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The Early History of Sparta

The Greeks believed the ancestors of the Spartans were Dorians1 who had invaded the Peloponnese from central Greece and defeated the original inhabitants of Laconia around 950 B.C., but no archaeological evidence supports the notion that a “Dorian invasion” actually took place. From wherever the original Spartans came, they conquered the inhabitants of Laconia and settled in at least four small villages, two of which apparently dominated the others. These early settlements later cooperated to form the core of what would in the Archaic Age2 become the polis of the Spartans. The Greeks gave the name “synoecism”3 (“union of households”) to this process of political unification, in which most people continued to live in their original villages even after one village began to serve as the center of the new city-state. One apparent result of the compromises required to forge Spartan unity was that the Spartans retained not one but two hereditary military leaders of high prestige, whom they called kings. These kings4, perhaps originally the leaders of the two dominant villages, served as the religious heads of Sparta and commanders of its army. The kings did not enjoy unfettered power to make decisions or set policy, however, because they operated not as pure monarchs but as leaders of the oligarchic institutions that governed the Spartan city-state. Rivalry between the two royal families periodically led to fierce disputes, and the initial custom of having two supreme military commanders also paralyzed the Spartan army when the kings disagreed on strategy in the middle of a military campaign. The Spartans therefore eventually decided that the army on campaign would be commanded by only one king at a time.

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