Compare and contrast Athens with Sparta. Consider each of the following aspects – political, social, economic and cultural, and be sure to find points of similarity as well as differences. Which elements do you think were the most important or characteristic?


Sparta has become a by-word for rigid hierarchy and asceticism, while Athens is celebrated as the centre of culture of its time, a city peopled by artists and philosophers, a true democracy. Here we examine the truth of these stereotypes during the flowering of Greek civilisation.

In the Beginning

The Economic foundation of Sparta – Slavery and Political Control

Early Greek civilisation was influenced heavily be Egypt and Phoenicia, Babylon, Persia, Phrygia and Thrace. Yet none of these surrounding nations shared the values that have come to define the Greeks and their influence on modern civilisation: liberty in thought, word and deed. All but the Phoenicians were ruled by despots, were ruled by superstition and had little experience of freedom or the exercise of reason. Thus they were all despised by the emerging Greeks as "barbaroi".

Greece, like many of the ancient civilisations, was not so much a country as a collection of city-states. One such, Laconia, had as its capital Sparta. It lay in a seismic valley between the Parnon mountains and the taller Taygetus range, and was so well defended by them that no city walls were necessary. Indeed, it was not really a city, but rather a collection of five villages, bound together in a union.

Once colonised by the Dorians, the people responsible for the vast expansion of Greek-occupied territory in this time, Sparta became as fully Greek as anywhere. The Dorians saw that they had a natural citadel, and took advantage of it, and dominated the lands to the south of them, the Peloponnesus.

The Dorians were a people who made war their entire life. There were no options for them but conquest or slavery. The Peloponnenes defeated agriculturists, were clear candidates for enslavement. So Laconian society ended up with three tiers: the Dorians at the top, living by and large in the villages constituting Sparta itself, sustained by the agricultural produce of their slaves, called Helots after the first race enslaved by the Spartans. The third tier, an uneasy middle class, were freemen, either living in the remote or mountainous areas of the region or working as traders or artisans in the towns. These Perioeci were subject to taxation and military service, but had no share in the government, and could not intermarry with the Dorians.

So Sparta ended up, after their gains in the Messenian wars, as a land where some 120,000 freemen and twice as many slaves were ruled by a class numbering a scant 32,000. Fewer than one in 11 were Dorian. Martial law and a secret police attempted to keep the Helots quiet, but almost every year revolution was threatened or attempted.

Economics of Early Athens

Athens, and indeed all of Attica, faced many of the same problems as Sparta. Not an inherently fertile land, there was a gulf between rich and poor. However, this divide was not a split along racial lines, as in Sparta. There was no conquering race here, nor none subjugated, but rather a blend of the indigenous peoples, direct descendents of the old Helladic civilisation.

Attica’s soil was so poor and rocky that little could be cultivated successfully except grapes and olives – both crops that require a great deal of maturation time. In order for the economy to support the quite incredible number of cities that constituted Athens, some other source of income had to be found, and for Attica it was trade with the other peoples of the Aegean. Athens became the commercial hub, and from out of this economic necessity grew the power, wealth and culture of the Athens that we remember today.


In Athens, as in Sparta, we have initial three economic and social classes. At the top were the Eupatrids, wealthy men who lived in the towns, their extensive lands worked by hired labour and slaves. Then came the mercantile and professional classes, the tradesmen and free labourers. These were known as the Demiurgoi. They too made money for the Eupatrids, from interest on loans or by their work. The poorest were the Georgoi, basically peasants who owned small tracts of land, who were lucky if their land provided enough to manage on.

Unlike Sparta, there were very few slaves. But their number rose as the peasants’ land became more and more subdivided by inheritance, and many mortgaged their lands to the Eupatrids, and became essentially serfs, since the holder of the mortgage was considered to be the owner of the land. If they failed to keep up their payments, they and their families might be sold as slaves. Other peasants took the alternate route of selling their land and moving to the town to become craftsmen or hired labour, but this was punishable by a fine and disenfranchisement. The foreign trade, so essential to the success of the artisans and the merchants, also served to impoverish the peasants, keeping the price of foodstuffs down and driving up the prices of manufactured goods that he needed.

The lack of labour laws permitted the middle classes to drive down the wages of hired labourers until they became destitute, and to gradually replace them with slaves. Manual labour became an occupation unworthy of a freeman. Nobody who could afford to buy labour would do such a thing themselves.

The Eupatrid landowners, seeing the wealth of the middle classes, became jealous and started to sell to foreign markets the food that was desperately needed at home, and so the poverty of the peasants was spiralling out of control. Athens, like Sparta, was ripe for revolt.


Culture in Early Sparta

In the early years, before the Messenian wars, song and artistry were blossoming throughout Greece, and Sparta was no exception. Fine pottery and bronze work was produced. Sparta became known throughout Greece for its choral music – so much so that when plays were written, the dialogue was in the usual Attic but the sung choruses were in the Doric dialect.

Yet when we examine this tradition, we come to realise that here, as in every other aspect of Spartan life, was the exercise of intense control and the enforcement of uniformity. For what is a chorus but a vast number of people all singing the same thing, under the control of one man?

Sparta was the origin of the strong, simple "Doric mode", resulting in a fine, martial sound. But, in true martial style, any deviation from the Doric was punishable by law. One poet-musician, so gifted that his songs had quelled a sedition, was fined because he had added another string to his lyre, to suit his voice.

Artistry was welcome in Sparta – so long as it obeyed the rules.

Law in Sparta and the Constitution of Lycurgus

Once the Messenian wars happened, the pressures of the societal imbalance forced the abandonment of the arts. By the time the constitution of Lycurgus was written, some time between 900 and 600B.C., the constant necessity of suppressing rebellions and waging war had turned every Spartan into a soldier.

While we cannot be sure which elements of the code that epitomises the concept of ‘Spartan’ actually preceded Lycurgus, we do know a good deal about the state of Laconia at that time. The conquered lands were distributed among all the Spartan citizens, that elite thirty thousand. The old society, where kinship was all-important, was broken up by this division of land, and the new Laconian society was organised along geographical divisions.

Lycurgus saw that the merchant classes were gaining leadership in many of the other city-states of Greece, including Athens, and so, to prevent this, he forbade the citizens from engaging in trade or industry, and permitted only iron as currency, prohibiting the importation of silver and gold.

The Spartan constitution was a peculiar blend of monarchy – or rather a duarchy -, aristocracy and democracy, or so went the boast. Sparta had two concurrent kings, the reason for which has yet to be determined; but possibly to compromise between rival houses, or to avoid the perils of absolutism. The kings were limited in their power; they commanded the army in war, they were the heads of the judiciary, and they performed the sacrifices required by the state religion. They were subordinate to the Senate in all things, and gradually lost even such authority as they had.

The Senate was the most powerful section of the government, and consisted of elderly members of the aristocracy; nobody under the age of sixty was considered mature enough. According to Plutarch there were twenty-eight of them, and they were elected as and when a vacancy occurred by a process of acclaim; each candidate passed before the Assembly and he who was greeted most enthusiastically was elected.

The Senate draughted legislation, formulated public policy, and functioned as a kind of Supreme Court for capital crimes.

Finally there was the token democracy, the Assembly or apella. All male citizens over thirty were admitted. It met once a month, and all laws had to be approved by it; however, they could not discuss or amend them, only accept or reject, and in fact few were added to the Constitution once it was in force. Its power was limited even more by an amendment to the constitution that gave the Senate power, should they decide the Assembly had made a "crooked" decision, to overturn it.

There was one more group of people wielding considerable power in Sparta. These were the five ephors, who were something like overseers, and were elected annually by the Assembly. They preceded Lycurgus and by the mid-sixth century had become equal in power to the kings; yet there is nothing in the surviving

Records of Lycurgus’ legislation mentioning them. We do know that after the Persian wars it was they who received embassies, decided legal disputes, commanded armies and even ordered and judged the kings.

Law enforcement was handled by the army and the police. There was a secret police, the krypteia, whom the ephors gave the right to spy upon the people, and to kill Helots at their discretion. Poor Helots; it seems there was a very fine line between adequate service and being a threat to the state, for many were killed simply because they had served the state so bravely in war that it was determined they were able and therefore dangerous.

Law and Political Structure in Athens

Just like Sparta, Athenian society began as a monarchy, with society organised along the lines of kinship. There were four tribes, each claiming a divine heroic ancestor; each with a governor, or archon, their own treasurer, common religious ceremonies and with tribal obligations of defence, mutual aid and vengeance. There were lands held communally by the tribe, and rights of intermarriage and bequest. The tribes were subdivided into brotherhoods, and thence into clans and finally families.

Again like Sparta, the power of the monarchy was in decline. The true power was held by the heads of the oldest and the wealthiest families. Kings were useful when disorder threatened: they made a good figurehead. But in periods of stability, the family heads asserted their feudal control over the government

Finally they got rid of the king altogether, by the ingenious device of claiming that no one was good enough to succeed King Codrus, who had died in battle against a Dorian invasion.

The replacement was an archon, at first chosen for life, and then restricted in tenure, first to 10 years, and then, in 683B.C., to one. At that time they also split the powers of the job among nine archons; one of these had the title "king" but his only role was as head of the state religion – again mirroring Sparta. Another was a military commander, another gave his name to the year to permit the dating of events, and the remaining six were lawmakers.

This was no overthrow of the monarchy in favour of the commons. Instead, just as in Sparta, it was the feudal aristocracy who had recaptured rule of the land, and they retained it for over 500 years.

One’s political rights depended, again, upon one’s wealth. Three political ranks were determined. Hippes – basically knights - owned horses and were the top stratum. From their ranks were the archons, judges and priests chosen. Zeugitai owned a yoke of oxen and could afford to equip themselves as heavy infantry: they too counted as citizens, while the thetes, who could only serve the state as light infantry, had no political power.

Once their term of office was complete, assuming they were not tainted by scandal, archons became life members of the Boule, a council similar to the Spartan senate in duties and in power. The Boule chose the archons and ruled the state.


Sparta’s strict military upbringing and control of its citizens meant that attempts at rebellion there were brutally quashed. Athens had no such control and, in consequence, no such stability of government.

Much as did Lycertus in Sparta, a lawmaker named Draco in Athens was commissioned to codify and put in writing a system of laws that they hoped would restore order in Attica in the face of the economic privations of the lower classes. Very few of the laws were actually new; more of the newly wealthy were eligible for archonship, and the ‘system’ of feud vengeance was replaced by law. The Senate was to try all cases of homicide. These laws became the origin of the word ‘draconian’, for to get the people to accept legal punishment for killers over their traditional vengeance system, the punishments were drastic. Draco’s laws did nothing to address the real problems in Athens, and by the end of the seventh century, Athens was ripe for revolution.

The revolution, when it came, was remarkable, brought about completely bloodlessly by one man, Solon. According to Plutarch, his father, an Eupatrid of the best blood, had ruined his estates "in doing benefits and kindnesses to other men". Certainly his son had no qualms about enacting laws for the greater good that would damage his personal finances significantly. Solon himself had taken to trade, and in his spare time was a poet. In 594, some representatives of the middle classes persuaded him to accept election as an archon. Nominally he was to be the eponymos, the archon who gave his name to the year; but he was also to be granted extra dictatorial powers. They wanted him to address the economic divide, to write a new constitution, and restore stability to the state. His blood and his wealth persuaded the upper classes that he would be acceptably conservative, and they consented.

They could not have been more wrong.

His first act was to cancel all existing debts and to free all persons enslaved or attached for debt. Suddenly the peasants owned their land again, and they and their families were once again freemen. Enslavery for debt was forbidden.

He reformed the currency, freed most of the people imprisoned for political offences, repealed most of Draco’s legislation, except that for murder, and, possibly his most revolutionary move, applied his laws equally to rich and poor. Taxes were to be determined by income, with five strata, the lowest of which paid no tax. This weakened the old kinship organisation.

The old Senate remained at the head of the government, albeit with more men eligible for membership and somewhat fewer powers. His new Boule consisted of one hundred men elected by each tribe, 400 in total. They were responsible for selecting, censoring and presenting business to the Assembly.

This Assembly was the first truly democratic part of the new government of Athens. It elected the archons annually, and had the power to question, impeach and punish them: it could also debar their graduation into the senate after their term, if it felt their conduct was not good enough.

The second major blow for democracy was the new heliaea. All citizens, even the poorest, were eligible to be elected by lot to this body of 6000 jurors. They formed the courts, and tried all matters excepting only murder and treason. Any action of a magistrate could be brought to the heliaeic court to be appealed.

A number of other laws were enacted by Solon, some of which will be mentioned in later sections. Particularly notable was that designed to foster the crafts and protect the food supply – export of all food products except olive oil was forbidden.

Solon served as archon for 22 years, and despite the rules of many later dictators, his laws remained the cornerstones of Athenian government for five hundred years. Pesistratus and his sons built upon that foundation, creating a society entirely unlike the Spartan, where the true power was in the hands of the middle classes in temporary alliance with the poor.

Eventually, after another sequence of dictators culminated in a crackdown by one paranoid ruler, and the Spartans were invited to invade and help the upper classes regain power, a second revolution, that of Cleisthenes, abolished the kinship system and replaced it with geographical divisions, as Sparta had done long before. He enlarged the Assembly, instituted secret ballots, and permitted "ostracism", a banishment for a period of 10 years, to those men considered most dangerous to the fabric of society.

Here at last was a recognisable form of true democratic government. To be sure, it was not fully representative; only freemen might vote, and there was still a property limitation on eligibility for office, though it was very much smaller. But the Assembly, Court, Council and magistrates had all legislative, judicial and executive power. The Court was, as before, drawn from all the citizens. All citizens likewise could vote for the members of the Council, and the magistrates were appointed by and answerable to the Assembly. Almost one in three citizens were a member of the Council for at least a year of their life. No government so inclusive had ever existed before – nor could there be a greater contrast with the dictat of Sparta.

The Spartan Code

Every citizen of Sparta – only men counted as citizens – was liable for military service from the time he turned twenty to his sixtieth birthday. They were trained severely, and followed a strict moral code. Strength and bravery were what made a man good. The highest honour was to die in battle, and surviving a defeat was an unforgivable disgrace.

To create a people willing to accept such a harsh culture, they began at birth. First the father would look at his child and if he considered it sub-standard, would order it killed. Then it must be presented to a state council of inspectors. If they failed the child, it would be thrown off a cliff. Babies who passed these initial examinations were then inured to privation by a system of discomfort and exposure.

At seven, a Spartan boy was removed from his home and sent to a kind of cross between a school and a regiment. The class manager would appoint the ablest boy as captain and the others must obey him, take the punishments dealt out by him, and work to exceed him in discipline and achievement. The older men would provoke quarrels in order to test the bravery of the boys. Suffering must be borne in silence, and any taint of cowardice brought disgrace.

At twelve, the boy was deprived of all his clothes but one outer garment, and was made to sleep outside. Even frequent bathing was denied him, because it would make him soft. He was given only the rudiments of what we would consider an education, leaving him barely literate, as character was regarded more important than intellect. Lycurgus’ laws were transmitted orally. The young were trained to be sober and responsible. They were taught to scavenge for food – but if to steal, only to do so without detection – and to listen carefully to discussions of the problems of the state.

Young men lived exclusively with their company in the barracks until they were thirty. Being taken as a lover by one of the older men was commonplace and considered good for both. But in general there was no disapproval of sexual relations for unmarried young men.

The best age for marriage, according to the state, was thirty for a man and twenty for a woman, and celibacy was a crime. Marriage was generally arranged, and marrying for love considered the height of foolishness. Wives should be strong and healthy with good genes: even a king was once fined for marrying a wife who was considered too small. When a young man first married, he generally continued to live in the barracks and could visit his wife only clandestinely. Only when children came might a home be set up.

The disgrace of having no children was second only to the disgrace of celibacy. Sexual jealousy was ridiculed, and husbands too old or infirm to breed well were encouraged to invite young men to help. All men were encouraged to lend their wives to those men considered exceptional, so that Sparta might have the finest children possible.

Travelling abroad was forbidden without express governmental permission, and Spartans were trained to believe that no mere foreign society could have anything to teach a Spartan. Similarly foreigners were not welcome: they were permitted to stay only a short time and if they overstayed their welcome, were escorted across the frontier. Knowledge of the freedoms permitted in other lands was dangerous to the stability of this extremely regimented state, much as in the recent communist states of the eastern bloc.

Solon’s Laws and Society

While Solon, like Lycurgus, attempted to regulate morals and manners, his ideal society and the methods he used were very different.

Solon criminalised persistent idleness, and made known debauchers ineligible for the Assembly. He legalised prostitution so that free women would not be bothered by annoying young men. The free women were further protected by a fine for violation. An adulterer caught in flagrante delicto could be killed upon the spot. In direct contrast to Lycurgus, Solon wished that marriages should be based upon affection as well as for the rearing of children, and to this end limited the value of dowries. He refused to legislate against bachelors, as was done in Sparta, because, he said, "a wife is a heavy load to carry". He attempted to limit malicious gossip by law – an attempt doomed of course to failure.

As in Sparta, there was concern for the fate of the land should it come to war. Solon addressed the fears of the common people by enacting a law that the sons of anyone who died in war should be raised and educated at the government’s expense.

Because of the necessity of trade and Solon’s desire to foster industry, foreigners were welcome in Athens. So long as they were skilled at a trade, they and their families could be granted citizenship. This is in direct contrast to Sparta’s policy of isolation.


Spartan society was shaped entirely by the desire of its aristocracy to keep control despite being vastly outnumbered by its free tradesmen and labourers and its slaves. It was rigid and unyielding, raising its male citizens to be good soldiers and its women to be mothers of more soldiers. Individualism and sentiment were ruthlessly suppressed, and Sparta’s only contact with the outside world was when it attempted conquest.

In Athenian society there were fewer slaves and more freemen, and when the economic divide worsened and freemen began to be sold as slaves, the old order of aristocratic rule was, slowly but surely, overthrown. Trade with the outside world and, in early Athenian society at least, crafts were a valued part of society, in contrast to Sparta where manual labour on a craft was demeaning.

Solon’s laws were designed to create a far more caring society than Lycurgus’. Individuals’ wishes were respected with regard to marriage and children, occupation and, later, even governance.

Fundamentally, Sparta achieved exactly what it wished to achieve. It had a stable society, and its army was feared throughout. But Athens, by being more open to individualism, achieved progression. Its increasingly democratic government and freedoms encouraged the later rich flowering of art and poetry, philosophy and science, whereas Sparta stagnated.

[1] Will Durant, The Life of Greece - the Story of Civilization, MJF Books, 1939