Sparta Flash Card #24: technology: pottery

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Sparta Flash Card #24: technology: pottery



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Spartan Art

Despite the persistent writers who state that Sparta was spartan, there is evidence that Sparta had a flourishing artistic culture. It not only flourished, but Sparta saw a variety of activities: pottery, reliefs, and even masks. However, the most famous of Spartan art (the Vix krater and the pottery of the Arkesilaos Painter) are still unavailable. Perhaps one day I will attempt to scan them.

To see the larger image, simply click on the piece.

Ancient Worlds

Spartan Pots

Author: * Demetrios Xanthippos - 2 Posts on this thread out of 950 Posts sitewide.
Date: Jun 12, 2003 - 08:41

Perhaps Sparta’s greatest artistic contribution was her pottery and ceramics. The Hunt Painter, the Naukratis painter, and the Rider Painter are all believed to be Spartan or Lakonian. But above all the rest is the Arkesilaos painter. He is known to have been widely travelled and recognized; his name comes from his depiction of Arkesilaos, the king of Kyrene.

For much of the Archaic Era, Spartan pottery ran a generation or two behind the rest of Greece, but once they found their “voice” their pottery became a thing of real beauty. Lakonian ware spread throughout the Greek world and beyond (the most distant example being the Vix Krater—metal rather than ceramic—found in the grave of a Gaulish princess). Numerous examples have been found in fifth and sixth century BC contexts.

The popularity of Lakonian ware probably stems from two sources: their somewhat unique subject matter and their use of purple dyes. Subjects were varied but they were expressed in unique ways, derived from the Archaic forms (particularly Corinthian forms) but developed along a different line than the rest of Greece. The Spartans are also credited (by Fitzhardinge, at least) with introducing a griffon-like beast, half bird and half panther. I find this intriguing since I always thought the griffon was a Scythian motif.

Certainly the uniqueness of much of their subject matter was a factor in the spread of Lakonian ware, but I suspect that the greater factor was the use of the local purple dye in their painted pottery. The purple was used to highlight the manes of lions and the tails of water-birds. This is the same dye which was later used to dye the Spartans scarlet cloaks (the ancient purple is closer to a very deep red). It seems that the source of this dye was murex shellfish found in the Laconian gulf. It is generally believed that it was the Cretans who first developed murex dyes and passed them on to the Spartans and the Phoenicians.



  • Before 600 BC Spartan pottery flourished and was produced in a fine fashion. After 5th century decay of Laconian art is apparent with it becoming stereotyped/mediocre with no advancement.

  • Essentially technological advancement regarding Spartan pottery went in the reverse – with continually less progress over time. Plutarch attributes this to Lycurgus.

From Barbarism to Civilisation


The modern town of Sparta, as seen from the site of the Mycenaean citadel, looking across to Mount Taygetus. The medieval town of Mistra can be seen on the first hilltop to the right. This shows well the situation of Sparta, in a fertile valley but surrounded by mountains. Taygetus was the most formidable mountain range in southern Greece, but beyond it was the other fertile plain, that of Messenia, which the Spartans conquered.

Sparta was the antithesis of Athens. Whereas the Athenians are famous for their art, the Spartans were famous as warriors. They had no democracy, no art and they were the prototype totalitarians, and like totalitarians ever since, they have been almost as much praised as they have been reviled. How did this come about? The answer has fascinated their contemporaries as much as it does modern scholars.

The answer to my eyes is simple. They did not use money; indeed I shall argue that this was by deliberate choice and exacerbated traits already present. Other scholars have failed to see the importance of this. Indeed, they mention that money was not used as an oddity – Plutarch indeed emphasises this in his Life of Lycurgus and claims it as a great benefit – but no-one hitherto has seen the importance of this in explaining the development of Sparta. Let us therefore go back to the beginning and consider the history of Sparta.

The history of Sparta, it must be said, gives rather a different story to the archaeology. Sparta played a leading role in the Trojan War: Helen, the cause of the war, was a Spartan, the wife of King Menelaus. However the history begins in the 8th century BC when the Spartans conquered their neighbours in Messinia who occupied the only other really fertile valley in the Peloponnese. In the 7th century the Messinians revolted and had to be conquered again when the Spartans adopted the new model army system of Ancient Greece, the hoplites. But the conquest of Messinia set the scene for all future Spartan development. The Messinians had to be kept in subservience and the Spartans had to develop as warriors in order to keep the Messinians down. The Messinians were called helots who were not exactly slaves but were the next to bottom rung in a system that the anthropologist will recognise as a typical hierarchical caste system. The Spartans under their legendary king Lycurgus adopted a new system which concentrated on keeping the Messenians down: it was a training system known as the agoge whereby from the age of seven they were trained to be soldiers and secret policemen – and little else.


Archaeology, however, tells a rather different story. In the early years of the 20th century, the British began excavating in Sparta, notably at the temple of Artemis Orthia. Here they discovered numerous bronzes of an early date, suggesting that in the 6th and 7th centuries Sparta was a fairly normal Greek state specialising in bronze work. Indeed, the superb bronze mixing bowl found at Vix in France is almost certainly an export from Sparta. In the 6th century there was also a flourishing painted pottery industry, which is particularly important to archaeologists as pottery can be dated accurately and it is possible to trace the pottery industry down to the end of the 6th century BC. But then it stops. Indeed at the end of the 6th century all flourishing Spartan export industry in small bronzes seems to come to an end. The story is the same in poetry. In the 7th century Sparta participated in the story of the early Greek lyric poets with the work of Tyrtaeus and Alkman. In the 6th century all this ceased. What had happened?

Above. The Vix crater (top) and a detail from the frieze.

Though this was discovered at Vix in France, it was almost certainly an export from Sparta, and demonstrates both the superb skill of the Spartan metalworkers in the sixth century, and the extent of the Spartan exchange network.

I believe that this is linked to the deliberate non-use of money by the Spartans. In the late 6th century, some time between say 525 and 500 BC, Athens adopted money – and so too did most other state on the Greek mainland. But Sparta did not. Was this deliberate? Plutarch, writing his Life of Lycurgus in the 1st century AD, said that the mythical law-maker Lycurgus banned money – indeed any ownership of Gold and silver: he noted, as a benefit of this, that imports of luxuries ceased and that all useless occupations were banned. Among these he mentioned jewellery and other trades of luxury, as well as prostitution and fortune-telling.

This banning could not have taken place in the 8th century BC, when Lycurgus is dated, because money had not been invented at this time. It must be dated to the end of the 6th century BC, when the adoption of money must have been on the agenda of the rulers of every Greek state. In Sparta, the decision must have been taken deliberately and formally – it must have been proposed by the two kings – a great feature of the Spartan constitution, and accepted by the Gerousia, the assembly of all adult males to which the kings referred all decisions for approval. Of course the decision was based on the underlying structure of Spartan society: Whereas Athens adopted money early and easily because their society was already a very open one, Sparta rejected money because its society was already a closed one; but as at Athens once the decision was taken, the underlying logic of money economics soon exaggerated the differences in both society and in economy. The Athenian economy boomed and the arts flourished, while at Sparta the economy stagnated and their society became every more repressive and inward looking.

The 'Rider' cup. This splendid black-figure cup, dated to the middle of the 6th century BC, demonstrates well the high quality of Spartan workmanship at the time, before the money-banning began.

At first however, all went well for Sparta. As so often, when a totalitarian state is first established, everything seems rosy, as most people welcome the crack of firm direction, and the absence of wearying distractions. The results at first were very positive. Sparta became warriors par excellence to which all other cities looked up for leadership. Almost immediately, the Persians invaded Greece, - the big crisis of Greek history. In the initial skirmish in 490 BC, Sparta stood aloof – the omens they said were not right –and it was the Athenians alone who won the Battle of Marathon. However, when the Persians returned 10 years later in full force it was the Spartans who led the resistance. The great heroic stand was at the narrow pass of Thermopolae in northern Greece, where 300 Spartans were sent to resist the Persian advance. At first they were successful 300 men holding up holding up the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Persian troops. But then a traitor led the Persians round through a back route, and the Spartans were surrounded: they fought every last man to his death, losing the battle but winning immortal glory, - at least in the eyes of those who admire this sort of glory.

True, it was the Athenians who then won the next battle, the naval battle at Salamis – the Spartans had no navy – but at the crucial battle of Platea a Spartan commanded the Greek army and it was Spartans who played a crucial role in the victory that persuaded the Persians that the conquest of Greece was going to be just too difficult. Throughout the fifth century, Sparta maintained its dual role with Athens as being the two leading states in Greece, but from 432 t0 404 BC, Athens and Sparta were at war – a war which eventually the Spartans won with help from the Persians and numerous mistakes by the Athenians. Not that their victory meant much: Athens almost immediately revived and went on commercially and artistically as before, whereas in 371 Sparta was defeated by the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra and never again regained their prominence. It was not until some time after 240 that Sparta eventually began issuing silver coins, at a timer of crisis and reform when many of the old traditions had to be abandoned or reformed. Sparta eventually achieved some sort of importance in the Roman period when they reinvented themselves as a tourist attraction, putting on displays of the Spartan games for the benefit of wealthy Roman tourists.

The Spartan system is a fascinating example of one of the worlds most comprehensive – and nastiest – totalitarian systems. The system receives its fullest surviving treatment in the pages of Plutarch, the Greek biographer (AD 47 – 127) whose Lives included those of three notable Spartans, in the course of which he gave us the fullest description of the Spartan system.

How did this special Spartan system come about? We should begin perhaps with a little history. There were three main groups – we could call them classes or castes but these words have too strong overtones – the pure Spartans, the Perioikoi or neighbours, and the Helots. The perioikoi were the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, many of them on the coast. As individuals they owed no allegiance to Sparta, but to their own community. But the community, or city, owed allegiance to Sparta, and was obliged to supply troops whenever Sparta demanded it. And while the term Sparta refers strictly to the city itself, the Spartans and their neighbours were called Lakedaimonioi, which is the usual Greek term for the Spartans, and the Lakedaimonian army would have had more allies than Spartans.

But the real underclass where the Helots. These consisted mainly, though not wholly, of the Messenians who were conquered in the 7th and again in the 6th centuries when the ownership of their land was taken from them and shared out by lot among the Spartan elite. The helots became tied cultivators. They cultivated the land, and gave up half the produce to the Spartan over lord and only kept the other half for themselves. Technically they came under the discipline of the Spartan state as a whole, not that of the individual masters, though there are references to helots accompanying their master to war and sometimes fighting alongside him. There were occasional helot or rather Messenian revolts but none were successful; though had the Athenians backed the Helot revolt in the 460s, they could probably have broken the power of Sparta for good. But as in any totalitarian state, the worst aspect was the secret police, known as the Krypteia, meaning ‘hidden’. It appears that true Spartans, and in particular the Spartan youth were encouraged to go round and beat up, and if necessary kill, any Helot who appeared to be getting bolshie. Indeed one authority says that the Spartans declared war on the Helots formally every year so that they could be murdered with impunity.

But the second and most spectacular part of the Spartan system was the so called Agoge or educational system (the Greek verb ago has a similar though broader meaning to the Latin duco, meaning to lead) so that Agoge really is the same as education). This began at birth when every baby was brought to the elders for inspection and if it were not up to scratch it was exposed on the hillside. The education system began at the age of 7 when the children were all assembled together in a herd under a cowherd: their full military training began when they were 13, and lasted till they were 20. Life was tough. They were only allowed to have one cloak, summer and winter, so that they should learn to despise the cold; their food was always inadequate and they were encouraged to go out and steal any extra, but if they were caught stealing food they were severely whipped, not for the crime of stealing, but for the crime of getting caught.

Girls underwent similar training so they would bear hardy children: indeed the Spartans score good marks among present day feminists for treating the sexes more or less alike. The girls also had to perform naked dances in front of the boys just to make sure they were not tempted to become fat. Naked dancing appears to have been a feature of Spartan life, for naked youths were also encouraged to put on displays of dancing known as the Gymnopaideia which were extremely popular among the later Roman tourists.

Two of the lead plaques found at the temple of Artemis Orthia, which first demonstrated the quality of early Spartan metalworking.

Left is a musician(?), right a gorgon.

Another major feature of the system was the sussition, or communal eating arrangements. On reaching manhood, every Spartan was elected to one of these ‘messes’ to which he was required to bring his share of food and wine, the produce of his helot. It appears from some accounts that the young men even slept in these communal houses, at least until the age of 30. Even on their wedding day they were expected, having pleasured their wife, to return to the communal residence. It is difficult to see how the system worked or even the size of the messes, for reports vary from tables of just 15 to an average of 300. As far as I know, none of these communal houses has ever been excavated and Pausanias, the Greek guide book writer of the 2nd century AD, in his description of Sparta makes no mention of them. Perhaps they had died out by then. Nor, as an archaeologist, would I even know where to look for them: would they be in the centre of Sparta itself, or in one of the five villages from which Sparta was formed? But their existence has always been one of the more obviously ‘communistic’ aspects of the Spartan system, with analogies in primitive tribal societies.

When did this Spartan system come into being? In Classical times, it was fashionable to attribute everything to Lycurgus the mythical law-giver of presumably the 7th or 8th century BC. Plutarch gives him the full treatment as one of his parallel lives of Greeks and Romans. It is based on widespread reading of literature, much of which does not survive: some of this sources were good, some of them less so. He preserves what is known as the Great Rhetra – Rhetra meaning oracle – it is cognate with orator – written in a very archaic dialect which is either very early or a very good later forgery.

I would argue however that the system was not formalised till the late 6th century BC, for several of the major aspects only make sense at this date. The crucial aspect was the banning of gold and silver coins, which is surely a reflection of the great debates which took place when Sparta formally outlawed the use of money; and this could not have taken place till money was invented, somewhere around 525 and 500 BC. There is also a very interesting passage where Lycurgus took a stand against the use of written law for making contracts. This is fascinating passage for those of us who emphasise the difference between contract law and ritual law (or social justice) for he says that he preferred to let disputes be decided by wise judgment rather than by specious reasoning based on interpretations of writings. This again could not have come into existence until commercial law was beginning to be established and written down, presumably not before the late 6th or indeed 5th century.

It seems clear therefore that this Lycurgan constitution is an outstanding example of a primitive kin based society, not using money, despising individualism and practising a primitive communism. Sparta is almost always misunderstood when it is assume to be ‘Greek’ . Sparta was not Greek at all, but a relic of an older society surviving in a changed world.

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