Sparta, which we are very familiar with thanks to hollywood movies or Lacedaemon was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece. Around 650 BC, it rose to become the dominant military land-power in ancient Greece. Given its military pre-eminence, Sparta was recognized as the overall leader of the combined Greek forces during the Greco-Persian Wars. Between 431 and 404 BC, Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, from which it emerged victorious, though at a great cost of lives.
Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system and constitution, which completely focused on military training and excellence. Its inhabitants were classified as Spartiates (Spartan citizens, who enjoyed full rights), Mothakes (non-Spartan free men raised as Spartans), Perioikoi (freedmen), and Helots (state-owned serfs, enslaved non-Spartan local population). Spartiates underwent the rigorous agoge training and education regimen, and Spartan phalanges were widely considered to be among the best in battle. Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights and equality to men than elsewhere in the classical world.
Sparta is located in the region of Laconia, in the south-eastern Peloponnese. Ancient Sparta was built on the banks of the Evrotas River, the main river of Laconia, which provided it with a source of fresh water. The valley of the Evrotas is a natural fortress, bounded to the west by Mt. Taygetus (2407 m) and to the east by Mt. Parnon (1935 m). To the north, Laconia is separated from Arcadia by hilly uplands reaching 1000 m in altitude. These natural defenses worked to Sparta’s advantage and contributed to Sparta never having been sacked. Though landlocked, Sparta had a harbor, Gytheio, on the Laconian Gulf.
Mythology of Sparta stated Lacedaemon, was a mythical king of Laconia. The son of Zeus by the nymph Taygete, he married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas, by whom he became the father of Amyclas, Eurydice, and Asine. He named the country after himself and the city after his wife. He was believed to have built the Sanctuary of the Charites, which stood between Sparta and Amyclae, and to have given to those divinities the names of Cleta and Phaenna. A shrine was erected to him in the neighborhood of Therapne.
The theater of ancient Sparta with Mt. Taygetus in the background.
The prehistory of Sparta is difficult to reconstruct because the literary evidence is far removed in time from the events it describes and is also distorted by oral tradition. Sparta had a large history enriched with many wars- Persian Wars, Battle of Marathon, Battle of Thermopylae, Battle of Plataea, Battle of Mycale, Peloponnesian Wars(first & second), Archidamian war, Syracusian/Sicilian expedition, etc. In 480 BC, a small force of Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans led by King Leonidas (approximately 300 were full Spartiates, 700 were Thespians, and 400 were Thebans), made a legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae against the massive Persian army, inflicting very high casualties on the Persian forces before finally being encircled. From then on Sparta took a more active share and assumed the command of the combined Greek forces by sea and land.
Sparta never fully recovered from the losses that the Spartans suffered at Leuctra in 371 BC and the subsequent helot revolts. Nonetheless, it was able to continue as a regional power for over two centuries. Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to conquer Sparta itself. When Philip created the league of the Greeks on the pretext of unifying Greece against Persia, the Spartans chose not to join, since they had no interest in joining a pan-Greek expedition unless it were under Spartan leadership. Thus, upon the conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great sent to Athens 300 suits of Persian armour with the following inscription: “Alexander, son of Philip, and all the Greeks except the Spartans, give these offerings taken from the foreigners who live in Asia”.
Sparta was above all a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the Gerousia by the child’s father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to be reared or not. It is commonly stated that if they considered it “puny and deformed”, the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae. This was, in effect, a primitive form of eugenics. When male Spartans began military training at age seven, they would enter the Agoge system. The Agoge was designed to encourage discipline and physical toughness and to emphasise the importance of the Spartan state. At age 20, the Spartan citizen began his membership in one of the syssitia (dining messes or clubs), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartans were not eligible for election for public office until the age of 30. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens and were obliged to undergo the training as prescribed by law, as well as participate in and contribute financially to one of the syssitia.
Many women played a significant role in the history of Sparta. Queen Gorgo, heiress to the throne and the wife of Leonidas I, was an influential and well-documented figure. Plutarch’s Moralia contains a collection of “Sayings of Spartan Women”, including a laconic quip attributed to Gorgo: when asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men, she replied “Because we are the only women who are mothers of men“. In the modern times, the adjective “Spartan” is used to imply simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort. The term laconic phrase describes a very terse and concise way of speaking that was characteristic of the Spartans, Who have been called The Real Men.