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Comparing Athens and Sparta


One to two class periods



World History

Peter Adams, social studies teacher, Laurel High School, Laurel, Maryland.


Students will understand the following:

1. The differences between totalitarianism and democracy.

2. The historical roots of the democratic tradition.


For this lesson, you will need:

History text or library resources with descriptions of Athens and Sparta
Computer with Internet access

1. Tell students they are about to explore the roots of two political systems: totalitarianism and democracy. Explain that both forms exist in the modern world, but the roots for each can be found in ancient Greece.

2. Introduce the term totalitarianism.Explain that it is a form of government that uses force and power to rule a people. This form of culture had its roots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Within Sparta there existed three groups: slaves, known as Helots; Spartan females, who were taught to be fit, brave, and patriotic; and Spartan males, all of whom became warriors. Newborn males judged to be weak were left to die of exposure. At the age of seven, boys left home to live in barracks and receive military training from older boys. Boys went barefoot, wore minimal clothing (even in winter), practiced all forms of athletics, and received military instruction. They married at age 20 but continued to live in the barracks. The Helots provided the necessary food and labor for Spartan males and females.

3. Now introduce the term democracy. Explain that the democratic political system used as its model Athenian democracy. In the ancient Greek city-state of Athens all citizens participated in Athenian governmental activities. All citizens were equal before the law and participated in the government. Slaves and women, however, were not allowed citizenship. Athenians eventually abolished slavery and developed a direct democracy where citizens chose the members of the powerful Assembly. Athenian youth were encouraged to develop artistic and intellectual talents to such a degree that historians refer to their developments in the arts and politics as a “Golden Age.”

4. Divide the class into groups and present each group with one of the following quotations. Students should read and discuss them and determine which civilization—Athens or Sparta—may have influenced the authors of each quotation and explain why. Then explain to students that the first extract is taken from a speech Adolph Hitler made in 1926, and the second is taken from our Declaration of Independence.

Quotation 1: “The fundamental motif through all the centuries has been the principle that force and power are the determining factors. All development is struggle. Only force rules. Force is the first law. . . . Only through struggle have states and the world become great. If one should ask whether this struggle is gruesome, then the only answer could be—for the weak, yes, for humanity as a whole, no. Instead of everlasting struggle, the world preaches cowardly pacifism, and everlasting peace. These three things, considered in the light of their ultimate consequences, are the causes of the downfall of all humanity.”Quotation 2: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,* that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”* You may wish to explain the concept of unalienable rights and discuss the meaning of “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

5. Next, share the Comparing Sparta and Athens handout with your students.

6. Now ask students to use what they've learned about the two civilizations and imagine what their lives would be like if they lived in Athens and Sparta. (Be sure they consider their age and gender.) Have students write a two-page fictional piece that describes their life as a Spartan or Athenian youth. Their stories should contain at least three aspects of Spartan or Athenian life. Encourage students to be creative in their storytelling! Invite students to share their stories with the class.

7. Conclude by asking students to consider the following questions: Who benefited most in each society—the rich or poor, males or female? Who benefited least? What are the pros and cons of each civilization? Where do we see the seeds of their governments in today's world?


Adaptation for older students:

Older students may focus their research on the role of the slaves in Athenian society and the Helots in Sparta and conclude by writing an essay that compares the two.

1. Spartan society depended heavily on their Helots (slaves). Discuss whether their society could have existed without the slaves.
2. During the years 431-404 B.C., Athens and Sparta engaged in wars with one another. Given what you know about the two states, which state do you think was victorious? Defend your choice. Following this discussion, explain to students that Athens ultimately lost these wars.
3. Which state would you have rather lived in, Athens or Sparta? Explain why.
4. Analyze how a “democratic” society can deny rights to some individuals.
5. Despite Sparta's accomplishments, the state did not leave an artistic legacy as Athens did. How does this reflect the philosophy of Spartan society? Should a society make art a priority?
6. How “democratic” a society was Athens? Compare Athens to our society. What are the similarities? What are some differences?

The fictional student essays should contain at least three examples of life in Athens or Sparta. Essays should be at least two pages in length, exhibit some level of creative thinking, and have relatively few spelling and grammatical errors.

We Are the Champions!

Discuss which of the two Greek city-states was most successful in Olympic competition, given the nature of life in each. Students may be surprised to learn that between 480 and 324 B.C., Athens won more events. Have students write a newspaper article about an athlete from either nation, noting the type of training he might have undertaken given the city-state that he represented. If you have Web access, you may send students to Olympic Victors. This site provides a list of victors for most of the ancient Olympic games.

Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition

Rosalie F. and Charles F. Baker III, Oxford University Press, 1997

This book of biographies of the most famous and influential men and women of ancient Greece includes several of those most responsible for the establishment and success of the Spartan military tradition.
Life in Ancient Greece

Don Nardo, Lucent Books, 1996.

The everyday lives of people in ancient Greek city-states is documented by a very readable text, illustrations, and photographs. Especially interesting are the wide differences between the lives of the citizens of Athens and those of Sparta due to their very different social structures.

Odyssey Online

A concise site dealing with Roman, Egyptian, Greek, and sub-Saharan cultures geared for middle school students.

Daily Life in Ancient Greece

Wonderful collection of activities, lessons and links geared for middle school. The Athens-Sparta Comparison activity is well done!

Ancient Greek Civilizations: Sparta

Nice description of Sparta and Spartans.


Checkout the online resources and links brought to you by Discovery School and World Book.

Greek Civilization for middle schoolers

Resources for middle school students studying all aspects of Greek Civilization created by college students at Portland State University.



Serving as part of a whole; component.


The executive is an important constituent of the American government.


Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.


Free elections are the hallmark of any democracy.


Government by a few, especially by a small faction of persons or families.


The youth complain that the ruling oligarchy was composed of a few old men.


Rigorously self-disciplined or self-restrained.


Soldiers serving in the Special Forces are taught how to live on a Spartan diet.


Of, relating to, being, or imposing a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed.


Historians describe Nazi Germany as a totalitarian state because the political authority had a firm control over businesses, peoples' private lives, and all government agencies.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:


Understands the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited governments.

Understands the basic structure of authoritarian systems and totalitarian systems, and how these systems are considered unlimited governments.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:

World History


Understands how Aegean civilization emerged and how interrelations developed among peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asia from 600 to 200 B.C.


Understands the evolution and inherent advantages and disadvantages of major governmental systems in Greek city-states in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.


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