Sparta is one of the most interesting stories in the history of mankind. In the fifth century BC, Sparta and Athens were the two most important states in Greece. Yet Sparta was very different from Athens. Whereas Athens was civilised, cultivated and artistic, Sparta was only interested in one thing: war. It was brutal, uncultivated and – well, barbarian. What made the two cities so different? I believe it was one thing above all: Money. Or rather the lack of money. For Sparta was the city that rejected money.
At the beginning of the fifth century, the highlight of the history of classical Greece, Sparta and Athens were the two leading states: between them, they defeated the Persian invasion at the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. Yet later in the fifth century, Sparta and Athens fell out and went to war, the Peloponnesian War recorded by the great historian Thucydides. And in that war, Sparta eventually won. The Spartan victory however made little difference, for Athens continued its artistic and cultural leadership and Sparta was itself defeated by the Thebans in 372 BC and thereafter declined rapidly. But Sparta was always different.
It was a totalitarian state, a state set up for fighting, and it was very successful at fighting. But it lacked arts and culture. There are a few remains left behind: at Sparta today there is virtually nothing to see of the fifth century. There are no plays, no drama, no literature. There are no great buildings, no architecture, nothing to see. But it won its wars, and had a structure of society that fascinated and appalled the philosophers of the rest of Greece in equal proportions. It had a very elaborate social structure that makes it the prototype and the model for all totalitarian states ever since. What caused this state of affairs? I believe that the crucial tipping point was the Spartan rejection of money, and here I wish to investigate how far the non-use of money caused its totalitarianism, and how far the primitive structure of its society led it to reject the use of money
We will look first at the history of Sparta to see how it came into this situation. Secondly let us consider the constitution of Sparta and note how far these features resemble those of classic barbarian societies. We will then look at the economy of Sparta to see how and when it diverged. And finally let us look at what happened to Sparta in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when it became at least to some extent, civilised.
Second draft, 23rd March 2010