How and why did the city-states of Athens and Sparta differ?

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While Athens and Sparta were both Greek city states with some similarities, many differences existed between the two societies.  Sparta was a militaristic society that believed in strength over comfort.  In a way, their military training began at birth, as newborns were inspected for problems or birth defects.  If any problems were discovered, that child would be killed.  A spartan family raised their sons until age seven, when all boys entered the agoge to prepare for life as a spartan warrior.  While the agoge did contain some academic study, its focus was on building warriors with methods that would be considered barbaric by modern standards.  The government of Sparta was an oligarchy ruled by two kings, and women had more rights than most societies in ancient times since the men were often gone in battle.

Conversely, the Athenian society was based on knowledge and education.  While their hoplite soldiers were known for their skill throughout Greece, their military training was secondary to their personal careers.  While the Spartans were known for their army, the Athenians developed a formidable navy.  Athens was much more relaxed than Sparta, and its citizens took pride in luxury and excess versus the regimented and restricted ways of the Spartans.  The Athenian education system was not focused on the military, and instead took pride in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and the arts.  Athens was a democracy, with councils and leaders directly elected by the citizens.

Another ironic difference between the two cultures was in their views to the rest of Greece.  While Sparta was known for its military superiority, it was content to remain reclusive.  Democratic, artistic Athens had an imperialistic lean and wanted to extend their influence over the other Greek city states.  This philosophical difference caused Sparta to be paranoid of Athens, and was one of the contributing factors to the Peloponnesian War.

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