Sparta as the English call this spectacular place in the southern Peloponnese (Greece) was a city/state, and the capital of the state of Laconia. This small country was invaded by Dorian Greeks and occupied, in 950 BC. Roughly two hundred years later the newly named ‘Spartans’ emerged as the dominant race, using a large number of slaves brought from surrounding states by force to do all the work on the land.
The population included virtually no middle or lower middle classes at all. The higher castes were mostly military, educated with stark austerity and severe discipline, applied and self: it is not a myth that babies found to be weaklings at birth were left out on stark hills for wild animals to eat. In the Spartan schools teachers were masters in the true sense of the word. All this toughness and self-discipline could easily be ascribed to the work of one legislator – Lycurgus – variously dated by historians at some time between 900 and 700 BC. At any rate it seems that the full Spartan tradition was achieved by 600 BC. By this time the word ‘Spartan’ had two meanings, the first a noun denoting a person from Sparta; the second an adjective standing for hard discipline, unselfishness and ascetic philosophy. Physical strength, agility and courage were standard qualities.
By the sixth century BC Sparta was the centre of an ‘alliance’ comprised of most Peloponnesian and Isthmian states except the great rival, Argos. This was called, rather officiously ‘Peloponnesian League’ but the states it comprised were mere Spartan puppets.
In the more or less constant wars against Persia, Sparta led militarily as might be expected, but she clashed figuratively and physically with Athens during the Peloponnesian War. By 404 BC there could have been no doubt as to who led Greece and controlled the Aegean.
Leonidas who died in 480 BC was certainly the King of Sparta whose name has lived to the present day. A modern film full of bulging thighs and spattered blood was recently made about Leonidas and his Spartan force at the defence of the Pass of Thermopylae. The true Spartan spirit was decisively shown when the Greeks and Spartans held the pass long enough to make a naval action at Artemisium viable. Leonidas chose to stay behind when the main Greek force withdrew, accompanied by his Spartan friends, only three hundred of them, and a contingent of Thespians, who were then soldiers, not actors. All were killed including the King, and it was this unselfish act that had made the names of Leonidas and Sparta immortal.
Good things never last however, and fighting the rising star of Thebes, another warlike city/state at the battle of Leuctra (371) and Mantinea (362) and losing both, led to the loss of Messina and Sparta’s gradual decline to a state of little or no significance.