Understanding cultural differences in ancient Greece is largely a function of comprehending the various factors that drive cultural trajectories. This sample history essay explores how the battle between Athens and Sparta resulted in an eventual Spartan victory, though Athens would prevail in terms of cultural influence.
History of Athens and Sparta
Social progression in Greek culture was largely determined by the different societal architectures in Sparta and Athens. These differences, however, do not entirely favor Athens as the most forward thinking society, at least by today’s standards. Athens did have the clear advantage in diversity and privileges of social classes.
Sparta was decisively divided between Spartans and Helots with no room for moving between the two, at least none that a Spartan would want because the only direction to go was down (Bulliet et al., pg. 97). An Athenian citizen could enjoy the hope of advancement by improving their economic status, still tied to productivity.
Status of women in ancient Greece
But the status of women was markedly different in the two nations because of these different approaches to civilization. Because Sparta favored warriors above all other professions, they also valued those who produced warriors. Specifically, they valued strong, healthy women. Spartan women enjoyed considerable social status while Athenian women were little better than Helots were in Spartan society.
Athenian women had no social or political consideration and were seldom allowed to even leave their houses. They were not educated or allowed to engage in political debates. It was considered likely that the prevalence of bisexuality in Athens in this era was largely due to the society’s views on gender roles and the minimized role of women in society.
They were not allowed or equipped to be intellectually stimulating so that and other stimulation was sought among men (Bulliet et al., pg. 102). By modern standards of Western civilization, the place of women in society was one way that Sparta far outstripped Athens. For all their other flaws, their culture understood the importance of women in forming a healthy and capable population.
Political differences between Sparta and Athens
Despite these dramatic differences, it was the political differences that ultimately drew the dividing line between Sparta and Athens. While Athens was developing strong economic and diplomatic relationships with other city-states throughout Ancient Greece, Sparta remained isolationist and arrogant. Not only did Sparta view virtually everyone else as weak and inferior, but they could not afford to distract themselves from managing the Helot population (Bulliet et al., pg. 97).
While Athens had moved on to wealth and prosperity, Sparta remained locked into their relatively primitive state because if the Helots rebelled, Sparta would starve. The priority had to continue to be the dominance of the conquered Messenians. It would not have been in the nature of Sparta to admit this as a weakness and the reliance on the Helots became so fundamental to the Spartan culture that they never bothered to change their tactics.
Sparta conquers Athens
Even though Athens proved itself a major power, the city’s victories during the Peloponnesian War and minor skirmishes among lesser powers were a thing of the past. This was proven when Sparta ultimately conquered Athens. Thanks to the construction of a navy, funded by Persia, Sparta was able to take its military superiority to the only arena that Athens had remained dominant, the sea (Bulliet et al., pg. 104).
It was proven that the differences between Athenian and Spartan rule were unacceptable to the other city-states, however, and Sparta’s lack of development ultimately crippled them. They were unable to interact with their new subjects diplomatically and they lacked the population and strength to rule Greece as they had ruled the Helots. The Spartans who were largely credited with rebuffing the invasions of Xerxes years before turned out to be the force that made it possible for Persia to finally conquer Greece (Bulliet et al. pg. 104).
Though they were stronger, as their culture dictated they should be, Sparta had been so hindered by problems daily life in Ancient Greece (i.e. infrastructure, food shortages, skilled labor, etc.) they never developed the ability to interact on the political scale as Athens had done, all because they were able to move past a fixation on mere survival.
Every advancement in Athens and every lack of advancement in Sparta was directly connected to the food supply in each city-state respectively. The well-fed and internally stable Athens enjoyed the freedom to develop pursuits other than the direct maintenance of their status quo while Sparta had to be constantly fixated on maintaining their rule over the Helots.
Even though it made them a militarily superior nation, this resulted in Sparta being crippled diplomatically and politically. The developmental inferiority of Sparta was proven when its arrogance and unsophisticated methods of rule created rebellion and instability across all of Greece, ultimately leading to the end of Greece as a major power in the world.