Comparing Athens and Sparta
Ancient Greece was made up of a large number of city-states, which were small autonomous communities including a city and the land surrounding it. Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi were very well-known; however, the two most famous city-states in Ancient Greece were Athens and Sparta. The two city-states fought together against the Persians during the Greco-Persian War from 499 to 479 B.C., however, the two were rivals who didn’t think highly of each other, and eventually the two caused a war that affected all of Greece. Athenians considered Spartans to be rude and ill-mannered, while the Spartans considered the Athenians to be money-hungry. The two had many differences, but were the two city-states all that different? Or were they really as contrasted as their rivalry made them seem?
Before beginning, however, a brief knowledge of each city state’s history allows a greater understanding of the two city states’ cultural pride. Up first is Athens. Athens was founded as a small fortification by the Mycenaeans between 1500 and 1000 B.C.; however people had been living in the area for a few thousand years already. Little is known about Athens during the Greek Dark Age, which lasted from 1200 to 700 B.C. after the Sea Peoples, who later became the Philistines, invaded Greece and destroyed the Mycenaean civilization. Somewhere during this period, Athens became a monarchy, and the city-state remained this way until the 500s B.C., when the leader Solon came to power and laid down the foundation for an Athenian democracy before abdicating the throne. Afterwards, rival groups sought control of Athens until Pisistratus became tyrant around 560 B.C. Pisistratus recognized the value of Solon’s ideas, and kept many of them intact. To the Athenians, Pisistratus was a benevolent tyrant. After his death, his son Hippias took on the task of ruling Athens. However, beginning in the latter half of his reign, Hippias’ reign became one of terror. Eventually in 510 B.C., the Athenians were tired of this terror, and Hippias was overthrown by Spartan-backed Athenian rebels. Afterwards a man known as Cleisthenes was appointed to power, and he reformed the government into a democracy. The Athenian democracy lasted for a little over a hundred years, and from 461 to 429 B.C., Athens entered its golden age under the leadership of Pericles. During this time, Athens built up its military and led a hegemony known as the Delian League. However, after being defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, all that was left of Athens was the city itself, which the Spartans refused to destroy because it was a great center of learning. Up until the modern country of Greece was established, Athens had been under the control of various empires throughout the ages.
Sparta was founded around 1000 B.C., and quickly established itself as a military powerhouse by conquering the neighboring city-state of Messenia, subjugating its people to Sparta’s will. Due to this conquest, Sparta became the largest city-state, which was around three times the size of Rhode Island. For much of its history, Sparta was engaged in wars with other city-states, almost none of which helped Sparta in any way. Sparta backed the Athenian rebellion in 510 B.C. against Hippias, and also fought notably during the Greco-Persian War at the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea in 480 B.C. and 479 B.C., respectively. By 404 B.C., Sparta had defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans conquered Athens because they feared Athens’ new power in Greece. Unfortunately for Sparta, their victory did not last even 50 years, and Sparta soon became a second-rate power before being absorbed into the Roman Empire. Spartans enjoyed peace for centuries under Roman rule until Alaric, the King of the Goths, sacked the city in 396 A.D.
From this it can be concluded that the Athenians were proud of what they thought of as a superior form of government, Democracy. It can also be concluded that the Spartans were proud of their military. They were also very patriotic toward the state as well.
Now knowing about each of their histories, we can compare the two, starting with both of their governments. Athens was originally a monarchy, where power is rested in a hereditary leader who has an orderly ascent to the throne. Monarchs generally paid more attention to the people than tyrants, who were on their own agenda and seized control of the government. However, Athens was most remembered as being the home of democracy, so it would make more sense to describe how the Athenian democracy was run. It is important to note that only Athenian males of 18 and older could participate in the government, no women, no foreigners, and certainly no slaves. The Athenian democracy had three different branches; the Ekklesia, the Boule, and the Dikasteria. The Ekklesia, or assembly, was considered to be the sovereign governing body of Athens. Anyone in the demos, or the group of Athenian men 18 and older, who wasn’t serving in the military, could participate in meetings held by the Ekklesia. These meetings were located in the Pynx, an auditorium west of the Acropolis, and, although anyone was allowed to attend, only 5,000 out of 40,000 members of the demos1 attended a given meeting. Meetings were held 40 times per year, in which new laws were made, old ones were revised, conduct of public officials was approved or condemned, and decisions were made about war and foreign policy. The Ekklesia also had the power to exile members for up to ten years if necessary. All actions the Ekklesia made were decided by vote.
The second branch of the Athenian government was the Boule, or the Council of Five Hundred, which was made up of 500 men from the demos. Members were chosen by random lot, since the Greeks believed this was more democratic than election, even though the rich did get chosen more times than random chance would allow. The Boule supervised labor and maintained ships and chariots, and greeted ambassadors too, however its main function was to decide what matters went before the Ekklesia.
The third and final branch of the Athenian Government was the Dikasteria, or the public courts. Each case was decided of a random jury made up of over 500 men who were 30 years and older and were also part of the demos. 501 was the popular number for a jury. Police forces did not exist in Athens, so the demos brought and settled cases. Since anything could be said at the courts and there were no rules on what could be brought to the courts, Athenians often times used the Dikasteria to punish and humiliate enemies. The jurors were paid for their service as well, probably to maintain support of the Dikasteria. The money used to pay the jurors came from customs duties and taxes on resident foreigners, since Athenians didn’t have to pay any taxes.
Spartan government was very different from Athenian government. Sparta was a monarchy with two hereditary kings from two different family lines. At any given point, one of the kings could declare war; however both kings never went to battle at the same time. These two kings headed the Council of Elders, which was composed of 28 men over 60 years of age, who held the position for the rest of their lives. The Council of Elders was the highest court in Sparta. This council also headed the citizen assembly, which voted on matters such as whether to change foreign policy or not, simply by shouting. However, any decision the citizen assembly made could be overturned by the Council of Elders. The complex nature of the Spartan government explained its reputation as being a conservative and slow to make decisions in terms of foreign policy. The citizen assembly also elected five ephors, who acted as guardians of the state and could challenge the authority of the king. An ephor served for one year and couldn’t be elected again. Whenever a king went to war, two of the ephors went with him, while the other three stayed in Sparta. The ephors also had power in daily matters as well. Gold and silver were banned in Sparta since the ephors feared the people becoming money-loving, and money was made from iron bars, which weren’t worth much and they were cumbersome to carry around. Citizens weren’t allowed to travel either, and visitors were made to feel unwelcome.
In terms of government, Athens and Sparta were polar opposites. Athens was progressive, democratic, and quick to take action. Sparta was conservative, totalitarian, and slow to make any decisions in foreign policy.
The second area of comparison between the two city-states is their social classes. Athens had four distinct social classes, the demos, women, resident foreigners, who were called metics, and slaves. The demos class was at the top, and was composed of Athenian males of 18 years and older. The demos had the exclusive right to participate in the government. The next highest class in Athenian society was women. Women were Athenian citizens; however, they were considered minors in the legal system. Women also seldom went out of the house, and were expected to take care of home activities. If both parents of a child were Athenian citizens, then the child automatically became a citizen of Athens. If one parent was an Athenian citizen, then the court could grant citizenship to the offspring, however, there was no guarantee of this and many times a child was denied citizenship. The next social class after this was the metics, or resident foreigners. The metics were usually merchants, skilled craftsmen, and workers. The metics were allowed to walk through Athens with freedom like the demos class, however they were not citizens and they had to pay taxes to the Athenian government as well. The lowest and largest class in the Athenian social pyramid was the slave population. There were around 150,000 slaves in Athens during its height, compared to only 40,000 members of the demos. Slaves were considered dependent on the master’s will, however, it was illegal for a master to be cruel to the slave. A master could not kill a slave either. Ironically, if a slave did get killed, the word of the master was always accepted by the court. The same went for a slave complaining. Property could be owned by slaves, and slaves could amass wealth if the master permitted it as well. Masters could also free slaves too. A freed slave was the equivalent of a metic on the social pyramid.
The Spartan social pyramid was similar to the Athenian one. There were three classes in the social pyramid of Sparta, citizens, perioikoi, and helots. A citizen was anybody born in Sparta, male or female. Both men and women an equal standing in the law with one exception; only men could participate in the government. The perioikoi were next in the Spartan social class system, and, in short, were resident foreigners. The perioikoi were mostly craftsmen and merchants who couldn’t participate in government affairs and weren’t citizens either. The perioikoi were also conscripted into the Spartan military as well. The lowest class of people in Sparta was the helots. The helots were the ancient equivalent of serfs; they were farmers and servants who couldn’t move unless they had government permission. The helots were also conscripted into the army as well, serving as soldiers, nurses, and battlefield attendants. The helots were often killed by the Spartans so they could keep control. Usually helots who were considered to be too smart, too fit, or too defiant were killed, in order to prevent revolts. Helot revolts still happened though.
The Athenian and Spartan social classes had some similarities, being that foreigners were ranked higher than slaves and helots, and that only men could participate in the government. However, Athenians were much kinder to their slaves than the Spartans to their helots, but Spartan women were given more freedoms than Athenian women.
The last characteristic that will be compared is culture. A good way to identify the key principles of Athenian culture were the three things that Athenian primary education strove to develop; the mind, emotions, and body. The mind asset that correlates with Athenian culture is quite obvious; Athens was widely, if not universally recognized as a city of learning, and the amount of Athenian philosophers, thinkers, and scientific men only reinforced that statement. Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Democritus, and Hippocrates were all from Athens, and they had a large impact on how we see the world today, as well as how we deal with issues. The emotional asset of Athens came from plays; Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of Athens’ best tragedy poets, who wrote plays that are still re-enacted today. Comedy plays, as well as art and impressive architecture were also seen in Athenian culture. The Athenians also valued physical fitness as well, hence the body section.
The Spartans, on the other hand, were a warrior culture. Officials examined babies to see if they had, or seemed to have any defects. If the officials saw something, then the baby was left outside to die. If the baby seemed healthy, then it was allowed to live. Sons were considered more valuable than daughters, since they went into the Spartan military. Boys attended military school starting at age 7, and they were taught to read and write, however, aside from that, the schools were very harsh. Boys had to learn to steal food in order to survive, and they were also beaten in order to learn to resist pain. Women didn’t go to military school, but they were still expected to be fit. Women participated in athletic competitions and sang and danced competitively to attract mates. Marriage was pressured by the state; if a man postponed it, he was publicly shamed. Women, before marriage, shaved their hair and kept it short after marriage. Men didn’t get to see their wives until they were 60, since they were on active duty, so the only way for men to see their wives was to sneak out of camps at night. Women were also trained to read and write as well, and could own property as a man did.
In terms of culture, Athens and Sparta were also drastically different. Athens was progressive in the sense that the city-state was rich with art, poetry, and philosophy. Sparta, on the other hand, was bent on the military and the state, and Spartans did not produce art, literature, or philosophy.
Athens and Sparta were, for the most part, very different in terms of government and culture. Athens was a democratic city-state that was quick to act, while Sparta was a totalitarian city-state that was slow in terms of foreign policy. Athens was also culturally vibrant, while Sparta was about the military and the state. While the two were more similar with their social class systems, there were only broad similarities such as the placement of servants (slaves/helots) at the bottom of the social pyramid. The way they were treated, however, was different between the two city-states. So were Athens and Sparta as different as their rivalry made them seem? No, they weren’t, but they were surely very different from each other.
1: The estimated population during the Athenian golden age.
To see more essays about Ancient Greece, I recommend visiting Baroque Myriam’s blog and her essays on Ancient Greece:
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