Ancient Sparta


Sparta (spär´tə), city of ancient Greece, capital of Laconia, on the Eurotas (Evrótas) River in the Peloponnesus.

Spartan Society

Sparta's government was headed by two hereditary kings furnished by two families; they were titular leaders in battle and in religion. Some of these kings were able (e.g., Cleomenes I, Leonidas, and Agis II), but all were held in check. There was a council of elders and a general assembly of citizens; but the real rulers were the board of five ephors, elected annually. The business of the state was conducted with secrecy (unlike the open forum methods of Athens), and every effort was made to keep the institutions unchanged.

The ruling class, the Spartiates, gave themselves wholly to war. At birth a boy was inspected by the elders, and if he appeared too weakly for future military service, he was taken into the mountains and abandoned. If he was fit, he was taken from his mother at the age of seven to begin rigorous military training. He became a soldier at 20, a citizen at 30, and continued as a soldier until 60. Thus his entire life was spent under rigorous discipline. Spartiate women, under less severe discipline, were part of the soldierly society and were not secluded. The Spartiates were the only citizens and the only sharers in the allotment of lands and of the helots (serfs who were bound to the land). The helots farmed the land and paid part of the produce to their masters, the Spartiates. They could not be sold, but they had no legal or civil rights and were constantly watched by a sort of Spartiate secret police for fear of insurrection. In somewhat less stringent subjection were the perioeci, freemen who were permitted to carry on commerce and handicrafts, by which some of them prospered. Nevertheless, the perioeci were entirely subordinate to the Spartiates.


Early History

Located in a fertile, mountain-walled valley, the city-state of Sparta was created by invading Dorian Greeks, who later conquered the countryside of Laconia and Messenia (c.735–715 BC). Prior to the Dorian conquest, tradition says that Sparta was an important site of Mycenaean civilization in Greece (c.2000–1100 BC), but the Mycenaean ruins that have been found there are not comparable to other significant Mycenaean sites. For a long time the Spartans had no city walls, trusting to the strength of their army for defense against invaders and against their own Laconian and Messenian subjects. In the 7th cent. BC Sparta enjoyed a period of wealth and culture, the time of the poets Tyrtaeus and Alcman. After 600 BC, however, Sparta cultivated only the military arts, and the city became an armed camp, established (according to the official legend) by Lycurgus, in reaction to a Messenian revolt (see Messenia).

The Persian and Peloponnesian Wars

By the 6th cent. BC, Sparta was the strongest Greek city. In the Persian Wars, Sparta fought beside Athens, first at Thermopylae (480), under Leonidas; later that year at Salamis; and in 479 at Plataea (won by Pausanias). Before 500 BC, Sparta had formed a confederacy of allies (the Peloponnesian League), which it dominated. Through the league and by direct methods Sparta was master of most of the Peloponnesus.

After the Persian Wars rivalry with Athens sharpened, and Athens grew stronger. An earthquake at Sparta (464 BC), followed by a stubborn Messenian revolt, greatly weakened Sparta. In the end a contest with Athens came indirectly, provoked by Corinthian fears of Athenian imperialism. This was the great Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), which wrecked the Athenian empire.

Soon after their victory over Athens the dominant Spartans, led by Agesilaus II, were involved in a war with Persia; then the Spartan envoy Antalcidas concluded (386 BC) a treaty with Artaxerxes II by which Sparta surrendered the Greek cities of Asia Minor in return for withdrawal of Persian support from the Athenians, who were again at war with Sparta, and from the Athenians' allies, the Thebans. Thebes fought on and by the victory at Leuctra (371 BC) gained ascendancy in Greece. Sparta fell an easy prey to Macedonia and declined. In the 3d cent. BC there were determined but futile attempts by kings Agis IV (see under Agis) and Cleomenes III and by Nabis (d. 192 BC) to restore glory to Sparta by vigorous reforms. Under the Romans, Sparta prospered. It was devastated by the Goths in AD 395. The ruins of old Sparta, including sanctuaries and a theater, remain near the modern city of Sparta.


See A. H. M. Jones, Sparta (1967); J. Lazenby, The Spartan Army (1985); P. Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (1987); P. A. Rahe, The Spartan Regime (2016); J. T. Roberts, The Plague of War (2017).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Ancient Sparta: Selected full-text books and articles

Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: A Tale of Two Cities By Paul Cartledge; Antony Spawforth Routledge, 2002 (2nd edition)
Spartan Women By Sarah B. Pomeroy Oxford University Press, 2002
Greek Lives By Plutarch; Robin Waterfield Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: "Lycurgus" begins on p. 3
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History By Sarah B. Pomeroy; Stanley M. Burstein; Walter Donlan; Jennifer Tolbert Roberts Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Sparta"
Thucydides and Internal War By Jonathan J. Price Cambridge University Press, 2001
The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta By Nigel M. Kennell University of North Carolina Press, 1995
The Spartan Tradition in European Thought By Elizabeth Rawson Clarendon Press, 1991
Plutarch, Plato and Sparta By Futter, D Akroterion, Vol. 57, Annual 2012
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Shadow of Sparta By Anton Powell; Stephen Hodkinson Routledge, 1994
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.