Sparta: History, State and Society

by Ryszard Kulesza (Author)
©2022 Monographs 480 Pages


Richly illustrated with citations from ancient authors, the book Sparta introduces the reader to the universe of a polis which in the fifth and fourth century BC was a Greek superpower. Part I describes Sparta’s political institutions and mechanisms of governance, the structure of its society, the family, education, lifestyle and, naturally, the organization of the Spartan army and military life. Part II is an outline of the history of Sparta, and Greece, in the two centuries when the polis was at the peak of its influence, extending also into the period of its waning. The book closes with an analysis of ‘imaginary Sparta’ and the ways the Spartan legend has been employed in the shaping of various identities from the early modern era to the present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I The Spartans and Their State
  • Chapter 1 The social system of Sparta
  • Chapter 2 The political system of Sparta
  • Chapter 3 A Spartiate and his family
  • Chapter 4 The Spartan education
  • Chapter 5 The syssitia
  • Chapter 6 The universe of war
  • Part II The History of Sparta in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC
  • Chapter 7 The Sparta of Cleomenes and Leonidas
  • Chapter 8 Sparta between the wars
  • Chapter 9 The Peloponnesian War
  • Chapter 10 Sparta in the reign of Agesilaus
  • Chapter 11 In the shadow of Thebes and Macedonia
  • Chapter 12 Sparta on the wane
  • Epilogue The afterlife. “Sparta”, or the history of a myth
  • Sparta. A Bibliography
  • Appendix 1: The list of Spartan kings
  • Appendix 2: The list of Spartan ephors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Aelian (Claudius Aelianus), late second – early third century AD


Var. Hist.Varia Historia


Aristophanes, mid-fifth – early fourth century BC




Aristotle, 384–322 BC




Athenaeus, Deipnosophistaí, late second – early third century AD

Aul. Gell.

Aulus Gellius, c. 125 – after 180 AD


Cicero, Marcus Tullius, 106–43 BC


De Rep. – De Republica


Div.De Divinatione


Flac. – Flaccus


Demosthenes, 384–322 BC


Diodorus Siculus, first century BC

Dion. Hal.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, c. 60 – c. 7 BC


Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, H. Diels W. Kranz, Berlin 1951–1954

Exc. Pol.

Heracleides Lembus, second century BC, Excerpta Politiarum


Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker, F. Jacoby, 1923–1958




Herodotus, c. 480–429 BC

Hell. Oxy.

Hellenika Oxyrhynchia, second quarter of the fourth century BC


Inscriptiones Graecae, Berlin 1873


Isocrates, 436–338 BC


6 – Archidamus (ostensibly a speech by Archidamus III)


8 – On the Peace


12 – Panathenaicus


Justinus, Marcus Junianus, second century AD, Epitome


Livy (Titus Livius), 59 BC – 17 AD

Nat. Hist.

Pliny the Elder, c. 23–79 AD, Naturalis Historia


Cornelius Nepos, c. 99–24 BC






Pausanias, second century AD←9 | 10→


Plato, c. 428–347 BC










Plutarch of Chaeronea, c. 46–120 AD




AgisAgis (IV)




Comp. Lyc. Num.Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa




Graec. Quaest.Quaestiones Graecae


Inst. Lac.Instituta Laconica


Kleom.Cleomenes (III)














Pollux, second century AD, Onomastikon

Polyainos, Strat.

Polyaenus, second century AD, Strategemata


Polybius, second century BC

Ps. Plato Alk.

Pseudo-Plato, Alcibiades


Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Leiden 1923


Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, G. Dittenberger, Leipzig 1883


Tacitus, Publius Cornelius, c. 56 – c. 120 AD, Annales


Thucydides, c. 455 – after 400 BC


Xenophon, c. 430 – after 355 BC










Lak. Pol.Lacedaemonion Politeia

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Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly sceptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.

(Thuk. 1.10.2–3, trans. B. Jowett)

Thucydides’s statement is necessarily recalled both when we attempt to study the convoluted history of ancient Sparta and when we walk around the contemporary city that grew on the spot once occupied by the old one. Today, Sparta has less than twenty thousand residents and at the first glance it hardly differs from many other Greek towns of a similar size. The crucial difference lies in the regularity of its street plan and its spaciousness. This is not surprising, considering that it was founded in cruda radice in the year 1834, following the Hippodameian plan. The plan that was laid out as ordered by King Otto was for a city intended for a hundred thousand residents. Much water will surge down the Eurotas before the city fills with such crowds; neither do today’s Spartans have much, if anything, in common with the ancient ones. They are descendants of newcomers from Asia Minor and from various parts of Greece.

The first impression, aroused by the width of the streets and the shapes of the buildings, soon proves erroneous and the city and its residents turn out to be truly likeable; the fact remains, however, that looking for the material traces of Sparta’s former might we shall certainly be, as predicted by Thucydides, disappointed.

In Sparta’s spacious acropolis, among olive trees and many, if unimpressive, traces of mostly Roman edifices, of which the theatre was the most striking, it was with some difficulty that many years ago I found the temple of Athena Chalkioikos, or rather the modest outlines of its foundations (Catling 1998, 24). There was something extraordinary in the aura of that place. Only a few hundred metres distant from the busy town, the acropolis of Sparta seemed remote, as if lost; a locus outside time. The snowy peaks of the Taygetus, the mellow bleating of sheep grazing in the olive groves at the foot of the acropolis, goats frisking in the ruins of the theatre and a turtle wandering among the stones in the auditorium brought into sharp relief the difference that exists – as it existed also in the past – between the Spartan acropolis and the busy, noisy environs of the Athenian ←11 | 12→Acropolis. If, walking back from the acropolis, we turn towards the Eurotas, at the edge of the city we shall see the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia surrounded with a wire-mesh fence. Although this may have been a cult site since a much earlier period, the first altar and the temple dedicated to the goddess – first called simply Orthia, later Artemis Orthia – were built ca. the year 700 BC at the earliest; the wall marking the boundary of the temenos was built at the same time. That temple was destroyed, most probably flooded by the Eurotas, in the sixth century BC. A new, larger temple in antis was constructed in the place of the old one, and the temenos was expanded. The last alterations are dated to the Roman period, when the sanctuary gained its final, monumental form. In the third century AD, the temple and the altar were included into the area of the amphitheatre, whose remains are still visible today. In this place, British archaeologists discovered thousands of valuable pieces, on the basis of which the history of Laconian art was reconstructed. Here, again, only the outlines of foundations of the Archaic period temple and later structures are visible, rising but a little above the ground level.

Apart from the acropolis and the temple of Artemis Orthia, only one more structure extant in today’s Sparta is thought to date from the Classical period. It is the Leonidaion, an odd rectangular construction made of stone blocks, which was reported to be the tomb of King Leonidas, fallen at the Thermopylae. Other traces of Antiquity in Sparta date from as late as the Imperial period, and they can be investigated by reading scholarly studies rather than by trying to guess what is concealed inside the fenced-off plots of land in which the archaeologists find the remnants of ancient – in fact, mainly Roman – buildings.

There are, however, two more sites in the vicinity of Lycurgus’s city that were of great importance in the Classical period. The first of them lies at least an hour’s walk from Sparta, on a hill called the Menelaion, from which spreads a wonderful panorama of the city and the Taygetus range. This is where ca. 700 BC the cult of Menelaus and Helen had stated, as we are informed by numerous votive objects. It would be interesting to know why it was founded so uncomfortably far from the city and in such an inaccessible place; perhaps this was because the Spartans traditionally believed that this was where Menelaus and his semi-divine wife Helen had once dwelt. The foundations of a small structure was indeed discovered close to the Menelaion, which Hector Catling (1998, 26) considers to be the remnants of a proto-palace from the second half of the fifteenth century BC. It is, however, also possible that the main Mycenaean centre was located in a still different place, close to Vaphio or Pellana.

The second of those sites lies even farther away. Walking southwards towards Gytheion, we shall reach the village of Amyklai, besides which we shall find the temple of Apollo Amyklaios. Today, a small Orthodox church stands on the site. The mighty wall shows how massive the temple must have been, and shards of old pottery scattered all around clearly indicate that in this remote but charming site we come truly close to the period from two and a half thousand years ago.

Most of the finds from the temple at Amyklai, from Menelaion and from the temples of Athena Chalkioikos and Artemis Orthia are held at the Museum of ←12 | 13→Sparta, opened in 1874. This is the true treasury of the ancient town. Yet walking through the exhibition rooms, we may again think, following Thucydides, about Athens; this treasury seems modest, at least with regard to the Classical period. In fact, this impression will be, to some extent, correct, since in the fifth century BC culture or art hardly flourished at Sparta. On the other hand, however, warned by Thucydides that “the greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances”, let us consider the origins and the nature of the power which from the seventh to the fourth century BC Sparta certainly did wield.

With the area of nearly 8,500 km2, the ancient Sparta (Sparte, Doric: Sparta) was the largest polis of Greece proper. It encompassed Laconia (Lakonike ge) (ca. 5,000 km2, Shipley 2004a, 569–598), Messenia (Messene) (ca. 3,240 km2, Shipley 2004b, 547–568), and the island of Cythera (Kythera) (260 km2) located at the Peloponnesian shore. The citizens of Sparta were known as the Spartiates or the Laconians. The term Lacedaemonians, in turn, denoted both the citizens enjoying full rights and the perioikoi who did not have full political rights, but enjoyed personal freedom and autonomy in their settlements.

The citizens, who described themselves as homoioi (equal, similar, or even identical), did not engage in profit-making activities; maintaining the Spartiates was the task of the subjugated helots, who farmed the “land portions” (kleroi) belonging to the citizens. All Spartiates went through a formation period lasting from the age of seven to the age of twenty, during which their education was controlled by the state. Adult Spartiates spent most of their time together, participating in daily meals (syssitia), military drills, physical exercises, and the meetings of the People’s Assembly.

Sparta, a country of brave warriors who led an austere life and were boundlessly devoted to their homeland, has always aroused conflicting emotions: fascination and admiration, but also dislike and even hatred. Testimonies to of such attitudes are found both in the Antiquity and in later eras. The less was known about Sparta, the more readily the Spartan model was evoked.

Since the Renaissance the “Spartan legend”, i.e. the glorification of Ancient Sparta as a political, social and moral ideal, has played an important part in European politics, civilization and literature. Italian Humanists, Spanish Jesuits, French Calvinists, English Puritans, French Revolutionaries, German Romanticists, English Aesthetes, French Nationalists, German Nazis have looked to ancient Sparta and adduced its example in support of their theories. (Tigerstedt 1965, 17)

As a model, Sparta was most often treated purely instrumentally. The point was not to look for the real picture of ancient Sparta, but to keep to the stereotypes, often selected with a bias, and in them to discover a confirmation of the already entrenched attitudes. The image of Sparta changed like a chameleon, getting adjusted to the environment that created it for its own needs. So far, the most extreme embodiment of this idealisation was, as Henri Irenne Marrou put it, “a totalitarian state”:

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But soldiering demanded morale as well as technical skill, and education took this into account. In fact, the point is particularly emphasized in all our sources. The whole purpose of Spartan education was to build up character according to a clearly defined ideal – an ideal that has reappeared in all its savage and inhuman grandeur in the totalitarian states of twentieth-century Europe. (Marrou 1964, 45)

Its appropriation by the Third Reich resulted in the fact that after 1945, together with the whole array of stereotypes, Sparta landed in the scholarly purgatory. It began to gradually emerge from it in the 1970s, after a revival of Spartan studies began with the publication of Geoffrey de Ste. Croix’s research in 1972. The year 1983 is, in a sense, symbolic, having witnessed the publication of the German-language synthesis by Manfred Clauss, which contained the summa of information on Sparta at the time, and article Social Order and the Conflict of Ideas in Classical Sparta by Stephen Hodkinson (Hodkinson 1983, 239–281), published in the “Chiron” magazine, which opened a new era in the scholarly interest in Laconia. Despite the continuously advancing research, many questions still await an answer, among them the question whether Sparta was an ordinary or an exceptional polis. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was Athens that were seen as exceptional and Sparta as typical; but in the twentieth century, following the change in preferences regarding political systems, Sparta became exceptional, and Athens, ordinary. Interestingly, an outstanding authority on Sparta, Stephen Hodkinson (Hodkinson 1997; 1998; 2000; 2005; 2009, 417–472; 2018, 1, 29–57), considers it to have been “remarkably normal by Greek standards”, whereas an outstanding authority on the polis, especially the Athenian democracy, Mogens Herman Hansen (2009, 385–416) considers Sparta to have been exceptional.

The extent of information regarding Sparta naturally changed during the two hundred years of scholarly research on its history (cf. Kennel 2010, 2). Although today we know far more about it than we ever did, we are still at the start of the journey, since many doubts, even regarding issues which are central to our understanding of the phenomenon of Sparta, have not yet been cleared. Fortunately, however, we are able to quite clearly present the key moments in the history of Sparta.

Its beginnings go back to the arrival of the Dorians to the Peloponnese towards the end of the second millennium BC. In the tenth century, they lived in four villages on the banks of the Eurotas, which together formed a community centred around the temple of Athena Poliouchos on the acropolis and the nearby temple of Artemis Orthia. The fifth village, Amyclae, located some 6 km south from the others, joined the community in the ninth century, giving it its final shape. From then on those five villages, collectively known as Sparta, constituted the political centre of the Spartan state.

Soon the Spartans conquered the fertile region of Laconia, located in the Eurotas valley. The broad plain was enclosed by the Taygetus range in the west and Parnonas in the east. Mountains separated Laconia from its neighbours in the north as well, providing it with conditions for safe development. It is in Laconia ←14 | 15→that the distinctive social system of Sparta developed, with the citizens, who lived “in town” with their families, the helots, who lived in the countryside and farmed their land for them, and the perioeci living in separate settlements.

The Spartans themselves ascribed the creation of their state’s socio-political system to the great lawgiver, Lycurgus (cf. e.g. Hooker 1988, 340–345; Hölkeskamp 2010, 316–335). Before, Sparta had the very worst legal system (kakonomia); he introduced the best one, which the Spartans described as kosmos (order, good regulation) or eunomia (the condition of having good laws). Lycurgus is a semi-legendary figure. His Greek biographer, Plutarch of Chaeronea, wrote:

Generally speaking, it is impossible to make any undisputed statement about Lykourgos the lawgiver, since conflicting accounts have been given of his ancestry, his travels, his death, and above all of his activity with respect to his laws and government; but there is least agreement about the period in which the man lived. (Plut. Lyk. 1.1, trans. R.J.A. Talbert)

Investigating the historicity of Lycurgus is, however, a task that is productive and sterile at the same time, and certainly located outside the scope of this book; suffice it to say that the proposed dating of his lifetime and his reforms varies greatly, as they are placed in the ninth, eighth, and even seventh century BC. References to the “laws of Lycurgus” will appear repeatedly in the subsequent chapters of this book, but this does not indicate our taking a stance regarding the historicity of the lawgiver, but only serves to indicate that the ancients associated a given regulation or custom with him. This is because, while there is no certainty whether Lycurgus really existed, and if so, then when, we can be sure that the “laws of Lycurgus” did exist; this was the name which the Spartans (and other Greeks as well) gave to the set of regulations and customs in force in Sparta, even though those laws may have been introduced neither in the early period nor concurrently. In any case, until the beginning of the fifth century, as Massimo Nafissi (2018, 111) put it, “the whole edifice of political and social standards at Sparta was attributed to Lykourgos”.

Also, from a certain point in time the Spartans believed that it was Lycurgus who divided the nine thousand, or at least a half of that number (see below, p. 28), of plots of land (kleroi) among the citizens, thereby freeing them from the duty to work and allowing them to devote all their time to serving the state. The so-called Great Rhetra, which was ascribed to Lycurgus (Meier 1998, 186 ff.; Luther 2004, 29–59; Nafissi 2010) introduced the institution of the council of elders (gerousia) to Sparta and defined the relations between the gerousia, the two kings and the People’s Assembly (damos, apella):

The Great Rhetra was later amended by kings Theopompus and Polydorus, which limited the apella’s autonomy by giving the gerousia the right to rescind those of its decisions that would be deemed harmful to the state:

When the multitude [plethos] was thus assembled, no one of them was permitted to make a motion, but the motion laid before them by the senators and kings could be accepted or rejected by the people. Afterwards, however, when the people by additions and subtractions perverted and distorted the sense of motions laid before them, Kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted this clause into the rhetra: ‘But if the people should adopt a distorted motion, the senators and kings shall have power of adjournment’ [apostateres]; that is, should not ratify the vote, but dismiss outright and dissolve the session, on the ground that it was perverting and changing the motion contrary to the best interests of the state. (Plut. Lyk. 6.6–8)

Before the amendment was introduced (although it cannot be ruled out positively that only after that), a five-person college of the ephors was established, which counterbalanced the power of the kings (and possibly the gerontes as well). With this, the political system of Sparta assumed its final form, which persisted, practically unchanged, until the turn of the fourth century BC.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Ancient Greece Ancient Spartans Ancient customs Ancient army Thermopylae Spartan education
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 480 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Ryszard Kulesza (Author)

Ryszard Kulesza is Professor in the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw, Poland. His primary research interests center on the studies of Classical Greece.


Title: Sparta: History, State and Society