Sparta, a city-state of ancient Greece. Sparta, also called Lacedaemon, was the capital of Laconia, in southeastern Peloponnesus, and rivaled Athens as the most powerful city-state in Greece. Spartans followed a strict, military way of life and were famous for their courage and self-discipline.
Society in Sparta was divided into three classes: Spartans, Perioeci , and Helots. The Spartans were the ruling, or citizen, class. They were descended from the Dorians, who began migrating into the Peloponnesus about 1100 B.C. and conquered the Mycenaean populace. The other two classes were descendants of the Mycenaeans. The Perioeci (“dwellers around”) lived outside Sparta. They governed themselves, but were subject to taxation and military service. The Helots (slaves), who were owned by the state, made up the lowest class.
As the ruling class, the Spartans governed and served in the army but did not engage in commerce or agricultural work. From birth, a male's life was regulated by the state. Weak or defective children were put to death. At age seven, a boy left his family to join an army training class, where training was directed toward complete obedience to the state. The boy hardened his body by physical exercise and learned to endure pain and hardship without complaint. He was taught only basic academic skills.
A Spartan entered the army at age 20 and served until he was 60. At age 30 he was given citizenship and membership in the public assembly. He was allotted a plot of land, which was cultivated by Helots, and could maintain a home but continued to eat his meals in a soldier's dining hall. He had to provide food for his dining hall; if he failed to provide his share, he lost both his citizenship and his land.
Girls were raised at home. They were encouraged to participate in athletic contests and to develop strong bodies. Spartan women, who could inherit and bequeath property, were said to be the wealthiest and most influential women in Greece.
The government of Sparta was based on reforms attributed to Lycurgus, according to legend an ancient lawgiver. Two hereditary kings ruled as heads of state and commanded the army, but eventually they were superseded by elected officials. Legislative power was vested in a council of elders, limited to men at least 60 years old, and in the public assembly.
According to tradition, Sparta was founded at the time of the Dorian migration, about 1100 B.C. It soon dominated Laconia and in the eighth century B.C. conquered neighboring Messenia. Between 550 and 500 B.C., Sparta formed the Peloponnesian League, which comprised most of the states in southern Greece. During the Persian Wars (490–479 B.C.), Spartans won immortal fame at Thermopylae.
In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), Sparta defeated Athens and established an empire under Lysander. Sparta's supremacy ended at the Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), when its army was beaten by the forces of Epaminondas of Thebes. Sparta remained independent, but was further weakened by involvement in wars between the Aetolian and Achaean leagues. In 146 B.C. Sparta, with the rest of Greece, became subject to Rome.
Modern Sparta was built in the 19th century on the approximate site of the historic city. Archeologists later uncovered some of the ancient ruins.