Life in Athens vs. Life in Sparta

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  • 0:02 It's Greek to Me
  • 0:42 Athens vs. Sparta
  • 1:50 The Persian Wars
  • 2:50 The Peloponnesian War
  • 4:42 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.

In this lesson, you will explore the societies of Athens and Sparta and discover how they interacted in the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

It's Greek to Me

Athens. Sparta. They're both parts of ancient Greece, right? How different can they be? Actually, very different. Ancient Greece was never a single unified culture, but rather a collection of independent cities, each with their own governments called city-states. Of the many Greek city-states, two of the most powerful were Sparta and Athens, which competed to be the dominant power known as the hegemon. This was not an official position, and a city-state became hegemon through a combination of political and military dominance. For both Athens and Sparta, a lot of their power came from the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars.

Athens vs. Sparta

Although both Athens and Sparta were powerful Greek city-states, they were very different. While hegemon, Athens was the center of culture and intellectual development in the Mediterranean. The classic works of philosophy and art from Greece are largely products of Athens, including major architectural achievements like the giant temple called the Parthenon. Sophocles, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Socrates, and Pericles, some of the most influential intellectuals in history, were Athenians. Athens also developed the first true system of democracy around 508 BCE. Athenian democracy meant that people voted on laws and kept a single person from holding total power, like a king.

The city-state of Sparta was very different. Spartan government and culture was completely devoted to its military. The Spartan military was famous for its skill and efficiency, and Spartan children trained rigorously from a young age. They were less concerned with philosophy or art than Athenians and had no trouble living underneath a powerful king. Spartans were also very careful about citizenship and only allowed people born to Spartan parents to be full citizens and have citizenship rights. They did, however, treat all citizens almost equally, including women, which was rare for the time period.

The Persian Wars

Around 500 BCE, Athens and Sparta were both powerful city-states, although Sparta was stronger and considered itself to be the hegemon. These weren't the only powers in the Mediterranean, however, and the Persian Empire was growing so powerful that they conquered some Greek city-states in modern-day Turkey. Athens sent troops to help the conquered Greeks rebel against Persia in 499 BCE, starting the Persian Wars.

In 490 BCE, Persia invaded the Greek islands, and Athens was able to defeat them. This propelled Athens to become the new hegemon, and for a decade. they dominated Greek culture and society. Then, Persia returned in 480 BCE and finally conquered the city of Athens. Remember that when we're talking about BCE events, the year numbers get smaller as the dates get later. The Athenians joined together with Sparta's powerful military and started an alliance with other major city-states to fight the Persian Empires. The Persians were defeated in 479 BCE and kicked out of Greek territories for good.

The Peloponnesian War

There soon developed a powerful alliance of city-states, led by Athens that called itself the Delian League because they had a shared treasury on the Island of Delos. Slowly, Athens began dominating the League, turning it into their own empire. This was a high point for Athens. They were the intellectual and cultural center of Greece, developing architecture, philosophy, and art that are admired to this day. Athens was also an economic center for trading and production. All of Greece centered around Athens, with other city-states paying taxes to the powerful hegemon.

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