Greek culture provides the basis for much of Western civilization. Athens and Sparta offer a unique insight into the ways in which different cities have different impacts on world culture. This sample history essay explores cultural trajectories of the two cities.
Classical Greek culture
Greek culture is a significant milestone on the roadmap of Western civilization. The origin of this nation of city-states and their history of conflict and cooperation between Athens and Sparta represents a social, political, and philosophical dialogue that has informed virtually every civilization since.
The differing development between Athens and Sparta is a fascinating study in how the most basic needs of a population, and the way they are met, can determine the future of that population. Every difference between Athens and Sparta can be traced back to the availability, or lack of availability, of farmland during their formative years.
Difference between Athens and Sparta in Ancient Greece
The two dominant city-states of the 5th and 6th century BCE came from very similar beginnings. Until approximately 600 BCE, there was virtually no difference between Athenians and Spartans, other than geographic distribution (Bulliet et al., pg. 97). Politically, socially, and culturally they were all relatively primitive and were mostly motivated to simply survive. Survival became the key element of change.
When the early Spartans migrated into the Peloponnese at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, they encountered a shortage of farmland. Faced with the question of survival, they invaded the fertile but already populated Messenia.
The Peloponnesian War and invasion resulted in plentiful farmland and also a plentiful population to work that farmland as a subjugated social class that was known as Helots (Bulliet et al., pg. 97). This social structure formed the backbone of Spartan infrastructure and informed all future developments.
Athens, on the other hand, faced no such situation in their formation. Farmland was plentiful in their corner of Greece and those who owned and successfully worked the land enjoyed a heightened social status (Bulliet et al., pg. 98).
While Sparta began their nation from bloodshed and oppression, Athens began theirs with no shortage of necessities and so were able to quickly advance to luxury goods and behaviors. Trade goods and philosophy formed the foundation of Athenian power while Sparta had to rely on strength of arms.
Spartan martial prowess
The famed Spartan martial emphasis was a necessity, at least in their early years. The conquered Messenians who formed the Helot population in Sparta, the class responsible for farming and other menial labor, posed a constant internal threat to Sparta.
Pericles wrote in his historical accounts that the Spartans were not lenient overlords and they lived in fear of uprisings, so while the basic survival needs were met by the Helots, Spartan citizens learned war from an early age so they could protect themselves against Helot rebellion (Bulliet et al., pg. 97).
In this way, the Spartans came to only engage their basic needs as taskmasters and were cut off individually from the chain of supply. While many Athenians owned and worked the land, supporting themselves and their families, Spartans had no such connection.
They only had cruelty and violence as a means of survival. The different approaches of Sparta and Athens became more pronounced as the nations developed along their chosen lines Even as they developed along different lines socially, they were not so different philosophically in their early years. They both highly valued the contribution of their own citizens to whatever societal idea was in place.
Athens emphasis on agriculture over military
Ancient Greek civilizations placed importance on agriculture and military, but these two cities put their eggs into one basket. For Sparta, it was martial prowess, for Athens it was agricultural productivity (Bulliet et al., pg. 98). The Spartan focus on enforcement of the status quo was what kept them from advancing, though, while Athens had the individual freedom and a cultural motivation to develop new ideas.
Early on, political power in Athens was concentrated in the hands of the most productive members of society, as the literal power in Sparta was concentrated in the hands of the most militarily capable. In Athens that concept developed into an early form of democracy as even the lowest social class in Athens was given a chance to speak (Bulliet et al., pg, 98).
While it remained true in Sparta that the most valued quality, martial ability, was associated with citizenship, there was no chance for expansion of that citizenship beyond population growth of the Spartans themselves. In Athens, there was a legitimate opportunity for advancement for any citizen willing to work hard enough.
No other cities in Ancient Greece rose to the advanced state of Sparta and Athens. The cultural trajectories of Sparta and Athens quickly diverged as it became apparent that the Spartans, while good at what they did, had nowhere to go with their chosen philosophy. The men of Sparta spent their entire lives training and had no time for the economic and intellectual pursuits that Athenians engaged in (Bulliet et al., pg. 97). This resulted in the fairly little advancement of any kind in Sparta.
Even the organization of the city-state remained fairly static as there was no room for disruption. The Helots had to stay subjugated to continue the supply lines and the Spartans had to stay poised for combat to respond to any Helot insurrection.
Athens had no such concern about their ability to feed their population. From early on in their time as Athens, under the tyrant Pisistratus in the middle of the 6th century BCE, Athens undertook several construction projects and developed a festival culture. Their famed heritage of athletic and poetic competition began around this time (Bulliet et al., pg. 98). These cultural advancements were only possible because the basic needs of the population were entirely secure in Athens.
Like what you read? Check out our blog on Troy’s Tragedy.