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Ancient Sparta

A UNESCO World Heritage site

Travelling towards the southern part of the Peloponnese in the wide valley of the Eurotas River, which flows between the mountain ranges of Taygetos and Parnon, we reach the modern town of Sparta. To the north of this, amidst olive groves in the shadow of Mystras, lies the site of Ancient Sparta (Sparti) or Lacedaemon, which was once a rich and powerful city-state, famed for its military prowess. This was the place where the epic myths of the war against Troy began when Paris the prince of Troy either abducted or eloped with Helen, the step-daughter of King Tyndareus of Sparta, and wife of Menelaus when he was king of Mycenaean Sparta.

During the course of the centuries following the Trojan wars– around the tenth or eleventh century BC, Ancient Sparta became a Dorian military state that developed a unique social structure quite distinct from its contemporaries in Athens and other city-states. It was this society, where all male Spartiates were raised to become soldiers, that Hollywood has epitomised in such films as 300, in which the somewhat caricatured King Leonidas is seen leading his foot soldiers into their deadly confrontation with the Persians at Thermopylae. It was also from this no-frills, austere regime that we get the adjective ‘spartan’, to denote simplicity and austerity, though the earlier Mycenaean Sparta was far from it. From Lacedaemon – later shortened to Laconia, we also have the term ‘laconic,’ reflecting the terse, direct style of Spartan communication.

Given that this Dorian Sparta was generally known for its warriors rather than scholars, our knowledge of Ancient Sparta derives from the speculative scribing of historians and poets from elsewhere throughout the ages. Though some visitors regard the archaeological site itself to be quite spartan as little remains of the ancient city, there is plenty to discover in the local museums. In the surrounding area, archaeologists have made recent breakthroughs in their quest to uncover the palace of Menelaus, and there is no shortage of mythical characters and historic happenings to capture our attention.

Mythology

The name Sparta (or Sparti) has two possible origins. One theory is that it comes from an ancient word meaning ‘to sow’, which makes sense considering the vast expanse of arable land in the Eurotas valley. Another more entertaining version is that the country was named Lacedaemon after the mythical king of this name who ruled here. Lacedaemon, whose mother was the nymph Taygete (after whom the mountain takes its name), was yet another son of Zeus and he named the city after his wife, Sparta – a water nymph who was a daughter of the river god Eurotas.

One of the main Spartan festivals that takes place annually in Amykles (Amyclae), a few kilometres south of Sparta, is the Hyacinthia. This celebrates the death and rebirth of the beautiful young hero Hyacinthos (Hyacinth), who was the lover of Apollo. Killed by a discus thrown by Apollo, which had been blown off course by the wind god Zephyr in a fit of envy, Hyacinthos was spared from Hades when the grief-stricken Apollo spilled the youth’s blood on the earth to turn him into a flower whose leaves were blue from Apollo’s tears. Spartans also claim that Hyacinthos was taken to Eleusis by the goddesses Artemis. Aphrodite and Athena.

Then we have Sparta’s celestial connections. Any amateur astronomer can recognise the constellation of Gemini by the stars named Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces), but how many are aware that these twins hailed from Sparta? Their mother was Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, but only one of the twins, (Castor by most accounts), was fathered by Tyndareus; the other was supposedly the immortal son of Zeus according to Homer’s Odyssey and Hesiod. The story goes that Leda had rescued a swan from an attacking eagle, and was then seduced by the swan, which was actually Zeus in disguise. Consequently, instead of giving birth in the traditional way, Leda laid two eggs from each of which emerged two babies – one mortal and one immortal. The mortals were Castor and Clytemnestra, whose father was Tyndareus, while the immortal offspring of Zeus were Pollux (Polydeuces) and Helen. The twin brothers, known as the Dioskouri (Dioscuri), became cult figures in Greek and Roman mythology. They served as Argonauts with Jason and later rescued their sister Helen from the clutches of Theseus, who had kidnapped her and taken her to Attica. Their downfall came as a result of a long family feud after they stole and married the Leucippides (daughters of the white horse), Phoebe and Hilaeira, the fianceés of their cousins. Even worse, the twins then tried to steal back a herd of cattle that they had lost to the same cousins (Lynceus and Idas) in a bet. Castor was killed in the process, but Pollux shared his immortality with him so that they could take turns at living between Olympus and the Underworld. Meanwhile Paris made off with the fair Helen, who had been left unprotected by the twins.

Another version of Helen’s origin is that her mother was Nemesis, who was seduced in the same way by Zeus in his swan form and also laid an egg. A shepherd gave the egg to Leda, who raised the newly-hatched Helen with her other children: Castor and Pollux, Clytemnestra, Phoebe, Timandra and Philonoe. In any case, Helen’s presence in the heavens is represented by the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.

History

From the archaeological finds and ongoing excavations of Mycenaean and earlier settlements, we know that the area around Ancient Sparta was inhabited at least since the Bronze Ages, which included the Mycenaean era.

According to Homer, Menelaus, the younger brother of Agamemnon (king of Mycenae) and husband of Helen, ruled Lacedaemon. Around 1200 B.C., Argos and Sparta became united through the marriage of Menelaus’ daughter Ermione to Agamemnon’s son Orestes.

Then came the Iron Age, and with it the invasion of the Dorians from the north, led by the descendants of Heracles (the Heraclidae). After all, Heracles had once helped reinstate the exiled King Tyndareus to the throne of Sparta by killing off the competition – none other than Tyndareus’ own brother and nephews – on the condition that the city would be claimed by Heracles’ kin one day.

Early Spartans were known for its poetry and ceramics, and they were quite far-travelled as traces of Spartan art have been found on the island of Samos and the ancient city of Cyrene in Libya. Both these areas had strong links with Sparta, along with Cyprus and Rhodes, and helped the Spartans conquer neighbouring Messenia in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. During this time, Sparta went through a period of social turmoil and developed a new system of government with a constitution said to have been devised by King Lycourgos. Although these new laws were spoken rather than written, the Spartan model of government began centuries before that of Athens and lasted until Roman times. This involved a system of dual kingship, with two kings from different family lines, so that one king could stay at home while the other went off into battle. Their power was counter-balanced by an annually elected board of five ephors, and the Council of Elders (Gerousia) over the age of 60, who could serve for life.

The general assembly of all Spartan citizens had the chance to vote on legislation. Not quite the kind of voting by ballot we know today, but voting by shouts, which meant that the loudest shouting side won. This primitive democracy was the privilege of pure Spartans, who were actually in the minority in their community where the majority were vast numbers of Helots–the conquered Messenians reduced to the status of serfs. These serfs got to do all the day-jobs to support and feed the society while the Spartans were groomed from an early age to become soldiers. It seems Helots were better off than Athenian slaves as they were allowed to keep 50% of what they produced and some managed to earn enough buy their freedom.

Spartan women prided themselves in having a higher status than Athenian women since girls were allowed to be educated, took part in athletic competitions, learned to ride and drive carriages. The Spartan belief was that this would make them stronger mothers.

Growing up was a pretty harsh process for boys as they were taken off to live in barracks from the age of seven. They were whipped to instil discipline and underfed, though encouraged to supplement their diet by stealing food, for which they were punished if they were not smart enough to steal without being caught.

When the Persians began to threaten Greek cities on the east coast the Aegean Sea, which is now Turkey, the Spartans refused to get involved. But as the Persians advanced on Greek territory, defeated by Athenians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.) and crossing the Hellespont in the north, the Spartan king Leonidas led an anti-Persian coalition of Spartans, Thespians and Thebans to drive back the Persian troops at Thermopylae. They did kill large numbers of Persians, but were eventually defeated when Xerxes sent in his strongest ‘immortal’ fighting squad with a little information from a Spartan outcast named Ephialtes. Almost all the Spartans, along with their allies and their accompanying serfs were killed. The Persians then marched south, attacking Athens and threatening the Peloponnese until the Greek navy thwarted their plans at the Battle of Salamis. Then of course the Persians ultimate defeat came at the Battle of Platea in 479 B.C. where Sparta sent five thousand citizens, each with seven Helots, together with five thousand other Lacedaemonians, each with one Helot. They joined forces with Mycenaeans and other Peloponnesian allies, plus Athenians, Megarians and hoplites from Platea, to form an army of one hundred and ten thousand. The Greeks massacred the Persian army of which a mere three thousand out of three hundred thousand survived. The Greek alliance lost only one thousand and three hundred men.

In 464 B.C., Sparta suffered a greater loss of at least twenty thousand lives when a massive earthquake destroyed the city, ripping down the summit of Mount Taygetos. The downtrodden Helots used this situation to their advantage and began a revolt against the Spartans. Sparta called for backup from allied cities to suppress this. However, when the Athenians turned up offering to help, the Spartans foolishly delivered the ultimate insult by turning them down. Tensions grew between the rival city-states. They clashed at the Battle of Tanagra in 457 B.C., which began over fifty years of conflict between the Peloponnese and Athens.

While the Athenians began with a stronger naval force that gave them an edge over Sparta, the Spartan commander Lysander acquired financial support from Persia. He caught the Athenians by surprise with his boosted navy in 405 B.C. on the Hellespont, cutting off the supply of grain to Athens from Crimea, and forcing Athens to submit.

This victory was short-lived when Sparta became a bit too ambitious and tried to bite the hand that fed them by wielding its power against their Persian backers in Turkey. As a result, they ended up spreading the Spartan forces too thinly as they had to cover too many fronts at once, having made so many enemies. At Leuctra in 371 B.C, they were slaughtered along with their king Cleombrotus by the Thebans under their general Epaminondas. Both sides suffered at Mantinea in 362 B.C, where Epaminondas died and a truce ensued.

In the following centuries, Sparta fell under pressure from Macedonia led by Philip and were forced to build a city wall for the first time.

In the third century B.C., the Spartan kings, Agis IV and later Kleomenes III attempted to restore Sparta’s former military strength. They brought in reforms to write-off debt, re-distributed plots of land to Helots, and allowed non-citizens to become Spartans to expand the citizen population to around 4,000. Despite the reforms, Kleomenes III was forced to yield the city to the Achaean League, which eventually fell to Rome.

Then came the Slavic invasion in the 9th century A.D. and most Spartan survivors migrated to Mani. As was the case in the Mani Peninsula, Sparta was among the last areas to convert to Christianity. This was a feat accomplished through the persistent preaching of Saint Nikon (Osios Nikonas), who met with some resistance in persuading such die-hard Pagans to repent their evil ways in the 10th century A.D.

Farther on from Thornax is the city, which was originally named Sparta, but in course of time came to be called Lacedaemon as well, a name which till then belonged to the land. To prevent misconception, I added in my account of Attica that I had not mentioned everything in order, but had made a selection of what was most noteworthy. This I will repeat before beginning my account of Sparta; for from the beginning the plan of my work has been to discard the many trivial stories current among the several communities, and to pick out the things most worthy of mention – an excellent rule which I will never violate.

 The Lacedaemonians who live in Sparta have a market-place worth seeing; the council-chamber of the senate, and the offices of the ephors, of the guardians of the laws, and of those called the Bidiaeans, are all in the market-place. The senate is the council which has the supreme control of the Lacedaemonian constitution, the other officials form the executive. Both the ephors and the Bidiaeans are five in number; it is customary for the latter to hold competitions for the lads, particularly the one at the place called Platanistas (Plane-tree Grove), while the ephors transact the most serious business, one of them giving his name to the year, just as at Athens this privilege belongs to one of those called the Nine Archons.

The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus. It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval engagement off Salamis.

On the market-place are temples; there is one of Caesar, the first Roman to covet monarchy and the first emperor under the present constitution, and also one to his son Augustus, who put the empire on a firmer footing, and became a more famous and a more powerful man than his father. His name “Augustus” means in Greek sebastos (reverend).

At the altar of Augustus they show a bronze statue of Agias. This Agias, they say, by divining for Lysander captured the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami with the exception of ten ships of war.31 These made their escape to Cyprus; all the rest the Lacedaemonians captured along with their crews. Agias was a son of Agelochus, a son of Tisamenus.

[Pausanias 3.11.1-3.11.5]

The Site Today

Though the ravages of time have taken their toll on the ruins of Ancient Sparta, the site is still worth seeing. Around the Acropolis, we can see the temple of Athena Chalcioceus and the Roman amphitheatre, built for spectators to view the ritual flagellation (diamastigosis)of pubescent Spartan boys. To the east near the River Eurotas lie the foundations of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (the winged Artemis), where the flogging ceremony took place. Next to the theatre, there are also some remains of the brick-built Roman marketplace.

Nearby are the ruins of the 10th century monastery or Basilica of Osios Nikonas (Saint Nikon), the preacher who became the patron saint of Sparta and Mani.

Just a few kilometres east of Sparta, we take a step back in time to the Menelaion where at least three Mycenaean mansions stood in the 15th century A.D. We can see the remains of pyramid-shaped shrine dating from the 8th century A. D. and the larger Menelaion monument, which was built in the in honour of Menelaus and Helen, who Spartans worshipped as gods. Some historians believed the site was the burial place of Menelaus, Helen, Castor and Pollux.

Modern Sparta also boasts the Tomb of Leonidas, a prominent monument erected to commemorate the hero several centuries after his death at Thermopylae.

Near the centre of modern Sparta is the Archaeological Museum of Sparta, where we can gain an in-depth picture of the local history and see numerous exhibits from Neolithic to Roman times.

There are a few other museums in the town which are also worth visiting, notably the Museum of the Olive and Olive Oil. Sure to whet the appetite even more after our treks through the ruins, this offers an insight into the production and use of Greek olives that Laconia is renowned for. After all that, it will certainly be time to relax and sample the local fare and we may be lucky enough to witness enjoy one of the seasonal local festivals.

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