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Sparta Verses Athens
The Spartans needed more land. Rather than colonize, they conquered the neighboring Laconians. Around 730 B.C.
they conquered neighboring Messenia even though Messenia had a larger population. They made serfs out of their
conquered peoples calling them Helots. They determined to become a military state.
The regiment of being a Spartan started at birth. Babies were brought before a council of inspectors who determined if
the baby was fit enough to be nourished or if it should be left to die. The practice of discarding or killing infants perceived
to be unfit for society is known as infanticide. Between 800 and 600 B.C. the lives of the Spartans were tightly controlled.
In present day the word Spartan is synonymous with the idea of being highly self-disciplined. Male children were taken
from their parents at around seven and placed into a military type school. The training was harsh, cruel, and dangerous.
Those showing weakness were singled out, harassed, and publicly shamed. Young men entered full military service at
around age 20. They could marry but had to live in military barracks until 30. They ate in public dining halls where they
were fed Spartan black broth (piece of pork boiled in animal blood, salt, and vinegar) and espoused the idea that they
were not afraid to die. They could vote at age 30 and could return home to live with their family, but were in the military
until age 60. Women had more freedoms since they had to be home alone. They were expected to remain fit for child
bearing purposes and support the military ideology. Legend has it that when cautioned their enemy would darken the sky
with arrows, one Spartan replied “good we will fight in the shade”. When men went to war they were expected to come
home with their shield or on it. Spartan soldiers who surrendered in battle would often later commit suicide due to the
stigma associated with their failure to fight to the death.
Sparta was ruled by an oligarchy (rule by a powerful few) consisting of two kings who were military leaders. There was a
group of five men elected each year called Ephors. They were responsible for education of youth and conduct of citizens.
A council of elders made up of the 2 kings and 28 citizens over the age of 60 decided on issues that would be brought to
assembly of male citizens. The citizens voted on the issues but there was no opportunity for debate. Sparta looked
inward and tried to thwart new or different ideas by restricting outside influence or study of philosophy, literature, or arts.
They were primarily interested in the art of war.
In 700 BC Athens was a unified polis. Early on it was ruled by a king but by 7th century BC it was ruled by an oligarchy
controlled by aristocrats. They owned the best land and controlled political life. There was an assembly but it had no real
power. For the next 200 years various political reformers (tyrants) seized power redistributing wealth and implementing
public works to retain power. In the early 500’s BC a council of 500 was installed that oversaw foreign affairs, the treasury,
and proposed laws to be voted on by the assembly. The assembly was given opportunity to vote on passage of laws after
a free and open debate.
In Athens, direct democracy (people participating directly in government decisions) was practiced. All male citizens were
members of the governing assembly and voted on all major issues. This included about 43,000 male citizens over the
age of 18. They met on a hill every 10 days east of the Acropolis. Usually no more than 6,000 showed up. They
“passed all laws, elected public officials, and made final decisions on war and foreign policy”. Everyone was free to speak
but usually only respected leaders did so. Pericles (Greek leader) allowed for lower class males to be eligible office
holders and instituted pay to elected officials. A person could be thrown out of the city through a process known today as
ostracism. Members of the assembly could write someone’s name on a broken piece of pottery (ostrakon) and if the
recommendation was supported by at least 6,000 members of the assembly, the person would be banned from the city for
10 years.
The population within the city of Athens consisted of about 150,000 citizens (43,000 adult males with political privileges),
35,000 foreigners (protection of the laws and responsibilities such as military service and funding festivals), and 100,000
slaves. Slavery was common in this era and almost everyone in Athens owned at least one slave except the very poor.
Slaves performed various duties including industrial, agricultural, and domestic work.
The economy of Athens was primarily agricultural and trade. They produced grains, vegetables, and fruit for local use.
Grapes and olives were used locally and exported. They also raised sheep and goats. Lack of farmland dictated
importation of 50–80 percent of their grain. Consequently, trade and trade relations were super important.
An Athenian family included husband, wife, children, slaves (usually), and other dependent relatives. The basic function
of the family was to produce family members (new citizens). Women were citizens and could participate in festivals but
otherwise were relegated to the house. They must always be accompanied by a male guardian (father, husband, adult
son, or male relative depending on their status). The main responsibility of women was to have children, preferably male
children. They were also charged with house work either done by themselves or under their supervision by slaves. They
usually married at age 14 or 15. Many learned to read and play musical instruments, but they did not receive formal
education. They were to keep out of sight except for funerals and festivals.