Wednesday, October 25, 2006

About Spartans (and a bit about ancient Greeks in general)

Historical and archeological evidence strongly indicate that Greeks had inhibited the Balkanic Peninsula (the Peninsula of Hemos) since the third millennia before Christ. Pre-historic settlements have been found throughout the Aegean Sea islands and mainland Greece. “Grammical Alpha” a written alphabet found in the Minoic settlements of Crete dating back between the 16th and 18th centuries B.C. has been identified as the earliest alphabet of the ancient Greek world.

The Greeks entered the Balkans in separate waves, each wave consisting of a different Greek tribe: the Pelasgian tribe (Proto-Greeks), the Achaeans (Homer’s Greeks), the Ionians, the Aeolians, and finally the Dorians. The Doric invasion (around the 10th century B.C.) was undoubtedly the most violent and significant (from a historical point of view) migration wave, and marked the transition from the Bronze age to the age of Iron. At the same time the Greeks begun massive campaigns to explore and colonize the Mediterranean and expanded the Hellenic world to Asia Minor, the Black Sea, Southern Italy and Sicily (also referred to as Magna Grecia, Great Greece), Cyprus, Northern Africa, South France and Iberia.

Doric Greeks in the Greek mainland were settled to the North, establishing the Kingdom of Macedonia, and to the South, establishing the second Kingdom of Sparta. The first Kingdom of Sparta, described by Homer in the Iliad flourished during the Mycenaic period (Bronze age) and its most famous King was Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon King of Mycenae, and husband of Helen (the cause of the Trojan war). The Mycenaic Kingdom of Sparta was conquered by the Dorians (self-proclaimed descendants of Mythical Hercules), who at around 900 B.C. found the Doric state of Sparta. It was a strict militaristic state, governed be two Kings and a complicated Oligarchy (rule of the few). The every-day lives of Spartans, the political and economical systems were regulated by the laws of Lycurgus. The total dedication of Spartans to the traditions settled be the legendary lawmaker kept the Spartan society stable and, to a very large degree, unchanged for centuries. The assembly of citizens, the Apella, where only full Spartan citizens or the Equals (Homioi) could participate, was another source of power, which together with the council of the elders (the Senate or Gerousia), and the 5-member council of the Ephors (citizens elected by the Apella every year) consulted the Kings and played a major role in decision- and policy making.

Unlike most independent ancient Greek states or “city-states”, Sparta was not restricted to the limits of the city itself. It is characteristic that until the years of decay, during the Hellenistic period, Sparta did not even have a wall to protect it from enemy attacks. Actually, the state of Sparta comprised of the greater periphery of Lacedaemon and later, when the Spartans attacked, defeated and enslaved their Western neighbors, it included Messinia. Thus, two centuries after their appearance in the region, Doric Spartans effectively ruled the Southern half of Peloponesse.

The country of the Spartans was referred to as “Lacedaemon” by most Greeks, and the letter lamda “Λ” was engraved on the shields of Spartans when they marched to war. Full Spartan citizens were actually a minority group in their own country. They lived in the plains of the Eurotas river, in the four neighboring settlements which comprised the City of Sparta and a fifth settlement: Amykles, a few kilometers to the South. Full Spartan citizens were not required to work. They were professional soldiers and were mostly occupied with educating young Spartans and preparing for war.

In Lacedaemon (the eastern half of the Kingdom), the majority of the residents were Perioikoi, also Doric Spartans, who however did not have full political rights, and served as a national guard in case of war. They were occupied with more humble professions like farming, merchandising or craftsmanship. The largest ethnic group of the entire Kingdom were the Messinians, who were enslaved be the Spartans and were referred to as Helots. They were the cornerstone of the Spartan economy, providing almost all agricultural and farming goods for Sparta. They lived under the provision of either individual Spartans or the state itself. They were forced to follow the Spartans to military campaigns usually fighting as light infantry or assisting personnel.

Full Spartan citizens and the Perioikoi had a sense of individual freedom and co-existed in harmony, occasionally members of one class could move to the other and vice versa. On the other hand, the Helots were always held as an inferior race by the Spartans and hated their masters. They revolted whenever given the opportunity, usually to be crushed under Sparta’s military supremacy. The constant internal threat of the Helots is thought to be one of the most important reasons why the Spartan society was so insisting in intense military education and keeping all citizens alert at all times.

This is only an introduction… We will discuss the Spartan society in more details soon.


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