Sparta in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Sparta in Literature


Sparta in Literature

The following entry presents critical discussion of classical literature concerning the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.

Sparta, known in antiquity as Lacedaemon, was an ancient city of Peloponnesian Greece and capital of the region called Laconia. Historically one of the two most powerful and influential of the classical Greek city-states, Sparta occupied a position of military and cultural dominance in pre-Roman Greece matched only by that of its principal rival, Athens. Unlike democratic Athens, Sparta boasted a tradition of strict oligarchic government and uncompromising militarism and has thus sometimes been viewed as the prototypical totalitarian society by modern observers. Notable for its highly secretive, austere, and enclosed culture, Sparta has proved to be an abundant source of legend as centuries of writers and scholars have attempted to probe within its enigmatic borders. Faced with an alluring paucity of hard evidence and a plentitude of rumor and speculation concerning Sparta, commentators since antiquity have been drawn to the myth of the Lacedaemonian city-state. In the classical period, the philosopher Plato imaginatively adapted the Spartan social system to form the basis of his ideal polity. Aristotle likewise admired what he considered the moderate oligarchic government of ancient Sparta, but leveled a sharp critique at the actual city he knew in the fourth century b.c. The Athenian Xenophon lionized Sparta in many of his historical works, especially his Hellenica (4th century b.c.) and venerated one of Sparta's most famous kings in his panegyric Agesilaus. The first-century a.d. Greek biographer Plutarch probably preserved the greatest portion of what modern scholars now know of ancient Sparta in the assessments of such figures as Lycurgus, Agis, Lysander, and Kleomenes found in his Parallel Lives (c. late 1st century-c. early 2nd century a.d.). Together, these and other fragmentary references to Sparta in classical literature constitute an intriguing but necessarily incomplete view of Spartan culture and history, a malleable myth that modern critics have attempted to study, refashion, and form anew.

Historians believe that Dorian Greeks first entered the Peloponnesian district of Laconia in the eleventh century b.c. Established from the five associated villages of Pitana, Mesoa, Limnae, Cynosoura, and Amyclae, the city that would be known as Lacedaemon (Sparta) formed on the bank of the Eurotas River by about the middle of the tenth century. Its highly defensible position, partially encircled by mountains to the east and west, and relatively removed from open water, served it well in the ensuing centuries of conflict. Between the eighth and sixth centuries b.c., the warriors of the emerging Spartan city-state overcame the inhabitants of nearby Messenia, impressing most into lifelong servitude as serfs (Helots) and exerting control over the balance of the southern Peloponnese. As a rapidly expanding military and economic power during this period, Sparta responded to the fifth-century call of Athens and a confederacy of Greek city-states to aid in defense against the invading Persians. As Herodotus recounts in his History, Sparta's King Leonidas I, determined to halt the Persian advance at a narrow pass near Thermopylae in 480, led his vastly outnumbered troops, including 300 Spartan soldiers, to withstand the assault. Undermined by Theban treachery, Leonidas and his warriors battled the Persians but were eventually overcome and killed to a man. Their sacrifice in slowing the Persians nevertheless helped the allied Greeks defeat the invaders elsewhere. Tales of martial valor such as this quickly became the stuff of Spartan military legend. The following decisive phase of Spartan history involved its clash with rival Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-04 b.c.), chronicled by the Athenian historian Thucydides. After the final defeat of Athens, Sparta emerged as the dominant Greek city-state and continued to assemble its mighty empire. The new Spartan hegemony, however, was quickly challenged during the Corinthian War (395-87 b.c.), in which Sparta once again battled Athens, along with upstart Corinth and its Greek and Persian allies. Victorious in the final reckoning, the Spartan army, embodied in its imposing phalanx of highly-trained, heavily-armored (hoplite) soldiers, was long considered unstoppable. Sparta's military expansion continued nearly unabated for another two decades until its spectacular defeat by a Theban force at Leuctra in 371. Overextended by campaigns in Greece and nearby Asia Minor, Sparta entered a steady period of decline after Leuctra. Its population dwindled and its empire crumbled before the end of the third century. By 146 b.c., Sparta and the rest of its former allies and enemies in southern Greece were subjugated by the Romans, and the city absorbed into the Roman Empire as part of the province of Achaea. Following a lengthy period of relative peace and prosperity, Roman Sparta ceased to exist after it was razed by Visigoths in a.d. 396. The site was later resettled by Byzantines, who called it by its original name of Lacedaemon, but any surviving remnants of classical Sparta had long since been obliterated.

According to tradition, the Spartan constitution was composed by its quasi-mythical, seventh-century lawgiver Lycurgus, a mysterious figure about whom Plutarch wrote that “in general it is possible to say nothing that is undisputed.” Having forbidden written laws, Lycurgus is thought to have devised Sparta's secretive, militaristic, and oligarchic social system using examples from Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilization as well as availing himself, so the legend goes, of the cryptic declarations of the Delphic Oracle. In this unique political structure, two hereditary kings wielded executive power simultaneously, although their responsibilities were primarily military rather than civil. Daily administration of the government relied on the Gerousia, or council of elders (made up of Spartan men over sixty who were elected to their positions until the end of their lives), and the Ephors, short-term representatives chosen by the small body of full Spartan citizens, called the Spartiates. For ordinary male citizens, daily life meant a near exclusive devotion to physical training for military service. Forbidden to engage in any kind of trade or craft, the Spartan citizen was first and foremost a soldier and spent his days preparing for battle. He shared his meals in a communal hall and was required to sleep in the barracks with the other men until the age of thirty, even if married. Education for the young likewise focused on the development of physical strength and endurance. The system of Spartan public education, called the agoge, oversaw training and socialization of all children from the age of seven. Individual progress was strictly controlled by the state and oriented toward toughening the youth for future service in the military. Boys could be beaten or starved and were encouraged to steal in order to promote the development of such valuable militarily skills as guile, stealth, and resistance to deprivation. Children who were deformed or sickly at birth were brought before the elders and, if judged unfit, generally left to die from exposure. Women and girls also appear to have been oriented toward physical development, primarily for the purposes of reproduction; while adult women obtained many of the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts, they were not required to fight and normally did not take part in politics. In addition to the Spartiates, the other two main constituents of Spartan society were the Helots (slaves or, more precisely, serfs who were attached to and worked the land) and the Perioikoi (a class of free workers and tradespeople who were not considered full citizens of Sparta). Together, the Helots and Perioikoi performed the economic functions that allowed citizens to fully focus on the preparation for war—the fundamental aspect of Spartan life.

Art, music, and literature played a relatively subordinate role in the militaristic society of classical Sparta. However, the ancient city-state did produce, or rather encourage, a handful of poets, some of whose works have survived into the contemporary era. The two names most commonly cited in conjunction with the meager Spartan literary tradition are the seventh-century b.c. poets Tyrtaeus and Alcman. Each appears to have been absorbed into Spartan society at about the time of the Messenian Wars. Alcman is generally regarded as the originator of lyric poetry in Doric Greek. A native of Sardis in Lydia, he was apparently brought to Sparta as a slave and later freed. His works span a variety of poetic genres and include choral odes, especially his Parthenia (known in translation as “Songs for a Chorus of Virgins”), as well as hymns, love-songs, and other lyric verse. Alcman's poetry tends to focus on sensuous themes that generally seem out of place in the otherwise stern and sober context of Spartan society. The poetic subjects favored by Tyrtaeus diverge significantly from those of Alcman and are predominately patriotic, heroic, and elegiac. Probably not a Spartan citizen by birth, Tyrtaeus appears to have originated from Laconia, although other locales, including Athens, have been forwarded. In any case, the adult Tyrtaeus counted himself a citizen and seems to have taken part in conflicts of the mid-seventh century b.c. as a Spartan soldier. His works, written in an Ionic dialect of Greek, are designed to glorify the victories of Sparta and the courage of its warriors. Among his surviving poetic fragments is a portion of the Ewoyuia, which concerns the first Messenian War. Other poems by Tyrtaeus praise Sparta's revered constitution, kings, and military heroes.

Representative Works

Fragmenta Alcmanis Lyrici (poetry) 7th century b.c.

Politeia [Politics] (philosophy) 4th century b.c.

History (history) 5th century b.c.

Panegyricus (speech) c. 380 b.c.
Panathenaicus (letter) c. 339 b.c.

Republic (philosophy) c. 4th century b.c.

Parallel Lives (biographies) c. late 1st century-c. early 2nd century

History of the Peloponnesian War (history) c. 411 b.c.

Fragmenta (poetry) 7th century b.c.


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Criticism: Overviews

Elizabeth Rawson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Rawson, Elizabeth. Introduction to The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, pp. 1-11. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Rawson describes the political and social system of classical Sparta after surveying modern impressions of the ancient Greek city-state.]

Ancient Sparta: a militaristic and totalitarian state, holding down an enslaved population, the helots, by terror and violence, educating its young by a system incorporating all the worst features of the traditional English public school, and deliberately turning its back on the intellectual and artistic life of the rest of Greece. Such, at least, is the picture, if...

(The entire section is 4201 words.)

Michael Whitby (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Whitby, Michael. Introduction to Sparta, edited by Michael Whitby, pp. 1-17. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Whitby encapsulates the geographical and historical contexts of ancient Sparta and surveys the primary sources of ancient and contemporary scholarship on the subject.]


‘Mountains and sea’ is a traditional opening to discussions of Greek history and its geographical background,1 and can provide an introduction to the distinctiveness of Sparta. The four villages of Pitana, Mesoa, Limnae and Cynosoura, which, together with nearby...

(The entire section is 7827 words.)

Criticism: Spartan Poetry

J. T. Hooker (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Hooker, J. T. “Music and Poetry.” In The Ancient Spartans, pp. 71-81. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1980.

[In the following essay, Hooker examines the extant writings of the two outstanding Spartan poets of the seventh century, Tyrtaeus and Alcman.]

For the development of the visual arts at Sparta we now have a wealth of evidence, enabling us to trace the Spartan achievement in this field from Protogeometric down to the classical age. … By contrast, the remains of Spartan literature would fill only a very few pages. But these relics have a value out of all proportion to their bulk, both because of their intrinsic worth and because of the light they shed...

(The entire section is 4761 words.)

L. F. Fitzhardinge (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Fitzhardinge, L. F. “The Poets.” In The Spartans, pp. 124-35. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Fitzhardinge concentrates on the poetic subjects and styles of Tyrtaeus and Alcman.]

Fairly extensive fragments have survived of the works of two seventh-century poets, Tyrtaeus and Alcman, who whether or not they were Spartan by birth were certainly so by adoption and interests.

Tyrtaeus wrote about the middle of the century, during and shortly after the second Messenian war. The Alexandrians had five books of his poems, containing martial exhortations, marching songs, and a poem known as Eunomia or ‘Good...

(The entire section is 5390 words.)

Criticism: The Spartan Myth

E. N. Tigerstedt (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Tigerstedt, E. N. “Lacedaemon: History, Myth, and Propaganda.” In Stockholm Studies in History of Literature 9: The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity, Volume I, pp. 19-28. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1965.

[In the following essay, Tigerstedt considers why so much of Spartan history and culture is cloaked in myth and legend.]

The growth of a historical legend such as that of Sparta presupposes a nucleus around which it more or less gradually crystalized. Scholars, it is true, are often forced to resign themselves to the annoying fact that while they must assume the existence of such a nucleus they are unable to define it more precisely. Here we...

(The entire section is 9428 words.)

J. T. Hooker (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Hooker, J. T. “The Idea of Sparta.” In The Ancient Spartans, pp. 230-40. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1980.

[In the following essay, Hooker focuses on the contributions of such antique writers as Thucydides, Plato, and Plutarch to the legend of classical, Lycurgan Sparta.]

… [The] idea or legend of ‘Lycurgan’ Sparta clearly emerged in Xenophon's Constitution of the Spartans. In that work, Xenophon distinguished the Lycurgan ideal (which had no shortcoming whatever) from the contemporary reality, caused by the intrusion of wealth and the habits and morals of barbarians. The contrast between real and ideal runs like a continuous thread...

(The entire section is 4869 words.)

Ephraim David (essay date 1982-83)

SOURCE: David, Ephraim. “Aristotle and Sparta.” Ancient Society 13-14 (1982-83): 68-103.

[In the following excerpt, David endeavors to reconcile the inherent contradiction of Aristotle's combined critique and idealization of Sparta in his Politics.]


Aristotle's special interest in political research, inherited partly from his master, led him to analyse, compare and evaluate various forms of government, to locate their centres of power and the social forces behind them, and also to propose a model of an ideal State. However, his interest in the empirical research of politics and in constitutional...

(The entire section is 5441 words.)

Gerald Proietti (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Proietti, Gerald. Preface to Xenophon's Sparta: An Introduction, pp. ix-xxii. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987.

[In the following excerpt from the preface to his study of Xenophon's Hellenica, Proietti explores the ancient writer's perceptions of Sparta.]

We have reason today to read Xenophon's writings on Sparta with care. The central concern of most international political discourse is the search for a stable condition of peace that will, above all, provide for the freedom of all nations. Both World Wars ended with all but unanimous declarations of this principle and the establishment of international organizations seeking to maintain it, but...

(The entire section is 3214 words.)

Criticism: Historical Background

W. G. Forrest (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Forrest, W. G. “The Conquest of Laconia.” In A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C., pp. 28-34. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1968.

[In the following essay, Forrest chronicles the period of early expansion in Spartan power over the Peloponnesian region of Laconia from the tenth to eight centuries b.c.]

The Sparta which was founded in the tenth century was not a city like those of the rest of Greece; ‘if Sparta was deserted’, wrote Thucydides, ‘and only its temples and its ground plan left, future generations would never believe that its power had matched its reputation … without any urban unity, made up as it is of distinct villages in the old style, its...

(The entire section is 2645 words.)

Charles D. Hamilton (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Charles D. “Conclusion.” In Sparta's Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War, pp. 326-29. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton summarizes the significance of factional political rivalry in Sparta during the pre-Corinthian War period of the early fourth century b.c.]

The period from 405 to 386 opened on a note of joy and optimism, when the Spartans and their allies tore down the walls of Athens, the symbol of imperial oppression, to the music of flute playing. Many thought that that day heralded the beginning of freedom and peace for Greece, but such hopes were premature and...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)

Linda J. Piper (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Piper, Linda J. “Sparta after Alexander.” In Spartan Twilight, pp. 5-23. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1986.

[In the following essay, Piper details the period of Spartan military and political decline from 371 to 260 b.c.]

In 371 b.c., the Greek world heard with disbelief that a small Theban force had defeated a larger Spartan army at Leuctra. The Spartan military had seemed invincible for so many years that victory was almost a commonplace in Spartan foreign affairs. Yet if the other Greeks were shocked by the news, the men and women within Sparta took it in a typically calm and stoical fashion, firm in their belief that it was merely a...

(The entire section is 9913 words.)

Paul Cartledge (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Cartledge, Paul. “The Spartan Empire, 404-394.” In Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, pp. 347-59. London: Duckworth, 1987.

[In the following essay, Cartledge recounts the historical events associated with the pinnacle of Spartan imperialism between the defeat of Athens (404) and the outbreak of the Corinthian War (395).]

The period from 404 to 360 … has been characterized generally as ‘The decline of the Greek Polis-world’ (Bengtson 1977, 253-91) and in specifically Spartan terms as ‘The policy of the Strong Hand and End’ (Berve 1966, 173-207).1 Decline, power-politics, finis: few would cavil at this choice of categories to...

(The entire section is 7315 words.)

Charles D. Hamilton (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Charles D. “The Final Years.” In Agesilaus and the Failure of Spartan Hegemony, pp. 252-57. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Hamilton comments on the last portion of Agesilaos's reign in the 360s and the final collapse of the Spartan empire.]

Sparta's position after the Battle of Mantineia [362] was even worse than it had been before. Exhausted by some fifteen years of war, the various Greek states decided once again to make peace. As the sources show, this was to be a Common Peace, and there is some evidence that the Great King of Persia had a hand in it.1 There was to be an end to hostilities,...

(The entire section is 2355 words.)

Criticism: Spartan Society And Culture

Paul Cartledge (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Cartledge, Paul. “Helots and Perioikoi.” In Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BC., Second Edition, pp. 138-68. London: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following excerpt from his monograph originally published in 1979, Cartledge studies the class system of ancient Sparta and its relationship to labor, agriculture, and land, concentrating on the social and economic status of the Helots and Perioikoi.]


Plato had occasion to remark that the Helots afforded the subject for the liveliest controversy in Greece; the remark was noted and repeated some six centuries later by the learned Naucratite Athenaios. The controversy was not...

(The entire section is 8777 words.)

Anton Powell (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Powell, Anton. “Life within Sparta.” In Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC. Second Edition, pp. 218-70. London: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following excerpt from his monograph originally published in 1988, Powell probes the daily aspects of classical Spartan culture, including its secrecy, communality, and austerity.]


What went on inside Sparta was a question which intrigued many Greeks of other cities and is the subject of much recent study. In the fourth century, during or soon after the period of Sparta's empire, several studies of the subject were...

(The entire section is 9823 words.)

Paul Cartledge and Antony Spawforth (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Cartledge, Paul, and Antony Spawforth. “The Image of Tradition.” In Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: A Tale of Two Cities, pp. 190-211. London: Routledge, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Cartledge and Spawforth affirm the archaism of Roman Sparta in its memorial observance of social traditions from the classical period.]

[The] profound political, social, and economic changes undergone by Sparta in the last three centuries bc had the effect of levelling much of the city's old distinctiveness. In the Roman Empire's heyday, under the Antonines and the Severi, Sparta emerges as in many ways a typical provincial Greek city, with its comfortable urban amenities,...

(The entire section is 5608 words.)

Paul Cartledge (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Cartledge, Paul. “Literacy in the Spartan Oligarchy.” In Spartan Reflections, pp. 39-54. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Cartledge gathers the available evidence regarding the relative illiteracy of Sparta.]


Somewhere in the first half of the eighth century bc the ‘graphic counterpart of speech’ (David Diringer's nice expression) and a fully phonetic alphabetic script were respectively reintroduced and invented in Greek lands.1 Thus the Greeks (apart from those of Cyprus, among whom continuity of writing may be inferred) achieved the feat, unique among European peoples, of...

(The entire section is 10208 words.)

Further Reading


Boring, Terrence A. Literacy in Sparta. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1979, 115 p.

Probes the traditional attribution of illiteracy to the ancient Spartans.

Dover, K. J. “Thucydides ‘as History’ and ‘as Literature.’” In The Greeks and Their Legacy: Collected Papers, Volume II: Prose, Literature, History, Society, Transmission, Influence, pp. 53-64. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Discusses Thucydides' methods and approach to the composition of historical narrative in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Ducat, Jean. “Perspectives on Spartan Education in...

(The entire section is 964 words.)