Athens and Sparta: two different approaches to politics.


Both Athens and Sparta developed some kind of political equality among some of their people, but the nature and purpose of their governments, as well as their social/political structures and values, were very different.  Athens was a commercial city; its trade and increasing military leadership in the Greek world transformed it from a monarchy to a proto-democracy.  Sparta was an agricultural society bent on military expansion to crush any possible invaders of its farmland.  Its egalitarian practices catered to the need of a militarist state.

    1. Athens: from hereditary rule to rule through the influence of status and money

    2. Wealth, social polarization, and reform



Cleisthenes responded to tyrants--aristocrats who tried to bypass collective aristocratic rule by directly appealing to the masses--by allowing people's direct political participation through establishing the institutions of the Ecclesia, the Council of 500 and the People's Court, thereby undercutting any prospective tyrants' aspirations. This might have been due to two reasons. First, it was the people who rose up and expelled the tyrant Isagoras, who made himself Athenian leader backed by Spartan forces, and made it possible for Cleisthenes to come back from exile and come to power. Therefore even if Cleisthenes might not have wanted to rely on the people earlier, he now realized the power of the people was perhaps the most effective way to deter the coming back of the tyrants.

Second, the emergence of the phalanx led to commoners' participation in the military, hence their demand for privileges, as the aristocrats had been privy to when they were the exclusive fighters. By allowing them institutionalized political participation, Cleisthenes was catering to their demand. It is worthy of note that despite his extreme democracy, Cleisthenes did not do away with the Areopagus or the Archons, representations of elite rule. His goals seemed to be to prevent social unrest from a confrontation between the people and the aristocracy through power sharing, and to maintain a collective identity of the aristocrats, preventing any single one of them from usurping the power of other aristocrats.

    3. The Persian and  Peloponnesian Wars and Athenian democracy.


The Greek-Persian Wars (499-479 BC)

Battle of Marathon (490 BC). 
Decisive for eventual Greek victory over the Persians and decided Athenian leadership power among the Greek city-states. 
Battle of Salamis (481 BC). 
The sea battle where the Athenian navy decisively defeated the Persians

The rise of the Athenian Empire

The Delian League and Athenian wealth. 
The Peloponnesian War(431-404 B.C.) and the development of the Athenian navy (View of triremes). 

Athenian democracy under Pericles (r. 461-430). 

  •  Although the Areopagus still existed, Athens was very much governed by the Council and the Assembly of all free male citizens. The latter selected all public officials except for the military generals. Also served as highest appellate court. 
  • Athenian democracy was in proportion to Athenian naval power.
  • Pericles became the rallying point of Athenian politics.

The democracy under Pericles continued extension of privileges to the commoners, as more and more of them joined the navy in Greek battles against Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. On the other hand, Pericles broke away from Cleisthenes's idea of a collective identity of the aristocracy. Both the Areopagus and the Archons were weakened but continued to exist under Pericles. Pericles stood out, however, as the center of Athenian politics around whom everything revolved. His numerous public projects, including the building of the Parthenon, and many other ways to put the people on the public payroll, reminds one of modern machine politics when bosses of political parties used various means to get people to vote for their candidates. On the other hand, historical accounts described Pericles as an uncoruptible man who used his own money for public purposes.

The Peloponnesian War

  • 461-445, first phase. Pericles ended the war with a 30 year truce with Sparta. 
  • 430-404 BC., second phase. Athens came under Spartan rule. 

Q: What, in your words, are the bases for Athenian democracy?

 4. Background to Spartan social and political structure

  • Settlement in Sparta dated back to 950 BC when the Dorians moved into that region. It was protected by two rugged mountain ranges and a difficult sea outlet. 
  • Messenean War (725 BC). 
  • Messenean revolt (640 BC) that almost destroyed Sparta. 
  • Spartaís transformation into a military state. 
  • Spartan men did military schooling and service from ages 7 to 60. Each had a piece of land tilled by Helots. 

 5. Spartan social structure

  • Native Spartans. 
  • Native women, though uneligible to vote or serve in the army, enjoy equal education opportunity as men, which was made into law. 
  • Foreigners who served in commerce. 
  • Helots: Messenian agricultural slaves (serfs).

6. Spartan political structure

       Dual monarchy (2 kings). 

Five men council with ultimate authority and veto power. 

Council (thirty 60-years and over men): Debated and set legislative and foreign policy, and was the supreme criminal court.

 Assembly of all Spartan males: selected the council and approved or vetoed council proposals.


Q: Why was the Sparta social structure suited for a military state? How did that state differ from Athens?

7. End of Greek dominance of the Mediterranean

330s, came under Macedonian rule. 
The Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great.