The Messenian Wars
Overpopulation was a big problem for all city-states and Sparta owned very few colonies but during the eighth century the city began its radical change with the first Messenian War that lasted for almost twenty years, when it decided to subjugate the large territory west beyond Mount Taygetos called Nicene. This war opposed the Spartans against their fellow Dorians who lived in the rich fertile plains of Messenia ruled by the legendary king Theopompus and this victory later encouraged them in 670 to wage war against Argos that ended by the Argives completely defeating the Spartans. This incited the conquered Messenians to revolt and regain their freedom but the Spartans eventually won this second war completely conquering the area over the west and emerged as the biggest city-state thrice as big as the Athenian polis. After the enslavement of its neighboring Messenian population who became state-owned bondsmen called helots, Sparta literally isolated itself from the rest of the Greek world.
The political model
After this conquest, the city produced a constitution attributed to the semi-mythical Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver who received from Delphi, a document called Rhetra that contained the essential elements of the governing system organized with king, council and assembly. It was entirely a distinctive style called diarchy with two kings, members of two hereditary clans who retained the power of primitive kingship that of commander-in-chief in battle. Simultaneously there was a council of thirty men aged 60 called the Gerousia- the Group of the Old, who were elected by members of the assembly called Deimos, the Doric term for Demos or people. When these members were called together, they were known as the Apella that voted loudly expressing their approval publicly by hammering their shields with their spears. The office of the Ephors was another Spartan feature constituted of elected members who were in charge of controlling the discipline in the state. Consequently the Spartan political pattern included a blend of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.
The Spartan population consisted of three distinct classes; at the top, the small number of citizens “homoioi (“equal”); descendants of the Dorian conquerors who had the monopoly of the power and devoted the essence of their existence to military life. Then came the Peroicei who were free but not citizens; they possessed houses around the perimeter and indulged in artisanal and commercial affairs. They also had trade relations with the outside world and served as a kind of military reserve; little is known about them for they were an undocumented group. At the bottom of the social scale were the populations controlled, the Achaens or the conquered Messenians known as the helots who belonged to the State and were charged to cultivate the grounds for the Spartans. These conquered Messenian people were also regarded more as slaves for they were made to wear dog-skin as a sign of their low status and could be persecuted and treated menially by any Spartan and thus kept in line by a sort of state terrorism.
Life and Culture
During the 7th century BCE, Spartans enjoyed a great blooming of arts and literature but later this city-state closed itself to consecrate on its sole military power that made Sparta go down in history as a pre-eminently martial city in ancient Greece. This so-called education of the young equals (“homoioi”) was known as Agoge, which means upbringing that began at birth, when a newborn was examined by one of the Ephors who exposed the infant to die if there was any sign of illness, weakness or disability; whereas a normal child was raised at home until seven. Then began a set of age classes when they received an education essentially sportive and were kept under a very strict communal discipline imparted to overcome pain and to survive by any means that may be through trick, theft or even murder. Until the age of thirty they lived in a sort of boarding school and had the right to join their wives by hiding but were supposed to procreate for the State. Thus this city-state had the only full-time army in ancient Greece and the Spartans were acknowledged as the heroes and liberators of Greece after the spectacular invincibility of their Phalanx that destroyed the Persian armies. Women also had an important role contributed actively to Spartan society unlike other city-states of ancient Greece; they followed a strict exercise program and had rights and independence but while were not allowed to vote.
Consequently Sparta distinguished itself as an unique city-state in ancient Greece and was the subject of fascination in the West following the revival of classical learning.
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