If you had the choice between living in ancient Athens or ancient Sparta which, would you choose? While one stands for democracy, the other stands for war. Surely having been raised in America, one is more likely to side immediately with the most democratic one. However, not everyone was equal in Athens. Also, although Sparta was almost entirely focused on war, one half of the population was not completely alienated by the other. Athens and Sparta had completely opposite ways of living.
Although Sparta and Athens are in the same modern county, they have very different geography.
Athens is located in the plains of Attika between the Parnitha and Hymettus Mountains. The mild Mediterranean climate is the main reason people chose to live there. It is also situated close to the Saronic Gulf, which allowed for an abundant amount of trade by sea. The Athenians became very respectable sailors. The mountainous area that the ancient Athenians chose to live in did not contain much living space or fertile land.
Because of this, Athens was forced to conquer nearby colonies. By 454 BCE, Athens had a decently sized empire.
As opposed to the mountainous terrain of Athens, the ancient Spartans decided to settle in the Evrotas River Valley. This provided the Spartans with fresh water and fertile land. Also, the valley of the Evrotas is a natural fortress. Although Sparta was not necessarily landlocked, it did have its own harbor town, Gytheio. The Spartans were much more self-reliant than the Athenians, as they grew most of their food. Ancient Athens and Sparta also had different schooling systems. Athenian boys were tutored at home until they were six or seven. After that, they were sent off the private schools.
Private schools were relatively inexpensive so most boys continued their schooling. Young students learned calisthenics and ball games. The older students’ curriculum was more centered on military training. They were taught running, boxing, and wrestling. They also read The Iliad and The Odyssey, played the lyre, learned arithmetic, and even had singing lessons. This type of instruction set out to make well-rounded citizens that could make informed decisions for Athens. After getting out of school at around fourteen years old, boys went to get apprenticeships. When the boys were eighteen, regardless of their ealth, they went to military school for two years. Girls were not formally schooled, but they could be taught at home.
Unlike Athens, the primary goal of Spartan education was to produce exceptional soldiers. At age seven, every boy went to military school until they were eighteen. The boys were not allowed to own shoes or many clothes. In this harsh environment, the boys were taught boxing, swimming, wrestling, javelin throwing, and discus throwing. When they completed military school the boys had to steal food to survive. If they were caught they were harshly punished. The Spartans believed that this made them stealthier warriors.
At age twenty the men took a military test, if they passed they became a part of the military and were allowed to have a wife. However, were not allowed to live with her. When they became thirty they were full citizens, but they had to continue serving in the military until they were sixty. The women of Sparta had very similar schools to the men’s. Spartans believed that strong women lead to stronger babies. Athens and Sparta even differed in their military tactics. The Athenians dominated the sea and the Spartans monopolized the land. The Athenians used their superior knowledge of sailing to their advantage during times of war.
Before the Athenians’ triremes, the goal of naval battles was to either board the enemies’ ship or to set it on fire. But with the triremes, the keel ran the length of the ship and stuck out about three meters in front. It was fortified with bronze and became the ship’s primary weapon. It was used to ram into other ships and cause them to sink. Before the Athenians, no ship was fast enough to ram into another ship without causing serious damage to itself. However, the Athenian triremes could reach an impressive twelve miles per hour. Although the Athenians were dominant in the water, the Spartans were unstoppable on land.
Their army was known for their fierceness, brutality, and efficiency. The Spartans used the hoplite phalanx formation. This was the perfect embodiment of the Spartan unity on the battlefield. Each man wore bronze helmets, breastplates, and shin guards to protect themselves. But they also carried shields that protected the next person in the line of fighters. The phalanxes were almost unstoppable as long as the flanks were covered. They worked best on open, flat terrain. The phalanxes made sure that the battles were quick and decisive. However, the Spartan method was not very effective when sieging cities.
Even the economic structure of the ancient cities differed in many important ways. Athens relied heavily on trade to obtain all of the necessary materials for the maintenance of the city. Athens also had to conquer the surrounding area simply to have enough food to feed the people in the city. Due to the cast amount of trade in the city, Athens became much richer than Sparta. The ancient Athenians also did not pay direct taxes as we pay them today. The eisphora was a tax on the wealthy that was only used when needed, usually during times of war. Indirect taxes were put on houses, slaves, herds, wines, and hay.
The Spartans, on the other hand, had no use for taxes. Helots, or slaves, who lived in the countryside surrounding Sparta, produced all of the food that the Spartans needed. Although Sparta never became as wealthy as Athens, it never relied trade to keep its people fed. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Sparta and Athens is the way that they govern themselves. While the Athenians sought to make everyone equal, the Spartans were perfectly happy with their oligarchy. Ancient Athens was the birthplace of democracy. Although the Athenian democracy differed from democracy today, it was still effective in governing the city.
Athens had what we now call a limited democracy. Only the male citizens, not women, who had completed their military training, were allowed to participate in the democracy. Of the approximate 315,500 people who lived in ancient Athens, only about 40,000 people could participate in the democracy. There were three important institutions of ancient Athens. First, was the Ekklesia, which was a gathering of any of the 40,000 people to make decisions based on majority vote. Second, was the Boule, or the council of 500. Fifty people from each of the Athenian tribes served on the council for one year.
They met every day and they did most of the actual governing work. These people were not elected by popular vote but by lot. Third, was the Dikasteria, or popular courts. Five hundred jurors were chosen from the lot of male citizens over 30 to decide on the guilt of the accused. This was based on majority rule. These people were paid a wage so that not only the wealthy would be able to participate. The wage was still lower than a normal salary, so mostly elderly people participated. The Spartan form of ruling was much simpler. Two kings and a council of 28 elders ruled Sparta.
The elders were over 60 years old and were elected into the position. Once one was elected into the council of elders, one was elected for life. The 28 elders, the Gerousia, served the purpose of the Supreme Court and could veto motions passed by the kings. They could also try people for murder. Athens and Sparta are two entirely different city-states. While one stands for democracy, the other stands for war. Everything from their geography to their schooling systems are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Because of this, both of these city-states have both strengths and weaknesses. Which one would you choose to reside in?
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