Sparta in Literature Introduction - Essay


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.