Roman Sparta

Hellenistic and Roman Sparta

The introduction of the Lycurgan system was a great success. Throughout the great period of classical Greece, the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries, Sparta played the leading role together with Athens. No sooner had the system been introduced than Greek civilisation faced its gravest peril when it was threatened by the expanding empire of the Persians. But it was Sparta that at the battles of Thermopolae, and Plateia played a crucial role in the resistance to the invaders even if Athens played the leading role at Marathon and Salamis.

For much of the fifth century, Athens and Sparta were rivals, with Athens building up as the bigger empire and reaching new heights in the worlds of art and culture. Then at the end of the century from 432 to 404 Athens and Sparta were at war, the Peloponnesian War recorded in intimate detail by the great historian Thucydides. Sparta won, but it made little difference archaeologically as Athens continued its cultural and artistic dominance and Sparta continues to be artistically and culturally a nonentity.


Messene Stadion-118_150

The Stadium at Messene, with Mount Ithome looming in the background

Then in 371, Spartan dominance was broken by the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra, when Sparta was finally defeated. The Theban leader Epaminondas assured the destruction of Spartan dominance by founding two major new cities on the borders of Sparta, firstly at Megalopolis to the north, which as its name suggests soon became a ‘great city’ well placed in the fertile Arcadian plain. Even more important however was the founding of Messene in the heart of the Messenian plain. There had never been any city of Messene before — the Messenians were conquered before they had had time to coalesce into a single city so the foundation of Messene was a new one. But this in effect halved the population and land area of what had been Sparta, and ensured that Sparta never again had its supply of Helots to feed its population. The town flourished, especially in the Roman period, so that today its remains are the finest in the Peloponnese and far finer than the remains at Sparta itself. Messene became smarter than Sparta. Click here for special feature on Messene

But throughout the fourth century, the story at Sparta is that of population decline. The land holdings that Lycurgus shared out equally among the Spartan warriors became concentrated in few hands: it was not possible to buy or sell plots but it was possible to inherit them, and inheritance ensured concentration: by the end of the fourth century it is recorded that women owned 2/5ths of the land at Sparta and that the population of Sparta had fallen to only a thousand true Spartans.

In the third century there was a revival led by the two kings Agis IV (245 – 41) and Cleomenes III (235 – 222) who eventually succeeded in redistributing the land and thus increasing the number of Spartiates: both are featured in Plutarch’s lives. At last money is introduced and Sparta becomes semi-normal, though at the same time the Lycurgus legend is tweaked, and it is always difficult for modern scholars to know how much the Lycurgan system is original, and how much it is due to the adaptions and propaganda of Agis and Cleomenes. But throughout this time, Sparta remained aloof from leading Greek cities, ostentatiously not joining in the various ‘leagues’ into which many of them coalesced when faced with the twin threats from Macedonia and then Rome. However when Greece was conquered by Rome in 192 BC, Sparta managed to come out on the ‘right’ side (i.e. it supported Rome) but when Rome tidied up the affairs of Greece, Sparta was forced to join in the Achaean league.


Sparta -Roman Theatre

The ‘Roman theatre at Sparta. with the modern town behind it and Mount Taygetus in the background.

But under Rome, Sparta, like so many other Greek cities, flourished, primarily as a tourist attraction. A fine theatre was built which is still the best tourist attraction in Sparta while the Temple of Artemis Orthia was totally re-formed by being adapted as a theatre. A semicircle of seats was built round the outside to accommodate the spectators with the altar in the middle where ritual floggings of boys continued to take place. It was clearly a popular spectator sport to see young boys being flogged and showing their endurance in no doubt a semi-dramatic performance : one wonders whether the tourists were invited to undergo a similar initiation ceremony themselves?

The end wall of the Roman stoa, which gives some idea of the size of the buildings erected in the Roman period

Like much of Greece, Sparta continued to flourish down into the fourth century AD, but thereafter it was rapidly abandoned and in the middle ages a new town of Mistra sprang up 5 miles to the west on a fortified site in the foothills of Mount Taygetus, and this became the leading town of the Peloponnese in the Middle Ages. It was only finally abandoned following the refoundation of Sparta in the 1830s, and it is a today a major tourist attraction, indeed more attractive than Sparta itself: a monastery is still doing good tourist business, high up in the city. Click here for further page on Mistra

Finally in 1832 when Greece obtained its freedom from the Ottoman Turks, two former villages were laid out as new towns, at Athens and Sparta. Athens has flourished exceedingly and has become one of the world’s great megalopoleis. Sparta on the other hand has become a pleasant provincial town laid out on a rigid and somewhat unsympathetic grid pattern but which nevertheless has managed to acquire a number of cheerful hotels and restaurants. It is also the centre of an extensive agricultural area specialising in lemons. But as Thucydides so perceptively said, unless one knew of its historic past, one would not be aware that while Athens was pioneering civilisation, Sparta remained stubbornly barbarian, but yet became the other leading city of classical Greece.


On to Messene


Mistra (medieval Sparta)