It is important to note that both city-states were Greek in culture, spoke the same language, and worshipped the same deities. They shared a similar diet, consisting primarily of olives, figs, grapes, lentils, wheat and barley. Only Spartan military had meat as a regular part of their diet, particularly a rather odious concoction known as "black broth," which consisted of pork, vinegar and blood. The differences between the two were primarily political and social.
Politically, Athens was a democracy ruled by an assembly. Only males were members of the assembly, but they were expected to be present and participate. The Athenians were quite proud of their democratic government, as indicated in the following excerpt from Pericles's funeral oration:
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbor's, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
Sparta was ruled by two kings, descendants of the two leading Spartan families. They did not always agree, and there was often discord within the Spartan governmental structure. a series of five Ephors were elected by the people and exercised a substantial degree of political power.
Women had no rights in either polis, although they enjoyed more freedom in Sparta than in Athens. To be the wife of a Spartan soldier was considered a privilege and sign of status. Spartan women were not allowed to wear jewelry and were expected to remain physically strong so that they might bear strong children.
The most striking difference between the two is the militaristic nature of Sparta. Because they were surrounded by Messenaeans whom they kept as slaves of the state, Spartans found of necessity that they must remain in a constant state of military readiness. Their entire society was therefore dictated by military preparedness.