Settlements > Sparta

Sparta

Background

Sparta was one of many ancient independent city-states that existed to comprise the larger civilization of Greece. Known for its strict military tradition, the people of Sparta were some of the best soldiers to exist in the ancient world.

Sparta was known early on to be extremely focused on independence and their right to rule their territory. They would never let another civilization or city-state rule over them and they were in constant conflict with not only city-states within Greece but outside the region as well.

From its early history Sparta has always been involved in whatever great war was going on at the time, from the Greco-Persian Wars to the Peloponnesian Wars to the Corinthian Wars to the Punic Wars, always ready to showcase their elite fighting capability.

Origins

The true origins of the city-state of Sparta is shrouded in mystery much like all of the other ancient civilization. There are no reliable written records for the first settlement of Sparta and we are unsure what their culture may have been like.

The first archaeological evidence we have near Sparta is from the Middle Neolithic and consists of a simple pottery shard found about two kilometers from Kouphovouno, southwest of Sparta. This is the earliest trace we have of the Spartans that were described in Homers Iliad.

Iliad & Bronze Age Collapse

According to Homer's Iliad, which represents the Bronze Age of Greece, Sparta is a great and powerful city-state. However, around 1500 BCE there occurred the Bronze Age Collapse which saw the whole scale destruction of nearly every settlement in Greece as well as on the eastern Mediterranean shores.

During the Dark of Greece is when mythical Spartan heroes emerge such as Heraclids and Perseids which tend to blend myth and fact to create a unique view into life during the Greek Dark Ages. These myths, born out of a period of chaos and confusion offer the first primary source glimpse into early Spartan life.

Archaeologists believe the next major Spartan settlement began around 1000 BCE which makes sense following that most of Greece had been destroyed and entered into a dark ages. According to the Greek historian Herodotus Macedonian tribes from the north, known as Dorians came down and conquered the local tribes that had built the first settlements in what would become known as Greece.

The Dorians that invaded Sparta began trying to expand the borders of their territory, even fighting their own people in the process. They fought against the Argive Dorians along with the Arcadian Achaeans from the fortified position. The reason that archaeologists have never discovered any real defensive buildings in ancient Sparta was because they were not necessary, the environment did that for them.

As archaeologists have noted there is nothing much of interested during this period and there is nothing distinctive of the Dorians in this archaeological period or anything. Its weird but it does not seem the history of Homer and the Iliad match up with facts.

Classical Sparta

By 800 BCE the Spartans had begun conquering the surrounding area of Messenia and turning the people into slaves of Sparta. During this period of rapid expansion Sparta is believed to have come into control of about 8,500 km2 of territory, making it the largest city-state in all of Greece.

According to both Herodotus and Thucydides, there was a century long period of civil war and internal strife that occurred following the annexation of so much territory. In response to this widespread civil unrest the Spartans carried out a series of total reforms of their society that brought it closer to how we understand them today.

The reforms were attributed to a greatly revered lawmaker named Lycurgus and this period marks the beginning of Classical Sparta as is represented in popular culture.

The period of chaos was brought to an end by the adoption of Lycurgus' reforms and Sparta decided to expand even further. During a Second Messenian War, Sparta was able to acquire even more territory and their fearsome reputation as fighters was cemented in Greek culture.

Greco-Persian Wars

The Greco-Persian Wars were a series of major wars that represented a clash of civilizations between Greece and Achaemenid Empire around 500 BCE.

The first major engagement that the Spartans were involved in with this conflict was the Battle of Thermopylae, which saw the forces of about 300 Spartans 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebians against the endless hordes of the Persian Empire.

As Leonidas I famously said "Molan Labe", or come and take them, this infamous stand facilitated the Greek defense against the massive Persian Empire. They inflicted extremely high casualties on the Persians and this event is well known in history.

Following the loss of Leonidas the entire civilization of Greece moved towards war and through their superior weaponry, strategy and bronze armor the hoplites and their phalanx formation were able to crush the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea when the Spartans moved in full force.

The victory of the Spartans at Plataea brought an end to the ideas of Persian conquest of Greece. Despite leading a coalition of all free Greeks, the credit for the victory over the Persians was given to Sparta who had been its leaders from the beginning.

Late Classical Period

After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Sparta began to experience tension with the other city-states in Greece. This included mostly Athens and Thebes. Persia was still a factor but a little more less so with their defeat.

Peloponnesian Wars

Corinthian War

Next, Sparta found itself involved in the Corinthian War (395-387 BCE) which Sparta faced an alliance of Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Argos. The alliance was backed by the Persian Empire who feared further Spartan expansion into Asia.

The war got started when both Thebes and Sparta got involved in a smaller proxy war by intervening. The hostility between Greek city-states had been brewing for a while over Sparta's conquest in Anatolia that was beginning to threaten the other city-states.

At first the Spartan hoplites were able to win most of the victories on land, but the Spartan navy was destroyed at the Battle of Cnidus by the combined forces Greece and a Phoenician mercenary navy provided by Persia.

This event crippled the Spartan navy and when Conon the Athenian began to assault Sparta's coastline it threatened the fragile political and social system that had dominated Sparta for hundreds of years. Click here to learn more about the Corinthian War

Alexander the Great

Both Alexander and his father Philip II chose not to attack Sparta even its much diminished state. When Alexander was campaigning in the east, Sparta actually made military gains for him by securing the island of Crete in 333 BCE under the command of King Agis III.

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.[36] More than 5,300 of the Spartans and their allies were killed in battle, and 3,500 of Antipater's troops.[37] 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.[38] Alexander was merciful, and he only forced the Spartans to join the League of Corinth, which they had previously refused to join.[39]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".[40][41][42]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 the conquest of Persia, 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 [emphasis added].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. In 146 BC Greece was conquered by the Roman general Lucius Mummius. Following the Roman conquest, the Spartans continued their way of life, and the city became a tourist attraction for the Roman elite who came to observe exotic Spartan customs.[n 4]

Spartan Society

The conquered peoples of Messenia and Laconia, known as perioikoi, had no political rights in Sparta and were often made to serve with the Spartan army. A second and lower social group was the helots, semi-free agricultural labourers who lived on Spartan-owned estates. Intermediary between the helots and the perioikoi were the liberated helots or neodamōdeis. Spartan citizens did not indulge in farming activities themselves but devoted their time to military training, hunting, war, and politics. The helots could keep a percentage of the produce they cultivated, but they were also regularly purged to keep them firmly in their social place and they could also be conscripted into military duties in times of war.The relationship between citizens and helots was an uneasy one and there were sometimes uprisings, notably in the 7th century BCE which contributed to Sparta’s defeat to Argos at Hysiae in 669 BCE. Sparta gained revenge on Argos in c. 545 BCE but then lost a battle with Tegea shortly after. This regional instability brought about the Peloponnesian League (c. 505 to 365 BCE) which was a grouping of Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and other states (but never Argos), where each member swore to have the same enemies and allies as Sparta.

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources


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