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Athens and Sparta: A Brief Comparison

With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.


Greek Dark Age

After the fall of Mycenae, Greece plunged into a Dark Age. During this time people became poorer, and that was reflected in their art and architecture. Greece’s Dark Ages lasted until about 900 BCE; however, around 750 BCE, Greece began to see the development of the Polis, or city-state. Typically, the settlements were small and scattered across Greece, since it is a mountainous country, travel was very difficult. A result of travel problems, each polis developed independently, and many times differently from one another. This can be seen with two of the most well know city-states in the ancient world, Athens, and Sparta. Sparta was relatively isolated, located between rugged mountain ranges in the southeastern Peloponnese, with limited sea access. Sparta thus, developed into a militaristic oligarchy. Athens, on the other hand, located on a peninsula on mainland Greece, with more contact with other cultures, developed into a democracy.


Democracy and Military

To the Spartans, male citizens earned the right to participate in politics by becoming equals with their peers through successful training and military skills. For Athenians, all free male citizens had a voice, women during this time held no bearing on politics. There have been arguments which polis was the freest or had the better political structure. Each polis had its strengths, and freedom meant something different to the citizens of both city-states. For Sparta, freedom was being part of the society and protecting their polis. In Athens, freedom meant having a voice in creating laws. While Sparta had discipline and military might, the Athenian model of democracy has withstood the test of time. Between Sparta and Athens, the Athenian model of democracy and culture offered citizen the most freedom.


It's a Man’s World

As the Spartans valued military might, boys only remained at home until the age of seven when they were sent to live and train at the barracks, like their fathers. In the barracks is where boys learned to be a man, a soldier, and a successful member of the community. Lycurgus, a Spartan leader provided a guardian for these boys as well as “a body of youths in the prime of life and bearing whips to inflict punishment when necessary, with this happy result, that in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.” In Athens however, boys had the freedom to remain at home and their fathers were encouraged to teach them about making a living. Athenian males were permitted to choose their path rather than forced to become part of the military.

In Athens, each man was viewed equal in the matters of politics. As Solon writes, “I composed ordinances for base and noble alike, fitting straight justice for each.” This view empowered the male citizens of Athens. It created a system that was open to individual freedoms. In comparison, Spartan men did not freely have a voice in politics. The elders and kings made the laws, and it was the duty of the citizens to obey these laws just as one would obey commands from a general.


Differing Cultures

This speaks to the vast differences in culture between the two city-states. Sparta believed in total loyalty to the state which translated into military might. Athens focused more upon thinking and learning. While Spartans trained to be soldiers, Athenians spent their time studying music, art, and literature. This difference lead to Athens becoming a Mediterranean trading power while Spartans remained a relatively isolated militaristic society, that relied on slaves to farm for them. As such, Athenians were more educated and cultured giving them the ability to freely conduct business affairs with various other cultures. Further, while Sparta focused on only one aspect of life, Athenians were always looking forward further opening their world and thus granting more freedoms.

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This is Sparta!

Between Sparta and Athens, the Athenian model of democracy and culture offered citizen the most freedom. Sparta, descendants of Dorian invaders, isolated between mountain ranges, evolved into a militaristic oligarchy. Valuing military might and strict obedience, Sparta is hailed as one of the greatest military powers in all of history. Their lives revolved around military might, physical prowess, and obedience. Interestingly, the men often grew their hair long and would stand outside the barracks combing and fluffing their hair as a form of intimidation. They were ruled by a council of Elders and two kings who made all laws for citizens.


This is Athens!

Athens, descended of Ionians, located on the Mediterranean, developed into a model of democracy. Athenians valued education and culture. Their system of democracy has shaped countries for centuries. They believed that every citizen has a voice in matters of law. Also encouraged learning and taught boys to become whatever they wanted to become.

The Athenian lifestyle offered citizens the freedom of choice. Laws were made as a democratic collective ensuring fairness and allowing each man to be heard. Education offered even more opportunities to better oneself. Compared to the harsh expectations and lifestyle of the Spartans, the Athenian lifestyle offered more freedoms for its citizens.

Works Cited

"Rise of City-States: Athens and Sparta." 2017.

Martin, Thomas R. 2013. Ancient Greece. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press,

2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost.

"Check Out This Informative Sparta Vs. Athens Comparison Chart." Historyplex.

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