Athens and Sparta – Poleis Polar Opposites

The city-states of Classical Greece all fostered different virtues, styles of government, laws and standards for behavior. Two of the most well-known Poleis of Ancient Greece were Athens and Sparta, and the two Poleis could not have been more different in what they valued, what they placed their attention on for cultivation and how they viewed themselves and the rest of the world overall.  Understanding the differences between these two Polis highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of their systems, and can enable deeper understanding of the variations of Classical Greece as a whole.

Athens is proclaimed as the home of democracy and freedom.  Indeed, freedom was one of the highest virtues of Athenian society as well as loyalty, duty, patriotism, strength and opportunity.[1]  The seat of Grecian commerce, Athens followed an open-door policy, allowing foreigners to enter society and observe the Athenian way of life freely.[2]  Discussion was far preferable to mandate, and citizens were encouraged to make their votes heard.[3]  Rather than mimicking the societal structures of other Polis, Athens prided itself on setting the example for ideal society instead.[4]  As a society, beauty, prosperity and loyalty were lauded as the highest Athenian ideals.[5]

The Athenian preoccupation with freedom contributed highly to their overall success, despite their stronger, militaristic neighbors.  They placed tremendous value on education and the arts, and fostered a culture that allowed for trade, integration of ideas, and freedom.  Freedom led to prosperity and innovation and the encouragement of individualism, and the rich culture of Athens is known as the seed of Western thought.  Although the open-door policy led to a rich influx of culture and goods, Athens was susceptible to overindulgence, which would put them at a disadvantage on the battlefield.[6]  In addition, Athens preferred and took great pride in fighting alone, rather than allying with other neighboring Polis, which served them well a lot of the time, but also left them vulnerable to joint attacks from other Poleis who envied their prosperity, wealth and position.

By contrast, Sparta was a Polis that was run as a military barracks and not much of a society by Western standards at all.  It was totalitarian, and relied solely on the labor of the freemen and slaves in the neighboring towns and villages for its food, since Spartan citizens were forbidden from engaging in business.[7]  All of the focus in Sparta was on military strength, which required individual strength to maintain.  The Spartan State was the ultimate authority, and individualism was discouraged and even punished.[8]  Spartan virtues were strength, bravery, discipline, control, respect for the elderly and – above all else- obedience.[9]  The strict control that Sparta employed against not only its citizens but to the conquered people it enslaved addressed every part of life.  Husbands past their prime were expected to give their wives to younger, more virile men for the purpose of having more hearty children.[10]  Marriage should be reserved only for people in top physical condition, who could produce the strongest, healthiest children.[11]  Eugenics was encouraged, and infants that could not pass a physical inspection upon birth were killed outright.[12]  Male children who survived initial inspection were subjected to decade’s worth of training that emphasized pain, brutality and want where theft was encourage to supplement their meager food rations.

Sparta’s strengths were in its military capabilities, where decades worth of training, pain, brutality and determination fostered a near-fanaticism is Spartan Hoplites that made them incredibly formidable.  The rigid and strict control that Sparta tried to foster, however, was ultimately untenable and the society they attempted to create could not be indefinitely maintained.  With the threat of revolt from the slaves constantly looming in Spartan thought, it was inevitable that a moment of vulnerability, the delicate balance of fear and intimidation would crumble, and the Spartan way of life would be lost.

Athens and Sparta could not be more diametrically opposed in their values, their methods and their end results.  Although the Spartan military was a force to be reckoned with – even against far superior numbers as demonstrated at Thermopylae – but its system was untenable long-term, and history seems to suggest the freedom is more likely to win out in the end over tyranny.   These two diametric extremes highlight the variations available in Greek society in culture, highlighting the nature of variation as society advanced from the more primitive stone/bronze age and into the classical period.  While each system had its strengths and weaknesses, only one has lived on in history as the birthplace of Western virtues, ideals and values, and just as in the world of Ancient Greece, Athens has carried the day once more.



Behreandt, Dennis. “Freedom in Sparta And Athens:  The Stark Contrast Between Ancient Sparta and Athens Makes Abundantly Clear that Cultural Achievement Occurs Only Where Men Are Free.” The New American, 29 May 2006, 34+.


Painter, F.V.N. A History of Education.  New York, NY: D Appleton & Company, 1886.


Thucydides. Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War book 2.34-46. Fordham University. Internet.  Available from


Xenophon. “Xenophon on the Spartans.” Greek and Roman History – California State University. Internet.  Accessed 6 January 2016, available from

[1] Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War, book 2.34-46, Fordham University, Internet, accessed 6 January 2017, available from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dennis Behreandt, “Freedom in Sparta And Athens:  The Stark Contrast Between Ancient Sparta and Athens Makes Abundantly Clear that Cultural Achievement Occurs Only Where Men Are Free,” The New American, 29 May 2006, 34+.

[4] Thucydides.

[5] F.V.N. Painter, A History of Education (New York, NY: D Appleton & Company, 1886), 39-56.

[6] Painter.

[7] Behreandt.

[8] Behreandt.

[9] Xenophon, “Xenophon on the Spartans,” Greek and Roman History – California State University, internet, accessed 6 January 2017, available from

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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