Sparta

On the Peloponesse Peninsula, in the southern part of Greece a polis was developing, called Sparta. The history of that polis was so unusual that it is impossible not to mention it when speaking about Ellada. The history says that the archaic tribe of Dores was the founder of the mentioned city-state. They settled in the fertile valley of the Eurotas river. As people on the higher level of development than the natives they took control of the valley very quickly.

They also conquered the flatland Laconia, subdued local people and made them dependent.

At last Dores called themselves Spartans, adopting the name of the capital of their country - Sparta.

That is what the history says about the beginnings of the polis. And what about ancient legend and myth, omnipresent in the culture?
According to the tradition, Likurg, the ruler living in 7th century BC, was the founder of the Spartan Kingdom.

He is universally regarded the progenitor of the law that he got from Apollo himself in Delphi. Undoubtedly this myth had a positive influence on the consciousness and patriotism of polis citizens. However we can not assume rashly that Likurg is a fictional character only. He probably was a historic character but his name, "carrying the light", is deeply set in the legend reality.

Forming of the internal order of Sparta was not result of one-time legal instrument but of long-lasting process. Spartans had always two kings who were head of social-political system and had different authority. They could not explain that special phenomenon themselves. Today it is claimed that it was conntected with the religious function of the second king. There is one more hypothesis: citizens, because of the military character of the state, could not do without the royal power and, having two kings, they could limit their power a bit. That hypothesis is more possible than the previous one.

The real power was in hands of the Council of the Elders – gerusia. Soon the aristocratic factor developed, in the form of five ephorates. Their authority was very big, from the administrative power, through the judiciary, to foreign affairs. There also was the Assembly of the People – apella, but its role was much smaller than for example in neighbouring Athens, and was limited to approving proposals prepared by officials.

It is worth asking a question: what caused that a political system like this developed?

It can be a result of the tightness of the original territory. Likurg's legislation was aiming at the equal land distribution among all citizens (gr. homoioi – equal). With time number of citizens increased and the area of land did not. That is why members of the ruling class directed their attention to neighbouring land – mainly to agricultural Messenia. It was not a mistery that Spartan army was very strong. However in 6th century Sparta was so similar to neighbouring polis that the conquest of Messenia took up about a hundred years. Conquest of the valley was a breakthrough in Sparta's history. Number of Sparta's citizens doubled and the subdued nation was transformed into political slaves – helots.

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Perioikos made the other and less important group. They were craftsmen and produced war equipment. The helot population increased so rapidly that in 500 BC Spartans were just a small group in their own country. They had to be very alert because they could expect the uprising of slaves at any time.

The need for constant mobilization set its stamp on the organization of the whole country. It was adjusted to make supremacy over dependent territories possible. Militarization of the country was its essential element. There were no democratic tendencies in Sparta – an individual was always subordinated to the relentless state. Future life of a baby was determined by the Council of the Elder – if a baby was ill and disabled, it was left in the mountains. Children stayed in their family homes till they were seven, then the state took responsibility for their upbringing and education. Boys lived strict life in camps and trained (also women were obliged to do physical training). They built up not only their bodies but also their minds – they were used to short, exact answers (today they are called „laconic”), they fought without fear. Camp life was extremely hard and disciplined. A man could get married after he was 30 and leave the army after he was 60.

All these factors resulted in extraordinary effectiveness of Spartan army – we can call it the only regular army in the whole Greece. Spartans found working disgusting, that is why only lower social classes worked. Their main interest was war. Determination and will to fight became apparent in unusual bravery and honour, which was comprised in the famous sentence: „I will return victorious or die honourably”.

The full mobilization of the country enabled to supress revolutionist feelings in Messenia. To break Messenian resistance, warriors executed military monoeuvres that were a realistic simulation: they surrounded a helot village and put the inhabitants to the sword. Natural result of such actions were liberation movements of helots that used every opportunity to incite an uprising. That forced Spartans to soften their attitude to their lieges: since then they were allowed to serve in the army, aristocrats could marry helot women.

The Spartan conquerests did not stop. In the climax Spartan borders reached the end of Peloponesse. The country, threatened with uprisings, looked for support from smaller neighbours: Corinth, Sykion and Megara. Spartans promised them protection from outside threats, in exchange for help in supressing revolts. That was the beginning of the Peloponesse Union – the strongest military organization of Ellada. It was characteristic that Spartans did not demand money from unionists, but a rent of blood, which made the union more popular.

The strong position of Sparta caused that other Greek polis started to ask for its help. At the same time strong militarization of the country brought about cultural and economic stagnation, and at last their borders had been closed. They became hermetic to such extent that a foreigner needed approval of the king to cross the border of the country. That conduct was a result of the national xenophobia and ephorates' fear that the free philosophical thought and all cultural novelties connected with democracy could become popular.

Athenian oligarchs and philosophers, led by Plato, admired the Spartan life. They liked simplicity of the life, clarity of the law and high moral standards of the society that was expressed in their devotion to the ideal of Sparta's greatness.

Till today Sparta's history is a fragment of the history of Ellada, classical in its originality.

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8. 2012-03-16
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