Sparta and Athens Society Compare and Contrast
The life of a man or a woman in Ancient Greek was really different from the lives we have today. What I say is not about technology but about human rights such as the right to participate in public life. In Ancient Greek, women had no right to elect or to be elected, and only free men had their voice in the government. In Sparta, most people did not have any role for decision making for the community and Spartan women were not citizens and had no political rights. Boys trained to endure the hardships of a soldier’s life and gain fighting skills. Girls were trained to be physically fit to survive pregnancies. Ancient Sparta was a military totalitarian state which dictated the lives of its citizens and turned its neighbors into a slave class while Athens became the master of much of Greece and the world’s first imperial democracy. Democracy was for native freeborn Athenians who did not see any contradiction between slavery and democracy, others had no political rights. Because of the labor provided by large numbers of slaves, even poor Athenian citizens had the leisure time to engage in daily politics in the assembly or in the courts. Even philosophers like Plato who benefited from the open society were quick to denounce the very system that allowed them to flourish. Certainly, the Spartans would have had no tolerance for such questioning and challenging of their political system.
In Athens, public office holders were selected by a system called sortition. To serve as public officers, a citizen had to have the required level of wealth for the office and be at least 30 years old. Athens was a small state and only a fraction of its male residents had citizenship rights. Women, foreigners and, of course, slaves, were excluded from the political system. Athens had a weak executive branch and a strong legislative branch. There was no supreme elected official like a president or prime minister. Instead, there were 10 “Generals” elected every year and a number of lesser officials.
In Sparta, public office was held by Gerousia and five magistrates called Ephors. Sparta had two kings who were from separate royal families. The Kings came from two royal clans named the Agiads and the Eurypontids. When Sparta was at war, one of the kings led his army into battle while the other stayed to lead the polis. True power was in the hands of an “elder council” called the Gerousia and five magistrates called Ephors. No law or issue could come before the popular assembly without the approval of the Gerousia and the Ephors usually deferred to their guidance as well. Two of the Gerousias were the Kings themselves and they were selected from separate royal families.
As for others, they must be at the age of 60 and must be Spartan aristocrats eligible to be chosen to serve in the Gerousia. The Gerousia was similar to the Athenian Areopagus. It was an elite assembly dominated by wealthier and more conservative elements of Spartan society. All recognized free male citizens of Sparta were members of the popular assembly. Periokoi and Helots, along with slaves and freeborn Spartan males who had lost their citizenship rights for some reason were not members of the assembly. The assembly also passed laws and made decisions for war. In practice, the assembly’s power was strictly limited by the formal or informal power of the Ephors and the Gerousia who decided what matters could come before the Assembly and who could veto its decisions. As a result, Sparta was in no way a democracy.
Both poleis had councils. Spartan council was called Gerousia and the Athenian council was called Areopagus. Spartans had the Helot slaves which were “public property”, but in Athens, most slaves were “private property.” In both of the poleis women, foreigners and slaves had no political rights. Spartans governed by two kings and elder council while Athens governed by 10 Generals.