The Spartan experience: from the 8th century BC

The political institutions of Sparta, notorious for their lack of conventional humanity, are said by ancient Greek historians to have been introduced by Lycurgus. But he is probably a figure of legend. Sparta seems to have delevoped gradually as a practical response to unusual circumstances.

The valley of the Eurotas river, unusually fertile for Greece, is a rich prize conquered in the 12th century BC by Dorians - few but fierce invaders compared to the settled people they overwhelm. A military society is one way of stabilizing such a situation, with an elite group of soldiers keeping the villagers hard at work. When Sparta emerges in history, in the 8th century, a system of this kind is firmly established.

The peasants of Sparta, known as helots, are serfs owned by the state. They do all the manual work of the community, enabling the citizens - an exclusively military caste - to concentrate on warfare and politics.

At the age of seven the sons of all Spartan citizens leave home to enter a state education system in which the emphasis is on courage and discipline. Corporal punishment is used not only to punish but also as a test of endurance. This schooling continues to the age of twenty, but there is no evidence that learning to read is part of the curriculum. Girls in Sparta are educated in the same austere virtues, training them to be good wives and mothers. Unlike the boys, they are allowed to live at home.

On graduating from this regime, at the age of twenty, a Spartan becomes a member of a group of men, something like an officer's mess, with whom he will spend most of the rest of his life - leaving them only from time to time, after marriage, for the requirements of conjugal life.

Gainful employment plays no part in this manly existence. Spartan citizens are forbidden by law to engage in any money-making activity. Instead each is provided by the state with a lifetime interest in a plot of land. This is farmed for him by the state's Slaves. The warrior lives off the produce.

Sparta is able to provide for its citizens in this way thanks to the conquest of Messenia, a rich plain to the west beyond Mount Taygetos. Messenia is annexed in the 8th century. In the 7th, after an uprising against Spartan rule, the Messenians are reduced to the status of helots - more than doubling the amount of land available to support the Spartan army.

Sparta is both strengthened and weakened by this form of exploitation. The weakness derives from the permanent danger that the helots will rise in revolt against their military masters. On several occasions they do so. The constant threat prevents this rigid society from relaxing or developing.

One of the stranger Spartan traditions, which survives through the centuries, is shared rule by two kings. Each crown is hereditary within a family, dating back perhaps to the time when neighbouring villages coalesced to form the original city-state of Sparta. Spartan armies are nearly always led into battle by one of the kings.

The Spartan kings, even when in agreement, do not wield absolute power. The state is governed by a well balanced combination of two kings, five ephors, a council of elders and an assembly of all the citizens (see Ephors and elders). An accepted part of the system is that the kings can be tried by due judicial process, and in practice they quite often are.

Leaders of the Greek world: 6th - 5th century BC

By the middle of the 6th century Sparta is the strongest city-state in Greece. She now assumes a leadership role, involving her neighbours in a defensive alliance which becomes known as the Peloponnesian League. The terms accepted by members of the league are that they will fight under Spartan leadership in any joint campaign and that they will send troops to Sparta in the event of an uprising by the Helots.

In return they acquire the protection of the most formidable army in Greece.

Politically the leadership of Sparta is attractive to the aristocratic families who still control most Greek city-states. The chief threat to their interests is from Tyrants, seizing power on behalf of a newly enriched class.

Sparta, ruled by an aristocracy within a constitutional framework, is unusually secure against any such upheaval. There is no risk of a new commercial class developing, for there is no commerce (even coins are banned). So Sparta becomes associated with a policy of opposing Tyrants - even deposing them. Her first major clash with Athens comes in 510, when one of the Spartan kings, Kleomenes, marches north to drive out the tyrant Hippias.

In 480 the threat from Persia brings Sparta and Athens together, with most of the other city-states of mainland Greece, in a rare show of unity. During the Greco-persian wars the leading position of Sparta is acknowledged by all.

By the time the Persians withdraw at the end of 480, soundly defeated, Sparta's military reputation has been enhanced at Thermopylae and Plataea. The Athenians, by contrast, have lost their city, laid waste by the Persians. Yet on balance it is the Athenians who emerge stronger. The navy which routs the enemy at Salamis is largely theirs. And it is becoming evident that control of the Aegean Sea is the best defence against Persia.

The Delian League: from 478 BC

A shift in the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is emphasized in 478, when representatives of Athens and other Aegean states meet on the island of Delos to form a coalition, subsequently known as the Delian League. Members will subscribe to a common fleet, either by contributing ships and crews or in a minority of cases by a tribute of money. One of the aims is to liberate the Greek territories held by Persia on the east coast of the Aegean.

Sparta is not interested in membership, having little in the way of a fleet. So Athens is unmistakably the leader of this new Greek alliance.

In its early years the Delian League grows in strength, achieving several significant victories against Persia. This in itself is alarming to Sparta. Even more so is the way Athens begins to treat the League as an Athenian empire, with its fleet at the automatic disposal of Athens.

The behaviour of Athens towards its supposedly equal allies is soon that of an imperial bully. States which attempt to bow out of the league are forcibly retained. Annual subscriptions are demanded instead of ships. Most significant of all, in about 454 the accumulated funds of the League are transferred from Delos to Athens.

To make matters even more alarming for Sparta, Athens is now once again a strongly walled city. After the Persian destruction of the city, in 480, Themistocles makes a priority of building new walls - against strong protests from Sparta.

Sparta herself has no city walls. In the supposed interests of peace, the Spartans now argue that all Greek cities should dismantle their walls.

Athens goes to the other extreme. In addition to building new city walls, the Athenians join their city for the first time to the harbour at Piraeus, 5 miles (8km) to the southwest. The famous Long Walls from the city to the coast are begun in 461 and are largely completed by 457.

With the most powerful navy in Greece, and a fortified seaside zone around their capital extending to several square miles, the Athenians are unmistakably presenting themselves as the dominant power of the region.

Build-up to the First Peloponnesian War: 478-460 BC

Sparta is having difficulty in retaining the loyalty of the members of its own Peloponnesian League, several of whom adopt democratic governments hostile in principle to the Spartan oligarchy.

Sparta's troubles are compounded by a devastating earthquake in 464. Indirectly it brings to a head the simmering hostilities between Sparta and Athens.

The earthquake destroys much of the city of Sparta and kills many Spartiates - the Greek term for Sparta's warrior citizens. The Helots seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. The Spartans manage to contain the rebels in the region of Mount Ithome, in Messenia, but they lack the strength to defeat them. They appeal to their allies for help.

Athens, at this stage technically an ally of Sparta, is among the city-states which send an army.

Instead of welcoming this Athenian support, the Spartans send the soldiers back to Athens without involving them in the campaign. The precise reason is not known, but is probably political. The decision follows the news that Athens is in the process of introducing a more Radical democracy, a measure profoundly offensive to aristocratic Sparta. The episode is interpreted as a snub by the Athenians, who are constitutionally inclined to distrust Sparta.

Soon after this event Athens makes provocative alliances with two city-states opposed to Sparta. Open hostility breaks out in 460, the year commonly taken as the start of the First Peloponnesian War.

Mutual destruction: 5th - 4th century BC

The war is spasmodic and has a built-in element of stalemate. Athens tends to win battles at sea; Sparta and her allies are stronger on land. In 446 a Thirty Year Treaty is agreed, in principle safeguarding the status quo. Sparta recognizes the Delian League, which has by now unmistakably evolved into an Athenian empire. Athens, in turn, will not take steps to diminish the Peloponnesian League.

The peace makes possible the heyday of Athens under pericles, but it lasts for only half its intended thirty years. Athens is unable to resist interfering in Peloponnesian affairs. Amid recriminations as to which side has broken the treaty first, war resumes in 431 BC.

The war continues in fits and starts for more than twenty years. Neither side establishes a clear advantage until, from 414, the Persians intervene on the Spartan side. By 404 the Athenian fleet has been destroyed, and a punitive peace treaty is imposed on Athens. Sparta is once again the undisputed leader of the Greek city-states.

For more than a century Greece has been torn by lethal squabbles as cities change sides, betray treaties, make surprise attacks on each other, impose new forms of government or encourage treachery. The Greek invention of politics seems like the poison in the brew. This has been a century of political intrigue elevated to the status of war.

Sparta, from 404 BC, has the opportunity and the strength to impose some sort of unity on Greece, but her hidebound social structure is ill-equipped to provide the necessary leadership.

Instead Athens recovers sufficient prestige to put together, in 377, a revised version of the Delian League. This alliance proves strong enough to defeat the Spartan navy off Naxos in 376. A few years later the Spartan army receives a terminal blow when overwhelmed by a smaller number of Thebans, thanks to the revolutionary tactics of Epaminondas, at Leuctra in 371. In 369 Epaminondas liberates Messenia, the neighbouring territory long exploited by the Spartans and the basis of much of Sparta's strength.

A slow decline: from the 4th century BC

In the mid-4th century Sparta offers no resistance to the Macedonian invaders. Alone among the Greek city-states, she is allowed to maintain a sulky independence.

Sparta remains technically a free city through most of the Macedonian era and even into the Roman empire. The traditional political system, associated with the name of Lycurgus, lasts until 188 BC - though increasingly seen as a curiosity. The rigorous training of young men even survives as a tourist attraction in the Roman empire. An ordeal by flogging is one of the Spartan customs which can be viewed in the temple of Artemis.

Almost no trace survives today of ancient Sparta. Unlike the cultured Athenians, these brisk military men set little store by fine buildings. They were proud that their city was defended by men rather than masonry. The site of the temple of Artemis can be still be identified, but only because the Romans build a theatre there.

The location of Sparta has remained in almost continuous use. In the Middle Ages a magnificent Byzantine city develops on a hill three miles away, at Mistra. The present town of Sparta, with about 10,000 inhabitants, was built in 1834 as a gesture of pride in the new Independence of greece.