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- Government
- Religion
- Society
- Warfare
By: Jessica Leigh email

- Spartan Trade and Agriculture
By: Iwan Juwono email


Lycurgus created the government of the Spartan in the 8th century B.C.

“Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedaemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors; for the Ephors are selected from the people.”
~ Aristotle, “Aristotle in 23 Volumes” [2.1270]

Lycurgus created this government through ideas he had through travel. He journeyed to Crete and Ionia to study their ways of government. As said by Lycurgus:

“He also traveled to Ionia, to study the difference between the pleasure-loving Ionians and the sober Cretans, as doctors study the difference between the sick and the healthy.”
~ Plutarch, “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”

The monarchy of Lycurgus’ government was in the hands of its two appointed kings. There are different explanations given for the diarchy of Sparta. Some of the explanations were that is was a compromise between two families struggling for power (Agiads, Eurypontids), or that it was to represent their past Spartan conquerors and their Achaean predecessors. A quote from Cleomenes of “The Histories” supports this:

“ ‘I am no Dorian woman,’ he replied. ‘I’m an Achaean.’ ”
~ Herodotus, “The Histories” [5.72]

The kings had very small role in the actual government of Sparta: their duties were judicial, religious, or military. According to Herodotus, the Spartans gave their kings the rights to:

“Have two priesthoods, one of Zeus of Lacedaemon and one of Heavenly Zeus; they have the right to wage war against any country they choose, and no Spartiate is allowed to obstruct them in this, or he will be placed under a curse; on campaign, they must go first on the way out and last on the way back; they have a hundred picked men to guard them out on campaign; during military expeditions they can have as much of the livestock as they wish for their own use, and whenever any of these animals are sacrificed they get the skins and the back.”
~ Herodotus, “The Histories” [6.56]

The aristocratic part of the government instituted by Lycurgus consisted of the Senate, or the Gerousia. The Assembly elected 28 men over the age of 60 to serve for life.

“The Senate originated legislation, acted as a supreme court in capital crimes, and formulated public policy.”

The apella, or Assembly, was considered the democratic part of the government.

“Apparently all male citizens were admitted to it upon reaching the age of thirty; some eight thousand males were eligible in a population of 376,000. It met on each day of the full moon. All matters of great public moment were submitted to it, nor could any law be lassed without its consent.”

The last part of the government was the ephors. The ephors were elected annually by the assembly and held judicial, financial, and administrative powers—even over the kings and Gerontes (Senators). The ephors of Sparta had been in the government since before Lycurgus.

To enforce the laws decreed by the government, the army and the police were entrusted.

“This is as follows: The magistrates from time to time sent out into the countryside at large the most discreet of the young men, equipped only with daggers and necessary supplies. During the day they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet. But in the night, they came down to the roads and killed every Helot whom they caught. Often, too, they actually made their way across fields where the Helots were working and killed the sturdiest and best of them.”
~ Plutarch, “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”


The Spartans took their religion very seriously. In some cases, their religion prevented them from doing all other things. The Spartans during the Persian War refused to send more than 300 soldiers and one of their kings to help fend off the enemy.

“Later—that is after celebrating the festival of Carnea, which was holding them up—they planned to waste no time in spending every available man to join Leonidas, leaving behind in Sparta only a defensive unit.”~ Herodotus, “The Histories” [7.206]

Their religious duties were usually preformed in ceremonies. There were four main ceremonies that took places: the Agamoi, Carneia, Gymnopaidai, and the death of a Spartan king.

“The Agamoi were the men who had not produced sons as the state required. This group was excluded from the Gymnopaidai (one of the main Sparta festivals) as this was thought to downplay any homosexual tendencies they had. They were also shown signs of disrespect at other gatherings as young men would not give them their seats and they were forced to give their seats to the younger. An example of this is when Derkylidas approaches a young man who refuses to give him his seat and says to him, 'You have produced no son who will give his seat to me.'
In addition, these men had to perform the same dances of the Gymnopaidai in the winter at the Agora, singing a song which said that their punishment was just (it could be as cold as -3 C). They also had to sponsor the Karneia (another important festival) and they became the Karneatai.”
~ Unknown, “Everything Spartan, Lakonian and Messenian”

“The Karneia, a harvest festival celebrated for nine days during the late summer, was an extremely important festival for the Spartans. It was a celebration of migration, colonization and the city-foundation of the Doric peoples and of a various military events. For this celebration, the men were divided up into nine groups of three phratries who dined together and each occupied a skias, an area which contained tents. In addition, some citizens carried models of rafts, which also symbolized the coming of the Dorians. These activities were to represent the early history of Sparta, including the migation and colonization.”
~ Unknown, “Everything Spartan, Lakonian and Messenian”

“The Gymnopaidai ('of the naked boys' or 'of the unarmed boys') was the 'most solemn of all Lakonian festivals' according to Pausanias and in earlier times involved only the ephebes. This particular festival lasted for several days during the midsummer season and involved musical competitions for every age group. The activities of the choruses were almost an act of endurance themselves, as it became a struggle to survive the summer sun. Even though this festival was musical in nature, a dance which was performed at this festival had somewhat of a military nature which may have been connected to the Karneia. While one may think that the music also would have a pleasant or festive theme to it, it was written to bring to memory a certain battle (against Argos).”
~ Unknown, “Everything Spartan, Lakonian and Messenian”

“After their deaths, they gain further privileges. Horsemen ride all over Laconia announcing the news of a king’s death, while women beat on cauldrons as they parade through the city. At the signal, two people from each household (one man and one woman, neither of whom can be a slave) have to disfigure themselves in the mourning, or else face a heavy fine.”
~ Herodotus “The Histories” [6.58]


When children of Sparta were born, their first contact with society is with the government.

“Whenever a child was born, it was taken to a council of elders for examination. If the baby was in any way defective, the elders dropped it into a chasm. Such a child, in the opinion of the Spartans, should not be permitted to live. New-born children were washed with wine so they would be strong. They grew up free and active, and without any sort of cry-baby ways. Spartan children were not afraid of the dark, or finicky about their food.”
~ Plutarch. “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”

Once the child reached 7 years of age (male or female), they began their training. Though the male’s training was for military, it was not entirely different than that of the females.

“The truth is, he took in their case, also, all the care that was possible; he ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing, the quoit, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and withal that they, with this greater vigour, might be the more able to undergo the pains of child-bearing. And to the end he might take away their overgreat tenderness and fear of exposure to the air, and all acquired womanishness, he ordered that the young women should go naked in the processions, as well as the young men, and dance, too, in that condition, at certain solemn feasts, singing certain songs, whilst the young men stood around, seeing and hearing them.”
~ Plutarch. “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”

The women in Sparta were the few of Greece that were treated civil. They were taught to read and write, expected to be able to protect themselves, and also fed better than most other women (especially in Athens). They could also own property, which was a big difference in other city-states.

“Women could own property---and did in fact own more than a third of the land in Sparta---and they could dispose of it as they wished. Daughters inherited along with sons.”
~ Thompson. “Women in the Ancient World”

The males, by far, had it the worst.

“At the age of seven, Spartan boys left home and went to live under military discipline. Those who showed the most skill and courage were appointed by the old men to be leaders, with the authority to order the other boys and the power to punish disobedience.
The main subject they studied was command and obedience. Spartan boys learned enough reading and writing to be literate, but learning how to endure pain and conquer in battle was considered even more important. The old men kept a close eye on them, and often tested them to find out who might turn out to be a good man in a real fight.
At the age of twelve, their military education began. A boy entered one of several bands, commanded by one of the irens [twenty-year-old men]. This iren was their leader in battle and their absolute master at home. They stayed in this hard school until they reached the age of eighteen, and then they were recognized as men. While they were boys, the Spartans were not allowed to wear anything but one cloak. No shoes, no underwear, and no additional clothes were permitted -- even in winter. They slept in their military groups, on reeds they plucked at the river with their own hands. What they were given to eat was never enough, so to keep from going hungry they were forced to plan ingenious schemes to steal food. If they got caught, they got a severe whipping -- not for the moral wrong of stealing, but for the military sin of not being careful enough to avoid capture. Starvation made them grow taller, because too much food weighs down the spirit of a boy and makes him short and fat.”
~ Plutarch. “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”

When men and women were to be married, there was an odd ceremony that took place.

“In their marriages, the husband carried off his bride by a sort of force; nor were their brides ever small and of tender years, but in their full bloom and ripeness. After this, she who superintended the wedding comes and clips the hair of the bride close round her head, dresses her up in man’s clothes, and leaves her upon a mattress in the dark; afterwards comes the bridegroom, in his everyday clothes, sober and composed, as having supped at the common table, and, entering privately into the room where the bride lies, unties her virgin zone, and takes her to himself; and, after staying some time together, he returns composedly to his own apartment, to sleep as usual with the other young men.”
~ Plutarch. “Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta (circa 800 B.C.)”

After a marriage, the women did not have to necessarily stay faithful to their husbands.

“The role of a woman as reproductive mother was equally as important as the role of reproductive father and marriage was viewed simply as a basis for procreation. But procreation was not limited to married couples. Wife-sharing and selective breeding were common practices in the Spartans' quest for the production of strong warriors. Spartan society placed a very high value on physical strength and bred children for strength. So if a man was not physically strong, he would most likely not procreate with his wife and instead would allow a stronger man to impregnate her. If a man did not father boys or did not have the desired Spartan qualities himself, the woman was encouraged to seek another man to impregnate her.”
~ Powers. “Ancient Weddings”


Sparta’s main concern, was always warfare. Their way of life was structured around it, and it was changed with the Constitution of Lycurgus. With this new way of warfare, it attacked and defended itself until it had control of most of the Peloponnesus.
One of the Spartan’s most notable appearances in Greece, was the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians.

“ ‘I told you about these men before,’ Demaratus said, ‘when we were setting out for Greece. You laughed at me then, and found my ideas about what would happen in this war absurd, just because I take pride in nothing so much as trying to be honest to you, my lord. But listen to me now. These men have come to fight us for the pass and they are getting ready to do just that. It is their custom to do their hair when they are about to risk their lives. But you can rest assured that if you defeat these men and the force that awaits you in Sparta, there is no other race on earth which will take up arms and stand up to you, my lord, because you are now up against the noblest and the most royal city in Greece, and the bravest men.’ ”
~ Herodotus, “The Histories” [7.209]

The children of Sparta began their rigorous training at the age of 7, and fought in the army most of the rest of their life.

“Each boy of a Spartan family was taken away at the age of seven and placed under the supervision of an adult Spartan till the age of 18. An extensive training till the age of thirty followed when the Spartan became a full citizen. He did not live together with his family any more while he was in training, but became part of an eat group. These groups were clubs of Spartans who were together in Sparta as well as on the battlefield. The family was not seen as important, it was only an unfortunately necessary tool to preserve the number of full Spartans.”
~ Moerbeek. “Warfare in Hellas”

The equipment of a Spartan soldier, or hoplite, was in some ways different than those of the other Greek cities. Their shield was known as the hoplon (hence hoplite), and usually bared the Greek symbol of Lambda Ë, which stood for Laconia or Lacedaemon (the area of the Peloponnesus that the Spartans lived). Their helmet was usually a type of Corinthian helmet. They also either wore a linothorax.

“His Corinthian helmet is of brass and decorated with a transverse crest. His shield, with Spartan blazon, is brass-faced, as are the full-length “muscled” greaves. The white linen corslet, worn over a red tunic, replaced the heavy “bell” cuirass and was made from several layers of material glued together…The red cloak seen in the illustrations was the characteristic Spartan uniform.”
~ Warry. “Warfare in the Classical World”

Spartan Trade and Agriculture

The basis of every civilization has always been agriculture and on a lesser basis, but still significant, trade. Great civilizations always started in the areas where food and agriculture was in abundance. This was no different with Sparta. Even though the Spartiates themselves do not engage in trade or agriculture, they still understood the importance of agriculture and trade to the survival to the Spartan State. It was to this end that the classes of the Perioikoi and helots were created to serve the needs of trade and Agriculture.

Once the establishment of Spartiates only bearing arms, the “Commercial and economic role of the perioeci must have become a very important one.” Literally means ‘the dwellers round about’, they are communities of free people granted freedom in Laconia and Messenia by the Spartans for exchange for military service. At times, they would even be trained as hoplites to serve as an army. However, they were the merchants, craftsmen and the professionals at Lacedemonia. They held a monopoly on these professions due to the fact that Spartiates are not allowed to engage in these trades, and the helots didn’t have the required freedom to achieve these professions. Unlike the Spartiates, they were allowed to gather wealth by gold and silver, and these provided much of the wealth of the Spartan state.

A problem that was presented though to the perioeci was the fact that the Spartan state issued currency in the form of iron bars. Plutarch: “The iron money... could not be exported elsewhere in Greece, and was considered a joke there, not an object of value.” The Spartan Iron currency was also doused with vinegar at the time of melting, which renders it useless to be melted down as weapons or other uses. This obviously presented problems for trade, due to the heavy and incumbersome nature of iron bars. It worked well to restrict the hoarding of wealth of Spartiates and the reduction of crime, but it proved to be an impediment to the Perioeci. It was to this end that trading in Sparta had to be done in other Greek Currencies. (E.g. Drachmas or talents of gold). Unlike Spartiates, The Perioeci were allowed to hoard gold and silver, and not live an austere life like the Spartans. It was due to this that most of the wealth in the Spartan state belonged to the Perioeci. The Perioeci were not citizens, but nor were they slaves. The had most of the rights of the Spartiates, with the exception of political rights. Ehrenburg says “for some time export trade flourished, as can be seen by the Laconian vases found in east and west; by that trade, no less than the making of the vases, was probably largely in the hands of the perioeci. Many of their towns were busy harbors.” Trade before the shift towards a militaristic state used to be allowed for Spartiates. Evidence of Spartan vases and craftsmanship found by archeological digs proved this.

Agriculture in Sparta was the field of the Helots. Helots “Were, in short, local inhabitants of Laconia and Messenia owned by the Spartan state and placed in total subjection to work for its citizens- an arrangement by no means unique in the Greek World.” A supposed reform by Lycurgus was the redistribution of land to each invidual Spartiate that would be enough to provide “ A Rent of Medimni of barley for a man, and 12 for his wife, along with proportionate quantities of fresh produce” It was these helots that farmed these lots of lands for the Spartiates. These helots were state-owned and controlled, but enjoyed more freedom than other slaves in other Greek city-states. These Greek city-states often commented and criticized Sparta for her institutional slavery of the helots. However, these helots in fact enjoyed more rights than their slaves. They could marry when and whom they wished, raise as many children as they wished, and did not get their full produce taken away from them. The Spartans only took away a half of their produce from them each harvest, leaving the other half for the helots to do as they please. It was in this way that some helots became quite wealth, and was able to purchase their way of out slavery and become one of the Perioeci or move to another city-state. Helots were not chatteled to the land, but were assigned by the state to the invidual Spartiates. These helots were extremely important, as “It was their labor which permitted the Spartiate class to devote itself exclusively to non-productive pursuits.” These helots may also be called up for military service, by which as a reward, they would be freed. Helots that are freed in this way are called neodamodeis.

Agriculture and Trade were the basis of any great civilization or nation in history. Nations at times could emerge in order to control the flow of trade and distribution of agricultural products to the proletariat. In Sparta, the system is no different. The system that evolved was made in order to produce the ultimate fighting force, and the institution of the helots and the perioeci to fulfill the purposes of agriculture and trade.

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