Sparta and Athens
Sparta and Athens
The two superpowers of ancient Greece were the city states of Sparta and Athens. What led them to prosper? Surprisingly, they came to power in extremely different ways. Athens had rich art and culture, while Sparta was training the toughest warriors in Greece. As time passed, the two would change from allies to rivals to bitter enemies.
A Map of Athens
Geography's Impact on the Cultures of Athens and Sparta
Athens: The Athenians were located near the sea in a region of Greece called Attica. Because the Athenians were so close to the sea, they became traders trading with other civilizations around the Mediterranean region. Proximity to the sea also encouraged Athens to build a strong naval fleet.
The constant travel of Athenians around the Mediterranean meant that they began to learn from the cultures and ideas of other countries. Athenian culture also began to spread by the same means.
Sparta: The Spartans were located on a plain, between the mountains and the sea, where they farmed on the fertile soil. The land on which they were located was called the Peloponnesus and was located a peninsula of the same name. Unlike the Athenians, Spartans lived inland, so they had no access to the sea and no use for trading ships or a naval fleet.
Near Sparta lived a group of people called the Messenians (also known as the Helots). The Spartans conquered these people and forced them into slavery. Later the Messenians revolted against the Spartans, and, because the Messenians outnumbered Spartans 20:1, the Spartans could barely subdue them. After this, all Spartan boys were trained to be soldiers for times of need—either war or another Messenian revolt. The soldiers had to be well-trained especially because they were so outnumbered by the Messenians.
Which city-state in Greece do you like more?
The Different Systems of Government in Athens and Sparta
Athens: Athens operated under a democratic government. All free Athenian men over 18 years old were considered citizens, and only citizens could hold government positions. Women, children, foreigners, and slaves were not allowed government positions.
The government was split into three groups, or branches:
- The Assembly—The Assembly, also known as the Ecclesia, included all Athenian citizens (at least 6,000 citizens). They held a meeting every 10 days to debate and vote on laws that were proposed by the council. When voting on yes-or-no issues, the assembly members used rocks to vote. A black rock would stand for "no," and a white rock would stand for "yes." An interesting fact about the assembly is that if not enough citizens showed up for a meeting, slaves would gather citizens using ropes dipped in red paint. Men considered it an embarrassment to arrive at a meeting with their clothes covered in red paint.
- The council—The council was a group of 500 Athenian citizens above the age of 30 chosen by lottery. The council ran the daily business of the government and proposed new laws.
- The stategoi—Lastly, the stategoi was a group of 10 citizens elected to run and command the army. Since it was crucial to be selective in choosing good military leaders, the strategoi were the only government officials to be elected.
Sparta: The Spartan government operated very differently than the Athenian government. Unlike Athens's democracy, in which every citizen had a vote, Sparta had an oligarchic government (a government ruled by a few people).
Like Athens's government, Sparta had three branches, but the roles of each branch was very different:
- The Assembly—At the bottom of the government pyramid was the Assembly. Like in Athens, the assembly was made up of all free male citizens, but the similarities stopped there. To start off, the assembly had very little power. Also the assembly could only vote on yes-or-no laws, but could not debate issues. Also if the Assembly voted on a law and the council didn't like the ruling, the council could simply overturn the law without the consent of the Assembly.
- The council of elders—The council of elders had more power than the Assembly. This group was composed of 28 male citizens, all of whom were older than 60 and came from noble families. The council members were elected by members of the Assembly, but the elections were very different than the polling booths you see today. Many historians believe that members of the Assembly voted simply by yelling for their favorite candidate. The candidate that received the most cheering was elected, and, once elected, the councillors served for life. The council of elders held almost all of the power in Sparta, as they made laws for the Assembly to vote on, could stop laws passed by the Assembly, and could overturn any ruling made by the Assembly.
- The kings—At the top of the pyramid were two kings who inherited their power. One of the kings usually led the Spartan army.
Are You a Spartan or Athenian?view quiz statistics
Differences between Spartan and Athenian Economies
Athens: The Athenian economy was primarily based on trade. The land surrounding Athens could not provide enough food for all of the city's citizens; however Athens was near the sea and had a good harbor. As a result, the Athenians traded with other city-states along with a few other civilizations in the Mediterranean region. Examples of the resources the Athenians required were wood from Italy and grain from Egypt. In exchange, the Athenians often gave items such as honey, olive oil, silver, and pottery.
The Athenians bought and sold their goods at a public marketplace called the Agora. At the Agora people could buy household items, clothes, pottery, furniture, jewelry, slaves, and foods such as lettuce, onions, wine, and olive oil.
Athens, like some other city states, also made its own coins. Coins made it easier to trade and were made of gold, silver, and bronze and reflected their actual value through the valuable metals. On the front of the coins was a picture of Athena, the patron goddess Athens; on the back was Athena's representative bird, an owl.
Sparta: The Spartan economy ran quite a bit differently than the Athenian economy. Instead of relying on trade, the Spartans relied on farming and conquering. All the Spartan men were soldiers, so the Spartans got other people to do the resource production for them.
When Sparta was first founded, the Spartans conquered the nearby region of Messenia and enslaved the natives, which the Spartans called helots. The helots farmed for the Spartans and sent most of their goods to Sparta while keeping the extras for themselves.
Non-citizens, called perioikoi, manufactured goods for them. The perioikoi made garments, tools, weapons, and pottery for the Spartans. The perioikoi also ran some of the city's trade. However the Spartans discouraged trade—they believed the new ideas that would result from travel and communication would lead to corruption and weaken the government.
Also, even if the Spartans wanted to trade, it would have been difficult since Spartans did not use coins. Instead, Spartans used huge iron bars, a system a Spartan leader thought would prevent theft—to steal any valuable amount, a thief would need a wagon to carry the iron away. However, this also dampened trade, as other city-states were not excited to receive iron bars in exchange for their goods.
Growing up in Athens and Sparta
Olive leaf used to represent birth.
Tested at birth for signs of weakness. Would be left to die if he had any weaknesses.
Represented birth with sheep wool.
Checked to see if she was strong. Would be left to die if she was weak.
Raised by his mother or a slave until age six.
Would be raised by parents until the age of seven.
Taught by mother until the age of 13.
Received physical training to have strong children.
Received a well-rounded education in school from the ages of 6-14. Learned academics along with physical training.
Would go to the barracks at the age of seven and begin military training.
Did not go to school, learned to do housework.
Exercised to stay fit.
After the age of 14, there was no formal education. Could learn a trade from his father.
Would continue to train at the barracks.
Would have an arranged marriage with an older man.
Would participate in Hereia festival in honor of Hera. Festival would consist of varied athletic events.
Would begin military training and service.
Would be elected into a mess.
Would live with her husband.
Would marry a husband, often in secret.
Would marry a younger woman.
Could live at home with his family.
Live the rest of her life with her husband.
Would live with her family.
Athens: Male Athenians received a very well-rounded education. Due to the fact only boys would grow up to become citizens, male and females in Athens were educated very differently.
Athenian boys would be taught at home either by slaves or their mothers until the age of six or seven. Then the boys would go to school and learn reading, writing, literature, and arithmetic until they turned 14. During this time, the boys also learned wrestling and gymnastics and how to play the lyre and sing. When the boy turned 18, he began his military training. After serving in the military, the boy, who was now a man, would study with private teachers before starting work in a trade of the boys choice.
Girls, on the other hand, had a very different training. Their mothers would teach the girls to clean, cook, weave cloth, and spin thread. A few girls also learned ancient secret songs and dances for religious festivals. Around the age of 15, girls married much older men. Girls from wealthy families often had arranged marriages with men of a higher class, while girls from poorer families usually had more choice.
Sparta: The Spartan education revolved around the one thing that the Spartans valued above all else: war. In Sparta, male and female children also went through different educations.
A boy would be taught a home until the age of seven. At that point, Spartan boys went to the barracks to receive military training, which included fighting skills such as running, boxing, wrestling, and racing. While the Spartan boys also learned to read and write, such skills were not considered important. During their training, the Spartans were subjected to harsh conditions such as going barefoot and having very little to eat. The Spartan boys in fact were given so little to eat that they were encouraged to steal. However, if they were caught stealing, they would be punished. This was not because the boys were caught stealing—but because they were careless enough to get caught! At the age of 18, a few boys who excelled in training were selected to be trained as part of the "secret service brigade." This select group trained in the wild with no support, which was supposed to make them especially tough. When the boys turned 20, they were considered men and elected into groups called messes. In a mess, men ate together to encourage them to grow close to one another, which would help them be united in battle. The men would then fight in the army until the age of 60, when they could retire.
Girls in Sparta received no education, but had physical training to stay fit. They were not married until their twenties—much older than in other cultures.
A Spartan Hoplite Versus an Athenian Trireme
Women, Slaves, and Other Non-Citizens in Athens and Sparta
Athens: In Athens, non-citizens, which included women and slaves, had few rights. Non-citizens could not hold government positions or own property in any way.
Usually women in Athens stayed at home, did housework, and supervised slaves. A few women could become priestesses, but that was as far as she could go professionally.
Slaves lived various different lives in Athens. Some slaves were trained as craftsmen, while others worked in factories or farms. A few slaves worked as clerks, and the unluckiest had to work in silver mines. People could become slaves by being born into slavery, being prisoners of war, or having to sell themselves into slavery due to farm debts.
Sparta: In Sparta non-citizens were women, slaves (called the helots), and Perioikoi (free men, usually foreigners).
Spartan women were very different from women in other parts of Greece because they received tough physical training. This was because the women were expected to look after their husbands property during times of war against invaders or a slave revolt. They also did not wear jewelry or perfume, since those items were seen as corrupting. Another way Spartan women differed from women from the other city-states was that the Spartan women had many rights women from other city-states did not have. The Spartan women could own property, speak with their husband's friends, and even marry another man if their husbands had been away at war for too long.
Spartan slaves, called, helots, did all the farming for the Spartans. The helots had the right to choose who they married, to sell extra crops after filling their quotas, and to buy their freedom if they had saved up enough money from the surplus crops. However, even with these rights, a helot’s life was not pleasant. Because the helots outnumbered the Spartans 20 to one, the Spartans feared the helots would revolt against them one day. Because of this, the Spartans treated the helots harshly. Once a year the Spartans declared war on the helots and freely killed them, so the helots would be scared of the Spartans and wouldn't rebel.
The final non-citizen class in Sparta was the periokoi, who were free men who were not citizens of Sparta. The periokoi might serve in the army, but they could not hold government posts. The perioikoi primarily manufactured goods for the Spartans including cloaks, shoes, weapons, and pottery. The periokoi also conducted some of Sparta’s trade.
Conclusion: The Primary Similarities and Differences between Athens and Sparta
The Spartans and Athenians were very different groups of people. The Spartans were militaristic people who valued strength and simplicity. They ran under an oligarchic government, were the military superpower of Greece, and relied on farming and conquering.
The Athenians, on the other hand, had a strong culture and a well-rounded society. They ran the first democracy in the world, were proud of their art and culture, and relied on trade. These two city-states were great civilizations, and working together they could possibly have achieved more than we can imagine. However this would never happen because greed and jealousy pitted the two superpowers of ancient Greece head-to-head in ferocious civil war and led to the end of Greece as it once was.