History & Mythology

Sparta in 11 Minutes: What Made Spartans The Biggest Force in Ancient Greece? 🏛️

The Spartans. Known for instilling fear in the hearts of their enemies at the very sight of them, this ancient Greek city state rocketed back into public consciousness with Zack Snyder’s infamous film, “300”. Who were the Spartans? What role did Sparta play in the ancient world? What made them a force to be reckoned with among the Greeks? This is Sparta Explained.

Where Did It Begin? Sparta’s Foundation

As with many ancient civilisations, no one really knows the exact date when the city-state of Sparta was founded. Historians estimate that it was established somewhere around 950 to 900 BCE. What we do know is that Sparta wasn’t established as a shiny, new city – four Dorian villages in the area came together and decided to combine forces, uniting as one. Strength in numbers, perhaps. 
Who were the Dorians, you ask? Way back, before Sparta, the Dorians were one of four Greek subgroups, along with the Ionians, Achaeans, and Aeolians. They all spoke Greek in their own particular way – a dialect, you’d call it – and this is what differentiated them. Tensions arose between them, as they often do, and the Dorians moved south into the region of Laconia, where Sparta was founded.

Two Kings - A Spartan Special

It’s this union that resulted in Sparta’s unique system – dual kingship. Two kings ruled at once, counter-balanced by an elected board of ephors and a Council of Elders, aged 60 and above. Then, a general assembly of each citizen could also vote on legislation. Monarchy and democracy, it seems. The ancient sources speak of one named Lycurgus who provided the foundation for Spartan law. Scholars say he probably never existed, though, and was just a myth.

The Path to Hegemony - Messenian Wars

Laconia wasn’t enough. The Spartans wanted more – this seemed to be a recurring theme. This led to the Messenian Wars of the 7th and 8th centuries BCE which resulted in Sparta controlling almost all of the southern half of the Peloponnese. Now, military strength and isolationism takes centre stage for these ancient people, dictating their next few centuries.

Training System

What made Spartans such fearless warriors? Helots made it possible for “true” Spartan men to focus on becoming part of the citizen training system. Spartan boys were raised in barracks from the age of 7. Discipline and obedience were instilled in them, they barely wore clothes so they’d get tougher, they were starved in order to become resistant to hunger. 
They were encouraged to steal food if hungry, and were punished if caught. At 20, they were full citizens of the community, fierce Spartans who were ever in training.
Clearly, this mindset had its downsides. Those who couldn’t fight due to disability were mocked. Infants with a disability – in the eyes of Sparta’s elders – were thrown into a pit at Apothetae, below Mount Taygetus. Just Sparta things.

Sparta Meets Persia

To quote Galadriel from the Lord of the Rings, “rumour grew of a shadow in the East”. Only, it was the civilisational might of Persia and this was no rumour. The Persians had imperial dreams of their own and they attacked Greek cities in Ionia, the west coast of Turkey today. The Ionians asked Sparta for help. The Spartans said no. But they did threaten King Cyrus and told him not to lay his hands on Greek cities. This time, the Persians said no.
Eventually, the Persians, under Darius I invaded Greece in 492 BCE. The Athenians fought back at the famous Battle of Marathon two years later. And then, in 480 BCE, Xerxes took his Persians across the Hellespont and moved south, towards Sparta, gaining allies.
Enter King Leonidas of the Spartans, at the helm of an anti-Persian coalition with his Spartans. The famed Battle of Thermopylae took place as Spartans and other Greek soldiers blocked Xerxes' advance. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the core repelled the attack. And yes, like in the film “300”, even Xerxes’ Immortals – his elites – couldn’t break through.
But the battle was ultimately a loss after a Greek traitor showed Xerxes how to flank Leonidas’ forces. Leonidas perished along with almost all the Spartans involved.

Spartan Culture

Why all this focus on Sparta and its military? Simple – Spartan culture was centred on warrior culture. The only allowed occupation of male Spartan citizens? Soldier. This wasn’t Athens, where other aspects of civilisation, like arts and philosophy were high priority. But unlike other Greek women, Spartan women were known for being independent-minded and were allowed to own and manage property. Spartans were allowed to marry from the age of 20, but men had to live away from their wives until they were 30. 
Homosexuality was a recognised custom in Sparta, and was an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys. Helots handled most of the domestic affairs, so the women of Sparta were known to partake in athletic competitions like javelin-throwing and wrestling, as well as competitive singing and dancing. 
In fact, the Spartan princess Kyniska was the first woman to win at the ancient Olympic games. Far more progressive than Athens, where women were restricted from going outside. Still, Sparta was a rigid society, based on discipline and little personal freedom. You lived for Sparta, you died for Sparta.

The Beginning of the End

For centuries, the Spartans maintained the same traditions and laws. Their extremely conservative nature meant that change wasn’t all that welcome. This was also the case with their military – slowly, their enemies learnt more and more about how they fought, but Sparta didn’t keep up with the changing landscape of warfare.
With Spartan hegemony, corruption within the ranks became rife and other Greeks became resentful. This, coupled with a reluctance to adapt and helots outnumbering Spartan citizens led to their downfall. 
At the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE against Thebes, the Thebans capitalised on these Spartan weaknesses, costing Sparta dearly. When Sparta was defeated, the Thebans freed the helots and suddenly, the Spartans had less time to focus on military pursuits without their labour force. They continued as a weakened regional power for another two centuries, eventually allying with the Romans and later sacked by the Visigoths.

The Spirit of Sparta

But the ethos of Spartan discipline and hardiness lives on. Machiavelli and Rousseau wrote about its advantages and the discipline and virtue it instilled in its citizens. Zionists formed their Kibbutz movements partly based on the Spartan ideals of communitarianism and military training. They inspired gender empowerment and civil organisation in later empires and even modern-day states. Today, the image of a Spartan hoplite helmet is used as a symbol of strength, fortitude, and human physical excellence.

Did Sparta contribute to ancient Greek civilization? How should we judge their treatment of those they did not deem worthy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more great stories like this one. Also find us on Instagram for your daily dose of culture from Curious Muse!
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