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Information about the place (10)
| The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites
In the heart of the fertile Eurotas valley ca. 56 km S of Tegea and
48 km N of Gytheion; the alluvial soil is fertile, the climate auspicious, and
the low hill site protected by mountains and sea. Very few prehistoric remains
are known, but a major contemporary settlement has been excavated about 3 km NE
at the Menelaion. About 950 B.C. at the earliest Sparta was occupied by Dorians
and settled as an agglomeration of villages (Pitana, Limnai, Mesoa, and Kynosura);
the city wall, not begun until the late 4th c. and eventually completed in 184,
measured 10 km in circumference and enclosed an elliptical area 3 x 2 km lying
In the 8th c. B.C. led by its two kings, the city embarked on the
warmaking which by about 545 had brought "two-fifths of the Peloponnese"
(Thuc.) under her immediate control. The inhabitants of the fertile Eurotas and
Pamisos (Messenia) valleys were reduced to serfdom (Helots); those occupying more
marginal land remained free but were denied political rights in Sparta (perioikoi).
Thereafter Sparta expanded through diplomacy and by 500 B.C. had organized its
subject-allies into the Peloponnesian League. In 405, supported by its allies
and Persian gold it defeated Athens, but its supremacy in Greece was soon cut
short by the Thebans: defeat at Leuktra in 371 was followed by the very first
invasion of Lakonia and the liberation of Messenia in 369. After 243 Sparta was
weakened by successive attempts, also led by its kings, at necessary social reform
and in 195 lost its perioikic dependencies. But under the Roman Empire the city
enjoyed a remarkable renascence of prosperity and reverted superficially to the
rigid self-discipline of its heyday. Having survived the incursion of the Heruli
in A.D. 267, the city was ruined by the Goths in 395, and finally abandoned.
As Thucydides warned, the power of Sparta should not be gauged from
its surviving monuments. Of the settlement all but the foundations of a few Classical
houses and some fine Roman mosaic floors is lost irreparably; only seven datable
graves, four of about 600 B.C. and three Hellenistic, have been found, although
burial was permitted within the settlement area, contrary to normal Greek practice;
of the agora not even the location is certain. The acropolis is comparably denuded
but at least its chief edifice, the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, has yielded
a crude two-layer stratigraphy. The material associated with part of the earliest
altar consisted of a fair quantity of Protogeometric and Geometric pottery, none
certainly earlier than the 8th c., and a few bronze votives. The temple was rebuilt
in the 6th c. and the richer "Classical" stratum contained, inter alia,
pottery, including Panathenaic amphora fragments; objects in bronze, ivory, and
lead; the fine late archaic marble statue known as "Leonidas" (in the
National Museum of Athens); and a number of bronze plates, some with nails still
attached, which may have been used to face the temple and have given rise to the
epithet of the goddess. The Hellenistic theater built into the foot of the acropolis
is remarkably well preserved.
Our main evidence for the early settlement and the entire development
of Spartan art is derived from careful excavations at the Sanctuary of Ortheia
(later assimilated to Artemis) situated on the W bank of the Eurotas in the village
of Limnai; it remained throughout its history closely linked to the severe military
and educational regime. The earliest known worship centered on an earthen altar
with a polar orientation, but toward the end of the 8th c. (on the current interpretation
of the stratigraphy) the sacred area was paved with cobbles, enclosed by a peribolos
wall, and the altar was given a stone casing; simultaneously a primitive temple,
measuring at least 12.5 x 4.5 m, was built on an interpolar axis. About 570 B.C.
the entire sanctuary was remodeled, perhaps in consequence of a flood of the Eurotas.
The sacred area was enlarged and covered by a layer of sand, the altar refurbished
and the first temple replaced. Its successor, built entirely of limestone and
measuring ca. 16.75 x 7.5 m, was in the Doric style; the scanty remains of the
substructure suggest it was prostyle in antis, and a few gaily painted fragments
probably belong to a pedimental group of heraldic lions. The sand, besides being
a clearcut stratigraphical feature, has sealed in a treasury of early Greek art
from the late 8th to the early 6th c.; dedications continued above the sand into
the Roman era. The material includes bronze figurines, mainly of animals, and
other bronze objects; over 100,000 lead figurines; some of the earliest and finest
figural ivory carvings in Greece; a plethora of mold-made terracotta figurines
and masks; finally, and most important for chronology, a continuous pottery series.
The picture which seems to be emerging indicates that Spartan craftsmen,
especially bronzesmiths, shared in the Greek cultural renaissance of the 8th c.;
in the 7th, her ivory-carvers were quick to assimilate and adapt oriental types
and motifs, but the vase-painters appear backward by comparison with those of
Corinth and Athens; in the 6th c. the roles are reversed and the potters and painters,
soon followed by the bronze-workers, produce high-quality wares both for domestic
and, more especially, foreign consumption. We know from Pausanias the names of
several Lakonian craftsmen and some were almost certainly Spartan citizens; Sparta
was also the temporary domicile of foreign artists from at least the early 7th
But about 525 B.C. the whole picture changed; imports, which had never
been plentiful, ceased--apparently abruptly; so did exports, although painted
pottery and superior bronze figurines continued to be made for local use. By the
5th c. Sparta seemed to have acquired the sterile character for which she was
praised or blamed by other Greeks; her retention of an iron currency is a symptom,
though not a cause, of the change. Not altogether surprisingly the next major
alteration to the Sanctuary of Artemis was the construction of a semicircular
theater to enable spectators, including foreign tourists, to watch Spartan youths
being flogged to death in a painful simulacrum of the initiation rite which had
performed so useful a military and political function in a better age.
P. Cartledge, ed.
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| Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
(Sparte, Dor. Sparta), also called Lacedaemon (Lakedaimon).
The capital of Laconica and the chief city of the Peloponnesus, was situated
on the right bank of the Eurotas (Iri), about twenty miles from the sea. It
stood on a plain which contained within it several rising grounds and hills.
It was bounded on the east by the Eurotas, on the northwest by the small river
Oenus (Kelesina), and on the southeast by the small river Tisia (Magula), both
of which streams fell into the Eurotas. The plain in which Sparta stood was
shut in on the east by Mount Menelaieum, and on the west by Mount Taygetus;
whence the city is called by Homer "the hollow Lacedaemon." It was
of a circular form, about six miles in circumference, and consisted of several
distinct quarters, which were originally separate villages, and which were never
united into one regular town. Its site is occupied by the modern villages of
Magula and Psykhiko; and the principal modern town in the neighbourhood is Mistra,
which lies about two miles to the west on Mount Taygetus.
During the flourishing times of Greek independence, Sparta
was never surrounded by walls, since the bravery of its citizens, and the difficulty
of access to it, were supposed to render such defences needless. It was first
fortified by the tyrant Nabis; but it did not possess regular walls until the
time of the Romans. Sparta, unlike most Greek cities, had no proper Acropolis,
but this name was given to one of the steepest hills of the town, on the summit
of which stood the Temple of Athene Poliuchus, or Chalcioecus.
Five distinct quarters of the city are mentioned: (1) Pitane
(Pitane), which appears to have been the most important part of the city, and
in which was situated the Agora, containing the council-house of the Senate,
and the offices of the public magistrates. It was also surrounded by various
temples and other public buildings. Of these, the most splendid was the Persian
Stoa or portico, originally built of the spoils taken in the Persian War, and
enlarged and adorned at later times. A part of the Agora was called the Chorus
or dancing-place, in which the Spartan youths performed dances in honour of
Apollo. (2) Limnae (Limnai), a suburb of the city, on the banks of the Eurotas,
northeast of Pitane, was originally a hollow spot covered with water. (3) Mesoa
or Messoa (Mesoa, Messoa), also by the side of the Eurotas, southeast of the
preceding, containing the Dromus and the Platanistas, which was a spot nearly
surrounded with water, and so called from the plane-trees growing there. (4)
Cynosura (Kunosoura), in the southwest of the city, and south of Pitane. (5)
Aegidae (Aigeidai), in the northwest of the city, and west of Pitane.
The two principal streets of Sparta ran from the Agora to
the extreme end of the city: these were, (1) Aphetae or Aphetais (Aphetai, Aphetais
sc. hodos), extending in a southeasterly direction, past the temple of Dictynna
and the tombs of the Eurypontidae; and (2) Skias (Skias), running nearly parallel
to the preceding one, but farther to the east, and which derived its name from
an ancient place of assembly, of a circular form, called Skias. The most important
remains of ancient Sparta are the ruins of the theatre, which was near the Agora.
Sparta is said to have been founded by Lacedaemon, a son
of Zeus and Taygete, who married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas, and called
the city after the name of his wife. His son Amyclas is said to have been the
founder of Amyclae, which was for a long time a more important town than Sparta
itself. In the mythical period, Argos was the chief city in Peloponnesus, and
Sparta is represented as subject to it. Here reigned Menelaus, the younger brother
of Agamemnon; and by the marriage of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, with Hermione,
the daughter of Menelaus, the two kingdoms of Argos and Sparta became united.
The Dorian conquest of the Peloponnesus, which, according to tradition, took
place thirty years after the Trojan War, made Sparta the capital of the country.
Laconica fell to the share of the two sons of Aristodemus, Eurysthenes and Procles,
who took up their residence at Sparta, and ruled over the kingdom conjointly.
The old inhabitants of the country maintained themselves at Amyclae, which was
not conquered for a long time. After the complete subjugation of the country
we find three distinct classes in the population: the Dorian conquerors, who
resided in the capital, and who were called Spartiatae or Spartans; the Perioeci
or old Achaean inhabitants, who became tributary to the Spartans, and possessed
no political rights; and the Helots, who were also a portion of the old Achaean
inhabitants, but were reduced to a state of slavery. From various causes the
Spartans became distracted by intestine quarrels, till at length Lycurgus, who
belonged to the royal family, was selected by all parties to give a new constitution
to the State. The date of Lycurgus is uncertain; but it is impossible to place
it later than B.C. 825.
The constitution of Lycurgus laid the foundation of Sparta's
greatness; yet this constitution, traditionally ascribed to Lycurgus, is not
to be regarded as wholly due to him. It represents the union of three distinct
principles: the monarchical principle was represented by the kings, the aristocracy
by the Senate, and the democratical element by the assembly of the people, and
subsequently by their representatives, the ephors. The kings had originally
to perform the common functions of the kings of the Heroic Age. They were high-priests,
judges, and leaders in war; but in all of these departments they were in course
of time superseded more or less. As judges they retained only a particular branch
of jurisdiction, that referring to the succession of property. As military commanders
they were to some extent restricted and watched by commissioners sent by the
Senate; the functions of high-priest were curtailed least, perhaps because least
obnoxious. In compensation for the loss of power, the kings enjoyed great honours,
both during their life and after their death. The Senate (gerousia) consisted
of thirty members, one from each obe (oba), all elected except the two kings,
who were ex officio members, and represented each his own obe. In their functions
they replaced the old council of the nobles as a sort of privy council to the
kings, but their power was greater, since the votes of the kings were of no
greater weight than those of other senators; they had the right of originating
and discussing all measures before they could be submitted to the decision of
the popular assembly; they had, in conjunction (later) with the ephors, to watch
over the due observance of the laws and institutions; and they were judges in
all criminal cases, without being bound by any written code. For all this they
were not responsible, holding their office for life.
But with all these powers the elders formed no real aristocracy.
They were not chosen either for property qualification or for noble birth. The
Senate was open to the poorest citizen, who during sixty years had been obedient
to the laws and zealous in the performance of his duties. The mass of the people--that
is, the Spartans of pure Doric descent --formed the sovereign power of the State.
The popular assembly consisted of every Spartan of thirty years of age, and
of unblemished character; only those were excluded who had not the means of
contributing their portion to the syssitia. They met at stated times to decide
on all important questions brought before them, after a previous discussion
in the Senate. They had no right of amendment, but only that of simple approval
or rejection, which was given in the rudest form possible, by shouting. The
popular assembly, however, had neither frequent nor very important occasions
for directly exerting their sovereign power. Their chief activity consisted
in delegating it; hence arose the importance of the ephors, who were the representatives
of the popular element of the constitution. The five ephors answer in many points
to the Roman tribunes of the people. Their appointment is included by Herodotus
among the institutions of Lycurgus, but it is probable that Aristotle is right
in dating these later, from the reign of Theopompus. Their appointment was perhaps
a concession to the people, at first as overseers of the markets and as magistrates
who might check illegal oppression by kings or great men. Subsequently they
absorbed most of the power in the State. To Lycurgus was ascribed also a prohibition
to use written laws, or to have any coinage but iron: but these traditions must
refer to later customs, since there were neither coins nor written laws in Greece
as early as Lycurgus.
With reference to their subjects, the few Spartans formed
a most decided aristocracy. On the conquest of Peloponnesus by the Dorians,
part of the ancient inhabitants of the country, under name of the Perioeci (Perioikoi),
were allowed indeed to retain their personal liberty, but lost all civil rights,
and were obliged to pay to the State a rent for the land that was left them.
But a great part of the old inhabitants were reduced to a state of perfect slavery,
different from that of the slaves of Athens and Rome, and more similar to the
villanage of the feudal ages. These were called Helots (heilotai). They were
allotted, with patches of land, to individual members of the ruling class. They
tilled the land, and paid a fixed rent to their masters, not, as Perioeci, to
the State. The Spartans formed, as it were, an army of invaders in an enemy's
country; their city was a camp, and every man a soldier. At Sparta the citizen
only existed for the State; he had no interest but the State's, and no property
but what belonged to the State. It was a fundamental principle of the constitution
that all citizens were entitled to the enjoyment of an equal portion of the
common property. This was done in order to secure to the commonwealth a large
number of citizens and soldiers free from labour for their sustenance, and able
to devote their whole time to warlike exercises, in order thus to keep up the
ascendency of Sparta over her Perioeci and Helots. The Spartans were to be warriors,
and nothing but warriors. Therefore, not only all mechanical labour was thought
to degrade them; not only was husbandry despised and neglected, and commerce
prevented, or at least impeded, by prohibitive laws and by the use of iron money;
but also the nobler arts and sciences were so effectually stifled that Sparta
is a blank in the history of the arts and literature of Greece. The State took
care of a Spartan from his cradle to his grave, and superintended his education
in the minutest points; and this was not confined to his youth, but extended
throughout his whole life. The syssitia, or, as they were called at Sparta,
phiditia, the common meals, may be regarded as an educational institution; for
at these meals subjects of general interest were discussed and political questions
debated. The youths and boys used to eat separately from the men, in their own
Sparta gradually extended her sway over the greater part
of the Peloponnesus. In B.C. 743 the Spartans attacked Messenia, and after a
war of twenty years subdued this country, 723. In 685 the Messenians again took
up arms, but at the end of seventeen years were again completely subdued; and
their country from this time forward became an integral portion of Laconia.
After the close of the Second Messenian War the Spartans continued their conquests
in Peloponnesus. They defeated the Tegeans, and wrested the district of Thyreae
from the Argives. At the time of the Persian invasion they were confessedly
the first people in Greece, and to them was granted by unanimous consent the
chief command in the war. But after the final defeat of the Persians the haughtiness
of Pausanias disgusted most of the Greek States, particularly the Ionians, and
led them to transfer the supremacy to Athens (477). From this time the power
of Athens steadily increased, and Sparta possessed little influence outside
of the Peloponnesus. The Spartans, however, made several attempts to check the
rising greatness of Athens, and their jealousy of the latter led at length to
the Peloponnesian War (431). This war ended in the overthrow of Athens, and
the restoration of the supremacy of Sparta over the rest of Greece (404). But
the Spartans did not retain this supremacy more than thirty years. Their decisive
defeat by the Thebans under Epaminondas at the battle of Leuctra (371) gave
the Spartan power a shock from which it never recovered; and the restoration
of the Messenians to their country two years afterwards completed the humiliation
of Sparta. Thrice was the Spartan territory invaded by the Thebans, and the
Spartan women saw for the first time the watch-fires of an enemy's camp. The
Spartans now finally lost their supremacy over Greece, but no other Greek state
succeeded to their power; and about thirty years afterwards the greater part
of Greece was obliged to yield to Philip of Macedon. The Spartans, however,
kept aloof from the Macedonian conqueror, and refused to take part in the Asiatic
expedition of his son, Alexander the Great.
Under this later Macedonian king the power of Sparta declined
still further. The simple institutions of Lycurgus were abandoned, and little
by little luxury crept into the State. The number of citizens diminished, and
the landed property became vested in a few families. Agis endeavoured to restore
the ancient institutions of Lycurgus, but he perished in the attempt (240).
Cleomenes III., who began to reign 236, was more successful. He succeeded in
putting the ephors to death, and overthrowing the existing government (225);
and he then made a redistribution of the landed property, and augmented the
number of the Spartan citizens by admitting some of the Perioeci to this honour.
His reforms infused new blood into the State, and for a short time he carried
on war with success against the Achaeans. But Aratus, the general of the Achaeans,
called in the assistance of Antigonus Doson, the king of Macedonia, who defeated
Cleomenes at the decisive battle of Sellasia (221), and followed up his success
by the capture of Sparta. Sparta now sank into insignificance, and was ruled
by a succession of native tyrants, till at length it was compelled to abolish
its peculiar institutions, and to join the Achaean League. Shortly afterwards
it fell, with the rest of Greece, under the Roman power.
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City of Laconia
in southern Peloponnese.
Sparta, also called Lacedaemon, was the capital of the province of
Laconia in southern Peloponnese
and one of the leading cities of Greece.
In the Homeric world, Laconia
was the kingdom of Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon (himself king of Argos,
or of Mycenae) and husband
of Helen. At the beginning of his Histories of the Persian Wars, Herodotus, talking
about the relationship between Croesus, king of Lydia
in the middle of the VIth century B. C., and Greece,
presents Sparta and Athens
as the two most powerful cities of Greece,
Sparta leading the Dorians, described as a migrant people eventually settled in
Peloponnese, and Athens
the Ionians, presented as a people that always lived in the land (the autochtons
as they liked to call themselves, that is, the ones born from the land itself).
Most of the history of the Vth and IVth centuries, leading eventually
to the rise of the Macedonian Empire, may be viewed as a struggle between Athens
and Sparta for leadership over Greece.
The Peloponnesian War, whose chronicle makes up Thucydides' Histories, was the
climax of this struggle.
In the time of Socrates and Plato, Sparta enjoyed a rather unique
constitution and way of life which fascinated, or at least questioned, many Greeks,
including Plato and above all Xenophon. This fascination, under various forms,
lasted till our day. The origin of Sparta's constitution was ascribed to Lycurgus,
a half legendary lawgiver who, if he ever existed, should have lived around the
Xth century B. C. Lycurgus was supposed to have received the constitution of Sparta,
a document called the Rhetra, from Apollo himself at Delphi.
But modern historians doubt Lycurgus ever existed and would rather ascribe the
origin of the constitution that existed in Sparta in the Vth century to the second
half of the VIIth century B. C.
No matter what, the most striking features of this constitution were:
•Its aristocratic, or more properly, oligarchic, and war-geared
regime, with a limited class of full-right citizens, the “Equals”
(homoioi in Greek), whose role was mostly to defend the city in case of war, and
among whom were chosen each year five ephors in charge of most of the day to day
administration of the city, under the supervision of a “Council of the Elders”
(gerousia), a body of 28 citizens aged over 60 elected for life by the assembly
of the citizens by acclamation. The city also had two hereditary kings from two
different families, endowed with mostly religious functions but also involved
in political life through their membership in the Council of the Elders, one of
whom was chosen as commander in chief in case of war.
•Its reliance on a form of slavery for survival: the citizens
were not supposed to work or cultivate the earth. This role was attributed to
a special class of enslaved people known as the “Helots”, mostly made
up of local people subjected by the Spartans, especially neighboring Messenians.
In between the Equals and the Helots, was a population of half-grade citizens
enjoying freedom but not citizenship, living in the countryside and surrounding
villages as farmers, craftsmen or merchants, and participating in the army in
•Its “communist”-like system of ownership: land
and Helots were owned by the state, not by the citizens. Land was alloted among
citizens in lots called “kleroi”, which were not inherited, but were
supposed to go back to the state at the death of their “owner” to
be reassigned to another citizen (though, over time, the system was more and more
often bypassed and inequality eventually prevailed among the “Equals”).
•Its special program of education for the citizens, the agoge,
which lasted from the age of 7 to the age of 30 in common quarters under the supervision
of the state, and was a prerequisite to enjoy the rights of a citizen. It focused
primarily on physical education and the art of war, but there were also specific
provisions for women and strict rules about marriage and procreation. It included
occasional raids against the Helots in which future citizens were allowed to kill
slaves, to prepare them for war in actual conditions. The last step of this education,
reserved to the best ones, was known as the cryptia (from the Greek word meaning
“hidden”, “secret”) and consisted in living alone for
one year in the countryside and neighboring moutains without being seen by anyone
but with the right to kill Helots. Its daily common meals, known as syssitia,
reserved to citizens but for them mandatory, and to which they were required to
bring their share lest they lose their citizenship.
All in all, the terms that best describe Sparta are austerty, frugality,
discipline: the city was never adorned with beautiful temples (at the beginning
of his history of the war between Sparta and Athens,
Thucydides remarks that, were Sparta to be destroyed, future generations centuries
later, judging by the remains of its buildings, would never imagine how powerful
the city was, whereas were the same fate to happen to Athens,
by the same criterion, one might judge it much more powerful it ever was !); it
never fostered great poets and writers, nor great orators, as did Athens, and
was rather known for its concise style (hence the word “laconic”,
from the name of Sparta's district, Laconia).
Bernard Suzanne (page last updated 1999), ed.
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A celebrated town of the Peloponnesus,
mentioned several times under this name or under that of Lacedaemon in the Bible.
Letters were exchanged between Onias I, high priest of the Jews, and Arius I,
King of Sparta, about the years 309 or 300 B. C. Arius, who sought to maintain
the independence of his country against the Syrian successors of Alexander by
creating a diversion against them in Palestine,
pretended to have found a writing relative to the Spartans, showing that they
themselves and the Jews were two peoples, brothers both descending from Abraham.
This assertion has little foundation, although perhaps there had been such a tradition.
Christianity was introduced into Sparta at an early date. In the beginning
suffragan of Corinth, then
of Patras, the see was made
a metropolis in 1082 and numbered several suffragan bishoprics, of which there
were three in the fifteenth century. In 1833; after the Peloponnesus
had been included in the Kingdom of Greece,
Sparta was reduced to the rank of a simple bishopric.
When the region fell into the power of the Franks, Honorius III established
there in 1217 a Latin see which by degrees became a titular and finally disappeared.
S. Vailhe, ed.
Transcribed by: Douglas J. Potter
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| Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)