never had Hoplite armies. But once the middle class was allowed into the army, they had to be given the same political rights. Poleis governments changed with Hoplite warfare.

Of all Hoplite armies, the Spartans were the best. Athenian Hoplites consisted of the wealthy and middle class, but all Spartan citizens had to be soldiers and nothing else. This is all they trained for 365 days a year. They obviously gave up a lot to form this kind of society and soldier base, but they were very strong as well.

General Poleis Evolution

• Monarchy – “rule of the one”
• Aristocracy – “rule of the best”
• Oligarchy – “rule of the few”
• Tyranny – illegal takeover
• Democracy – “rule of the many”

Greek poleis tended to evolve along the path above. Not all followed it in the same way or at the same speed, some didn’t get very far along it, some didn’t go through every step – but in general this was the pattern they followed. As they emerged from the Dark Ages, most still had a monarchy (“rule by the one“) with a king. During the Archaic Age, kings were replaced by the aristocracy (“rule by the best”) – those from the “right” family with a lot of wealth. These were the Homeric fighters, the aristocrats. They controlled everything but comprised less than 10% of the population while the other 90% had no voice. This gave way to oligarchies (“rule by the few“) by basically adding the middle class to the aristocracy. This was a broader base but still excluded many. Some would experience tyranny – one person or family illegally taking over. They would normally be driven out of power in one or two generations. The poleis then embraced democracy – “rule by the people.” They never went so far as to have rule by all of the people. Some were always disenfranchised. Even the most radical democracies, such as Athens, excluded women, foreigners, and slaves. This process pushed along trade and the development of coinage. Without coinage, it would be difficult for an oligarchy to transform into a democracy, or even an aristocracy into an oligarchy, because people would have no means of amassing their own wealth absent owning property that was already owned by a few.


Athens and Sparta / Creative Commons

Two poleis – Athens and Sparta – are often singled out as the most important and strangest. They were each the most radical on opposite ends of the spectrum. Each gained tremendous power and assumed leadership in Greece. Being so different, they almost never got along. They would not cease fighting until they were exhausted or destroyed each other.  Oddly, they did ally at times with the “Hellene” cultural mentality when threatened by others, such as the Persians. Athens was in central Greece on a long peninsula that jutted into the sea – Attica. They were consequently more disposed to sea travel and trade. Sparta was land-locked (in Laconia) with no easy access to the sea not as readily nearby. They were consequently not a maritime culture but more focused on agriculture.

Sparta was a strange place to most Greeks. Most admired (respected) them but did not want to give up what it would take to become like them. Sparta had two kings called Basileis (singular Basileus). These were hereditary kings from two separate royal families. One king would stay home and the other would go fight so that one would always maintain order if the other was lost. Kings served for life. Each year they would elect five Ephors (superintendent, overseers – a term still used in Greek government). They had a council of elders called the Gerousia (“old guys” in Greek – today words like “geriatric” derive from it). The Gerousia was composed of old men to advice the others and was comprised of 30 members – two kings and 28 elected members who had to be at least 60 years old (which was very old then). The Apella was the assembly of Spartan citizens comprised of men aged 30 and up. Only men were citizens in Sparta and only when they reached the age of 30. This was a “mixed constitutional” organization ruled by kings, an oligarchy, and the citizens.


Lycurgus / Creative Commons

Around 620 BCE, Spartans faced a tremendous decision. A civil war had broken out between Spartans and Helots (Spartan slaves). The Helots outnumbered them at least ten to one. Lycurgus said he had a plan. He said he could guarantee victory not only in that war but in all wars if they changed the way they did things. They all agreed, and the Lycurgan Reforms were instituted in 620 BCE. This was a new way of raising children to be the best in the world. Lycurgus introduced the agoge system which involved upbringing, raising, and a rigorous education and training regimen mandated for all Spartans, male and female. The purpose was to train citizens to be unflinching in battle. Everyone’s duty was to the state – to Sparta – not to their families or themselves. They would live and die for the state (what we would call totalitarianism today).

The government had to control absolutely everything – marriage, procreation, etc. Men married women the state assigned them to marry. Children were inspected at birth by the state to determine whether they should live or die. Those seen as weaklings were eliminated while those seen as healthy were kept and raised. A man who couldn’t produce children or had been unable to produce healthy children had a duty to go to others to impregnate his wife. Women were likewise expected to seek out better partners in this case as well. Kids lived with their mothers for seven years. A Spartan mother who was ever seen coddling or hugging her children would be deemed unfit. Kids were regularly beaten, starved at points, left out overnight in the cold, and so on to “toughen them up.” At the age of seven, every male and female would enter educational and military training and be separated from each other at puberty. At the age of 14, girls were sent back to their mothers and boys continued training. Men would become citizens at the age of 30 after having completed all of this training and proved themselves worthy in war.

Generals wanted soldiers who would obey orders without question, who would march off a cliff if told to do so. Older soldiers would beat boys with whips until they passed out or died. Those who cried were declared unfit and driven out – it was better that they pass out or die. Spartans would tell husbands, fathers, sons to come back victorious with their shields or being carried on them. Everyone – kings, men, women – went through this process. These were cookie-cutter soldiers willing to literally die in a second for their country and actually eager for the chance to do so. They were scary people to fight.

Spartans called themselves the Homoioi – the equals. There were no musicians, farmer, sailors, or anything else among them – they were all soldiers or women whose job was to produce soldiers. They were active duty from the age of 18 to the age of 60, after which they would be assigned garrison duty. They were soldiers for life. Spartans said there was only one art – the art of war. However, they still needed someone to farm, make pottery, make weapons, etc. They used helots and subject populations for this. Once they instituted this Lycurgan system, it could never be changed. Man for man it was the most successful military system in ancient Greece until the 4th century BCE.

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Athens Agora Map (left) and Acropolis Reconstruction (right) / Creative Commons (click to enlarge)

Athens was very different from Sparta. They saw Spartans as crazy. Their number one complaint was that Spartans was raised women to be healthy, outgoing, and to take a role in society. Athenians were democratic but completely suppressed women. Women were much better off in Sparta than in Athens. Spartans also didn’t have a sense of the enormous architecture of the Athenians. Sparta was also the only polis that did not build walls around the city. They saw walls as signs of weakness and fear.
Athens took the whole route from aristocracy to radical democracy. Kings were deposed in the Archaic Age and an aristocracy arose who called themselves Eupatrids (those with a good father) – from the “right” family or blood. Less than 10% of Athenians were Eupatrids and all others were commoners, and nothing was in between them. The aristocracy annually elected Archons – a group of magistrates. At first, nine Archons were elected each year, and one must have been a Eupatrid to be elected as an Archon. There was also a council of elders called the Areopagus. All men who had been elected Archons also became members of the Areopagus for life. In Athens, the assembly of citizens was the Ekklesia. The word ekklesia later developed into ecclesiastic for the church. Jesus said wherever two or more gathered in his name, there was the church. As in Athens, members of each of these groups were only males.


Solon / Creative Commons

The Athens oligarchy replaced the aristocracy because of the reforms of Solon in 594 BCE. Common people had begun to stir and threaten rebellion. Everything in Athens was being done for the good of only the few aristocrats, and the people grew tired of this. Comprising 90% of the population, nothing prevented them if they chose from rising up. A compromise was reached to allow Solon, one of the seven wise men of Greece, to determine the best resolution. He would take some things from the aristocrats but not as much as the commoners wanted. He created a new government based on wealth instead of birth. A person who owned enough property could be part of the government regardless of blood line. Anyone could become wealthy and join. He also cancelled all debts that were owed to the aristocrats prior to his reforms. This was a major change that the aristocracy did not like, but he reminded them that the people could always simply rise up, kill them and take what they had. He created cash crops for people to make money growing the right crops, particularly olives. He also passed a law requiring everyone to be an active citizen. A citizen could not abstain – all had to vote by law. Also introduced for some official positions was selection by drawing lots. Before this, aristocrats would vote for their own to be Archons. This eliminated that practice. This oligarchy was an entirely new system for Athens. Some of these reforms worked well, but there remained much in-fighting and Athens fell victim to tyranny.

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Peisistratus (left) and Cleisthenes (right) / Creative Commons

Peisistratus and his sons Hipparchus and Hippias took control from 561 to 514 BCE, after which they were driven out. Some wanted to return to the oligarchy Solon had created, but others decided to institute a democratic form of government in 508 BCE. Cleisthenes led the introduction of this democracy. Part of it was ostracism – a way for Athenian citizens to vote to get rid of another person for ten years by ejecting them from the polis. For example, imagine us deciding to ostracize either Paul Ryan or President Obama for ten years!

Athens and Sparta were two ancient Greek forms forms of government in direct opposition, but both had lasting impacts on the Western world.  Elements of each influenced the development of Western civilizations from that point forward, and that is the big deal – we’re never far from where we were.