The ancient Sparta is a good example of an ideal hoplite state of ancient Greek. Sparta was proud for having avoided tyranny and enjoyed a permanent state of her constitution that was almost unthought-of of in the 5th century.
In the 10 BC, the city state of Sparta came into existence. This was as a result to the defeat that the Dorian community had over the non Dorian communities when they attacked them. The Spartan community came into existence as a political entity and as from 650 BC; they steadily grew stronger because of their military prowess that was far much above others in the entire Greece. Despite this prowess that the Sparta showed in the military, they were still defeated during the battle of Leuctra by the Thebes in 371 BC. This how their military supremacy ended after which they remained independent till they were conquered by the Romans in 146 BC.
Socially, the Spartan community was guided by their constitution which was believed to be very unique. It provided for the rights of the women as well as the men, the boys and the girls who were still growing. The inhabitants of the Sparta were generally classified as Spartiates, Mothakes, Merioikoi and the Helots. The spartiates included the citizens of Sparta who enjoyed the full right of citizenship. These people underwent a very tough training as well as ed8ucation regime. The mothakes were generally non Spartans. They used to be free men who were brought up totally as Spartans. The perioikoi were freed men while the helots were state slaves.
Politically the Spartan community got its guidance from its system of governance which was headed by two kings, the parliament among other structures. There was also the constitution which had laws that were to be followed to the latter.
What were the main social and political features of Spartan society, and is it possible to explain any of these features?
In looking into the political and social features of the Sparta the following come to the fore: the constitution, citizenship, the education system, the Spartan women, the messes, their religion marriage and the agoge i.e. the military training organization.
Politically, Sparta was constitutionally developed into a mixed governmental state. The Spartan state was headed by two hereditary kings. It was known of its dual monarchy. These kings were drawn from the Agiad family and also from the Eurypontid family. These families were both descendants of the Heracles and were equal as far as authority matters were concerned. The equality in the authority was so in order to prevent one party from acting against the decision of the other.
It thus clear that there was no way a king could veto against his colleague. The kings were generally leaders politically and religiously. The kings had functions as judicial leaders, militaristic and religious functions. The kings were the chief priests for the state and maintained the relationship with the Delphi an sanctuary. This sanctuary always had influence in the Spartan politics and exercised authority in politics. Sometimes close back around the year 450 BC, the religious role of the kings were restricted. In Sparta, cases i.e. criminal and civil were determined by a group of individuals known as ephors.
There was also the council of elders was in place and was known as the gerousia. This council had a membership of about twenty eight elders aged sixty and above. This included the two kings. These elders were elected into the council for life; mostly they were from the royal families. State issues were discussed in the council and decisions were made appropriately. Their role was to scrutinize issues that were brought before the council.
After the gerousia, there is the assembly which was composed of all men who were above thirty years of age. Their main function was to help the government decide by helping the council of elders, on issues that were very crucial to the state for example wars among others. There was also the damos; this was the body of the citizenry of Sparta. This body simply made political decisions through voting for or against the proposals of the council.
The citizenship of Sparta was controlled in that not all those who inhabited Sparta were considered as citizens. The citizenship of Sparta was restricted to those who undertook the Spartan education. These were the agoge. Only they were eligible as the citizens of the state, they had their origins in the land of the city. Apart from the real sons and daughters of the land, there were two exceptions that were also recognized as citizens. There were foster sons who were allowed to participate in the education of the Sparta. Also the sons of the helots were incorporated into the system. They were thus counted as citizens. The perioikoi were inhabitants who were free but were not citizens of the country. The helots who were the state serfs were also not among the citizens of this state. All those who did not have their roots in the state could not get the agoge. Also the Spartans who could not pay for the agoge could lose their citizenship. These laws thus helped the state from replacing its citizens lost in the wars unless it was very compelling to the state.
The helots were the majority inhabitants of Sparta. Generally they were free Greeks who were from Messenia and Laconia. These areas were defeated by the Sparta and their citizens were enslaved. They were used in tilling land. Their women were majorly used as wet nurses. The helots also accompanied the Spartan army but not as soldiers i.e. were non combatant serfs. There existed a very hostile relationship between the serfs and their Spartan masters. The kinds of tasks that they were being assigned were very shameful and disgracing. Helots had no voting rights and thus did not participate in any political decision.
The Perioikoi just like the helots had the same origins. To them, they had different position in the society. They unlike the helots were treated with dignity and were free and were not subjected to the shameful and disgracing situations. However, they did not enjoy the full rights like the citizens. They were used as part time soldier, skilled labors and sometimes participated in the making of the weapons that were to be used in wars.
At a very tender age of seven, one could join the agoge which was basically designed to instill in the children discipline and physical toughness. This system also had a responsibility of emphasizing to the children the importance of Sparta as a state. It is from the agoge that the education of the Sparta was initiated. This education system was military oriented. This could easily explain their military supremacy in Greece. Thus at this tender age of seven, the Spartan males started their military trainings. At this stage the boys lived in communal messes and faced hard times like too little food so as to be trained on how to steal food for them. In the agoge, the children learnt how to read, music, writing as well as dancing. When the boys reached age twelve, they were obliged to have mentors whom were to act as their fathers while they were in the messes. These were to be young unmarried men. By the age eighteen, the boys would be reserve members of the Spartan army. At the age twenty, the boys were to become members of the dining messes, this composed of fifteen members each and the member of these groups learnt on how to rely on each other. Until sixty, the Spartan men wee to remain active.
In Sparta, the women enjoyed power, status and respect. This was very strange especially during this time of history. Women had control over their own property and those of male relatives who could be in wars. Approximately, 35% of the total land of Sparta was owned by women. Laws were favoring both sexes especially those on divorce and inheritance of property. Generally the women of Sparta wore short dresses and were free to walk and explore where they were pleased. Some women were very influential e.g. Queen Gorgo. Nearly in the whole world, the Spartan women had this privilege and could rule men.
Religion wise, there are evidences that Sparta imposed on buildings like temples, remains can still seen. Example is the temples are in the temple of Artemis Orthia. In this temple, over a hundred thousands of dedications were discovered. Boys could go for rites.
Apollo was the chief god for the Spartans. They also had festivals and they included the Karneia, Gymnopaidiai, and Hyacinthia. All these festivals honored the Apollo, the chief god. Women also worshipped the wife of Milano i.e. Helen, who had a very strong heroine cult at Sparta. When women were about to get married they would worship her in order to get themselves heroic husbands. The king as the leader of the community had very several religious functions, some of which were very important. These included the oracular responses to the Delphic played very important roles in the affairs of the Spartans. He urged the Spartans in discovering the bones of Agamemnon’s son, Orestes. This was to help them realize his aid during war. Before going for a journey, the kings did sacrifice for the gods which was done purposely to seek for their approval. This was also done when the kings would cross the borders of Sparta; this was purposely to ask for the gods support to the kings while they were away from Sparta.6
The Spartan community was an organized society that showed much prowess in their military skills despite their few populations. This was basically out of their education system which had military minded. The education system instilled in the children the military skills and knowledge at a very tender age and up to the age sixty the Spartan men remained active. Thus many people could act in the army and participate in the battles.
The government system of the Sparta was very unique but generally proved very strong. This was from the way they coordinated the governing of the whole community and from the way hey could not veto the decisions of the other. Through this they provided a steady way for political decisions and leadership. It thus proved to be very strong politically.
Socially, there was a clear distinction between the several groups that made up the Spartan community and their distinctive roles. The fact that the helots could not vote was to help the Spartans make decisions on their own without being influenced by the outsiders.
In regards to the society, the Spartan men and women had distinctive roles. Men we4e to be found in the military and thus were responsible for the winning or losing of the battles. Generally, men knew their boundaries. They knew when to socialize and when not to.
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Cartledge, P A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC Oxford: Routledge, 2002, pp120-124
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Green, P, The Greco-Persian Wars Berkeley: University of California, 1998, pp19-20.
Sarah B., Spartan Women, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp120-121.
Thompson, F. H., Greek and Roman Slavery, London: Duckworth, 2002, pp56-62.
West, M.L. Greek Lyric Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 119-126.