Ancient Sparta is one of the most famous of all the Ancient Greek city-states. It has become known for its unstoppable army. However, there was much more to this culture than just its army.
Sparta was a city-state located on the Eurotas River in the region of Laconia in the Peloponnese in Greece. The land that the city of Sparta controlled was the largest in all of Greece: around 8000 square kilometres. In comparison, the region of Attica, which was controlled by Athens, was only 2500 square kilometres.
Laconia provided Sparta with rich fertile agricultural soil, iron ore for making metal objects, and the high mountains around it provided natural protection from outside forces.
Sparta began their history as a city-state much like any other. Its population was made up of citizens and slaves. The citizens would fight in the army on a part-time basis if there was ever a war.
However, in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Sparta sent out their armies to expand their land area and to conquer nearby cities. Two major cities in the Peloponnese that were brutally captured were Messenia and Laconia. The people of these two settlements were enslaved by the Spartans and turned into a massive slave population called the Helots. The Helots were required to do all of the agricultural work and manual labour for Sparta, which meant that Spartan citizens were freed up from these tasks.
As a result, Spartan citizens were able to become full-time soldiers. Instead of farming and working, they spent their time training and practising battle tactics. Sparta became the very first Greek city-state with a permanent army. With its new, professional army, Sparta dominated most of the Peloponnese peninsula.
The desire to create the most powerful and effective army in all of Greece became an obsession to the Spartans. They only wanted the strongest, toughest and smartest men in their society.
At birth, young boys were inspected for any signs of physical deformity or weakness. If any of these things were found, the parents were instructed to leave the baby alone on a hillside to die.
For those boys who were able to stay with their families, they spent the first few years of life with their parents. However, when they turned seven years old, boys left home to begin their military training, in a harsh regime known as the agoge.
Each boy was assigned to a military barracks in Sparta, where the older soldiers were tasked with teaching younger students the art of war. The children were fed only the bare minimum of food and were encouraged to hunt and steal for any extra food they wanted. This was just like how soldiers had to find food when at war. Also, boys were taught to not be afraid of the dark by being left alone at night to defend themselves against wild animals.
When they turned 18, young Spartan men were drilled in important battle formations and practised them over and over again. Finally, at the age of 20, they were allowed to enter the army.
After ten years of military service, at the age of 30, men were considered full citizens, but still fought in the army until 60 years old.
Unlike the men, Spartan women could not become citizens nor join the army. However, the women did have rights that other Greek city-states did not give to their women. For example, Spartan women could own their own personal land and could speak in legal courts without needing a male relative to be present.
Spartan women were given this freedom in order to help Spartan society to operate while so many of the men were away at war. Women were given full power to look after the farms and helots, and hand out punishments when required.
Like the boys, Spartan girls were also taught that strength was important. Sparta argued that only strong women could give birth to strong children. As a result, girls also took part in physical training activities.
Sparta was ruled by two kings, from two different royal families. Historians believe that having two kings allowed one to be present on the battlefield during wars, while the other could run the city-state at the same time.
Under the king was a council of advisors, called the ephors. There were five ephors who offered wisdom to the kings when required. These ephors held an enormous amount of power in Spartan society and made many of the decisions about when and if the Spartan army went to war.
Under the ephors was an assembly of male Spartan citizens who could be elected to the position every year.
The Spartan’s strict military training regime created a powerful army that was feared and respected throughout Greece. The Spartan army was asked to engage in many wars between Greek city-states, as it was believed that when Sparta fought on the battlefield, they were destined to win.
When the mighty Persian Empire invaded Greece in the early 5th century BC, the Greeks begged the Spartans to join the resistance. The Spartan army fought its most famous battles against the Persians, including the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, and the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. It was instrumental winning the Persian Wars for the Greeks.
However, Sparta became arrogant with their military power and entered a 30-year war with the Greek city of Athens, called the Peloponnesian War. Even though Sparta won the war and gained dominance over most of Greece, the cost in men and money of the war was something that Sparta never fully recovered. By the 3rd century BC, they had ceased to be a significant force in Greece.
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