Spartan Culture: Society
Sparta the ruling city of the area of Laconia in southern Peloponnese, lay in the valley of the river Eurotas.
The Three layers of Spartan society
The Spartans also known as Lacedaemon or Lacedaemonia consisted out of: Spartiates, Perioikoi and Helots.
First came the Spartiates, the true Spartan citizens or genuine Spartans. Individual skill, dedication and perseverance were requirements to be a citizen of Sparta. The Spartiates were determined to remain a select group, not inter-marrying with the rest of the population, nor sharing privileges with them.
Second came the people in the towns and villages which she controlled, some were free, known as Perioikoi or neighbors, although they were inferior in status to the Spartans themselves.
Third came the Helots, because they were felt to be a greater threat, they were kept in a state of slavery as publicly owned agricultural laborers. Every year the Spartans made a formal declaration of war on the helots, so that it did not count as murder to kill any.
With their subjects vastly outnumbering them, as figures such those given by the historian Herodotus at the battle of Plataia in 479 BC indicate (5000 Spartiates, 5000 Perioikoi and 35.000 Helots), it can be seen why Sparta felt it essential to have enough military strength to ensure internal security.
The Three Spartan virtues
The three Spartan virtues are: equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity.
Fitness and Austerity: The Spartans were proud to say that they built their monuments "in flesh"; meaning that the virtue and courage of Sparta's citizens were the greatest monuments a city-state could possess, however they were not lacking in architectural and artistic achievements, it was just that as a people they standed out far more because of their virtues, such as the ability to control their emotions something we see lacking more and more in Western society.
Equality: Sparta was the only Greek city-state to introduce a land reform aimed at equalising wealth among its citizens. Sparta was the only Greek city-state in which women enjoyed elementary rights such as the right to inheritance, property ownership and public education. The Spartan public educational system, the agoge, was admired almost universally by contemporaries, from historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Sparta repeatedly intervened at other cities, to defend democracy against tyranny. There consitution really helped to make sure all citizens were equals.
In order to avoid strife in the city, the land property of the people (Spartiates) was divided in equal shares and the Perioikoi alse were assigned equal lots of land.
To avoid materialism the use of money in gold and silver were forbidden and in their place iron money was issued, too heavy and of very little value to outsiders. Also Spartans were not permitted to build their houses with other tools, except the axe and the saw, so that they would not be unnecessarily decorated beyond what was reasonable.
The constitution was organized so that individual power was closely checked and it made change to that very difficult, at least by peaceful means. The fact that there were two kings meant that, as in the case of the two Roman consuls, one could prevent the other from becoming too powerful on his own account. The original powers of the kings were greatly restricted, and they became principally generals. When the army fought outside Sparta, only one king was allowed to go as its commander, so the command was always clear and it made sure the kings would want to get along and it removed the risk of loss of both kings. At home they had some powers but were, in practice, less important than the ephoroi or "overseers", five magistrates elected annually from the people. Each month the kings and ephoroi exchanged oaths, the kings swearing that they would govern according to the laws, and the ephoroi that, as long as the kings obeyed the laws, they would see to it that the kingship was unharmed.
The ephoroi kept a close watch on the kings: two went along on any foreign campaign, and they had the power to call the kings before them to explain their conduct. They could even fine or arrest them. The ephoroi were generally responsible for the discipline of the state, acting as judges, dealing with foreign ambassadors, presiding over meetings of the council and the assembly. It was they who annually declared a formal war on the Helots, and on beginning their years of office they issued a decree that all citizens should "shave their top lips and obey the laws".
The counsel (gerousia) was another strong influence in the city. Consisting of twenty-eight men over the age of sixty, elected for life from certain ancient families. Finally there was the assembly, the members of which were the people, or at least adult males. Although the assembly had the right to approve or reject proposals put before it, there was an important law to the effect that "if people make a crooked decision, the kings and elders have the power to withdraw the matter".
Sparta was the first form of democracy, they didn't just have a pure democracy with its flaws, it had a more complex system that was multifaceted and combined it allowed them to use the best parts of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.