GCSE Classical Civilisation for OCR

Sparta Revision Cards 

I made these using my notes and textbooks. I then revised using just these cards and I got 100% in the Sparta part of my GCSE exam... So what I'm saying is that these are good! :)

I hope they're helpful! 

  • Created by: Lucy W
  • Created on: 28-05-11 14:02

The Spartan State


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The Spartan State- Geographical Position of Sparta

Sparta was situated to the East of Messenia, where the Helots were taken from.

It was situated in the mountainous region of Laconia, in the south east Peloponnese

To its west were the Taygetus mountains and to its east were the Parnon mountains. Both of these ranges could only be crossed by a series of narrow passes while the coastline was rugged and marshy.

The region had rich resources, due to the fact that it was built next to the river Eurotas.

The city had no walls.

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The Spartan State- Policy towards other Greeks

The first mention of Sparta belongs to the mythological ages of the Trojan was. For "Helen of Troy" was originally "Helen of Sparta", wife of king Menelaus of Sparta.

Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was leader of the Greek forces at Troy. Whether or not there was a real Helen of Sparta, a great civilisation did flourish in the Peloponnese in the middle to late second millennium.

Sometime in the 12th Century, the Mycenaean civilisation collapsed and Greece entered a Dark Age which lasted for about 300 years.

Dorian invaders settled in Laconia at some point after 1100. Among these were people who arrived in the Eurotas valley and established four villages in Sparta (later there was a fifth).

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The Spartan State- Policy towards other Greeks Con

For a long time, the Spartans kept to themselves, however in 8th century they started to expand their territorial control and by the middle of the century they contolled the whole of Laconia.

The Spartans allowed other Dorian settlers in Laconia a degree of self government as long as they accepted Spartan rule. These people were called Perioikoi. 

However, the Achaeans who were still living in Laconia were reduced to slaves, who were forced to work the land for their Spartan masters. These people were called Helots, which meant "captives".

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Sparta and other Greeks- Nature and Limitations of

The study of Sparta is hampered by the lack of archaeological or literary evidence. Put simply, the Spartans built little and wrote less; consequently Spartan society is always likely to be something of a mystery.

Spartans distrusted literature and only wrote for functional reasons. As a result, Spartan Literature has only survived in the works of three poets of the 7th century (Tyrtaeus, Alcman and Terpander). Other Greek cities wrote about Sparta, but care has to be taken over their objectivity.

Herodotus- Valuable source of information about Sparta's important role in the defence of Greece during the Persian wars of the 5th century. Although he doesn't tell us much about the workings of the Spartan society, what he does record is very informative, particularly in relation to the kingship, women and burial rites.

Thucydides- An Athenian who wrote about the Peloponnesian war of 431-404, about which he gives detailed information. However, he wrote from an Athenian perspective, so cannot be entirely relied upon.

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Nature and Limitations of the evidence. Continued

Xenophon- Was an Athenian who liked Sparta. His opposition to democracy in Athens eventually led to his exile from the city. When he ended up campaigning abroad with the Spartans, he was very impressed with their society. They received him into the State, giving him a home near Olympia. Xenophon tried to write positively about Sparta in reaction to the criticism it received from other writers, it's therefore unclear how balanced a view he provides.

Plutarch wrote biographies of famous Spartans, most importantly Lycurgus. He also collected a book of famous saying of Spartan Kings, commanders and women. Although he was careful and read all of the sources available, he was writing many centuries after the fall of the Spartan system, so it's hard to assess the accuracy of his accounts.

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Nature and Limitations of the evidence. Continued

Aristophanes and Euripedes- Tell us more about opinions held by Athenians about the Spartans than about the Spartans themselves.

Plato and Aristotle- Two pre-eminent Greek philosophers of the 4th century. Both wrote at length about the political systems in the Greek World. They are therefore important sources of information about the political structure in Sparta. Plato was clearly impressed by elements of the Spartan system, since there are echos of it in his own ideal state which he outlined in his Republic.

Unlike most other Greeks, the Spartans didn't value grand buildings or works of art. Most of their buildings were made of wood and so no trace of them has remained. In addition, the city had no surrounding walls; Spartans liked to claim that the true walls were the warriors who would protect it.

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Common Criticisms of Sparta

Foreign Policy- Spartans were keen to ensure that their Greek allies preserved governments sympathetic towards the Spartan cause, and therefore often supported oligarchic movements, and suppressed the rise of democracy and tyranny in other Greek states.

Agoge- Felt to be cruel to send sons away at the age of 7, and deprive them of warm clothing and adequate food. Athens especially was appalled by the lack of literature and poetry in the Spartan education system, stating that Spartans can "neither read nor swim" - Plato

Helots- Greeks believed it was acceptable to enslave foreigners, but were very uneasy about enslaving fellow Greeks.

Conservatism- Sparta was famous for this and disliked change. Some though Sparta declined as a military power as she was unprepared to learn the new military tactics which were evolving in the 4th century.

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Spartan Xenophobia

Spartans were deeply suspicious of the outside world. Spartans believed that Lycurgus was quick to purge Laconia of any outside influence by ordering the expulsion of foreigners- the Spartan system couldn't allow its citizens to be tempted by the luxuries or ideas of the outside world.

Lycurgus reportedly banned foreigners from entering Laconia incase they developed into teachers of "evil practice": "By definition, foreigners must bring in foreign ideas with them, and novel ideas lead to novel attitudes." - Plutarch

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Spartan Xenophobia Continued.

This travel ban worked both ways; Spartans were banned from travelling outside Laconia incase they acquired "foreign habits" and copied "lifestyles based upon no training". Lycurgus was concerned that Spartans should have no exposure to types of government different from that of Sparta. Spartans were particularly suspicious of democracy, believing it gave too much power to the common citizen and didn't allow for swift and clear decision-making.

Spartan propaganda would have told them that other Greeks were spoiled by a lavish and luxurious lifestyle, with too much eating and drinking, and too many flashy buildings. Militarily, Spartans would have looked down on other Greek armies which didn't contain professional, highly trained soldiers.

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Social Structure

During the 6th and 7th centuries BC, the concept of Eunomia (good order) was being developed in the Greek city-states. This referred to a well-organised political system, with citizens obeying its laws. Guided by Lykourgos, Sparta came up with its own version of this concept: The three tiered social structure. At the top were the Spartan citizens, known as Spartiates or Homoioi. Below them were the perioikoi.

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The Perioikoi

Probably had a reasonable quality of life compared to many other people in the Greek World. As long as they obeyed their Spartan masters, they were allowed to get on with life in their own communities. Their most important role in Sparta was as craftsmen and traders, since Spartiates were forbidden from engaging in these activities.

There were probably about 100 communities of perioikoi scattered around the less fertile regions of Laconia, and their villages acted as a buffer zone to prevent helots from escaping from Sparta.

They lived in self governing communities where they had local citizenship, but had no say or role in Spartan government

Their chief contribution to Spartan life was economic- they were traders and craftsmen of materials such as clothing, shoes and furniture, storage pots, metal work, while communities living near the coast also engaged in fishing and ship building. They were expected to serve as soldiers in times of war.

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The Helots

The Helots outnumbered the Spartiates by atleast 10:1, so they were subject to brutal repression for centuries. Their main role was to work on the Spartan farms, while the helot women did the domestic work required in a household, such as being nurses.

Originally conquered Messenians or Achaean inhabitants of Laconia and were state owned slaves who had no political rights.

The helots were forced to farm Spartan lands and supply a fixed amount of produce annually to their Spartiate masters. They were able to keep or make a profit from any surplus produce. They were also required to act as servants to their Spartiates masters in times of war. 

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The Helots

The Helots were treated extremely harshly. At the beginning of each year, the Spartan magistrates declared war on them; this meant that it was legal for a Spartiate to kill a helot at any time. Sources also relate that the Spartans used to force Helots to get drunk in order to warn young Spartans about the dangers of drunkenness. They were also humiliated by being forced to sing ridiculous songs, dress up in animal skins and to receive regular public beating 'so that they would never forget that they were slaves.'

Helots could be freed for outstanding acts of courage or service on military campaigns, although this could actually be dangerous. The historian Thucydides tells a story of the freeing of helots who had fought bravely in the battle against the Athenians in 424. The Spartans invited the bravest 2000 helots to step forward after the battle and receive their freedom. However, every single one of them disappeared soon afterwards- almost certainly by their Spartan masters, who wanted to eliminate such  brave men from their society.

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A silver lining for Helots?

Since they were owned by the state, their treatment was not dependent on the whims of individual masters, in contrast to most slaves in the Greek world. 

The state distributed them to individuals, who had only limited power over them; only the state could authorise the killing of a helot. Moreover, the helots were allowed to live independently of their masters and together with their families, which was generally not the case for other slaves in the Greek world.

As part of this independence the helots had freedom of religion (in contrast to slaves in other Greek cities) and could worship gods just as the Spartiates and the perioikoi did.

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Tyrtaios - Civic Unrest

- Civic unrest threatened the authority of Kings and Gerousia

- In his poem entitled "Eunomia" ("Law and Order") Tyrtaios reminds the citizens:

  • That their kings rule by divine right.
  • That there are oracles laying down the constitutional arrangements of the King, Gerousia and assembly. Tyrtaios quotes an oracle which is very similar to the Rhetra.
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Tyrtaios- 2nd Messenian War

Again Tyrtaios writes like a sort of state poet exhorting the Spartans to fight to the death of their city. He addresses the fighting men as if they were on a battlefield. Later when Tyrtaios was established as a "classic" writer, Spartans on campaign were made to listen to recitations of his poetry.

Tyrtaios is also said to have written "martial songs". These accompanied armed dances and processions at certain Spartan festivals. The relative modernity of the language casts doubt on whether they were really by Tyrtaios.

Tyrtaios seems to have had ideas a little ahead of his time for Sparta. His concern for the State easily explains why he became so popular.

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The Kings

There were two Kings in Sparta at any one time. The two Kings were from different royal families. Each King was succeeded by the eldest son born during his reign. The Kings had supreme power on the battlefield, as commanders. In early Sparta, both Kings led the Equals out to battle. By the 490s BC, one king was compelled by law to stay at home. The other King would lead the army, with an elite personal guard of 300 equals.


In the city- Some priestly duties eg. sacrifices, leading citizens in religious celebrations.

Some judicial tasks- eg. adoption of children, marrying of wealthy orphan girls

In battle- In theory had the right to declare war, but didn't exercise this right.

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The Kings (Continued)

Possible sanctions against Kings

Could be punished, even deposed for misconduct, and might be fined if defeated in battle

If things went wrong, the Kings would generally be held responsible.


Held in great honour and extremely rich in comparison to other Spartans. They owned much of the land and received double ration of food in the syssitia.

Seats of honour at festivals

Assembly stood up when the kings came in

Greatly honoured at death

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The Ephors (Overseers)

The office of Ephor was established in the Lycurgan reforms; they were "overseers". Ephors are the most interesting and the most unusual of the offices. From the 5th century BC onwards, the powers of the Ephors increased. Originally they were officials appointed by the kings to help them carry out their duties. The Ephors seem to have gained the powers the Kings lost.


5 in number in any year

must be an equal over the age of 30 to be eligible

elected annually be the Assembly (Apella), the year would be named after 1 Ephor

Put on trial at the end of their term in order to prevent abuses of power.

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The Ephors (Overseers) Continued.


To give foreign ambassadors permission to cross the border into Spartan territory, and to address the Apella

To act in an "executive" capacity to ensure...

-That the state functioned smoothly

-That laws were upheld

-That nobody exerted more than his rightful power

eg. once the assembly had voted for war, the Ephors would call out the army, decide on numbers, direct generals to particular campaigns, and 2 Ephors would accompany the King to battle.

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The Ephors (Overseers) Continued.(2)

To exercise control over the magistrates

To control the Krypteia

To control state finances

To exercise overall control of the education of young Spartans

To maintain discipline throughout the community and to fine people on the spot.

To join with the Gerousia and Apella to conduct trials involving criminal offences

To summon meetings of the both the Gerousia and the Apella

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The Gerousia- Council of Elders

Aristotle, the political philosopher who wrote an analysis of political systems and lived in Athena in the 350s BC didn't approve of the Gerousia. He thought it was a "silly election system; members were guilty of bribery and favouritism; minds, as well as bodies, grow senile; it should be observed by the people and should be accountable to them"


2 kings, 28 equals over 60 years old. To be qualified for membership, a Spartan had to be an equal over 60, and once elected would hold position for life.


To prepare proposals to put before the Apella

To try some criminal cases, involving charges of murder and treason

to impose punishments, including death and decrees dishonouring individuals.

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The Assembly / "Apella" / "Ecclesia"


All equals over 30. They met outside the city, in a tent with no sides.


To elect Ephors

To make decisions on peace, war and foreign policy and to appoint generals

to decide on changes in the law


The assembly couldn't put forward its own proposals, proposals had to come from the Gerousia. The assembly couldn't debate; It listened to kings, gerousia and ephors debating and then voted for or against. The decision of the Apella was final.

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After the second Messenian War, Spartan society underwent a radical social revolution. Spartans liked to believe that this revolution was led by a man called Lycurgus, a noble Spartan who oversaw the changed that the city needed to make in order to keep control over the helots. However, Lycurgus is a puzzling figure for historians, and some even doubt whether he really existed. Nonetheless, the Spartans certainly believed in his existence, and they looked to him as their founding father. So what did they believe that he had done?

The story went that he had travelled to the oracle at Delphi to get instructions from the gods about how to reform Spartan society. The system he came up with became known as the Spartan system.

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Lycurgus (2)

A Professional Army

Lycurgus apparently decided that all Spartan citizens should become full time soldiers and spend their lives training for war, so that they were always able to overcome any threat from the helots. The Spartan army was therefore the first professional army in Greek history.

An Education System

To develop the future generations of Spartan warriors, Lycurgus established a state education system which trained boys from the age of 7 to become outstanding warriors. He also established an education system for girls, so that they too would serve the state as effectively as possible.

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Lycurgus (2)


Lycurgus observed that there was great inequality of wealth and land ownership between Spartan citizens, but he believed that they would only fight for each other if they felt equal. Therefore, he tried to make all Spartan citizens equal in wealth- they were all given a plot of farmland of the same size and an equal number of helots to work it. They were not allowed to build grand houses and they had to eat together every evening in dining clubs. To symbolise their new equality, Lycurgus gave Spartan citizens a new name: Homoioi which meant "Equals".

Lycurgus was given instructions on how to reform the government of Sparta...

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Education of Boys

The Early Years

Babies received tough treatment right from the beginning of their lives. New-born babies were inspected by a committee of elders and, if considered deformed or too weak, they were left to die of exposure on the slopes of Mount Taygetus.  If they survived this test, they had to endure a harsh infancy. Babies were not allowed to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, were bathed with wine, not water, as this was thought to be a test for epilepsy, while they were often left in the dark or on their own. As they grew, children were not allowed to be fussy about their food.

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The Education of boys (2)

Ages 7-14

From the age of seven, a Spartan boy was sent off to the city's boarding school known as the Agoge ("Rearing"). He would never live with his family again. The boys lived in communal barracks and were divided into packs, each lead by prefects, known as eirenes. The eirenes were 19 or 20 year old Spartans who had recently graduated from the Agogo. The headmaster of the school  was known as the paidonomos, and he was always a Spartan warrior with a great record.

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The Education of boys (3)

The boys were under constant supervision and the eirenes, who were armed with whips, could punish the boys for any offence. The boys did not learn much reading or writing- only enough to train them for basic literacy. They didn't study any literature and philosophy, unlike Athenian boys. Instead, a great deal of time was spent developing physical strength and obedience. Music was also an important aspect of their education. By learning to compete in choral competitions, the boys were taught the value of precise movement and teamwork, which would be vital in battle situations when they were grown up.

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The Education of boys (4)

Ages 14-18

At this point, the really intensive training started! Youths were trained to go barefoot at all times so that they could run faster, scale heights more easily and clamber down cliffs. They were allowed only one cloak for the whole year, whatever the weather. They had to cut their hair short and generally played naked- their bodies became tough and were unused to baths and lotions; they enjoyed such luxuries only a few special days a year. Food was deliberately rationed to make them used to doing without it on a military campaign if necessary. As a result the boys were forced to steal to get more. If they were caught they were beaten for "stealing carelessly"

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The Education of boys (5)

Ages 18-19

It is not exactly clear how young Spartans became adults at the age of 18. However, it seems that the students now became eirenes and some would act as pack leaders for the younger members of the Agoge. Despite these new responsibilities, the youths were still kept under constant pressure to behave properly. The historian Xenophon tells us that, when walking through streets, the youths were forced to stay silent and to keep their eyes fixed on the ground ahead of them. It is also likely that at this age some Spartans were enlisted into the Krypteia- Sparta's secret police force.

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The Krypteia

The Krypteia was a well-kept secret by the Spartans, and much of its activity remains a mystery to this day. However, the historian Plutarch does give some information about the organisation. It seems that the strongest graduates from the Agoge were selected to serve for a period of time in Hiding (Krypteia means hiding). They were sent out into the countryside of Laconia and Messenia, where they were given minimal rations so that they had to live off the land. During the day they lay low, but at night they patrolled the land and- most significantly- they were encouraged to kill any helot they thought presented a danger to Sparta. After a period in the Krypteia, young Spartans were trained and efficient killers who knew how to terrorise the helot population.

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Spartan Women


Sparta was the only society in ancient Greece which had an education system for girls, which had been devised by Lycurgus. Girls lived at home, but may have been organised into bands, as the boys were. At times, they may have exercised with the boys and taken part in gymnastic, musical and choral competitions.


Spartan women typically married at the age of about 18, later than women in other Greek cities. The marriage took place in secret: The bride and her family had a simple private ceremony, then her hair was cut off (This may have been to show that the woman had submitted to the control of her husbands) and she was dressed in male clothes. After dinner, the groom quietly came and had sex with her, but then hurried back to sleep in his barracks, since a man was not allowed to live with his wife until the age of 30. (These secret visits also indicate that the marriage was only a trial one)

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Spartan Women


A woman's most important role was to produce healthy sons, who would grow up to be fine warriors. Child mortality rates were very high in the ancient world, and there were no modern medicines to assist the survival of infants during and after pregnancy. For this reason, Spartan women were required to exercise vigorously. Plutarch tells us that they took part in games such as running, wrestling, javelin, discus and ball games. These activities made women healthier, which in turn lessened their risk of miscarriage, prolonged a women's childbearing years and helped the development of a healthy infant in the womb.

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Spartan Women

Economic Role

Spartan women also had a far more powerful economic role that women in any other Greek city. Women did not do housework, spinning or weaving- this was seen to be beneath their dignity and was the duty of helots, whom they supervised. Instead, since Spartiates were forbidden from doing any other work that soldiering, it was left to their wives to manage their farming estates. A woman had to ensure that the family had enough food and that her husband provided their monthly ration of food for their syssition. Women could also own and inherit property in Sparta (in stark contrast to women elsewhere in the Greek world) and wealthy heiresses were highly prized.

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Women- Propaganda...

Women were also very important for propaganda purposes. A typical Spartan woman seems to have been a very tough character, who was ready to send her son off to the Agoge at the age of seven so that he would grow up to be a brave and strong fighter. Women were fanatical believers in their society- when Spartans went off to war, their women apparently said goodbye to them with the words "either with your shield or on it" - Meaning that they should either come back victorious or dead.

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Women- Attitude of other Greeks

Spartan women were a source of scandal in the rest of the Greek world. Other Greeks would also have been shocked by the degree of economic power they had in society, while Aristotle probably spoke for many when he claimed that Spartan men were "ruled by their wives"- he believed them to be far too bossy. Greeks may also have thought of them as bad mothers because they were prepared to send their sons away from for good at the age of seven.

Other Greek men would have been disturbed by their freedom and prominence. They considered it shocking that they socialised and exercised in public and were unescorted by male relatives. 

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Women- Attitude of other Greeks (2)

"Thigh Flashers"

There was persistent criticism that Spartan women were sexually promiscuous. Other Greeks were shocked to hear of women in revealing clothes who even took part in ceremonies naked. They were nick named "Thigh flashers"


Some Greeks thought that the Spartan women's obsession with exercise made them muscular and unattractive. On the other hand, some Greeks admired Spartan healthiness, strength and natural beauty.


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Women- Attitude of other Greeks (3)


Other Greeks thought that Spartan women were negligent as they sent their sons to the Agoge at 7 Years old.


 Aristotle claimed that Spartan men were "ruled by their wives". He abhorred the freedom given to Spartan women and believed that it was a central flaw in the Spartan system.

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The Syssition

One of the key features of the Spartiate lifestyle was the dining clubs. In order for a young Spartan to gain full citizenship after leaving the Agoge, he had to be elected into a dining-club, known as a syssition. Each syssition had about 15 members and they were expected to eat together every night. When on campaign they also shared a tent together.

The election process for a new member was as follows: Each member was allowed to vote on a new candidate by dropping a ball of bread into an urn. If any member was opposed to the candidate, he squeezed his ball flat and the candidate was rejected. However, if the candidate was elected, he became a member of the syssition for life, and had to provide a fixed quota of rations from his farm each month.

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The Spartan Army

Since the Spartans spent their whole lives training for war, the Spartans developed the most feared army in the Greek world, which was undefeated in war for almost 300 years. The key to their success was their mastery of the phalanx, a style of fighting which had emerged in the 7th century- the second Messenian war is one of the first wars where the phalanx tactic is recorded.

A phalanx was a rectangular formation of soldiers in rows and columns- each column was usually eight rows deep. In the front row, the soldiers advanced together at the same pace, with their shields raised in their left hands; therefore each soldier relied on the shield of the man to his right to protect his right side. When they met them enemy, each soldier thrust forward his long spear into the lines of the opposing soldiers. If a man in the front row fell, then the next man in the column stepped forward to take his place.

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The Spartan Army (2)

A successful phalanx required each soldier to know his place and to stand his ground in company with his colleagues. This is where all the Spartan training came into its own. Music was also central to the phalanx, as ordered were communicated not by shouting but by a piper playing different tunes. This is why musical training was so important to Sparta's military success.

The heavily armed soldiers of the phalanx were known as hoplites, a name which came from their weapons, or "hopla" in Greek. The key offensive weapon was the long spear (about 3 metres in length), but a hoplite also carried a short sword, which he would use if he lost his spear or fought at close quarters.

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Appearance of a Spartan Hoplite.

Crimson clothing (Colour of Blood)

Tunic (Chiton) Worn at all times

Cloak (Himation) - Not usually worn in battle

Usually barefoot... Boots for warmth not protection

Representatives abroad carried a Laconian staff with a "T" at the top

Athletics were done naked

Long hair- More terrifying and more comfortable for helmet.

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Spear (Dory) - Carried at all times

Circular shield (aspis or hoplon) - Round with a lambda on it, standing for Lakonia

Breastplate (Cuirass) Had a six pack  on it and was bell-shaped to allow for free movement of the hips... Later in Sparta they replaced it with lighter armour

Corinthian style helmet with a red plume.

Greaves on legs and right arm

Hoplite sword.

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The battle of Thermopylae

The battle of Thermopylae remains the most famous battle in Spartan history, even though the Spartans were eventually defeated there. In 480, the whole of Greece was being invaded by the huge persian empire to the east. All the main Greek cities joined together to meet the Persian invasion; they decided that the best place to do this was the small pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, where the mountains came down within a few feet of the sea; this therefore made it very east for a small number of men to hold back a large army. The Persian army was indeed massive- some estimate that that it was between 100,000 and 200,000. By contrast, the Greeks had a mixed force of just 7000 to defend the pass, led by 300 elite Spartan warriors and their King Leonidas.

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Thermopylae (2)

For two days, the Greek forces managed to slaughter thousands of Persians in the pass. Although the Persians had many more soldiers, they were lightly armed compared to the Greeks and were no match for the Greek's phalanx formation. The Persians were finally able to get through the pass only when a local Greek, Ephialtes, betrayed his countrymen (in return for a vast payment) by telling the Persians about a mountain path which led to the other side of the pass. On the third morning of the battle, the Greeks realised that they would soon be trapped from both sides in a pincer-grip. Leonidas dismissed most of the Greek allies, so that only the 300 Spartans and some other local Greeks remained. The Greeks fought bravely to the death that day, holding up the Persians for another few hours.

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Thermopylae (3)

Although the battle was ultimately a defeat for the Greeks, it had two positive effects on the subsequent war:

Buying Time:

First, it bought the Greek allies a few extra days to prepare for the Persian invasion of the south of Greece. They did this by abandoning Athens and moving as many Greeks as possible into the Peloponnese peninsular.


Secondly, the battle gave the Greeks a tremendous morale boost by showing them that such a small number of Greeks could stand up to kill a vast number of Persians. This was crucial because when the Persians next arrived in the south of Greece- The Greek navy had the self belief to pull off a stunning victory in a sea-battle off the island of Salamis.

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