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I am telling my daughter nighttime stories, mostly from History, and recently talked about Athens and Sparta. In my tales Athenian turned out to be well-rounded people, great at many things, ranging from arts, philosophy, and sciences to physical fitness and war. Spartans, on the other hand, turned out to be vicious bullies and murderers, slightly better than Athenians at war, but completely inept in anything cultural.

And then I thought that perhaps I was unfair in that cartoonish depiction of Spartans. Were they really mindless bullies and nothing else? After all, they were quite good in speaking succinctly and vividly... Perhaps they did create something great that I'm not aware of?

Thus the question: what did Spartans leave to posterity, if anything, other than legends of their military aptitude and "laconic" speeches?

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    Tyrtaeus the Spartan poet comes to mind but, alas, his poetry is about "exhorting Spartans to support the state authorities and to fight bravely against the Messenians". So I guess I'll keep looking for another answer :) – Felix Goldberg Aug 27 '15 at 6:15
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    It's a bit strange to portray the Spartans as "vicious bullies" vis-à-vis the Athenians, considering the Athenian tyranny preceding and during the Peloponnesian War, and Sparta's (shortlived) role as liberator of Greece in the same. Also, mindless brutes wouldn't be famous for their Laconic wit. – Semaphore Aug 27 '15 at 6:24
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    @Michael Actually, on balance the helots enjoyed significantly more freedoms than the average slave of the time. While the ephors may well have maintained a secret police force that assassinated troublesome helots, Plutarch's rather improbable story of an yearly massacre (which you seem to be referencing) has long been discounted as apocryphal - not least because Aristotle, whom he purported to have cited, made no mention of the event. This is going off topic to your question of cultural legacy though and I apologise; if you wish to talk more about this tangent I'm in chat. – Semaphore Aug 27 '15 at 8:44
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    Lycurgus of Sparta reformed Spartan society in the 9th or 8th century B.C. He introduced the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity. Later on, we can see in both Plato's and Xenophon's writings that many philosophers (e.g. Socrates) had a great admiration for Spartan society: a condition called laconophilia (see here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laconophilia). A part of this was driven by the thought that Spartan politics was better and the citizens were more supportive of each other. Doesn't seem like they were entirely brutes to me... – Michal Paszkiewicz Aug 27 '15 at 9:02
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    @TheHonRose: Yes, I read these stories. But some Spartans who had to live abroad were missing it very much. There is no objective criterion to compare "national foods". Eastern Europeans living in the US (I am one of them) all tend to think that US people just do not understand what good food is:-) – Alex May 6 '16 at 0:46
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The Spartans are known for different things to different peoples in time. Some of these things are good, and others bad.

Today, if you ask a typical 20-something man who has a keen interest in history, watches historical movies and plays historical video games, he will say that the Spartans are best remembered for their Military prowess. It is this quality that will stand out most to him.

If you ask a modern day politician, he may say that the Spartans are best remembered for their ideals of Liberty and their persistence to remain an independent free people. Liberty from the Persians, Athenians, Thebans, Macedonians and Romans.

If you ask an 19th century British scholar, he may say the Spartans are best known for their ideas of beauty, heroism, physical athleticism, reverence of the Gods (eg not fighting on holy days etc) and other romantic ideals.

If you ask a sociologist, he may point out that Sparta's treatment of women was better than in most other places in the Greek world. They may point out that Women could become quite successful and famous in Sparta (eg Cyniska, Gorgo etc).

If you ask a Greek today, he may tell you that the Spartans form part of their cultural heritage and are an important part of Greek history. Spartan symbolism such as lambda shields and Corinthian plumed helmets are a common feature of Greek art and media.

If you ask an ancient Persian, he may say that the Spartans are remembered for their insolence, persistence and rudeness. They may also be remembered as gold-hungry traitors who would betray their fellow Greeks for a few coins.

If you ask an ancient Macedonian, he may call them insignificant mice (As did Alexander the Great) who care only about themselves.

Ancient Athenians would have called them uncultured barbarians. The bullies of the Greek world.

If you asked the Romans, they would have called them inspiring and worthy. They would have called them people to look up to.

The history of the Spartans is long, complicated and contradictory. The imprint they have left in western civilisation however is significant and in my opinion, ever lasting. In my opinion, you should tell your daughter that they where a tough society that did not mess around and got things done no matter the cost.

For more on Sparta, I would recommend starting with this book by Paul Cartledge

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    Nowadays remebering Sparta for some "ideals of liberty" seems to be absolutely impossible. Though maybe some politicians can do such trick... – Matt Aug 28 '15 at 7:31
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First of all, spartans were dorian greeks who had culture of their own (specific dialect, calendar etc.). And Peloponnesus itself was relatively closed world for many years. Certainly, spartans appreciated poetry, and there are quite a few well-known names, yet little remained of their texts written in 7th century B.C. in laconic dialect.

Next, the vast majority of Sparta's population in "classical times" were underprivileged persons (perioeci, helots) which had no easy access to good education. And the number of spartiates was ten times less than the number of athenian freemen. Moreover, all the spartiates must be soldiers for the most part of life (they avoided to conscript helots as long as they can, so there was no choice except "full-life" service for spartiates). Even in "liberal" Athens old Socrates had got quite a few of military expirience, so what to expect of "militarist" Sparta? Rarely people can match philosophy with sentry-go.

Thus Sparta was relatively small town (with no walls at all!) surrounded by many villages, with about 75% of population (helots) mostly occupied in agriculture. Not really fit for being the cultural centre of ancient Greece.

And last but not least, it was athenians who the whole Greece considered to be bullies in the 5th century B.C., not spartans.

  • Well, this answer would excuse why Spartans left so little civilian cultural legacy, not whether they did. The question was about anything creative they left behind that just escaped my attention. Judging by your answer, as well as several comments, probably nothing except for social reforms by Lycurgus that slipped my mind. – Michael Aug 27 '15 at 20:24
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    @Michael It seems no one mentioned Alcman. And Terpandre settled in Sparta after winning local musical competition. After all, it's not bad for 7th century B.C. But spartan masters of fine arts seemed to skip classical time completely. – Matt Aug 27 '15 at 20:47
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Spartans gave canonical examples (for Western culture) of what is called "noble behavior", and heroism.

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Sparta could actually be called the birthplace of democracy. Tho Sparta had a small voting population by today's standards (probably around ~3%), it was transformative for the time. Democracy was even suggested by at least some of the population.

A story I've read was that a man once argued that Sparta (circa 850BC before they created the Apella) should set up a democracy, the famous lawmaker Lykurgus replied: "Begin with your own family". Nevertheless, Sparta did set up something of an oligarchical democracy.

I wrote an article on early governments here if you'd like to read more: https://governology.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/government-behind-us/

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I think they left some ideas that still resinate in western culture.

The word "spartan" means "marked by strict self-discipline or self-denial" or "marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort" definition The word "laconic" "using few words in speech or writing" [definition]

Most significantly, I've read that Plato was greatly influenced by Sparta. After witnessing what he thought was chaos in Athenian democracy (i.e. the execution of Socrates), Plato was perhaps attracted to the stability offered by a permanent ruling elite.

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Well, Sparta was the original home of Queen Helen......long before she became known as, "Helen of Troy".

The town of Sparta actually dates back to the Mycenaean age and is one of the oldest surviving towns in Greece, even predating Athens by hundreds of years.

Although Ancient Sparta was not exactly known for its cultural refinement and civility-(when compared with its Arch Nemesis, Athens), the town of Sparta does have a historical presence and longevity that was central to the evolution of Greece as a major civilization.

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