Sparta, an original Greek city

Sparta, an original Greek city

Sparta was a deeply original city of ancient Greece which had similarities with certain cities of Crete where the populations were of Dorian origin. It marked the spirits since Antiquity by its severe character with a model of educational violence imposed on the young Spartans but also with the fate reserved for the majority of the Lacedemonian slave population (the helots). From Antiquity writers, philosophers and historians (Herodotus, Aristides, Polybius, and others) wrote a lot about Sparta but none of them was native. Most of these philosophers were Athenians and some like Xenophon made positive judgments, others were on the contrary very severe like Isocrates or Aristotle.

At the origins of Sparta

The Spartans conquered Laconia. To justify this conquest and this right to enslave, they created legends which are linked to the gesture of Heraclides, descendants of Heracles. Heracles succeeded in saving the power of King Tyndarus who was threatened by his brother. Heracles would therefore have reigned jointly over Sparta, which is why the Spartans will claim to be descendants of Heracles. The Heraclids leave Sparta, are driven out, and take refuge in the Peloponnese. The return of the Heraclids would date from the eleventh century BC. In the classical period, the legend spreads that the kings of Sparta were Heraclides, while the people came from the Dorian invasion.

The Dorians conquer the Peloponnese: Messinia, Laconia, Argolida. The Messenians who will find themselves enslaved by the Spartans are Dorians. They have the same blood as those who will conquer them. A good part of them will become helots.

The idea that a Dorian people invaded the entire Peloponnese is a plausible story. The first reason is linguistic: the history of the migration of languages ​​shows this with the Greek dialects.

The Achaeans are the Greeks of the Peloponnese before the Dorians. They are identical to the Mycenaeans. Some of these Achaeans remain in place and are subject to the Spartans. Some will become periecs and others helots but a part of the Achaeans refuses this conquest and will take refuge in the austere mountains of the heart of the Peloponnese: Arcadia, in particular Mount Lycée (the mount of the wolves) where according to Pausanias we practiced human sacrifices. Others go to the North of the Peloponnese in an eponymous region: Achaia. Note that the Archaian dialect is very close to Mycenaean. Finally, another part of these Achaeans will find refuge much further away, it is an exodus, they take to the sea and take refuge in Cyprus where they will give birth to the Archado-Cyprian dialect.

Sparta, a monarchy?

We must not confuse the Spartans, the Lacedaemonians and the Laconians. The term "Laconian" is a geographical term: Laconia is the region of Sparta, the territory and even the landscape of the Spartan city. The inhabitants of Laconia are Laconians, it is a rather broad term. A more restricted nucleus is that of the Lacedaemonians, a word of very ancient origin since the term lacedaemon is already found in Homer. It is a word which designates the fighters of Laconia and therefore the inhabitants of Sparta. These Lacedaemonians are the Spartans who fight in the army and also include the Perieces (the latter are not full citizens). Finally, the hard core is the Spartans. A few thousand men at the beginning, it shrinks until it becomes a minority.

The Lacedaemonian constitution (politéia) is extremely complex since it contains both monarchical and oligarchic elements and democratic elements. It is a constitution that the ancients qualify as mixed, unlike Athens which is a radical democratic constitution. Aristotle in his work Politics describes this Constitution.

The term monarchy for Sparta is inappropriate because it implies the power of a single monarch, while in Sparta there is not a single king but several permanently. We must speak of a double royalty. With its two parallel dynasties, the organization of Sparta is a unique case in all of Greece. These two royal dynasties are called the Agiades and the Eurypontids. Throughout the history of Sparta, we will have this double kingship, and the Spartans explained it with difficulty by two twins who would have emerged at the same time from their mother's womb, which would have made it impossible to know the older one. This double kingship would have prevented tyranny on several occasions and would therefore have been seen as a safeguard. During Spartan history, we have examples of rivalries between the two kings when one of the two showed too many ambitions, indeed the second was always there to remind him that it was necessary to share power. The Spartans have never supported tyranny.

Political organization of the city

The main political organ considered by Aristotle as an aristocratic body is the Council of Geronts: the Gérousia. The Geronts are the old men, twenty-eight in number to which are added the two kings, so there are thirty of them. It is an aristocratic council which possesses a lot of powers. The entry conditions are quite restrictive. You must be over sixty years old. There is also a financial aspect: it is the richest who are chosen. In addition, there is an election, which is an aristocratic designation. A Géronte is elected for life, he has no account to render to the people. In other words, the Geronts fear practically nothing, which is different from Athens where a magistrate must participate in the re-editing of the accounts. The Geronts are the most corrupt organ according to Aristotle. Originally, it was a Tribunal: the most important Tribunal in Sparta that tried murder cases. The Gerousia also has political powers similar to those of the Boulè.

In the 5th and 4th centuries, the probouleutical function is transferred to the ephors. This probably because of corruption and the Géronte way of life. The ephors are therefore taking more and more power with the college of the five ephors.

These magistrates seem to have been recruited, at least a part of them, among the people. Gradually, they become masters of the most important cases (except the murders which remain for Gerousia: civil law cases, contracts, property issues, become legal cases in the hands of the ephors who are only five and who judge each individually the affairs. Little by little, they are transformed into a kind of permanent government controlling all the life of the city, from where the judgment emitted by Aristotle which considers that it is a form of collegial tyranny. The ephors are elected. for one year.

Not only do they judge civil law cases but they also ensure respect for order and traditions and mores. They become a kind of political police in charge of monitoring, like spies, citizens, and identifying possible plotters against the regime: in particular the periecs and the helots. They are also responsible for overseeing gerontes and kings. They have the powers to initiate a lawsuit against a king who can be tried for treason. Some kings were condemned to death by the ephors.

The assembly, named Ekklèsia then Apella has powers in Sparta, but the texts are too brief on the extent of its powers. Originally it was the kings who declared war, but from the time of the Peloponnesian War (at least 431), it was the Homoioi Assembly (People's Assembly) which declared war. The people decide against the advice of the king.

Sparta and Athens, two comparable cities

Athens and Sparta are two city states in which political rights are strictly and fully reserved for males who are no longer children under the law. A child in ancient Greece had no legal rights. These are two states which have in common the total exclusion of the majority of individuals inhabiting the territory, and not just metics or slaves. Since the archaic era, women have been excluded. We know thanks to the discovery of several political decrees, that a woman was sufficiently rich to pay for the construction or repair of certain public buildings, in particular the Bouleuterion which was the main building (2nd century BC).

The woman will never sit there, however. One of the main intrinsic characteristics of all Greek cities is the exclusion of women from politics throughout Antiquity. Children are considered at birth as non-citizens who must go through stages, with a number of years that may vary depending on the city (18-20 years in Athens and Sparta). This age is a heritage of Antiquity, which is evident today.The exclusion of foreigners is total, from all political rights, whether in Athens or Sparta, as well for national political life (boulè, ekklésia) than local (at the demes level, the markdowns are local magistrates).

The women of Sparta

In these two cities, citizenship and its corollary (total absolute freedom), is reserved for a very small minority, that which defends the city. This male privilege is therefore reserved for those who fight. However, women never go to war. In Athens, the metics are excluded from the heavy infantry (elite corps of hoplites, 10,000 in Athens in the fifth century, for 30,000 citizens). The fighters of the light infantry are the peltasts, the metics participate in it. They are almost as numerous as the citizens.

Gender discrimination extends widely in the legal field, in what today would be called criminal or civil law. The main inequality concerns ownership. In Athenian law, a woman never owns the smallest thing. She is only the intermediary, the link which transmits part of her father's fortune to her boys. She is only the depositary of this strictly masculine heritage, hence the creation of a specific legal category of epicler girls. A situation essentially similar to Sparta (where the epicler girls correspond to the patrouchoi girls). From a legal point of view, in Athens as in Sparta, the girl is an eternal minor. With a little nuance ...

We know that in some Dorian countries, in Crete, women had a slightly different situation. We know this thanks to the discovery of the Gortyne code: a code of law discovered by archaeologists, in an archaic alphabet. This code of Gortyne dating at least from the 5th century BC tells us about the legal status of women. In this Dorian city (Gortyne), the woman must inherit half of the property in relation to her brother. Most historians think that this law guaranteed the financial security of the girl, by preventing the father from robbing them in relation to their dowry, without however comparing them to the status of major. Others, less numerous, think that the woman is no longer a minor in this city. Apart from this nuance provided by the code of Gortyne, women are eternal minors on the political and legal point.

The citizenship

To be a boy, you have to be a legitimate son. Citizenship in Athens, as in Sparta, is based on the right of blood. You have to be a grown man and have the right parents. The father and the mother, genetically, have an Aboriginal ancestry (genos). No Greek city has been governed by the law of the soil. Lysias is a metic given in Athens who lived around 400 BC, and whose profession was a logographer (modern lawyer). He devoted a large part of his fortune inherited from his father, to defend Athenian democracy. His money helped finance the rebellion against the regime of the Thirty. As a reward, a decree gave him citizenship before being quashed for technicality. In Athens as in Sparta, the right of blood is undoubtedly the result of a recent evolution, that is to say of a closure, in an obsidional mentality.

When Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 508/7, the regime's opponents reproached him for having made citizens en masse many foreigners domiciled in Athens. It was still possible, it seems, to naturalize domiciled foreigners, an echo of a former land law. In 451, the Athenian Assembly voted, on the initiative of Pericles, an extremely important law: only children whose father is Athenian and whose mother is of citizen ancestry will be citizens. This law was accompanied by the mass deregistration of several thousand Athenian citizens whose mothers were not of Athenian origin. According to some sources, this law was therefore retroactive.

In all likelihood, we can see the evolution of mentalities and the withdrawal of a civic body into itself. Citizenship becomes a privilege to be defended. From the 5th century BC, the Greek city no longer intended to expand, citizenship must remain in the hands of a minority. It is the reverse evolution in Roman history, where Rome absorbs the neighboring cities.

Society and politics

Sparta "/> From the political point of view, one notes in the two cities the absence of political caste between the citizens. The function of magistrate is never hereditary, except for the kings. It is the disappearance of the dynastic principle. No religious caste either, that is to say that will be priests (with some exceptions) only citizens drawn by lot or, it seems, elected in Sparta. The subject is quite controversial. This egalitarianism contrasts with Egypt, India and the Middle East at that time. There is also a deep distrust of the chiefs. The offices, in the two cities (except the geronts and the kings), are annual.

This is the case for all Athenian magistracies, it is the case for the main magistracy of the Spartan state (the ephors). This distrust of magistrates is accompanied by their possible enforcement: lawsuits against magistrates are carried out in the two cities. In Sparta, the magistrates control each other, but the principle is the same: the magistrate is not all-powerful. We are the opposite of what medieval and modern monarchies will be. This distrust of leaders is not the prerogative of democracy: Sparta is an oligarchy. It was born with the oligarchies, when the Homeric kings were replaced by aristocratic councils in which families shared power.

This is accompanied by a bursting and a balance of powers (rise in power of the ephors). Pausanias writes a pamphlet on the powerful rise of the ephors. In these two cities, the people's assembly has considerable powers during the classical archaic and the Hellenistic times: declarations of war or ratification of peace, and votes of laws directly, as well as the election of the main magistrates. From this point of view, Athens, like Sparta, are democracies, like most Greek cities.

The perishes

From Antiquity, two theses clash as to their origin. According to some, they would be Achaeans reduced to an inferior rank by right of conquest. They would therefore be Greeks speaking a different dialect than their new masters. This disappearance of the dialect would indicate that the Periecs were the Dorians who arrived as the last migration to territories already occupied. Among them were indigenous populations but also Dorians who had been excluded from power because they arrived too late during a second or third wave of migration. The characteristic they share is that they are free (éleutheroi) but not full citizens. The periecs have a status of inferior known as hypomeiones, "those below the best", which largely explains their docility and the absence of revolt. They seem satisfied with their fate, they have the right to own a craft activity allowing them to enrich themselves, activity prohibited to the Spartans. No Peric city would have revolted during the earthquake of 464 which failed to destroy the city and provokes a helot uprising. Nevertheless they are exploited by the Spartans from an economic point of view because they paid each year an important tribute to the Spartan king.

These periecs are a special case of Sparta because they live among themselves. So there is a dichotomy with the Spartans. They were excluded from the capital but nevertheless lived in poleis (towns or cities). They were relatively independent from Sparta. Herodotus makes King Démarate speak: "There is in Lacedaemon a polis of about 8,000 men, and all the Lacedaemonians have a lot of poleis". There is therefore a city of 8,000 Spartan citizens around other cities with which it coexists. These different poleis, numbering around one hundred, have their own political institutions with magistrates, assemblies, etc. The periecs live in less fertile land but their properties are exploited by helots, the only obligation being made to them is to provide contingents to the army. This is one of the things that shocked the Athenians a lot who considered that the periecs were part of the demos. Little by little they become the majority in the Lacedaemonian army.

From the Peloponnesian War to the fall of Sparta

The first conflicts of Sparta opposed it to Messenia (province in the south-west of the Peloponnese) and to Argos (city located in the north-east). The Messenian war ended around 668 BC. AD by the rout of the Dorians of Messinia, most of whom were reduced to the status of helots. During the wars against the descendants of the Achaeans and against the Dorians of Argos, the Spartans were very often victorious, mainly against the Achaean league. Raised in this austere discipline, they became a race of fierce and ascetic warriors, capable of sacrificing themselves for patriotism, as the three hundred heroes who died at Thermopylae during the Persian Wars showed, but unable to adopt a sensible political and economic program. The Peloponnesian War which broke out in 431 BC. brought the rivalry between Sparta and Athens to its climax. For more than two decades, the Spartan army will face the formidable Athenian thalassocracy.

After the defeat of Athens in 404 BC. AD, Sparta dominated Greece. But its inflexibility led to a new war during which the Thebans, commanded by Epaminondas stripped it (371 BC) of its power and its territorial possessions, bringing the state back to its original borders. Sparta was, in fact, the permanent rival of Athens and embodied in the ancient Greek world a political ideal opposed to Athenian democracy: a warlike and aristocratic society exalting male strength and a morality of austerity. She also embodied the power of the land, and opposed the maritime imperialism of Athens. Subsequently, Sparta became part of the Roman province of Achaia and appears to have prospered again in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. The city itself was destroyed by the Goths commanded by Alaric I in 336 AD. J.-C.


- Edmond Lévy, Sparta. History points 2003.

- Sparta, city of arts, arms and laws, by Nicolas Richer. perrin, 2018.

- Jacqueline Christien and Françoise Ruzé, Sparta geography and myths. U, Armand Colin, 2007.

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