Sparta is renown today for it’s militaristic society and land-based empire, which is often presented in contrast with other Greek city-states such as Athens, who grew rich from maritime trade. The Spartans produced little of value in the realms of the arts and philosophy, their legacy lies in their military might. Whilst other Greek city-states such as Athens, Corinth and Thebes rose to prominence and then faded, Sparta seems to have maintained it’s empire throughout the Ancient Greek period and even withstood the expansion of the great Macedonian generals of the Hellenistic Age.
Sparta was located in the center of Laconia in the southern portion of the Peloponnese. Sparta had existed during the Mycenaean Age, and is mentioned by Homer as an important participant in the Trojan Wars. During the Archaic Age of Greece, the Dorians migrated to the Peloponnese and came to dominate the region. By 800 BC, the Dorians were firmly established in Laconia and Sparta was clearly a Dorian city. (See map 1- 800 BC)
Because Sparta was located inland, it did not have many opportunities to participate in maritime trade or establish colonies on far off coasts as many other Greek cities began doing in the 8th Century BC. Sparta instead expanded its influence by the military conquests of it’s neighbors. In the first half of the 8th Century BC, Sparta conquered the neighboring towns of Amyklai and Geronthrai. (See map 2 – 750 BC). Then Sparta would expand further, conquering Helos to the South and Messenia to the west during the First Messenian War. At this time Sparta adopted a new policy towards conquered peoples. They were to be treated as property of the state, a peasant underclass known as «Helots«, named after the subjugated city of Helos. The Helots were ritually mistreated and slaughtered by their Spartan overlords every year during the Crypteia.
Sparta’s ultra-conservative authoritarian state was not without conflict and upheaval. The Messenians revolted from their Spartan overlords on a number of occasions and many fled as refugees to the city of Zancle, later renamed Messene, in Sicily. Another group that caused unrest in Sparta were the Partheniai, these were the children of illegitimate unions – a common problem in Sparta during times of war when Spartan men would be away from their wives for long periods. The Partheniai were denied full rights in Sparta and revolted, Sparta’s solution was to send them away to Italy, where they founded the city of Taras (Modern Tarento). (See map 3 – 700 BC)
Spartan society put great emphasize on a set of values typically seen as «masculine», such as physical strength, discipline, courage, and violence. For example, Spartan education focused on military training rather than any appreciation of literature or the arts. In such a macho-centered culture, it is somewhat surprising that women seem to have been afforded a greater social status than in other Greek states. Spartan women were permitted to own property and participate in sporting events, whereas their counter-parts in Athens were not.
During much of Sparta’s early rise to prominence, her main rival was the City of Argos in the northeast of the Peloponnese. In the early 7th Century BC, Argos was able to extend its influence over much of the northern portion of the Peloponnese and form an alliance with most of the cities there against Sparta. Argos also backed the Helots in Messenia in revolting from Spartan domination, prompting the Second Messenian War. (See map 4 – 670 BC) The revolt was eventually crushed by Sparta. Nevertheless, the Spartans began to realize that military might alone would not guarantee their survival. In subsequent periods, the Spartans would prove as adept at diplomacy as they were at waging war. Sparta formed the Peloponnesian League with the city-states of Elis, Arcadia, Corinth, and Megara. During the Greco-Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian League took a lead role in organizing the resistance against Persia, joined by the Ionian cities such as Athens and Eretria. (See map 5 – 505 BC) Sparta’s old rival: Argos, did not assist the other Greek states against the Persians which may have lead to her later isolation and decline. In the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars, Sparta and Athens rose to become the two super-powers of the Greek world and would eventually come to blows in the Peloponnesian War, there Sparta defeated Athens and would remain an independent state throughout the Hellenistic Period before being finally conquered by Rome with the rest of Greece in 146 BC.