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Athenian Democracy vs. Spartan Military

Ancient Greece was comprised of many city-states known as poleis (Perry, p45). Among them, Athens and Sparta were two of ancient Greece’s most successful and dominant poleis. Both poleis were filled with ambition, determination, passion and the will to be the best. Amidst all these similarities, however, were numerous differences (Perry, p47). Athens and Sparta possessed the same qualities to strive to be the best, but they both achieved this in entirely different manners. While Athens and Sparta both valued a powerful military, they differentiated in their form of government and emphasized how to lead one’s life (Perry, p47).

Athens and Sparta were similar in that they both put a lot of importance and focused on their militaristic development. Athens was located on the peninsula of Attica, by the coast and was in control of an elegant navy (Perry, p 47). On the other hand, Sparta was located in the middle of the Peloponnesus (Perry, p51) and the people trained in the arts of soldiering on land (Perry, p47). The military was equally fundamental to the Athenians, who taught that courage and loyalty were needed to rely on, rather than secret weapons, in war (Thucydides, p66).

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The Spartans took the state’s security seriously, going as far as conducting periodical deportations to prevent people from finding or observing secrets of a militaristic kind that belonged to the state (Thucydides, p66). For the Athenians, planning was crucial. They strategically planned their battles, even down to how much money each member of the Delian league should contribute to the allied effort when they led it (Mckay, pg 81). The Spartans learned only the craft of soldiering and were pressed to fight and die bravely for their city (Perry, p47).

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Matching the Spartan vigour, the Athenians relied on strategy by dividing missions between their troops on land and their vast navy and believed that natural courage is as strong as a state-induced one, without all the training (Thucydides, p67). Military training for Spartan boys began at the tender age of seven. They were taught to endure physical hardships, survive at all costs and develop physical strength more than anything else (Perry, p47). If the elders of the tribe found a young boy not to own a healthy and strong body, they deemed him weak and found it better for itself and the state that he should not live at all.

The wisest, bravest and fiercest men would be chosen as leaders in the state (Weber, p47). Similarly, the Athenians did not settle with ruling softly. Pericles proclaimed that even though the Spartans undertook laborious training in courage, the Athenians “are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are” (Thucydides, p66). Athens expanded their empire by using force, power and aggression to rule conquered land (Mckay, pg 82). Athens had plenty of brilliant, charming and popular aristocratic politicians who pioneered the Athenian democracy (Mckay, pg 83).

Athens and Sparta were politically different in that Athens led a democratic state in which the citizens themselves made the laws. In contrast, Sparta was a militaristic state that had an oligarchy (Perry, p47). Athens put power in the hands of the people and not into the hands of a minority. They believed that everyone was equal and that a man’s ability was more important than the membership of his class (Thucydides, p66). The Spartans, however, believed that the elders would set any crooked decisions made by the people right. Therefore, their laws were made by a council of aristocrats and later reformed by Lykurgus (Weber, p44).

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Ostracism is one innovative practice introduced in Athens to fight off a tyranny that gave the Athenian people the power to exile anyone they felt endangered the state (Perry, p49). Spartan society was similar to communism in that the rich were on the same footing as the poor (Weber, p 45). This was done so that all pride, envy, crime and luxury could be abolished. In the process, however, all luxuries were lost (Weber, p44). Athenian society decreed that all men are equal, giving the same equality as the Spartan society provided, without eliminating wealth (Thucydides, p66).

The Athenian government gave thought to the rights of the poor as well as the rich. Because all citizens could speak their minds, Athens did not resort to rebellion or conspiracy to express their desires (Mckay, p79). Contrastively, the Spartan government, aimed at the complete subordination of the individual to the state (Weber, p43). Athens and Sparta were culturally different in that the Athenians promoted the enrichment of human personality, whereas the Spartans emphasized the service to the state. Athenians and Spartans both valued the development of their city-state.

Athens valued political freedom, the arts, wisdom and cultural life while the culturally sterile Spartans valued discipline, fighting bravely for their city and soldiering (Perry, p47). Yet, to the Athenians, their artistic mind was not considered insignificant. As Pericles stated in his funeral oration during the Peloponnesian war – “Our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.” (Thucydides, p67). In Athens, grand architectural projects, sculptures, paintings and public recitals of the Homeric epics were just a few of the cultural developments practiced and marvelled upon.

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In Sparta, however, Lykurgus changed Sparta to live on equal terms with one another and equal incomes, striving only to surpass each other in courage and virtue (Weber, p44). While the Athenians taught art, the Spartans pressed upon the teachings of survival and training to build courage. Other Greeks gapped at their obedience to law, courage, and achievement in moulding themselves according to an ideal. This, however, led to their criticism of the lack of aret� (Perry, p47).

Athens revolved around fully developing personality, whereas Sparta focused on developing a physical epitome. Throughout history, there have been civilizations that valued art, wisdom and knowledge and others that valued soldiering, power and the military. Each of these societies looked upon their respective values as superior. At a time of war, civilizations that valued soldiering will be flourishing. However, in all other periods, the promotion of art, wisdom and knowledge will prove more useful. It is because of this that Athens was a superior poli about Sparta.

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Athenian Democracy vs. Spartan Military. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved January 27, 2022, from