Reading History: Sparta

Could I forget that it was the very heart of Greece that saw the emergence of that city as famous for its happy ignorance as for the wisdom of its laws, whose virtues seemed so much greater than those of men that it was a Republic of demi-gods rather than of men. O Sparta! How you eternally shame a vain doctrine! While the vices led along by the fine arts were introduced together with them in Athens, while a tyrant there collected with so much care the works of the prince of poets, you were chasing the arts, artists, the sciences, and learned men from your walls.

That event was an indication of this difference — Athens became the abode of politeness and good taste, the land of orators and philosophers. The elegance of the buildings there corresponded to that of its language. In every quarter there, one could see marble and canvas brought to life by the hands of the most accomplished masters. From Athens came those amazing works which would serve as models in all corrupt ages. The picture of Lacedaemon is less brilliant. “In that place,” other peoples used to say, “the men are born virtuous, and even the air of the country seems to inspire virtue.” Nothing is left for us of its inhabitants except the memory of their heroic actions. Should monuments like that be less valuable for us than those remarkable marbles which Athens has left us?                    – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The geography of Greece itself played an important role in maintaining the distinctive qualities of each individual polis. The mountainous terrain tends to separate regions rather than connect them by land and the long seacoast, well provided with countless inlets and bays, provided most city-states with easy access to the sea lanes. Everywhere there are plains, hemmed in always by mountains and the passes between them are few and difficult to traverse. The Greeks were profoundly influenced, like all ancient civilizations, by the land in which they lived, and these barriers to travel and communication played a leading role in the historical developments during the period c.800-330 BC. Look at a topographical map of Greece and it is easy to understand why the land itself resists the creation of a single, large nation or empire, inviting instead the smaller administrative unit of the polis centered on a single chief city.

Many historians have pondered the importance of the unique developments which began in these isolated valleys nearly three thousand years ago and the advantages derived from the small political unit. Of primary importance, particularly with regard to the development of a uniquely Western Civilization, is the elevated status of the individual. Living in a small community (Athens at its greatest moment did not exceed a population of about 50,000), means that considerable duties fall upon the full members of that community, i.e. upon its citizens. Therefore, Greek citizens received exceptional training in the arts of governing the polis, literally a political education. And by such an education did these early citizens come to work for, to admire, and to love their home polis – and defend it against outsiders. As one historian puts it “Intense local patriotism, responsibility, and love of liberty engendered a fearlessness which, in time of war, produced good fighters and, in time of peace, a restless inquisitive spirit willing to experiment.”

While all Greek polei shared a common culture — based primarily on language, religion, and similar attitudes towards the communal life of the city — the type of government employed varied from state to state. Monarchy, diarchy (in the case of Sparta), oligarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy were all employed. The Greeks, particularly the Athenians, were the first people to develop the idea of free democracy. The one type of government absolutely rejected by a majority of the city-states was tyranny, that is, rule by a single individual without the benefit of law. While today most Americans think of Athens as the quintessential polis of the Classical Era and as a aged relative of our own democracy, it was Sparta that created the most respected political system of its time.

Sparta emerges from the Dark Ages (c.1100-800BC) in a bit of a historical fog, but developed rapidly. What we do know is that the centralized polis of Sparta seems to been created when five small villages along the Eurotas River united for the common defense of their fertile valley. While the rest of Greece destroyed monarchy and replaced it with local aristocracies, the clans of Lacedaemonia decided upon two kings rather than one which may reflect a compromise between two warring factions, perhaps a war among the five villages. The ‘better families’ (aristocrats) of each Greek city-state sought laws to arbitrate disputes, preserve privilege, and maintain good order (eunomia). The Law itself evolved as something that transcends humans. The earliest codes are associated with individual lawgivers.

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