History of ancient Sparta

A statue of Leonidas was erected in 1968 in Sparta, Greece. (Image credit: Anastasios71 | Shutterstock)

Sparta is a city in Laconia, on the Peloponnese in Greece. In antiquity, it was a powerful city-state with a famous martial tradition. Ancient writers sometimes referred to it as Lacedaemon and its people as Lacedaemonians.

Sparta reached the height of its power in 404 B.C. after its victory against Athens in the second Peloponnesian war. When it was in its prime, Sparta had no city walls; its inhabitants, it seems, preferred to defend it with men rather than mortar. However, within a few decades, after a defeat against the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra, the city found itself reduced to a "second-rate power," a status from which it never recovered.

The prowess and fearlessness of Sparta's warriors has inspired the Western world for millennia and, even in the 21st century, has been incorporated into Hollywood films like "300" and the futuristic video game series "Halo" (where a group of super- soldiers are called "Spartans").

Yet the real-life story of the city is more complicated than popular mythology makes it out to be. The task of sorting out what is real about the Spartans from what is myth has been made more difficult because many of the ancient accounts were written by non-Spartans. As such, they need to be taken with the appropriate grain of salt.

Ruins of an ancient theater sit near the modern city of Sparta, Greece. (Image credit: Panos Karas Shutterstock)

Early Sparta

While the city of Sparta wasn't constructed until the first millennium B.C., recent archaeological discoveries show that Sparta was an important site at least as far back as 3,500 years ago. In 2015, a 10-room palace complex containing ancient records written in a script that archaeologists call "linear B" was discovered just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from where the city of Sparta was built. Murals, a cultic cup with a bull's head and bronze swords were also discovered in the palace. [In Photos: Spartan Temple and Cultic Artifacts Discovered]

The palace burned down in the 14th century B.C. Presumably there was an older Spartan city located somewhere near the 3,500-year-old palace but not where the first millennium B.C. Sparta was later built. Future excavations may reveal where this older city is. 

It's not clear how many people continued to live in the area after the palace burned down. Recent research suggests that a drought that lasted for three centuries afflicted Greece around the time the Spartan palace burned down. 

Archaeologists do know that sometime in the early Iron Age, after 1000 B.C., Four villages — Limnae, Pitana, Mesoa and Cynosoura, which are located near what would be the Spartan acropolis — came together to form a new Sparta.  

Historian Nigel Kennell writes in his book "Spartans: A New History" (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) that the city's location in the fertile Eurotas valley gave its inhabitants access to an abundance of food, something its local rivals did not enjoy. Even the name Sparta is from a verb meaning "I sow" or "to sow."

Although Sparta made efforts to consolidate its territory in Laconia, we also know that, at this early stage, the people of the city appear to have taken pride in their artistic skills. Sparta was known for its poetry and it pottery, its wares being found in places as far flung as Cyrene (in Libya) and the island of Samos, not far from the coast of modern-day Turkey. Researcher Konstantinos Kopanias notes in a 2009 journal article that, up until the sixth century B.C., Sparta appears to have had an ivory workshop. Surviving ivories from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta depict birds, male and female figures and even a "tree of life" or "sacred tree."

Poetry was another key early Spartan achievement. "In reality we have more testimony to poetic activity at Sparta in the seventh century than for any other Greek state, including Athens," writes historian Chester Starr in a chapter of the book "Sparta" (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).

While much of this poetry survives in fragmentary form and some of it, such as from Tyrtaeus, reflects the development of the martial values that Sparta would become famous for, there is also work that appears to reflect a society concerned with art, rather than just war.

This fragment from the poet Alcman, which he composed for a Spartan festival, stands out. It refers to a choir girl named "Agido." Alcman was a Spartan poet who lived in the seventh century B.C. 

There is such a thing as retribution from the gods. Happy is he who, sound of mind, weaves through the day unwept. I sing the light of Agido. I see it like the sun, whom Agido summons to appear and witness for us. But the glorious chorus mistress forbids me to either praise or blame her. For she appears to be outstanding as if one placed among a grazing herd a perfect horse, a prize-winner with resounding hooves, one of the dreams that dwell below the rock...

(Translation by Gloria Ferrari, from Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta, University of Chicago Press, 2008)

War with Messenia and subjugation

A key event on Sparta's road to becoming a more militaristic society was its conquest of the land of Messenia, located to the west of Sparta, and its conversion of its subjects to helots (slaves).

Kennell points out that this conquest appears to have begun in the eighth century B.C., with archaeological evidence from the city of Messene showing that the last evidence of habitation was during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., before a period of desertion began.

The incorporation of the people of Messenia into Sparta's slave population was important as it provided Sparta with "the means to maintain the nearest thing to a standing army in Greece," Kennell writes, "by freeing all its adult male citizens from the need for manual labor."

Keeping this population of slaves in check was a problem the Spartans would have for centuries with some deeply cruel methods employed. The writer Plutarch (who lived A.D. 46-120) claimed that the Spartans used what we might consider death squads.  

"The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most discreet of the young warriors, equipped only with daggers and such supplies as were necessary. In the day time they scattered into obscure and out-of-the-way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught."

(Translation by Bernadotte Perrin via Perseus Digital Library)

Spartan poetry written in the seventh century B.C. also hints at a move to a more martial society. Tyrtaeus writes:

Here is courage, mankind's finest possession, here is the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win, and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten, and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure, and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him. Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war...

(Translation by Richmond Lattimore, from the book "Greek Lyrics," University of Chicago Press, 1960)

The Spartan training system

The presence of large numbers of slaves relieved Spartan men from manual labor and allowed Sparta to build a citizen training system that prepared the city's children for the harshness of war.

"At seven a Spartan boy was taken from his mother and raised in barracks, beneath the eyes of older boys," writes University of Virginia professor J.E. Lendon in his book "Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity" (Yale University Press, 2005). "Boys were whipped to inculcate respect (aidos) and obedience; they went ill clad to make them tough; and they were starved to make them resistant to hunger ..."

If they got too hungry, the boys were encouraged to try stealing (as a way of improving their stealth) but were punished if they got caught. 

The Spartans trained rigorously and progressed through this training system until the age of 20 when they were allowed to join a communal mess and hence become a full citizen of the community. Each member of the mess was expected to provide a certain amount of foodstuffs and to keep training rigorously.

Those who could not fight due to disability were mocked by the Spartans. "Due to their extreme norms of masculinity, the Spartans showed a harshness to those who were not capable, while rewarding those who were capable despite their impairments," wrote Walter Penrose Jr., a history professor at San Diego State University, in a paper published in 2015 in the journal "Classical World."

Infants who were judged to have a disability by Sparta's elders could be killed. 

"The father does not have the right to raise the offspring, but he must take it to the place called Lesche, where the elders of the same tribe, sitting as judges, closely examine the child. If he is strong and of sound body, they command that he be raised, and they assign him an allotment of land from the 9,000 plots. If he is ill born and misshapen, they throw him into the pit at the place called Apothetae, below Mt. Taygetus, as it is better neither for him nor for the city to remain alive, as from the beginning he does not have a good start towards becoming healthy and strong" wrote Plutarch, a Greek writer who lived in the first century A.D. (translation by Walter Penrose Jr.)

Athletic women

Girls, while not trained militarily, were expected to train physically. "Physical fitness was considered to be as important for females as it was for males, and girls took part in races and trials of strength," writes Sue Blundell in her book "Women in Ancient Greece" (Harvard University Press, 1995). This included running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing. "They also learned how to manage horses; they drove carriages in processions and at the Hyacinthia, a festival of Apollo and Hyacinthus, they raced in two-horse chariots."

Spartan woman even competed in the Olympic games, at least in the chariot racing competition, according to ancient writers. In the fifth century B.C., a Spartan princess named Cynisca (also spelled Kyniska) became the first woman to win at the Olympic games. 

"She was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Cynisca other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she," wrote the ancient writer Pausanias who lived in the second century A.D. (translation by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod). 

Nudity, food & equality among Spartans

Some ancient Greeks believed that Spartan men were the first to strip nude at the gym and when competing in sports, noted Dartmouth professor Paul Christesen in a paper published in the book "A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity" (John Wiley & Sons, 2014). Spartan women likely did not engage in any public nudity. 

"The Spartans were the first to strip naked and to disrobe openly and anoint themselves with oil after playing sports in the nude," wrote the Greek writer Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. (translation by Paul Christesen). Thucydides also wrote that the Spartans preferred to dress modestly and that "the richer citizens conducted themselves in a fashion that as much as possible put them into an equal position with the general populace." (translation by Paul Christesen)

Spartan poetry also showed a desire for equality among the male Spartans. This desire for some level of equality applies to something as simple as a bowl of soup. "And I will give you a tripod bowl ... It has not been over a fire yet, but soon it will be full of soup, the kind that Alcman, who eats everything, loves hot after the solstice: he doesn't eat any confections, but seeks common, available food just like the people do," reads a poem by Alcman. (translation by Nicholas Boterf)

Kings of Sparta

Sparta in time developed a system of dual kingship (two kings ruling at once). Their power was counter-balanced by the elected board of ephors (who may only serve a single one-year term). There was also a Council of Elders (Gerousia), each member of which was over the age of 60 and could serve for life. The general assembly, which consisted of each citizen, also had the chance to vote on legislation.

The legendary lawmaker Lycurgus is often credited in ancient sources with providing the groundwork for Spartan law. Kennell notes, however, that he probably never existed and was in fact a mythical character.

War with Persia

Initially, Sparta was hesitant to engage with Persia. When the Persians threatened Greek cities in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey, the Greeks who lived in those areas sent an emissary to Sparta to ask for help. The Spartans refused but did threaten King Cyrus, telling him to leave Greek cities alone. "He was to harm no city on Greek territory, or else the Lacedaemonians would punish him," wrote Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.

The Persians did not listen. The first invasion by Darius I took place in 492 B.C. and was repulsed by a mainly Athenian force at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The second invasion was launched by Xerxes in 480 B.C., the Persians crossing the Hellespont (the narrow strait between the Aegean and Black seas) and moved south, gaining allies along the way.

Sparta and one of their kings, Leonidas, became head of an anti-Persian coalition that ultimately made an ill-fated stand at Thermopylae. Located beside the coast, Thermopylae contained a narrow passage, which the Greeks blocked and used to halt Xerxes' advance. Ancient sources indicate that Leonidas started the battle with a few thousand troops (including 300 Spartans at its core). He faced a Persian force many times its size.

After spying on the Spartan-led force, and waiting to see if they would surrender, Xerxes ordered an attack. The "Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others, however, took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day," wrote Herodotus. (Translation by George Rawlinson)

After this beaten force withdrew, Xerxes sent an elite unit called the "Immortals" after the Spartan-led force but they too failed. Herodotus noted the battle tactics the Spartans employed.

"The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skillful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy."

Eventually, a Greek man showed Xerxes a pass that allowed part of the Persian force to outmaneuver the Greeks and attack them on both flanks. Leonidas was doomed. Many of the troops who were with Leonidas withdrew (possibly because the Spartan king ordered them to). According to Herodotus, the Thespians decided to stay with the 300 Spartans by their own free will. Leonidas then made his fateful stand and "fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans," Herodotus writes.

Ultimately, the Persians killed almost all of the Spartan troops. The helots the Spartans brought with them were also killed. The Persian army proceeded south, sacking Athens and threatening to break into the Peloponnese. A Greek naval victory at the Battle of Salamis halted this approach, the Persian king Xerxes going home and leaving an army behind that would later be destroyed. The Greeks led by the now dead Leonidas had prevailed. 

This map shows the strategies of Sparta and its allies during the Peloponnesian War. (Image credit: Public domain)

Peloponnesian War

When the threat from the Persians receded, the Greeks resumed their inter-city rivalries. Two of the most powerful city states were Athens and Sparta, and tensions between the two escalated in the decades after their victory over Persia.

In 465/464 B.C., powerful earthquakes hit Sparta, and the helots took advantage of the situation to revolt. The situation was serious enough that Sparta called on allied cities for aid in putting it down. When the Athenians arrived, however, the Spartans refused their help. This was taken as an insult in Athens and bolstered anti-Spartan views.

The Battle of Tanagra, fought in 457 B.C., heralded a period of conflict between the two cities that continued, off and on, for more than 50 years. At times, Athens appeared to have the advantage, such as the battle of Sphacteria in 425 B.C. when, shockingly, 120 Spartans surrendered.

"Nothing that happened in the war surprised the Hellenes so much as this. It was the opinion that no force or famine could make the Lacedaemonians give up their arms, but that they would fight on as they could, and die with them in their hands," wrote Thucydides (460-395 B.C.). (Translation by J.M. Dent via Perseus Digital Library)

There were also periods when Athens was in trouble, such as in 430 B.C., when the Athenians, who were packed behind their city walls during a Spartan attack, suffered a plague that killed many people including their leader, Pericles. There has been speculation that the plague was actually an ancient form of the Ebola virus. 

Ultimately, the conflict between Sparta and Athens resolved itself on the sea. While the Athenians had the naval advantage throughout much of the war, the situation changed when a man named Lysander was named commander of Sparta's navy. He sought out Persian financial support to help the Spartans build up their fleet.

He convinced a Persian prince named Cyrus to provide him with money. The prince "had brought with him, he said, five hundred talents; if this amount should prove insufficient, he would use his own money, which his father had given him; and if this too should prove inadequate, he would go so far as to break up the throne whereon he sat, which was of silver and gold," wrote Xenophon (430-355 B.C.). (Translation by Carleton Brownson via Perseus Digital Library)

With Persian financial support, Lysander built up his navy and trained his sailors. In 405 B.C., he engaged the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, on the Hellespont. He managed to catch them by surprise, winning a decisive victory and cutting off Athens' supply of grain from the Crimea.

Athens was now forced to make peace on Sparta's terms. They had to tear down their walls, confine their activities to Attica and (as Lysander latter ordered) submit to rule by a 30-man body later called the "thirty tyrants."

The "Peloponnesians with great enthusiasm began to tear down the walls [of Athens] to the music of flute-girls, thinking that that day was the beginning of freedom for Greece," wrote Xenophon.

Sparta was now at the peak of its power.

Fall from power

A series of events and missteps led Sparta from being the pre-eminent force in the Aegean to becoming a second rate power.

Shortly after their victory, the Spartans turned against their Persian backers and launched an inconclusive campaign into Turkey. Then in the following decades, the Spartans were forced to campaign on several fronts.

In 385 B.C., the Spartans faced the Mantineans and used floods to rip apart their city. The "lower bricks became soaked and failed to support those above them, the wall began first to crack and then to give way," wrote Xenophon. The city was forced to surrender against this unorthodox onslaught.

More challenges affected Spartan hegemony. In 378 B.C., Athens formed the second naval confederacy, a group that challenged Spartan control of the seas. Ultimately, however Sparta's downfall came, not from Athens, but from a city named Thebes.

Spurred on by Spartan king Agesilaus II, relations between the two cities had become increasingly hostile and in 371 B.C., a pivotal battle took place at Leuctra.

"The power of Lacedaemon was shattered by Thebes upon the field of Leuctra. Although an ally of Sparta during the long Peloponnesian War, Thebes had become the lodestar of resistance when victorious Sparta became an angry tyrant in her turn," writes Lendon. He notes that after a peace was agreed to with Athens in 371 B.C., Sparta turned its attention to Thebes.

At Leuctra, "for reasons unclear the Spartans posted their cavalry in front of their phalanx. The Lacedaemonian cavalry was poor because good Spartan warriors still insisted on serving as hoplites [infantrymen]," he writes. "The Thebans, by contrast, had an old cavalry tradition, and their excellent horses, much exercised in recent wars, quickly routed the Spartan cavalry and drove them back into the phalanx, confusing its order."

With confusion in the Spartan lines, the slaughter was on.

"Cleombrotus, fighting in the phalanx as Spartan kings did, was struck down and was carried dying out of the battle," writes Lendon. "Other leading Spartans were soon killed fighting as well." The Theban general Epaminondas is said to have called out "grant me one step, and we will have the victory!"

And that is apparently what happened. Lendon writes that "the Thebans pushed the Spartans back one fateful step and then the leaderless Spartans were in flight and their allies with them. Of the seven hundred full Spartan citizens at the battle, four hundred died ..."

The Thebans pressed south, gaining support from communities as they marched and liberating Messenia, depriving the Spartans of much of their helot labor. Sparta never recovered from the losses in both Spartan lives and slave labor. As Kennell writes, the city was now a "second-rate power," and never again would regain its former strength.

Later history

In the following centuries Sparta, in its reduced state, found itself under the sway of different powers including Macedonia (eventually led by Alexander the Great), the Achaean League (a confederation of Greek cities) and, later on, Rome. In this period of decline, the Spartans was forced to build a city wall for the first time. 

There were efforts to restore Sparta to its former military might. The Spartan kings Agis IV (244-241 B.C.) and later Cleomenes III (235-221 B.C.) brought in reforms that canceled debt, re-distributed land, allowed foreigners and non-citizens to become Spartans and ultimately expanded the citizen body to around 4,000 people. While the reforms brought some level of renewal, Cleomenes III was forced to yield the city to Achaean control. The Achaean League in turn, along with all of Greece, eventually fell to Rome. 

But, while Rome was in control of the region, the people of Sparta never forgot their history. In the second century A.D., the Greek writer Pausanias visited Sparta and noted the presence of a great marketplace.

"The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians..." he wrote. (Translation by W.H.S Jones and H.A. Omerod via Perseus Digital Library)

He also describes a tomb dedicated to Leonidas, who, by this point had died 600 years earlier at Thermopylae.

"Opposite the theater are two tombs; the first is that of Pausanias, the general at Plataea, the second is that of Leonidas. Every year they deliver speeches over them, and hold a contest in which none may compete except Spartans," he wrote. "There is set up a slab with the names, and their fathers' names, of those who endured the fight at Thermopylae against the Persians."

Modern-day ruins

Sparta continued on into the Middle Ages and, indeed, was never truly lost. Today, the modern-day city of Sparta stands near the ancient ruins, having a population of more than 35,000 people.

On the ruins of ancient Sparta, the historian Kennell writes that only three sites can be identified today with certainty: "the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia beside the Eurotas [the river], the temple of Athena Chalcioecus ("of the Bronze House") on the acropolis, and the early Roman theater just below it."

Indeed, even the ancient writer Thucydides predicted that Sparta's ruins would not stand out.

"Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of the buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be." (From Nigel Kennell's book "Spartans: A New History")

But Thucydides was only half-correct. While the ruins of Sparta may not be as impressive as Athens, Olympia or a number of other Greek sites, the stories and legend of the Spartans lives on. And modern-day people, whether watching a movie, playing a video game or studying ancient history, know something of what this legend means.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.