In the modern Western World, our model of democracy is highly valued and defended. This system of government famously owes a great debt to the Ancient Greek city of Athens. Yet ancient Athens was originally only one among a thousand autonomous city states, each with their own form of government.
The word ‘polis’ refers to an autonomous city state, and these ‘poleis’ were spread throughout Ancient Greece, all of which began as aristocracies and then developed into either democracies or oligarchies during the 500s-400s B.C.E. These included Thebes, Corinth, Syracuse, Aegina, Rhodes, and most prominently, Sparta. Although today we think of Athenian democracy as being synonymous with Ancient Greece, many of the city states were structured and run along very different political lines.
The best example that we have of a successful oligarchy is the city state of Sparta, which in the fifth century was viewed as a model of oligarchy, the polar opposite of Athenian democracy. The word oligarchy is defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes’.
What is interesting about these two city states is the contrasting political systems they each developed. Many of the features of both societies can still be recognisable to us today when we look at modern democratic countries as well as repressive totalitarian regimes.
The city state of Sparta was located in the Peloponnese in southwestern Greece, and it was one of the largest city states in Ancient Greece. Significantly, there are very few ancient ruins remaining there today, because Sparta, unlike Athens, was not concerned about building majestic monuments. They believed that Spartan values resided in the mind and that monuments were unnecessary. Another important detail is that, although we probably know more about Sparta than any other city state excluding Athens, most of the written information we have was written by Athenians rather than Spartans, who were not given to writing, partly because of the secretive nature of the Spartan state. Spartans were notoriously suspicious of foreigners.
The arts were also largely excluded from Sparta. However, Sparta fascinated other Greeks and this is the reason that we possess any detailed information about them today. Founded in the 9th century, the state of Sparta was run by two kings who arbitrated in times of war and were also the religious heads of state. In times of peace, decision making was in the hands of a council of elders which was about twenty-eight men over sixty who were elected from an elite circle of wealthy families. One of the key facts about Sparta is the paramount importance accorded to the army. The Spartan army was renowned for its prowess throughout Greece, due to the fact that the entire social structure of the state was organized to create a small elite of highly skilled and disciplined warriors. Men from elite families were trained and cultivated. The Spartans practised infanticide at a very high rate, especially on male infants. Infanticide was practiced throughout Greece, but in other city states it was more commonly girls that were killed.
This brutal custom was seen as essential to creating an effective warrior class. Physical perfection was essential, so any male infants who were deformed or in any way infirm were not permitted to live. The decision was made by the council of elders rather than parents. Any infants who did not meet the Spartan ideal were thrown into a ravine a few miles outside of Sparta known as ‘the deposit’ or ‘the place of rejection’. Young male citizens who survived into childhood would, by the age of seven, begin the training essential to becoming a Spartan soldier.
The training began with removing the boys from their families and placing them into a training system called the agoge. This was a communal living structure with boys divided into age classes with older boys supervising the younger ones. These boys would be expected to compete in mock battles and have their endurance tested by being subject to cold and hunger; this was done to harden them into the ideal warriors. The individual was not important, it was the group that was paramount.
Because the Spartan elite were exclusively dedicated to military training, much of the labour and agriculture was done by slave labour. The people placed under state serfdom were known as the Helots and could neither be bought nor sold. The Helots were made up of captured people from neighboring Greek states around the Peloponnese, such as the people of Laconia and later the Messinians.
While slavery was common practice throughout Greece and the ancient world, it was controversial for a Greek to enslave a fellow Greek. The Helots were a lot more numerous than the Spartans and Spartan society was therefore always concerned about the potential for slave uprising or forming an alliance with another Greek polis.
The Athenian definition of “citizens” was also different from modern-day citizens: the only people that would have been classed as citizens were free adult men and they were the only people eligible to vote in Athens. What this meant in practice was that a very large number of citizens were directly involved with the government.
Each year, 500 names were chosen from all the citizens of ancient Athens. The citizens that were chosen had to serve in the government for one year and they would propose new laws that the other Athenian citizens could vote on.
By the fourth century, Athens was culturally at its zenith and there was a flowering in philosophy as well as the arts. Writers who we still revere as master dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides, as well as the historian Thucydides, lived in Athens during this period. Significantly, during this golden age, artists, businessmen, and craftsmen from around Greece also flocked to Athens which compared to Sparta was an open society. This dynamism explains the innovation that occurred in Athens both intellectually and artistically. It also partly explains why Sparta, despite its military prowess, never achieved or matched it.
Most of the literature that we have from Ancient Greece was written by Athenians or writers from elsewhere living in Athens and the bulk of the writing was from the 5th and 4th centuries.
Although democracy in Athens only lasted for 200 hundred years, the achievements of this relatively short epoch are still influencing us to this day.
By Carmel Mattey
Illustration: Philip Lotz