Similarities and Differences between Spartan and Athenian society

  By Alexander J. Knights, 15 September 2007; Revised
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Spartan and Athenian society were very different in many aspects. However, at the same time, the two shared a myriad of characteristics in common. The differences are what set the two apart, while the things they shared in common are what united them as Greek city-states. Sparta and Athens shared similarities and differences in their systems of government, militaristic focuses, judgment and views of women. In addition to this, the social gatherings of Athenians and Spartans both had affinities and contrasts.

Structure of Government

Possibly the most characteristic divide between these two great powers of the Ancient Mediterranean is their differing systems of government.

Sparta was an “Oligarchy”. The Ancient Greek “oligos” translates to “few”, while “archia” means “rule” – ‘rule by the few’. Five Ephors were elected annually, accompanied by two kings, who passed on the crowns to their chosen sons. The Spartan equivalent of the senate was its “gerousia”, while Ephors and the Kings would regularly attend the “apella” (general assembly) to develop and try to pass “rhetrai”, or motions and decrees. Other purposes of the general assembly were to vote on and pass legislation and make civil decisions. The process by which this was undertaken was by a simple shouting of ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
As a whole, the five Ephors had the power to overrule the Kings, but tended to keep to religious and militaristic duties. Sparta’s system of government was very exclusive and open to members of the only the highest social standing.

On the other hand, Athens was a democracy, which meant “rule by the people” – “demos” (people, or the masses) and “kratis” (rule). 5000 to 6000 men were narrowed down to a group of 500, who would then be divided into groups of 50. Each would take charge for about a month, and ten generals were automatically elected due to their experience. Others were chosen by a method called ‘lot’ voting.
The Athenian assembly, known as the “ekklesia”, sat to discuss political, militaristic and social matters and agendas in the pnyx. This was an area close by to the markets and social centre of Athens, the “agora”.

The Pnyx was a hill where the Athenian Ekklesia would meet, with a speaker's platform called the "Bema"
The Pnyx was a hill where the Athenian Ekklesia would meet, with a speaker's platform called the "Bema"

Athens is seen as the birthplace of democracy – where a large number of the population had a say in state affairs and proceedings. This differed from Sparta’s rule by the few, which allowed for much less say from the people – next to none, in fact.

With this in mind though, the structures of Athens’s and Sparta’s governments were not totally dissimilar.
Both forms of government ensured that every person was within the law, none could escape. Also, neither employed the fundamental idea of autocracy – a sole, omnipotent ruler. Athens, being a democracy, used the masses as well as nobles, aristocrats and generals as a part of their government. Sparta countered the idea of a autocrat by putting two kings in place, and an overseeing body of five Ephors. Each kept the other under check, enabling no one to gain absolute power.

Three men paved the way to democracy for Athens – firstly Solon, followed by Pisistratus, and then finally Cleisthenes.

The systems and structure of government in Sparta and Athens did have a degree of disparity, but shared many things in common too.

Militaristic Focuses

While Sparta and Athens both developed formidable land and sea forces at different stages in their history, each dominated in one particular arm of the military.
Sparta was in the Peloponnesus, south of Athens. Being a militaristic state, Sparta’s primary focus was on its land-based army, composed of armoured hoplites. The Spartan hoplite endured rigorous training from the age of 7, to become a part of one of the finest type of warriors of the ancient world. It was their education system known as the “agoge” which involved harsh training in the wilderness and in barracks, that brought this widely sought after brilliance on the battlefield.
One reason Sparta had such a militaristically based society was its need to maintain and exercise control of the helots, slaves from Messenia (Greece). The helots far outnumbered their Spartan masters, so a check had to be kept on them, through scare tactics. The Spartan army became so formidable, to ensure no uprisings occurred. An underground organisation known as the “krypteia” would conduct regular ‘cleansings’ of helots.
The main formation utilised by the hoplite was the “phalanx”, where hoplites stand shoulder to shoulder with long pikes out in front of them. A Spartan hoplite was equipped with a “hoplon” shield (after which the hoplite is named after), a heavy dagger, a sharp curved sword and a pike. Bronze body armour was worn by the hoplite, and consisted of leg and arm greaves, a breastplate and a helmet. The characteristic red cloak was often worn too.
During the Persian Wars, Sparta headed the land forces operations. It’s trained and disciplined troops were willing to fight to the death, as evidenced at Thermopylae in 480BC, and thus proved to be a near unmatched fighting force until Leuctra.

A Spartan phalanx at the Battle of Plataea
A Spartan phalanx at the Battle of Plataea
Athens on the hand was famed for its navy. While at certain stages, especially under Demosthenes, the Athenian army grew to a monumental strength, almost matching the Spartans, overall it was inferior. It was the navy of Athens which allowed it to dominate the alliances of Greek “poleis” (city states), as well as the seas.
Heading up the Delian League, Athens obtained “phoros” from member states to enable the development of a strong navy, made up of Triremes.
The Trireme was a revolutionary ship, an addition to the earlier Bireme. Comprised of 170 oarsmen, as well as soldiers, sailors and a captain, the Trireme was exceptionally fast and maneuverable, owing its in-battle ferocity to this, and the bronze ramming beak on the front.
Athens was in charge of countering the Persian threat at sea during Xerxess invasion of Greece. Themistocles interpreted the oracle “wood will save the city” as defeating the Persians at sea, with wooden Triremes. The primarily Athenian navy ended up defeating a much larger Persian force in the Bay of Salamis, to repel the Persian invasion of 480BC. Athens’ development of a formidable navy went on to reap much success over the 5th century B.C. and beyond the Peloponnesian Wars.

Generally, it is seen that Sparta had was “hegemom” of the land, with its superior troops, whereas Athens had a strong navy, and reigned control of the sea.

The domination of Sparta and Athens in their respective arms of the military was to gain them a firm standing amongst powers in the Classical Mediterranean. Both developed impressive, some may say grandiose, naval and land-based forces, which commanded respect by their adversaries.
At their peak, Athens had the most technologically advanced navy in the Eastern Mediterranean, due highly to the financial assistance provided by allied “poleis”. Timber resources were also abundant to the Athenians.
Sparta’s social structure and policy enabled it to develop the most fearsome land-based force of its day. Their hegemony on land resulted from the years of tough and rugged training of the Spartan citizens, the “homoioi”.

The domination of Athens at sea, and Sparta on land, may differ, but in retrospect, both were the superpowers of their day, especially for the size of their states.
Greek Trireme
Greek Trireme

Judgment and views of Women

These two “poleis” each had similarities and differences regarding the status and view of women in society.

Women in Sparta are very typical of what one may have imagined a woman of Sparta to have been like. They were disallowed from wearing any types of cosmetics or makeup, which were abolished. Jewelry was another big ‘no-no’ for Spartan women. Women were judged on their physique and physical and athletic prowess.
Women in Sparta had designated arenas in which they would exercise and compete in athletic tournaments, usually secluded from the men who were out training.
The reason women were scrutinized so heavily on their fitness and physical state relates to the Spartan’s equivalent of the “master race” concept. Healthy and fit women would produce fit offspring, continuing the military tradition of Sparta.

On the contrary, Athenian women were judged heavily on their artificial beauty. Cosmetics such as lead ‘foundation’ were common, but unbeknown to them, rather unhealthy. Elaborate and expensive jewelry, complemented by luscious clothing were worn for seductive, and other purposes. Physical training was not unheard of though, and an Athenian woman exercising was not uncommon.

Nevertheless, affinities between the Spartan and Athenian views and roles of women are evident, as Xenophon tells us. Spartan and Athenian women would compete in exercise and sports such as discus, gym and wrestling. Of course, Spartan women did this to a far greater extent to Athenians. Neither could attend the “palaestra” to exercise. Both took part in activity and took measures in order to look their best for the men of society.

This was important in shaping their social status and even their life in some cases.

Post-dinner social gatherings

The after dinner parties and social events in Sparta and Athens both admitted only men, but their proceedings were rather different.

Spartan men of the “Homoioi” class (full citizen) attended common messes, where they would go through a judgment process to get in. A Spartan man attended a common mess not to gorge himself on food or get drunk, but to enjoy in moderation. Food and drink were each rationed at the common messes.
They reflected Spartan society – discipline, order and responsibility. Also, a man was dedicated and remained loyal to a common mess, just as he was to Sparta.

In contrast, Athenian men attended “symposiums”, meaning “drinking together”. They gorged themselves with delicacies and commonly got drunk. The symposium was not a strict place, and no rations were dealt. No man was loyal to a certain symposium, and usually floated from one to another. It was just a matter of walking on in, rather than having to go through a long judgment process.
The different natures of after dinner social gatherings in Athens and Sparta reflected somewhat on their societies.

Whilst they differed in several regards, similarities are evident. Firstly, only men of the highest – full citizenship – classes were admitted to common messes or symposiums. Generally, the average evening would be composed of leisurely enjoyment, socializing, story telling and riddles and laughs. They would attend each evening, where specific topic and theme would be chosen for the night.

The contrasts between the post-dinner social gatherings of Spartans and Athenians are not alone, but many similarities exist too.


In summary, Sparta and Athens may have been in great divergence to each other at their peaks during and around the Golden Age of Greece, but they possessed many parallel relationships in society. Spartan society and Athenian society had many difference and similarities in terms of various aspects of everyday life, military, women and other aspects.


This article was written for a grade 9 "Elective History" in-class assessment, in a time period of 55 minutes. It relates to one aspect of the NSW stage 4 Elective History Syllabus on Classical Greece. As it was an in-class task, no references or sources were accessed or used.