Ancient Sparta was once the strongest and strictest military power in Greece. Its origins are lost in time, myths and legends. Glorious kings and queens were born and ruled in Sparta, like King Leonidas of the 300 soldiers. The Spartans participated in great battles, such as the historic Battle of Thermopylae and the Peloponnesian War against Athens. Today, the archaeological site and museum in Sparta welcome visitors and provide insight into their history.
In a small valley in Laconia, thousands of years ago, the history of Sparta began. The city was surrounded by two huge mountains and a river. Many myths and heroes were born in this land.
The most important period of Sparta was the ancient times. It was a flourishing city with a great history and a unique complex and strict society.
Sparta is most famous for its unique military society and for being a great archenemy of Athens in ancient times. Also, Sparta was the place where the love story between the prince of Troy Paris and the most beautiful woman in Greece Helen was born.
The great poet Homer wrote about their love story. But, what can you see today if you visit Sparta with your family? Let’s find out.
History of Sparta
From various finds we know that Sparta was inhabited in prehistory. Various locations in Sparta and nearby bear witness to human habitation, such as the cave of Alepotrypa.
We learned a lot about Sparta in Homer's writings. From that time we know that there were two great kingdoms in that region: the kingdom of Agamemnon in Mycenae and that of his brother Menelaus in Sparta.
When the Mycenaean civilization fell, the strict military society of Sparta as we know it today arose under the laws of Lykourgos, the most important lawgiver. Let’s explore this complex society.
Spartan Soldier - credits: matc/depositphotos
The Spartan Society and Education
The Spartans believed that everyone's life should be devoted to the state. Therefore, when a male baby was born, he stayed with his family until he was 7 years old. After the age of 7 and until the age 20, the strict education of boys began.
They left their family and came to the government dormitories. The teachers were very hard on them because they believed that this was the only way to become strong and fearless soldiers. Their training consisted of martial arts, poetry and songs dedicated to a strict soldier's life.
Their diet was poor. The main food was "melanas zomos," a porridge made of the blood of pork. It is very significant that the candidates ate only honey 1 month before they graduated! The historian Ploutrhos told us all about the cruel military life of the Spartans.
Men were allowed to get married at the age of 30, because they had to dedicate the best years of their lives to the city and their military duties.
The Social Structure of Sparta
The social structure of the Spartans was considered by the two kings, the free men and the slaves. In Sparta, the king was the supreme governor of Sparta. But in this case there were two kings. The reason for this was that in the event that one king was killed in a war, the other king would continue to rule.
The free men were divided into two groups, "Omoioi" and "Perioikoi." Omoioi were the citizens of ancient Sparta who were at the top of the social pyramid and possessed full political rights. Perioikoi were Spartans who lived in the suburbs of the city and were mainly engaged in trade. They also had autonomous administration but no political rights and paid taxes.
At the bottom of the social pyramid were the "helots" or slaves. The slaves lived in poor conditions and their work consisted mainly of agriculture. They had no political or other rights and were mainly prisoners of war.
The Role of Women
The Spartan girls had a similar education to the boys. They still had a hard education with martial arts, but it wasn't as hard as the boys. The girls graduated earlier, after their marriage.
Their aim in life was to marry and produce children. Women had to produce strong offspring for the sake of the city. They had no active role in society.
It may seem that the role of women was simple and not social, but Spartan society considered the role of women sacred. Men respected them completely and took care of them.
Historical Battles and Wars
Battle of Thermopylae
One of the most important battles fought by Sparta in its history was the battle of Thermopylae in 488 B.C. Both Persians and Athenians were sworn enemies of the Spartans. The famous King Leonidas was the commander of the army in this battle. With him, the 300 Spartan soldiers fought the Persian army and their king Xerxes til the end.
Leonidas was a legendary king. With his fearless and brilliant mind, he managed to defeat the Persians and inspired poets to write poems about him. He was married to Gorgo and had a son.
Even though Leonidas and his 300 soldiers knew they could not defeat Xerxes because they were so many, they stayed and fought to the end. For the Spartans, a soldier should either return victorious or dead. The Spartans even had a saying about it; "Ή ταν ή επί τας¨.
The Persian army consisted of 80,000 soldiers and the Greek with the 300 Spartans only 4,000. Xerxes thought that the Greeks would surrender, but Leonidas said the historical phrase "Come and get them".
After a while it was obvious that the Greeks could not win the battle and Leonidas ordered all Greeks except the Spartans to live and protect other Greek parts. Leonidas stayed behind in a death trap and covered their escape.
Leonidas Monument in Thermopylae - credits: Athanasios71/depositphotos
The Peloponnesian War took place between Sparta and Athens. This war lasted for 30 years (431-104 BC). There were battles that Athens won and others where Sparta was the victor. Historians divided the war into three phases.
Sparta was losing the war when the plague broke out in Athens. Then the Spartans gained ground and managed to destroy the Athenian fleet. The Athenian general Alcibiadis betrayed his countrymen and helped them.
Soon after this great victory, another war took place in Sparta between Spartans and Thebes, in which the Spartans were defeated. As a result, the Spartans were forced to release the slaves. Sparta needed time to rebuild its state.
Thanks to great historians like Herodotus, Diodorus, Plutarch and Xenophon, we have a detailed analysis of the war.
Moving Towards Today
Great Sparta was in the foreground until the 3rd century BC. When the Macedonian king Philip II gradually conquered Greece in 339 BC, Sparta fell and became just another small city. The Romans also conquered Sparta and eventually all of Greece in the 2nd century BC.
During the Byzantine period, the city maintained its carefree profile of a small city until the 19th century. During this century, King Otto of Greece restored the city due to its long history.
Mythological Background of Ancient Sparta
Ancient Sparta has a great mythological background that includes myths about gods and heroes who were born, lived and acted in these sacred grounds.
Eurotas and Taygete
Eurotas was a mythical river god. He was an early king of the region of Laconia, even before King Lacedaemon. He possessed a mortal rather than a typical god lineage. He married Taygete and their daughter was Sparta.
Taygete was a mountain nymph, that is, a female nature deity. She was a companion of the goddess of the hunt, Artemis. Mount Taygete, located in Sparta, is named after her. King Lacedaimon gave his name to the region of Laconia, to which Sparta belonged.
King Lacedaemon and Queen Sparta
According to the myths, the city was founded by the great king Lacedaemon, who was the son of the god Zeus and the mountain nymph Taygete, daughter of the river Eurotas. Lacedaemon married Sparta and had three children, Amyclas, Eurydice and Asine. He named the city where they lived, Sparta, after her.
Their daughters are the famous three Charities. King Lacedaemon and his wife built a shrine dedicated to their daughters.
Helen of Troy, Paris and Menelaos
We know the love story of Helen of Troy, or the beautiful Helen and Paris, the prince of Troy, from the great poet Homer.
Helen believed she was the daughter of Zeus and the beautiful princess Leda. She became queen of Sparta when she married King Menelaus of Sparta. Zeus met Paris and made him choose who was the most beautiful: the goddess Hera, Athena, or Helen. Paris chose Helen and Aphrodite promised him that Helen would become his wife.
When Paris traveled to Sparta on a diplomatic mission, he abducted Helen. Helen and Paris loved each other and she did not want to be Menelaus' wife anymore. Menelaus was so angry and wanted his wife back that he started a war, the famous Trojan War.
In this war the Greeks defeated the Trojans, but the story of Helen and Paris ends badly. Helen is on the run and Paris, after killing Achilles, dies at the hands of the Greek prince Pheiloctetes.
The famous movie Troy with Brad Pit and Orlando Bloom was based on this story.
Helen and Paris - credits: Morphart/depositphotos
Myth of Kaiadas
Local tradition locates the gorge and cave of Kaiada close to Sparta, in mountain Taygete. According to mythology when a child was born in Sparta they checked if the baby had any dismorphy or disability. If the baby was healthy their parents kept it, but if the baby wasn’t then they threw it away in the gorge of Kaiada.
Nowadays, after years of research, archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists found the gorge and the human remains. They concluded that this assumption was actually faulty.
In Kaiada the Spartans threw their captives after battles and the criminals that had already been sentenced to death.
The Archaeological Site of Sparta
Many ancient ruins still stand in Sparta and are visible to the visitors. If you choose to visit with your family Sparta you will have the chance to explore:
- Ancient Acropolis of Sparta (8th century BC)
- Roman Agora (2nd century BC)
- Archaic Stoa (6th century BC)
- Ancient Theater (1st century BC)
- Sanctuary of Athena Halkioitou (6th century BC)
- A round building (unknown use) (4th-3rd century BC)
- Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (4th century AC
- Byzantine Church of Saint Nikon (10nth century AC)
Archaeological Site of Sparta - credits: Leonid_Andronov/depositphotos
The ancient acropolis and agora housed administrative and religious activities. The unknown circular building may have contained statues of Zeus and Aphrodite in the 6th century BC. Today, all that remains of the ancient theatre are a few seats and the overgrown semicircle.
Many of the important finds now in the Archaeological Museum were found in the sanctuaries of Athena Halkioitou and Artemis. Finally, in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia the Spartan boys received their awards of bravery: bronze sickles. Boys could receive an award after being whipped until they bled on the site.
The site of ancient Sparta is an amazing trip that can be combined with a visit to the Archaeological museum of Sparta.