Athens and Sparta (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.8)

Athens and Sparta were the two most important and influential city-states of ancient Greece. They fought the Peloponnesian War against each other and continually tried to outdo each other in strength and influence. They were also quite different from each other in their ways of life. Whereas Athens was a democracy which prided itself on the freedom of each its citizens as well as on its artistic and intellectual achievements, Sparta was a militaristic society ruled  by a small group of men.

The Athenian democracy was designed to make sure that no one had too much power and that each person had the ability to have his ideas heard. The main body of the Athenian government was the Assembly, which consisted of every adult male whose parents were Athenians. The Assembly met at a place called the Forum where they would vote on important decisions for Athens.

Because each of the citizens of Athens had other business they had to attend to, such as farming or owning a store, they could not always be in the Forum to attend to matters of government. For this reason, a group of 500 members of the Assembly were chosen at random each year to form a special group called the Boule. The Boule attended to all of the daily matters of running a city. If there were any important matters to be decided, however, the Assembly had to meet and vote on them.

The Athenians were so concerned with preventing anyone from gaining and keeping too much power that even positions like judge and general were only held for short terms. Any member of the Assembly might be chosen at random to act as a member of the jury if there was a trial. Typically, Athenians juries were very large. At the trial of Socrates, for example, there were 500 jurors. In order for a person to be convicted and punished for a crime, more than half of the jurors had to be convinced that they were guilty. Athenians generals were elected by votes from the Assembly and served terms of only one year.

In order to prepare young men to participate in their democratic government, the Athenians made sure to provide them with an excellent education. Because Athenian men would spend their lives making very important decisions about government, laws, and the military, they had to know how to make good decisions. An education for Athenian boys focused on three main areas: grammar, music, and gymnastics.

Learning grammar meant learning how to read as well as how to write and speak well. To do this, Athenian boys usually spent much of their time reading the works of Homer and Herodotus, two Greek poets whom the Athenians considered the very best writers in the Greek language. They also learned the grammar of numbers, which is mathematics. The Athenians thought that learning mathematics was important because it teaches people how to think well.

For music, boys were taught how to sing and how to play an instrument. They were also taught the principles of music and the difference between good and bad music. The intent of their education in music was to teach them how to recognize and appreciate beauty.

In addition to training the mind through grammar and music, the Athenians also believed it was important to train the body through gymnastics. They said that a person should have “a sound mind in a sound body.” Athenian boys engaged in physical exercise and learned how to play sports in order to be physically fit.

While Athenian boys learned grammar, music, and gymnastics, Athenian girls were generally taught how to run a household properly. Athenian households were very large and usually included many family members as well as slaves. In order for these large households to run effectively, girls had to be trained in management as well as in all of the skills necessary to running a household, including cooking, gardening, and childcare.

As a result of their way of life, the Athenians produced many of the most important thinkers and writers of ancient Greece. Perhaps the most important thinkers of ancient Athens were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the three philosophers who have influenced nearly all of the thought of Western Civilization in the past 2400 years. You will read about them in a subsequent chapter.

The Spartans, on the other hand, had a very different way of life. They too placed great emphasis on the education of boys, but Spartan education was very different. Immediately after birth, a Spartan baby was inspected. If any defect, such as a deformity or a weakness, was found, the baby was taken to a pit nearby the city and thrown in.

Those children who survived the inspection were allowed to go with their mothers. Boys stayed with their mothers until age seven, at which point they were taken from their homes and began their military training.

Spartan military training was called the agoge. Beginning at seven years old, boys had to live in a barracks with other boys. They were allowed very little food and almost no comfort. They were not even allowed to wear shoes and get hugs. They were given so little food that they were always hungry. The boys were encouraged to steal food from others, but were punished severely if they were caught. The punishment was not for stealing, however; it was for getting caught. The boys were given only a single cloak to wear, no matter how cold or hot the weather was. They spent almost their entire day exercising and marching. As a result, Spartan boys became very disciplined and very strong.

While Spartan girls were not taken away from their mothers as the boys were, they also were expected to exercise and become strong. It was believed that strong women would have strong children who would be great warriors for Sparta. Spartan mothers encouraged their sons to always be strong and brave. When the Spartan warriors marched off to battle, their mothers and wives would gather to watch them leave, encouraging them by telling them to “come back with your shield or on it.” In other words, they told their sons and husbands to either win (“come back with your shield”) or to die and be carried back on their shield (“or on it”).

Sparta’s government was an oligarchy, which is a system of government in which a small group of people rule. In Sparta, there were two kings, both of whom had to agree in order for a decision to be made. There was also a council of elders, who were the oldest and most experienced Spartan men and advised the kings. Like Athens, Sparta also had an assembly, but the Spartan Assembly did not discuss and make decisions like the Athenian Assembly did. Instead, the kings would present their ideas to the assembly and the members of the assembly, which included almost all of the adult Spartan men, would shout “yes” or “no.” Whichever side was loudest won.

Because Spartan men and women were expected to spend most of their time preparing for war, they did not have much time to do all of the work that has to be done, like growing food and selling things. Instead, the Spartans had many slaves to do these jobs for them. These slaves, called helots, were treated like cattle by the Spartans and could be killed without punishment at any time. There were ten times as many helots as Spartans, but because the Spartans kept themselves strong and disciplined the helots were unable to fight them and gain their freedom.

Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans did not spend much time on things like reading, writing, music, and poetry. As a result, the Spartans did not produce much great writing and philosophy like the Athenians did. They did, however, produce the greatest soldiers in history. It was the strength of these soldiers that made it possible for only 300 Spartans to hold off the entire Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae during the Greco-Persian Wars. Through their disciplined way of life, the Spartans were able to preserve the Greek tradition of independence and freedom.

Although Athens and Sparta are different in many ways, what they both had in common is their love for liberty. A Spartan soldier was once asked what it was that he had learned through all of the exercise and discipline he had received during his training in the agoge. His response was that he had learned “how to be free.”

 

Review Questions

 1. What were the two most important and influential city-states of ancient Greece?

2. In a paragraph, compare and contrast these two city-states.

 

Vocabulary Words

 democracy – a system of government in which the people rule themselves by voting on decisions

oligarchy – a system of government in which a state is ruled by a small group of people

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