1902 Encyclopedia > Sparta


SPARTA, after Athens, was the most powerful and important of the Greek states. Her fame rested mainly on her soldiers, her military discipline, her somewhat narrow patriotism, and her intense political conservatism; in general intellectual culture, in art and in everything connected with it, she was immeasurably inferior to Athens, and even to some of the other Greek states, though there is evidence to show that a genius and a taste for sculpture and music were by no means wanting to her citizens. Her eminent men were almost all eminent as soldiers, and few of them had any pretensions to rank as able and enlightened statesmen. No such man as Themistocles or Pericles ever appeared in Sparta; she produced no great thinkers or philosophers; the typical Spartan, in short, was a brave and well-trained soldier, with a decided simplicity of character and strong religious scruples, amounting to what we must call superstition, which from time to time were a hindrance to prompt action and discredited the state in the public opinion of Greece.

Sparta was not so much a city as a cluster of open villages in a plain in the heart of Laconia (see vol. xi. plate I.), in the middle valley of the Eurotas, on the west bank of the river, between the ranges of Taygetus and Parnon, and built in part on the spurs of these mountains. Its situation was very picturesque: "hollow, lovely Lacedaemon" is Homer's description. Taygetus on the west rises to its greatest height of nearly 8000 feet just above the city, with primeval forests on its lower slopes, in which Spartans hunted the stag and the wild boar. Sparta seems to have been about six miles in circuit; it was not, like most Greek cities, near the coast,—Gythium, the chief port of Laconia, being 30 miles distant; nor was it built with anything like the compactness of an Athens or a Corinth. The houses for the most part stood in spacious gardens, an open-air life being altogether to the Spartan taste, and well suited to the pleasant genial climate of the valley. The olive still grows to great perfection in the neighbourhood, and the silk is said to be of particularly fine quality. The mountain ranges round the city gave it a very strong defensive position, and for a long period Sparta was without walls or fortifications, trusting exclusively to the prowess of her citizens till she was seriously menaced by the victorious Macedonians in the 4th century B.C. The city was never a very splendid one; the houses were plain and simple and there seem to have been no public buildings of striking magnificence. There was the so-called Brazen House of Athene on a hill within a large enclosure, with plates of bronze which gave it its name, on which, among other mythological scenes, were represented the labours of Hercules and the exploits of the great twin brethren, Castor and Pollux, who were specially honoured at Sparta. There was the theatre, still to be traced in huge quadrangular blocks of stone, and there were porticos and colonnades, and the chapels and tombs of Spartan heroes, such as Lycurgus,, Leonidas, Brasidas. Sparta delighted to honour her worthy citizens, and paid them divine honours after death. The site of the city has not been thoroughly investigated, but it is a question whether much remains worth bringing to light. What has hitherto been discovered is poor and disappointing. Sparta's greatness as a city; as Thucydides (i. 10) clearly implies, fell very far short of her political importance as a state.

Sparta's history, passing over her share in the prehistoric Trojan War under her king Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, begins with the legislation of Lycurgus in the 9th century B.C. It was this, as has been explained in the article LYCURGUS, which made Sparta what she was, a state whose aim it was rather to hold her own within the Peloponnesus than to launch out into doubtful enterprises far away from home. Sparta was not naturally aggressive or ambitious; she was not easily roused to action even in great emergencies. She was safe amid her mountains from the perils to which other Greek cities were exposed. It would seem that in early days Argos had been decidedly the first power in the Peloponnesus, Sparta being second to her by a long interval. The relative position of the two states was reversed soon after the time of Lycurgus. The spirit and vigour which bis discipline infused no doubt enabled Sparta, after two severe wars in the 8th and 7th centuries, to accomplish at last the complete conquest of Messene, the south-western portion of the Peloponnesus, and so to become the undis-puted mistress of at least two-fifths of the whole peninsula. By the year 600 B.C. Sparta was quite in the first rank of Greek states, and it was generally felt that she had a right to take the lead in Greek politics. In the 6th century she put down the tyrants, the heads of the democratic and popular party, in several Greek cities, and drove, for a time at least, the reforming and innovating Clisthenes from Athens. Sparta was the steady foe of democracy and popular government. The Spartans were themselves a small landowning aristocracy, in the midst of a comparatively numerous population, consisting of so-called Perioeci (dwellers round about), the aboriginal inhabitants, in fact, of Laconia, and of Helots or serfs, taken to a great extent from the conquered Messenians. The government was highly centralized; it was wholly in the hands of the Spartans, the Perioeci having no share in it, though many of them may have themselves been landowners, or at any rate have held land under Spartan landlords, and been well-to-do and prosperous. The Helots were farm labourers bound to the soil, slaves in every sense of the word, anything like self-respect being studiously made impossible for them. Spartans could put down a popular rising or a slave insurrection with cold-blooded cruelty, and in a panic following on an earthquake of unusual violence in 464 there was a deliberately-planned massacre of a multitude of Helots for the safety of Sparta, carried out and executed by Spartans in person. A calculating selfishness was a marked trait in Spartan character. Sparta seems always to have put her own interests before those of Greece, though she claimed to be the leading and representative Greek state. She was cautious and even timid, though the courage of her individual citizens in war was unsurpassed. Every Spartan was a hero on the battlefield, and a Spartan army was long assumed to be invincible. Sparta was not much of a colonizing state, but she could point to the famous city of Tarentum in southern Italy as her offspring, and to Lyctus {II., ii. 647; xvii. 611) in Crete, whence came warriors to the Trojan War. In 491, when Greece was threatened with invasion by Persia, we find Athens appealing to Sparta and urging a complaint against the Aeginetans as traitors to Greece for having given earth and water, the symbols of submission, to the emissaries of the great king. In 480 a Spartan admiral commanded the Greek fleet off Artemisium against Xerxes, and in the following year a Spartan general, Pausanias, commanded the united forces of Greece in the famous battle of Plataea. All this implies a distinct recognition of Sparta as the head of Greece. The Persian War over, Athens under Cimon and Pericles developed extraordinary energy and took Sparta's place. Sparta indeed seems to have retired upon her laurels, and it was not without reluctance and much urgent pressure that she embarked in the Peloponnesian War, which, after twenty-eight years of hard fighting, ended in the overthrow of the Athenian empire and the capture of Athens by Lysander in 405. Sparta contributed greatly to the final result by despatching an able officer, Gylippus, to the relief of Syracuse in 414, when the city was on the point of surrendering to the Athenian armament. It was the decisive success of Gylippus in Sicily which turned the scale against Athens. The crushing blow of Aegospotami in 405, which annihilated her fleet and left her defenceless, and the subsequent surrender of the city transferred the supremacy of Greece once more to Sparta, but not for much more than thirty years. Sparta's policy was ungenerous and short-sighted; it consisted in establishing little oligarchical factions under Spartan control in the Greek cities, and soon degenerated into a tyranny which became utterly odious. All Sparta's worst qualities came out during this period: "autonomy," which had been her watchword throughout the war against Athens, became a dead letter under her rule; and the freedom of city life, so dear to a Greek, was crushed out under her officials and commissioners, whom she thrust on a number of Greek cities. Still more did she disgust all the better men of Greece by concluding, after a series of intrigues for her own selfish ends, a peace with Persia in 387, known as the peace of Antalcidas, the Spartan through whom it was negotiated. It was a dishonourable peace for Greece, as its effect was to facilitate Persian intervention in Greek affairs and make the king of Persia the arbiter of Greek disputes and differences. Meanwhile Athens was recovering herself; the tables were soon turned on Sparta, and her maritime power collapsed before the united action of Athens and Persia. In the Peloponnesus Sparta was still supreme, but Thebes, she felt, might become a dangerous rival and must be humbled. She insisted that the townships of Boeotia must be "autonomous" and independent of Thebes, and so contrived to pick a quarrel with that state, which to Sparta's cost had at that time the famous Epaminondas, the greatest, perhaps, of Greek generals, among her leading citizens. In 371 came Sparta's crushing defeat at Leuctra, a blow from which she never really recovered, though her courage and military discipline long survived it. But her prestige was gone. Epaminondas carried the war into the heart of Laconia and penetrated to Sparta itself. His victory at Mantinea in 362 gave independence to Messene, and Sparta was now politically ignored by her old allies.

From this time Sparta almost drops out of Greek history. She took no part in the struggle against Macedon; no Spartan soldier stood by the side of the Athenians and Thebans at Chaeronea. She seems to have sunk into political apathy; very possibly she may have had to concentrate all her remaining strength and energy in keeping down her Helots and the native population of Laconia. When Alexander was winning his victories in Asia, she intrigued feebly against Macedon, and she would take no part in the congress of the Greek states at Corinth which declared Alexander "Leader of the Greeks."

She appears once again, but as not much more than the ghost of her former self, in the 3d century B.C., attempting vainly in 281 to unite Greece against the Macedonian Antigonus, and repulsing Pyrrhus from her walls in 272, Spartan women working at the city's defence, and a few Spartan warriors driving back the formidable soldier-king. There was still the old spirit about her, but the number of her citizens is said to have dwindled down to 700, and in her last days, with a wealthy few in the midst of a poor and needy people, Sparta had shrunk into the narrowest and feeblest of oligarchies. In the latter half of the 3d century B.C., in the days of the Achaean league, a vigorous but unsuccessful attempt at internal reforms and a restoration of the old discipline of Lycurgus was made by two of her kings, Cleomenes and Agis. She sank finally, we know not how, under the degrading dominion of a sort of robber chief, Nabis, who fastened his tyranny upon her by the support of emancipated slaves and mercenaries of the lowest class. Her best citizens were put to death or banished, and she was debased into a refuge of pirates and robbers. Nabis and his vile gang were put down by Philopoemen in the name of the Achaean league, and Philopoemen completed his work by razing the walls of Sparta and abolishing her old institutions. Rome simply looked on, knowing well that she was mistress of the situation, and let matters drag on till 146, when she captured Corinth, and closed the page of Greek history. (W. J. B.)


369-3 Lacedaemon was simply another name for Sparta, though sometimes it seems to stand for the surrounding district.

For topographical details we must refer the reader to the elabo-rate works of the German scholar Curtius on the Peloponnesus and works based on them. Mure's Greece and Leake's Morea should be consulted.

The above article was written by: Rev. W. J. Brodribb.

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