The Greek state of Lacedaemon emerged in the 11th century. BC. in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese, after its conquest by the Dorian tribes. Laconic, as the region occupied by the Dorian state was called, was rich in minerals, and the valley of the Evrotes River, in which the capital of Lacedaemon Sparta was located, was distinguished by fertility. In the future, the city-state of Sparta will never need to import grain, unlike most other policies in Balkan Greece.
Perhaps it was the fertility of the land that became the decisive factor that predetermined the agrarian direction of the development of Lacedaemon, the cities in it were rather poorly developed. Even the capital was more likely not a city, but a collection of several large villages. This was further emphasized by the fact that the capital’s polis never had fortress walls. “Our walls – our men ” laconically answered the questions of foreigners by the heirs of the “Dorian spirit”.
Not only a sense of their own superiority allowed the Spartiats to leave their city without defensive structures. The very position of Laconica, which had no land borders in the south, west and east, and had only one, easily blocked passage, contributed to the organization of the defense. However, “… The Spartans were reasonably proud of the fact that for several centuries the foot of an external enemy had never stepped on their vast territory …” Few people in Greece dared to openly challenge Sparta!
Population growth forced the Spartans to go beyond the natural boundaries of Laconia and enter into confrontation with Messinia. The long and fierce First Messenian War followed, lasting 19 years, 743-724 BC. and ended with the conquest of the eastern part and the southern coast of Messinia. Fertile lands, which were excellent for agriculture, were attached to Lacedaemon.
As in other states of Greece, in Lacedaemon there was a process of property stratification, military victories only accelerated the separation of aristocrats, who combined wealth and a large amount of land in their hands, from the general mass of farmers. At the same time, the aristocracy began to slowly take power into their own hands, pushing the basileus into the background and restricting the rights of the people’s assembly. Go the same processes that we have seen previously in Athens ( Learn more here: )
The similarity is not only in the ongoing political processes. At this time, the poets Terpandr, Tirtaeus and Alkman wrote their poems in Sparta. For achievements in music, one of the modern researchers even called Sparta of that time the musical capital of Ancient Greece. At this time, temples of advanced architecture were being built here, and the construction of at least one of them, the temple of Athena Chalkioikos, was led by the Spartan architect Gitiad. During excavations on the territory of Lacedaemon, many vases, reliefs, miniatures, statues, bronze decorations, stones, carvings on gold, bronze and ivory, made from the 8th to the beginning of the 6th century, were discovered.
During these years, Lacedaemon was freely visited by foreigners, and the Spartans themselves traveled around Ecumene, being in lively relations with the advanced cultural centers of eastern Greece. And finally, at this time, the Spartans actively participated in the Olympic competitions and played a leading role in them, until the first half of the 6th century BC. of the 81 Olympiad winners, 46 were Spartans. Remained the poems of the Spartan poet Alkman, with a mention of the gastronomic excesses of the Spartan rich. In a word, Lacedaemon of the first half of the 7th century. BC – quite an ordinary Greek state. There is not a trace of the harshness of life, iron discipline and the atmosphere of a military camp, in a word, nothing that made Sparta a symbol of severe, sometimes absurd militarism.
After the Messenian War, Lacedaemon’s relations with neighbors on the peninsula deteriorated. The Greek city-states did not like strong and too active neighbors, so they gladly “made friends” against them. The Argives and the Arcadians were not naive and understood perfectly well that after Messinia their turn would come, if they “sit with folded hands”. Therefore, when in the second half of the VII century. BC. The Messenians revolted, Argos, Tegea and Antigonia joined them in the struggle against Sparta. Lacedaemon’s only ally, Elis, at that time was busy fighting the rebellious city of Pisa, and could not provide help. The uprising took on such a scale that it was called the Second Messenian War. Lacedaemon lost part of the conquered territories, there was even a threat of the transfer of hostilities to Laconica itself.
The unsuccessfully developing war increased the ruin of the poor and further exacerbated the internal contradictions of Spartan society. The peasants saw that the victories in the previous war did not solve their problems, the newly annexed territories of Messinia were in the hands of wealthy aristocrats, and their impoverishment continued at the same speed. A significant part of the peasantry was on the verge of complete ruin and loss of personal freedom. No one wanted to turn into a helot, and the peasantry demanded a new redistribution of land. Internal turmoil had a deplorable effect on the fighting spirit of the soldiers, who were mostly former peasants.
Another factor that negatively influenced the course of the war was the martial art of Lacedaemon’s fighters, which remained unchanged almost since the Dorian invasion: “… the decisive role in the Spartan army was played by promachoi -“ advanced fighters ”. These were aristocrats, armed with a huge shield that covered the warrior from head to foot. These warriors ran forward at the enemy, and the shield of each such aristocrat also served as protection for the poor, lightly armed, hiding behind this shield and throwing stones and darts from behind it … ” S.Ya. Lurie
Similar shields and fighting style, when well-armed aristocrats are the main striking force, and the battle itself turns into a series of fights between them, we can see in Homer’s descriptions. Later, the Dorians defeated the warriors of the Mycenaean era, but partially borrowed their weapons and military art.
Military failures and internal contradictions put Lacedaemon on the edge of the abyss, and there was only one step left before the death of the state. And then radical reforms were carried out, we do not know and will never know the details of their implementation. Tradition calls the author of the laws of the aristocrat of the royal family Lycurgus, who invented all the laws by which Sparta lived further. However, this was already doubted by ancient authors, modern scholars express doubts about the very existence of such a legislator. According to some theories, Lycurgus is a forgotten ancient deity, who was credited with creating a society formed by the gradual modification of the patriarchal system under the influence of external factors.
Who made the decisions about specific actions, who supported the innovations, who were against, and what happened to those who did not agree? Time hid the answers to these questions from us, we know only their result. The enslaved and enslaved peasants remained forever in this position. All the privileges of the aristocracy were abolished, land and helots were evenly divided among the citizens. The country mobilized all its forces to fight, and effective measures were taken against any attempts to express discontent.
A reform was carried out in military affairs, from now on a system was introduced, which would later be called the Greek phalanx. Instead of individual warriors-combatants – an indestructible “wall of shields. From now on, the main valor of a warrior becomes the preservation of the formation, no individual fights, everyone is obliged to death and under pain of death to maintain his place in the ranks. It is the ability to maintain the monolithic structure of the system in any situations that will make the Spartans in the future almost invincible, but so far this is still far away. However, thanks to the reforms carried out, it was possible, after many years of struggle, to prevail over the Messenians. The entire territory of Messenia was included in Lacedaemon, most of the Messenians turned into powerless helots.
The war with Argos was fought for a very long time, only by the beginning of the 6th century. BC. managed to achieve an advantage in the war and take Kinuria and the island of Kifera from Argos. After that, the Spartans began active hostilities against another ally of Messenia, the Arcadian city of Tegea. Again, the war was fought with varying success, however, here Lacedaemon won. But by this time, the Spartans had seized more territory than they could control, and Tegea remained a free policy, Sparta preferred to conclude an allied treaty (symmachia) with him.
At the cost of a monstrous effort, Lacedaemon was able to survive and win. To do this, it was necessary to turn the country into a military camp and to establish practically “war communism” on its territory. The colossal shake-up of those years will not be in vain, the Spartans will never forget how the uprising of the conquered people and the onslaught of the neighbors almost wiped them off the face of the Oycumene. The shock that the entire people of Sparta experienced was so great that they agreed to completely change their lives and their customs, henceforth, the purpose of the existence of the state of Sparta will be to keep the helots in obedience and fight for leadership in Greece. The great Spartan warriors were frightened once and for all, their collective paranoia forced them to take more and more measures to strengthen their state, until they gradually turned Lacedaemon into the Sparta that we used to hear about.
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