Spartan society was dominated by the military. According to Spartan tradition, their social system was created between 900 and 600 BCE by a man named Lycurgus after a slave revolt. To keep such a revolt from happening again, he increased the military’s role in society. The Spartans believed that military power was the way to provide security and protection for their city. Daily life in Sparta reflected this belief.
Role of Men in Sparta
Daily life in Sparta was dominated by the army. Even the lives of children reflected this domination. When a boy was born, government officials came to look at him. If he was not healthy, the baby was taken outside of the city and left to die. Healthy boys were trained from an early age to be soldiers.
As part of their training, boys ran, jumped, swam, and threw javelins to increase their strength. They also learned to endure the hardships they would face as soldiers. For example, boys weren’t given shoes or heavy clothes, even in winter, nor were they provided much food. Boys were allowed to steal food if they could, but if they were caught, they were whipped. At least one boy chose to die rather than to admit to his theft:
“One youth, having stolen a fox and hidden it under his coat, allowed it to tear out his very bowels [organs] with its claws and teeth and died rather than betray [confess to] his theft.”
-Plutarch, from Life of Lycurgus
To this boy – and to most Spartan soldiers – courage and strength were more important than one’s own safety.
Soldiers between the ages of 20 and 30 lived in army barracks and only occasionally visited their families. Spartan men stayed in the army until they turned 60.
The Spartans believed that the most important qualities of good soldiers were self-discipline and obedience. To reinforce self-discipline they required soldiers to live tough lives free from comforts. For example, Spartans didn’t have luxuries like soft furniture or expensive food. They thought such comforts made people weak. Even the Spartans’ enemies admired their discipline and obedience.
Soldiers could participate in the assembly and move back home
Role of Women in Sparta
Because Spartan men were often away at war, Spartan women had more rights than other Greek women. Women owned much of the land in Sparta and ran their households when their husbands were gone. Unlike women in other Greek cities, Spartan women didn’t spend time spinning cloth or weaving. They thought of those tasks as the jobs of slaves, unsuitable for the wives and mothers of soldiers.
Spartan women also received physical training. Like the men, they learned how to run, jump, wrestle, and throw javelins. Women sometimes even competed with men in sporting events.
Government in Sparta
Sparta was officially ruled by two kings who jointly led the army. However, elected officials actually had more power than the kings. These officials ran Sparta’s day-to-day activities. They also handled dealings between Sparta and other city-states.
Sparta’s government was set up to control the city’s helots, or slaves. These slaves grew all the city’s crops and did many other jobs. Their lives were miserable, and they couldn’t leave their land. Although slaves greatly outnumbered Spartan citizens, fear of the Spartan army kept them from rebelling.
Sparta’s main rival in Greece was Athens. Like Sparta, Athens had been a leader in the region and had a powerful army. But life in Athens was very different from life in Sparta. In addition to physical training, the Athenians valued education, clear thinking and the arts.
The Role of Men in Athens
From a young age, Athenian boys from rich families worked to improve both their bodies and their minds. Like Spartan boys, Athenian boys had to learn to run, jump, and fight. But this training was not as harsh or as long as the training in Sparta.
Unlike Spartan men, Athenian men didn’t have to devote their whole lives to the army. All men in Athens joined the army, but for only two years. Their helped defend the city between the ages of 18 and 20. Older men only had to serve in the army in times of war.
In addition to their physical training, Athenian students, unlike the Spartans, also learned other skills. They learned to read, write, and count as well as sing and play musical instruments. Boys also learned about Greek history and legend.
Boys from very rich families often continued their education with private tutors. These tutors taught their students about philosophy, geometry, astronomy, and other subjects. They also taught the boys how to be good public speakers. This training prepared boys for participation in the Athenian assembly.
Very few boys had the opportunity to receive this much education, however. Boys from poor families usually didn’t get any education, although most of them could read and write at least a little. Most of the boys from poor families became farmers and grew food for the city’s richer citizens. A few went to work with craftspeople to learn other trades.
Role of Women in Athens
While many boys in Athens received good educations, girls didn’t. In fact, girls received almost no education. Athenian men didn’t think girls needed to be educated. A few girls were taught how to read and write at home by private tutors. However, most girls only learned household tasks like weaving and sewing.
Despite Athens’s reputation for freedom and democracy, women there had fewer rights than women in many other city-states. Athenian women could not:
In fact, women in Athens had almost no rights at all.
Government in Athens
Athens is most famous for having created one of the world’s first democracies. In the Athenian government, there were no emperors, pharaohs, or kings. Instead, the people proposed and voted on laws themselves in an organization known as the Assembly, where thousands of citizens met to discuss, debate, and vote on issues. However, participation in the Assembly was far from open. Only men were allowed to participate in the Athenian democracy.