Saturday, June 03, 2006

History of Sparta

Of the early history of Sparta we rely on very few legends. It is said to have been founded by Lacedaemon, the son of Zeus and Taygete, who married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas.From Homer we also know that the "koili Lacedaemon" (hollow Lacedaemon), the territory between the mount Taygetos and Parnon, had as king Menelaos, the younger brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen, which was abducted by Paris to Troy and thus starting the long and painful famous war.

Around 1200 BC, by the marriage of the daughter of Menelaos Ermione with the son of Agamemnon Orestes, the kingdoms of Argos and Sparta were united. The findings from excavations testify that at this time, unlike the later Sparta, a rich culture had developed here.

Around 1100 BC, the Dorians came and conquered the territory (Archaeology favors a date for Dorian settling around 950 BC).Tradition has it, that the Heraclidae brothers, descendants of the hero Hercules, Kresphontes, Temenos and Aristodemos tried to conquer Peloponnese. Aristodemos was hit by lighting and died at Naupactos, leaving behind his twin sons Eyresthenes and Prokles. His brothers crossed the gulf and landed at Achaia. There was a battle with the forces of the monarch of Peloponnese, Tisamenes, and they were victorious. When the Dorian phalanx came in the territory of Lakonia and Messene, it was guided by Kresphontes, who inhabited the rich plain of Pamesos. There was a constant quarrel between the Dorian chiefs, Kresphontes and Theras, to share the territory.

Theras, the brother of Aristodemos wife, who was guardian to her twin children after the death of her husband, wanted to take the rich Messene, but Kresphontes and his brother Temenos, who was ruling Argos, played a trick on him. They arranged to throw in the water two small tiles, with the names of Kresphontes and Theras written on them and the one which would surface in the water, would win Messene, the other the less rich Laconia.Kresphontes tile was baked in the fire, while Theras was left in the sun and when both were thrown into the water, Theras tile went to the bottom and Kresphontes tile floated and thus he took Messene.During Sparta's history, the habitation center in the Eurotas valley had changed many times, but the Dorian city which was comprised from five villages, occupied the territory of today's city of Sparta. We know only the names of the four, Pitane, Limnai, Mesoa, Kinosoura. The fifth was probably the conglomeration of the villages, which Spartans conquered later, Pilane, Selacia, Aigitida, Phari, Amikles.

Sparta in the 8th and 7th century BC was open to foreigners. She had good relations with Samos, which helped her in the war with Messenia, and also with Cyprus, Rhodes, Cyrene, etc. She was a highly cultured city, with her own architects, who build the famous temple, the brazen house of Athena. The arts were highly developed with celebrated sculptors in wood, potters, metal workers, weavers, leather workers, many of them foreigners. Spartan musicians, dancers and singers were renowned. Sparta was also famous for the purple dyed clothes. From 720 BC to 576 BC, she had 46 Olympic winners out of 81 total victors. But during the 6th century the arts progressively started to decline. Lykurgos laws eventually strained Sparta.


776 BC

Lykurgos was the son of the king Eumenos. After the death of his father, his older brother Polydektes took the throne. Not much later, he also died and Lykurgos became king. The widow of his brother, an ambitious and unhesitating woman, offered him to marry her and kill her unborn child. Lykurgos, knowing her character and being afraid for the life of the child, pretended to accept her offer. He said to her to bear the child and he would disappear it, as soon as the child was born. But when the time came, he took the infant boy at the Agora, proclaimed him king of the Spartans and gave him the name Charilaos (Joy of the people). When the widow learned what happened, she started plotting against Lykurgos, who left Sparta in order to avoid bloodshed.

He first went to Crete and then to Asia and Egypt and later to Libya, Spain and India. In every country that he visited, he studied their civilization, history and constitutions.

After many years Lykurgos returned to Greece and visited Delphi to question the oracle, if the constitution he had prepared to apply in Sparta was good and received approval with the answer that "he was more God than man". He then returned home and found his nephew Charilaos, a grown man and king of Sparta.

In order to persuade the Spartans to accept his laws, which demanded a lot of sacrifices, he bred two small puppies, the one indoors with a variety of foods and the other he trained it for hunting. He then gathered the people and showed them that the untrained dog was completely useless.

But if Lykurgos succeeded to persuade the poor people, he did little for the rich, who tried everything to oppose him. One of them, a youth named Alkander, in the Agora tried to hit him with his stuff and when Lykurgos turned his head, he was hit in the eye and lost it. Lykurgos did not prosecute him, but took him as his servant, giving him the opportunity to discover his character. Indeed Alkander became later a devoted disciple.

When his laws were accepted, he made Spartans swear that they would not be changed until he returns and left again.

He never came back, making sure that his laws would not change. He died at Delphi and according to some in Crete and it is said that before his death, he asked his body to be burned and the remains to be scattered in the wind. Lykurgos thus did not permit even his dead body to return.

The Constitution

The hard fought Messenian wars would not have been won, without the legislation of Lykurgos, which most of all targeted the discipline and inuring to hardships of the citizens.According to the rettra or combact, which Lykurgos brought from Delphi, the Spartan Senate (Gerousia) was consisted from twenty eight men, at least 60 years old, elected for life and the two kings. A hundred years later, when the Gerousia became tyrannical, was dismantled and they were replaced by five Ephors (overseers).He also arranged for periodical assemblies of the Spartan people (Apella), for people over 30 years old, in the area between the river Knakion and the bridge Babyka, though they did not vote, nor were permitted to discuss the issues, but only accept or reject them loudly.Lykurgos, in order to avoid strife in the city, he managed to persuade the people to give their land property and then he divided it in equal shares. He also assigned equal lots of land to the Perioikoi.In other laws, he forbade the use of money in gold and silver and in their place issued iron money, too heavy and of very little value. Also Spartans were not permitted to build their houses with other tools, except the axe and the saw. The unwritten laws of Lykurgos most of all targeted eunomia (good application of the laws), but at the same time they had the seeds of aggressiveness. In a period of few years after they came in use, Sparta conquered almost all of Laconia. The important city of Amyklai, after a long desperate siege was captured around 750 BC, but its people were treated well.