© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated April 7, 1999 
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.


This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.

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 :

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 (Histories, 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 Major, 283b-286a)).
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 as examples).
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.

(to Perseus general lookup, encyclopedia, atlas, site pictures, mentions in ancient authors)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated April 7, 1999
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.