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Ancient Greece

5a. Rise of City-States: Athens and Sparta

Acropolis
The Acropolis played an integral role in Athenian life. This hilltop not only housed the famous Parthenon, but it also included temples, theaters, and other public buildings that enhanced Athenian culture.

Geography plays a critical role in shaping civilizations, and this is particularly true of ancient Greece.

The Greek peninsula has two distinctive geographic features that influenced the development of Greek society. First, Greece has easy access to water. The land contains countless scattered islands, deep harbors, and a network of small rivers. This easy access to water meant that the Greek people might naturally become explorers and traders.

Second, Greece's mountainous terrain led to the development of the polis (city-state), beginning about 750 B.C.E. The high mountains made it very difficult for people to travel or communicate. Therefore, each polis developed independently and, often, very differently from one another. Eventually, the polis became the structure by which people organized themselves. Athens and Sparta are two good examples of city-states that contrasted greatly with each other.

Athens: The Think Tank

Athenian women
Life was not easy for Athenian women. They did not enjoy the same rights or privileges as males, being nearly as low as slaves in the social system.

The city-state of Athens was the birthplace of many significant ideas. Ancient Athenians were a thoughtful people who enjoyed the systematic study of subjects such as science, philosophy, and history, to name a few.

Athenians placed a heavy emphasis on the arts, architecture, and literature. The Athenians built thousands of temples and statues that embodied their understanding of beauty. Today the term "classical" is used to describe their enduring style of art and architecture.

Athenians also enjoyed a democratic form of government in which some of the people shared power.

Sparta: Military Might

Life in Sparta was vastly different from life in Athens. Located in the southern part of Greece on the Peloponnisos peninsula, the city-state of Sparta developed a militaristic society ruled by two kings and an oligarchy, or small group that exercised political control.

Ares, Greek god of war
Ares Borghese, 420 B.C.E. Photo © Maicar Förlag — GML
Ares, the Greek god of war, was a particularly fitting patron for Sparta, which was known to be a rather warlike society. When they weren't fighting another city-state, Spartans were honing their military skills in preparation for the next battle.

Early in their history, a violent and bloody slave revolt caused the Spartans to change their society. A Spartan, Lycurgus, drafted a harsh set of laws that required total dedication to the state from its people. The laws' goal was to train citizens to become hardened soldiers so that they could fight off potential enemies or slave revolts. The result was a rigid lifestyle unlike any seen in Greece at the time. The devotion of Spartans to developing a military state left little time for the arts or literature.

A Spartan baby had to be hardy and healthy. To test a baby's strength, parents would leave their child on a mountain overnight to see if it could survive on its own until the next morning. By age seven, Spartan boys were taken from their families and underwent severe military training. They wore uniforms at all times, ate small meals of bland foods, exercised barefoot to toughen their feet, and were punished severely for disobedient behavior. Boys lived away from their families in barracks until the age of 30, even after they were married. Men were expected to be ready to serve in the army until they were 60 years old.

Women, too, were expected to be loyal and dedicated to the state. Like men, women followed a strict exercise program and contributed actively to Spartan society. Although they were not allowed to vote, Spartan women typically had more rights and independence than women in other Greek city-states.

Winning by Losing

The differences between Athens and Sparta eventually led to war between the two city-states. Known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.), both Sparta and Athens gathered allies and fought on and off for decades because no single city-state was strong enough to conquer the others.


The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected, and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. [2] And the fact that the people in these parts of Hellas are still living in the old way points to a time when the same mode of life was once equally common to all. [3] The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life; indeed, it is only lately that their rich old men left off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen, and fastening a knot of their hair with a tie of golden grasshoppers, a fashion which spread to their Ionian kindred, and long prevailed among the old men there.Thuycidides, The Peloponnesian War, (1910 translation by Richard Crawley)

With war came famine, plague, death, and misfortune. But war cannot kill ideas. Despite the eventual military surrender of Athens, Athenian thought spread throughout the region. After temporary setbacks, these notions only became more widely accepted and developed with the passing centuries.

On the Web
Ancient Greek Wars
What caused the Persian Wars? What made Greek city-states pull together to fight such a mighty empire? When it was over, why did Athens and Sparta fight against each other in the Peloponnesian War? Find out more about ancient Greek wars, military strategies, and weaponry on this informative webpage from an independent researcher.
Ancient Greece: Sparta
What's the Delian League? What does Spartan hegemony mean? When was the first and second Athenian Empire? Find out all about the great cities of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and the battles they fought for dominance over the Mediterranean world. The award-winning World Civilizations website provides this excellent online class on ancient Greece.
Ancient Greek Cities
We hear a lot about Athens and Sparta, but what were some of the other ancient Greek city-states? There was Corinth, which was the richest commercial city of ancient Greece. Thebes is the birthplace of Hercules (whom the Greeks called Herakles), the legendary hero. There was also Sikyon, which was very influential in painting, sculpture, and drama. Check out reconstructions of the cities, their famous artifacts, firsthand descriptions, and each one's distinctive culture.
Ancient Greece: Sparta vs. Athens
Pretend your name is Poliphus, and you're living in ancient Athens with your family. Athens and Sparta are at war. What effect does the war have on your life? How does your family — parents, siblings, and even grandparents — deal with the war? And how does a kid your age living in Sparta deal with what's going on? Follow this fictional journey through the Peloponnesian War from the viewpoints of both an Athenian and a Spartan family.
The Ancient Greek World Index
Learn about all things Spartan from the University of Pennsylvania. From evidence of raucous parties to acts of war, ritual sacrifice, and the real story of the Olympic Games, this is your one-stop site for the Hellenistic World.
Index of Maps of Ancient Greek World
The University of Evansville is hosting a website created by a French scholar of Plato, Bernard Suzanne. The part of his website presented here shows detailed maps of Greece, Athens, and the greater lands of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. All of the maps link to or contain concise descriptions of the ancient cities of Greece, as well as intriguing information about the lands abroad.
Odyssey Online: Greece Home Page
Odyssey Online, creators of fascinating programs on the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Rome, Africa, and the Near East, present a virtual tour of Greece. Beginning with the rise of Greek culture from the ashes of the Myceneans, follow Odyssey through the key elements of Hellenistic culture: the lives (and deaths) of the people, and the mythology that remains.
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