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Text 3. Sparta and Athens


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At the time of the battle of Marathon, Sparta and Athens were the two largest city-states in Greece. Size, however, was about all the two cities had in common.

Unlike Athens, which held on to its Mycenaean culture during the Greek Dark Age, Sparta was invaded and conquered by the Dorians around 1100 B.C. During the next few hundred years, the Dorians took over the region surrounding the city-state of Sparta. They enslaved the former inhabitants of Sparta. Although people in towns near Sparta remained free, they were forced to serve in the Spartan army.

The slave population of Sparta was much larger than the population of Spartan citizens. When Sparta was at the height of its power, its population consisted of 25,000 citizens and 250,000 slaves. The Spartans were concerned about the possibility of uprisings by their slaves. Because of this fear, they built a strong army. In fact, Spartan men spent almost their entire adult lives in military service. The Spartans bragged that they needed no walls to protect their city; their soldiers were the only walls they needed.

Like the government of Athens, Sparta’s government began as a monarchy. However, Sparta had two kings who ruled together. This custom probably began because the original Dorian invaders of Sparta included two tribes, each with its own leader. As in Athens, the Spartan monarchy developed into an oligarchy. The two kings became part of a 30-man senate. The members of the senate were elected by the citizens, who included all male landholders over age 30. However, a person could not become a senator until he reached 60 ears of age.

All Spartan citizens belonged to an assembly similar to the one held in Athens. However, Spartan citizens could not propose laws. They could only vote yes or no on laws proposed by the senate or by the ephors, five government leaders elected by the assembly. Even if the assembly voted down a law, the senate and ephors often ignored this vote.

Although the Spartans had an assembly and held elections for government offices, power was really in the hands of a few families. These families dominated the senate and could control the ephors. A truly democratic government never developed in Sparta. This city-state remained an oligarchy throughout its history.

Sparta’s emphasis on maintaining a strong army shaped the economy. By law, the only occupation a Spartan man could hold was that of a soldier. The people living in the communities around Sparta provided trade and craft items for the city-state. During much of Sparta’s history, the government forbade Spartans to have luxury goods.

Each Spartan citizen received a plot of land from the government. Helots– state slaves assigned to a particular plot – farmed the land. They received some of the crops as wages and turned over the rest to the owner. The owner gave a portion of his crops to the government, which provided him daily meals. If, for some reason, a Spartan could not pay for these meals, he lost his rights as a citizen.

The differences between the two city-states were also reflected in the ways children were treated.

The Spartan government had a huge influence on the daily lives of its citizens. In fact, when a Spartan baby was born, a government inspector came to look it over. If the baby did not seem healthy, the inspector took the baby to a distant cave on a mountainside and left it there to die. The Spartans wanted only babies who they thought would grow into strong adults.

All Spartan children lived at home until they were seven years old. Then the boys had to leave their families to live in barracks with other boys their own age. From that moment on, the government took over their education and controlled their lives.

Although the boys were taught to read and write, their training emphasized physical skills, including running, jumping, boxing, and wrestling. Conditions in the Spartan schools were harsh, and discipline was strict.

Beginning at age 18, young men devoted all their time to the army. By age 30, a Spartan man completed his military training and gained full citizenship.

Although the training Spartan girls received was not as extensive as that of boys, the girls did get a strong physical education. They practiced running, wrestling, and discus throwing.

Although the Spartans emphasized military training, they also enjoyed several forms of entertainment. At religious festivals they participated in chorus contests, with boys and girl singing traditional songs. Dance contests were also popular.

The Athenians valued cultural education as well as physical education. However, only boys in wealthy families received formal education. Upon reaching seven years of age, wealthy Athenian boys began school. Unlike Spartan boys did not have to live in barracks with other boys. They lived at home with their families.

Athenian schoolboys learned reading, writing, arithmetic, poetry, music, and dance. They also devoted much time to athletics. When they reached 18 years of age, they joined the army for two years of military training. Upon graduation, these young men received a shield and spear and joined a reserve force. The reserve force was called to duty in times of war.


Unlike the Spartan government, which trained girls in athletics, the Athenian government basically ignored the training of women. Girls learned crafts and poetry from their mothers.

Because of the rich culture of Athens, an Athenian’s education continued throughout his or her adult life. Athenians often discussed the myths about the goods and the poetry of Homer. They looked forward to seeing new plays at the yearly festival to Dionysus. In addition, during the late 300s B.C., Athens developed academies where wealthy adult could continue their schooling.

The different values of Sparta and Athens produced different cultures. Ancient Greek thinker admired the Spartans because their military background made for a stable society. Although Athens is admired today for its democracy and its personal freedoms, many ancient Greeks thought Athenian freedom made its citizens restless and unpredictable.

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