sparta reconsidered

In the ancient world Sparta was admired as much for its constitution, its system of education, its philosophical culture, its economic self-sufficiency, its diplomacy, and its music and dance as it was for its famous hoplites.  Not her kings, but her citizens – the lawgiver Lycurgus, the philosopher Chilon, and the poet Tyrtaios – were the most widely admired Spartans in ancient times.

Below is a summary of some key facts:

  • Sparta was the first democracy in recorded history, predating Athenian democracy by at least 50 and possibly 100 years. Furthermore, Sparta was the only Greek city-state to introduce land reform aimed at equalizing wealth among its citizens.


  • The Spartan public educational system, the agoge, trained the mind as well as the body, and Spartans were not only literate, but admired for their intellectual culture and verbal skills.  Socrates himself says "the most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are found more sophists than anywhere on earth." (Plato, Protagoras, 343b:366.) Certainly, Spartan wit and mastery of rhetoric were so widely admired that ancient Greek scholars collected Spartan sayings, and the laconic style of speech was studied and imitated in intellectual circles.


  • Sparta was the capital city of the large, prosperous, and economically powerful city-state of Lacedaemon.  The economy of Lacedaemon was diverse, based on a wealth of natural resources and abundant fertile land.  While trading in luxury goods, self-sufficiency in grain gave Sparta a significant political advantage.


  • Sparta was the only Greek city-state in which women enjoyed elementary rights such as the right to education, inheritance, and property. Furthermore, Spartan women prided themselves on their intellectual accomplishments, possessed economic power, and were not afraid to express their opinions – leading other Greeks to condemn them as undisciplined, dangerous, and immoral.


  • The high status of women is the best refutation of persistent allegations that Spartan society institutionalized pederasty; modern psychology has demonstrated that the victims of pederasty usually grow up to be misogynous men. There is no convincing contemporary evidence that homosexuality was more common in Sparta than elsewhere in ancient Greece.


  • Sparta was the first Greek city-state to develop a complex system of mutual defense treaties, and it repeatedly intervened to defend democracy against tyranny. Spartan diplomacy was arguably even more effective than Spartan arms in maintaining Sparta's status for centuries.


  • Although Spartans were proud to say that they built their monuments "in flesh" – meaning that the virtue and courage of Sparta's citizens were the greatest monuments to the city-state – they were not lacking in architectural and artistic achievements.  The ancient Greek tour guide, Pausanias, cataloged hundreds of sites worth seeing.  Nor was Sparta itself a collection of rural villages, as Athenian detractors depicted it, but rather a prosperous capital city with broad, tree-lined avenues, temples, monuments, public buildings, and royal palaces.


  • Spartan music and dance were famous throughout the ancient world, and the oldest recorded heterosexual love poem was the work of a Spartan poet praising Spartan maidens.



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