Archaic Greece/Sparta

One particular characteristic of Greece is the poverty of the land. Mountains and hills take up a large amount of area, so cultivatable land is at a premium. This land was solidly under the control of the aristocracy. During the depopulated state of the immediate post-Mycenaean period, this was not a problem, but as population grew, discontent about land owning came to play an increasing role in Greek politics. One result of this was a huge period of migration from about 750- 550, though colonies continued to be sent out in the later period.

Occasionally trade may have had a role in establishing colonies, but it is clear that overpopulation was the main cause. We know of settlers swearing that they won't return.

The basic procedure was as follows. A city would send out colonists to found an independent new settlement overseas. Sometimes colonists would also come from different cities, but only one would provide the leadership. The oracle at Delphi would be consulted as to the suitability of the operation. Sometimes the new city would maintain ties with the metropolis (lit. mother city), though sometimes colonies would become antagonistic to the metropolis. Most colonies were on the coast and generally only took over the immediate area, the interior being left to the locals.

The chronology is generally uncertain for this early period. Pithecusae on the Bay of Naples was first settled ca. 740. From here Naples was soon founded. The first colony in Sicily was founded in 735, Syracuse next in 734. Many other Sicilian colonies were established in late 700s. The Greeks came to occupy all of eastern Sicily. Also in late 700s came large-scale Greek settlement in S. Italy; there came to be so many Greek settlements that to the Romans the area was called "Greater Greece" (magna Graecia). Cyrene (Libya) was settled ca. 630, Masilia (Marseilles) ca. 600. Also in 600s was settlement of N. Aegean, Propontis and Black Sea, including Byzantium.

Thus, in the course of these colonial activies, the Greeks came to establish themselves throughout the coast of the Mediterranean, and their advanced cultural was to have a great influence on many populations far distant frommainland Greece.

Despite sending out colonies, discontent continued in Greece, leading to the rise of tyrants. The word seems to be in origin a Lydian term for monarch, and originally was not a pejorative term. In the poleis there was two groups in particular who disliked and resented the ruling aristocracy:

wealthy members of the community who were excluded from power because they did not belong to one of the old families that monopolized political control
the impoverished.

In this unsettled situation, it frequently happened that one man (often a disgruntled member of the ruling class) was able to galvanize this discontent and to establish his own personal rule. Hence, the word tyrant originally referred to a single ruler who had no traditional legitimacy. The man who set up the tyranny in the first place usually had some sort of popular backing and personal charisma. But when he passed the position to a son, the son, lacking his father's authority, was assailed by various people, esp. the aristocrats. Hence the later generations of tyrants tended to be repressive, which leads to the negative sense of the word. Because of the Lydian origin of the term, the institution presumably started in Ionia, but we know little of tyrants in this area. The major period of tyrannies is the 600s (though
they continue to exist later).

The pattern is shown by Corinth. In mid 600s Cypselus throws out the ruling families, rules for 30 years. His son Periander is the model of a paranoid tyrant. (This is illustrated by the story of the advice he got from Thrasybulus of Miletus, to whom Periander sent a messenger to ask how he could protect himself.

Thrasybulus said nothing to the messenger but took him to a field where he began to cut off the tops of the tallest stalks of wheat. When this action was reported to him by the puzzled messenger, Periander understood it to mean that he should execute the most prominent members of the community, i.e., those who were in a position to oppose him.) He's succeeded by a nephew, who is deposed and a mild oligarchy is instituted. This oligarchy is different from the old aristocracy of birth. Here we have a restriction of citizen participation to those who hold a certain level of wealth. This pattern of government becomes very common, competes with more complete democracy.

Hoplite Warfare and Oligarchy
Why did the oligarchical form of government, which restricted citizen rights on the basis of property, become so common in Greece? To understand the development, we have to examine an important development in the form of warfare. In the dark ages, warfare was fought by aristocrats who rode to battle, dismounted and fought individually. They had little defensive armor. Between 750 and 700, a new kind of gear appears one piece at a time on pictures on pottery: greaves, plate corslet (breastplate), helmet and large shield. By 675 the whole new outfit ("hopla" in Greek) was worn by all soldiers who are called hoplites ("those equipped with the hopla"). The soldiers now fought in close-packed rows, several deep. This formation is called the phalanx. The soldiers provided their own gear. Hence, only the wealthy could afford it.

It used to be thought that all this equipment appeared
at once around 700, and that the new class of those who could afford it demanded political rights. The fact that the new equipment was introduced gradually makes the direct cause and effect less certain, but the general idea must be right. From 700 on, the safety of the polis on land depended on the hoplites, and various states restricted political rights in varying degrees to the wealthy, that is, to those who could afford the hoplite panoply. Thus, we have a transition from an aristocracy that ruled by virtue of inherited privilege to an oligarchy that ruled on the objective basis of possessing a certain amount of wealth. While this concept is not in accord with modern notions of democratic rights, it is not all that surprising in the Greek context (and is a very frequent method of political organization in the pre-modern world). If the community lost in battle to its neighbors, not only would the agricultural produce of the year be lost and famine a real possibility but a total defeat could result in the destruction of the entire community and the enslavement of its population. Thus, the very existence of the community depended upon those who provided the soldiery, and the right to participate in the public life of the community was restricted to those with the means to serve in the military.

Greek Identity
Who were the Greeks? Basically those who spoke the Greek language. They would have understood this in terms of tradition: those who shared a common background and customs. This gave them a strong sense of identity in the midst of their political disunity. Writing also helped. They had a common literary tradition, especially in Homer. Also, the pan-Hellenic games came into being. Olympic games were celebrated at a minor site in W. Peloponnesus, supposedly started in 776. At first the games were local, but by the 600s competitors from outside the Peloponnesus began to compete. In 580s, three other pan-Hellenic games started. The Greeks also had common religious centers. Pre-eminent was the oracular center of Apollo at Delphi. Everyone consulted him.

Finally, what of the name? Homer calls the besiegers of Troy (i.e., the Greeks) several different names (Argives, Achaeans and Dardanians). In the Classical period the Greeks called themselves the Hellenes. The Hellenes were originally a minor tribe in Thessaly. How and when this very specific trubak name came to be attached to the Greeks as a whole is unknown. The word Greek is a Latin word derived from the first (obscure) Greek people with whom the Romans came into contact.

Now let us turn to a specific town, Sparta. Not because it's typical. In fact, it is not typical at all. But it does become very important in Greek affairs, so it's worth knowing about. In Homer, Sparta is the home of Agamemnon's brother Menelaos. Hence, it is portrayed as being prominent in the Mycenaean period. But in the Classical period it spoke a Doric dialect, and hence there must have been conquest by Dorians.

Spartan Government

Sparta had an unusual fourfold government.

1) Kings
There were two royal lines, and at any given moment there were two kings, one from each line. This is probably the reflection of merger of two separate communities. The kings had had judicial power, but this was restricted to minor cases in the historical period. They led the Spartan army in war. The assembly would vote on which should do so.

2) Gerousia
A council of elders (gerousia). 28 members, plus the kings. The members were elected by assembly, had to be over 60. It heard criminal cases, and arranged matters to put before the assembly. Very influential. Members sat for life.

3) Assembly
At the age of 30, every Spartan was allowed to attend the assembly. The assembly had theoretically great powers, but the gerousia and kings had to approve their measures, and thus could thwart the assenbly's will. Voting was by acclamation, and the assembly could only decide matters put before it. The asssembly also elected the elders and ephors.

4) Ephors
Finally there were five ephors elected every year, a holdover from an attempt to abolish the kingship. They were to oversee the kings' activities and could indict them. They gradually assumed executive authority in non-military affairs.

Helots and Spartan Military Prowess
Sparta was famed for its military prowess, and eventually the whole state was oriented exclusively toward warfare. Not always so. At first Sparta was indistinguishable from other Greek states in material culture. Then the arts quickly deteriorate. Why? Helots. At the time of conquest of Laconia (the area where Sparta was located), the Spartans didn't drive all the old inhabitants off, but kept some as serfs, called helots. (There were also subordinated Dorian communities, but these communities retained their internal freedom and fought alongside the Spartans.) Around 725-700 the Spartans conquered a new territory called Messenia, a Doric area in SW Peloponnesus. The Messenians were also made helots and thus Sparta was much bigger than a regular polis. Land was divided amoung the Spartans, and the Messenian helots had to provide a fixed income to their "owner" who was thereby relieved of need to worry about supporting himself and could devote himself exclusively to martial skills. In 650 the Messenians revolted and a protracted campaign was needed to subdue them. The Spartans increasingly focused on warfare, and from 550 on the arts quickly degenerate.
All social life was focused on the military. At birth a child was inspected by tribal elders, and exposed if judged unhealthy. At seven, boys were removed from home and entered a kind of communal mess. While all Greek males valued physical training, in Sparta this was particularly directed toward instilling the ability to endure hardship. Males entered military duty at 20, gained citizen rights at 30. Before then they lived in barracks, sneaking visits to wives.

While this may not sound appealing to us, the Greeks greatly admired the focused, communal aspect of Spartan life, and it had a great influence on Greek political notions.

Spartan military excellence quickly gained them control of the Peloponnesus, and those communities subordinate to Spartans were organized in the Peloponnesian League under Spartan leadership. Eventually, this league would war with Athens for control of Greece.

Summary Of Important Points

-Starting in mid 700s the Greeks sent out colonies to relieve overpopulation
-Colonies were new poleis established in coastal areas of foreign lands, controlled only the immediately surrounding territory
-In mainland Greece tyrants arose from 600s on as result of popular discontent with aristocratic government.
Tyranny is non-tradition one-man rule. First tyrants often popular, heirs real "tyrants"
-Development of hoplite warfare in late 700s led to a restriction of citizen rights to those who could afford the hoplite panoply; such government based on wealthy rather than birth is called oligarchy.
-Greek identity based on shared culture, especially literature in Greek language, participation in pan-Hellenic games
-Sparta had complicated government with regal, oligarchic and democratic elements.
-Spartans made serfs (helots) of the original occupants of Spartan territory and of conquered Messenia
-Need to keep helots in check caused Sparta to direct all its energies toward military prowess