A Study on Rigurosity Versus Bohemian Lifestyle in Ancient Greece: Sparta Versus Athens

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World Civilization I

Athens and Sparta

Athens and Sparta are two of the most well know Greek polis, or city-states in the ancient world. Sparta is known for its rigorous education and training for both men and woman and their ferocity in battle. Athens is known for being more aristocratic. These two great polies had been a part of the Delian League, an alliance of the Greek states, under Athenian leadership. Athens committed themselves to a war with the Peloponnesian League, while launching a large-scale attempt to control of Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean. In 461 B.C.E., the differences between the two poleis became too great, leading Athens to campaign, with success, against Sparta, (Britannica) and ultimately lead to the demise of classical Greece.

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Athens was not located on the more traveled trade routes of the eighth century B.C.E., so it was slower to become prominent of the polies of Greece; the population grew without pressure, but the many villages and districts within the territory of Athens were not united until the seventh century B.C.E. By the seventh century B.C.E., Athens had blossomed into the typical aristocratic polis of the time; divided into four tribes and several phratries (clans or brotherhoods). As with most aristocratic societies, the aristocrats held the best and most land, and dominated political and religious activities. (Kagan, pg. 44) It was during this time that Greece’s political reforms birthed the system of demokratia or “the rule of the people,” which is the precursor for our modern democracy. However “none of these cultural achievements translated into political stability.” The imperialism of this great polis alienated Athens’ allies in the Delian League, most of all Sparta. This lead to the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E, lasting for decades. Sparta’s victory meant that Athens lost political primacy. However, Athenian culture, what is known as the very essence of classical Greece, continued until the second half of the fourth century B.C.E. with the rise of Philip of Macedon, and Alexander the Great. (

Sparta was comprised of three main groups of people: the Spartans, who were full citizens, the Helots, who were considered slaves, and the Perioeci, neither slaves nor citizens, but rather craftsmen and traders who worked and built weapons for the Spartans. ( Sparta, like Athens, had a rich culture that valued education. Unlike the Athenian demokratia, Sparta’s political scene was a mix of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. There were two kings, whose royal houses competed constantly. The purpose of these two kings was mainly religious and military operations, and the Spartan army never left without a king in command, and a king at home. (Kagan, pg. 44)

By 550 B.C.E., the system of Sparta was well established. The revolt of the Helots during the Second Messenian War in 650 B.C.E. had taken all of Sparta’s energy and much of their resources were used to quell this rebellion. They realized that they could not keep the old easy habits of most Greeks and control the Helots. It was because of this rebellion that Sparta became the military camp that it is known as. (Kagan, pg. 45)

Athens and Sparta clashed on many occasions. The quarrels within Athenian nobility lead to the rise of Solon, a man who the Athenians elected as the only archon, a chief magistrate (traditionally, there are nine), giving him the power to legislate and revise the constitution. He allowed citizenship to immigrants who were merchants and tradesmen. While Solon resolved the economic crisis, all his efforts to avoid strife failed, and the first tyrant emerged from this turmoil. Pisistratus seized power in 560, and again in 556 B.C.E; his support was too small, and he was driven out of Athens, but in 546 B.C.E, Pisistratus returned at the head of a mercenary army, and established his tyranny, successful at last. He was succeeded by his oldest son Hippias, who was equally as tyrannical as his father. According to legend, he murdered his own brother in a quarrel. Hippias became paranoid. Cleomenes I of Sparta lead an army into Athens and deposed Hippias. Sparta had hoped to gain Athens back as an ally, and tried to re-establish the aristocratic rule that had been in place before Solon, but the people refused to tolerate this, and drove the Spartans out, furthering the distance between the two city-states. (Kagan, pg. 46)

While Sparta had once been a part of the Delian League with Athens, Athenian imperialism had caused the Spartan to resent Athens’ leadership, and Athenian participation in the Peloponnesian War only put more strain on the relationship between Athens and their allies, due to the increased taxes to support the war. There were many revolts, but Athens was still supported by many of the polies. Sparta revolted and defeated Athens in Aegospotami in 405 B.C.E, and imposed peace terms, disbanding the Delian League in 404. (Britannica) Athens successfully campaigned against Sparta, causing an unrepairable rift between the two, ultimately leading to the demise of Classical Greece.

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