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Greek Mythology > People, Places, & Things > Sparta
Sack of Ilion to Seven Sages Seven Wonders of the World to Spartan Cipher Rod Sparti to Syrinx 2
Sparta was an ancient city in southern Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the primary city of the district of Lakonia (Laconia); located by the river Eurotas and originally settled by the Dorians.
After the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), Sparta was the undisputed dominant power of the Greek mainland, Ionia and Asia Minor; the people of Sparta were very proud and the city was known as the “city with invisible walls” because they sincerely believed that if they could not defend their city with the strength of their army, and not stone walls, they did not deserve to be free.
The city was never adorned with elaborate temples or impressive architecture because the people and government believed in simplicity and practicality rather than superficial displays of wealth and culture; even today, we use the term Spartan to denote something that is very basic, that is, no frills or ornaments.
As if he was speaking directly to us in the twenty-first century, the historian, Thukydides (Thucydides) in his History of the Peloponnesian War (Introduction, section 10), stated that if Sparta was deserted and all that remained was the temples and the foundations of buildings, it would be difficult to imagine the power and influence the city once wielded. He also said that if the city of Athens was viewed in the same way, it would appear twice as powerful as it had once been.
There are several references in Greek literature that exemplify the Spartan ideals:
The historian Herodotus (Histories, book 7, chapters 133-137) relates the story of how the Persian king, Darius, had sent ambassadors to Sparta and Athens to demand earth and water as a symbolic tribute and submission to the Persian king; the Athenians threw the Persian heralds into The Pit, which was the punishment meted out to criminals; the heralds received similar treatment in Sparta.
A group of enraged Spartans threw the Persian heralds into a well and told them that they could get all the earth and water they wanted at the bottom of the well; the Athenians thought no more of the matter because they soundly defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon; the Spartans, however, became more and more distressed at their rash behavior; their sacrifices in a shrine of Talthybius, which pertained to heralds, were repeatedly unfavorable.
Ten years later, the city fathers asked for volunteers to go to the new Persian invader, Xerxes, to confess the disgraceful crime against the heralds and offer themselves for execution; two men of property and of high birth volunteered (Sperthias and Bulis) and surrendered themselves to Xerxes; the new Persian king surprised everyone, including his generals and advisors, by not executing the Spartan volunteers; instead, he took the Spartans on a tour of his assembled army and navy and let them return to Sparta unharmed; the purpose of this maneuver was to allow the Spartans to marvel at his strength and be cowed into submission rather than fight a pointless war; he seriously misjudged the Spartans because they would never surrender without a fight and any fight they entered would end either when they were victorious or when there were no Spartans left to fight.
Another example of Spartan idealism can also be taken from Herodotus (Histories, book 3, chapter 46):
The people of the island of Samos were being oppressed by an unfit ruler named Polykrates (Polycrates) so they sent an emissary to Sparta to ask for assistance; the emissary from Samos gave a long and detailed plea for assistance to the Spartan ephors and was astonished to be told that he should come back the next day and restate his appeal; the emissary was advised that the Spartans were not like the Athenians and that he should simplify his request if he expected any help; the following day when the emissary addressed the ephors, he held up an empty grain sack and said simply, “The sack is empty,” one of the ephors replied, “We can see that it’s a sack, there was no need to say that.”
As an example of Spartan dominance after the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon relates an interesting story in Anabasis (book 7, chapter 1) where six thousand battle-hardened mercenary soldiers were confronted by a few red-cloaked Spartan officers and told that they could not stay in the city of Byzantium; the weary and hungry mercenaries obeyed the Spartans even though they could have easily pushed them aside but they knew that such an act would never be forgotten or forgiven by the Spartans; the mercenaries were angry but they complied with the Spartan demand and left the city without delay; the Spartans were the masters of all Greece and their authority was questioned only by fools.
The Spartans, like all Greek nations, were fiercely independent and this tendency was probably the cause of their eventual decline and subjugation; by circa 300 BCE, the Spartans had been effectively surrounded by unsympathetic hostile forces and they were effectively cut off from their sources of slaves and commerce.
The loss of Spartan independence did not come with one fatal attack or incident but with the slow decline of their influence throughout the Aegean area and, more importantly, on the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
After 200 BCE, the Spartans were quickly reduced to a minor Greek influence and finally, in 146 BCE, they become subjects of the Roman Empire.
The name is also spelled as Lakedaimon or Lacedaimon.
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