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City of Laconia in southern
Peloponnese (area 3).
Sparta, also called Lacedæmon, was the capital of the province of Laconia
in southern Peloponnese and one of the leading cities of Greece. In the Homeric
world, Laconia was the kingdom of Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon (himself king
of Argos, or of Mycenæ)
and husband of Helen.
At the beginning of his Histories of the Persian Wars, Herodotus,
talking about the relationship between Croesus, king
of Lydia in the middle of the VIth century B. C., and
Greece, presents Sparta and Athens as the two most
powerful cities of Greece, Sparta leading the Dorians,
described as a migrant people eventually settled in Peloponnese,
and Athens the Ionian, presented
as a people that always lived in the land (the autochtons as they liked
to call themselves, that is, the ones born from the land itself) (Histories,
I, 56). If there probably is a good dose of "ideology" in this view, the
notion of "Dorian invasions" of Greece to explain the fall of the Mycenian civilisation
toward the XIIth century B. C. being now widely challenged by historians on
the basis of archæological data, there remains the fact that most of the
history of the Vth and IVth centuries, leading eventually to the rise of the
Macedonian Empire, may be viewed as a struggle between
Athens and Sparta for leadership over Greece. The Peloponnesian
War, whose chronicle makes up Thucydides'
Histories, was the climax of this struggle.
In the time of Socrates and Plato, Sparta enjoyed a rather unique constitution
and way of life which fascinated, or at least questioned, many Greeks, including
Plato and above all Xenophon. This fascination,
under various forms, lasted till our day. The origin of Sparta's constitution
was ascribed to Lycurgus, a half legendary lawgiver who, if he ever existed,
should have lived arounf the Xth century B. C. Lycurgus was supposed to have
received the constitution of Sparta, a document called the Rhètra,
from Apollo himself at Delphi (most of what we know
about Lycurgus comes from the Life of Lycurgus by Plutarch). But modern
historians doubt Lycurgus ever existed and would rather ascribe the origin of
the constitution that existed in Sparta in the Vth century to the second half
of the VIIth century B. C.
No matter what, the most striking features of this constitution were :
- Its aristocratic, or more properly, oligarchic, and war-geared regime, with a limited class of full-right
citizens, the "Equals" (homoioi in Greek), whose role was mostly to defend the city in case of war, and among whom were chosen each year five ephors in charge of most of the day to day administration of the city, under the supervision of a "Council of the Elders" (gerousia), a body of 28 citizens aged over 60 elected for life by the assembly of the citizens by acclamation.
The city also had two hereditary kings from two different families, endowed with mostly religious functions but also involved in political life through their membership in the Council of the Elders, one of whom was chosen as commander in chief in case of war.
- Its reliance on a form of slavery for survival : the citizens were
not supposed to work or cultivate the earth. This role was attributed to a
special class of enslaved people known as the "Helots", mostly made
up of local people subjected by the Spartans, especially neighboring Messenians.
In between the Equals and the Helots, was a population of half-grade citizens
enjoying freedom but not citizenship, living in the countryside and surrounding
villages as farmers, craftsmen or merchants, and participating in the army
in separate units.
- Its "communist"-like system of ownership : land and Helots were owned by the state, not by the citizens.
Land was alloted among citizens in lots called "kleroi", which were not inherited, but were supposed to go back to the state at the death of their "owner" to be reassigned to another citizen (though, over time, the system was more and more often bypassed and inequality eventually prevailed among the "Equals").
- Its special program of education for the citizens, the agogè, which lasted from the age of 7 to the age of 30 in common quarters under the supervision of the state, and was a prerequisite to enjoy the rights of a citizen.
It focused primarily on physical education and the art of war, but there were also specific provisions for women and strict rules about marriage and procreation.
It included occasional raids against the Helots in which future citizens were allowed to kill slaves, to prepare them for war in actual conditions.
The last step of this education, reserved to the best ones, was known as the cryptia (from the Greek word meaning "hidden", "secret") and consisted in living alone for one year in the countryside and neighboring moutains without being seen by anyone but with the right to kill Helots
(Megillus, the Lacedemonian partner of the Laws, lists some of the features of Spartan education, including the cryptia, at Laws, I, 633b-c).
- Its daily common meals, known as syssitia, reserved to citizens but
for them mandatory, and to which they were required to bring their share lest
they lose their citizenship.
All in all, the terms that best describe Sparta are austerty, frugality, discipline :
the city was never adorned with beautiful temples (at the beginning of his history
of the war between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides
1, 10) remarks that, were Sparta to be destroyed, future generations centuries
later, judging by the remains of its buildings, would never imagin how powerful
the city was, whereas were the same fate to happen to Athens,
by the same criterion, one might judge it much more powerful it ever was !) ;
it never fostered great poets and writers, nor great orators, as did Athens,
and was rather known for its concise style (hence the word "laconic", from the
name of Sparta's district, Laconia) (Plato alludes to this
in a rather ironic way when, in the Hippias Major, he wants to know how
much money Hippias made in Sparta, only to find
out that he couldn't make any there trying to "sell" Laconians his supposed wisdom
and only interested them when talking genealogies of heroes (Hippias
There is no doubt that Plato was influenced by the Spartan
constitution and that he was willing to adapt some of its provisions either in
his ideal city (of the Republic) or in his second best, "practical", one,
that of the Laws. This is one of the reasons why the discussion of the
Laws involves an Athenian talking to a Spartan (Megillus) and a Cretan
(Clinias ; Minos, the legendary king and
lawgiver of Crete, a son of Zeus, was also among the model
lawgivers and Crete could be seen as the "birthplace"
of law) and starts with considerations about Minos and Lycurgus (Laws,
I, 630d). And in several places, when looking for models of lawgivers, Plato
calls upon Lycurgus along with Solon (Phaedrus,
258c ; Republic,
X, 599c, sq, where he opposes Solon and Lycurgus to Homer and the poets,
asking what city was made better by Homer ; or Symposium,
209a-e, where Diotima exalts the engendering by the soul of good laws as the
ultimate goal of the ascent toward the beautiful, using Lycurgus and Solon
But it would be wrong to see in Plato a blind admirer of Sparta and its constitution.
And there certainly is some irony on his part when, on the brink of adopting the custom of the common messes (the syssitiai) as the founding rite of the new city of the Laws, he tries to exonerate Lycurgus (and Minos) from the "sin" of having had warfare in mind as the goal of his laws (Laws, I, 630d).
Indeed, Plato will have to rethink most of what could be good in the Spartan regime in light of the fact that, for him, the primary purpose of laws is to bring happiness to citizens through peace, not war, even if war remains a necessary means of protection against aggression.
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First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated
April 7, 1999
© 1998 Bernard
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