Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy; Stanley M. Burstein et al. | Go to book overview

4
SPARTA

Admired in peace and dreaded in war, for much of the Archaic and Classical periods Sparta was the most powerful city in the Greek world. It was also different from other poleis. To be sure, the Spartans shared many basic institutions with other Greeks: their society was patriarchal and polytheistic, servile labor played a key role, and agriculture formed the basis of the economy. As elsewhere in Greece, law was revered and martial valor prized. Nonetheless, Sparta was unique in many important ways. No other Greek state ever defined its goals as clearly as Sparta or expended so much effort in trying to attain them. While the intrusion of the state into the lives of individuals was substantial in all Greek states, no state surpassed Sparta in the invasive role it played in the daily lives of its citizens. Spartans took enormous pride in their polis, and other Greeks were impressed by the rigorous patriotism and selflessness the Spartan system entailed. The Spartans' extreme denial of individuality fostered a powerful sense of belonging that other Greeks envied, and Sparta continues to cast an eerie spell over historians, philosophers, and political scientists even in an age that tends to recoil from totalitarianism.


SOURCES FOR SPARTAN HISTORY AND INSTITUTIONS

Despite the interest the Spartans sparked in their contemporaries, it is surprisingly difficult to write the history of Sparta And of its surrounding territory, Laconia. The problem is not lack of sources. Though unfortunately all the sources concentrate on upper-class and royal Spartiates and provide little information about the majority of the population of the territory of Laconia--the servile masses known as helots and the large disfranchised free class known as perioikoi--still the volume of ancient writing on Sparta is large. In the course of their narratives on Greek history, the two greatest Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, reveal a great deal about Spartan history, but the bulk of our infor-

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