Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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Greek writers' views of Sparta: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Pausanius, Plutarch

Past HSC question - 2007:
(a) Name TWO ancient authors who wrote about Sparta. (2 marks)

Examiners' comment:
(a) Most candidates were able to name two ancient authors who wrote about Sparta.

What are some issues which affect the reliability of written sources about Sparta?
  • No writing by Spartans themselves.
  • There are those who are antagonistic towards Sparta, e.g., Thucydides and those who strongly admire Sparta, e.g., Xenophon - these need to be treated with caution.
  • Plutarch and Pausanias wrote long after the peak of Spartan power and are influenced by an already strong tradition about Sparta.

Herodotus (5th C. BC)
The Histories” - the Persian Wars.
  • His digression in Book 6 provides much useful information about the Spartan army, and also about other Greeks’ attitudes towards Sparta.

external image 200px-Thucydides-bust-cutout_ROM.jpgThucydides (5th C. BC)
History of the Peloponnesian War
  • As an Athenian writing about the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides is not a neutral observer. His conclusion about the outcome of the war is that it resulted from Athenian errors rather than the skills of the Spartans.
  • Information is provided about the constitution, the helots and about Spartan warfare.
  • The only Spartan general who gets praise from Thucydides is Brasidas who is regarded as “un-Spartan”. There is bias here as Brasidas defeated the army led by Thucydides as general at Amphipolis in 422 BC. It is in Thucydides’ interest to show that he was defeated by an extraordinary Spartan leader.

Xenophon (4th C. BC)
The Constitution of the Lakedaimonians
  • An Athenian at a time when Sparta was at the peak of its power in the beginning of the 4th C. BC, Xenophon wrote in praise of Sparta. He had fought with the Spartans in the Battle of Coronea in 394 BC.
  • Excessive praise of Sparta and neglect of negative aspects of Spartan society affect the reliability of his work.
  • Sparta is compared with other places and is shown to be superior.

external image 220px-Plutarch_delphi_1.jpgPlutarch (2nd C. AD)
Lives of Lycurgus, Agis and Cleomenes
  • Wrote biographies to highlight the virtues of individuals.
  • Had access to many sources, but wrote a long time after the period of Sparta’s greatness.
  • Drew on an established tradition about Sparta.
  • Provides much useful detail about aspects of Spartan society.
  • Attributes much of Spartan society to Lycurgus.
  • Idealises Sparta’s great past and attributes its fall to corruption and loss of virtue.

Pausanias (2nd C. AD)
Description of Greece
  • A travel guide for Roman tourists. He describes buildings and sites as they were when he visits them in 2nd C. AD.
  • A valuable source for archaeologists searching for lost remains.

external image 200px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575.jpgAristotle (4th C. BC)
On the Lacedaemonian Constitution
  • Aristotle is “critical of Spartan institutions and paints a vivid picture of the complete breakdown of Spartan society in his own time - a dwindling citizen body, extreme inequality of property with two-fifths of the land owned by women, and prevailing greed and luxury.” Fitzhardinge.