9/11 101 02F: Sparta, Athens, and the Persian Wars

 Sept. 9, 11, *13 Classical Greece

Lerner Ch. 7; Kishlansky 9. Homer, Iliad; 10. Sappho of Lesbos, Poems; Xenophon, How to train a wife (Web)

Bibliographic reference for paper due



(MAP – compare geographical location of both)


A. Sparta

Government (Lerner 162)

Two hereditary kings commanded army; had to swear oath to respect law

Council of 28 elders (older than 60 years) + kings: made policy

Assembly: all male citizens (once he had passed rite of passage): approved proposals; elected council and magistrates (executive branch) called ephors - 5 every year

You might think this seemed democratic, but it was not

Citizens themselves were a restricted group; all men, only about 8000 of them, ruled a population of ca. 400,000, who were without political rights



Spartan citizens were supported by labor of helots – state slaves – each citizen having farm land which helots required to work.

The helots were descendants of Greeks (Messenians) who had lived in the area before the Spartans had invaded after 12th c

Spartans kept these hundreds of thousands of people in perpetual subservience to their city  - growing their food, paying their taxes, manufacturing what goods they needed.


Training of Spartan citizens

In order to maintain a situation like this (8000 citizens ruling half a million semi-slaves), Spartans had to keep themselves continually mobilized for war; training of Spartan boys was aimed at this.

- Boys left home at 12 to live with other Spartan boys

In the barracks they ate famously bad food (barley porridge), kept silent except when authorized to speak, and trained to be hoplites

            (speaking only when necessary – led to our world “laconic” from Laconia – Spartan territory)

            “Spartan” material existence – slept on reeds; wore only one garment; kept hungry so would learn to scavenge for food.

Rite of passage for teenage boys was to form ‘ Secret bands”

live off the land in wild and murder rebellious slaves (helots)  (compare Fraternity hazing)

Until 30, they were not allowed to live with wives.


- After this period of training, Spartans were considered Equals “homoioi” – with full citizen rights and belonging to common mess halls

Every day, these men would eat and train with their colleagues - and rarely see their wives or children

They formed romantic relationships with older males - Spartans were renowned homosexuals.

They didn’t bother with intellectual pursuits (philosophy, drama, poetry, etc.) or trade.

Above all, they devoted themselves to being the best soldiers in the world


Spartan women


In some respects, this system gave Spartan women more independence than other Greek women.

Spartan women did far more property management than in other Greek city-states, mainly because their husbands were away training, fighting and sleeping with each other.

Spartan women had access to some education - basic writing so that they could keep the accounts, and gymnastics (important part of Greek education) because Spartans thought strong women bore strong sons.


Sayings about Spartan women (Plutarch)

When Gorgo was asked by a woman from Attica, 'Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule over their husbands', she answered, 'Because only we are the mothers of men'. [29]

9. When an Ionian woman prided herself on something she had woven, a Spartan woman boasted of her four beautiful sons, saying 'such should be the works of a fine woman and upon this is what she should be proud of and boast about'.

16. When another Spartan woman handed her son his shield, she exhorted him, 'Son, come back either with this or on it'.

26. When a young woman who had had a secret love affair aborted her baby, she endured bravely and never uttered a sound, so that her father and the other people nearby did not know that she had been in labour. Bearing her suffering with propriety cancelled out her impropriety.

30. When another was being sold as a slave, and asked by the auctioneer what she knew how to do, she replied, 'to be free'. when the man who bought her ordered her to do things that were not appropriate for a free woman, she said, 'you will regret that you have deprived yourself of such a possession', and committed suicide.


Strengths and weaknesses for Spartan constitution

Greek political philosophers like Aristotle strongly admired the Spartan constitution (except for the excessive freedom of Spartan women)

It was a planned society, where all citizens’ energies directed at serving the state

Sparta had the finest soldiers in Greece; they refused to surrender, no matter what the odds - and could outfight and outgeneral armies more than three times their size.


But Sparta had its weaknesses

Constant state of war against the helots - the state slaves - who outnumbered its citizens.

Population problems - Spartan women didn’t have many children, so not more than 8000 Spartan citizens at a time

Material and intellectual poverty - Spartans weren’t great traders, or builders;  literature, art, philosophy basically didn’t exist

            not allowed to use gold or silver money (only iron – no one else would trade with them)

            ate at common mess halls (so no distinctions among rich and poor citizens in diet)



It’s easier for Americans to identify with classical Athens.

If Sparta was the Soviet Union of classical Greece, Athens would be the United States.

Athenians believed in freedom of speech; Sparta in censorship

Athens was rolling in wealth - esp. wealth brought by trade; Spartans didn’t even allow the use of coinage.

Athens expected its citizens to earn their living or go hungry if they failed to (“capitalist”); Spartan citizens were supported by the state.


Athenian government: first democracy

Athenian democracy didn’t spring fully armed from the head of Zeus - it was developed over time.

Successive reforms changed Athens from a polis ruled by aristocrats, into a democracy (Lerner 164) Solon ca. 594 BC – took power from aristocrats; gave to rich, with veto power to whole assembly; Clisthenes ca. 507 BC – voting by tribes


Important thing is to know the shape of Athenian democracy at its Golden Age - mid 5th century

1. Assembly: All adult male citizens voted in Athens - even if they didn’t have any property and even if they lived in the countryside (city-states included the country-side as well as the urban core); more citizens than Sparta (40,000 vs 8000)

Military service entitled them to a vote: All adult male citizens also served in the army in Athens - there was no way of avoiding active military service (what entitles us to a vote?)

These male citizens were subdivided into 10 regional tribes (100 demes) – often voting done in the tribes – locally – not in Athens

2. Council of 500, the Athenian Congress: member chosen by lot from citizens over 30 years old

The Athenians elected councilmen by lot to prevent wealthy and influential men from dominating their Council; every citizen, no matter how insignificant, had shot at serving in the government.

(Councilmen were paid a salary - a small one - so that even craftsmen or peasants could afford to take off work to serve.)

3. Athenian juries were also chosen by lot - at the last minute - the very day of the trial, to prevent bribery.

Juries of several hundred men decided most important court cases - without the participation of a judge or lawyers - the plaintiffs and defendants had to speak on their own behalf before a group of their peers.

4. Executive branch

Magistrates chosen by lot

However, 10 annual “generals” - who ran the army – elected by citizens

Despite the safeguards, Athens still had its rich powerful politicians, who would be elected again and again to a generalship



The technique of ostracism was invented to keep these politicians in their place -

Every year all Athenian citizens would put a name on ostracon of someone they wanted to exile for 10 years; the man whose name appeared on the most ostraca (more than 5000) was exiled

This was a sort of state-wide vote of impeachment.


On the whole, no more democratic form of government has ever been designed  - one where all citizens not only voted (and fought), but had opportunity to serve in government


Excluded members of Athenians society

Democracy coincided with the increased subordination of women and increased numbers of slaves

Athens was a slave majority city-state

Status of Athenian women: you will discuss more on Friday from Xenophon’s readings

            confinement in the home: respectable Athenian (indeed Greek women in general) did not go out in public esp. without veil, eat in company of men who were not their husband / relatives.

            arranged marriages

            difficulty controlling property – male guardians acted for them


II. PERSIAN WAR (CA. 490-479 BC)

The Persians were one of Indo-European speaking peoples who migrated into what is now Iran.

In the 6th century BCE, they conquered Mesopotamia.

The Persians would expand into an enormous empire - from northern India, to Egypt, to Asia Minor.

Unlike the Greeks, they were politically unified under kings (Darius etc.)

Borrowed much in their administrative techniques from the Assyrians and Babylonians.

They had armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, drawn largely from conquered peoples.

The Greeks, from any objective observers’ point of view, would have been no competition - disunited, constantly warring, with a small population, and not much wealth.

Nevertheless, the Greeks would win the Persian war.


Why Persians attacked

The background to the Persian War is the Persian conquest of the Greeks in Ionia Asia Minor

In 499 BC - the Ionians revolted from the Persians: Ionian revolt

They called on the city-states of mainland Greece to help them; Athens did.

The Ionian revolt did not succeeds; the Persians put it down, and decided to punish Athens.



In 490 BC, Persians invaded mainland Greece, heading for Athens.

The Spartans had not sent their troops in time to help, so the Athenians, grossly outnumbered met the Persians alone.

The Athenian hoplites - the Greek infantry - ran at the Persian army, and defeated them. - 6400 dead Persians; 192 Athenians.

The Persians had not expected the impact of the Greek infantry.


2nd Persian invasion under Xerxes

10 year later the Persians came back, under a new king.

The best known incident was at Thermopylae, a mountain pass.

The Spartan king and an army was trying to hold the pass against the Persian army, so that the Greek fleet could get away.

The ancient historians say 3000 Greeks vs. 3 million Perisans; this is probably an exaggeration.

A Greek traitor showed the Persians a way through the pass - allowing them to attackt he Greek army from the rear.

The Spartan king ordered most of the Greek troops to leave, but not the three hundred Spartans; - the Spartan moral code did not allow retreat.

These 300 Spartans held up hundreds of thousands of Persians for most of a day; and died down to the last man.

The Greek fleet had time to retreat, and would subsequently defeat the Persians at Salamis, a naval battle.



In the second Persian invasion, led by the Persian king Xerxes himself, the Athenians had take the unparalleled step of evacuating Athens - letting the Persians have the run of it - while the Athenian population took refuge at Salamis with fleet

An Athenian trick reportedly won the battle - Themistocles (Athenian general) told Xerxes he had changed sides and that the Persians should attack immediately before Greeks sailed away ; this meant attacking in narrows - where lighter more manueverable Greek ships had advantage.

Xerxes lost 200 ships and then executed the captains who survived (Xerxes personality partly responsible fore Persian defeat - his hybris; whipping the Hellespont )

Spartans also did their part:

Sacrifice of Spartan king and 300 at Thermopylae (480) - blocked Persians at pass and died to last man

Victory at Plataea 479

Why did Athenians and Spartans succeed?

Greeks had fundamentally two advantages over Persian


1. Hoplite warfare: heavy armor; hand-to hand combat - broke Persian ranks

2. Greater willingness to sacrifice - Athenians giving up their own city; Spartans dying to last man at Thermopylae; style of Greek hoplite warfare involved greater sacrifice: Persians liked to fight at a distance or on horseback; Greeks fought hand to hand, on foot

(somewhat disturbing today that we’d like to have war without casualties - comparison Hussein’s comments about us - why not get out of planes and fight?)