Sparta

Sparta, The Warrior City-State, by Richard J. Samuelson

There are few names able to evoke such contrasting feelings as that of Sparta.  In the modern man’s mind Sparta is quite often considered the rival and for many aspects the antagonist of Athens, the cradle of western civilization.

This point of view is certainly true on one end but we can’t limit ourselves to this superficial and too rush of an interpretation.

Without a doubt Sparta has been a symbol of military prowess since its beginning but, as we shall see, it mostly has been a sophisticated and ambitious experiment in social engineering, at the same level as the ones we are used to study in the pages of recent history.

Centuries before Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the Soviet Union, Sparta had been, as a matter of fact, a living testimony of the same ambitious ideas which are the ground of any social utopia worthy of that name.

With only one difference: Sparta lived for war and did not care about anything else.

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Sparta, The Warrior City State

A legendary Tale

As any other ancient city to be respected Sparta has mythical origins. Menelaus, husband of the famous Helen, whose kidnapping caused the Trojan War, was in fact the king of what was called at the time Lacedaemon, and now is known by all as Sparta.

There are very few historical documents remaining from that period and most information came to us through Homer’s poems and other literary works known, by their own nature, to mix historical facts, popular beliefs and mythology therefore making the work of scholars who aimed to find precise historical facts extremely challenging.

Sparta’s history as we know it begins with the invasion of the Dorian tribes from the north of Greece that put an end to both the Mycenaean civilization and Lacedaemon itself. The Dorians were an Indo-European population installed in the northern area of the Greek peninsula around 1200 BC.

Around the year 1000 BC they began descending south in small groups that ended up settling in and around Lacedaemon surroundings. The term invasion, in this instance, is quite misleading because we should not envision a conquering army like those that Rome endured by the northern barbarians. In this case we should rather talk about a settling of local populations and new comers, a non violent sort of human migration, which would profoundly redesign the territory’s social structure.

To be accepted by the Greeks the Dorians created a mythological genealogy where they were direct descendents of Hercules, the legendary demigod son of Zeus. Sparta was founded by synoecism; a system of uniting four distinct and separate villages under a single leadership and administration. This particular phenomenon may explain Diarchy: the form of government established in Sparta. Practically, throughout Sparta’s existence two kings always ruled, never only one.

This Diarchy, which was quite a unique case in the world’s history – at least in a such prolonged manifestation -, could possibly be explained with the presence of two big parties or clans that joined together for military and economic opportunities but that, nonetheless, would remain distinct.

According to ancient sources, in particular the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the assessment phases between the different clans living in Sparta, took several years during which one social group or another tried to gain supremacy. The one who put an end to this climate of anarchy, according to tradition, was Lycurgus the lawgiver, and not by chance he is the one remembered in the future centuries as the founder of Spartan greatness.

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