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Sparta is a town in the Peloponnese peninsula of southern Greece. In ancient times, it was a major city-state that was renowned for its military prowess.


Sparta was possibly established by Achaeans in the late Bronze Age, or the early Iron Age, after c.1300 BC. At that time, according to legend but supported by archaeology, Mycenae was the main centre of Greek civilisation while Sparta was regarded as a secondary power along with Argos, Athens, and Thebes. In the Iliad, Sparta is ruled by King Menelaus, whose wife Helen elopes to Troy with Paris. Led by Agamemnon of Mycenae, the Achaeans united to fight the Trojan War, after which the thrones of Mycenae, Argos and Sparta were united under Orestes.

Dorian occupation

According to Thucydides, the Boeotians entered Boeotia sixty years after the end of the Trojan War and the Dorian Invasion (the Return of the Heraclidae) took place twenty years after that. The dates are tentatively during the 12th century BC. Archaeological evidence indicates that the main Dorian settlement of the Peloponnese was underway by 1100 BC and was completed by 1000 BC. Sparta became one of several Dorian settlements and its later inhabitants spoke the Dorian dialect, as distinct from other dialects like Aeolic and Ionic that were spoken elsewhere in Greece and the Aegean.

Between 900 and 700 BC, the various ethnic groups (Dorians, Aeolians, Achaeans, Ionians, and others) began to develop a common identity as Hellenes. This coincided with the initial development of the polis (city-state) in various parts of Greece, usually by a process called synoecism, an amalgamation of small settlements into one large one. Sparta has often been held as the classic example of synoecism, as it was formed by union of five villages.

Military society

Sparta had become a military power in the Peloponnese by c.730 BC when its army conquered neighbouring Messenia, the native population of which was enslaved to form the helot class of landed serfs. However, Sparta suffered a serious reverse c.668 BC when it was defeated by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae. Their victory confirmed the continuing dominance of Argos in the Peloponnese, unbroken since the Dorian invasion. This was the peak of Argive power, but the battle marked a turning point in Greek history as it caused the Spartans to adopt the phalanx of hoplites in place of the loose spear throwing formations prevalent until then. The phalanx was to revolutionise warfare. Around 650 BC, the Messenian helots staged a revolt but it was crushed by the Spartan phalanx.

By 600 BC, Sparta had become the rising power among the Greek city-states. Possibly as a reaction to defeat by Argos at Hysiae and the Messenian Revolt that followed it, a revolution had taken place in Spartan society. They had successfully introduced the phalanx of hoplites and now their whole way of life was to become militaristic too. The famous Lycurgan Laws were already in place but when they were formulated, and by whom, is open to speculation.

Constitution and culture

Although Sparta had a Senate (the Gerusia) and an Assembly, real power was vested in the state's two kings and five ephors (meaning "overseers"). The power of the ephors was growing steadily although the kings remained the major component in the constitution until c.550 BC. The dual monarchy was hereditary and one king always led the Spartan army in battle. The ephors were elected annually by lot, with no citizen exempt from the ballot. This sounds democratic until it is remembered that Sparta had only a small citizen class.

The vast majority of people in Laconia were either perioeci (dwellers round about) or helots (landed serfs who were originally the conquered Messenians). The perioeci were an artisan class with no civic rights but, in return for freedom, they had to perform military service. The rigid Spartan code, traditionally imposed by the legendary Lycurgus, was enforced by the ephors. It was essentially a device to preserve and improve the perceived racial superiority of the citizen class. To this end, the Spartans practised euthanasia, infanticide and selective breeding (via adultery if necessary).

The duty of every man was to be a soldier and of every woman to produce strong, healthy children. The code was a response to the threat of rebellion by the majority helot class. It was believed that a strong citizen army should be able to defend itself and so preserve the Spartan way of life. In other words, the end not only justified the means but actually became the means. Discipline was the main criterion in Spartan society. The arts had flourished in Sparta during the 7th century with the presence of poets like Terpander, Tyrtaeus and Alcman; but from the 6th century onwards, culture had no place there.

The Peloponnesian League

By about 550 BC, Sparta had reached the peak of its power in the Peloponnese. In Sparta itself, the ephors had maximised their power having became a check on the conduct of the Spartan kings, whom they could now prosecute. They had control of the courts and were responsible for upholding the state's rigid disciplinary code.

A Spartan victory over Argos confirmed their military domination over the Peloponnese. Elsewhere, the influence of Sparta had been sufficient to remove the ruling tyrannies of Corinth and Sicyon, since the Spartans favoured aristocracy over the business class. The Spartans also founded the Peloponnesian League, a loose confederacy under their leadership which endured until the 4th century, though Argos and Achaea never joined. Members included Corinth, Megara, Sicyon, Epidaurus, Elis and Arcadia.