An essay attempting to compare and contrast the development of the Spartan and Athenian Poleis during the Archaic period, with particular focus on the underlying similarity between the seemingly diametrically opposed social and political systems. The differences between Athens and Sparta at very least shaped the history of Ancient Greece, and could even be contended to have shaped the Western world today. Their violent struggle for supremacy in the Peloponnesian war destroyed many smaller poleis, and crucially weakened the Greek world enough for Philip and Alexander of Macedon to achieve their absolute military dominance.
However, beneath the apparent differences, the two are actually remarkably similar, as this essay will outline. To compare these two main powers, firstly they must be described. Sparta, the great land power of the Greek world, with the only standing army, and Athens, the naval superpower and economic, cultural and scientific heart of the ancient world, both rose to their positions of dominance in markedly different ways. Athens followed a similar path to the other poleis of Greece.
Initially controlled by an aristocratic elite, the advent of hoplite warfare in the six century shifted the military burden onto the general population, and in a manner akin to many of the other Greek states power passed to a single despot. The aristocrats, no longer fulfilling their role as the military forces, and riven by internal struggles, lost their grip on power when one of their number appeals to the population at large, betraying his class for the benefit of himself. In this case that aristocrat was the tyrant Peisistratus in around 560 BC.
Peisistratus reign was not negative, for tyranny is not always a poor government form, however he faced continued resistance from the other nobles and was even driven out of Athens at one point. However, having removed him, the nobles fell back into fighting amongst themselves and Peisistratus was swiftly restored. It is the nature of tyrannies that, no matter how excellent the first ruler is, his successors shall swiftly fall into corruption and madness, and in Athens it was no different.
Hippias and Hipparchus, the successors of Peisistratus, took control in 527 BC and failed to show the political cunning of their father, adopting regal airs and engaging in scandal. After one such scandal turned foul, Hipparchus was murdered, and Hippias began a brutal purge which proved too much for the Athenians to bear. Calling upon Spartan help, they overthrew their tyrant and created a uniquely radical form of democracy. Democracy, in the Athenian term, has little really to do with majority rule. The vast majority of the Athenian population had no voice in government.
Women, slaves and foreigners were amongst the groups totally excluded from the political process. Only the Athenian citizens, who (after a fairly short time) needed to have parents both of the Athenian citizenry, were allowed to remain within the assembly. Most notably for the purposes of this essay, it was also a requirement that a male Athenian citizen had completed military training in the Ephebes if he wished to take his place. Of perhaps a total population of 350,000 in Attica, only at most 60,000 will have been entitled to political voice.
No state can be run with a parliament of 60,000, so most of the day to day administration was handled by the boule. The boule effectively acted as an executive committee for the assembly, but also handled such functions as the treasury, and the welcoming of foreign ambassadors. Sparta, at first, could not appear more different. The Spartan polis was dedicated, with little exception, to warfare. Art and poetry rapidly vanish from Spartan society very early on, and currency barely leaves the form of simple barter. However, every Spartan male was raised to be a warrior, and every Spartan woman was raised to create more Spartan males.
Exercise and Athletics were proscribed for both sexes in the agoge, the most brutal education system in European history, beginning at age seven for men and a little later for women. Reading was not deemed important enough for state schooling. Young Spartan males were fed too little, and expected to steal to make up for the shortfall. Being caught stealing resulted in beatings so severe that death was not unlikely. Indeed, many things appear to have warranted severe beating in Spartan education; the entire process was designed quite consciously to weed out the weak and the inferior.
Any man who failed the agoge would be denied full Spartan citizenship, relegated to the status of perioikoi. Those who passed would join the ranks of the Homoioi, the ‘equals’. The Spartan social system essentially breaks down into a three-tier structure. The Spartan warriors were at the top, and they alone held political rights. Beneath them, the economic class of the perioikoi handled those middle-class pursuits that were needed by the state; armour smithing, limited trade, masons and carpenters. Finally, at the bottom of the heap were the conquered neighbouring people of Messina, now re-branded as helots.
The helot was rather closer to a Russian Serf than a traditional Hellenic slave; they were tied to the land and were not transferable in themselves, although murdering one bore no real penalty. They were the agricultural basis of Sparta, the people who generated enough surplus food for Spartans to concentrate entirely on military training, and yet they were not truly considered part of the state. Indeed, the Spartans declared war on the helots each year, in order to legitimize the murderous methods used to suppress them. Sparta’s political system is equally bizarre.
Two hereditary kings oversaw the state, acting as the executive arm of government, and they in turn were watched over by the Ephors, a group of five annually elected magistrates. Decisions were further filtered through the Gerousia, a council of thirty Spartans (including both kings), members of which had to be over sixty years of age. Membership of the Gerousia was for life; and while in theory membership was open to all Spartans, generally (at least according to Aristotle) members usually seemed to belong to a small group of dominant aristocratic families.
The group was also empowered to override all other aspects of the political process, including the kings. Finally, there was the Apella, a general assembly of all Spartan males. They would be presented with a choice (the options decided by the Gerousia), and would decide based on which choice elicited the loudest shouts of appreciation; it would appear likely that this whole part of the system was really a charade conducted by the Gerousia to ensure the ‘correct’ choice was made. Even if it wasn’t, they could simply overrule anyway.