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

Persians talk politics

When the tumult had subsided and more than five days had elapsed, those who had risen against the Magians began to take counsel about the general state, and there were spoken speeches which some of the Hellenes do not believe were really uttered, but spoken they were nevertheless. On the one hand Otanes urged that they should resign the government into the hands of the whole body of the Persians, and his words were as follows: “To me it seems best that no single one of us should henceforth be ruler, for that is neither pleasant nor profitable. Ye saw the insolent temper of Cambyses, to what lengths it went, and ye have had experience also of the insolence of the Magian: and how should the rule of one alone be a well-ordered thing, seeing that the monarch may do what he desires without rendering any account of his acts? Even the best of all men, if he were placed in this disposition, would be caused by it to change from his wonted disposition: for insolence is engendered in him by the good things which he possesses, and envy is implanted in man from the beginning; and having these two things, he has all vice: for he does many deeds of reckless wrong, partly moved by insolence proceeding from satiety, and partly by envy. And yet a despot at least ought to have been free from envy, seeing that he has all manner of good things. He is however naturally in just the opposite temper towards his subjects; for he grudges to the nobles that they should survive and live, but delights in the basest of citizens, and he is more ready than any other man to receive calumnies. Then of all things he is the most inconsistent; for if you express admiration of him moderately, he is offended that no very great court is paid to him, whereas if you pay court to him extravagantly, he is offended with you for being a flatterer. And the most important matter of all is that which I am about to say:–he disturbs the customs handed down from our fathers, he is a ravisher of women, and he puts men to death without trial. On the other hand the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say ‘Equality’; next, the multitude does none of those things which the monarch does: offices of state are exercised by lot, and the magistrates are compelled to render account of their action: and finally all matters of deliberation are referred to the public assembly. I therefore give as my opinion that we let monarchy go and increase the power of the multitude; for in the many is contained everything.”

This was the opinion expressed by Otanes; but Megabyzos urged that they should entrust matters to the rule of a few, saying these words: “That which Otanes said in opposition to a tyranny, let it be counted as said for me also, but in that which he said urging that we should make over the power to the multitude, he has missed the best counsel: for nothing is more senseless or insolent than a worthless crowd; and for men flying from the insolence of a despot to fall into that of unrestrained popular power, is by no means to be endured: for he, if he does anything, does it knowing what he does, but the people cannot even know; for how can that know which has neither been taught anything noble by others nor perceived anything of itself, but pushes on matters with violent impulse and without understanding, like a torrent stream? Rule of the people then let them adopt who are foes to the Persians; but let us choose a company of the best men, and to them attach the chief power; for in the number of these we shall ourselves also be, and it is likely that the resolutions taken by the best men will be the best.”

This was the opinion expressed by Megabyzos; and thirdly Dareios proceeded to declare his opinion, saying: “To me it seems that in those things which Megabyzos said with regard to the multitude he spoke rightly, but in those which he said with regard to the rule of a few, not rightly: for whereas there are three things set before us, and each is supposed to be the best in its own kind, that is to say a good popular government, and the rule of a few, and thirdly the rule of one, I say that this last is by far superior to the others; for nothing better can be found than the rule of an individual man of the best kind; seeing that using the best judgment he would be guardian of the multitude without reproach; and resolutions directed against enemies would so best be kept secret. In an oligarchy however it happens often that many, while practising virtue with regard to the commonwealth, have strong private enmities arising among themselves; for as each man desires to be himself the leader and to prevail in counsels, they come to great enmities with one another, whence arise factions among them, and out of the factions comes murder, and from murder results the rule of one man; and thus it is shown in this instance by how much that is the best. Again, when the people rules, it is impossible that corruption should not arise, and when corruption arises in the commonwealth, there arise among the corrupt men not enmities but strong ties of friendship: for they who are acting corruptly to the injury of the commonwealth put their heads together secretly to do so. And this continues so until at last some one takes the leadership of the people and stops the course of such men. By reason of this the man of whom I speak is admired by the people, and being so admired he suddenly appears as monarch. Thus he too furnishes herein an example to prove that the rule of one is the best thing. Finally, to sum up all in a single word, whence arose the liberty which we possess, and who gave it to us? Was it a gift of the people or of an oligarchy or of a monarch? I therefore am of opinion that we, having been set free by one man, should preserve that form of rule, and in other respects also that we should not annul the customs of our fathers which are ordered well; for that is not the better way.”

Herodotus, The History, Book III, 80-3

The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

Notes
1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.


8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

References
 
Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.