For much of the archaic and classical periods, Sparta was the most powerful city in the Greek world. It shared many basic institutions with other poleis: society was patriarchal and polytheistic, servile labor played a key role, agriculture formed the basis of the economy, law was revered, and martial valor was prized. But the intrusion of the Spartan state into the lives of individuals was not surpassed by others.
Laconia was an important center in the Bronze Age. Four of its villages united to form the city of Sparta (or Lacedaemon). The town of Amyclae was added later. Because it was located inland, the problem of pressure on resources caused by population expansion was solved through conquest of their neighbors, and by the end of the eighth century BC, they had gained control of the plain of Laconia.
The inhabitants of the Laconian plain were reduced to the status of helots, hereditary subjects of the state. Those who occupied the area surrounding the city became perioikoi. They were free but could not participate in the government. The Spartans next invaded the Messenian lowlands; some Messenians became perioikoi, but most became helots.
In 669 BC, the Messenians rebelled; the Spartans, although greatly outnumbered, prevailed. Forced to find a way to preserve their domination over their helots, the Spartans decided to train all potential hoplites to the highest degree of skill possible. They reformed their institutions with a view toward freeing male citizens from all but military obligations and socializing them to accept the regimentation and discipline required of a Spartan soldier.
Greek historians ascribed the creation of the Spartan system to Lycurgus. However, many institutions, such as men's dining groups, had once existed in other Greek communities.
The Spartan ideal for a man was to be skilled and courageous in battle, to neither run away nor surrender and to give up his life for his city. Training was designed to produce men who conformed to this pattern alone. The Spartan was liable for military service to the age of sixty and never was trained for any other profession or way of life.
Male newborns were examined by officials who determined whether they would be raised or abandoned. From the age of seven, boys left home to be trained in groups.
The emphasis of the boys' education was on practicing to endure hardships and to fend for themselves. From the ages of fourteen to twenty they performed their preliminary military service. Between ages twenty and thirty they were permitted to marry but had to continue to live with their army groups until the age of thirty. Acceptance into a syssition was an essential stage in reaching adulthood. The Spartan man ate his meals with fifteen members of his army group, an experience that fostered loyalty.
Girls were raised to bear stalwart soldiers-to-be. They were educated at state expense, exercised outside to develop strong bodies, and were well nourished. The perpetual absence of men on military duty created a division of labor in which women managed domestic affairs. They owned and controlled property, which gave them much authority. But they had no share in the government.
The Spartans married by capture when the women were in their prime. The man continued living in barracks and would cautiously visit his bride in secret.
In Sparta, like other poleis, same-sex erotic relationships did not preclude their participants entering into heterosexual marriages, with which the homosexual relationship might exist simultaneously. Erotic relationships betweenmembers of the same sex were considered potentially educational for both women and men as long as the element of physical attraction was not primary. Liaisons with members of the same sex provided companionship, sexual pleasure, and a sense of spiritual well-being. The idealized model of the same-sex relationship involved an older person and an adolescent and consequently was time-limited.
The Spartans never constituted more than a small fraction of the total population of their territory, so their numbers were never deemed to be sufficient. Furthermore, the lack of trade and colonization limited the growth of Sparta's population, for it had no colonies to which it might sometime in the future export a population that could no longer be supported at home. Xenophobia also restricted Sparta's numbers. The Spartans did not marry foreigners, nor did they recruit many new citizens of non-Spartan origin.
Spartan population decline was exacerbated by: male infanticide, the soldiers' obligation to give their lives for their country, and unusual marriage practices: Women married several years after they became fertile; opportunities for conjugal intercourse were limited; husbands were continuously absent at war or sleeping with their army groups; both sexes engaged in a certain amount of homosexual, onprocreative sex; some women declined to bear children. Sparta's population problem was accelerated at times by natural disaster, economic problems, and the emigration of men.
The Spartan economic system, based solely on agriculture, was designed to enable citizens to devote all their time and energy to the defense and welfare of the polis. The state saw to it that they had everything they needed as measured by a standard of austerity, not luxury.
Helotry released men and women from the need to produce or purchase their food. At birth, each boy was allocated a piece of land (kleros). The helots, state slaves who worked it, gave him a specified amount of produce annually.
In 464 BC, some helots staged a rebellion at Ithome. In 455 BC the Spartans agreed to let the rebels depart. In 369 BC, Messenia regained its independence with the aid of enemies of Sparta.
Although there was an ideology of equality among citizens who called themselves homoioi (men of equal status), in reality the members of the royal family and the group elected to the council of elders were wealthier than the rest.
Sparta had a mixed constitution, with monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic elements. Two basileis, equal in authority, served as the head of government. The succession was hereditary. The kings exercised the following powers:
The gerousia (council of elders) was composed of the two kings and twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for the rest of their lives. No bill could be brought before the assembly until it had first been discussed by the gerousia. It also served as a criminal court for cases of homicide, treason, and other serious offenses.
Every year the Spartans elected five ephors over the age of thirty. These "overseers" monitored the kings, presided over the gerousia and assembly, and dealt with foreign embassies. They exercised total control over the education of the young and enforced the iron discipline of Sparta. They were in charge of the secret police, a force designed to control the helots.
The assembly was the most democratic organ of government, for it included all adult male citizens. It met once a month but did not debate; citizens listened to a proposal made by the gerousia and voted to accept or reject it, without discussion.
After the defeat of Argos in 546 BC, Sparta became the most powerful state in all Greece. Around 510–500 BC, the Peloponnesian League was organized. The purpose of the league was mutual protection. Its government was bicameral, consisting of the assembly of Spartans and the congress of allies in which each state had one vote. The league remained in existence until the 360s BC.
Some historical change occurred in Sparta by the fifth or fourth century BC. When a man died, his kleros no longer reverted to the state to be allocated to another Spartan baby. Now a man could give his kleros and his house to anyone he wished or bequeath them by testament. This led to the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a minority.
Because of the imbalance n the sex ratio, many women became extremely wealthy, acquiring private property through inheritance or dowry. In Aristotle's day women owned two-fifths of the land.
Writers like Xenophon and Plutarch may have exaggerated the monolithic nature of Sparta and minimized departures from ideals of equality. Intellectuals like Plato represented Sparta as a virtual utopia, a paradise governed by good laws.
In the twentieth century, critics of western capitalist society idealized the Spartans as highly virtuous, patriotic people produced by a stable noncapitalistic society. Some feminist theorists have noted that the lives of women in aristocratic Sparta appear to have been more enjoyable and preferable to those of women in democratic Athens.