previous next

SPARTA Lakonia, Greece.

In the heart of the fertile Eurotas valley ca. 56 km S of Tegea and 48 km N of Gytheion; the alluvial soil is fertile, the climate auspicious, and the low hill site protected by mountains and sea. Very few prehistoric remains are known, but a major contemporary settlement has been excavated about 3 km NE at the Menelaion. About 950 B.C. at the earliest Sparta was occupied by Dorians and settled as an agglomeration of villages (Pitana, Limnai, Mesoa, and Kynosura); the city wall, not begun until the late 4th c. and eventually completed in 184, measured 10 km in circumference and enclosed an elliptical area 3 x 2 km lying N-S.

In the 8th c. B.C. led by its two kings, the city embarked on the warmaking which by about 545 had brought “two-fifths of the Peloponnese” (Thuc.) under her immediate control. The inhabitants of the fertile Eurotas and Pamisos (Messenia) valleys were reduced to serfdom (Helots); those occupying more marginal land remained free but were denied political rights in Sparta (perioikoi). Thereafter Sparta expanded through diplomacy and by 500 B.C. had organized its subject-allies into the Peloponnesian League. In 405, supported by its allies and Persian gold it defeated Athens, but its supremacy in Greece was soon cut short by the Thebans: defeat at Leuktra in 371 was followed by the very first invasion of Lakonia and the liberation of Messenia in 369. After 243 Sparta was weakened by successive attempts, also led by its kings, at necessary social reform and in 195 lost its perioikic dependencies. But under the Roman Empire the city enjoyed a remarkable renascence of prosperity and reverted superficially to the rigid self-discipline of its heyday. Having survived the incursion of the Heruli in A.D. 267, the city was ruined by the Goths in 395, and finally abandoned.

As Thucydides warned, the power of Sparta should not be gauged from its surviving monuments. Of the settlement all but the foundations of a few Classical houses and some fine Roman mosaic floors is lost irreparably; only seven datable graves, four of about 600 B.C. and three Hellenistic, have been found, although burial was permitted within the settlement area, contrary to normal Greek practice; of the agora not even the location is certain. The acropolis is comparably denuded but at least its chief edifice, the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, has yielded a crude two-layer stratigraphy. The material associated with part of the earliest altar consisted of a fair quantity of Protogeometric and Geometric pottery, none certainly earlier than the 8th c., and a few bronze votives. The temple was rebuilt in the 6th c. and the richer “Classical” stratum contained, inter alia, pottery, including Panathenaic amphora fragments; objects in bronze, ivory, and lead; the fine late archaic marble statue known as “Leonidas” (in the National Museum of Athens); and a number of bronze plates, some with nails still attached, which may have been used to face the temple and have given rise to the epithet of the goddess. The Hellenistic theater built into the foot of the acropolis is remarkably well preserved.

Our main evidence for the early settlement and the entire development of Spartan art is derived from careful excavations at the Sanctuary of Ortheia (later assimilated to Artemis) situated on the W bank of the Eurotas in the village of Limnai; it remained throughout its history closely linked to the severe military and educational regime. The earliest known worship centered on an earthen altar with a polar orientation, but toward the end of the 8th c. (on the current interpretation of the stratigraphy) the sacred area was paved with cobbles, enclosed by a peribolos wall, and the altar was given a stone casing; simultaneously a primitive temple, measuring at least 12.5 x 4.5 m, was built on an interpolar axis. About 570 B.C. the entire sanctuary was remodeled, perhaps in consequence of a flood of the Eurotas. The sacred area was enlarged and covered by a layer of sand, the altar refurbished and the first temple replaced. Its successor, built entirely of limestone and measuring ca. 16.75 x 7.5 m, was in the Doric style; the scanty remains of the substructure suggest it was prostyle in antis, and a few gaily painted fragments probably belong to a pedimental group of heraldic lions. The sand, besides being a clearcut stratigraphical feature, has sealed in a treasury of early Greek art from the late 8th to the early 6th c.; dedications continued above the sand into the Roman era. The material includes bronze figurines, mainly of animals, and other bronze objects; over 100,000 lead figurines; some of the earliest and finest figural ivory carvings in Greece; a plethora of mold-made terracotta figurines and masks; finally, and most important for chronology, a continuous pottery series.

The picture which seems to be emerging indicates that Spartan craftsmen, especially bronzesmiths, shared in the Greek cultural renaissance of the 8th c.; in the 7th, her ivory-carvers were quick to assimilate and adapt oriental types and motifs, but the vase-painters appear backward by comparison with those of Corinth and Athens; in the 6th c. the roles are reversed and the potters and painters, soon followed by the bronze-workers, produce high-quality wares both for domestic and, more especially, foreign consumption. We know from Pausanias the names of several Lakonian craftsmen and some were almost certainly Spartan citizens; Sparta was also the temporary domicile of foreign artists from at least the early 7th c.

But about 525 B.C. the whole picture changed; imports, which had never been plentiful, ceased—apparently abruptly; so did exports, although painted pottery and superior bronze figurines continued to be made for local use. By the 5th c. Sparta seemed to have acquired the sterile character for which she was praised or blamed by other Greeks; her retention of an iron currency is a symptom, though not a cause, of the change. Not altogether surprisingly the next major alteration to the Sanctuary of Artemis was the construction of a semicircular theater to enable spectators, including foreign tourists, to watch Spartan youths being flogged to death in a painful simulacrum of the initiation rite which had performed so useful a military and political function in a better age.


M. N. Tod & A.J.B. Wace, A Catalogue of the Sparta Museum (1906); A.J.B. Wace, M. S. Thompson, & J. P. Droop in BSA 15 (1908-9) 108-57 (Menelaion); R. M. Dawkins in BSA 16 (1909-10) 4-11 (Mycenaean settlement at Menelaion); R. M. Dawkins, ed., Artemis Orthia, JHS Suppl. Vol. V (1929)PI; R. M. Dawkins, J. P. Droop, & A.J.B. Wace, “A Note on the Excavation of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia,” JHS 50 (1930) 329-36; E. A. Lane, “Lakonian Vase-Painting,” BSA 34 (1933-34) 99-189I; J. Boardman in BSA 58 (1963) 1-7 (revised stratigraphy of Artemis Ortheia); C. Christou in Deltion 19.1 (1964) 123-63, 283-85 (archaic burials); B. Bergquist, The Archaic Greek Temenos (1967)P; L. Marangou, Lakonische Elfenbein- Und Beinschnitzereien (1969)I; A. J. Toynbee, Some Problems of Greek History (1969) Part 2M.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: