Friday, June 7, 2013

Sparta (1200-500 BC)

Dark ages descended upon Hellenia (see Glossary) around 1200 BC. Minoan and Mycenean civilizations were destroyed and nothing creative replaced them. Hellenian societies and cultures only began to shine again after 800 BC.

By that time Hellenians had again organized themselves into municipal states. Each one was called a polis. We get our English word politics from polis. Each municipal state consisted of a central city organized around an acropolis (meaning “top of a city”). The acropolis was a fortified hilltop and location of the local Olympian temple. At its base was the agora or marketplace. Around both lived upper-class families followed by other inhabitants of the city. Around the city lay the villages and farmlands which came under the control of municipal rulers.

Within a municipal state, only locally born adult males were recognized as citizens. With citizenship came certain rights: voting, becoming a local leader, owning local property, and defending oneself in court. With citizenship also came two primary responsibilities: promoting the vitality of the city by participating in its governance and protecting the city by fighting as a soldier.

The two most important municipal states in Hellenia between 800 and 400 BC were Sparta and Athens. Sparta dominated the large peninsula called the Peloponnese while Athens controlled the area known as Attica.

Olympian tradition tells us that Jupiter had sexual intercourse with a nymph who gave birth to a boy she named Lacedaemon. Their son later married a woman named Sparta. He named the land he ruled after himself and its capital city after his wife.

In 1194, Menelaus ruled Sparta but not his wife Helen. She left with Paris, prince of Troy, and her flight triggered the Trojan War.

Sometime toward the end of the dark period in 800, Sparta benefited from a legendary lawgiver named Lycurgus.

Around 800 BC, aristocrats in Sparta took control of the state. Thereafter the state was ruled by five overseers who were elected annually. These were advised by a council of 60 men who were chosen for life. This council also served as a supreme court. A legislative assembly, consisting of all male aristocrats at least 21 years old, elected the overseers, chose council members, and passed laws.

Upper-class aristocrats ruled, managed, and soldiered. Middle-class merchants ran Spartan businesses. Working-class artisans made products used by others. Marginal-class helots, slaves owned by the government, worked the fields and turned over half their annual crop to the government for the benefit of the aristocrats.

By 750 BC, there was only 1 aristocratic male for every 20 male helots. The aristocrats faced a choice: keep helots happy by granting them greater rights or keep them in their place by exerting greater control. The aristocrats chose to use greater control. This militarized Spartan culture with serious consequences for infants, males, females, and cultural vitality.

Healthy Spartan babies were allowed to live. Unhealthy newborns were abandoned and died.

At age 7, aristocratic boys went to live in military camps. They lived quiet, austere, disciplined lives and learned only what was needed to be excellent soldiers. They married at 20 to beget children but continued to live in the barracks until they retired at 60. When going to battle, these men knew they had to come home either with their shield or on it: victory or death!

Aristocratic women were expected to be strong in order to give birth to strong sons. In contrast with women in other Hellenian municipal states, this meant that aristocratic women left their houses without male chaperones and freely interacted in public with men as well as women. They also participated with men in athletic competitions.

This focus on control through superior military power starved other aspects of Spartan culture. Spartans refused to adapt to the use of coins when these became the new medium of exchange. They showed little creativity in producing goods or in creating beautiful paintings, sculptures, buildings, dramas, or poetry.

By 500 BC Spartan rulers dominated the other municipal states in the Peloponnese. They did this either directly or through their control of the military alliance with these other states known as the Peloponnesian League.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.