HSC Ancient History Part 2: Ancient Societies – Greece – Spartan society to the Battle of Leuctra 371 BC

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1. The geographical setting

The geographical setting, natural features and resources of ancient Sparta

HSC Ancient History - Sparta Map

Geographical Area:

  • Greece
  • Peloponnese – Region
  • Lakonia – State
    • Sparta – City
      • Only Greek city with Greek slaves
    • Gythium –> perioikoi community / import and export port
      • Murex Shellfish –> cloaks


  • Cold in winter/hot in summer
  • Mountain ranges remained snow-capped all year and lower wooded slopes provided excellent hunting grounds and valuable timber
  • Mountains also formed a natural barrier/fortress for Sparta


  • Iron and lead could be mined
  • Barley
  • Olives
  • Orchards
  • Vineyards
  • Sheep

Lakonian Plain

  • 14km x 5km

Significant sites: Sparta

HSC Ancient History Sparta Geography

2. Social structure and political organisation

The issue of Lycurgus (the Great Rhetra)

  • Between 900 – 750 BC –> Sparta gradually gained control of the area of Lakonia.
  • Greek world at the time was a period of expansion and colonisaion –> Spartawas not a coloniser.
  • Instead, Sparta attacked neighbouring Messenia and engaged in a series of wars, reducing the population to serfdom.
  • It was not until 369 BC, after Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra, that the Messenians revolted successfully against the Spartans.
  • At some point after the Messenian wars, the Spartans undertook a drastic and revolutionary reorganisation of social and political systems.
  • The whole state became geared to a militaristic way of life; a new system of law and order, or eunomia, was established.
  • Plurtarch writes that the new state that emerged at this point was due to the lawgiver Lycurgus, who had sought the help of the Delphic Oracle.
    • He was instructed to establish a sanctuary to Zeus and Athena; divide the people into tribes and obai; appoint the two kings (unusual because most of Greece was a Democracy) and a Gerousia of thirty men, which according to Plutarch: “allays and qualifies the fiery genius of the royal office”
    • Contribution: Lycurguswas the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity

The Issue of Lycurgus “a man of distinction among the Spartans” (Herodotus)

  • Plutarch, writing in 2nd Century AD, bemoans the lack of precisive evidence of Lycurgus.
  • Conflicting accounts had been given of most aspects of the life of Lycurgus, particularly those relating to his initiatives as lawmaker. The controversy still rages today.
  • Ancient authors, such as Herodotus and Aristotle, wrote of Lycurgus as a historical figure who handed down the laws of Sparta after consulting the will of Gods.
  • Dates of Lycurgus’ life vary from 9th Century to 7th Century BC.
  • Modern scholars tend to reject the idea of a reform by a single lawgiver.
  • Some historians believe that the Lycurgan initiative represents a series of revolutionary changes to the Spartan way of life that occurred over a period of time.

Lycurgus “changed all the laws and made sure these changes should not be transgressed”  when he died they dedicated a temple to him and “revere him greatly” (Herodotus)

  • The changes or reforms supposedly introduced by Lycurgus were in the form of a Great Rhetra and probably date from the 7th century BC.
    • NB: a Rhetra is a pronouncement reflecting the oral traditions of the Spartans and their laws, often based on oracles, it is similar to an oral contract.
  • We know of the Great Rhetra from the writings of Plutarch.
    • It is widely held that Plutarch used Aristotle’s lost Constitution of the Spartans when writing about the Great Rhetra.
    • Plutarch believed the Great Rhetra was an utterance from the Delphic Oracle brought back by the lawgiver, Lycurgus, and presented to the Spartans.
  • A number of problems arise concerning the Great Rhetra:
    • If Lycurgus presented it, then it means that it had to be preserved orally for a number of centuries because writing was not widely practiced.
    • The other problem that arises is the issue of the Delphic Oracle: when did it become so influential that its utterances became law?
  • Tyrtaeus, the 7th Century Spartan poet, however, mentions that two kings consulted the Delphic Oracle and brought back the Great Rhetra.
  • Scholars believe that this could refer to the early kings Polydorus and Theopomus.
  • The Great Rhetra is significant because it was the foundation document of the Spartan constitution.
  • It appears to limit the power of the two kings and it was particularly concerned with the establishment of the Gerousia.

Changes and Reforms:

  • Plutarch, using Plato and Aristotle as his sources, considered that the most important change instituted by Lycurgus was the Council of Elders (Gerousia).
  • Also important, according to Plutarch, was Lycurgus’ redistribution of the Land.
  • The reforms attributed to Lycurgus encompassed all aspects of Spartan life: economic, political and social.
  • The ideal underpinning all of these reforms was the Greek concept of eunomia, meaning good order and good government – emphasised by duty and obedience to laws.
  • It was this ‘good order’ that gave Sparta its relative stability and earned the admiration of many Greek writers, including Herodotus and Xenephon.

Government structure

HSC Ancient History - Government Sparta

2 kings

28 Gerousia + 2 kings = council of Elders

5 Ephors – only 1 year, lots of power

Ekklesia – assembly = all Spartiates/male Spartans

480 BC = 10 000+

Leuctra   = only 1000

Roles and privileges of the two kings

  • The Spartans had two kings drawn from the two Royal Families:
    • Agiads and Eurypontids
  • First two kings:
    • Eurysthenes and Prokles
    • Sons of Aristodemus, a descendent of Herakles.
  • Dual kingship survived throughout Sparta’s history
    • Contrast to other city-states in Greece where monarchies were early overthrown.
  • Sparta’s Militarism required Kings assert strong generalship
    • Aristotle: “Heriditary Generals”.
  • Kings cannot retire.
  • Early times, both Kings went to war.
    • At the time of Kleomenes and Demaratus it was decided that only one king would attend battle.
  • A Spartan king was expected to fulfil many roles:
    • Chief Priest
      • Herodotus describes the “two priesthoods of Zeus Lakedaemon and Zeus Uranius”
    • Commander in Chief of the Army
      • “the power of declaring war on who they please” Herodotus.
      • “the kings go first and return last” Herodotus.
      • “should lead the army wherever the city despatches it” Xenophon.
    • Judge and lawgiver
      • Responsible for the safe-keeping of all oracles (the Pythians also have knowledge of them).
      • “definite legal matters are left to their sole decision” Herodotus.
      • g. if a girl inherits her father’s estate and has not been betrothed by him to anyone, the kings decide who has the right to marry her.
      • All matters connected with public roads.
    • Religious duties.
      • Personally allotted the skins and chines of all animals allotted for sacrifice.
      • “privilege of taking parts of the animals sacrificed” Xenophon.
      • In Xenophon’s case piglets and in Herodotus cows.
      • At the public religious celebrations “they are the first to sit down at the dinner” “served first” and Herodotus.
    • Social Duties
      • At public games seats of honour are reserved for them.
      • It is their duty to select and appoint the officials who see the entertainment of foreign visitors.
    • While they have privileges, there is little division between a king and someone like a Spartiate warrior.
      • “nothing much above the level of private citizens”. Xenophon
      • They’re very sidelined – only 2 votes out of 30
      • Most impressive role: military.


  • Section: ephorate
  • Individual: ephors
    • 5 – one from each oba or territorial region
  • Establishment attributed to Lycurgus
    • Needed in balance of powers
  • Elected annually from Spartiates
  • Only ruled for one year, cannot be re-elected.
  • Powers and control
    • Chief administrators and executives of the state
    • Advised the kings and kept a check on royal powers
    • Decided which units would be mobilised in times of war
    • Called meetings of Gerousia and Ekklesia
    • Received foreign ambassadors
    • Had charge of agoge
    • Controlled other Spartan magistrates
    • Were responsible for most civil and criminal cases.
    • Could arrest and imprison the King
  • Two ephors attended the King in battle.
  • Their function: advise the king and keep in check is power
  • Each month the kings and ephors exchanged oaths.
    • Ephors swore to maintain the kingship and the kings swore to rule according to the Law.
    • “there is a monthy exchange of aths, ephors acting for the city, a king on his own behalf” Xenophon.
  • Aristotle: highly critical of Spartans
    • “has supreme authority”
    • The danger that the Ephorate is just the people, they ephors are only Spartiates and are thus “open to bribery” because of their lack of wealth.
    • “equal to that of a tyrant”
    • “aristocracy has turned into a democracy”
  • Plutarch
    • “even though it appeared to be to the peoples advantage, in fact it strengthened the aristocracy”.


  • Council of Elders
  • 28 members (60 years of age or older) + 2 kings = 30
  • Once elected they were there for life, Aristotle says this is to their detriment as “the mind, like the body, is subject to old age”
  • Any Spartan male should be chosen in theory, but in reality, they come from a circle of wealthy aristocratic families or ex ephors.
  • Powers and responsibilities:
    • The Gerousia could ignore the vote of the Ekklesia if it was not to their liking.
    • Prepared the business and agenda for the assembly
    • Had numerous judicial functions – i.e. tried cases that involved kings, and had the right to impose penalties of loss of citizenship rights, death or exile.
  • Plutarch:
    • Gerousia are elected by acclamation
      • “whoever was met with the most shouting and the loudest, was the man declared elected”.


  • Largest government institution, was the assembly attended by those over the age of thirty who held full citizenship.
  • Met monthly, perhaps at the time of full moon.
  • Responsibilities:
    • Elected ephors, elders of Gerousia and other magistrates.
    • Responsible for passing measures put before it, e.g. appointments of military commanders, decisions about peace and war, resolutions for problems re. kings and the emancipation of helots.
    • Was presided over by kings and Gerousia and, in the 5th Century, by the ephors.
    • Voted by acclamation – Thucydides describes the process of voting by acclamation: i.e. a measure of how loud one side is.
      • Weakness: could easily be manipulated by ephors initiating – e.g. Sthenelaidas singling out those against through the wording of the question.
        • Spartans hate to stand out – ‘phalanx mentality’ so to speak.
      • Weakness: could not initiate legislation
      • Weakness: could only vote by ‘yes’/’no’.
      • Weakness: no discussion of complexity of issues.
    • Analysis: while they had little power, the Ekklesia was useful for the image of the higher powers – by giving the impression of democratic approval, the public image of kings, Gerousia and ephors was protected. Nevertheless, it was on the road to democracy.

Social structure


Homoioi: equals, peers

  • Criteria to belong to Spartiates
    • Ownership of a plot of public land (kleros)
    • Birth- a full Spartan peer with all the rights of citizenship had to be able to prove he was descended from the earliest sons of Herakles or the conquerors
    • Membership in a military mess and the sharing of common means – syssitia
    • Successful competition of education and military training requirements (agoge)
  • Top of social hierarchy, male warrior citizens.
  • Held all political power and access to this group was jealously guarded (perhaps a reason they declined in numbers up until the battle of Leuctra)

Spartiates and Property: The Kleros

  • Owned most of the land in the Eurotas valley and Messenia.
  • All land was divided into allotments
  • Each spartiate had a portion of the land (kleros) and each had an equal vote in the assembly.
  • Spartan citizens were obliged to devote their whole life to state and were not allowed by law to engage in public activities such as trade.
  • A Spartiate could gain an estate either by being granted an allotment from the state or by receiving an inheritence from his father.
  • An important consequence of this arrangement was that Spartiates had economic freedom.
  • They did not have to concern themselves with earning a living, but could concentrate their energies on warfare and the welfare of the state.
  • According to Plutarch, it was the legendary lawgiver, Lycurgus, who had instituted this system and made a law that citizen estates were not to be divided.
    • “persuaded the citizens to pool all the land and then redistribute it afresh”
    • “they would all live on equal terms with one another”
    • “the same amount of property to support each”

The Syssition

  • An important part of being an ‘equal’ was that each Spartiate had to make a monthly contribution, from the produce of his kleros, to the military mess.
    • Failure to do this would result in loss of citizenship
  • Men shared communal meals in the military barracks.
  • Plutarch relates that they would gather in groups of about 15, each man contributing barley meal, wine, cheese and figs, and a sum of money for fish or meat.
  • Syssitia is the general name for the common meals; the Spartans also used the term pheiditia which means ‘gatherings of men’
  • Like almost everything else in their society, the Spartans attributed the institution of the common meal to Lycurgus
    • ” brought the common messes out into the open, considering that this would reduce a common disobedience of orders to a minimum” – Xenophon
  • A seniority was observed in the syssition, just as there was in society.
    • Groups were mixed in ages so that the younger men might learn from their elders.
    • Social analysis: spreads conservatism and stifles intergenerational change
    • Further promotes conformity.
  • A young man had to apply to join a particular mess
  • Young Spartiates were not distributed equally throughout the syssitia, and this meant that there were some messes that were more exclusive than others.
  • At the messes, the men shared not only meals but also political discussions and stories of citizen’s great deeds.
    • In this way, the messes became another important avenue for training and developing the young men.
  • Plutarch
    • Also describes the process of joining the syssitia
      • They have a peace of soft bread and throw it into the bowl a helot carried on his head.
      • Those in favour, threw the bread in as it was, while those against squeezed it hard into a ball.
      • Even one of these and they would not be granted entry as “all should be happy in each other’s company”.


  • Perioikloi means ‘dwellers around’
  • Free inhabitants of the many communities scattered throughout Lakonia and Messenia and along the coastline of Sparta
  • Communities were autonomous but answerable to the greater state of Sparta.
  • Perioikloi were not unique to Sparta, the term was used to describe people in Argos, Elis and Crete.
  • Controlled their own communities but had no voice in the government or foreign policy of Sparta.
  • Often in writings, the general term ‘Lakedaemonian’ refers to the Spartans and Perioikloi.
  • Probable that the Perioikloi were people of mixed origin.
  • They could not be citizens of their own towns and of Sparta, as they lived at a distance from the centre and probably managed only infrequent visits.

Archaeological evidence of Perioikloi.

  • Most Lakonian craftsman were perioikloi
  • Archaeologists have uncovered from perioikoic communities:
    • A bronze figurine of Hermes and an engraved gem found at Gytheum.
    • A Krater found in the tomb of a Celtic woman at Vix, in France, is believed to have been made in Lakonia and was the greatest of its sort and contained 1100 L of wine.

Treatment of the Perioikloi

  • Spartan officials, such as judges and governors, were placed in perioikloic towns.
    • It is unclear whether this was a regular procedure
  • What is known is that the ephors were responsible for supervising the perioikloi and had the authority to sentence to death without trial.
    • Usually, if a crime was committed in a perioikloic community it was dealt with within the perioikloi; ephors only became involved if Spartan interests were at stake.

Duties of Perioikloi

  • When a Spartan king died, it was expected that representatives of the perioikoic communities be sent to pay their respects.
  • The major obligation of the perioikloi was military service
    • They did not undergo the same training system as the Spartiates, yet they were expected to provide hoplites for the army. Until about 465BC, Spartans and perioikloi served separately.
    • Herodotus, writing of the Persian Wars, tells us that the Spartans sent a force of 5000 troops to Plataea, and that “with them went 5000 picked Lakadaemonian troops drawn from the outlying towns”.
    • Later, Spartiates and perioikloi seved together; at Sphacteria for example, there were 170 perioikloi in the contingent.
    • In 424BC, when the Athenians attacked Peloponnese, it was a detachment of perioikloi that joined battle with them and were defeated.
    • In the later part of the 5th Century and into the 4th Century, as the Spartiate numbers declined, the proportion of perioikoi in the army increased.
    • At the battle of Coronea in 394BC, the majority of the force were perioikoi and neodamodeis (freed helots).
    • By the 3rd Century BC, it became necessary for King Agis to co-opt perioikoi to make up for the shortfall in Spartiate numbers. He gave allotments of land to 15 000 perioikoi and 4500 Spartiates
  • In addition to their military service, the perioikoi were expected to procure metals and manufacture weapons.
  • The perioikoi seemed to have served faithfully throughout Spartan history.
    • The only hint of their disaffection can be observed after the earthquake in 460s.
    • While the Spartans were recovering from this disaster, the helots raised a revolt and Thucidides tells us that perioikoi from two Messenian towns joined the revolt.

Hypomeiones ‘inferiors’

  • It was especially disgraceful in Spartan society for a person to lose citizenship rights.
  • Criminals or cowards (tresants) were deprived by a special decree of their rights to vote and hold office. They would be people who dropped their shield in battle.
  • They had to sit alone at festivals; were unable to marry; and had to wear special dress and go unshaven
  • They were not banished – perhaps as a warning or means of humiliation.
  • Hypomeiones (inferiors) were those who had lost their citizenship for failing to fulfil their obligations. I.e. could not provide food for the syssitia
  • Other inferior people in Spartan society were the parthenai, the children of unmarried Spartan mothers and, probably, Spartan fathers.
  • It is unclear how many hypomeiones and other outcast groups survived in Sparta.


  • Theopompus tells us that the helots were the enslaved populations of Messenia and Lakonia who were owned by the state of Sparta.
  • The major difference between the Spartan helots and slaves in other Greek societies was that the helots were owned by the state, not by individuals.
    • Nevertheless, helots worked for individual Spartiates on their estates
  • The Spartans believed themselves superior to the helots and showed no hesitation in exploiting them in order to maintain their lifestyle.
  • Tyrtaeus compared helots to “asses exhausted under great loads”.
  • The tasks of helots were mainly agricultural and they were required to hand over half of their produce to Spartiate masters
    • “full half the fruit their ploughed land produced” Tyrtaeus.
    • The remaining was theirs to use.
  • As well as restricted property rights, the helots also had some marriage rights; generally, however, they had no legal or political standing in the community.
  • When Spartiates went to war they were accompanied by a number of helots, who probably acted as aides or servants.
    • Units of helots, such as lightly armed slingers, took part in skirmishes.
      • Perhaps they were not trained to be good soldiers to prevent them from being equipped for revolt?
    • It appears that on rare occasions, helots could be rewarded with citizenship for deeds performed during military service.
  • The ancient sources seem to indicate that the Spartans feared the helots because the latter were so numerous.
    • Modern estimates place helot numbers between 170 000 and 224 000.
    • The houses of helots were probably scattered throughout the allotments to ensure they did not band together to revolt.
    • The Spartans always carried their spear for this reason.

Historiographical issue

  • Plato commented that the most vexed problem in Greece is that of the helot system.
    • He also remarked on the frequency of slave revolts in Messenia.
  • According to the ancient writer Critias, the Spartans took extra precautions:
    • Removable arm bands on shields
    • Special locks
    • Always carried spar in fear of helot attack.
  • Modern scholars such as Cartledge and Talbert are still debating whether the Spartan military state was really devised to keep the helots in check.
    • Talbert:
      • “Helots knew their place within severely limited horizons”
    • Cartledge (opposite to Talbert)
      • “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Spartans did, rightly or wrongly, genuinely fear helot revolt”.
    • Ancient source: Myron
      • Ritualistic humiliation “so that they would never forget they were slaves”.
      • “if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave’s condition, they made the death penalty” (Myron)
      • Krypteia (secret police) played an important role in the control of helots.
      • Plutarch says that, as part of their training, specially chosen bands of young men were sent into the countryside to deal with the helots.
        • “killing the helots who stood out for their physique and strength”
        • Engenders fear
        • A form of repressing rebellion.
      • Plato viewed the krypteia as a part of Spartan military training.
        • Was it an ongoing practice or a rite of passage for young Spartans; a way of getting soldiers used to killing.

Role of the Spartan army

1. Initial Notes on Ken Webb Chapter 7


  • Spartan citizens devoted the major part of their time to military training – even enemies respected their military prowess
  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides) – Spartan methods in Battle of Mantinea 418BC.
    • Army Organisation: Long been based on hoplite warfare organised in phalanxes – this style developed in 5th C. BCE. – Phalanx was a long block of soldiers known as hoplites = close-packed fighting formation. An open order phalanx had a gap between each man of about 1.5m whereas a closed order phalanx occurred when the men doubled up leaving no space between them. The rear ranks purpose was to provide added weight. Overall tactic was to create a steam-roller effect that would force the enemy’s front rank to stagger backwards and collapse.
      • Weaknesses of the Phalanx: Only of any use on level ground. Also useless for besieging a town shown by it’ failure in the early stages of the Peloponessian War. Not particularly mobile. The phalanx was still vulnerable from the rear and along its flanks.
      • Poetry of Tyrtaios, Spartan Poet of 7th century BC, The War Songs Of Tyrtaeus: “Now of those, who dare, abiding one beside another, to advance to the close fray, and the foremost champions, fewer die, and they save the people in the rear; but in men that fear, all excellence is lost. No one could ever in words go through those several ills, which befall a man, if he has been actuated by cowardice. For ’tis grievous to wound in the rear the back of a flying man in hostile war. Shameful too is a corpse lying low in the dust, wounded behind in the back by the point of a spear.”
    • Hoplite: Heavily armed spearman. Spear = 2m, Sword =1m. Spear is used for thrusting not throwing. The shield each hoplite carried (hoplon) made Phalanx organisation successful – measured about 1m wide, weighed 7-8 kilos. Closed order phalanxes were protected by a long line of shields. Corinthian style helmet provided protection for the head but made it difficult to see and hear.
      • Spartan Armour: As extrapolated from a Kylix (drinking cup) from the third quarter of the 6th Century, Lakonian, attributed to the Hunt Painter. Provides a 6th Century depiction of a fully armed hoplite, on the left, with his spear at this side and his shield leaning on the ‘wall’ behind him. He wears a Corinthian style helmet and it is topped by a tall crest. In the centre of the picture we can see the soldier’s cuirass, his breastplate or body armour, which is carefully placed on the ground. On the right hand side we see another soldier fitting on his bronze greaves or shin guards. His shield also rests against the ‘wall’ on the right, while above hangs a bag for belongings.

Spartan Army Organisation:

  • Every Spartan from the age of 18-60 was enrolled in the army in one of 42 age classes. They didn’t call the youngest or oldest to fight unless there was a real emergency situation, most were 20-50.
  • Thucydides highlights that the King could rely on a clear chain of command through which his orders would reach the troops in the field. Immediately below the King were Polemarchs they passed on the kings orders to various officers in charge of units.
  • Thucydides suggests that the largest Spartan units was the lochos, a battalion comprising of about 512 men.
    • Lochos divided into 4 pentecostyes or companies of up to 128 men
    • Each pentecostye was divided further into 4  enomotiai or platoons of up to 32 men each.
  • At the Battle of Mantinea the Spartan Army comprised of 7 Battalions (7 lochoi comprised the main part of a phalanx called the mora which was commanded by a polemarch –> each lochos had 4 pentecostyes and the commanding officer of a lochos was the lochagos –> each pentecostye compromised 4 enomotiai, the pentecostye was commanded by a pentkonter –> 4 files of 8 men made up an enomotiai, each enomotiai was commanded an enomotarch who fought at the front of the right hand file, an officer at the rear called an ouragos in short order at the back). The battle front measured about 450 men from one wing to the other and behind the front line there were supporting ranks up to 8 deep. A Spartan King also had an elite force of 300 knights on horseback called hippeis. In addition there were lightly armed foot soldiers, armed with javelins and sling shots (often helots who served their masters on the battlefield).
  • There were also specialist troops such as cavalry detachments and light-armed troops and peltasts who threw missiles like rocks and harassed the enemy.
  • Spartan tactics served them well for a very long time:
    • At Thermopylae in 480BC, an ability to fool the enemy into thinking a retreat was in progress, worked well as the Spartans quickly regrouped and inflicted losses on the Persian Army.
    • At the Battle of Plataea in 479, Spartan discipline and training showed its worth when, in the face of thousands of Persian arrows, the Spartans held their positions to eventually achieve victory.
    • Their superiority in military tactics would finally be destroyed at the Battle of Leuctra of 371BC when the Spartans proved unable to cope with the more innovative techniques of the Theban leader, Epaminondas.
    • One type of Spartan army manoeuvre was called the “anastrophe” – involved doubling the depth of the right wing of a phalanx.
    • Another manoeuvre was known as the “Laconian countermarch”. This involved completely reversing the position of the phalanx to deal with an enemy which appeared in the rear. It ensured that the experienced men were always at the front in any battle.
  • Both Thucydides and Xenophon had firsthand experience of Spartan army organisation and tactics, however their accounts have many differences
Thucydides Xenophon
  • File averaged 8 men and 4 files comprised an enomotia, 4 enomotiai made up a pentecostye
  • 4 pentecostye made up a lochos
  • A regiment was made up of 7 lochos
  • Only 2 enomotai made up a pentecostye
  • 2 pentecostye made a lochos
  • A regiment was made up of 4 lochos
  • In battle, the enomotiai marched one behind the other in columns.
  • When deploying for battle, rear units lined up on the left of the leader, to make a phalanx of 4 columns. The commander was normally stationed on the right to prevent the phalanx veering to the right as each hoplite sought to gain the protection of his neighbour’s shield.
  • On the given order to form close order, the rear half of each enomotiai would move up to fill the gap on each file’s left.


Unit Name Unit made up of Modern army unit equivalent
mora 4 lochoi regiment
lochos 2 pentekostes battalion
pentekostis 4 enomotiai company
enomotia 4 groups of 8 men platton

Historian’s Opinions:

  • Thucydides: “If an order has to be passed along the line, it is done in the same way and quickly becomes effective” – referring to chain of command = strong degree of efficiency – “responsibility for seeing that an order is carried out falls on a great many people”
  • F. Fitzhardinge: Contrasts Thucydides positive description of the Spartan army instead suggesting that while it was impressive, it certainly was not faultless, and this fallibility was present at the Battle of Mantinea as it had been [at Plataea]. Fitzhardinge states that the King’s command on each occasion was almost ruined due to office disobedience = disconnect. “Their victory [at Mantinea] was due not to their professional skill or training, but solely to their courage”
  • Xenophon, Spartan Society: Full of praise in the way in which the Spartan army was able to regroup, act almost spontaneously and not panic in the face of unfamiliar situations. He dismisses the idea that the Spartan organisation was complex by arguing that it worked so well because each man new exactly what was expected of him. “it is always the men of the highest calibre who are facing the enemy.”

2. Notes on Brennan Chapter 4

Society Tactics/Organisation Equipment
  • Spartan citizens devoted the major part of their time to military training and they believed their army wa the best in Greece.
  • Training in society: according to Athenian leader Perikles, Spartan military skill was merely the product of a labourious training that produced a ‘state induced courage’. Spartans spent their time ‘practicing to meet their suffering’
  • Hoplites à the calvary was less relied upon and came to play a less prominent role in wars
  • Phalanx à cohesion. Vulnerability of phalanx from rear and along its flanks (sides) à limitation
  • Painting from the interior of a Kylix (frinking cup) from 3rd quarter of 6th Cent
    • Depiction of a fully armed hoplite on the left,with his spear at his side
    • Wearing a Corinthian style helmet
    • Central is the soldier’s cuirass, his breastplate/body armour
    • On the right, another soldier fitting on his bronze greaves of shin guards.
    • Limitation: figures like the bird and the foxes in the area below the main scene are commonly used by Lakonian artists to fill space.

Evaluation – Negative:

  • Instance at Thermopylai: Spartan Coward
    • At Thermopylai in 480 BC, Herodotus observes that two Spartans were actually away when the fighting began
    • One Spartan, Aristodemos, decided to go back and fight, the other ran away to avoid battle
    • On his return he was shunned and called ‘The Trembler’
    • Nevertheless, Herodotus claims that in order to regain his hounour the man fought and died bravely in the Battle of Plataia, the following year.
  • Refusal to follow orders
    • In his account of the Battle of Plataia, Herodotus mentions an officer in the Spartan army who questioned orders and refused to stage a strategic ‘withdrawal’ to a safer position because Spartans were never supposed to retreat.
    • The officer who refused to follow the orders of the Spartan commander in chief, Pausanius, and remained in position was forced to move or be left behind.
  • Inability to take a fortified position
    • Spartans could not win if they were attacking a defensive position
    • Herodotus asserts that while the Spartans could not take a Persian defensive position, the Athenians were able to storm it successfully.
    • In the openining moves of the Pelopennesian War, during the invasions of Attica led by King Archiadamos, the Spartans were unable to mount an attack on the walls of Athens. Major limitation à
  • Spartan surrender where Spartiates were captured and their shields taken.
    • Spartans – on one occasion – did suirrender rather than face certain death.
    • During the Peloponnesian War, a group of Spartiates, including well-born men with connections to the elite at Sparta, surrendered.
    • They did this after finding themselves in an impossible position where they were surrounded by Athenian forces on the island of Sphakteria in the harbor of Pylos in the Peloponnese.
    • Thucidides asserts that the Athenians had isolated the Spartiates on the island and, when the trees and bushes were burned away thus providing an uninterrupted view of the enemy, the Athenians deployed their forces that included archers and peltasts who threw missiles.
    • Faced with a shower of arrows, javelins, stones and slingshot, the Spartans were without any hope of survival
    • Surrender = great blow to Spartan pride and morale.
    • Athenians placed the captured Spartan arms on view in the Painted Collonade of the agora at Athens
    • 20th Century excavations of the agora found one of the Spartan shields inscribed with words punched into the bronze ‘The Athenians, from the Lakedaimonians from Pylos’.
  • Failure of Hoplite manoeuvres
    • In the Battle of Mantinea (480 BC), during the Peloponnesian War, the battle was nearly lost because of the deficiencies in hoplite manoeuvring
    • In a wheeling manoeuvre a hoplite phalanx tended to edge to its right and its right wing got extended as each man attempted to cover his unprotected side with the shield of the man next to him.
    • Failure à line often stretched too far and a gap was created elsewhere in the ranks.
    • At the Battle of Mantinea, Spartan king Agis tried to fill the gap with some of his troops, but on the field two of his commanders refused to follow his orders and were thus banished.
    • Only King Agis’ own men at the centre, acting on his direct orders, saved the battle for the Spartans.
    • Thucydides’ account shows that not all the troops he termed ‘Lakedaimonian’ were of the same quality as the elite force from Sparta itself. They may have included pooely trained perioikoi and that they may have been part of the proble.
  • Positives outweigh negatives
  • It is simplistic to take fulsome praise of Sparta out of context or to be overly influenced by Sparta;s own self-flattering propaganda.
  • IDEAL VIEW à clouds negative evaluation
  • Also, every army has its failures à Sparta cannot plausibly be perfect.

Herodotus’ Quote: “So it is with the Spartans; fighting singly they are as good as any, but fighting together they are the best fighters in the world. They are free – yes – but not entirely free; for they have a master, and that master is law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you. Whatever this master commands, they do: and his command never varies: it is never to retreat in battle, however great the odds, but always to stand firm, and to conquer or die.”

  • Idealised view of the Spartan army.
  • However, in the context of Herodotus’ narrative of the Second Persian War (480 BC) these words are put in the mouth of Demaratos, the deposed king of Sparta, who was a refugee sheltered by the Persians.
  • His assessment of the qualities of Spartan soldiers was clearly intended to be seen as exaggeration and the Persian king, Xerxes, when he heard what Demaratos said, is portrayed as laughing out loud.
  • The Spartans were justly renowned as fighters and admired for their skill even by those who were enemies.
  • Herodotus uses Demaratos’ praise of Spartan soldiers as a dramatic prelude to his own narrative of the fighting at Thermopylai that comes later
  • However, there is evidence elsewhere in Herodotus’ writings that not every Spartan soldier lived up to ideals.

3. Notes on Antiquity 2

  • Spartans dominated the Hellenic world until their 371 BC defeat at the battle of Leuctra
  • Social structure:
    • Sparta’s militarism required that the kinds assert strong generalship
    • Herodotus tells us that in the time of Kleopmenes and Demaratus it was decided that only one king would go to war, the other remaining in Sparta
    • Ekklesia was the assembly attended by those over the age of thirty who had full citizenship, they were responsible for the appointment of military commanders, decisions about peace and war, resolutions for problems regaerding kinship and emancipation of helots.
    • Syssition à common meals
      • An important part of Spartan society was being equal, accordingly each Spartiate had to make a monthly contribution from the produce of his kleros to the military mess
      • Men shared communal meals in military barracks
    • Education system – agoge
      • In order to become highly trained warriors, Spartiates submitted themselves to the rigorous education system and discipline code of Sparta known as the agoge
      • In 669 BC Spartans suffered crusing defeat at Agrives à humiliation à military changes in Sparta
      • The agoge was designed to make the Spartans fierce warriors and instill in them patriotism, loyalty, obedience and comradeship.
      • At birth, Spartan boys were inspected by a overnment official and any child weak or deformed was exposed at Apothetae on the slopes of Mt Taygetus.
      • Until the age of 7, a child was raised by his mother at home, then lifelong service to the state began, as boys left home to live in herds of boys (agelai) at the barracks.
      • Education was a state responsibility and the paidonomos was in charge of the agoge,
      • According to Xenophon, the paidonomos had to administer severe whippings to the disobedient
      • Similarly, Plato believed the Spartans were educated “not by persuasion but by violence”
      • Boys were hardened by excersising naked or barefoot.
      • At age 18, Spartans entered the stage of their training where they were cadets or eirenes. They could fightm but not as front line soldiers. They were more a leader/role model for younger boys.
      • During this stage, the eiren applied for membership of the mess.
      • At 23 he was a frontline soldier and at 30 he entered full citizenship.
      • If a Spartan youth did not progress through each stage of the training he was unable to claim full citizenship.

Role of the Spartan Army

  • During the Persian Wars (490 – 479 BC) the exiled Spartan king, Demaratus, warned the Persian king, Xerxes, of the type of opposition he could expect from the Spartans
  • The whole of Spartan society was aimed at producing a strong fighting force of great warriors who were willing to die for Sparta.
  • Spartan poet Tyrtaeus exhorted his countrymen: “let us fight with courage for our country…let us die and never spare our lives”.
  • In 669 BC, at the battle of Hysiai, the Spartans suffered a desicive defeat
  • Perhaps in response to this humiliation, the Spartans developed their militaristic state, thus changing their whole way of life.
  • Throughout the 6th Centry and towards the beginning of the 5th century, the Spartan army was composed of all Spartan citizens.
  • Towards the end of the 5th century, non-Spartiates began to perform military duties.
  • Organisation:
    • According to age divissions specified in the agoge.
    • See divisions in Ken Webb summary
    • Another group within the Spartan army was composed of hippeis (knights) à a handpicked group of 300 men whose main purpose seems to have been to guard the kings.
  • Hoplite warfare
    • Relied on hoplite armies – similar to other ancient Greeks
  • Equipment
    • Hoplite carried a hoplon
      • Round wooden shielf, convave on the inside and faced with bronze on the outside
      • Approximately 1 meter wide and weighed about 7kg
      • Cumbersome
      • A measure of morale and prowess
      • Spartans saw dropping the hoplon on the battlefield as a loss of honour and were under strict instructions from their mothers to ‘retyrn with your shield or on it’
    • Wore a cloth tunic covered by a bronze breastplate
    • A helmet made of thin bronze, often decorated by a crest of horsehair – though it protected most of the face, the helmet had no ear holes so the hoplite must have had difficulty hearing on the battlefield
    • Bronze greaves for protection of the lower leg
    • Also carried a long spear almost 3 meters in length for thrusting not throwing as well as an iron sword.
    • “his sword let him wound and take his foe…let him set foot beside foot, rest shield against shield” Tyrtaeus.
  • Tactics
    • Success depended largely on discipline of troops in the massed hoplite formation, or phalanx
    • Aim à break the opposition’s line by deploying a ‘group and shove’ technique
    • At Plataea for example in 479 BC, they remained steady in their ranks under a heavy barrage of Persian arrows.
    • Another tactic exemplifying their exceptional discipline is the feint used at Thermopylae where the Spartans pretended to flee from the Persian shielfs only to turn at the right moment and inflict serious losses on the opposition.
  • Defeat at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC
    • Spartans numbered 10 000, Boeotians under 6000
    • Spartans under king Cleombrotus
    • Boeotians used new technique of a slanting phalanx allowing them to overcome the superiority of the Spartan numbers.
    • Despite their bravery, Spartans were defeated à king died and it had been over a hundred years since a Spartan king had died in battle.
    • Leuctra was a turning point in bringing an end to the political hegemony and military superiority of Sparta.
    • It served to reveal their primary weakness of inflexibility à they were unable to cope with the new strategies and generalship of Epaminodas.

4. General Consolidation

  • The Spartanarmy stood at the centre of the Spartan state, whose citizens’ primary obligation was to be good soldiers
  • Height of Sparta’s power – between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE
  • Process of transition into military life (Wikipedia):
    • A Spartan man’s involvement with the army began in infancy when he was inspected by the Gerousia. If the baby was found to be weak, he was left at Mount Taygetus to die. Those deemed strong were then put in the agoge at the age of seven. Under the agoge the young boys or Spartiates were kept under intense and rigorous military training but they had to put up with it. Their education focused primarily on sports and war tactics, but also included poetry, music, academics, and sometimes politics. Those who passed the agoge by the age of 30 were given full Spartan citizenship.=
  • Establishment of Spartan hegemony over the Peloponnese
  • Social structure à the Spartan people (the “Lacedaemonians”) were divided in three classes:
    • Full citizens, known as theSpartiates properor Hómoioi (“equals” or peers), who received a grant of land (kláros or klēros, “lot”) for their military service.
      • core of the Spartan army: they participated in the Assembly (Apella) and provided the hoplites in the army. Indeed, they were supposed to be soldiers and nothing else, being forbidden to learn and exercise any other trade.
    • The second class were thePerioeci (the “dwellers nearby”), free non-citizens, generally merchants, craftsmen and sailors, who were used as light infantry and on auxiliary roles on campaign.
    • The third and most numerous class were theHelots, state-owned serfs used to farm the Spartiate klēros. By the 5th century BC, the helots too were used as light troops in skirmishes.
      • To a large degree, the necessity for the constant war footing of the Spartan society was the need to keep the vastly more numerous helots subdued.
    • Weakness in social structure:
      • Steady decline in fully enfranchised citizens àa decline in available military manpower: the number ofSpartiates decreased from 6,000 in 640 BC to 1,000 in 330 BC. The Spartans were therefore forced to use helot hoplites, and occasionally they freed some of the Laconian helots, the neodamōdeis (the “newly enfranchised”), and gave them land to settle in exchange for military service.
    • According to Aristotle, the Spartan military culture was actually short-sighted and ineffective. He observed:
      • “It is the standards of civilized men not of beasts that must be kept in mind, for it is good men not beasts who are capable of real courage. Those like the Spartans who concentrate on the one and ignore the other in their education turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of city’s life, end up making them inferior even in that”
      • Aristotle was a harsh critic of the Spartan constitution and way of life.
      • There is considerable evidence that the Spartans, certainly in the archaic period, were not educated as one-sidedly as Aristotle asserts. In fact, the Spartans were also rigorously trained in logic and philosophy.
      • One of the most persistent myths about Sparta that has no basis in fact is the notion that Spartan mothers were without feelings toward their off-spring and helped enforce a militaristic lifestyle on their sons and husbands.
      • The myth can be traced back to Plutarch, who includes no less than 17 “sayings” of “Spartan women,” all of which paraphrase or elaborate on the theme that Spartan mothers rejected their own offspring if they showed any kind of cowardice. In some of these sayings, mothers revile their sons in insulting language merely for surviving a battle.
      • These sayings purporting to be from Spartan women were far more likely to be of Athenian origin and designed to portray Spartan women as unnatural and so undeserving of pity.


  • An important part of being an ‘equal’ was that each Spartiate had to make a monthly contribution, from the produce of his kleros, to the military mess.
    • Failure to do this would result in loss of citizenship
  • Men shared communal meals in the military barracks.
  • Plutarch relates that they would gather in groups of about 15, each man contributing barley meal, wine, cheese and figs, and a sum of money for fish or meat.
  • Syssitia is the general name for the common meals; the Spartans also used the term pheiditia which means ‘gatherings of men’
  • Like almost everything else in their society, the Spartans attributed the institution of the common meal to Lycurgus
    • “Lycurgus then noticed that the Spartans just like the rest of the Greeks were living at home, and, realising that this was responsible for their taking most things too easily, brought the common messes out into the open, considering that this would reduce a common disobedience of orders to a minimum” – Xenophon
  • A seniority was observed in the syssition, just as there was in society.
    • Groups were mixed in ages so that the younger men might learn from their elders.
    • Social analysis: spreads conservatism and stifles intergenerational change
    • Further promotes conformity.
  • A young man had to apply to join a particular mess
  • Young Spartiates were not distributed equally throughout the syssitia, and this meant that there were some messes that were more exclusive than others.
  • At the messes, the men shared not only meals but also political discussions and stories of citizen’s great deeds.
    • In this way, the messes became another important avenue for training and developing the young men.
  • Plutarch
    • “The oldest member indicated the doors to each person entering and said ‘not a word goes out through these'” – secrecy/mystique of the syssitia
    • Also describes the process of joining the syssitia
      • They have a peace of soft bread and throw it into the bowl a helot carried on his head.
      • Those in favour, threw the bread in as it was, while those against squeezed it hard into a ball.
      • “the effect of a squeezed ball is that of a hollow ballot”
      • Even one of these and they would not be granted entry as “all should be happy in each other’s company”.


  • “if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave’s condition, they made the death penalty” (Myron)
  • Krypteia (secret police) played an important role in the control of helots.
  • Plutarch says that, as part of their training, specially chosen bands of young men were sent into the countryside to deal with the helots.
    • “by day they would disperse to obscure spots in order to hide and rest. At night they made their way to roads and murdered any helot whom they caught”
    • “Frequently, too, they made their way through the fields, killing the helots who stood out for their physique and strength”
    • Engenders fear
    • A form of repressing rebellion.
  • Plato viewed the krypteia as a part of Spartan military training.
    • Was it an ongoing practice or a rite of passage for young Spartans; a way of getting soldiers used to killing.
  • Another way of controlling helots told by Plutarch
    • “[Aristotle observes that] immediately upon taking up office, the ephors would declare war on the helots, so they could be killed without pollution”
    • Desire for Athenian writers to make Spartans seemed barbaric: e.g. the disappearance of 2000 helots described by Plutarch and Thucydides

Educational system: agoge

  • “The whole course of their education was one continued exercise of a ready and perfect obedience.” Plutarch
  • “It is obvious that the whole of this education tended, and was intended, to make the boys craftier and more inventive in getting supplies, while at the same time it cultivated their warlike instincts.” Xenophon
  • In order to become highly trained warriors, Spartiates submitted themselves to the rigorous education system and discipline code of Sparta known as the agoge.
  • Education was a state responsibility and a government official, the paidonomos, was in charge of the agoge. According to Xenophon, the paidonomos had to administer severe whippings to the disobedient. This is corroborated by Plato who asserted Spartans were educated “not by persuasion but by violence”.
  • Each stage of Spartan education took 6 years.
  • At 7 boys left home to live in  the herds of boys (agelai) at the barracks.
    • They were taught physical and military exercises as well as the basics of reading and writings.
    • The boys were hardened by exercising naked and barefoot:

“Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot” Xenophon

  • “As soon as they were seven years old they were to be enrolled in certain companies and classes, where they all lived under the same order and discipline, doing their exercises and taking their play together.” Plutarch
  • “chief care was to make them good subjects, and to teach them to endure pain and conquer in battle.” Plutarch
  • They did not engage in music, dancing or athletic competitions until the age of 10.
    • Oratory was forbidden – lead to punishment by the ephors.
    • Enjoyed music, both vocal and instrumental – most commonly used instruments were the flute, lyre, harp and trumpet.
    • Similarly enjoyed dance – used as a method for training warriors. One dances, the Pyrrhic dance, was performed to flute music and comprised a mock fight that boys learnt at fifteen.
    • The Gymnopaedia – a 5 day festival of dancing and gymnastics (one day for each oba), was closely linked to the Spartan training regime – held in honour of the slain at the ancient battle of Thyrea.
  • At 18 Spartan youths entered the stage of their trainings as cadets or eirenes – a leader and role model for the younger boys.
    • Had the responsibility of the whip and could dispense punishments.
    • Applied for membership of the mess.
    • 23 = Front line soldier
    • 30 = Full citizenship
  • Ten days after birth, male children were examined by a council of elders to determine whether they would live or be exposed
0-7 years
  • Under the supervision of their mother
7-12 years
  • In the care of the state
  • Enrolled in an age group and went to live in a military barracks where they learnt military skills as well as reading and writing
  • They learnt to fend for themselves, obey orders, share responsibilities and get on with others
  • At age ten they learnt music, dancing, athletics


12-18 years
  • Continued to live in barracks and undergo military training
  • They learnt games of endurance and skill, and were taught how to steal
  • Discipline included going barefoot, exercising naked, having short hair, sleeping on beds of bushes
  • Their clothing was limited to one garment and they were given minimum rations
12-23 years
  • Enrolled as a prefect / overseer – this was a stage similar to the cadet corps
  • Able to serve in the army but not in the front line
  • Able to marry
26-30 years Full time soldier
30 years
  • Citizen and soldier
  • Able to live at home although had meals in the barracks
  • Allowed to grow their hair
  • “habituate them to a single garment the whole year through, thinking that so they would be better prepared to withstand the variations of heat and cold” – Xenophon
  • “the Spartans, visit penalties on the boy who is detected thieving as being but a sorry bungler in the art. So to steal as many cheeses as possible was a feat to be encouraged; but, at the same moment, others were enjoined to scourge the thief, which would point a moral not obscurely, that by pain endured for a brief season a man may earn the joyous reward of lasting glory.” Xenophon

Role and status of women

Spartiate women played a pivotal role in Spartan society as

  • Bearers of children
  • Mothers of warriors
  • Heiresses
  • Managers of Estates
  • “I bore him so that he might die for Sparta” – Plutarch
    • Mother’s duty is to make a son and soldier for the State
    • Spartan mentality

Helot women’s role

  • Domestic functions
  • Agricultural functions

Spartan Mothers

  • Similarly to their Athenian counterpart, the primary role of Spartan women was to be wives and mothers of citizens.
  • Xenephon noted that for the Spartaite or free women, child bearing was the most important function geared towards ensuring the supremacy of the warrior class
    • “if both parents were strong their children would be more robust” – Xenephon
  • Children did not belong to mothers but to the state
  • When they were born they would be examined by elders
  • Child rearing was highly valued and Spartan women achieved esteemed reputation as wet-nurses and were consequently highly sought after as nannies, particularly in Athens

Education of Spartan Girls

  • Girls remained at home with their mothers but were still expected to be educated.
  • Like the Spartan boys, the girls were taught the basics of reading and writing.
  • Similarly to boys they were organised into bands for team games and choral singing.
  • Xenephon compared the upbringing of girls to elsewhere in the Greek world, explaining that it was Lycurgus who introduced this practice
    • “Lycurgus considered slave girls quite adequate to produce clothing, and thought that for free women the most important job was to bear children.”
    • “He prescribed physical training for the female sex no less than for the male”

Marriage Customs

  • Very different to others in other city states
  • In contrast to the young Athenian girls, Plutarch states that Spartan girls were married when “they were ripe for it” – that is, when they were more physically mature.
  • They were expected to marry within their own social class.
  • Plutarch tells the story of Lysander, who betrothed his daughters to several young men. When he died a poor man, the young men tried to back out of the arrangements. This story indicates:
    • A form of betrothal occurred
    • Dowries and consideration of wealth were important
      • Ironically, this goes against the kleros mentality.
    • Marriage my capture was also thought to have been practiced in Sparta where a man would choose a bride and carry her off
      • This suggests a lack of choice on the women’s behalf
      • J. Ball suggests that mothers however did have some say in whom their daughters would marry, and thus the actual ‘capture’ was probably a symbolic act.
    • Plutarch describes a marriage ritual as a secretive ceremony with unusual aspects such as when the bride “first shaved her head” and “dressed…in a man’s cloak and sandals”, detailing that the bridegroom would spend “only a short time with her” and would “depart discreetly so as to sleep wherever he usually did along with the other young men” (Plutarch)
      • The reasons for cutting a bride’s hair and dressing her in man’s clothing have been much debated, some suggestions:
        • It implies chastity, or the subjection of the bride to her husband
        • It may ease the young bridegroom into unfamiliar sexual intercourse with a man.
      • It is thought that some sort of pre-nuptial wedding feast took place for the women only.
      • It is believed the marriage ceremony was kept secret until a child was produced, reinforcing the primary role of Spartan women as child bearers.
      • Secretive nature of marriage by Plutarch
        • “ashamed and apprehensive”
        • “warily visit his bride”
        • “helped to plan how they might meet each other unobserved”
        • “some might even have children before they saw their own wives in daylight”

Women and Property in Sparta

  • Married Spartan women exercised much more control and influence in their society than did their Athenian counterparts.
  • Though they took no part in the communal life of men, and as non-citizens could not vote, they nevertheless played an important role in the transfer of property.
  • Wealth in Sparta revolved around the ownership of land.
  • The land was owned and controlled by upper-class families and marriage alliances ensured that property remained within this small group.
  • At the beginning of the classical period, a Spartan woman could inherit part of her family’s estate, however she could not own it, and it was passed to her offspring.
  • By the end of the classical period however, as Aristotle and Xenephon inform us, women did own and manage estates without male guardians.
  • It is also believed that they owned their dowries.
  • In the exceptional case of an orphaned heiress it was the kings who decided whom they would marry (Xenephon)
  • Women’s role in land ownership can be attributed to the fact that men were often absent fighting wars and thus women had to manage the estates and the affairs of their husbands.
    • “Spartan men were always subject to their wives and allowed them to interfere in affairs of state more than they themselves did in private ones” – Plutarch
  • Towards the end of the classical period, Aristotle notes that women in Sparta owned two fifths of land feared this would lead to gynaikokratia (government by women) – typical Aristotle.
    • “nearly two fifths of the whole country are held by women”
    • “it would surely have been better to have given no dowries at all”

Spartan women through the eyes of ancient writers

  • Very few sources that have survived concerning the lives of Spartan women were written by Greek men from other states
  • Touch only on the incidentals of women’s lives, and tend either to criticise the women or praise their physical attributes.
  • Aristotle wrote disapprovingly of their free lifestyle and the influence they had on their husbands, he believed that it was partly for these reasons the greatness of Sparta declined.
  • “he mustn’t just regulate the men and allow the women to live as they like and wallow in expensive luxury” – Plato

Appearance and Dress

  • The women of Sparta were expressly forbidden by the Lycurgan law code from wearing make-up, jewellery, perfume, or dyeing their clothes
  • As the sources indicate, the Spartan lifestyle changed considerably at the end of the 5th Century when many Spartans began to use luxury goods.
  • The main garment worn by the women of Sparta was a short, revealing peplos, fastened on the shoulders
    • The tunic was not sewn down the side, and allowed the women to move freely and exercise
    • As the women moved, however, the garment revealed their thighs and earned the reputation as ‘thigh displayers’
  • The clothing of women is corroborated by archaeological evidence of a bronze figurine of a lightly clad Spartan girl dancing found at Prizren, Serbia (probably made by perioikoi)
    • Again corroberated by Pausaniaswho tells us that girls ran in the Heraia and thus were clothed appropriately.

Religious Roles

  • The most famous cult centre in Sparta is that of the goddess Artemis Orthia
    • This goddess was associated with childbirth, and large quantities of votive offering have been found at the sanctuary.
    • These offerings, it is thought, were brought by women who were barren, pregnant or survived childbirth
  • When a Spartan woman married, Spartan mothers made sacrifices to the goddess Aphrodite Hera.
  • At festivals, Spartan women performed pecial religious dances, sometimes with the men and sometimes separately.
    • Examples of these are the hyporchema in honour of Apollo and the Caryatid in honour of Artemis at Caryae
    • At the famous Hyakinthia festival in honour of Apollo, women took part “riding on richly decorated carriages made of wicker work, while others yoked chariots and drove them in a procession for racing” (Hooker)
  • Little is known of women’s participation in burial customs and of how women themselves were buried.
    • Lycurgus, like Solon, laid down strict procedures relating to death and burial practices i.e. no inscriptions were to be placed on the tomb of a woman who had died “In sacred office” (as a priestess)
  • Herodotus described how, when a Sparta king died, women walked through the streets beating cauldrons, perhaps to frighten away evil spirits.
    • A man and a woman from each household were required to dress in mourning and express their grief.

3. The economy

Land ownership



  • An important element in the restructuring of Spartan society attributed to the reforms of Lycurgus was the redistribution of land among the Spartiate and perioikoi population.
  • These allotments of land, called kleroi, were farmed by the helots and the agricultural produce of the kleroi was the basis of the Spartan economy.
  • The produce of the kleroi was also the basis of Spartan citizenship, since each Spartiate was obliged to contribute to his syssition on a regular basis.
    • Failure to do so meant loss of citizenship rights.
  • This system of land ownership and agricultural production by the helot population underpinned the entire Spartan way of life, because it freed the male citizens to devote themselves entirely to their military pursuits.
  • The question of land ownership in ancient Sparta is an issue of some controversy among school.
  • It is concerned with the view, implied by the ancient sources, that there was equality among Spartiates in their ownership of land- which had been distributed and controlled by the state.
  • Plutarch:
    • “they would all live on equal terms with one another:
    • “with the same amount of property to support each”
  • There is conflicting evidence on this issue.
  • Aristotle:
    • “while some of the Spartan citizens have quite small properties, others have very large ones.
    • “faulty laws”
  • Kelly:
    • “Sparta did not have equality of property”
    • “The land passed out in that original redivision…is far more likely to have belonged to outsiders and foreigners than to the great Spartiate landowners”
  • Plutarch’s view that land in Sparta was shared out in equal portions to all male citizens and was controlled is strongly contested by the modern scholar Hodkinson.
    • Hodkinson argues it was never equal and gradually became more unequal
    • He suggests this is because of the growth of privately owned estates.
  • Aristotle reveals, the land was divided through inheritance and bequests.
  • Women also came to play a significant role in Spartan society because, as heiresses, they controlled many of the estates.
  • Widening gap between rich and poor = severe social problems and possibly the rapid decline of Spartiate citizens through the 5th Century.
  • Spartiates who lost their kleroi were unable to contribute to the syssition lost their right as equals and were known as hypomeiones – inferiors.
    • One of the great mysteries in Spartan society, how did they live if they had no land from which to draw income?
    • In 398 BC the hypomeiones were involved in a plot to overthrow the government.


  • Economic activity in Sparta was carried out by the helots in agriculture and perioikoi in industry and trade.
  • Industries included bronze and pottery making.
    • Bronze making:
      • Sparta had iron deposits but would have imported copper and tin which it mixed with iron for bronze working.
      • Practiced in Lakonia and Peloponnesian centres since 8th Century BC
      • Oldest technique of making bronze was casting of the molten alloy in a mould and then beating it out into thin sheeting with a hammer.
      • Superior quality bronze sheeting had a tin content of around 10 precent.
      • By the 5th Century BC the new technique of ‘indirect casting’ was developed to make possible the mass production of cast objects.
      • Several bronze sculptors are known from ancient times.
      • Pausanias mentions a bronze statue of Zeus about 5.5 m high which was one of the works of Telestas of Sparta who lived in the 6th century BC.
      • In addition to the production of small figurines and larger states, the Spartan bronze industry produced a range of weapons and armour to equip its hoplite forces.
      • The Spartans and the Peloponnesians had revolutionised ancient warfare with the development of the phalanx fighting formation
      • Each soldier was fitted with the standard kit including a bronze helmet, hoplon, cuirass (breastplate), greaves to protect the lower legs and a bronze spear and dagger.
    • Pottery
      • The most famous pottery is that known as Laconian III which is dated to c.575 BC and “was primarily interested in human subjects and in telling a story”…”lavish use of purple” (Fitzhardinge)
      • It is believed that this pottery was the work of one man, joined by others but with the style dying out by 525BC.
      • It proved to be very popular and was exported throughout the Greek world and found as far afield as Samos and Sicily.
      • The best-known example of this is the Arcesilas Cup.
      • Laconian potters eventually copied the Attic red figureware.
      • Fitzhardinge notes that very little is known of the painters and potters and their industry.
        • The Painters were specialists in their craft who perhaps came from the upper classes as at least two of them could write.
        • Kiln and family graves of the owner found inside one area of the city suggest that they were not perioikoi. Fitzhardnige points out that such trades might have been pursued by poorer Spartiates, younger sons or those who had lost their allotted land.
      • Small figurines, mould-made relies of baked clay (terracottas) have also been found at most religious sites.
      • A quantity of clay masks has been found at the Orthia sanctuary that are models of larger masks used in some ritual.

Economic roles of the periokoi (‘dwellers around’) and helots

  • The perioikoi were chiefly engaged in:
    • Mining
    • Manufacture
    • Commerce
  • All mineral and marine resources of Lakonia and Messenia were in perioikoi hands.
  • Lead figurines found at the sanctuary of Orthia probably came from the iron ore mined at Neapolis of Kardamyli.
  • It was the perioikoi who procured the metals and manufactured the weapons that kept the Spartan military machine operating.
  • Ancient writers such as Pliny and Herodotus mention the perioikoi as making shoes, purple garments and objects of wood and iron.
  • Gytheum was the main centre for the delivery of Spartan imports/exports.
  • Perioikoi at Gytheum where fishermen, shipwrights and naval personnel.
  • Perioikoi made and imported chariots.

Economic exchange

Use of iron bars

  • Lycurgus was supposed to have introduced the use of iron bars as coinage believing:
    • “who would set out to steal, or accept as a bribe, or rob, or plunder something which could not be hidden, excited no envy when possessed, and could not even be profitably chopped up” Plutarch
  • Examples of these iron bars or spits have been found at Lakonian sanctuaries.
  • Scholars generally agree that the idea that Sparta banned gold and silver is a myth.
  • It has been suggested that Spartans must always have used some Hellenic currency rather than the iron spits because they needed to pay for mercenaries and send embassies abroad.
  • Spartans did not mint coins until the 3rd century.


  • Spartan trade, carried out mostly by the Perioikoi, was conducted through its port at Gytheum 46 kilometres from Sparta on the Laconian coast.
  • The waters here produced the shellfish and murex used in making purple dye.
  • Phoenician and Syrian traders had first visited this area and it later became a central trading point, from which the Spartans traded their main exports: wool, wine, oil, pottery and bronzes

4. Religion

Death and burial practices

  • In the ancient world, the Spartans were noted for their serious attitude to religion and their obedience to the gods.
  • Their strict adherence to religious ritual caused them to be mocked by other Greek states.
  • The degree of seriousness to which they took their religion is evident in the fact that on three occassions when Greece faced the danger of the Persian invasion, they refused to take military action until certain religious ceremonies had taken place: “unable to send promptly because they did not wish to break their law” (Herodotus)

Gods and goddesses

  • Mythical twin Spartan heroes, the Dioscuri (or ‘youths of Zeus’): Castor and Polydeuces were particularly important to the Spartans.
    • Thousands of votive offerings to them have been found, particularly at Amyclae
    • The Dioscuri were associated with young men and their pursuits of horsemanship, athletics and warfare.
  • Other gods of importance in Sparta were:
    • Apollo Karneios
    • Apollo of Amyclae
    • Artemis Orthia
    • Athena Chalkioikos
    • Helen
    • Leucippides
    • Lycugus
  • Interesting to note that most Spartan gods were armed (Sparta’s militarism)
    • At Amyclae there was a statue of Apollo with a spear in one hand and a bow in the other as well as a statue of an armed Aphrodite.
  • The Spartans did not worship some of the gods, like Hephaestus, who were popular in other parts of Greece.
    • Hephaestus was seen as the god of craftsman, artisans and blacksmiths.
    • Upper class Spartiates did not do manual labour, therefore Hephaestus was of little relevance to them.
  • Dionysus was associated in Athens with drama and wine.
    • In Sparta there were shrines to Dionysus but the Spartans shunned the drunken Dionysiac rites common in Athens because this was not conducive to producing good warriors.
  • Anyy evidence of the worship of Zeus seems to be lacking but Zues was worshiped in Sparta. Sparta’s kings were priests of Zeus:
    • One was dedicated to Zeus Lakedaemon
    • The other dedicated to Zeus Ouranios.
  • The cult of Artemis Orthia was primarily concerned with growth and fertility.
    • Artewmis was also associated with wild animals and was a huntress but she also presided over childbirth.
    • Initiation rites for Spartan boys occurred here where in later Spartan history they were brutally beaten on the goddess’ altar.
    • As with other Greek cults, there were the usual animal sacrifices and libations of water and wine.
  • The cult of Artemis Orthia and the theft of the cheeses
    • The ancient sources mention a strange practice whereby young boys would attempt to steal cheeses that had been placed on the altar at the temple of Artemis Orthia.
    • As they did so, the young boys would be whipped.
    • Scholars remain divided and on the nature and significance of this.
      • \
      • However, Xenephon provides a different view, asserting that the purpose of the whipping was to demand excellence in all brances of instruction, even thieving. “A matter of honour for them to snatch just as many cheeses as possible from Orthia” “a short period of pain may be compensated by the enjoyment of long-lasting prestige.”
      • Michell suggests that Xenephon confused his description of what happened at the altar with a dance in which hungry boys tried to steal food. The boys were given lengthy preparation for this and the shedding of their blood on the altar was the final part of their initiation. ” a ‘blood bond’ between gods and human beings.”

Myths and legends

  • Mythical twin Spartan heroes, Dioscuri, youths of Zeus, Castor and Polydeuces.
  • Dioscuri were clearly important in Spartan thinking.
  • At Amyclae, south of Sparta, thousands of offerings to the dioscuri (votive offerings) have been discovered over the years.
  • There is also a clear connection between these youths and the Spartan emphasis on athletic pursuits and the strict training associated with the agoge.

The legend of the Dioscuri

  • There are different versions of the birth of Castor and Polydeuces.
    • Version 1: the two boys born of the Spartan king, Tyndareus, and his mortal wife Leda.
    • Version 2: they were born of Leda and the god, Zeus.
    • Version 3: Castor and his sister Clytemnestra were the offspring of Tyndareus and Leda, Polydeuces and his sister Helen were the offspring of Leda and Zeus, who seduced her in the form of a swan, thus Castor was mortal while Polydeuces was immortal.
    • Castor became known as a great horseman while Polydeices was renowned for his boxing skills. They were often seen as the patrons of athletic contexts.
    • The two figures in great adventures such as the voyage of the Argonauts and the Claydonian Bear Hunt.
  • Life and death of the Dioscuri
    • The main rivals of the Dioscuri were their cousins, Idas and Lynceas.
    • Idas and Lynceus were planning to marry their cousins, Phoebe and Hilaera. However, Castor and Polydeuces kidnapped them and married the two young girls themselves.
    • Castor and Hilaera had a child, Anogon.
    • Polydeuces and Phoebe had a child, Mnesilus.
    • The Dioscuri worked with Idas and Lynceus in stealing some cattle.
      • The four of them had a contest to see who should have all of the cattle.
      • Idas and Lynceus won.
      • Not happy with this, Castor and Polydeuces attempted to steal back the cattle.
      • Incensed, Idas and Lynceus ambushed Castor and Polydeuces to hold on to what they believed was theirs.
    • In the ensuing violence, Polydeuces killed Lynceus but Idas managed to mortally wound Castor.
    • In anger at the loss of his son, Zeus struck Idas with a thunderbolt.
    • Polydeuces was grief stricken at the death of his mortal brother and wanted to die with him.
    • Zeus took pity on his son and allowed Castor and Polydeuces to share immortality, spending their days alternately living in Olympus and the underworld.
  • The Dioscuri in the ancient sources
    • Often depicted on horseback, hunting
    • Castor and Polydeuces feature in both the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer.
    • Athenian playwright, Eurpides, has them appear in his play Helen and Elektra.
    • They are ofen represented as symbols of twinhoo, shown as a pair of snakes, a pair of shields or a pair of amphorae evident in archaeological evidence of a Dioscuri relief showing the two brothers standing on either side of two tall amphorae; on the pediment above the figures two snakes support Leda’s eggs.
    • There are scenes of the two boys in metopes at the top of the Doric friezes of temples such as those at Delphi. Such scenes represented like this includes the story of the Argonauts.

The bones of Orestes

  • Herodotus relates a story about the “bones of Orestes”.
    • Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, the Greek commander during the Trojan War.
    • On his return from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra in retribution for his sacrifice to the gods for “good winds” of their daughter Iphigenia.
    • Orestes returned several years later and killed his mother and her lover Aegisthus.
    • Sparta had been involved in a long conflict with a neighbouring state, Tegea.
    • Things were not going well and so delegates were sent to Delphi seeking advice on which gods should be worshipped in order to achieve victory.
    • The priestess told them that victory would come once the bones of Orestes had been brought home.
    • A Spartan, named Lichas, claimed to have found the bones but he was not believed and thrown out. Lichas returned to Tegea, excavated the tomb, took the bones and returned to Sparta.



  1. When and where it was held
  • The festival was held at the Amyklaion, a hilltop sanctuary at Amykali 5km south of Sparta, at a place where, before the Dorian invasion, the original inhabitants may have built a stronghold.
  • Indeed, Hyakinthos may have been a pre-Dorian divinity whose cult was later blended in with that of Apollo. Thus the cult of Apollo may have symbolically killed Hyakinthos, but allowed him to live in a new mythic form.
  • This site was the location of a huge statue of Apollo, the tomb of Hyakinthos and an open area for festival dances.
  • The festival went for three days and was celebrated early in summer to mourn the death of Hyakinthis
  • The Hyakinthia has been interpreted as a cult of the dead – due to the death and renewal of the purple flower in the myth
  • The festival is one of incorporation which stresses unity and social cohesion, particularly between different age groups that were given separate roles.
  • Central to the festival is a celebration of youth and beauty and an endorsement of intense male-male relationships in a society where it was accepted and expected that worthy young men would have older lovers,
  • The festival places an emphasis on athletics and on singing and music which were associated with Apollo
  1. It’s origins and purpose
  • Legend is that Apollo and Zephyr (God of the west wind), competed for the boy’s attention. One day, as Apollo was teaching the boy to throw the discus, Zephyr blew the discus back at Hyakinthos in a jealous rage, killing him with a blow to the head.
  • Brennan textbook depicts this legend as a ‘freak accident’ and that the discus was thrown by Apollo – Apollo then tried to save his life but was unsuccessful – however, using his divine powers, Apollo metamorphoses Hyakinthos into a purple flower that will return each spring, so that he will never fully die – nourished by the sun and dies in winter
  • Celebrated in order to mourn the death of Hyakinthus and praise Apollo
  1. Rituals, events and features associated with that festival
  • The festival had two stages – the first a time of ritual grief and sorrow commemorating the tragic death of Hyakinthos, and the second a time of communal rejoicing and homage to Apollo
  • The first stage involved rites of sorrow and mourning in honour of Hyakinthos.
  1. There was a ban on the wearing of festive wreaths and the singing of the joyful paean (hymn) to Apollo
  2. There was a procession to Amyklai and offerings were placed at the ‘tomb’ of Hyakinthos
  3. There was a ban on the eating of bread and cakes
  4. A special ‘funeral meal’ was consumed and
  5. There was a day of ‘ritual grief and defilement’
  • During the second ‘joyful stage of the festival
  • There was a wearing of festive wreaths
  • The joyful Paean (hymn) was now sung to Apollo
  • There was a procession to Amyklai and sacrifice to Apollo
  • There was a special festive meal at which masters served slaves,(meat, barley-cake, raw vegetables, broth, figs and nuts were consumed)
  • There was a choral song and dance, (choirs of boys, accompanied by lyres and flutes) and
  • There was the offering to Apollo of a tunic woven for his statue by Spartan women
  • There were processions, dancers and chariot races.
  • One ritual, sausages were fixed to a wall and old men chewed on them.
  • Another unusual feature of the Hyakinthia was that the elite Spartiates entertained the Helots.
  • The historian Hooker has interpreted the festival as a festival for the dead on one hand, combined with a thanksgiving for life on the other.
  1. Evidence
  • “The Amyclaeans invariably go back home to the festival of the Hyakinthia for the paean to Apollo, whether they chance to be on a campaign or away from home for any other reason.” Xenophon
  • “and their chief concern was to give the god [Apollon] his due.” – Herodotus
  • Thesanctuary of Amyklaion, the remains of which have been located at a distance of 5 km south of Sparta and on the hill of Agia Kyriaki, and specifically in the monumental Throne of Apollo, that can be undoubtedly considered the most impressive and yet enigmatic architectural monument of the end of the archaic period.
  • Held within the sanctuary of Apollo in the Temenos (a piece of ground surrounding or adjacent to a temple; a sacred enclosure or precinct) is the Tumulus (an ancient burial mound) of Hyakinthos
  • The site of Amyklae flourished in almost all the periods from Archaic to Roman
  • The Throne of Apollo included an altar, which surrounded on three sides the colossal column shaped statue of the god. It was decorated with relief representations and plastic composition. It showed him wearing a helmet and carrying a spear and bow à Militarism
  1. Summary
  2. Based on the myth that Hyakinthus was the son of Amyclae, who was a Spartan King and died from a blow to the head from a discus (unsure whether this was an accident or the jealous rage of Zephyr)
  3. Choirs of boys, accompanied by lyres and flutes, sang the praises of the god.
  4. Evidence of Spartan’s devotion to Apollo is depicted through a joyful outpouring of religious sentiment. This is demonstrated through enthusiastic song and vigorous movement


General Information
  • Five day festival of dancing and gymnastics – one for each oba/village
  • ‘Festival of Unarmed Dancing’
  • It was “A festival that the Spartans took extremely seriously” (Pausanias)
  • It is suggested that it was instituted after the defeat to Argos at the Battle of Hysaea in 669BC to develop martial skill and spirit and later served to commemorate the fallen in the Battle of Thyrea in 550 (in which Sparta was the victor) or Battle of Champions (victor unclear)
    • Michel suggests that the Gymnopaedia was an opportunity for Spartans to commemorate “the slain at the battle of Thyrea, ‘the battle of champions'”
  • Unclear between the Battle of Thyrea and the Battle of Champions (546 BC) -> Sparta and Argos fought for control of the Thyrean plains and sent out 300 hoplites as champions to reduce casualties. 2 Argives were left standing and, in thinking they had won, left the field, but they had overlooked a Spartan hoplite who was badly injured but technically still alive. Both sides claimed victory.
  • However, it may not be this simple, intended to honour the deaths of all Spartiates in the past and in the future
When and where
  • Held in June/July in honour of Apollo·         The statue of Apollo and other deities stood in the Agora and it was here that Spartan youths performed their choruses and dances in honour of Apollo
  • It is believed that the young boys performed in the morning before it became too hot, the men performed in the afternoon, and the old men in the evening -> supports the idea of the past, present and future honouring of Spartiates
    • “the choirs performed on the Spartan agora, under the eyes not only of their fellow Spartans, but of images of Apollo Pythaeus, Artemis, and Leto” (Graf)
Key features
  • Athletic war dances performed under the hot sun (the festival was in the peak of summer so this was a feat of endurance)
  • They danced as in sport under the hot sun -> dances were athletic war dances, accompanied by flute and lyre

Examples of dances:

  • Anapale: a wrestling dance, move in time to music and display wrestling moves in a gracious manner, “moving gracefully to the music of flute and lyre” (Lawler)
  • Fallen heroes were praised in song
  • Bachelors were not permitted to participate as they were considered a lower part of society, indicating both the Spartans high regard and reverence for the religious festival, aswell as evidence against the equality and community-building that the gymnopaedia seems to endorse
    • Xenophon suggests that their social status was assimilated to that of ‘tremblers’ or cowards
    • Cartledge claims they suffered a “diminution of full civic rights and a fine, together with public disgrace and ridicule’
Significance in society
  • The gymnopaedia became of such importance as an institution for gymnastic and orchestral performances, and for the cultivation of arts
    • “principal aim of the festival being the habituation of Spartan manhood to arduous activity” (Thompson)
  • The festival overlapped with the Battle of Leuctra, however this was held off until the finishing of the gymnopaedia, indicating a high level of devotion of the Spartans to their religious rituals
    • “the festival was held in such high esteem that the battle of Leuctra was not announced until after the conclusion of the gymnopaedia” (Thompson)


  • When and where it was held
    • Celebrated in the holy month of Karneios (August/September), marking the harvest of the grape crop
    • Lasted 9 days, normally ended a lunar month after the Gymnopaidiai
  • Its origins and purpose
    • The origin of the festival is quite unclear. “origins…seem to have been obscure even in antiquity.” (Malkin) It might have been celebrated to honour the origins of Sparta and it was certainly part of Spartan life by the early 7th Century BC. Held in honour of Apollo Karneios, the god of the herd or the ram .
    • The word ‘Karnos’ means ram, and this might explain why Apolli is sometimes depicted with the horns of a ram.
    • Appears to have been at once agrarian (agricultural), military and piacular (requiring atonement or reparation) in character. It’s exact purpose is unclear, but it could be either as a form of divination, forseeing the future, or a ritual to atone for the crime committed against Karnos.
    • It was supposed to commemorate the death of Karneios, an Arcarnanian seer and favourite of Apollo, who, being suspected of espionage, was slain by one of the Heraclidae during the passage of the Dorians from Naupactus to Peloponnesus. By way of punishment, Apollo visited the army with a pestilence, which only ceased after the institution of the Karneia. This tradition is probably intended to explain the sacrifice of an animal as the representative of the god.
    • The importance attached to the festival and it’s month is shown in several instances, for example it was responsible for the delay which prevented the Spartans from assisting the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. According to Herodotus, the Spartan presence at Thermopylae was severely limited due to coincidence that the battle occurred during the Kárneian festival. Thucydides reports that the events of the Peloponnesian war were affected by the Kárneia in 419 and 418 BCE.
  • Festivals and Events/ Rituals during the Karneia:
    • A line from Theokritos tells of a shepherd fattening a ram to be sacrificted to Apollo at the Karneia – NOTE: the word Karnos means ram, explaining why Apollo is sometimes depicted with the horns of a ram.
    • Music:
      • Key component of the festival  which celebrated Spartan heroic deeds – probably begun by Terpander of Lesbos.
      • There was a music contest, the ‘agon’.
    • Young men called ‘staphylodromoi’, or ‘grape-cluster runners’, would chase a selected young man who would wear a woolen headband –
      • If the young man was caught, it was believed that the god would show favour to Sparta and bring good luck for the coming year.
      • Failure to catch him was considered a bad omen.
    • A feast was held under tent-like shelters – grouped presumably based on tribes and phratries.
    • Athletic contests and games formed part of the celebration – closely associated with the agoge.
    • 2 rituals thought to have been performed at Karneia:
      • A procession with model rafts – perhaps symbolising the return of the sons of Herakles and the coming of the Dorians
      • A race – resembling a chase of prey, rather than your standard race. A runner, wearing a garland of wool on his head, first prayed to the gods for his city-state, and then ran away. If he was caught, the omens for the city were good; if not, they were bad. It would come as little surprise that the young man did not try too hard to avoid being caught.
  • Archaeological Evidence:
    • There is not a great deal of archaeological evidence available however; there is a considerable amount of Apollo Karneios coins and a few pots of dancing at the festival.
    • 72cm red-figure volute krater, late 5th century, found in Sparta, in Taras
      • Dionysus sits on a rock, wearing fur boots. He is watching over his female followers (maenad) who are dancing. The woman behind him holds a torch over his head. A stayr (half man/half goat) watches behind.
    • Head of Apollo Karneios + horn of Ammon (left) wrapped around his ear, eagle on right c.370-320BC, 2grams, found in Lesbos region
      • Eagle symbol of gods on the sides. Apollo symbolises a ram here (horns). Whilst it was not found in Sparta, many coins of similar styles have been found, so it could be assumed that they would have been across all of Greece. These coins show that Apollo was a significant Greek figure
  • Summary:
    • Held in honour of Apollo Karneios “the god of flocks and herds” (Hesychius).
    • The Karneia is the reason the Spartans were unable to assist Athens in the Battle of Marathon – revealing the importance of religious festivals in Spartan culture as they prioritized the festival over war.
    • Closely associated with the agoge – Athletics contests, music contest
    • Staphylodromoi race reveals the importance of Dionysus in the Karneia prior to Apollo being given priority in the following Hykanitihia – exposing the relationship between the festivals

Religious role of the kings

  • Approval by Gods necessary:
    • The two kings were regarded as intermediaries between the gods and men, and held their office as long as the gods were pleased.
    • If things went wrong, the king was to blame.
    • Every ninth year the ephors looked in the skies for a sign of the gods’ approval or disapproval
  • Priests:
    • The kings were priests of Zeus Lacedaemonios and Zeus Uranios, the gods of their respective families. Every month they offered solemn sacrifices to Apollo for their city.
    • “These are the prerogatives the Sparatns concede to their kings: two priesthoods, those of Zeus Lakedaimon and of Zeus Ouranios” Herodotus
    • Analysis: The great importance attributed to Zeus, king of the Gods at Sparta is demonstrated both by his appearance in the Great Rhetra and by the fact that he had the kings for his priests.
  • Sacrifices prior to battle:
    • Before leaving on a campaign the king sacrificed to Zeus, and if the omens were favourable the army could proceed to the frontier, where more sacrifices were befored for Zeus and Athena.
    • Fire from these sacrifices was carried with them throughout the entire campaign.
  • The kings appointed two pthioi to consult the Oracle at Delphi and to present them with the Pythia’s directions. They were responsible for the safe keeping of all the oracles
    • “It is they that keep the oracular responses…and share the knowledge of them” Herodotus
    • Anton Powell “the question whether Spartan authorities often consciously manipulated divination for their political ends is difficult”
  • ANALYSIS: Spartan kings had an appearance almost of sacred leaders whose word had to be respected absolutely on pain of religious sanction.

Funerary customs and rituals

  • Information on the funerary customs of ordinary Spartans is sparse but they appear to have practised simple burial customs either in pit graves or tile graves.
  • It was permitted for warriors to be buried on the battlefield and grave markers placed on the grave to show who was buried there.
  • Women who died in childbirth were also permitted to have inscribed monuments.
  • The deceased female relatives generally conducted the funerary rituals; laying out the body, the funeral procession and the burial itself. A strict period of 11 days was set for mourning. The 12th day was marked by sacrifice to Demeter and the end of grieving.
  • Plutarch informs us that Lycurgus “removed all superstition by not placing any ban on the burial of the dead within the city “. The Spartans were encouraged to view death as “familiar and normal” (Plutarch) and were not afraid to touch a corpse or walk between gravestones.
  • Under the laws of Lycurgus, they did not put grave food in with the dead and Spartan soldiers were simply wrapped in their red cloaks and olive leaves were placed around them.
  • Herodotus is the main source for funeral rites of Spartan kings:
    • “After a King’s funeral there are no public meetings or elections for 10 days”

5. Cultural life


  • In the 7th Century BC, Sparta was like most Greek states, displaying interests in luxury, poetry and music.
  • Excavations have revealed that Sparta, at this time, imported ivory and scarabs from Egypt, amber from Northern Greece and gold from Lydia.
  • The perioikoi were renowned for their skills in carving ivory and bone.
  • Lakonian pottery was highly sought after and Spartan bornze workers produced some of the best work of the period.
  • The decline in Sparta’s production of carvings and pottery seems to have set in by the end of the 6th Century, following the Second Messenian War.
    • One explanation for this might be that while the rest of the Greek city-states started using coinage, Sparta did not.
    • Another explanation points to the increase in the number of helots and perioikoi and the decrease in the number of Spartiates.
    • Additionally, the fear of helot revolt engendered in Spartans a sense of need to devote more attention to the military efficiency of the state, to the detriment of artistic pursuits.
    • Fine: “the necessity to keep large populations under control…turned Sparta into a bleak and barren military camp”.
    • Alternate view by Murray: “the military ethos and Spartan education system produced a society which no longer needed the artist”.
    • Thucydides described Sparta as lacking temples and monuments.


  • The earliest terracottas date from the mid 8th century BC and change little in style and form into the 6th century BC.
  • In the 7th century BC, new moulds appeared in Greece from Syria which led to the human head being modeled face on rather than in profile.
  • Most of Sparta’s terracottas have been found in the area of the Temple of Artemis Orthia. Many of these were of female figurines representing goddesses, sometimes with animals such as lions or horses.
  • Discoveries made in 1960 reveal more elaborate works with earthen ware jars given complex designs showing processions of chariots and soldiers.


  • Early designs were fairly simple and showed geometric patterns, wildlife and warriors.
  • Later pottery does not feature the gods a great deal though Zeus appears on some vases and Herakles is prevalent.
  • Some fine examples of Spartan pottery can be dated to the 6th Century BC including the ‘Arcesilas Cup’, ‘Odysseus binding Polyphemus’, and ‘Achilles in ambush’.
    • The Arcesilas Cup depicts King Arcesilas of Cyrene and shows a market scene with goods being weighed, perhaps sylphium (a plant used for seasoning or medicine).
      • Syphium was presumably quite valuable to have been shown on such an expensive piece of pottery.
    • Nothing is known of individual craftsmen but Fitzhardinge suggests that some of the work might have been done by poor Spartiates.
    • Spartan pottery works have been found across the Mediterranean world stretching from Ampurias (Spain) to Sinope (on the Black Sea).

Bone and ivory carving

  • An archaeological discovery of over 200 ivory carvings at Orthia suggests a group of competent craftsmen working in Sparta over a period of at least three generations.
  • The use of ivory carvings is unclear. They were unsuited to being seals but the presence of a hole in their base suggests they might have been used as pendants.
  • It is believed that immigrant craftsmen brought the skill of carving in bone or ivory to Sparta from north Syria.
  • The most popular subjects were small statuettes of crouching animals on a decorated rectangular base.
    • Their purpose is not known but they may have had some religious meaning.
  • Between 1906 and 1910, the British School discovered thousands of “ivory carvigns, bronzes and terracottas and painted pottery”.

Lead figurines

  • An interesting find at Orthia was 100 000 lead votive reliefs.
    • These figurines are only 2.5 to 8 cm high and were cast in shallow lead moulds that produced many at a time.
    • Because of their large numbers and the rough workmanship, it is believed that they were mass-produced by a factory workshop near the temple.
    • The subjects for these figurines varied, the most common being sphinxes, the winged goddess Orthia, animals such as lions and horses, and armed foot soldiers.

Bronze work

  • During the 6th century and into the early 5th century BC, Sparta was a significant producer of artistic bronze works
    • One such work was the Grachwil Hydra (water vessel) dating from the early 6th century BC. It was found in a grave near Berne in Switzerland and may have been produced in SSparta had iron deposits but would have imported copper and tin which it mixed with iron for bronze working.
  • Practiced in Lakonia and Peloponnesian centres since 8th Century BC
  • Oldest technique of making bronze was casting of the molten alloy in a mould and then beating it out into thin sheeting with a hammer.
  • Superior quality bronze sheeting had a tin content of around 10 precent.
  • By the 5th Century BC the new technique of ‘indirect casting’ was developed to make possible the mass production of cast objects.
  • Several bronze sculptors are known from ancient times.
  • Pausanias mentions a bronze statue of Zeus about 5.5 m high which was one of the works of Telestas of Sparta who lived in the 6th century BC.
  • In addition to the production of small figurines and larger states, the Spartan bronze industry produced a range of weapons and armour to equip its hoplite forces.
  • The Spartans and the Peloponnesians had revolutionised ancient warfare with the development of the phalanx fighting formation
  • Each soldier was fitted with the standard kit including a bronze helmet, hoplon, cuirass (breastplate), greaves to protect the lower legs and a bronze spear and dagger.


  • What mattered most was the ethos of Sparta as a community of citizens rather than the city as a place.
  • The traditional view of Sparta that has been handed down through the ages is very much that of “barrack Sparta
    • “Sparta was a model of stability, order and discipline or of reaction, regimentation and repression” (Fitzhardinge)
    • If Sparta was suddenly deserted, future generations would “find it difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be” (Fitzhardinge)
  • Modern archaeological excavations have revealed some features of the buildings, such as the temples and shrines of the most important cults.
    • In 1910 the British School discovered thousands of “ivory carvings, bronzes and terracottas and painted pottery” –> Sparta had not always been the austere society of legend passed down to us
  • Pausanias, the 2nd Century AD travel writer, in his Descriptions of Greece, provides details of sites and building that have long since disappeared.


  • Archaeologists have found evidence of settlement at Amyclae from the earliest years of the Bronze Age.
  • The precinct of Apollo is located on the acropolis at Amyclae.
  • Traces of the enclosure wall have been found.
  • The temple is believed to have housed a colossal statue of Apollo – coins have been found showing a likeness of this statue.
  • “At a guess you could say it was forty five feet” Pausanias


  • A shrine built on the hill of Protitis IIias, of the southeast of Sparta, sits in the plain of the River Eurotas.
  • The Shrine of Helen and Menelaus is thought to belong to the prehistoric settlement at Therapne.
    • Found votive offerings to Helen
  • The remains of a templs of the 5th century BC and its precinct have been found.
  • Cult objects – found onsite- suggest that the peak of the hill was a place of worship.

Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia

  • The British School of Archaeology discovered the foundations an archaic temple of the 6th Century BC.
  • It measures 16x60m and shows signs of repairs and alterations made as late as the 3rd Century.
  • The remains of successive altars have been found. The earliest dating to the 9th century BC – British archaeologists working on the site during the 20th Century established that at a very early time there was a packed earth altar which contained the ashes of successive sacrifices.
  • The excavations of the Temple of Orthia uncovred many smaller finds, such as:
    • Terracottas
    • Ivory and bone carvings
    • Bronzes
    • Lead figurines

Writing and Literature

  • Archaeological evidence attests to the fact that literacy reached Sparta not long after it was established (c. 775 BC)
    • 1975 two inscribed bronze artefacts were excavated at the Menelaion sanctuary near Sparta.
      • First: sacraficial meat hook dedicated ‘To Helen’
      • Second: an ovoid aryballos dated to c. 650 BC and inscribed with the words ‘to Helen, wife of Menelaos’.
      • The lettering of the aryballos bears the earliest known example of Spartan writing – far earlier than was previously thought.
    • Alcman probably had written versions of his poetry produced.
    • Scholarly work on written and epigraphical evidence suggests that kings, commanders, ephors, members of the Gerousia and envoys were all literate. (Cartledge)
    • Plutarch states that Spartans were taught as much reading and writing “no more than was necessary”.
    • Some women were also literate.
      • Aristophanes mentions a Spartan poetess.
    • Cartledge’s study of stone inscriptions leads him to suggests that the perioikoi, the professional stone masons, may have had basic literary skills.
    • Private reading, however, was not encouraged.
      • Spartans tended to think of books as generators of alien ideals and diverse opinions.

Alcman and Tyrtaeus

Alcman the Poet

  • Thought to have lived in the last half of the 7th Century BC
  • Some believe he was from Sardis in Lydia, others say that he was a freed slave or that he was Spartan born and bred.
  • While it was assumed that Alcman’s less military focus meant he pre-dated Tyrtaeus, Fitzhardinge instead proved that Alcman was in fact Tyrtaeus’ contemporary.
  • Alcman’s poetry is not of historical events and deeds of war; rather its concern is with very early Sparta – a culturally sophisticated place whose citizens were intensely interested in love and beauty.
  • His poems were written for choirs of youths and maidens to sing at the Spartan festivals, and are thought to date from the period after the Second Messenian War.
  • He was a keen observer and lover of nature and wrote, in the Dorian dialect, of legends and stories from Homer.
  • He also used local Laconian legends and often tried to end a story with a moral message.
  • His poetry is full of natural imagery, as exemplified in the description of Taygetus at night:
    • “All creeping things that black night nourishes”
  • Alcman’s most famous poems are the ‘Maiden Songs’.
    • They were poems sung by choirs of young girls
    • In these poems there was an interlude of banter couched in the language of love between the members of the chorus and their leader:
  • Alcman’s subject matter contains no specific references to the Spartan way of life and style of government.
    • Very different to the militaristic focus of Spartan life.


  • Tyrtaeus wrote during the 7th Century BC, during and after the Second Messenian War.
  • His birthplace is uncertain. Plato suggests he was originally Athenian. There is also a story that during the Messenian War, the oracle had instructed Sparta to seek an Athenian general and that this was Tyrtaeus. Fitzhardinge, however, maintains that Tyrtaeus was more likely a Spartan.
  • Tyrtaeus’ work is closely associated with the development of the Spartan army and its use of the phalanx fighting.
  • He serves a very vital propaganda function for the state.
  • He is the poet of ‘barrack Sparta’ – he is exponent of the values and practice of hoplite warfare:
  • He rejected the previously glamorous view of the aristocratic warrior. For him, what matters is a man standing side by side a comrade giving everything he has, a man who is:
  • Though Tyrtaeus is writing about war and exhorts the men to show courage, he does not glamorise warfare. He also has no time for divine intervention. Courage and reliance on one’s comrades is championed.
  • In his Eunomia he shows a conservative side  with his strong support for the monarchy and the elders, though he is willing to accept that ultimate power rests with the people. When Plutarch is discussing the ‘rider’ of the great Rhetra, he quotes Tyrtaeus’ admiration of the monarchy:

6. Everyday life

Daily life and leisure activities

  • It could be argued that contrary to presumptions due to their austere, military society, Spartans in fact had more leisure time than other Greek city states of the time.
    • Spartans did not have to worry about food productions nor craft skills as they were maintained by helots and perioikoi respectively.
    • Women too seem to have had a much better time in comparison to women in other city states
  • Only had to look after boys until the age of 7 and even during this period they would have had helot nurses.
  • They were not expected to learn to spin of weave
  • Household chores were carried out by helot servants
  • They were fully aware, however, of what was expected of them and their need to maintain a strict physical regimen.
  • Leisure activities were often connected with their military lifestyle.
  • There was a great emphasis on athletic and various physical games. This reinforced the formal training and values of the system.
    • Hunting – a man could miss a mess meal if he was away hunting.
    • There were various horse-related activities, such as chariot racing – these have been illustrated on Spartan pottery – Vix bowl.
    • Various athletic competitions took place, covering the range of what we today would see as Olympic sports. E.g. discus, javelin, wrestling, running.
  • For the men, it can only be assumed that the camaraderie of the mess meals would have provided a major social outlet at the end of the day.
  • Sparta’s religious life also provided a major outlet for fun and leisure.
    • Most of the major festivals – the hykakinthia, the gymnopaedia and the Karneia – contained not only religious elements, but also provided singing, music and dancing.
  • Athletics:
    • Participation in athletics was a favoured leisure activity and in Greece it was thought that the Spartans were the first to play field sports completely naked.
    • They were also believed to have introduced the customs of anointing their bodies with olive oil before exercise.
    • At Sparta itself Pausanias mentions the dromos (racetrack) where Spartan youths practised.
    • There was a shrine dedicated to the Dioskouri, who were generally patrons of athletics, but here were invoked as the ‘starting gods’, who presumably assisted runners to get away cleanly and quickly as at the beginning of a race.
    • The full range of field sports was played: stadion (running), discus, javelin, jumping and wrestling.
    • In addition the Spartans were credited with inventing boxing and excelled at it.
    • We know for example that Spartan soldiers spent their spare hours practising athletics when they were on campaign. They sometimes took a discuss with them, for Xenophon in the 4th Century BC mentions a Spartan was killed by a discus while on campaign.
    • The prowess of athletics in early Sparta was much respected. In the 8th Century BC a considerable proportion of the victors at the Olympic Games came from Lakonia. In the period from 720 – 576 BC, out of 81 Olympic athletic winners who are known to us, 46 are Spartan. Spartan training was considered to be rigorous and Spartan athletes were especially famous for their running – particular event = ‘stadion race’.  Of the 36 champions of that events who are known to us, 21 are Spartan.
    • In the period 550 – 450 BC Sparta had five Olympic victories, but after this period lost her pre-eminence in athletic competition.
    • A visitor to Sparta would have seen the statue of Hetoimokles. He and his father Hipposthenes had won the wrestling at Olympia 11 times between them, Hipposthenes winning one more time than his son. Hipposthenes’ athletic career spanned a period of at least 25 years. He won the wrestling competition for boys and, after an interval, won prizes at 5 Olympic games in a row.
    • The monument of Damonon at Sparta, dedicated in the sanctuary of Athena Chalkioikos in the 5th Century BC, lists running races that he won among the boys at Sparta and the running victories of the Enymakratidas, his son, both as a boy and as a man, in Lakonia. Father and son were also champion equestrians.
    • Girls at Sparta practised athletics and were known for their running and jumping at Spartan and Pan-Hellenic contests and we might guess that many leisure hours were spend on the training field.
  • Hunting:
    • One of the most popular leisure activities for Spartans was hunting.
    • For those without a horse it was possible to chase after hares on foot and catch them with the aid of dogs and helots with nets.
    • Deer could also be pursued over considerable distances on foot and stalked and killed.
    • Lakonian hounds, which probably had more than a little wolf in them, were esteemed throughout Greece as hunting dogs and in the foothills of Mt Taygetus was an area known as Therai which means the ‘Hunting Grounds’.
    • From horseback there could be a spirited chase and a quarry could be run to ground and caught on foot with the aid of helot ‘beaters’ and dogs. These would surround the animal. Even if Spartans covered considerable distances on horseback to get to a hunting spot, the actual hunting itself is done up close and on foot.
    • The javelin and the spear were the weapons usually used.

HSC Ancient History Lakonian Hounds

  • Boar hunting, however, was a very different type of pursuit for – unlike going after hares – it involved great danger for the hunter.
  • To have killed a boar was a mark of great social distinction for a man and the killing of one’s first boar was for a young man a ‘rite of passage’ to full manhood.
  • This testing ordeal of the truly dangerous boar hunt was a ‘blooding’ that, in a male warrior society, confirmed a man’s andreia (manliness).
  • Hunting developed a man’s courage and agility and made him a better soldier.
  • Xenophon, believed that hunting made a man’s body healthy and improved his eyesight and hearing and trained him for war by accustoming him to the hardships of the wild.
  • Hunting developed Spartan character.
  • The stealth of the young boys who had once been encouraged to steal food was now developed into the stealth of the young boys who had once been encouraged to steal food was now developed into the stealth of hunter who stalked his animal prey.
  • The annual hunting down of helots in the countryside required the same skills.
  • Equestrian sports
    • Horses, useful in war and for transport, played a prominent part in the leisure activities of Spartans with the money to own, breed and maintain them.
  • The Spartans appear to have been horse mad and even those citizens who could not afford a horse themselves appreciated horse races and other equestrian events as spectators.
  • Castor and Polydeuces were heroes associated with horse taming and equestrian skills.
  • Many Spartans, probably of the wealthier class, had names that related to horses:
    • Hippokrates – ‘superior in horse’.
    • Euarkhippos – ‘easy to manage horse’.
    • Lysippos – ‘unbridled horse’.
  • Depictions of horses and horseriders appear as popular subjects on Lakonian painted pottery and small figurines of horses appear among votive offerings at religious shrines.
  • It was apparently a compliment in ancient Sparta to compare a beautiful girl to a fine and frisky mare.
    • The 7th Century BC Spartan poet, Alkman, compared beautiful girls in a chorus to fine mares in a heard, and the 5th Century BC Athenian playwright Aristophanes describes the dancing girls from Sparta “like fillies along the Eurotas”
  • Equestrian sport was both a chance for the demonstration of a rider’s skill and endurance, and an outlet for the competitive display of wealth invested in the beautiful horse and its luxury trappings.
  • The breeding, deeding and stabling of a horse were costly matters.
  • Grooms and attendents, as well as equestrian tackle, were all expenses.
  • Horses were decorated with bridle ornaments made of bronze and ivory.
  • From the earliest times in Greece the horse had signified prestige, wealth and high social status.
  • Throughout Greece, the term hippeis (horseriders) signified both a social rank and an economic class.
  • The elevation of the risdr above those on the ground was itself a statement of power and rank.
    • A mounted Spartan, for example, might have appeared quite intimidating to a helot.
  • The breeding and maintenance of horses required considerable economic resources so we might assume it was confined to wealthier Spartans.
  • Archaeological evidence of the Stele of Damonon from the Spartan akropolis, featuring a relief carving of horses and the inscription descriing Damanon’s victories in the four horse chariot he owned, thus allowing one to observe the comemoration of horses as an integral aspect of Spartan life. “winning the race on horseback…seven times”.
  • The Spartans achieved great equestrian success at the Olympic Games.
    • Demaratos, the Spartan king, won the same race in 504 BC, his racing being a sign of the great prestige associated with the sport.
  • Women rode chariots around Sparta in the Hyakinthia and could breed and train horses for Pan-Hellenic competition.
    • Kyniska’s chariot victory at Olympia was so celebrated that a hero’s monument was raised in her honour (Pausanias).
    • Equestrian victories like this carried out enourmous prestige and the glory reflected not only on the victor but also on the city state from which came.
  1. Cockfighting and boarfighting
    • Popular leisure activity for Spartiates.
    • Prize roosters were kept by the Greeks.
    • Strong gamebirds that were aggressive were symbolic of the maleness that was much valued in Spartan society.
    • The erect crest of the cock was seen as a potent phallic image.
    • According to Plutarch, Cocks fought to the death similar to the mentality of the Spartan army.
    • They were therefore compared by he Greeks to hoplite soldiers, the plumes of the crest of a soldier’s helmet being like a cock’s head feathers, his crest.
    • Archaeological evidence of an Attic vase, for example, draws an obvious comparison with a battle between fighting cocks, paralleling that of hoplites, or of heroes who are engaged in a combat.
    • According to a Plutarch, At Sparta, cocks were scarificed to Ares, the god of war, as a victory offering after battle.
    • There is also some indication that immature wild boars were raised in captivity and marched against one another in a similar fashion.


  • The region of Laconia and Messenia was highly productive:
    • The food Spartans would have eaten would be commonplace in a Mediterranean environment today:
  • Usual fruits: oranges, figs, grapes
  • Grapes turned into wine
  • Olives grown extensively
  • Grain crops included wheat and barley.
  • Spartans ate mutton, lamb and goat’s meat.
  • Dairy foods were available.
  • Spartans were expected to be moderate in their consumption of food and drink. Excessive drinking and eating did not fit well with the Spartan disciplined lifestyle.
  • The Spartan diet was considered by other Greeks to be frugal, plain and unappetising.
    • It was supposedly Lyrcurgus who specified a light diet and Plutarch elaborates the thinking that copious quantities of food would have made people fat and listless.
    • The Lycrugan diet, on the other hand, produced both tall and healthy youths, not weighed down by food, and young women who would produce lean children.
    • The most famous element in the Spartan cuisine was the black broth which was made of pork, vinegar and blood.
    • Barley was the staple gain and made into a porridge and a type of bread.
    • Other bread, made from wheat was a special treat.
    • A range of fruits was consumed and we know that figs were a specified contribution to the messes.
    • Olives and olive oil would have been common and cheese, from goat’s milk, was consumed.
    • Honey was available from Spartan hives.
    • Meat appears to have been rare but we know that Spartans ate pork and poultry as well as fish.
    • Hunting provided game meat for the table: wild boar, venison and hare.


  • One of the Spartan leisure activities mentioned by Plutarch was attendance at banquets.
  • Here he appears to be referring to the type of festive meal known as the symposion that was usually associated with religious occasions.
  • Elsewhere in Greece, symposia involved excessive drinking, however in Sparta, there was a prohibition of drunkeness and an ideal of sober celebration, perhaps as this was seen to be a sign of weakness.
  • Archaeological evidence of banqueting is the thirty-five painted Lakonian kylikes (drinking cups) that depict a banquet- either a sedate symposion or a more lively party known as a komos.
    • These banquet scenes feature the male ‘reveller’, the komast.
  • Additionally, a 6th Century bronze figurine of a reclining banqueteer 10cm in length which is believed to have been on a tripod or some other object.
  • Also, a 6th Century Lakonian kylix found in Etruria shows a symposion. The five reclining drinkers are served by an attendant and we can see the krater for the mixing of water and wine, above fly daimones and sirens.


  • Ephraim David, a Spartan specialist speaks of the ‘language of dress’ at Sparta, a non-verbal form of communication that carried propaganda messages.
    • He stressed the importance of ‘uniforms’ in a structured society which in its propaganda put a value on uniformity and equality.
    • The citiziens/ homoioi all had to look similar but be clearly seen as different from those who were not citizens.
  • According to Plutarch and Xenophon, Lycurgus laid down rules for dress:
    • Thucydides notes that a modest style of dress was first adopted by the Lakedaimonias so that the wealthier men would take up a way of life that was as similar as possible to that of the masses.
    • Spartan clothing was as sparse and simple as the way of life. There was no sartorial ostentation (flamboyant clothing) that might exist in Athens.
  • The ordinary every-day item of clothing for males was a cheap and coarse cloak – the tribon – which came to symbolise Spartan simplicity and austerity. Men would usually be attired in their hoplite dress. The only concession to extravagance would be the red cloak a Spartan soldier was allowed to wear.
  • When boys were growing up, they were expected to cope with the elements. Even in winter, they were not given much more than a light garment.
  • Women too avoided ostentation, at least during the earlier part of Spartan history. Young women were expected to exercise and to this end the brief, revealing peplos was worn, a style of attire that often used to scandalise people in other Greek cities. They might have dressed more elaborately during religious ceremonies.
  • All this ‘levelling’ of dress to a common form was a sign of acceptance of the Lykourgan system.
  • Ephraim David sees the common and simple clothes of Spartan citizens as “a kind of uniform which consists…of joining a social group together around a common consciousness”
  • The most famous piece of clothing worn by Spartan citizens was the phoinikis, the red military cloak that was the mark of the Spartiate soldier.
    • Made of the finest Lakonian wool and dyed with the purple-red of the murex mollusc, the phoinikis was worn to war.
    • In the bitter cold it served as a soldier’s blanket an when a Spartan died ti was used as the shroud to cover his body at his burial.
    • Tradition had it that Lykourgos favoured the phoinikis for soldiers’ clothing because its colour and shape had little in common with female attire.
    • The red concealed the sight of a Spartiates blood from the enemy and may have also been credited with magical properties that made a soldier fearsome to his adversaries.
  • Other male clothing was strictly regulated in the agoge at Sparta and denoted age groups.
    • Boys wore the chiton, an all-over body garment made from a rectangle of cloth wrapped around the body from the right back to the right. It was then pinned at the shoulders and tied at the waist.
      • A young boy usually wore a short chiton and an old man a long one.
      • The chiton could be drawn up high at the waist for running or strenuous activity.
      • At age 12 a Spartan adolescent began to wear the cloak called the himation which was an all over body garment, made from a large oblong of material, and looked like a large shawl.
    • Not only was clothing regulated by the state but also a citizen’s hair and beard. In Sparta a man’s hair or beard as well as his clothing signified his inclusion in society, or his exclusion.
      • Boys had their hair cut short when they entered the agoge.
      • When a Spartan was a soldier he grew his hair long and was able to comb and adorn it because Lykourgos had approved of this.
      • Spartan hair-grooming rituals before battle were common and their long hair was intended to increase their height and fearsomeness as warriors.
      • Bears were taken as a sign of male maturity, but moustaches were banned.
        • Indeed it is notable that the ephors on taking office proclaimed at the beginning of each year that Spartiates should ‘shave their upper lip and obey the law’.
        • It was notable that many strict and militaristic societies throughout the ages have used hairstyles as a means of expressing conformity.
          • All soldiers must look similar and lose their individuality in the group.
        • The clothing of social outcasts – a ‘uniform’ of exclusion
          • Social outcasts at Sparta were forced to wear distinctive forms of clothing as a ritual humiliation. Those who broke society’s rules were subject to a social exclusion that was signalled in a non-verbal way by the humiliating clothes that they were forced to ear.
            • Ephraim asserts these clothes were a “uniform of exclusion”.
          • Since the Spartan state required all men to marry by a certain age, in order to produce children, those who did not were publicly humiliated once a year.
            • Old bachelors were literally stripped of their Spartan status when the ephors in winter forced them to parade naked in a circle in the agora singing a special song in which they said that their punished was just because they had disobeyed the laws.
          • Cowards, those who had fled or failed in battle were known as tresentes (tremblers), were not allowed to wear the red cloak that was the uniform of a Spartiate.
            • They were forced to wear a kind of ‘counter-uniform’ that underlined their social exclusion.
            • These cowards were made to wear a cloak with distinctive coloured patches that marked them as outcasts.
            • In a society that allowed a mature male citizen to grow a beard, the coward was forced to shave off half his beard and keep half growing. This absurd half-beard and his bizarre uniform branded him in society as a cowards and perhaps, by implication, a half-man.
          • Helot clothing – a symbol of ‘animal inferiority’
            • The helots were made to wear distinctive clothing that was meant to humiliate, degrade and dehumanise them by suggesting that they were animals.
            • The clothes signalled their exclusion from the citizen body and the humiliation of their slave status.
            • Historian Myron of Priend, who in the 2nd century BC wrote a Messenian history, that each on of the helots had to wear a kyne (dogskin cap) and dress in the skins of animals.
            • Ephraim David has memorably described helot clothign as a ‘bestial uniform’, designed to be deliberately humiliating.
          • Female Clothing
            • Females are depicted as wearing an everyday tunic which would have been a chiton but the formal garmet worn by Spartan women was the Doric peplos.
            • The peplos was a basic garmet made from a folded rectangle of woven wool – quite heavy.
              • The fabric might be up to 1.80m long, always more than the height of the wearer.
              • The fabric was wrapped around the woman and a fold of between 30 and 40cms was brought over the outside. It was then fastened at the shoulders by pins or brooches and the excess material was let fall, like a cape.
              • Elsewhere in Greece the peplos might be woven with elaborate decorative borders – unknown if this was the case at Sparta, however the small lead figurines and the ivory carving that depict female figures generally indicate an elaborate pattern on the fabric of the clothes depicted.
              • The peplos was open right up on side and as a Spartan woman walked it revealed her thigh in a way that many Greek found rather alluring. Other Greeks spoke of Spartan women as ‘thigh-revealers’
            • Jewellery:
              • We have many examples of bronze pins and brooches of bronze or ivory worn by Spartan women to pin the peplos. Some are highly decorated and clearly a sign of wealth and status.
              • There are a number of decorative ivory combs dedicated at religious shrines.
                • These combs, carved with scenes from mythology, were probably worn in the hair as part of a woman’s adornment on special occasions.
              • The hundreds of bronze mirrors, many with elaborate ‘statue handles’ suggest that women in Sparta, particularly those from  the wealthy families of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, were very conscious of their appearance and dressed carefully.


  • One’s occupation was largely determined by ones position in the social hierarchy – Spartiate, perioikoi or helot.
    • The occupation of the Spartiates was clear:
  • The men were soldiers, an occupation for which they trained all their lifes
  • As citizens, Spartiates would be expected to fulfill roles in government as perhaps an ephor, a member of the Gerousia and to be involved in the Spartan assembly.
  • Spartan women were expected to bear children, though as Aristotle has shown, they later became increasingly influential and owned land.
  • The occupation of the perioikoi involved trade, commerce and craft:
    • They were the city’s blacksmiths, potters, painters and textile workers
    • They worked in the maritime area – fishing, shipbuilding
    • They were Sparta’s traders
    • The perioikoi could also be expected to fight
  • The occupation of the helots was straightforward
    • They were Sparta’s farmers
    • They might also carry out domestic duties, especially helot women
    • Helots could also be called upon to fight.
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