Journey through Ancient Greece



Statue of Leonidas

The town is set in the valley of the Evrotas river between the towering Tayetos mountains to the west and the Páronas to the south. (There is usually snow visible in the distance on the top of the mountains and at night it can be cold). The modern city was built in 1834 by King Otto, on a grid pattern with one main street, Palaiológou, running north-south, and the other, Lykourgou, running east-west, and a large Plateia, Dhimarkion, in the west corner where the two meet.

It is a pleasant town, its broad streets are lined with palms and orange trees, designed optimistically for 100,000 people but currently with only around 15,000.

Sparta is, and was, the capital of Lakonía. (In the 5th century BC, when Sparta and Athens were arch rivals, the inhabitants of ancient Lakonía (Lakedaimonia) were instructed to be economic with words, avoiding the oratory and affectation of the Athenians, hence our word 'laconic'.) It is a rich agricultural region noted for its olives, figs, honey, lemons and oranges.

Very little remains of ancient Sparta, much of it having been used to build Mistrá. The Menelaion is up a very narrow steep path which was pretty scary in our little hire car. I don't think Christos will take the coach up; a pity because although there is not much of the ancient site remaining the view is superb! The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is a pretty grim place even today with enough remains to evoke memories of the gory goings on there. A short walk from our hotel is the theatre, built in the 2nd or 1st century BC it is being restored.

The museum (on Lykourgou, by the Maniatis hotel) is small and has many interesting objects including:

Room 1: Some stunning recently excavated 2nd to 4th century AD mosaic pavements from rich Hellenistic and Roman houses, including a panther attacking a bull and the beheading of Medusa.

Room 2: Some charming 6th century BC reliefs.

A 6th century BC pyramidical stele thought to show Menelaos embracing Helen on one side and challenging her (note the sword) on the other. The narrow sides show the Dioscouri (heavenly twins), Kastor and Polydeukes, brothers of Helen.
A colossal marble head of Herakles 3rd/2nd century BC.

Room 3: A superb head of a warrior (490-480) thought to be Leonidas.

Room 4: Terra cotta votive masks, copies of ritual masks used in sacred dances.

Menelaos wooing Helen


In c1500 BC Minoans moved here from Crete and it became an important Mycenaean centre. It was here that Menelaos was king; his wife was the beautiful Helen whose abduction (or seduction) by Paris was the trigger for the Trojan war, causing the Achaean chieftains, led by Agamemnon, to 'launch a thousand ships'. (Herodotos, not a 'new' man, says 'it is obvious no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be.' Ouch!)

Their palace was probably at nearby Therapnai across the river Evrotas from modern Sparta, where remains of a grand mansion have been excavated. Like all palaces of the period the mansion was destroyed by fire c1200 BC; sometime after the Dorians arrived from the north and the region of Lakedaimonia entered the 'Dark Age'.

On the site of the mansion is the Menelaion, a shrine to Menelaos and Helen, built c800BC and where according to Pausanius they are buried.

Around the 8th century BC (the date is disputed) Lykourgos instituted perhaps the world's first constitution known as the Rhetra. The government of the state was by two hereditary kings, five elected ephors, a council of twenty eight (male) citizens over sixty years old and the assembly or apella of (male) citizens over thirty years old. The inhabitants were divided into three classes: Spartiátes, who alone had citizens rights and who were forbidden any work except soldiering; the perioikoi 'those who lived round about' in Lakonia and Messenía who were craftsmen and traders and free men but had no citizens' rights, and the helots, slaves or captives, also from Lakonia and Messenía, forced to do all the manual work for the Spartiátes. The Spartiátes were a pretty unpleasant lot, the weak or deformed baby boys being thrown into a ravine on the Tayetos; the others went into barracks at the age of seven to be turned into 'men' through a vicious training programme, called the agoge. On adulthood they went to the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia where endurance tests including ritual floggings (sometimes to death) took place. Races and singing and declamatory contests (with an iron sickle as the prize) were also held at the sanctuary.

Spartan men, renowned for their military skill, courage and discipline, despised their Athenian counterparts who swanned about in the agora putting the world to rights, but Spartan women were considerably better off than their Athenian sisters. Athenian women were denied education and kept strictly in the home but Spartan women underwent formal education, including physical education, designed to make them fit mothers. They were noted for their physical prowess; in Aristophanes' comedy Lystistrata, the Spartan Lampito explains her physique: 'I do gymnastics and heel to buttock jumps'!; nudity was the norm, they wrestled and danced naked (they were known as 'thigh flashers'!). Homer called Sparta 'the land of beautiful women'. They were entitled to own property, their homes were run by helots, and sometimes a married woman was 'lent' to another man to produce an heir!

In the 5th century when Greece was several times threatened by the Persians the Spartans showed reluctance to play a part in repelling them. Having arrived too late to help the Athenians fight them at Marathon in 490 (they said they were waiting for the full moon) Sparta sent Leonidas, one of its co-kings with a meagre 300 hoplites to meet the Persians led by Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480 (once again pressing religious observances were the excuse for the small number). The Athenians realising the situation at the narrow mountain pass was suicidal fled back to prepare to defend Athens but the Spartans, true to the admonition of their mothers 'come back with your shield or on it' fought literally to the last (in fact their bodies were buried at the battle site where there is a stone lion memorial to Leonidas.)

In 465 BC a massive earthquake hit the city, causing huge loss of life.

From 431 to 404 Sparta and Athens were at war. A defining incident took place in 425 on the island of Spakteria (off Pylos). The Athenians managed to isolate 120 Spartiáte hoplites on the island who after a long siege uncharacteristically surrendered and were paraded in Athens for the next ten years. However in 404 the Spartans, led by Lysander defeated the Athenian navy at Aegospotami; during a siege the following year many Athenians died of starvation and the survivors were forced to surrender.

However the tide turned in 371 when they were defeated at the battle of Leúktra by Epaminóndas who then invaded Lakonía and freed the helots, founding the city of Messene.

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