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Which Had the Greater Impact on the 'West' -Athens or Sparta?
Athens and Sparta in the construction of the idea of 'Western Civilization'
The city-states of Athens and Sparta had a significant influence on the development of Western civilization. While both city-states had a lasting impact, Athens had a more influential effect than Sparta, whose role was limited compared to Athens in Western civilization.
Ancient Greece's typical political structure was the city-state (polis). A polis consisted of a community of citizens living within the walls of a city and sharing a common culture and way of life. The polis was the center of political, social, and economic life and had its own government and laws. City-states often competed with one another for resources and power but shared a common language (with regional dialects) and a strong sense of identity and pride in their respective city. Athens and Sparta are two well-known poleis with long and complicated histories.
Athens is particularly famous for its democracy, in which the citizens held power and voted directly on the political affairs of the city. Democracy developed in Athens following a period of tyranny under Pisistratus. In the 6th century BCE, Cleisthenes implemented reforms that decentralized elite power and gave more control to the general population through local representation in the Boule and Ecclesia.
Sparta had a different system of government compared to Athens. It was known for its strict social and political system. It was an oligarchy, meaning that a small group of powerful individuals ruled it. Sparta was divided into three main social classes: the Spartiates, the perioikoi, and the helots.
The Spartiates were full citizens who held public office and participated in government. The perioikoi were free citizens who lived in the surrounding territory but did not have the same rights as the Spartiates. The helots were enslaved people from nearby surrounding areas of Messenia who worked the land and had no political rights. Sparta's political structure was centered on the assembly and council of elders and included two kings that served for life. The structure was highly centralized and authoritarian, with the Spartiates holding the most power.
The differences between Athens and Sparta extended beyond politics to other aspects of life. In terms of military, Spartan hoplites were reputed to be the strongest warriors in ancient Greece. Sparta had a unique military system that strongly emphasized discipline and physical training. Boys in Sparta began military training at seven and were subjected to harsh physical conditions and strict discipline. In addition to physical training, they received education in literature, music, and other subjects. Spartan military training aimed to produce strong, disciplined, and well-educated soldiers capable of fighting and defending their homeland. It was a demanding program that played a central role in the life of every Spartan male.
In contrast, Athens did not have the same intense military training as Sparta. Men were required to undergo military training for only two years between 18 and 20. While Athens may have had less land military power, it compensated with a large and powerful navy. On the other hand, Sparta did not have a navy that could compete with Athens, leading to a reputation for land infantry in Sparta and a navy in Athens. Athens did not maintain a permanent army and instead called upon men for military action as needed. It was Athens’ navy which enabled the city to become regional hegemonic power and as a result fostered fear in the Spartan concerning Athenian expansion, resulting in the Peloponnesian war and Athens’ defeat to the Spartans.
Culturally, the two cities were significantly different. At its peak, Athens was a cultural hub of ancient Greece. The Parthenon on the acropolis was constructed during this time. While we today marvel at it and view it as a foundational building at the center of the western imagination, its construction was controversial during its time because Pericles appropriated Delian league contributions to fund the construction along with other embellishments for the city.
Philosophy and Athens go together like a horse and carriage. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are three major philosophers associated with Athens – Aristotle was not a native of Athens but built his career there. Socrates was put on trial and executed by Athens on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Plato and Aristotle founded two philosophical schools, the Academy and the Lyceum. The tradition of philosophy based on Plato is known as Platonism, while the tradition established by Aristotle is called Aristotelianism. Platonism became the most influential philosophical school in the ancient world and had a lasting cultural influence for subsequent generations. Platonism had a significant influence on early Christianity, particularly on the thought of Saint Augustine, who was a crucial figure in the development of Christian theology.
Athens is also recognized as the birthplace of theater, with comedy, drama, and tragedy originating there. Theater played a significant role in Athenian civic and religious life, with plays performed during religious festivals to Dionysus and playwrights competing for prizes. Theater, as we have it today in the western world, evolved out of Greek theater.
While Sparta did have theater, it was a minimalistic society that was not known for hosting any great philosophers or poets. It was not a less advanced city-state, we lack a lot of information concerning Sparta because much of the archaeological remains were destroyed by Michel Fourmont, an 18th-century antiquarian. To compensate for this loss, we must rely on surviving written accounts and the few remaining archaeological evidence.
According to written accounts, such as those by Plutarch, we have an idea of Sparta's social and cultural life. Some of the information from Plutarch, such as the practice of infanticide of disabled/weak newborns, has been widely accepted as accurate, but recent research has called these old assumptions into question. Sparta was more progressive than Athens in terms of women's rights. Girls in Sparta received education and fully managed the domestic affairs of their households while their husbands were away at war. Spartan women were also able to own land, which was not allowed for Athenian women, who were not granted citizenship and thus were denied the right to vote. In Athens, only men had the privilege of citizenship and voting. Lastly, only two kinds of Spartans had their graves marked with their names, fallen warriors in battle and mothers who died in child birth. Both were considered to have died in service to the city.
In the end, I think Athens had a more significant impact on Western civilization because it is the city-state that later societies looked to and attempted to imitate their own high culture around. It is important to remember that the ancient Greeks did not have the concept of Western civilization and were not contributing to it. It is later societies that, as they reflect on their own identity and construct the idea of Western civilization, have consciously chosen a birthplace for it. The designation of Greece as "the cradle of Western civilization" is an example of this narrative construction. In this context, my choice of Athens as having the most impact on Western civilization recognizes how Western Europeans, who created the concept of Western civilization, have appropriated ancient Greece for their storytelling and image-making purposes. In this process, Athens is seen as a model to emulate by later societies seeking to demonstrate their own cultural sophistication. While Sparta may be renowned for its military prowess, it is often limited to only that role.
Athens had a more significant impact on Western civilization because Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers saw ancient Greek culture, notably Athens, as the ideal to which they should return. Athens, for later intellectuals coming out of the ‘dark ages’ was an idealized society of intellectuals and scientific achievements that stood in contrast to the superstitions and religious dogma of the Middle Ages and Christianity. In the 18th century, thinkers such as Condorcet put forward the idea of historical progress with the goal of the emancipation of humanity from the darkness of superstitions. They saw ancient Greece and Athens as evidence of progress which was interrupted by Christianity which brought about a reversal in human history and progress. Such thinkers believed that modern man must continue where the ancients left off and progress mankind forward again. Sparta's emphasis on warfare did not align with the progressive values of these Enlightenment thinkers and thus was downplayed in the Western imagination.
To summarize, Athens had a more significant impact on Western civilization because those who created the concept of Western civilization saw Athens as holding the essential elements needed for their civilizations to thrive. In terms of ideals, cultural greatness, and the progress of humanity, Athens is written into the narrative of Western civilization as its origins. As a result, later civilizations appropriated Athens (and Greece as a whole) to legitimize themselves and claim a sense of antiquity.