Sparta (Laconia, Lacedaemon) is one of the most famous and powerful states of Ancient Greece, glorious for its army, which never retreated before the enemy. An ideal policy, Sparta was a state that did not know unrest and civil strife. In this amazing country, there were neither rich nor poor, so the Spartans called themselves “a community of equals.” Although terrible Sparta was known literally in all corners of ancient Greece, few could boast that he had been to the land of Lacedaemon and knew the life and customs of this country well. The Spartans (Spartans) enveloped their state with a veil of secrecy, not allowing either stranger to come to them or their citizens to leave the borders of the community. Even merchants did not bring goods to Sparta – the Spartans did not buy or sell anything.
Although the Spartans themselves did not leave a description of their laws and state system, many ancient Greek thinkers tried to unravel the reason for the strength of civil consent and the military power of Sparta. Their attention to this state especially intensified after the victory of Sparta over Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–405 BC). But since ancient writers watched Sparta’s life from the sidelines or lived many centuries after the “community of equals” arose, many modern scholars are distrustful of their messages. Therefore, some problems of the history of Sparta still cause controversy among historians. For example, what was the reason for the Spartan way of life when this state arose, so unlike other Greek policies?
The ancient Greeks considered the creator of the Spartan state the legislator of Lycurgus. The writer and historian Plutarch, the author of the biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, starting a story about the life and reforms of Lycurgus, warns readers that nothing strictly reliable can be reported about them. Nevertheless, he has no doubt that this politician was a historical figure. Most modern scholars consider Lycurgus a legendary (never existing) personality, and the amazing political system of Sparta is the result of the preservation of primitive pre-state forms of human society in it. Other historians, agreeing that Lycurgus is a fictional figure, do not completely deny the tradition of the emergence of the Spartan state as a result of a coup after long unrest in the first half of the 6th century. BC e. There is a third group of scientists, believing that historians have no serious reason for a complete distrust of the messages of ancient writers. In the biography of Lycurgus, they believe, there is nothing fantastic, and the implementation of reforms in Sparta two centuries earlier than in other areas of Balkan Greece is explained by the difficult situation in Laconia. The Dorians who founded the Spartan state came here as conquerors and, in order to keep in obedience to the local Achaean enslaved by them, needed the accelerated creation of the institutions necessary for this.
According to Plutarch and other ancient authors, the life of Lycurgus falls on about the first half of the 7th century. BC e.
It was a time of turmoil and lawlessness. Lycurgus came from a royal family, and after the death of his father from a stab and the death of his older brother, he became king, but he ruled for only eight months. Having ceded power to his nephew, he left Sparta. Traveling to Crete, Egypt and Greek policies on the coast of Asia Minor, Lycurgus studied the laws and lifestyle of people and dreamed, returning to his homeland, to completely change the structure of his community and establish laws that would forever end the enmity between the Spartans. Before returning to Sparta, Lycurgus went to Delphi, where there was a temple of the god Apollo with an oracle (diviner). In those days, no important decision for the entire state was made without seeking advice from the priests of the god Apollo Delphi. The soothsaying priestess (pythia) transmitted predictions to those seeking advice, which the deity allegedly informed her. The Pythian called Lycurgus “god-loving” and said that Apollo promises to give Sparta the best laws.
According to Plutarch, having returned from Delphi, Lycurgus, together with thirty noble loyal citizens, began to carry out his plan. He ordered his friends to arm themselves and go to the square in order to intimidate the enemies and force everyone to obey the new laws. The establishment of new orders, apparently, caused discontent and resistance of some rich and noble citizens. Once they surrounded the legislator and, angrily screaming, were stoned. Lycurgus fled, but one of the pursuers knocked out his eyes with a stick.
According to legend, having completed the reforms, Lycurgus gathered the people and, taking from him an oath not to change anything from the rules established by him until his return, he again went to Delphi. In Delphi, he received through the oracle approval of the laws passed. Sending this prophecy to Sparta, he himself decided not to return there, so as not to free the people from the oath given to him, and starved himself to death.
The procedures established by Lycurgus aroused admiration for some, condemnation and criticism of others. One of Lycurgus’s first reforms was the organization of civil society management. Ancient writers claim that Lycurgus created a council of elders (gerusia) of 28 people. The elders (gerontos) – at least 60 years old – were elected by the national assembly of citizens (appellation). Two kings also entered into Gerusia, one of the main duties of which was to command the army in the war. Appella initially, apparently, had great power and solved all the most important issues in the life of the community. Over time, power in the state passed into the hands of ephors.
In the VIII century. BC e. in Sparta, as in other Greek policies, there was an acute shortage of land. The Spartans solved this problem by conquering the neighboring region of Messenia, and its inhabitants were enslaved. The conquered land and enslaved population were declared the property of all the citizens of Sparta. And the management system, and the supreme ownership of all citizens on land – all this did not distinguish Sparta from other Greek policies. As elsewhere in the states of ancient Greece, the principle worked here: we own together, we manage together, we protect together. But in Sparta, it was carried out with such consistency that it turned it into something ugly, into a “historical curiosity,” as some historians have defined it.
The reason for this was a special form of slavery that arose in Ancient Sparta. In most Greek policies, slaves were brought from distant lands. Torn away from their homes, of different nationalities, they were divided and it was difficult for them to agree with each other and rebel against their masters. Converted into slaves (helots), the population of Laconia and Messenia remained to live where their ancestors lived. They led an independent economy, had property and a family. They paid their owners (apophora), the rest of the products could be disposed of at their discretion. This created favorable conditions for uprisings, which the helots, many times superior in number to their masters, raised quite often.
To achieve harmony and peace, Lycurgus decided to eradicate wealth and poverty in the state forever. He divided all the land that the community owned into approximately equal sections (claire). 9 thousand clovers were received by the Spartans – according to the number of families, 30 thousand were given to the perieks – residents of the surrounding places. Perieki were free people, but were not included in the number of full citizens. The land received could not be sold or donated. Its helots were processed, and the perieks were engaged in craft. The Spartians, on the other hand, considered all labor except military affairs to be shameful. Having the opportunity to live quite comfortably due to the work of the Helots, they turned into professional warriors. All their daily life has become a constant and debilitating preparation for war.
To maintain universal equality, Lycurgus forbade the use of gold and silver coins in Sparta, which were used throughout Greece, and introduced iron money, so heavy that even for a small amount a whole cart was required. With this money you could buy only what was produced in Sparta itself, periekas were strictly forbidden to produce luxury goods, it was allowed to make only simple dishes and clothes, weapons for the Spartians. All Spartans, from the king to the common citizen, had to live in exactly the same conditions. Special regulations indicated which houses to build, what clothes to wear, and even everyone should have the same food. Spartan citizens did not know the peace of domestic life, could not at their discretion manage their time. Their whole life from birth to death passed under vigilant control. The Spartan married when the community allowed him, but young married men still lived apart from their families for a long time. Even the children did not belong to their parents. The father brought the newborn to the forest, where the elders sat. The child was carefully examined, and if they were found sick and frail, they sent them to the Apothetes (a cliff on the Tayget mountain range) and left there to die.
From the age of seven, boys were taken away from their parents and brought up in units (agels). The harsh upbringing system was aimed at making them strong, obedient and fearless. Children were taught to read and write, taught for a long time to be silent and to speak briefly and clearly (concisely). Adults, watching the children, purposely quarreled, causing a fight, and watched who is more agile and bold in the fight. For a year, the boys were given only one dress, they were allowed to wash only several times a year. They fed the children sparingly, accustomed to theft, but if someone came across, they beat them mercilessly, not for theft, but for awkwardness.
After 16 years of age, the young men were subjected to a very severe test at the altar of the goddess Artemis. The youths were brutally scourged, while they were supposed to be silent. Some did not stand the test and died. Another test for the youths was cryptos – secret wars against the helots, which from time to time declared ephors. During the day, the young Spartans hid in secluded corners, and at night went out to hunt for helots, killing the strongest men, which allowed them to keep helots in constant fear.
The will of the legislator and the constant threat from the Helots created an unusually close-knit civil community that did not know the internal troubles for several centuries. But the Spartans paid a dear price for this. Severe discipline, the militarization of all aspects of life led to the spiritual impoverishment of the people, the economic backwardness of Sparta in comparison with other Greek policies. She did not give the world culture a single philosopher, poet, speaker, sculptor or artist. All that Sparta was able to create was a strong army. The unlimited right of the Ephors to control all aspects of the life of the community has made their power, according to Aristotle, “close to tyranny.” Gradually, Sparta became a stronghold of political reaction for the whole of Greece.
The Spartans consciously pursued a policy of isolating their community from the outside world. It was aimed at preventing foreign customs and customs from entering the “community of equals,” but the main reason was that the constant threat of Helot uprisings required the mobilization of all forces. Sparta could not take her army far and long beyond the Peloponnese, so at times of great danger to the entire Hellenic world, it was often guided by purely selfish interests. This affected already during the Greek-Persian wars, when Sparta was ready to cede to the Iranians (Persians) most of Balkan Greece and Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor. In return, she invited everyone to move to the Peloponnese, ready to defend its borders until the last breath.
The thirst for domination over all of Greece led Sparta to war with the rich and prosperous Athens. She emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian War, but at the cost of betraying the interests of Hellas: having received help from Iran, she turned into an Iranian overseer for the Hellenes. The war brought Sparta out of a state of artificial isolation, the victory brought wealth and money, and the “community of equals” entered a period of turmoil, like all other Greek policies.