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(spär`tə), city of ancient Greece, capital of Laconia, on the Eurotas (Evrótas) River in the Peloponnesus.

Spartan Society

Sparta's government was headed by two hereditary kings furnished by two families; they were titular leaders in battle and in religion. Some of these kings were able (e.g., Cleomenes I, Leonidas, and Agis II), but all were held in check. There was a council of elders and a general assembly of citizens; but the real rulers were the board of five ephorsephors
[Gr.,=overseers], in ancient Greece, magistrates in several Dorian states. In Sparta they comprised an executive, legislative, and judicial board of five Spartan citizens. This annually elected board functioned from at least the 8th cent. B.C. until it was abolished (c.
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, elected annually. The business of the state was conducted with secrecy (unlike the open forum methods of Athens), and every effort was made to keep the institutions unchanged.

The ruling class, the Spartiates, gave themselves wholly to war. At birth a boy was inspected by the elders, and if he appeared too weakly for future military service, he was taken into the mountains and abandoned. If he was fit, he was taken from his mother at the age of seven to begin rigorous military training. He became a soldier at 20, a citizen at 30, and continued as a soldier until 60. Thus his entire life was spent under rigorous discipline. Spartiate women, under less severe discipline, were part of the soldierly society and were not secluded. The Spartiates were the only citizens and the only sharers in the allotment of lands and of the helots (serfs who were bound to the land). The helots farmed the land and paid part of the produce to their masters, the Spartiates. They could not be sold, but they had no legal or civil rights and were constantly watched by a sort of Spartiate secret police for fear of insurrection. In somewhat less stringent subjection were the perioeci, freemen who were permitted to carry on commerce and handicrafts, by which some of them prospered. Nevertheless, the perioeci were entirely subordinate to the Spartiates.


Early History

Located in a fertile, mountain-walled valley, the city-state of Sparta was created by invading Dorian Greeks, who later conquered the countryside of Laconia and Messenia (c.735–715 B.C.). Prior to the Dorian conquest, tradition says that Sparta was an important site of Mycenaean civilizationMycenaean civilization
, an ancient Aegean civilization known from the excavations at Mycenae and other sites. They were first undertaken by Heinrich Schliemann and others after 1876, and they helped to revise the early history of Greece. Divided into Early Helladic (c.
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 in Greece (c.2000–1100 B.C.), but the Mycenaean ruins that have been found there are not comparable to other significant Mycenaean sites. For a long time the Spartans had no city walls, trusting to the strength of their army for defense against invaders and against their own Laconian and Messenian subjects. In the 7th cent. B.C. Sparta enjoyed a period of wealth and culture, the time of the poets Tyrtaeus and Alcman. After 600 B.C., however, Sparta cultivated only the military arts, and the city became an armed camp, established (according to the official legend) by LycurgusLycurgus
, traditional name of the founder of the Spartan constitution. The earliest mention of him is in Herodotus. Nothing is known of his life—when he lived or if he was a real man, a god, or a mythical figure. However, he is generally associated with the 7th cent. B.C.
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, in reaction to a Messenian revolt (see MesseniaMessenia
, ancient region of SW Greece, in the Peloponnesus and corresponding to the modern nome of Messinías. Excavation has revealed an important center of Mycenaean culture at Pylos dating from the 13th cent. B.C. From the 8th cent. B.C.
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The Persian and Peloponnesian Wars

By the 6th cent. B.C., Sparta was the strongest Greek city. In the Persian WarsPersian Wars,
500 B.C.–449 B.C., series of conflicts fought between Greek states and the Persian Empire. The writings of Herodotus, who was born c.484 B.C., are the great source of knowledge of the history of the wars.
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, Sparta fought beside Athens, first at ThermopylaeThermopylae
[Gr.,=hot gates, from hot mineral springs nearby], pass, E central Greece, SE of Lamía, between the cliffs of Mt. Oeta and the Malic Gulf. Silt accumulation has gradually widened the once-narrow pass.
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 (480), under Leonidas; later that year at Salamis; and in 479 at Plataea (won by PausaniasPausanias
, d. c.470 B.C., Spartan general; nephew of King Leonidas. He was the victorious commander at Plataea (479) near Thebes in the Persian Wars and followed up the battle with expeditions to Cyprus and Byzantium.
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). Before 500 B.C., Sparta had formed a confederacy of allies (the Peloponnesian League), which it dominated. Through the league and by direct methods Sparta was master of most of the Peloponnesus.

After the Persian Wars rivalry with Athens sharpened, and Athens grew stronger. An earthquake at Sparta (464 B.C.), followed by a stubborn Messenian revolt, greatly weakened Sparta. In the end a contest with Athens came indirectly, provoked by Corinthian fears of Athenian imperialism. This was the great Peloponnesian WarPeloponnesian War
, 431–404 B.C., decisive struggle in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta. It ruined Athens, at least for a time. The rivalry between Athens' maritime domain and Sparta's land empire was of long standing. Athens under Pericles (from 445 B.C.
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 (431–404 B.C.), which wrecked the Athenian empire.

Soon after their victory over Athens the dominant Spartans, led by Agesilaus IIAgesilaus II
, c.444–360 B.C., king of Sparta. After the death of Agis I (398? B.C.), he was brought to power by Lysander, whom he promptly ignored. After the Peloponnesian War the Greek cities in Asia Minor had not been ceded to Persia despite Sparta's promises, and in
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, were involved in a war with Persia; then the Spartan envoy Antalcidas concluded (386 B.C.) a treaty with Artaxerxes II by which Sparta surrendered the Greek cities of Asia Minor in return for withdrawal of Persian support from the Athenians, who were again at war with Sparta, and from the Athenians' allies, the Thebans. Thebes fought on and by the victory at Leuctra (371 B.C.) gained ascendancy in Greece. Sparta fell an easy prey to Macedon and declined. In the 3d cent. B.C. there were determined but futile attempts by kings Agis IV (see under AgisAgis
, name of four Spartan kings. Agis I, fl. late 10th cent. B.C., was the traditional founder of the Agiad dynasty, one of the two ruling dynasties of Sparta, which had a dual kingship. The other dynasty, the Eurypontids, fathered the succeeding Agises.
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) and Cleomenes IIICleomenes III,
c.260–219 B.C., king of Sparta (235–221 B.C.). He was probably the most energetic king Sparta ever had, a conscious imitator of Agis III (see under Agis). In his determined effort to restore the prestige of the city, he began (227 B.C.
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 and by Nabis (d. 192 B.C.) to restore glory to Sparta by vigorous reforms. Under the Romans, Sparta prospered. It was devastated by the Goths in A.D. 395. The ruins of old Sparta, including sanctuaries and a theater, remain near the modern city of Sparta.


See A. H. M. Jones, Sparta (1967); J. Lazenby, The Spartan Army (1985); P. Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (1987); P. A. Rahe, The Spartan Regime (2016); J. T. Roberts, The Plague of War (2017).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Lacedaemon) originally an ancient Greek city-state (polis) in the Eurotas River Valley, in the area known as Laco-nia, and later, from the sixth to the first century B.C., a state occupying the southern Peloponnesus.

According to the Iliad, Sparta was one of the 12 Achaean communities of Laconia, ruled by the mythical king Menelaus. Around the 12th century, during the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnesus, almost all the Achaean settlements, apparently Sparta as well, were destroyed. Judging from archaeological data, a new, Dorian settlement, also called Sparta, arose on the bank of the Eurotas River in the tenth and ninth centuries, evidently as a result of the merger (synoecism) of two communities, one Dorian and the other Achaean. One of the two royal dynasties that ruled in Sparta (the Agidai) descended from Achaean kings of the pre-Dorian period. Between the eighth and the sixth centuries, Sparta, in the course of a lengthy struggle, conquered such neighboring regions as fertile Messenia to the west in the second half of the eighth century and Cynuria to the east in the sixth century.

All of Sparta’s land, both in Laconia and in conquered areas, was considered the property of the state and was, according to legend, divided into 9,000 or 10,000 equal cleruchies, which were given to full citizens of Sparta, called Spartiates, for hereditary use without the right of sale or subdivision. (For this reason a community of Spartiates was usually called a “community of equals.”) The cleruchial allotments were worked by Helots, who were bound to the land without rights and who responded to the brutal treatment they received with constant disturbances and rebellions, the largest of which occurred from 464 to 458 or 455 B.C. In addition to the Helots, there was another group of dependent inhabitants, the Perioeci, who were personally free but deprived of political rights. Descendants of the indigenous population of Sparta, the Perioeci were Sparta’s artisans and traders. The Spartiates themselves did not engage in economic activity, which according to legend, had been forbidden to them by Lycurgus in the ninth and eighth centuries. Lycurgus is credited with having established the Spartan way of life. Under the laws of Lycurgus, Spartiates were to devote themselves entirely to military pursuits from the age of seven virtually until old age. In the Spartan community all aspects of life were imbued with a stern military spirit.

Sparta’s political system was distinguished by archaic traits dating from remote antiquity. The highest body was the Apella, a popular assembly without legislative power. The state was headed by two kings, one from the Eurypontidai and the other from the Agidai dynasty. The kings headed the militia and performed various religious functions. Their authority was limited by the Gerousia, a council of elders selected from among the most distinguished Spartiates, which dealt with the most important matters of domestic and foreign policy. Elected by the popular assembly, the Ephorate was the highest supervisory body. It apparently originated as early as the mid-eighth century and subsequently became increasingly powerful.

With respect to its economy, Sparta was among the agrarian communities of Greece, backward in comparison with Athens and Corinth. Its handicrafts and trade were poorly developed, and it long preserved vestiges of primitive communal relations. In the late sixth century Sparta headed the Peloponnesian League, which united the military forces of the Peloponnesus. Supported by its allies, Sparta sought to extend its influence beyond the Peloponnesus. After the outbreak of the Greco-Persian Wars (500–449 B.C.), Sparta nominally headed the defensive alliance of the Greek states. However, when military operations shifted to the sea, Sparta, strong on land, was obliged to yield the leading role to Athens. In 478–477, Sparta and its allies withdrew from the Greek alliance.

A struggle between Athens and Sparta for hegemony in Greece, during which Sparta sought the support of the most reactionary oligarchic strata, led to the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.). After winning the war, Sparta was firmly established for a time as the leader of Greece. However, Sparta’s flagrant interference in the internal affairs of the Greek city-states, where it forcibly set up oligarchic regimes, and its permissiveness with respect to Persia (which sought to subjugate Greece by taking advantage of its weakened condition) provoked a general dissatisfaction with Sparta and led to the formation of a hostile coalition of Greek cities and to the outbreak of the Corinthian War (395–387 B.C.). At the cost of acknowledging Persian hegemony over the cities of Asia Minor and concluding the Peace of Antalcidas (or King’s Peace), humiliating for all Greeks, Sparta succeeded in maintaining her hegemony for a short time.

Sparta’s participation in Greek affairs put an end to its former isolation. The enormous booty that had fallen into the hands of the Spartan military leaders and Sparta’s inclusion in interpolis trade contributed to the breakdown of the “communities of equals.” A law issued by the ephor Epitadeus around 400 permitted the transfer of property, including land, as a gift or by a will, thereby establishing the principle of private ownership of land. By about the middle of the fourth century all the land in Sparta was held by 100 families, and the number of full Spartiates had decreased to 700. The political struggle within Sparta intensified. Internal strife weakened Sparta militarily, and during a war with Thebes and its ally Athens, Sparta sustained major defeats at Leuctra in 371 and Mantinea in 362. The defeats resulted in the collapse of the Peloponnesian League and the loss of Messenia. Sparta was reduced to a secondary state.

During the Hellenistic period (third and second centuries B.C.) the social conflicts in Sparta were exacerbated by the struggle of the poorer citizens to obtain land. The attempts of the reform-minded kings Agis IV and later Cleomenes III to introduce radical reforms with the support of the poorer strata of the free population were unsuccessful owing to the resistance of the large landowners and the military intervention of the Achaean League and Macedonia in Sparta’s affairs. In 207 the tyrant Nabis seized power in Sparta and implemented a number of radical reforms to restore the state’s military capability. He confiscated some of the land held by large landowners and allocated parcels to landless Spartiates and many Helots, whom he included among the citizens. However, after the intervention of the Achaean League and Rome, the oligarchic system was restored in Sparta. In 146, sharing the fate of all of Greece, Sparta fell under Roman rule and retained only limited freedom. It became part of the Roman province of Achaea in 27 B.C.


Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti gosudarstva. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch. , 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Khvostov, M. Khoziaistvennyi perevorol v Drevnei Sparte. Kazan, 1901.
Berger, A. Sotsial’nye dvizheniia v Drevnei Sparte. Moscow, 1936.
Kahrstedt, U. Griechisches Staatsrechl, vol. 1: Sparta und seine Symmachie. Gottingen, 1922.
Chrimes, K. Ancient Sparta. [New York, 1952.]
Michell, H. Sparta. Cambridge, 1952.
Huxley, G. L. Early Sparta. London, 1962.
Tigerstedt, E. The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity, vol. 1. Stockholm [1965].
Oliva, P. Sparta and Her Social Problems. Prague, 1971.




a city in Greece, in the southern Peloponnesus, along the middle course of the Eurotas River. Administrative center of the nome of Laconia; population, 11,000 (1971). There are smallscale enterprises of the food, textile, tobacco, and chemical industries. Near the modern city of Sparta are the ruins of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an ancient Greek city in the S Peloponnese, famous for the discipline and military prowess of its citizens and for their austere way of life
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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