When we think of Sparta we immediately think of a rigid militaristic system without any space for the fine arts.
But was Sparta really always that militaristic and what made Sparta a militaristic society in the first place?
When Sparta had established its power in the 7th century the spartan society became less militaristic and a center for the fine arts. Only the second Messenian war (660-650 BC) forced Sparta to leave its reputation as a lyrical and musical center behind and once more transform into a military society to preserve its dominant position on the Peloponnesian peninsula and over the helots.
Let`s find out more!
Has Sparta always been a military society?
While Sparta today is mostly known for being a strictly militaristic society that wasn`t always the case.
The first time Sparta became a military society
After the Dorian invasion (900 BC) during which Sparta subdued its later territory and enslaved the native inhabitants Sparta piece by piece gave up its strict militaristic way of life. Please check out my article here for more information on the Dorian Invasion and how Sparta was founded.
Now during the Dorian Invasion Sparta had subdued not only the land but also its native inhabitants. These native inhabitants were made into state-owned serfs, the so-called Helots. These Helots didn`t have any rights at all. Two other social groups in Sparta also only had limited rights. More on that here.
The only social class that had full rights was the Spartiates. There were several requirements one had to meet to become a Spartiate. But these would burst the frame of that article. Please check out my article here for more information.
The main requirement for being a Spartiate was to be of Dorian descent. That meant you had to be a descendant of the Dorians who subdued the territory that would become Sparta.
Now that limited the number of Spartiates. Even during its peak Sparta only had around 9.000 full citizens, so-called Spartiates.
These 9.000 Spartiates were opposed by a much greater number of enslaved Helots. The imbalance between Spartiates and Helots increased as Sparta occupied the bordering Messenian lands around the year 720 BC.
For Sparta to be able to control the much large number of Helots, Spartiates were given land lots. These properties would be managed by the women and worked by state-owned Helots freeing the Spartiates up to focus on training for war.
That by the way also included being barracked in men-only communes. That had the purpose of reducing the time necessary for gathering the army in case of a Helot rebellion.
While that measure was certainly necessary during the time after the immediate expansion of Sparta it had several disadvantages when it came to family politics, more on that here.
Sparta detaching from being a militaristic society
So we just found out that during the time of its foundation following the Dorian Invasion in 900 BC and after expanding its territory into Messenian lands Sparta had every reason to stay a militaristic society to be able to secure itself!
But during the 7th century, Sparta had secured its position enough to start stepping away from its militaristic way of life. During the 7th & 6th century a type of spartan art started developing that was mostly centered around poetical and musical arts.
Now that might come as a surprise. But during the 7th century, Sparta developed into the place to be for music and poetics attracting poets and musicians from as far as Asia Minor.
Actually, most of the poets and musicians were foreigners since Sparta (like most Greek city-states of the time) did not produce their own artists.
These foreign artists would then train choirs of men. Now obviously Sparta with its system of men under 30 living together in male-only communes, more on that here, offered the best conditions for establishing male choirs.
These choirs would usually be accompanied by the foreign artist who would be playing either the lyre or the flute (an instrument imported from Asia Minor)
One of the most known lyrical poets working in Sparta was a man named Alcman who was born in Sardes in Asia Minor and produced lyrics saying that the art of lyric poetry and singing was on one level with the art of warfare.
Now let`s be honest. Who of us would have thought that that kind of lyrics would have been native to Sparta?
But the time of lyrical poetics and singing ended when Sparta’s dominance was once more challenged.
Why did Sparta become a military society (again)?
Now the whole thing about becoming a less militaristic society that promoted fine arts sounds great. But something changes and forces Sparta back to its roots.
Let`s find out what that was!
What caused Sparta to become a military society again?
In the second half of the 7th century the Messenians who had been subdued two generations prior rebelled.
The war against the Helots of Messenia would go on for decades since they were supported by Spartas old rivals Argos and Arcadia. Because of that war, Sparta was forced to fall back into old, more militaristic habits since the second Messenian war developed into an existential question for the future of Sparta.
A new organization of spartan military
That by the way also changed the spartan way of warfare. While before the second Messenian war Spartiates had mostly fought outside of close formations now a new type of warfare, the Phalanx, was designed.
The phalanx as a tightly staggered formation of heavily armored infantrymen, so-called Hoplites would become a decisive formation in the wars to come. Please check out our article here for more information on the social background necessary to become a Hoplite.
In the following years, the spartan phalanx would gain a reputation for being incredibly effective. The reason for that can be found in the way the phalanx worked, more on that here, and in how Sparta changed as a society.
But unlike the looser formation of singular warriors the phalanx depended on every man holding his position. Men leaving their places would have weakened the entire phalanx. And that recognition led to a change in both spartan society and mentality.
Changes to spartan society & mentality
The focus on maintaining Spartas’s challenged dominance did not only lead to changes in how wars were fought but also in spartan mentality.
While prior to the Second Messenian war Sparta had been a center for the fine arts that quickly changed. The sounds of songs and the lyre were replaced by the sounds of military training.
The sound of the fine arts was replaced by the elegiac poet Tyrtaeus.
Tyrtaeus developed another type of lyrics that were focused on Calling and admonishing the listener. His style, the so-called elegy, emphasized the harsh and binding truth of the word.
In connection, the topics changed. The melodic songs were replaced by songs about dying for Sparta, the glory of victory, and the disgrace of cowardness (especially during battle). Now a defeat was no longer seen as a political setback but as the first step for Sparta to fail as a state.
During the second Messenian war, the virtues that were valued in Sparta changed and that change was institutionalized. A Spartiate who had fleed during battle was no longer allowed to any public office and became a social outcast.
These virtues and their institutionalization made the spartan phalanx the most efficient fighting force of classical ancient Greece that was widely seen as undefeatable.
The phalanx would remain a dreaded fighting force until Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, found a way to overcome the strength of the phalanx. Do you want to find out the incredibly simple trick Phillip II of Macedon used to overcome the phalanx? Please check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
L. Burckhardt, Militärgeschichte der Antike (2008).
P. Matysazk, Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation (2017).
P. Matysazk, Sparta: Fall of a Warrior Nation (2018).
A. Powell, Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC (2016).
G. Mann & A. Heuß (Hrsg.), Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte (Dritter Band).