September 05, 2011

Ancient Historians’ Views on Sparta

To have an understanding of a subject is not only to know about it; inadvertantly one will formulate an opinon about it. Sometimes the evidence of a view one holds is not blatently obvious at first glance.

Many historians wrote about Sparta. Not many of them Spartans themselves, rather they were external entities that looked from the outside to the inward-looking society. (See What We Know About Sparta). Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch all wrote about Sparta in some fashion, but how did they view it?


When one looks on Aristotle’s writings, one gets the idea he complains a lot about the Spartan society. Aristotle was many things; a philosopher, mathematician, historian… but above all, he was from rival Athens around the time that Sparta was in major decline. By the 4th century the city Sparta was a dwindling cluster of farming villages and Athens was a major center of culture, architecture and production. It is with this context in mind that Aristotle views Sparta.

He is extremely critical of the Spartan system, especially of their emancipated women.

“The license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state.” - Aristotle, [On the Lacedaemonian Constitution]

“The Spartans brutalise their children… they go about it completely the wrong way.” -Aristotle, [Politics]

“The Lacedaemonian constitution is defective in another point; I mean the Ephoralty…the Ephors are chosen from the whole people… who, being badly off, are open to bribes. -Aristotle [On the Lacedaemonian Constitution]


Aristotle is a pupil of Plato, but has entirely contradictory views about Sparta. Plato admired the Spartan system, especially the women. He is writing in the same time period as Aristotle when the Spartan system was at critical level, but before it was utterly destroyed in the Battle of Leuctra. However, he saw democracy in Athens turn corrupt and devastating, witnessing the trial of his mentor Socrates, and saw a better alternative in the Spartan system.

“Spartan women abstain from woolwork, but instead weave for themselves a life which is not trivial at all but arduous.” - Plato

“Sparta, in as far as they relate to pleasure, appear to me to be the best in the world…” Plato [Laws]


Thucydides admired Sparta’s eunomia (good order) but criticised some aspects of it, for example their culture and city. He wrote mostly of the Peloponnesian War between rivals Athens and Sparta, which Sparta won, perhaps it is why he admires the methods Sparta used.

“Suppose the city of Sparta were deserted, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe a great power existed there.” -Thucydides

“…On the contrary, a modest style of dressing, more in conformity with modern ideas, was first adopted by the Spartans” - Thucydides


Xenophon admired the Spartan system and its military power. He appeared to like some of Sparta’s cultural insights. He offers a rare glimpse into Sparta as an Athenian who left to stay in Laconia. A.Andrewes noted “…all the admiration lavished on Spartan military virtue by Xenophon…”

“He taught the children from a desire to render them more dexterous in securing provisions, and better qualified for warfare.” - Xenophon

“willingness to obey, prevailed among them” - Xenophon

“and instead of their clothes to make them delicate, Lycurgus required them to become used to a single garment all year round, the idea being that thereby they would be better prepared for cold and heat.” - Xenophon


Plutarch was extremely admiring of the Spartan system, its constitution, culture and women. He was writing 500 years after the events, however, and as A.Andrewes outlines - much of the Lycurgus myth Plutarch cites throughout his entire work has been worked up through the ages until it is regarded as almost fact by Plutarch’s time.

“There was nothing disgraceful in the light clothing of the girls, for they were modest…” - Plutarch, [Lycurgus]

The nurses displayed care and skill…” - Plutarch, [Lycurgus - (in regard to bringing up Spartan boys)]

“All the rest of their education made them well-disciplined and steadfast in hardship.” - Plutarch


Ancient Greek writers were as fallible to critical opinions as modern; it is with this in mind that historians studying Sparta are careful to remember the context of which the source is writing in.