Ancient Society: Spartan Society to the Battle of Leuktra 371 bc

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Ancient Society: Spartan Society to the Battle of Leuktra 371 BC

Sparta was situated 200m above sea level at the northern end of the alluvial plain of Lakonia. To the west of Sparta lay the Taygetus mountain range. The Eurotas River provided much needed water, while the small Lakonian plain, enabled the Spartans to grow food. The lower slopes of the mountains provided valuable timber and excellent hunting grounds. The mountains acted as a natural barrier to the valley of Sparta. The Spartans were able to mine iron and lead, grow barley and olives, cultivate orchards and vineyards and graze sheep. Gytheum, the Spartan port in the Lakonian Gulf provided shellfish as well as dye to colour Spartan clothing.

Early Sparta

The bulk of evidence for Sparta comes from the histories written by Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, as well as the political observations of Plato and Aristotle, none of whom were Spartans. Sparta emerged in c.550BC with a different outlook from other Greek states of the period. Between 900 and 750 BC Sparta gradually gained control of the area of Lakonia. Sparta attacked Messenia numerous times until the population was reduced to serfdom. This success enabled Sparta to double her agricultural resources, as Messenia was the major food-producing region in the Peloponnese. At some point after the Messenian Wars the Spartans undertook a drastic and revolutionary reorganisation of their social and political systems. The whole state became geared to a militaristic way of life; a new system of law and order or ‘Eunomia’, was established. Plutarch writes that the new state that emerged at this point was due to the lawgiver Lykourgos, who had sought the help of the Delphi Oracle. He was instructed to establish a sanctuary to Zeus and Athena; divide the people into tribes and Obai; appoint the two kings and a Gerousia of thirty men.

The Peloponnesian League

The Peloponnesian League was a confederacy of Autonomous states formed in the 6th century BC. After the Messenian wars Sparta had gradually become the most powerful state in the Peloponnese, outstripping her rival Argos. Sparta made a network of alliances with all the Peloponnesian states except Argos and Achea. Sparta had the right to summon the assembly of allies and to preside over it. Decisions were made in the assembly by the majority vote. As head of the Peloponnesian League, Sparta wielded considerable power.

Lykourgos: Legendary Lawgiver?

Ancient authors such as Herodotus and Aristotle wrote of Lykourgos as a historical figure who handed down the laws of Sparta after consulting the will of the gods. Modern historians such as D.H. Kelly believe that that the Lykourgos initiative represents change to the Spartan way of life that occurred over a period of time. Plutarch considered that the most important changes instituted by Lykourgos were the Council of Elders, redistribution of the land and expulsion of alien crafts. The banning of crafts had a devastating impact on Spartan society. “Lykourgos established military organisation, the divisions, companies of thirty and messes, as well as the Ephors and elders. By these changes they became a well ordered state” - Herodotus.

Social Structure

The poet Tyrtaeus wrote that originally Sparta contained three main tribes: the Hylleis, Dymanes and Pamphyloi. It is believed that by the 7th century BC Sparta was divided into five Obai.

By the 5th century there were three distinct social classes in Sparta; Spartiates (equals, peers), Perioikoi (‘Dwellers around’) and Helots.

To belong to the Spartiate class the main criteria was ownership of a plot of public land (kleros), membership in a military mess, sharing of common meals (syssitia) and completion of education and military training requirements (agoge). This group formed military elite in Spartan society. They were a highly trained warrior class, holding all political power.

Spartiates and Property: the Kleros

All land controlled by the Spartans was divided in allotments; each Spartiate held a portion of the land (kleros) and had an equal vote in the assembly. Spartans were not allowed by law to engage in public activities such as trade. A Spartan could gain an estate either by being granted an allotment from the state or by receiving an inheritance from his father. Spartiates had economic freedom and did not have to concern themselves with earning a living, but could concentrate their energies on warfare. “Lykourgos persuaded the citizens to pool all the land and then redistribute it afresh” – Plutarch. Aristotle notes that land distribution caused poverty due to large populations and the land being combined together through time by people giving and bequeathing it. Stephen Hodkinson explains that ownership of land in Sparta was never equal and became more unequal over time. The number of Spartiates rapidly declined in the 5th and 4th century BC, Spartiates who lost their land were no longer equals and were known as ‘hypomeiones’ – inferiors.

The syssition

Each Spartiate had to make a monthly contribution from the produce of his Kleros, to the military mess. Failure to do this would result in loss of citizenship. Men shared communal meals in military barracks, each contributing with their share of produce. Syssitia is the general name for the common meals. This was again attributed to Lykourgos. Plutarch writes that strict rules had to be observed at the common meal, groups were mixed of ages so that the young men might learn from their elders. ‘Considering that this would reduce disobedience of orders to a minimum’ – Xenophon, in his explanation for the reason of the syssition.

The Agoge and Education

At birth each Spartan boy was inspected, any with deformities or weakness was exposed on Mt Taygetus. A government official, the ‘paidonomos’ was in charge of the Agoge. Plato believed that Spartans were educated ‘not by persuasion but by violence’. They were taught physical and military exercises as well as the basics of reading and writing. Stages of Spartan education: 0-7: Under supervision of mother. 7-12: In the care of the state living in military barracks. Began learning skills. Military, physical, reading, writing, at age 10 they could learn dancing, music, athletics. 12-18: Taught how to steal and continued living in barracks, their clothing was limited to one garment, learnt games of endurance and skill, barefoot, exercising naked, having short hair, sleep on beds of rushes. 18-23: Enrolled as an eiren, or prefect/overseer, this was a stage similar to the cadet corps. Able to serve in the army but not in the front line. Able to marry. 23-30: Full time soldiers. 30: citizen and soldier, able to live at home and grow hair, still had meals in messes.


It was disgraceful in Spartan society to lose citizenship. Criminals or cowards were deprived by a special decree of their rights to vote and hold office. They had to sit alone at festivals, were unable to marry, and wear a special dress and go unshaven. Inferiors were those who lost their citizenship. Other disaffected people in society were the parthenai, the children of unmarried Spartan mother and probably Spartan fathers.


Refers to the free inhabitants of the many communities scattered throughout Lakonia and Messenia and along the coastline of Sparta. These communities were autonomous and answerable to the greater state of Sparta. Aphorus believed that the Perioikoi emerged after the conquest of Lakonia.

The Perioikoi were involved in mining, manufacture and commerce; all mineral and marine resources of Lakonia and Messene were in their hands. They procured the metals and manufactured the weapons that kept the Spartan military machine operating. Pliny and Herodotus say that they made shoes, purple garments, and objects of wood and iron. The Ephors were responsible for supervising them, and could put them to death without trial.

Archaeological evidence of Perioikoi

Most Lakonian craftsmen were Perioikoi. Evidence of this exists as a bronze figurine of Hermes and an engraved gem found at Gytheum, a limestone funerary relief dating from the 5th century BC found at Pertine: a bronze figurine of a hoplite dedicated to Apollo Maleatas found at modern Kosmas, a coin hoard at Kythera, a herm of a ram-headed deity at Las, a marble hero relief, a bronze figurine of a bull, and a black figure krater from Kalamata.

Duties of the Perioikoi

Representatives of communities had to go and pay respects when a king passed on. Major obligation was military service; they provided hoplites for the army but did not undergo the training system of Spartans. Until about 465BC Perioikoi and Spartans served separately, “with them went 5000 picked Lakedaemonian troops drawn from the outlying towns’ – Herodotus.

The Helots

Slaves owned by Sparta. They were owned by the state and not individuals, but still worked for individuals on their estates. The tasks of the Helots were mainly agricultural; they were required to hand over half of their produce to their Spartiate masters. The helots had some marriage rights, but generally they had no legal or political standing in the community. Helots accompanied Spartiates to war, taking part mainly in skirmishes. Ancient sources indicate that the Spartans feared the helots because they were so large in number. “…Spartans did, rightly or wrongly, genuinely fear helot revolt.” – Cartledge

The Krypteia

Secret Police. Plutarch says that as part of their training specially chosen bands of young men were sent into the country side to deal with the helots, “Killing the helots who stood out for their physique and strength” – Plutarch

Spartan Women

Everything in Spartan society served a military end, even women. Spartan women were encouraged to play an active social role. The main function was to be mothers and wives, so Xenophon notes. Spartan women were educated to be proper mothers of warriors in a warrior state.

The education of Spartan Girls

It is assumed that the girls were taught the basics of reading and writing, they learnt at home with their mothers. Girls were organised into bands for team games and choral singing. “Lykourgos prescribed physical training for the female sex no less than for the male.” – Xenophon

Marriage Customs

Spartans married within their own social class. A form of betrothal took place in Sparta, and dowries and considerations of wealth were of importance. The marriage ceremony involved marriage by capture, in which a man would choose a bride and carry her off: “A bridesmaid… laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The male would come after completing his meal in the mess hall, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.” – Plutarch

It is thought that some sort of pre-nuptial wedding feast took place among the women. Married life for a young Spartan has been described as ‘a trial marriage’ and if the wife was barren then a new marriage contract would be arranged. A Spartan couple lived apart, they got together rarely and did so covertly, this was done to test self-control and to make sure the partners were fertile physically. Wife sharing was not unknown, both Plutarch and Xenophon refer to the practice. “And consent of her husband first obtained, raise up children for himself through her” – Xenophon
Women and property in Sparta

Though they could not vote, they played an important role in the transfer of property. A woman would inherit a part of her family’s estate, however she did not own it and it would be passed to her offspring. This occurred because men were so often at war that women had to manage estates. Aristotle noted that women in Sparta owned two-fifths of the land. Spartan women were much more independent than their Athenian counterparts, for they mingled freely with men and had more control over their financial situation.

Women in Religion

The most famous cult centre in Sparta is that of the goddess Artemis Orthia. This goddess was associated with childbirth, and large quantities of votive offerings have been found at the sanctuary. They were suspected to be brought by women who were barren, pregnant or survived childbirth. When a young Spartan woman married, mothers made sacrifices to Aphrodite and Hera.

Perioikoi and Helot women

Little is known; we can only presume that they carried out menial tasks and led lives of hard work and drudgery, supporting the men. Little is known of participation in burial customs, and how women themselves were buried.

Cultural Life

Sparta appears to have been an austere and dreary place. However in the 7th century BC it was like most Greek states, showing interests in luxury, poetry and music. The decline in imports of luxury items and all else seems to have occurred in the 6th century BC. “Necessity to keep large populations under control turned Sparta into a bleak and barren military camp” – Fine

Leisure in Sparta

Males could go hunting. Women participated in athletics at least until their marriage and after that appear to have taken a visible part in community life. Helots at least enjoyed the right to celebrate religious festivals which contributed to the well-being of the state. Anyone who had the resources went into chariot racing if they could.

Art and Architecture in Sparta

Lakonian pottery was exported to other centres in the Mediterranean and fine Lakonian bronze work has been found in southern France. We see a simple, yet well-constructed architecture, beautiful pottery and bronze work which suited their society and their religious needs.

Literacy in Sparta

Two inscribed bronze artefacts were excavated at the Menelaion sanctuary near Sparta. The first was a sacrificial meat hook dedicated ‘to Helen’ the second was an Aryballos dated c650BC and inscribed, ‘to Helen, wife of Menelaus.’ This attests to the fact that the alphabet reached Sparta. “Scholarly work on written and epigraphical evidence suggests that kings, commanders, Ephors, member of the Gerousia and envoys were all literate” –Cartledge


Particularly important to the Spartans were the mythical twin Spartan heroes the Dioscuri: Castor and Polydeuces. They were associated with young men, horsemanship, athletics and warfare. Other gods of importance in Sparta were, Apollo Karneios, Apollo of Amyclae, Artemis Orthia, Athena Chalkioikos, Helen, Leucippides and Lykourgos. Most Spartan gods were armed.

Attitude to Religion, Festivals

The Spartans’ attitude to religion was very serious, as indicated by Herodotus as he tells how the Spartans would not “March with all the troops at their disposal” to the battle of Marathon until the conclusion of their festival, the Karneia. The three most important Spartan religious festivals were the Karneia, Gymnopaedia and the Hyakinthia.

The Karneia was a harvest festival, celebrated for nine days in August. It celebrated the foundation of Sparta and various military events. In the celebration some citizens carried model rafts to symbolise the coming of the Dorians. Another event was the foot-race in which a young man was chased by other unmarried men to determine an omen for the state. Modern scholars have interpreted the Karneia as a reflection of military training, emphasising heroic exploits.

The Gymnopaedia was a festival held in the Spartan agora to commemorate the battle of Thyrea, fought against Argos in 550BC. It featured Choral performances. It has been interpreted as a rite of passage for Spartan boys.

The Hyakinthia was held at the ancient shrine of Amyclae, at a huge statue of Apollo. The festival revolved around mourning for Hyakinthos and praising Apollo. The first stage involved rites of sorrow and mourning, with a ban placed on joyful songs. The second part involved rejoicing in honour of Apollo, with choral song and dance. The festival has been interpreted as a festival for the dead combined with thanksgiving for life.

Religious Practices

The king served as chief priest. But others must have existed who served on a daily basis. A Spartiate could sacrifice and make offerings to the gods in his own home; he could also conduct his devotions at shrines.

Cults, Divination, Funeral Rites

Two major cults are associated with Castor and Polydeuces. Many offerings to the Dioscuri have been found. Lykourgos as well as Alpheios and Maron, two heroes of Thermopylae were worshipped. The will of the gods was interpreted by oracles. The Spartans were in charge of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in central Greece. Delphi was consulted about matters concerning state affairs. “The people proclaim that after a king dies he was the best they ever had, if he dies in battle a statue of him is made and carry it to burial on a rich-draped bier. No public meetings of elections are held for 10 days after a king’s burial.” – Herodotus. Ordinary Spartans had simple funerals. The only groups allowed inscribed graves were men who died in battle and women, in childbirth. According to Plutarch Lykourgos allowed mortuary temples within the city walls so that people would not fear death.

Religious Sites

Sparta lacked major public buildings and temples like those found in Athens. The Temple of Artemis Orthia was out of sight near the Eurotas River. The temple of Athena of the bronze house stood in the north-eastern part on the acropolis, which was only a small raised incline. The Menelaion was situated in the Parnon ranges looking across the Eurotas valley. The shrine of Apollo at Amyclae was approximately six kilometres from Sparta.

Government in Sparta - Kings

The two kings of Sparta are said to come from the Agiad and Eurypontids families. The king was a chief priest, commander of the army, judge, and a lawgiver. Kings were believed to be descended from Heracles, both were generals of the army and both could influence Spartan affairs. Kings were kings for life, unless they were exiled or disposed of.


Five magistrates called Ephors began to be elected. These annual magistrates became chief executive of the state and could administer laws, acting as guardians of the kings and public directors of policy. Ephors, although powerful, held office for only a year and could be outvoted by their fellow Ephors. Ephors’ most important duties were to advise the kings and to keep them from gaining too much power. When a king was going to battle two of the five Ephors were sent with him while the remaining three kept watch over the second king, ensuring both held true to their oath.


The assembly consisted of all citizen males over 30 years old. The assembly voted on laws proposed by the Gerousia and elected magistrates. It could not introduce policies. The assembly was an important feature of Spartan life as it separated the equals (full Spartan citizens) from everyone else and involved them in government. Once a month the members of the assembly met under the leadership of an Ephor. It was here that the Spartiates had the right to vote on issues concerning them and to elect the Ephors and the members of the Gerousia by public acclimation.


The Gerousia consisted of the kings and 28 men over 60 years old from important families in Sparta, who were elected for life.

Respect and Balance

Sparta government worked within terms of respect and balance. Only when this respect broke down, by someone acting too much as an individual and refusing to keep within the bounds of his place did the Spartan system crumble.

The Spartan Army

The whole of Spartan society was aimed at producing strong fighting forces of great warriors who were willing to die for Sparta. In 669BC at the battle of Hysiai, the Spartans were decisively defeated by the Argives and in response to this humiliation, developed their militaristic state. Throughout the 6th and into the 5th century the army was comprised purely of Spartiates. Towards the end of the 5th century non-Spartiates began to perform military duties.

The Spartan army was organised according to the age divisions specified in the agoge. Originally there were five divisions called ‘Morai’, later increased to six Morai. 500-900 comprised a mora. Another group within the Spartan army was the Hippeis (knights), a picked group of 300 men who seem to have been the guard of the kings.

Hoplite Warfare

Spartans relied on hoplite armies. A hoplite was a heavily armed infantryman, named after the shield he carried, the Hoplon. This round wooden shield was concave on the inside and faced with bronze on the outside. It was approximately a metre wide and weighed about 7 kilograms. The classical hoplite wore a cloth tunic covered by a bronze breastplate. A helmet made of thin bronze often decorated with a crest of Horsehair. Bronze greaves on his lower leg for protection. They carried a long spear almost three metres used for thrusting not throwing. They were trained to fight in formations not individually. The success of the Spartan army depended largely on the discipline of the troops in the massed hoplite formation, or Phalanx, which was usually eight or more ranks deep. The aim was to break the opposition’s line by deploying a group-and-shove technique. The Spartans were remarkably successful in this type of warfare.

Decline of Sparta

Various reasons attributed to their downfall, including the loss of Sparta’s military supremacy at Leuktra. Aristotle blames the downfall of Sparta on the decline in the Spartiate population and on the narrowness and militarism of Spartan society. The increasing gap between rich and poor that resulted from alienation of land and the failure of the conservative elite to adapt and change.

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