The rise and fall of ancient Sparta

Silhouette of a Spartan warrior

The ancient Spartans were a fascinating people with a rich and intriguing history. Located in the southern part of Greece, in the region called the Peloponnese, specifically in a south-eastern region known as Laconia.


Sparta was originally settled by Mycenaean Greeks in the late Bronze Age. The city-state attained its legendary status during the 8th century BC, when it became one of the most powerful members of the Peloponnesian League.

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Mythical origins

In Greek myth, Lacedaemon, who was the son of Zeus and Taygete, was the founder of the city of Sparta.


He married Sparta, a daughter of Eurotas, with whom he had several children. The most famous was Lycurgus, who became the lawgiver for the Spartans.


According to legend, Lycurgus was inspired by the Oracle at Delphi to implement a series of radical reforms in Spartan society.


These reforms included strict regulation of marriage and childbearing, as well as military training and education for all Spartan citizens.


The result was a highly disciplined and militaristic society that valued strength, courage, and loyalty above all else.

Archaeology provides a different story, though. Modern historians have believed that a people group, called the Dorians, moved into the Peloponnese about 1100 BC, including Laconia.


Then, by the 9th century BC, they had built villages in the place that would become the city of Sparta.


Between 740–720 BC, the Spartans began their conquest of Messenia, a neighboring territory, in the First Messenian War.


The successful conclusion of this conflict resulted in the enslavement of the Messenian people, whom the Spartans referred to as Helots.


Unhappy with becoming permanent slaves that served their masters, the Messenians revolted and started the Second Messenian War, which lasted from c. 660–650 BC. However, the Messenians were defeated again.

The ongoing threat of armed helot revolts left a deep impression on the Spartans. They had become to rely on their slaves to support their society, but they needed to be held in check.


It was probably the need to maintain constant watch on the helots that fuelled Sparta's obsessive military culture, rather than the mythical character of Lycurgus.

Spartan society

The people that made up Spartan society were divided into two distinct groups: the Spartiates, who were full citizens of the city-state, and the perioikoi, who were non-citizens who enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.


The Spartiates, also called the homoioi, were males over the age of 30 who had completed their military training.


They were required to devote their time to military training and service. This was done in order to maintain a strong fighting force that was necessary for the defense of Sparta and its territories.

In contrast, the perioikoi were not full citizens. However, they did play important roles in society as traders, fishermen, sailors, manufacturers and craftsmen.


As a result, the economy of Sparta relied heavily upon their work, and the Spartiates provided military protection in return for their wealth.


The helots were the slaves of ancient Sparta, who were descended from the defeated Messenians.


They provided the raw manual labour that the Spartans required to run their city, primarily agriculture.


It is not certain how many helots lived in Sparta at any one time, but modern estimates suggest around 200,000. As slaves, they had no rights.


They were not even allowed to marry, buy or sell, or even travel without their master’s or the government's permission.

The Spartan army

Spartan society was based on a strict code of military discipline, which ensured that all citizens were well-trained in the art of warfare.


The Spartan army was widely regarded as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the ancient world.


Spartan hoplites were equipped a large round bronze and leather shield (called a hoplon)  and a 2 to 3-metre bronze-tipped wooden spear (called a dory).


The spear was used as a stabbing weapon, usually used 'over the shoulder'. This way, the hoplite could hide behind the hoplon while stabbing their enemy safely.


If a hoplite ever lost his spear, he could rely upon a short sword (called a xiphos) to defend themselves. Spartan warriors were famous for wearing a red cloak (called a phoinikis).

The Spartans typically employed a phalanx formation in battle, which was a large rectangular body of troops that marched together in close ranks.


A phalanx usually had 8-12 rows of soldiers that would create enough momentum to push the enemy backwards.


This formation was extremely effective in defense but could also be used to devastating effect in offensive maneuvers. 

Statue of a Spartan warrior

The agoge system

The agoge system was a series of educational and military training programs that all male Spartan citizens were required to complete.


The purpose of the agoge was to instill loyalty, discipline, and courage in the Spartan people.


After a new baby was born, it is said that they were inspected by the ephors for any physical 'defects'.


If any were found, the child was left alone on the nearby Mount Taygetus to die either by exposure to the elements or wild animals.


The purpose of such a brutal practice was to ensure that only physically fit adults would populate Sparta and its armies.

Boys began their training at the age of seven, when they were taken from their families and placed in state-sponsored barracks.


They would remain there for the next decade, during which time they would be subject to a strict regime of physical conditioning, military training, and education. 


At the age of 18, Spartan boys became full-fledged members of the army. They would serve in the military until the age of 30, at which point they would be eligible for citizenship. 


There were four main powers within the Spartan government. These were the two kings, the Council (called the gerousia), the Assembly (called the ecclesia), and the ephors. 


Each element was expected to respect the political powers of the others, while also ensuring that each group did not abuse those powers.


Sparta was governed by two hereditary kings, one from each of the two different royal families, known as the Eurypontids and Agiads.


The kings were part of the gerousia and their vote was considered equal to other members of the council.


The kings had the special privilege of being the supreme commanders of the army. Usually, one king went on campaign while the other remained back home in Sparta.

The Council was made up of the two kings and 28 Spartan citizens over the age of 60. They acted as a legislative body that passed laws and decrees. 


The Assembly included all males over 30 years who were citizens, and it had the power to vote on proposed laws from the Council by either shouting their approval at voting time.


The ephors were a group of five citizens that were elected annually and given the task of supervising the kings and ensuring that they upheld the laws of Sparta.


They were also tasked with looking after the public finances, supervise the Assembly meetings, seek advice from Council, and oversea the agoge training system.

Spartan women

Spartan women also played an important role in society. Although they did not participate in military training or service, they were responsible for the education of their younger children and the management of the household.


Spartan women were also known for their beauty and intelligence, which made them highly sought-after wives for wealthy men from other Greek city-states.


Spartan girls began their training for adulthood at the age of seven, just like boys. While they received an education that focused on athletic skills like the boys, they were also expected to take an active role in managing the affairs of their households.


They would learn how to cook, clean, weave, and perform other domestic tasks.

Although they could not participate in politics or serve in the military, Spartan women were expected to be patriotic and support their husbands and sons in times of war.


The primary role of a Spartan woman was to produce fit healthy male children who would become effective soldiers.


Since their husbands could often be away from their homes to fulfil their military duties, their wives had a lot of power in running the household and its finances.


They also exercised authority of the helots under their control. By the 4th century BC, women were allowed to inherited land since so many men had died in the constant wars Sparta was involved in. It was claimed that at one point, 40% of Spartan land was directly owned by women.

Lycurgus' reforms

The Spartan way of life was largely shaped by the reforms of Lycurgus, a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the early eight century BC. Lycurgus is credited with creating the agoge system, as well as instituting a number of other military, political, and social reforms. 


Some historians believe that Lycurgus was a real person, while others believe that he is a mythical figure.


There is no definitive answer either way, but there is no doubt that the reforms attributed to him had a profound impact on Sparta.

Lycurgus is credited with setting strict limits on the helots. Following his reforms, the helots could not own land or weapons, and they were required to perform all of the manual labor in Spartan society.


This allowed the Spartan citizens to focus on their military training and education. 


In addition, Lycurgus is said to have created the ephors and instituted a number of laws that aimed to create equality between rich and poor Spartans.


He also encouraged marriage and childbirth, and he banned luxury items from Sparta. All of these reforms helped to create a strong and unified Spartan state. 

The 'Spartan Mirage'

Sparta's dogged focus on military excellence helped it to gain a reputation among other Greek city-states as a fearsome warrior society.


This reputation was further bolstered by the fact that Sparta was largely able to avoid being conquered or sacked by its enemies. 


The legendary status of its warrior citizens even helped explain why the city of Sparta did not have any city walls for most of its history.


It was thought that the Spartans were so fearsome that no enemy would dare to attack them.

However, the Spartan way of life was not as perfect as it appeared to be from the outside.


In reality, Sparta was a highly stratified society that required strict obedience to its code of conduct. 


Spartans who did not adhere to these rules were subject to punishment, and in some cases, they were even banished from the city. 


This reputation eventually led to the creation of the 'Spartan Mirage'. The Spartan Mirage is a term used to describe the idealized version of Sparta that developed in the centuries after its decline.


This idea of Sparta as a perfect warrior society was largely a myth, but it was perpetuated by writers and historians who were fascinated by the city. 

The Peloponnesian League

Around 550 BC, an alliance known as the Peloponnesian League was formed between Sparta and a number of other city-states in the Peloponnese.


The purpose of this alliance was to defend the Peloponnese from outside invaders. Member cities of the league were not required to pay tribute to Sparta except in times of war. Instead, members of the League could vote on decisions.


However, Sparta was the leading of the league. It alone could call meetings and any decisions made by the League were not binding on Sparta if it did not desire it.


As a result, the Peloponnesian League was an important part of Spartan foreign policy, and it helped to make Sparta one of the most powerful states in Greece. 


The Peloponnesian League continued to grow in power, and by the mid-fifth century BC, it was one of the most powerful alliances in Greece.


However, its growth in power and influence led it into conflict with another growing Greek city: Athens.

Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta that lasted for 27 years.


The war began in 431 BC and was fought on land and sea. Due to the number of cities either committed to the Peloponnesian League or Athens' Delian League, the war involved most of the city-states in Greece.


During the Peloponnesian War, both sides made use of mercenaries, or professional soldiers who fought for pay.


The Peloponnesian War was a complex conflict, and it had a profound impact on the course of Greek history. 


As the preeminent military power in Greece, it was expected that Sparta would secure a rapid victory. However, this was not the case.


Both sides had victories and defeats, with high death tolls. The war lasted for more than two decades, and eventually ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 BC.


Despite the victory, the heavy death toll left Spartan military forces weakened and in desperate need of recovery.

The decline of Sparta

The Peloponnesian War left Sparta as the dominant power in Greece. However, the war had also taken a toll on Sparta, and in the following years, the city began to decline. 


Sparta's population decreased, and its economy was no longer able to support its large army. In addition, many of Sparta's allies became resentful of its dominance, and they began to rebel against Spartan rule.


By the mid-fourth century BC, Sparta's power had declined significantly, and it was no longer the dominant force in Greece.

Although the Spartans were often held up as an example of military prowess and strength, they were not invincible.


In fact, the Spartan state was eventually brought down by a number of factors, including internal strife, economic decline, and foreign invasion. 


Sparta's military dominance came to an end with its defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.


The city-state continued to decline in power over the next few centuries, culminating in its incorporation into the Roman Empire in 146 BC. 


Despite its eventual fall from power, Sparta remains one of the most iconic and influential societies of antiquity.


Its legacy can be seen in many modern militaries, which continue to promote the values of discipline, courage, and patriotism that were first espoused by the ancient Spartans.

Further reading