Sparta and Athens: A Tale of Two City-States

Tristan Erwin
9 min readSep 5, 2019
A black figure vase depicting the Peloponnesian War.

Sparta and Athens: The Antithetical City-States of Greece

It seems counterintuitive that forces separated by only ninety miles would evolve into oppugnant peoples, with entirely different views on morality, way of life, and government. Athens and Sparta, the greatest city-states of the classical era, were home to unique, disparate cultures and ultimately worst of enemies. Their contrasting ideals — Athenian democracy versus Spartan oligarchy, equality as measured by status versus equality as measured by wealth, and the Athenian life of freedom versus the Spartan life of service to the state — created two wholly unique and opposing centers of influence across Greece in the classical era and led to a cataclysmic Peloponnesian War that enveloped the Greek world.

The most obvious difference and the one that brought about the great war was the system of governance. Cleisthenes in the sixth century B.C. led a popular uprising against the tyrants of Athens and instituted the world’s first known democracy.[1] A council of five hundred called the boule would be elected, followed by a general for each district and a polemarch to be commander of the armed forces.[2] Pericles in his famous funeral oration called it “a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.”[3] While a grand statement, the opposite was true, for only men born of parents who were both Athenian could vote. Men who only had one Athenian parent were disenfranchised, and no woman in Athens could vote. Those fortunate enough to be citizens participated in a direct democracy; the Athenian citizens not only elected government officials but voted on the issues themselves. Citizens could also vote to banish another Athenian citizen in order to keep any one person from becoming too powerful.

Spartan government was officially an oligarchy, but it was likewise unique and supremely effective. It was a diarchy, a nation ruled by two kings with a senate of 28 gerousia, or elders, that were elected by the people.[4] A total of five ephors, or high councilmen, were elected as well. These men could pass laws and, most importantly, impeach an unruly king.[5] The highly effective two-king system meant that the death of a king would not render Sparta leaderless. There would never be a transition of leaders, never anarchy…

Tristan Erwin

History degree from UNG Military college. Specialist in European history and Mythology. Footnotes and Bibliography always provided. Only scholarly sources used.