Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reflections on a Visit to Ancient Sparta

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was disappointed that the ruins of ancient Sparta were unidentifiable, and that drove me to try and make more sense of what was there and understand its part in the history of Spartan culture.

To accomplish this we have to start with the realization that the area now referred to as ancient Sparta is really its Acropolis and nothing else. The remainder of Sparta was spread out over four villages and all traces of those villages are gone. Over time the Acropolis itself took on the role of a citadel: more important to those controlling Sparta than it was to the Spartans themselves.

Sparta had no walls (by design) until 318 B.C. when she had become a second rate power and the principles of Lycurgus were no longer being followed. That year marked 458 years since the first Olympic Games, traditionally thought of as the time of Lycurgus and the blossoming of the new Spartan society. Classical Sparta had lasted nearly half a millennium. Remnants of the walls of 318 can be seen at the north side of the Acropolis.

There are also two other sets of ruins extant and dated after 318: Roman and Byzantine. Rome began to exert suzerainty on Sparta beginning in the late third century B.C. and invaded the city in 188 B.C. That year, the Spartan walls were torn down. Eight years later the Romans allowed them to be re-built. Rome continued to control Sparta until the collapse of the Western Empire, and the emergence of the Byzantine world.

The amphitheater at the Spartan acropolis was built by the Romans in 50 B.C. and there are also Roman walls around the hilltop. Lower down and covering a larger area are Byzantine walls in ruins. Both of these sets of walls protected a citadel that was post-Spartan.

There are only two ancient Spartan structures that have been uncovered: the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, located on the Acropolis and The Temple of Artemis Orthia located east of the Acropolis near the Eurotos River. Chalkioikos was constructed no later than 500 B.C, because artifacts from that time have been found in the ruins.

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century...Image via Wikipedia


Among them is the sculpture thought to be Leonidas.







The temple gets its name from the bronze sheets that covered the interior walls.

The Sanctuary of Artemis celebrates the cult of Orthia, common to the villages who made up Sparta. It was built in 570 B.C. and excavated around 1910.

We can see why a visit to modern Sparta is less satisfying than one would hope because there is not much left of ancient Sparta to experience. One has to be content to stand on Spartan ground and see what the Spartans saw when they owned this land – the mountains, the valley, and the sky.
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2 comments:

Helena said...

Mike,

Sounds like your experience was much like my own - which I tried to describe in my entry on "A Night in Sparta" in my own blog (www.SpartaReconsidered.blogspot.com). The ruins are not only insignificant and uninspiring, but largely post-date Sparta's golden age in the 6th Century BC. But the countryside! What a revalation! My fascination with Sparta really started when I realized this society was not nurtured in a barren "spartan" environment, but developed in a cradle of stunning beauty and wealth. I've written several essays on this, including "In Search of Sparta" published in the Sparta Journal last January (Vol. 5, # 1); the essays can also be found on my website "Sparta Reconsidered" (http://elysiumgates.com/~helena/index)

As for Thucydidas, he was an Athenian and his commentary reflects his bias. From Pausanius we know that in fact Classical and even Archaic Sparta was a vibrant city full of monuments, temples and public buildings. The fact that earthquakes and centuries of abandonment have destroyed much of the archeological record should not mislead us. After all, large parts of the Eurotas valley have never been studied archeologically, and much may yet come to light. For example, just this year a Spartan temple was discovered on Kythera. Yet even what has been found has helped shatter many misconceptions (such as widespread illiteracy).

Last but not least, thanks for the photos.

Anonymous said...

This is a very informative reflection..I too was pretty surprised not to see more than those two shrines from the golden age of Sparta..Pretty valuable themselves thouguh.I only imagined was I standing on the site Pausanias the leader of Lakedaimonioi at Plateia died on..

But I will also agree with Helena above,the countryside is magnificent.Such an atmosphere,like time stopped.Thank you for those rare pictures.