A Comparison of Athens and Sparta

 30 November 2011
 A Comparison of Athens and Sparta
The Greeks of ancient times were warrior tribes who had a common language but fought
incessantly with each other struggling for the possession of the most rich and fertile lands. By the
beginning of 5th century B.C. there were about four and a half million men in Greece. It was at
this time that Athens emerged as the most powerful of the city states. The city emerged as the
cultural capital of the entire Greek world and it was the cradle of contemporary western science
and philosophy. The Athenian empire reached its zenith during Pericles’s life time. The city was
full of splendor and Athenians themselves believed it to be the ‘City of God’.
On the other hand, Sparta represented to a totally different world. It had its own
philosophy about administration, military, education and marriage. It also differed from Athens
on ideas about the nature of relationship with other Greek empires. Although Sparta was a strong
military state, it was content to remain in its territory and didn’t indulge in warfare for
acquisitions of new territories. On the other hand, Athens had expansionist policies. It wanted to
get hold of more and more Greek territories. This expansionist policy of Athens, proposed by
Pericles, led to war between the two states which ended with the defeat of Athens. 
Athens suffered defeat at the hands of Sparta. Although Athenians were world renowned
for their superior naval units, they succumbed to the Spartan military expertise. The reason for
Spartan victory can be attributed to the upbringing and training of the Spartan soldiers. This
demands an in-depth investigation into the similarities and dissimilarities of the two states. The
Spartans differed from Athenians in many ways. The main points around which the
commonalties or differences between the two states can be discussed are Economy, Art, Lifestyle,
Women, Military and Sexuality.
The economic or financial policies of a nation or state depend on the nature of politics
prevalent in the country. Athens and Sparta were similar on this feature because both the states’
governments were elected by people. While the Athenian government pioneered the democratic
system, Sparta was a military aristocracy (McNesse, 31). In Athens, participation came from all
walks of life. Although there were restrictions on women, men were free to discuss new ideas in
the assembly. On the other hand, Sparta had much more inflexible political framework. Its own
ideologies and policies made Sparta politically and economically less active. Out of the two,
Athens was more economically active. It was at the centre of a great trading network that dealt
with goods from as far the Britain in the west to India in the east, bringing untold wealth into the
city. This trade and Athens’s expansionist ambitions led to the building of Athenian naval empire
which stretched across the Aegean Sea.
Agriculture was the mainstay of Athenian economy. It also prospered because of the
profits brought by mining and metal crafts. As said earlier, trade also played an important part in
Athens’ economy. This is a feature where there lie stark differences between the two empires. In
Sparta, economic activities were carried outside the city while there was no such thing with
Athens. Sparta also lacked a currency system, a system which was very well developed in
Athens. This meant that Sparta not only had very less interaction with the outside world, it also
lay dormant as far as trade was concerned.
Art is a dimension where the two empires Athens and Sparta differed a lot. During the
period of coexistence of Sparta and Athens, Athens produced some of the greatest sculptors and
philosophers of all time. Socrates, Phidias and Plato were philosophers who still represent the
immortal soul of Greek and art and Philosophy. On the other hand, Sparta was only concerned
with its military glory. Although early Sparta produces marvelous pottery, it was no match to
Athenian art and mathematics. Athens was a place where thinking flourished whereas Sparta
nourished the strength of a person.
The cities of Sparta and Athens offered different kinds of lifestyles to its citizens. Athens
nourished almost every different aspect of modern western civilization. Even in 5th century when
most of the other civilizations were struggling to achieve harmony and prosperity, Athens
provided a lifestyle which is still inconceivable in many parts of the world. Citizens of Athens
lived an extremely comfortable and enjoyable life. There was physical security for the people
and hence families flourished and every section of the society reaped economic benefits. Women
in Athens had their restrictions but men of upper class enjoyed infinite amount of diversions.
They were free to pursue their favorite vocations and if they were not working, they would meet
their friends and drink together at the symposium. The lifestyle of Athens was very flexible and
permissive. They believed in rational thought and open-mindedness. But the case was completely
different with Spartans. They focused more on developing military strength and obedience to
orders received. Unlike Athens, Sparta wasn’t interested in interacting with other empires. 
It is surprising to know that women in Athens were more restricted than women in Sparta.
During the day a wife in Athens tended to the children and the house while the husband led a
more public life in politics or commerce. Wives were not permitted to attend to the symposium.
Athenians believed that women were incapable of rational thought and hence there is little
literature available on women of Athens. But on the basis of the material that is available, it can
be said that women in Athens were much more dependent on their husbands and fathers. On the
other hand, Spartan girls were much more independent and enjoyed many rights such as right to
The role of women was clearly defined in both Athens and Sparta. Sparta focused on
producing great soldiers and so boys weren’t allowed to work. They practiced the art of war
throughout their life. The role of girls was to grow up and be mothers of warriors. The women
were no allowed to fight it was necessary for them to take part in exercises and training so that
they achieve physical fitness and are able to produce healthy babies. There was also difference in
the marrying age of the girls. In Athens girls were married at the age of 12 or 14 and after
marriage they were expected to stay at home. Political and religious participation was forbidden
for them. On the other hand Spartan girls were allowed to participate in outdoor activities and
they were married around the age of eighteen.
One interesting difference between the two empires was the manner in which female
beauty was appreciated. Spartan women stayed away from any artificiality as they were only
judged on the basis of their physique and athletic prowess (Synnott, 38). On the contrary
Athenian women embellished themselves with enormous amount of makeup. One interesting and
well known fact is that the first ever female to win gold at the Olympics was a Spartan. Spartan
princess Cynisca was the first female Olympic victor when she won the four-horse chariot race in
396 BC and then again in 392 B.C (Buchanan, 201).
Sparta was a military regime like no other in history. Forever under the cloud of war, the
entire nation lived like an army. Upon entering the world, a Spartan infant was examined by the
city’s elders. If it was not healthy and sturdy, it would be flung into a river and left to die
(Encyclopedia, 111). Sparta produced one of its most famous warriors named Aristodemus. He
prepared all his life for war. Surviving his first immediate trial after birth, Aristodemus was
bathed not in water but wine to steal his constitution. Then he was handed over to a slave nurse
so that he would not be cuddled. He was fed plain food and taught not to fear the dark or being
This kind of life was unimaginable for a head of Athens who was surrounded by the finer
things of life. Spartan citizen males were taken at the age of seven to be trained as warriors
whereas in Athens all citizens’ males were expected to do two years military training from the
age of eighteen. Sparta created a legacy of its own by bringing forward soldiers such as
Aristodemus. It was because of all these reasons Sparta was most the powerful state in all of
Greece. In 404 B.C. it defeated its proud archrival Athens.
Homosexuality was a common feature between the two empires. In Athens it was
common for older men to fall in love with the young men usually ‘before the whiskers appeared’
on the chin. They would have homosexual relationship with young boys aged 16-19. Many
Greek philosophers such as Plato have openly declared their love for younger males (Budin, 73).
On the other hand, Spartan homosexuality was more common among teenagers although adult
Spartans indulged in wife swapping in order to ‘produce healthy children’. The aspect of
homosexuality sexuality is common between the empires. But Athenians were not known to be
practicing wife-swapping. In fact they were very dedicated to their families, trying to protect
their young boys from the homosexual adults of the society.
It can be seen from the above facts that there were many similarities and differences
between Spartan and Athenian cities. It is fascinating to see so much diversity in two cities which
were not too far away from each other and yet it appears that they belong to two different
universes. But at the same time there are many common points which brought these universes
closer to each other. Both the cities have become immortal in the minds of people for their
uniqueness. While Athens is a model for thinkers, philosophers, artists, politicians and
dramatists, Sparta continues to inspire societies and individuals with military interests. 
Works Cited
Buchanan, A. A Daring Book for Girls. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.
Budin, S. The Ancient Greeks. New York: ANC-CLIO Publishers, 2004. Print.
Koivukoski, T. Confronting Tyranny: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics. New York: Rowman
& Littlefield, 2005. Print.
McNesse, T. History of Civilization. New York: Lorenz Educational Press, 1999. Print.
Synnott, A. The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
The Popular Encyclopedia: Being a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature,
Biography, History, And Political Economy, Volume 6. New York: Blackie & Son, 1841. Print.  

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