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Athens And Sparta; The Culture Essay, Research Paper


Athens was one of the first city-states. Each of these independent states consisted of a city and the region that surrounded it. Athens had a king, as did other Greek states. According to tradition, the first king of Athens was named Cecrops. Kings ruled the city-state until 682 B.C. Beginning that year, elected officials called archons headed the government of Athens. The general assembly, which consisted of all adult male citizens of Athens, elected the archons to one-year terms. After their term of office, the archons joined the Areopagus, a council of elder statesmen. The Areopagus judged murder trials and prepared political matters for the vote of the general assembly.

Hippias fell from power in 510 B.C., and Cleisthenes, the head of a leading family, became the most powerful statesman in Athens. About 508 B.C., the Athenians adopted a new constitution proposed by Cleisthenes, which made the state a democracy. This constitution was an unwritten one, but it stayed in effect with little change for hundreds of years. The constitution kept the ideas of Solon, but it also provided for new conditions that had developed since Solon’s rule.

Until Cleisthenes’ time, citizenship in Athens had been based on blood relationship to the four Ionic tribes that had originally settled Attica. A man had to belong to a phratry (brotherhood) to be a citizen. Under Cleisthenes’ system, all men 18 years of age and older were registered as citizens and as members of the deme (village or town) in which they lived. In time, membership in the demes became hereditary, and so a man might belong to a deme in which he did not actually live. Cleisthenes divided the demes into 30 groups called trittyes, which, in turn, were divided into 10 new tribes. Each of the 10 tribes was made up of 3 trittyes from different regions of Athens. Thus, members of each tribe came from various families and different parts of the city-state.

Athens led the empire into the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) against Sparta and its allies. Sparta won this war and remained the most powerful Greek state until 371 B.C., when it was defeated by Thebes.

Athens never regained its political leadership. But the city remained Greece’s intellectual center. People still came to Athens as a center of culture under Macedonian rule, and later under Roman rule. For hundreds of years, wealthy Roman families sent their sons to Athens to complete their education. However, Athens lost its position as a cultural center in A.D. 529, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian closed the city’s schools of philosophy.

From about 1100 to 1400, during the Middle Ages, Athens declined even further. As the power of Byzantium weakened, various Italian and other European rulers occupied the neglected city. In 1456, Athens fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic Ottomans did little to restore the Christian city to its former glory.

In 1833, after the Greek War of Independence, Athens became the capital of the new kingdom of Greece. The first king, Otto I, or Otho I, and his advisers were German. They used modern Western European ideas–such as public squares and straight streets–in their urban planning designs along the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. The population grew to about 500,000 by the mid-1920’s.


The people belonged to three classes. The Spartans themselves were descended from the Dorians, a people who invaded the Greek peninsula in the 1100’s B.C. They were the ruling class of Sparta and were the only ones who had full rights of citizenship. They enslaved the earlier Greek peoples of Laconia, the Achaeans and Ionians. These enslaved Greeks, who were called helots (pronounced HEHL uhts), outnumbered the Spartans. Some of the non-Spartan Greeks escaped enslavement. They were not citizens, but they lived in Sparta as free people. This group was known as the perioeci (pronounced pehr ee EE sy).

The numbers of the three classes varied widely during Sparta’s long history. Some authorities estimate that at the height of Spartan power there were about 25,000 citizens, an unknown number of perioeci, and as many as 250,000 helots.

Every Spartan male belonged to the state from the time of his birth. A boy was left to the care of his mother until he was seven years of age, when he was enrolled in a company of 15 members, all of whom were kept under strict discipline. From the age of seven, every boy had to take his meals with his company in a public dining hall. The bravest boy in a company was made captain. The others obeyed his commands and bore such punishments as he decided they should have.

As a result of this system, the Spartan men became tough, proud, disciplined, and noted for obstinate conservatism and for brevity and directness of speech. From childhood, life was one continuous trial of endurance. All the gentler feelings were suppressed.

Spartan women, on the other hand, lived the freest life of any women in Greece. As girls, they engaged in athletics, and as women, they ran their own households. They engaged in business, and many became wealthy and influential. Aristotle tells us that women owned two-fifths of the land in Sparta.

The Dorians who settled in Sparta extended their control over all Laconia at an early date. In the 700’s B.C., they conquered Messenia, the rich farming region to the west of Mount Taygetus. Sparta failed to conquer the cities of Arcadia but forced them to enter the Peloponnesian League. The members of the league were obliged to follow Sparta in war. By 500 B.C., this league included most cities in southern and central Greece.

Sparta conquered Athens, the leader of the powerful Athenian Empire, in the hard-fought Peloponnesian War. In 404 B.C., the Athenians were forced to accept a humiliating peace treaty. But the leadership won by Sparta was short-lived. The Spartans ruled over the other Greek states so cruelly that they revolted and threw off the Spartan yoke. At the battle of Leuctra, in 371 B.C., Sparta lost forever its claim to supremacy in Greece. But it remained powerful for the next 200 years. In 146 B.C., Sparta came under the control of Rome.

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