The two rival city-states of ancient Greece which were the most controversial and gave us most of the traditions were the city-states of Ancient Greek Sparta and Athens. In spite of being close on the map, these two city-states were miles apart in what they valued and how they lived their lives. They were the two most powerful states in Ancient Greece until the rise of Macedonia under Alexandre the Great
Sparta or Lacedaemon was a well-known city-state in ancient Greece which was situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians conquered the local, non-Dorian population. From 650 BC it rose to become the dominant military land-power in ancient Greece.
Ancient Sparta was located in the southeastern portion of the Peloponnese, a region known as Laconia. It was situated just on the banks of the Euphrates river which was the main source of water for them. It was mainly a mountainous region, surrounded by Mt. Permanent, Mt. Taygetus, and the Arcadian highland which provided them natural protection against its enemies. It had no direct outlet to the sea and was completely dependent on land routes for communication. The hard topography directly affected the nature of Spartans, which made them rough and quite warlike without any natural bounties bestowed upon them.
Athens was located 20 km from the sardonic gulf and situated in a fertile plain watered by its surrounding rivers. It was bounded by Mt. Hymettys to the east and Mt. Pentelicus to the north. It was located quite close to the Aegean sea giving them the main backbone of their prosperous trade.
Ancient Greek Sparta and Athens
Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, from which it emerged victorious, though at great cost. Sparta’s defeat by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, however, ended Sparta’s prominent role in Greece. However, it maintained its political independence until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC.
Ancient Greek Sparta and Athens had a distinctive social system as well as a distinct constitution, which completely focused on Greece military training and excellence. Its inhabitants were categorized as Spartiates
who were Spartan citizens and who enjoyed full rights Mothakes who were non-Spartan free men raised as Spartans, the Perioikoi who were freedmen and lastly, the Helots who were state-owned serfs, enslaved the non-Spartan local population. Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights and equality to men than elsewhere in the classical world.
Athens was known as a major naval power with more ships and tremes than whole Greek states combined. They had built a strong defensive wall to guard them against invasions while building the most powerful navy in Ancient Greece.
While Sparta was known to be the best fighter with a standing hoplite army, the only one in ancient Greece. Their culture was almost built along their army and considered to be the most important thing for Sparta.
Athens was one of the richest states in Ancient Greece with a prosperous trade. Their main source of income was their overseas trade and tribute from their colonies. Athens was mainly an urban complex with very little agricultural land. They had some of their food grains from their hinterland in Attica but much of it was exported from outside and it was an extremely important trade that kept Athens’s supply of food constant. They had a great market where everyone wanted to trade and they prospered from its taxes.
Sparta on the other hand was a landlocked country with very few natural gifts. Their topography was hilly and the land was not fertile enough. So concentrated more on capturing fertile pastures for their survival. Their main source of income and food was from their colony in Messenia, one of the most fertile tracts of land in ancient Greece, cultivated by their helots. They were not prosperous and had no place for luxuries. They lived a hard way of life shunning luxuries and promoting frugality.
Athens was known to be a democracy in which people directly voted on different issues and governed themselves directly by voting on policies. Every free citizen had rights and freedom of speech.
While Sparta was a monarchical oligarchy in which they were ruled by two kings at the same time who was assisted by a council of elders who were most probably the real source of power. They also had a popular council in which the free citizens could voice their opinions and even had a written constitution to govern the state.
Primarily Militarist State
Sparta was primarily a militarist state and hence great importance was laid on military fitness which practically commenced immediately after the birth of a child. As a matter of fact, male Spartans began military training at the tender age of seven.The Agoge system was designed to encourage discipline and physical toughness and to emphasize the importance of the Spartan Greek state. Besides physical and weapons training, boys studied reading, writing, music, and dancing. Special punishments were imposed if boys failed to answer questions sufficiently wittily.
At the age of twelve, the Agoge obliged Spartan boys to take an older male mentor, usually an unmarried young man. The older man was expected to function as a kind of substitute father and role model to his junior partner. At the age of eighteen, Spartan boys became reserve members of the Spartan army. Not much information is available as to the education of Spartan girls, but they seem to have gone through a fairly extensive formal educational cycle, broadly similar to that of the boys but with less emphasis on military training. In this respect, classical Sparta was unique in ancient Greece. In no other city-state did women receive any kind of formal Greek Education. Spartan men were required to marry at age 30.
The women of Athens were quite independent and even received formal education along with the boys. They were trained to even fight so that they could defend themselves without men. Although their main job was to give birth to strong men for the Spartan society. They also had the responsibility of the house and the children as the men lived mostly in barracks. So they looked over the welfare of children, took care of the household, and even supervised slaves in their agricultural estates.
The primary function of the women in Athens was to give birth and look after children in Athens. They were not given any education and were not even allowed to go out without male members of the family. So they mostly took care of children and their other job was to make clothes for the family.
Athens had a very liberal culture with individual rights for all free citizens. They promoted political debates among the people and had freedom of speech to a certain extent. Art and intellectual activities were greatly appreciated and promoted in ancient Greece. This led to an outburst of literary masterpieces, brilliant art, and architecture, dramas, epics, philosophy, etc. These are even popular today. Their philosophers are world-famous and form the basis of western thinking.
While Sparta valued only martial characteristics. Art and cultural activities were considered to make people soft. They did not study art or literature and even their pottery was plain and coarse. They were more known for their discipline and brotherhood among their citizens.
Sparta vs Athens :The Peloponnesian War
Greece and Athens were also engaged in a brutal Peloponnesian war which lasted for about 27 years and included a deadly plague, a disastrous campaign to Southern Italy, treacheries, great leaders, help from a previous enemy, etc.
Athens managed to dominate the initial stages of the war with their superior navy but was set back by the onset of a deadly plague that killed their leader and then the disastrous invasion of Sicily which destroyed most of their elite soldiers and navy ships. Sparta managed to win the war but with the help of the Persian Emperor and overthrew the Athenian democracy to establish Spartan supremacy in ancient Greece.