Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

How the Spartans Became Powerful

If the geography of Greece had been different, the story of the Greeks might have been quite unlike what it was. The land was made up of mountain ranges and fertile valleys. It was not easy to cross these mountains, and therefore there were almost as many tiny kingdoms as there were valleys. The people of each loved their own valley and their own customs, and the Greeks might have been contented to stay at home if it had not been for the sea; but the sea was on three sides of them, pushing its way into the land in sharp, narrow bays. Go where they would, so long as the Greeks did not leave Greece, they could never be more than forty miles from the ocean. The valleys said, "Stay," but the ocean was ever tempting them to go.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


There were not many good harbors on the western coast of Greece, but there were plenty of them on the eastern. Moreover, when the Greeks stood on the eastern shore and looked over the water, they could see islands far and near, every one inviting them to visit it. When they came to one there were always others a little farther on; therefore it was easy to make their way across the Ægean Sea to Asia Minor. There was reason, then, why the Greeks should have loved, not the whole country, but each tribe its own little corner; and also why they should have liked to make voyages and found settlements in other lands, especially to the eastward.

Greece was a very beautiful country. The sea was blue and sparkling; the mountains were not always covered with green forests, but the hard rock of their summits made sharp, clear outlines of red and gray against the sky. The rivers flowed swiftly, and often they sank out of sight in a chasm or under-ground passage, and came bubbling up again in some other place. It is little wonder that the Greeks fancied they were alive, and used to offer sacrifices at the building of a bridge, that the god of the stream might not be angry. In some parts of the land there were fine old forests of oak and beech and chestnut; there were olives and fig trees; there were flowers of many kinds,—roses, violets, crocuses, geraniums, daffodils, heliotropes, and anemones. Along the rivers grew oleanders; not little shrubs, but real trees with their rose-colored blossoms reflected in the water. It was all so beautiful that the Greeks could hardly have helped loving beauty. In Attica a range of mountains kept off the chill of the northern winds, while the sea-breezes from the south and east made the country cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Much of Greece was like Attica in having a bright, clear sky, and being warm enough for people to spend the greater part of their time out of doors.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


It is little wonder that when the Dorians, who lived far to the north, heard of this beautiful country, they were eager to dwell in it, and journeyed southward to take it away from the people who already held it, the Achæans and the Ionians. This is the meaning of the story of the return of the Heraclidæ. The Achæans and the Ionians were not strong enough to drive away the Dorians, and therefore many of them left the country and made colonies on the coast of Asia Minor and the islands near it. This was not done all at once; the emigration was probably going on for many years. At length, reports came back to Greece that the lands to which the colonists had gone were more fertile than even the Peloponnesus; and then some of the Dorians themselves began to found colonies on the coast of Asia Minor and in Crete.



When the Dorians came to the Peloponnesus, they found themselves in a rather difficult position. They were hardy and warlike, and they succeeded in founding a number of settlements; but there were ten times as many of the earlier settlers as of themselves. The chief town of the Dorians was Sparta, in Laconia; but even after they had conquered the country, they were in constant danger from the old inhabitants. Of these there were two classes: the Periœki, who were allowed to keep their property, but could have nothing to say about making the laws; and the Helots, or slaves. It is said that the Helots had belonged to the town that had held out longest against the Spartans, and that the conquerors had declared in their anger that the Helots should be their slaves forever. These Helots so hated their masters that people used to say, "A Helot will gladly eat a Spartan raw." The Spartans, on their part, were glad to have slaves to do their work; but they were always a little afraid the Helots would unite against them, and they did not hesitate to put to death any that seemed likely to become leaders of their people.

Laconia was an easy country to defend, for there were mountains on the east, north, and west. On the east and north there were only two or three passes through which an army could be led without great difficulty, and on the west was the conquered land of Messenia. Sparta, then, was a natural fortress. Still, the Spartans were but a small tribe in the midst of enemies, and the question was how they should make sure of never being overcome by their neighbors. They concluded that the only way to do this was to make their whole tribe into an army.



Of course the imaginative Greeks had a story about how this was done. They said that early in their history a man named Lycurgus was made guardian of their baby king. The people paid him so much honor that his enemies were jealous and spread the rumor that he intended to seize the crown. He was indignant, and said to the people, "I will leave the land, and stay away until the king is grown up." He loved his country, however, and in all the years that he was in exile he was visiting different kingdoms to see what had given them power and what had weakened them. Every little while the Spartans sent to urge him to return; and at last he came, his mind full of plans for making his country powerful. He had been to Delphi on his way, and had asked Apollo if he would be able to make wise laws for his people. The answer was, "The laws that you are about to make will be the best in the world." Of course he did not keep this a secret, and when he reached Sparta he found a large number of the people ready to agree with whatever he proposed. The baby king had become a man and held the throne, or, rather, held half of it, for it was the custom of the Spartans to have two kings. This plan does not seem to have been very successful, in this case at least, for one of them was too gentle and yielding to punish wrong-doing; and so the two never agreed, and their power was every day becoming less. They hoped that Lycurgus would strengthen it, and therefore they gave him a warm welcome. Then the whole little state watched to see what this wise man would do.

First of all, he had a senate of thirty members elected. These were chosen from among the older men, and were to remain senators as long as they lived. Five ephors, or overseers, were also chosen, and they held office for but one year. The real government was in their hands, for they could call even the kings to account if they thought it necessary; in important cases they acted as judges; and they decided whether there should be war or peace. The kings were members of the senate, and in war times they commanded the army. They had little more power than the other senators, but they must have been far more comfortable than before the return of Lycurgus, for now they understood exactly what they could do, and knew that they would be supported in doing it.

Lycurgus next set to work to divide the land equally among the citizens. They finally agreed to this; but when he proposed to divide the gold and silver in the same fashion, the wealthy folk said "No." They had a ruler, however, who knew how to get what he wanted in one way if he could not in another; and he simply decreed that gold and silver should no longer be counted as money, but that iron should be used instead. Little could be bought with this iron, for the far-sighted ruler had taken the temper out of it, so it was useless; and it was not a convenient sort of treasure to hoard up, for it was so cheap that fifteen hundred dollars' worth of it would fill a good-sized room.

The next aim of Lycurgus was to keep the Spartans from having dainties at table; and therefore he made them all, the kings as well as the other men, eat in public and fare alike. Even the hungriest could hardly have enjoyed the meals until he was well used to them, for the principal dish was a certain black broth that no one but Spartans seemed to find endurable. An Athenian who once tasted it declared that now he understood why Spartans were so fearless in war. "They would rather die than live on such fare as this," he said.

To keep the Spartans from furnishing their houses luxuriously, with golden cups, bright-colored coverlets, and bedsteads with silver feet, a law was made that the ceilings should be wrought with no tool but the axe, and the doors with none but the saw. Lycurgus knew that the good taste of his countrymen would not permit them to bring costly furnishings into a house whose doors did not fit, and whose ceilings were nothing but rough logs. The story is told of a Spartan who in later years was a guest in a handsome house in Corinth, that he looked up at the ceilings, made of finely smoothed and carved planks, and asked with a little scorn, "Do the trees grow square in your country?"

So it was that Lycurgus made his countrymen live plainly and simply. That was well for the time being, he thought; but all these people had once been used to comfort, and he knew that when he died they would gradually slip back into their old luxurious fashions. Moreover, he wished to build up a nation that would not only do without luxuries, but would honestly despise them; and the only way to do this was to begin with the children. Then, when the boys and girls were grown up, Sparta would be full of men and women who had always lived simply and who scorned any other mode of life. There was little question that even a few thousand such men, taught to be soldiers, would be able to hold their own in battle against much larger numbers of the enemy. For these reasons he paid far more attention to the children than to the grown folk. "Children belong to the state," he declared, "and the state needs men and women who are strong and well." Therefore when a baby boy was born, a committee of wise men examined it to see if it was healthy. If it appeared weak or feeble, it was simply tossed into a cavern in the mountains to die. If the committee decided that it would probably grow into a strong man, it was given back to its father and mother. The boy was allowed to live with his parents only seven years; then each little fellow was made a member of a company of boys who lived under military rule. The one who seemed bravest was made captain, and the others had to obey whatever he commanded. Until the boys were twelve years old they ran about naked, so that they might become used to all kinds of weather. Even after that they were allowed to wear only one garment. For their beds they were sent to the river bank to break off reeds. When winter came, they were permitted, as a great luxury, to spread a little thistle-down over the reeds.

At twelve the boys were put under the charge of a young man of twenty, called an iren, and were obliged to obey his orders. He would often send them for food or firewood; and they were expected to steal this as slyly as if they were in the country of an enemy. If they succeeded, they were praised; but if they were caught, they were severely whipped for their clumsiness. After supper the iren would often call the boys together and give them various tests. "Sing a song," he would command one boy. "Tell me who is the best man in the city," he would say to another; or "What do you think of such and such an action?" The boy must not only answer the questions, but must give good reason for their answers; and if they did not do well, they had to bear whatever punishment the iren might think they deserved. Of course the older men and the magistrates kept close watch of the iren, and after the younger boys had been sent away, he himself was soundly whipped if he had not ruled justly and wisely.

The girls were obliged to run and wrestle and throw quoits, but they were not treated nearly so severely as the boys. Indeed, whatever the boys did and wherever they went some one was always on the watch to punish them if they did not do as well as was expected of them. One reason for these many whippings was that they might learn to despise pain. Once at least the older boys were brought before one of the altars and flogged, and the boy who bore the pain longest without an outcry received a prize. They became so proud of bearing pain well that sometimes one fell dead under this flogging without once having cried out or groaned.

As to learning, the boys were taught music and poetry and a little reading, writing, and arithmetic; but much time was given to training them to talk. They were expected to be silent unless they had something to say; and when they did speak, they were required to use as few words as possible and to make their replies keen and pointed. Lycurgus himself practiced what he preached. When an Athenian once made fun of the short swords of the Spartans, he retorted, "And yet we can reach our enemies' hearts with them." When he was asked whether he intended to build a wall around Sparta, he replied, "That city is well fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick." Some one asked a Spartan to come to hear a person who could imitate a nightingale. "I have heard the nightingale herself," was his reply. This brief, pointed manner of speaking took its name from that of the country, and has been called "laconic" from that day to this.

After twenty years of this training the Spartan was ready to begin to be a soldier; and he thought that any other occupation was beneath his dignity. Even the work of cultivating his own hind he looked upon with the utmost scorn. That was the business of Helots, he declared.

One day, after Lycurgus had become an old man, he called the people together and said, "There is one thing more that is necessary to the happiness of the state. It is more important than all that has been done; but what it is I cannot tell you until I have come back from Delphi. Will you solemnly swear to obey the laws until I return?" They all took a solemn oath to be obedient, and he set out for Delphi with his son and some of his dearest friends. There he sacrificed to Apollo and asked, "Are the laws that I have made sufficient to promote virtue and secure the happiness of the state?" "They are excellent, and the city that keeps to them will be the most glorious in the world," was the response. Lycurgus wrote this oracle and sent it back to Sparta; but he himself did not return, for he had planned a way to make the Spartans keep his laws forever. He offered up another sacrifice, and bade his son and friends farewell. After that, he refused all food and quietly waited for death. One last request he made. It was that after his body had been burned the ashes should not be carried to Sparta but thrown into the sea. "Then, surely, no one can ever declare that I have returned," he said, "and the Spartans can never claim that they are released from their oath to keep my laws."



It seems more probable that these strange customs grew little by little than that any one man had the power to oblige his fellow countrymen to change their whole manner of living. However that may be, and whether such a man as Lycurgus ever lived or not, these were the customs of the Spartans, and they really became a nation of soldiers. In Bœotia, a country a little north of Sparta, a poet named Hesiod was composing his "Works and Days," a poem about living quietly and peacefully in the country and doing whatever kind of work each season required; but the Spartans would have scorned such teachings. They were soldiers, and wartime was their holiday. When the enemy was near, the king sacrificed a goat, the men put garlands upon their heads, the musicians played a march, and the army moved forward joyfully. They knew how much better soldiers they were than other tribes, and they had little fear of being beaten.

They looked upon war as a luxury, but it would seem as if they must have had as much as any one could want of fighting. Their first business was to make themselves so strong in Laconia that they would be free to win other lands. They succeeded in this, and then they began to think about Messenia, the country lying to the west of them. It was small wonder that they wanted it, for it was the most fertile country in the Peloponnesus, with hills and meadows, plenty of water, and excellent pasturage for cattle. After a good deal of fighting the Spartans got possession of Messenia. So much we may be sure of, but little is known about the war. There is a story, which may or may not be true, that at length matters looked so bad for the Messenians that they shut themselves up in Ithome and sent to Delphi to ask what to do. "The tribe that first places one hundred tripods on the altar of Zeus at Ithome will conquer," declared the oracle. Then the Messenians were jubilant, and they set to work to make one hundred wooden tripods. Unluckily for them, the Spartans, too, had learned of the response. "We will not wait to make tripods of wood," they said, "we will make them of clay." The result was that, while the Messenians were still working on their wooden tripods, a Spartan with a big bag on his shoulder contrived to slip into Ithome one afternoon. On the following morning the Messenians lost all hope, for there stood the Spartan tripods ranged about the altar. It was not long before Ithome fell; the Spartans had conquered. The Messenians were allowed to keep their land, but had to give half its produce to their conquerors. They had become the slaves of the Spartans.

The story goes on to say that many years later, the grandsons of the warriors of Ithome determined to be ruled by Sparta no longer. They fought so fiercely that it was soon the turn of their enemies to beg Apollo for advice. "You must ask Athens to send you a leader," was the reply. This did not please the Spartans, but they made the request. The Athenians were not at all willing to help Sparta become stronger, but they did not dare disobey Apollo. Finally they made a plan which they though exceedingly crafty. They sent for a leader a man named Tyrtæus, a schoolmaster who knew nothing about making war. They forgot, however, that Tyrtæus was also a poet; and while they were boasting of their cunning, he was making such ringing war-songs for the Spartans that they no longer remembered their discouragement, but marched cheerfully into battle, singing:—

"Now fight we for our children, for this land;

Our lives unheeding, let us bravely die.

Courage, ye youths? together firmly stand;

Think not of fear, nor ever turn to fly."

Finally the Spartans were successful; and now they ruled all the southern part of the Peloponnesus, from sea to sea.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The Spartans were in no hurry to give up fighting, and before many years had passed, they found an excuse for invading Arcadia, the country lying north of Laconia. There is a legend that during the war the Messenians had hired some bands of Arcadian soldiers, and that after the war closed the Arcadians had allowed some of the Messenians to make homes for themselves in Arcadia. That was enough, and the Spartans set out with their weapons and wreaths and war-songs, and also some chains with which to bind the captives that they expected to take.

Arcadia was a quiet, pleasant country, with rugged mountains and swiftly flowing brooks in the north, and fresh green meadows in the south. The people who dwelt there kept flocks and herds. They loved the music of the flute and they followed the old simple customs. They loved liberty, too, and they were hardy mountaineers; and, much to the surprise of the Spartans, it came to pass that some of them were bound with their own chains. The invaders won several victories, but they never really conquered the little mountainous country. Each army found what brave men there were on the other side, and the two peoples finally made a treaty by which they agreed to stand together in war. Sparta was to take the lead on the battlefield, but the Arcadians were always to hold the left wing, the place of honor.

The greatest honor, however, that could be held by any country of Greece was that of presiding at the Olympian games. Olympia was in the land of the Pisatans, and in the earliest days they were in charge. After a while the inhabitants of Elis overcame the Pisatans in war, and then the Elians proudly took the first position. Again and again the Pisatans revolted, and finally they found a powerful friend in Pheidon, the ruler of Argos; for he was very willing to increase his power in the west. The Spartans, too, had no objection to increasing their power; they stood for the rights of Elis, and were victorious.

So it was that Sparta rose to power. By the middle of the sixth century before Christ, the Spartans ruled the southern part of the Peloponnesus, they had made an alliance with Arcadia; and were good friends with Elis. They had also succeeded in overthrowing the power of Argos, the state that had once been the mightiest in the Peninsula. The last battle took place at Thyrea, which the Spartans captured; but the Argives suffered a much more severe loss a few years later. They had fled from the Spartans to a sacred grove, and there their enemies surrounded them and set the grove afire. Two thirds of their whole army perished. They still declared that Argos was a free city; but the Spartans cared little about that, so long as it had become too weak to interfere with them.

Such is the story of Sparta from the earliest times to the middle of the sixth century before Christ,—the story of a little wandering tribe who made their way into the country of their enemies and succeeded in becoming the most powerful people in the land.


The Greeks loved their own land and were also fond of adventure. The Dorians came from the north and made the old inhabitants of the south into Periœki or Helots. They trained their whole tribe to be soldiers. Their story was that this was the work of a man named Lycurgus.

Lycurgus was said to have given the chief power of the government to five ephors, to have divided the land equally, to have used iron for money, to have obliged all to eat at the common table and to live in simple houses, and to have brought up the boys under military rule. He was said to have made the Spartans promise to keep his laws till his return; then to have gone away and taken his own life.

The Spartans made slaves of the Messenians, made a treaty with the Arcadians, and won the friendship of the Elians. They overthrew the power of Argos, and by the middle of the sixth century B.C. had become the strongest tribe in the land.

Suggestions For Written Work

Why would a Greek wish to stay in his own country?

Some one tells the Dorians about the country lying to the south.

A Spartan boy tells another boy about his life.

A visit to Arcadia.