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Ancient Sparta: Economy & Trade

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  • 0:03 The Spartan Economy
  • 0:37 Spartan Production
  • 2:22 Spartan Trade
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Sparta was unique amongst the Greek city-states in many ways. That uniqueness extended to their economy. In this lesson, we'll explore the Spartan economy and see what set it apart from its contemporaries.

The Spartan Economy

Ancient Greece was full of powerful cities, and each one handled their daily affairs a little differently. Athens and Sparta, for example, were two of the most powerful cities of the Mediterranean, but their economies were completely different. While one relied on trade, the other relied on agriculture. While one was international in scope, the other was closed off. While one used coins, the other used giant iron bars as currency. We'll get to that. The Spartan economy was unique amongst the Greek cities, but it reflected the lives and attitudes of this powerful kingdom.

Spartan Production

There are two big ideas that we need to think about regarding an economy as a whole: production and trade. Let's start with production. The Spartans were, at their core, an agricultural society. Their wealth and well-being rested on their ability to grow all of the items they needed in Laconia, their region of the Peloponnese in southwest Greece.

What's interesting about this, however, is that the Spartans themselves didn't actually produce anything. Spartan law required every man to become a professional soldier. Other careers, even necessary ones like farming, were prohibited. So, who was actually in charge of production in Sparta? The non-Spartans.

Spartan citizens were required to join the military
Spartans

Sparta was a military state, and as it expanded, it conquered many cities and effectively turned their people into slaves. However, the Spartan concept of slavery was very different from other Greek cities. These slaves couldn't be bought or sold, they weren't removed from their homes, and they weren't subjected to perpetual violence. We call these Spartan slaves helots. Helots had been conquered by the Spartans but continued to live in their own villages. However, about half of everything they produced went to the Spartans, especially their agricultural products. By relying on the labor of the helots, the Spartan citizens could devote their full attention to military training.

Alongside the helots were also free non-citizens known as perioikoi. The perioikoi weren't slaves, but they also weren't fully part of Spartan civilization since they weren't citizens (and Sparta was very protective of who it would grant citizenship to). These non-citizens who often lived in Sparta itself were very important to the Spartan economy. While the helots were mostly used to produce food, the perioikoi made everything else that Spartan society needed, from clothes to pottery to weapons.

Spartan Trade

Spartans were very protective of their citizenship, their city, and their secrets, and as a result, they didn't like outsiders. With its strict military conscriptions and lack of democratic freedoms, Sparta was clearly different from cities like Athens. Spartan rulers worried that outside influence might weaken the values and ideals that kept the strict Spartan society functioning, so they limited contact with outsiders.

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