Ancient Sparta Its Cultural Political Society and Governmental Structure as Well as Military Term Paper

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Ancient Sparta

The city of Sparta is located along the Eurotas River, in the southern Greek island of Peloponnesus. Today, the city serves as the capital of the Lakonia province and is home to a few thousand people and ruins of temples and ancient public buildings.

The appearance of modern Sparta belies its importance in antiquity. Ancient Sparta was the most powerful and important Greek city-state at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, a distinction that the city carried for almost 30 years (Hamilton 25).

Throughout Greece, Sparta's power and prestige were rivaled only by Athens.

This paper examines the institutional structures that characterized ancient Sparta, and how these institutions affected Sparta's dominance. The first part of the paper looks at the city's political and government structures. The second part focuses on the foundation of Sparta's society - the military. The third part of the paper studies the social and class structures that characterized daily life in ancient Sparta.

Government and politics in Ancient Sparta

Towards the end of the Greek Classical Age (500-323 BC), most city-states in ancient Greece had instituted oligarchies or democracies. Sparta, however, continued to retain its two-king system, wherein two kings ruled jointly at all times (Nardo 2001: 57). Each king came from one of the two Spartan royal families and served to limit the power of the other (Baker 24).

These kings' powers, however, were often overseen by elite political groups. Among these groups were the "gerousia," a council of 30 elders; the "apella," which was composed of freeborn Spartan men; and the "ephors," which was made up of five powerful magistrates (Nardo 2001: 57-58).

The gerousia served as the equivalent of the Senate. Every male Spartan citizen who was older than 60 and proven himself loyal to the laws of the city-state was eligible for membership (Baker 25).

Sparta had a unique process for electing a senator. Each candidate for the gerousia was presented before a Spartan crowd, as the people shouted their approval. The candidate who received the loudest voice vote won, and once elected, the gerousia member served for life (Baker 25).

The apella was established to involve all Spartan males in the government of the city-state. This assembly, however, met only occasionally. Often, they only voted to approve proposals by the kings and the members of the gerousia (Baker).

The ephors held vast administrative and judicial powers and were elected annually by the members of the apella as their representatives. As wielders of administrative and judicial authority, the ephors held the most power and also served to limit the authority of the kings and the apella (Nardo 2001: 58).

The Spartan Military

Sparta's renown in ancient Greece lay not in its government structures, but in the strength of its army. As with their political system, the Spartans developed a military establishment that was markedly different from the military in Athens and the other Greek city-states. Tradition holds that above all else, Spartans placed greatest emphasis on being a good soldier and on prowess in the battlefield. Before a Spartan son marched into battle, his mother would counsel, "Come home with your shield or on it" (Baker 23).

To develop this discipline and fighting prowess, Spartan men went through the "agoge," a harsh and rigid system of military training and instruction. This system was ingrained in all aspects of daily life in Sparta, from the moment of birth. In the earliest phase of the agoge, town elders examined male babies for signs of weakness. Those who were deemed too weak were "exposed," and left on a mountainside to die (Nardo, 1996: 14-15).

At the age of 7, Spartan boys left home permanently to live in a military training facility with other boys in training. These trainees lived together and were fed together. They were fed scanty rations and encouraged to steal from nearby farms, encouraging the development of resourcefulness and courage. To instill toughness, the boys went barefoot, had only one garment and slept on beds of reeds (Robinson 48).

As part of their training, the boys swam in icy rivers and engaged in brutal sports. In one sport, a team of trainees stood in an island in the middle of stream. Another team was then charged with knocking the opponents off the island. Both teams employed whatever means were necessary to win. The game included savage kicking, biting and eye gouging (Nardo 1996: 15).

As adulthoods, these trainees were inducted into the Spartan army and were now known as hoplites. The harsh regiment continued, as the hoplites lived in frugal communal barracks.

They wore plain clothing and ate simple food. These austere living conditions gave rise to the adjective "spartan" (Nardo 1996: 16).

Though the training was harsh, the result was an army of quiet, obedient and ruthless young men. The singular goal of this army was the national interest and survival of the Spartan city-state. While other city states in ancient Greece relied on citizen-militia, Sparta had at its disposal an organized army known for its discipline and fighting prowess (Grant 24).

Ancient Spartan society

Spartan society was characterized by a limited equality, where only the members of the upper class enjoyed the rights of full citizenship.

In addition to the military class and the government, Spartan society was comprised of two additional classes. The peroikoi, for example, were comprised by the semi-free citizens. The peroikoi had much fewer rights that the members of the apella. However, they were entrusted with the state's manufacturing and trade activities. This work allowed for the accumulation of considerable wealth, especially in Sparta's austere lifestyle (Durando 52).

At the bottom of Spartan society were the serfs or helots. These indentured servants were bound to the soil and hard labor for their lifetimes. Their children inherit their status and in turn spend their lives tilling the land and herding livestock.

Most of these helots are descendants of conquered peoples who had inhabited land that was assimilated into the Spartan empire. In addition, prisoners captured during wars, particularly in the Messenia region, are often designated to a lifetime of service as members of the helot class (Durando 52).

The position of the helots was another feature that distinguished Sparta from other city-states. Like slaves in other city-states, helots had no rights. In Sparta, however, helots could not earn their freedom. In addition, it was a commonly accepted rite of passage for young Spartan men to stalk and kill at least one helot before they could be designated a hoplite (Nardo 2001: 55).

Whereas Spartan laws regarding slaves were more restrictive, their laws regarding women were much more liberal than other city states in ancient Greece.

For example, Spartan women were not largely confined to the home. They could dine in public communal facilities and associate in public with men. More importantly, Spartan women were allowed to own property (Nardo 2001: 54).

Under Spartan law, a daughter was allowed to inherit a share of her father's land, though that share is only half of other, eligible male heirs. Unlike the women in Athens, Spartan women could also inherit the family property directly when their husbands die. Athenian women, in contrast, had to marry a male relative of their husbands to be allowed any rights to the family property (Nardo 2001: 54).

Since Spartan men were obligated to serve in battle, a good deal of Spartan land was owned by women. By the 4th century B.C., Aristotle observed that Spartan women owned two-fifths of the land in Sparta and as a result, enjoyed too much freedom (Aristotle, cited in Nardo 2001: 54).

The historian Plutarch further observed that Spartan women "took a prominent part in public life, and with so many dependents, friends, and debtors (were) figure(s) of great influence" (Plutarch 58).


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