Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Athens and Sparta

Steve Muhlberger

It would be a brave man who tried to define the great Greek idea, but one of the great Greek ideas was the idea of the citizen. The citizen was a man (not a person, but a man) who fully participated with a large number of his equals in creating the life of a polis.

In some ways citizen society was an aristocratic society.  But from the Greek point of view, the citizen was not an aristocrat. Far more people, proportionally speaking, took part in polis life than in any other civilized society of their time, or of most times. Aristocratic society meant just a few families dominating a city or a kingdom. Further, many of the citizens of archaic or classical times were not particularly lofty people. They were too poor to live in a high style.

Nevertheless, if they were citizens (admittedly a status based on descent), despite their relative poverty they had an essential equality with all other citizens. The Greeks considered citizenship to be something unique, and were at times aware of being part of a great experiment. And they were not wholly wrong.

Citizen equality was an ideal that was realized unevenly across ancient Greece.  There were aristocracies, and hereditary tyrannies, and poleis based on widespread serfdom.

It may well be true that only two Greek states pursued citizen equality very far at all: .Athens and Sparta. This may seem an odd pairing. Sparta was, or tried to be, the perfect totalitarian state. Athens was the city that invented democracy, or perhaps we should say, in Greek, demokratia. To us, who have adopted and redefined demokratia into democracy, the contrast between Athens and Sparta appears great.

Just because that contrast is so strong for us, it is useful to explore the ways in which both cities were pursuing the same path.

Let's begin with Sparta.

The basic Spartan challenge was how to dominate their neighbors, the Messenians, whom they had conquered in the 7th c. B.C.  An alternative to colonization?

But it was a difficult choice. The Spartan community, just because it was small, could not easily dominate the large serf population it had acquired. The solution was the total militarization of society.  Sparta was a National Security State, like South Africa or Argentina during the 1970s. Spartans were trained to be deadly individually and as a group so that they would be unchallengable at home.

To achieve this goal, all Spartan citizens were trained from birth to be soldiers or mothers of soldiers. Indeed, they were prohibited to undertake any other profession, even agriculture.. Boys were taken from home and trained for war from the age of 7. There was no intellectual training -- education was entirely physical, moral, and military. The moral training was aimed at producing unflinching courage, total obedience, and, as the Spartan king Agesilas once said, "contempt of pleasure" {Kitto, 93}.

Unlike other Greek poleis, the Spartan state trained the women as well as the men (though they did not learn to fight). Other Greeks were shocked that citizen women exercised in almost no clothing, but the Spartans thought the health of the next generation of warriors was more important than a narrow concern with female nudity.

Once their military training was finished, the young men were allowed to married, but they did not live with their wives. Until the age of thirty they ate and slept with a barracks-group. After 30, they were permitted to live at their own house, but they continued to eat in barracks until they were too old to fight. In other words, the Spartans took Greek male-bonding to an extreme. They also sacrificed one of the chief pleasures of the ordinary free Greek male: his right to be boss in his own home, if nowhere else.

Although they were a master race, they gained little in the way of material comforts. The story goes that a Sybarite, a Greek from the wealthy Sicilian colony of Sybaris, ate the black broth that was standard barracks fare, and said: "Now I understand why Spartans do not fear death." {Kitto, 93}

Although Spartans citizens had property, they could do little with it. Commerce was discouraged as corrupting, and Spartans retained an iron currency long after everyone else was using coins of gold and silver.

Most of the time it was probably much more fun to be a helot, or serf, or a member of the free non-citizen class. It must be kept in mind, however, that these non-Spartans were subject to a completely arbitrary power.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sparta is that it was admired by many other Greeks. Why? It was because Spartans had subjected themselves utterly to law. Law for the Greeks was the opposite of arbitrary, personal power. In Sparta, there was little room for any kind of personal choice by any member of the citizenry -- at least in theory.  They had adopted a very difficult ideal and did their best to live up to it, overcoming, as the Greeks knew best, the frictions of small-town life and the urgings of the passionate Greek nature.

Their bravery in battle and evident discipline in all aspects of life gained them the respect due to those who had attained a great degree of excellence.

When Herodotus wanted, in his famous history, to draw a contrast between the Persians, enslaved by a near-divine king, and Greeks, who were free men, who did he use to make the point? The Athenians, whom Herodotus admired and appreciated? No. He used Spartan spokesmen to make the point that he  who depends on another man, no matter how well off he is, is not free.

Sparta was an attempt at a stable society that succeeded very well, until, after a long while, it became so stable that it petrified and died.

Athens tried for a different kind of citizen community, one where all aspects of life could be developed according to individual talent, and a more typically Greek ideal of balance would characterize the polis. Because the goal was more complicated, the Athenian way of life took longer to develop.

The evolution of Athens is easiest kept track of by remembering the names of a few reformers and tyrants. We have already discussed Drakon, who first wrote down the laws of Athens, and Solon, who revised them.

Solon, you will recall, came to power in Athens in a time of turmoil. His settlement gave something to the poor citizens and to the newly rich ones.

The poor benefited when debt-slavery and sharecropping were. Poor citizens were given the right to appeal from the decisions of the magistrates, all of whom were old-line aristocrats, to either the citizen assembly or a jury drawn from it. For the poor, then, there was economic relief, relief from arbitrary justice, and, thanks to the expanded role of the assembly, a slightly bigger role in the polis.

The new rich, who were more of a political factor, were also given new privileges. No longer would the archons, the leading magistrates, be chosen from a small group of aristocratic family. Anyone who could meet a rather high property qualification could be elected.

Solon took some power from the aristocrats, but prevented civil war and confiscation, and preserved many privileges of the leading families by easing the resentments of the rest of the citizen body.

The most important thing about Solon's laws is that they were a blow at personal, arbitrary, or hereditary power, and an attempt at constitutionalism. No other polis but Sparta had tried this. This was in 594. Once the laws were published, Solon retired from Athens.  It was his hope that the citizenry would allow his laws to stand for a century at least.

It did not happen that way. A little more than 30 years later, in 561, rivalries among the still-powerful aristocratic families brought tyranny to Athens. The tyrant was a colorful man named Peisistratos. Herodotus tells several stories about him (in class). The unchallenged tyranny of Peisistratos lasted from 546 to 528, and he was succeeded by his sons. Peisistratos ruled over a prosperous and the increasingly cultured city. During this period, Athenian painted pottery, one of the traditional luxury arts of Greece, hit new highs. Peisistratos acted as a patron of the common life of the city. It was he who founded Great Dionysia festival and the dramatic contests that would give rise to Greek tragedy.

Prolonged one-man rule helped break down the prestige of the traditional aristocrats. Eventually, however, the tyranny wore out its welcome. Peisistratos himself could pose as an opponent of aristocratic arbitrariness. His sons, Hippias and Hipparchos, whose only claim to power was hereditary, hardly could. Their arrogant rule identified tyranny with arbitrary power, and so Hipparchos was murdered and Hippias was chased out.

Once the tyranny had fallen, in 510, the aristocratic families thought that their day had come again, and they began fighting each. But it was almost a century after Solon had first written his laws, and the old unthinking acceptance of aristocracy no longer existed.  The struggle for power could only be won by someone who was willing to appeal to the common citizens, to the demos.

The man who did this was Kleisthenes, a man of impeccable birth and background, but smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing. Like Solon, he did not set himself up as a tyrant, but tried to set up a constitution that would prevent civil war and give as much power to people like himself as possible.

Kleisthenes' constitution, established in 508, gave much more to the ordinary citizens than Solon's had. Two of its provisions were key.

First, the entire citizen body was reorganized in a way that undercut aristocratic control over their clients and other followers. Athens formerly had been organized by phratries, which were collected into four tribes. This gave the aristocrats who led the phratries a lot of influence. Kleisthenes dissolved the traditional four tribes and removed all political significance from the phratries.

The smallest political subdivision of the polis would no longer be the brotherhood, a body based on descent (real or mythical), but on a new and artificial division, the deme, which was purely geographical. We could translate deme as ward or riding. A deme was not associated with any family, and had no traditional leaders.

This was only half of the reform. The new parishes were organized into not four, but ten tribes. The tribes were not solid geographical blocs, but scattered all over Attica.   Importance of the tribe:  A man's tribe was his regiment; and when the executive council of the assembly (boule) was picked, 50 members from each tribe were elected to it. Under the new system, the average Athenian had his closest political associations not with his clan, or his aristocratic patron, but with a mixture of near neighbors and relative strangers. He was now potentially freer in his political behavior; his former patron found it much harder to exert influence in council elections or in the regiment.

The second big reform was ostracism. Ostracism was a procedure by which the assembly could vote to expell from the polis anyone whom they considered too dangerous. Once a year, the assembly was given an opportunity to decide if an ostracism was necessary. If the vote was yes, then citizens took potsherds, ostraka, which were the note paper of antiquity, and scratched the name of the potential exilee. These were collected, and if any one candidate got 6000 votes or more, he had to leave Athens and Attica for ten years. This could be used against a potential demagogue, but equally easily against a too-prominent aristocrat. Ostracism was the strongest tool of the ordinary citizen to cut a leader down to size.

The invention of new tribes and of ostracism pushed Athens much farther along the road to citizen equality and demokratia, rule by the demos.

The movement towards citizen equality had enough momentum that in 487, a generation after Kleisthenes' reforms, the last important aristocratic privilege was gutted by a vote of the assembly. In the time of Solon, the archons had been the chief magistrates of the state. In 600 B.C., only a few aristocrats qualified for the post, which gave them important powers for a year, and afterwards gave them a place in the Athenian senate, which was called the Areopagus, an important judicial body.

Since Solon, the archonship had been opened up to more people, and their powers cut down, but the archons were still a force to be reckoned with, and all archons were men of wealth, influence, and family background.

In 487, this last aristocratic political haven was -- not abolished -- but gutted. A new law was passed that said archons would now be elected by lot. The names of all eligible candidates would be put in a pot, and a certain number drawn at random. Election by lot stripped the office of much of its significance.You could no longer pretend you had a real mandate to do anything.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this reform is the fact that ordinary Athenians were confident enough to do it.

With this reform, we have come to the brink of Athenian demokratia, rule by the demos, rule by the assembly of all male citizens, helped by a rotating council (the boule) of 500 chosen from its membership. These popular bodies, and ten tribal generals chosen by them, now had the deciding voice in the affairs of the polis.

The assertion of popular power I have just described was the product of a great Athenian confidence their form of citizen equality was the path to achieving the good life in the context of the polis -- a path that was very different from the Spartan path, but equally radical in its attachment to the idea of equality. This confidence was given a terrific boost a few years later, when Athens took a leading role in defeating an invasion of by the greatest power of the contemporary world; perhaps the greatest power the world had ever known: the Persian Empire.


W.G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 800-400 B.C. (NU)
H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks. (NU)

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.