Herodotus has all sorts of background material on Sparta.  See the index for specific page numbers. See also Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus (   Also see Sparta Reconsidered ( for a more positive take on Spartan life.

Closing reflections on the Iliad

Actors and musicians love applause, perhaps a thunderous standing ovation with several encores.  But there's an even greater tribute: silence.  When an audience is so moved that it feels that to say anything at all, and that even to make a sound would spoil the perfection of what they've seen and heard--that's the ultimate performance.

In the original, or in a good translation, one feels like this with Homer.  The closing scenes of the Iliad are among the most moving in all of literature and one understands why Keats used the  "silent, on a peak in Darien" line. 

Some of you, I think, did see what makes the Iliad such a magical work, and, just maybe, you were moved close to tears.  It's interesting that the poem can have this affect on people who live many centuries after it was written--and people who know the end already!

For others, the poem was simply a struggle.  If that's you, please come back to this book some time when you are out of school and have time for more relaxed reading.  Perhaps try a different translation.  There are some real treasures hidden in this book, and you'll find something knew each time you come back to it: a remarkable product for a dark age!

Homer's poems look back from the Dark Ages to a heroic past--but they point also to the glorious Greek future around the corner.

The development of the Polis

The re-emergence of a great civilization in Greece is tied closely to the emergence of the polis, the city-state form of political organization that dominated Greece until the rise of Philip and Alexander.  These city-states differed considerably from one another, but they tended to have some common features.  For one, there was an acropolis, a "high city," initially established because it was easy to defend, but, in many instances the cultural center as well: that's where the temples were built. 

In addition, each city-state featured an "agora," a marketplace, where people from the surrounding farming community would gather to buy and sell--and, as we will see later, to talk. 

Athens, with it's population of 200,00 or so, was unusual.  Most city states were smaller, with perhaps a few thousand people.  The Greeks established these city-states in many places: on islands, on the west coast of present-day Turkey, and in southern Italy.  The most important of the city-states in Greece proper: Athens, Thebes, Corinth and that particular fascinating polis, Sparta.

The Spartan image

The Spartan image today is almost magical, conjuring up images of a nearly unsurpassed warrior people.  We make movies like 300 Spartans and nickname our athletic teams "Spartans."

The Spartans were fascinating to people of the ancient world too--a good thing for us because otherwise we would know very little about them.  We have no records left by the Spartans themselves--for reasons that will become apparent shortly. 

Part of the fascination of  Sparta involves what Spartan critics view as an irony of Spartan history.  The Spartans developed a magnificent fighting machine to ensure their freedom.  They ended up using their superior fighting skills to conquer and enslave others--and, in a way, they ended up enslaving themselves. Those inclined to view Sparta more sympathetically might argue while the Spartan political and social systems contained many unusual features, they were well-suited for maintaining the stablility of the Spartan state.

Sparta during the Mycenaean period

Sparta should be already familiar to you from the pages of the Iliad.  Sparta is the city of Menelaos, a city apparently important, though perhaps not quite so important as Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon. Greek tradition indicates that Sparta was one of those cities that fell to the Dorian invaders around 1120 BC, and the archaeological evidence would tend to support that tradition.  Sparta would rise again as a Dorian city, first dominating the immediate area (Laconia) and then much of the Pelopponesian peninsula.

Dorian Sparta

Sparta's rise was certainly not a story of unbroken successes.  Herodotus tells us (1:65-68) that when campaigning against Arcadia, the Spartans sent message to the Delphic oracle.  The oracle said they would take all Arcadia, but that Apollo would give them Tegea to dance on with their feet and to measure with a rope.  They trusted in Apollo (the fools) and attacked: only to have many of their men captured.  And, sure enough, the captives, roped together in a long line, were led "dancing" through Tegea and, in a way, measuring it with their rope.

Argos, another Dorian city, was every bit the match for Sparta up to this point.  Herodotus tells us a story about the attempts of the Argive and Spartans to take Thyrea. To settle the dispute, 300 Argives were selected to fight 300 Spartans.  All died except one Spartan, Othryades, who later killed himself, feeling it a disgrace to be the only survivor.  But not that Argives and Spartans are here depicted as extraordinarily evenly matched.

Another tough struggle was the war fought with Messenia, Sparta's Peloponnesian neighbor to the west (730-710).  The stories of the war have a legendary rather than historical feel.  Supposedly, the Messenian king was told that sacrificing a virgin would ensure victory, and he was going to sacrifice his daughter.  Her boyfriend spread the rumor she wasn't a virgin, and the angered king simply murdered her rather than making her a sacrifice.  He was troubled by dreams and killed himself.

Eventually victorious, the Spartans turned the Messenians into state-owned slaves--helots.

It was a peculiar kind of slavery.  The helots worked the agricultural lands controlled by the Spartans, though they could own property of their own.  Strangely, the Spartans apparently had a custom of declaring war from time to time on their own slaves, and, in general, the helots were treated harshly.

And Sparta was in a difficult situation.  The Argives continue to stir up trouble, defeating Sparta in 668 BC.  In 650 or so, the Messenians revolt.  The Spartans put the revolt down, but it's clear that something has to be done. 

Ultimately, the Spartans reduce the peoples immediately around them to the status of perioikoi (dwellers around), free men, but dominated by Sparta in terms of foreign policy. But what to do about the many helots who (apparently) outnumbered the Spartans by as much as 10:1?

Lycurgus and the Spartan political system

Later Greeks attributed all of Sparta's reforms to a man named Lycurgus who, if real, lived during the 6th century BC.  Lycurgus probably was a real figure--and the reforms really did happen.

First of all, Sparta gets a conservative political system, well-designed for stability.  Later Greeks admired Sparta's "mixed" constitution, a system that combined the best of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy.

The democratic element was the Apella, the Spartan assembly.  Spartan fighting men in the Apella had the ultimate say in Spartan affairs.  But there was no debate in the Apella: just a thumbs up, thumbs down vote.  Or, rather, a voices up, voices down vote--because whatever side yelled the loudest was judged to have won on any particular issue.  Want to go to war with Argos?  Yell as loud as you can.  Don't want to go to war?  Yell.  The day is carried by whoever generates the most decibels.

The aristocratic element was the Gerousia, 28 old men plus the two kings who were the deliberative body of Sparta.  They were the ones who decided what questions would be presented to the Apella.

The royal element: two kings.  Yep: two kings.  Again, and check-and-balance system.  Royal authority isn't going to grow too great.

A further check on royal authority, the ephors.  "Ephor" comes from "epi horao" words for looking over.  They served as overseers: five men elected annually (and who couldn't be reelected) who mediated between the two kings and who had responsibilities to make sure the laws were followed. 

The Spartan political system was much admired by figures like Aristotle, and it does seem to have served Sparta well.  But a good political system wasn't enough.  The Spartans needed an effective social system as well.

 The Spartan social system

The lifestyle of Spartan men was designed to produce warriors.  And if you didn't have the aptitude to be a warrior, there was no need to worry: you didn't make it.  Any baby boy who didn't pass the initial health inspection by the Spartan ephors was simply killed.

Spartan boys left home at the age of 7, and, for the next years of their lives, they trained constantly in all of those skills useful to good soldiers.  They were taught to read and write--and sing!  And they were taught discipline and self-denial.  They lived what we still call a "Spartan" lifestyle: no frills at all.  A visiting Athenian said that one taste of Spartan food and you knew why Spartans didn't care whether they lived or died in battle.

Spartan boys were taught to steal--but that it was a disgrace to be caught. Once, so the story goes, a Spartan boy had stolen a fox.  He was about to be caught, so he hid it under his robe.  The fox began to bite.  He didn't utter a sound.  It continued to bite.  Only when he dropped dead of his bites was the fox discovered.  That's discipline!

Plutarch said the Spartans' were the only people in the world for whom warfare was a relief from training.   Perhaps for some of our special forces, this might to a certain extent be true as well.

In general in military societies, the status of women goes down.  This was not true in Sparta.  Women tended to run things--so much so that other Greeks disapproved.  "Why is it that Spartan women are the only women in Greece who rule men?" asked a disparaging Athenian woman.  The Spartan queen Gorgo replied, "Because Spartan women are the only ones who give birth to men.

Plutarch tells us some rather strange stories about Spartan women and about Spartan marriage customs.  He tells us that Spartan girls were expected to be as fit as Spartan boys--so that they could grow up to bear healthy soldiers.  He tells us that, at certain festivals, the Spartan girls danced naked in front of the me, singing the praises of those who had distinguished themselves for courage, etc. and mocking those who hadn't.  He says that this wasn't at all shameful, but that it was an incentive to the young women to keep themselves fit--an an incentive for the men to find a wife!

And, speaking of finding a wife, Plutarch also says some very strange things about Spartan marriage.  He tells us that Spartan women shaved their heads before a "wedding" which consisted of being carried off by their husband to a darkened room where one couldn't even see faces clearly.  The men left their honeymoon suite before day-break to return to the barracks.   Thus, said Plutarch, Spartan men and women sometimes had children before they had ever clearly seen each other's faces!

Because Spartans devoted themselves to much to war, they made few contributions to culture.  Here's a poem from the one great Spartan poet:

It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.
The worst pain is leaving one's city and fertile fields for the life of a beggar,
wandering with mother, old father, little children, and wedded wife.
The man beaten by need and odious poverty is detested everywhere he goes,
a disgrace to his family and noble appearance, trailed by dishonor and evil.
If no one takes care of the wanderer or gives him honor, respect, or pity,
we must fight to the death for our land and children, giving no thought to lengthening life.
Fight in a stubborn, close array, my boys! Never waver or retreat!
Feel your anger swell. There is no place in combat for love of life.
Older soldiers, whose knees are not so light, need you to stand and protect them.
An aging warrior cut down in the vanguard of battle disgraces the young. His head
is white, his beard is grey, and now he is spilling his powerful spirit in dust,
naked, clutching his bloody groin: a sight for shame and anger. But youthful
warriors always look good, until the blossom withers. Men gape
at them and women sigh, and dying in combat they are handsome still.
Now is the time for a man to stand, planting his feet and biting his lip.

--From Tyrtaeus of Sparta. As reproduced in Early Greek Lyric Poetry, trans. David Mulroy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 48-49.

Yep.  Even Spartan poetry was designed for a warrior society.

The Spartans also left us some famous  "laconic" phrases (Laconia is the region around Sparta).  A laconic phrase is short and to the point. Examples:

1.  When Spartan men went to battle, they'd be handed a shield and with it two words from their mom or wife: "with it or on it."  Come back with your shield victorious or on your shield dead!

2.  After a famine, one of Sparta's allies needed relief.  They made a long speech to the Spartans explaining what they wanted.  The Spartans told them the speech was so long that, by the time they got to the end, the Spartans had forgotten what they wanted in the first place.  The allies got the idea and tried again.  They held up a sack and said, "The sack needs grain."  Much better, said the Spartans.  But you could have shortened it more.  Just hold up the sack and say, "needs grain"

Clever, but but these sayings are not all that important.  Sparta's real importance, their contribution to the Greek dream, the example of what a superbly disciplined lifestyle can do. And its Spartan discipline that makes them remembered.  We think it perfectly appropriate to nick-name athletic teams Spartans.  We've got the Michigan State Spartans, the Spearfish Spartans, the San Juan Spartans, the Wessington Springs Spartans and lots more.  You don't hear of athletic teams called "The Athenians," "The Thebans," or "The Corinthians."  And, of course, Lesbians wouldn't do at all.