Sparta, city of arts, weapons and laws (N. Richer)

Sparta is a unique city in the Western imagination. Political, social and military institutions fascinate and inspire many politicians and artists. However, this singularity is increasingly called into question by the recent work of historians. Thanks to archaeological discoveries but also to re-readings of ancient texts, Sparta is gradually becoming a Greek city more similar to the others. Nicolas richer in his work entitled Sparta, City of Arts, Weapons and Laws and published by Éditions Perrin offers a rich updated synthesis of the history of the city which deconstructs a unique narrative constructed from the Hellenistic period, at the end of the city’s independence. For the purposes of this article, all dates listed are BC.

A "colonial city"

After presenting the geography of Laconia, the author begins with the origins of the city. If a population of this space from the 16th century during the Mycenaean period is attested and the city is mentioned in the Homeric work, it is however necessary to wait for the establishment of the Dorians in the peninsula so that it truly enters the History. The Dorian city seems to be the result of a Theban colonial enterprise, as the myth of the return of the Heraclides tells it: the children of Heracles, originally from Thebes, would once again have seized the region lost by their ancestors. The Spartan kings thus proclaimed themselves descendants of Heracles. But the founding of Sparta is also the fruit of a synoecism around 770-760 and also results from the subsequent annexation of Amyclées, supported by the tribe of Aegides of Theban origin. The establishment of a double monarchy could thus be the fruit of this complex history or of a distribution of political functions (the Agiades for foreign affairs and the Eurypontides for internal politics). Social and legal categories such as the Helots (slaves attached to a Spartan land) and the Periecs (inhabitants of Laconia having a status inferior to the Spartans) would also find their origins in this 8th century so obscure for us.

The archaic city, an expanding city

In the 7th century, the Spartans conquered the southern Peloponnese after many battles and not without difficulty: the two wars in Messenia in particular lasted about twenty years each and had numerous political consequences. Many Spartans swarmed overseas and sometimes founded colonies in the Cyclades (Thera, Melos), or in southern Italy (Taranto) or settled in other cities, particularly in Crete. But the "continental" power of Sparta is assured thanks to "the laborious annexation of Messenia" which allows the city to have significant land resources at the base of its prosperity.

In his chapter entitled "The Inner Ordering of Sparta in the 7th and 6th Century", the author returns to the figure of the great Spartan legislator Lycurgus. The latter would have lived in the high archaic period and would have provided the city with all the legislation still in force in the classical period. Its action would be the result of disorder and tensions resulting from the expansion of the city in the 7th century. For historians, this work is more disparate, certain laws are posterior to its supposed existence. Ancient authors recognized the collective character of this legislation. The Great Rhetra is written by Lycurgus on the instructions of Apollo of Delphi: it sets out the main features of the organization of the city with three tribes, a gerousia, the ephors and an assembly of citizens. The constitution of Lycurgus therefore allows eunomia, good order and good government. This reform is largely part of what is called the Hoplitic Revolution, which changed the military and political order in the Greek cities. The numerous banquets are the result of the desire to strengthen cohesion between citizens. The author concludes with the supposed conservatism of the Spartans. This is based on a feeling noted by the authors, but well after the work of Lycurgus.

The Spartan 6th Century: Austerity and Political Consolidation

Sparta has not always been a city resistant to the arts. In the 6th century, the city had an important artistic activity. It produces sculptures and ceramics which are exported considerably. Local artisans have successfully worked ivory and bronze. Public buildings are not that far from those in neighboring cities. In another area, we can cite the work of the poet Tyrtée. But artistic austerity set in in the second half of the 6th century, creating an increasingly important gap with other cities, which is reflected in the accounts of ancient authors. The question of artistic austerity is linked to that of inequalities in the city that the author develops at length: Sparta was not an egalitarian city (in terms of wealth, family, status) but it wanted to be displayed as such . The Chilon ephorate (556/555) seems to have constituted a decisive impetus in this direction and is to be linked to the political reforms then underway which give more power to the citizens and to the ephors against the elites.

Sparta is increasingly asserting itself on the international scene. It defends its interests by supporting oligarchic regimes favorable to the city and by forging alliances with neighboring cities. The consolidation of its power and the neutralization of potential threats are the keys to its less conquering diplomacy. However, thanks to its military power, it appears more and more as a recourse and a defender of Greek interests. The Peloponnesian League established around 525 is a manifestation of this foreign policy. At the turn of the 6th century, Cléomène Ier (520-488) had a more ambitious foreign policy. Sparta intervenes more readily outside the Peloponnese as in Athens to try to re-establish the Pisistratides but also in Aegina because its inhabitants had accepted Persian domination. This last expedition turns out to be a failure and leads to the fall of Cléomène Ist. But unrest within the Peloponnese led by Messenians, Arcadians and Argians persists. Sparta crushed Argos in 494. However, the troubles in Messenia persisted until the 460s. However, Sparta, aware of the limits of its power, refused distant expeditions. After the refusals of previous requests for aid from Plataea in 579 or Samos in 516 against an external enemy, Sparta agreed to help Athens in 490 in the first Persian war although it could not intervene militarily.

A Greek city not so different from the others

The author offers an in-depth description of the life of the Spartan city in all its aspects. The first chapters deal with social issues in the city. Producer and dominated Helots are essential for the economy and the functioning of the city, they allow citizens to be relieved of productive tasks. The Spartans emphasize their equality although there are many sources of inequality (economic, social and family). This social system has many weaknesses. According to Aristotle, the place of women in the Spartan city is a problem. With the high male mortality linked to wars, women could be in possession of substantial inheritances. It is above all oliganthropy (the lack of men) that is a real problem that Nicolas Richer analyzes. It is with many sources and many calculations that he disentangles reality from its causes. The war led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families, which led to measures to curb these very real inequalities. The use of currency in Sparta was limited until the 5th century. We favor barter but also iron money as in many other cities. The author explains the reasons why Sparta did not need to mint gold or silver coins. The Peloponnesian War upsets this situation because of an influx of precious metals following the victory: a temporary ban on the use of currency was put in place to limit the use by some of the wealth accumulated abroad . The author concludes that the Spartan social system was finally stabilized only with the loss of Messinia in 370/369. The Spartan territory was then better controlled by a small community of Spartans, who did not open their ranks to the Periecs and the Helots despite their numerical weakness.

A question at the heart of many speeches and representations, education in Sparta benefits from a chapter. The different stages of this restrictive educational system are discussed, including crypty reserved for an elite (the test of Spartan initiation where the initiate must survive on his own). Spartan education, in addition to the well-known physical aspects, devotes a large part to intellectual activities such as reading, writing, music, theater, history but also public speaking with the "brachylogy" which is the use of short expressions. Spartan education continues throughout life. The educational and normative set creates a hierarchical society with the hippeis (elite infantrymen) but also the agathoergoi who are the oldest and most deserving hippeis "who must tirelessly go on mission each on their own for the service of the community of the Spartans ”as Herodotus tells us. The strong and omnipresent discipline is reinforced by the cult of the pathèmata (the feelings that the Spartans had to fully master). Although men are the heart of the city, Sparta did not neglect the education of girls. The latter had its own standards, especially for eugenic purposes.

The following chapters deal with other aspects of the city such as politics, the pantheon and Spartan religious festivals, but also the army. The different political institutions are presented (ephors, gerontes and kings) and constitute a “mixed constitution regime” combining democratic, oligarchic and monarchical elements. We welcome the organizational chart of the city produced by the author, which is a good synthesis of political life in Sparta. The chapter on religion shows, beyond honored gods, the multitudes of festivals and rituals that punctuated the year. Part of religion is linked to military affairs: the cult of heroes, the dead and the pathèmata allows the Spartans to secure victory. Military successes were also explained, according to the elders, by their piety and rigor in religious matters. Of course, the author develops the military aspects in depth in several chapters (military and physical training, supervision, organization, military composition). If the vanquished are historically strongly depreciated in the city, the author shows that oliganthropy led Sparta at the end of the classical period to negotiate peace several times in order to recover its men. Proof that the stigma was less strong and that the released prisoners were destined to reinvest the city.

Glory and decline of Sparta in classical times

The last two chapters provide a synthesis of the political history of the city during the classical period. The fifth century is that of greatness. Following the Second Median War (480-479) and the famous battle of Thermopylae (480), Sparta appears as the defender of the Greeks. But another rival city can dispute this title: Athens. Between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War (431-404), many frictions broke out between the two cities. The author, like Thucydides, shows that the hostilities come from Athenian initiatives. The Peloponnesian War allows Sparta to assert its supremacy and destroy Athenian ambitions. Paradoxically, the Spartan victory came with the establishment of a navy supported financially by the Persian Empire. This poses a number of political problems for the city which finally quickly detaches itself from its old ally. After renouncements in Asia Minor and a relative victory against Corinth (395-386), the fragile Spartan hegemony was swept away by the Thebans with the battle of Leuctra in 371. This led to the loss of Messenia around 365 and the establishment new rival cities like Messene, Megalopolis or Mantinea in the Peloponnese. Philip II of Macedon continues to weaken Sparta by aiding his rivals. Sparta reacts one last time in 330 with the siege of Megalopolis. The military failure sealed the decline of Sparta, which according to Paul Cartledge became "a third level and unimportant community".

The entire book portrays a city that has evolved slowly but which, while retaining archaic features, has partially distinguished itself from other Greek cities. Multiple internal tensions have led to measures being taken that have helped to make the city stand out in an attempt to maintain an apparent equality between citizens. As the demonstration progresses, the author shows that in many ways Sparta was not that different from other Greek cities. Indirectly, the book invites us to step out of the Athenian prism to better understand a vast and complex world in which Athens is not the model. The author draws on a wealth of documentation which he exhibits and explains at each stage of his demonstration. The numerous illustrations allow an immersion in the material culture of Spartan. The maps are precise and very clear. In the end, the book is a complete and successful synthesis of the history of this city which has caused so much ink to flow to this day.

Sparta, city of arts, arms and laws, by Nicolas Richer. Perrin, March 2018.

Video: What did Spartans really look like? (May 2021).