Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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Economic exchange: use of iron bars, trade

See text: pp.83-90

Sparta’s Iron Coinage

Plutarch: Lycurgus discouraged trade and banned gold and silver coinage. He substituted pelanors – iron bars. Brought about an end to trade and craft. Aim: lead to virtue and equality and end envy, greed and money disputes.

As usual, Plutarch reflects the idealised view of Sparta rather than the reality.

Early Mediterranean trade was by barter. Early 6th Century coins were introduced to Greece. The ban on coins and precious metals probably dates from late 6th Century. Thomas J Figueira argues that coinage must have been well established for a ban to be thought necessary.

Iron bars were meant to hinder trade. Bars were heated and treated in a vinegar acid bath which made them brittle and worthless. No source refers to anyone using an iron bar for trade. Many sources refer to gold and silver coins.

Silver coins introduced in Aigina in about 580 BC and this was probably the currency used by Sparta. Even Plutarch refers to coins being used in Sparta.

Figueira cites many examples in the sources of the use of coins in foreign trade by Sparta between the 6th and 4th Centuries. Bribes to Spartans were paid in coins. Precious metals were hoarded secretly in the homes of the wealthy. Strong ‘black’ economy.

Bronze krater from Vix

Many examples throughout Greece and the Mediterranean of Laconian pottery, bronze vessels and statuettes.
Interpretation: not necessarily all by trade. Large/luxury goods could be diplomatic gifts. Herodotus gives the example of Kroisus who sent gold to the sanctuary of Apollo at Amyklai and the Spartans in return sent a large decorated bronze vessel.

Impressive bronze vessels have been found at Vix (France) and Grächwil (Switzerland) among burial goods. Fitzhardinge argues the Vix krater may be a diplomatic gift.

Evidence is lacking for Spartiate involvement in trade.
Extensive trade with Samos in 6th Century.
Nafassi argues that there were ethnic ties between Sparta and places with which it traded.

Giglio shipwreck: discovered 1961, excavated from 1982 by Mensun Bound. Contained Laconian pottery – perfume containers, mugs and bowls.

Trading routes – raw materials ran in one direction and finished goods in the other. Celtic chiefs probably controlled trading routes to western Europe which may account for bronze krater at Vix, etc.

Gill and Vickers (2001) argues that Sparta imported lead and possibly silver from Attica.

Decline in the production and quality of Laconian goods in 5th Century:
  • “Lycurgan” economic system taking effect
  • greater competition from Corinth and Athens