Spartan Art & Architecture: History & Style

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The Spartan philosophy is generally considered to be incompatible with such Epicurean pursuits as art and architecture. However, this lesson describes how art and architecture actually had a rich and proud heritage in Sparta.

Spartan Art? Really?

Have you ever heard people describe something as 'spartan'? What did they mean? Usually when someone describes something as 'spartan,' they are saying that it is without decoration, ornamentation, beauty or comfort. In fact, in ancient history, Spartan society was considered the very definition of stoic, or without emotion and aesthetics, as opposed to epicurean, which is defined by expression and sentiment.

While you might not expect a stoic society to value the arts, Spartan art and architecture was actually famous. Archaeologists have found numerous examples of art and architecture in and around Sparta over the years. The examples found are not just basic representations, but beautifully rendered works of art. This fact turns assumptions about Spartan aesthetics upside down.

An example of Spartan Laconian black figure pottery. This type of pottery was world renowned in its day.
Laconian Black Figure Pottery

Spartan Art

Artistic pursuits in Sparta were many and varied. Not only did the Spartans create refined visual works, they also were famous for their music, dance and poetry.

From 650-550 B.C.E., Spartan arts were at their height, producing some of the most intricate and beautiful works of bronze, stone, wood and ivory in the known world. The sculptors of Sparta were particularly well known for their works in bronze, capturing the essence of the form they chose to represent. They not only sculpted in Sparta, but branched out to Delphi and Olympia, bringing with them their skilled craftsmanship. In fact, Spartan bronzes were so highly regarded that they were given to other national leaders as gifts, thereby spreading over the known world.

Spartan pottery and ivory work were also highly prized. Pottery from Laconia (the main region of Sparta) has been discovered that shows superior craftsmanship and beauty. Laconian pottery was not only found in and around Sparta, but in countries throughout the world at that time. Ivory work was intricate and highly refined as well, indicating the Spartan ability to work with particularly sensitive and expensive materials.

Even more impressive was Sparta's prowess in music, dance and poetry. During their festivals of Hyakinthia (a festival to the god Apollon) and Gymnopaedia (a festival rite for inducting young soldiers), people would travel hundreds of miles to view the Spartan spectacles of music and dance. The skill displayed in these festivals was said to outdo any festival ever witnessed. Poetry was another noble Spartan pursuit, admired by many in the ancient world.

A relief depicting an ancient music and dance festival.
Spartan Dance

Spartan Architecture

If you've ever been to Washington D.C. and seen all of the huge, marble buildings, you might have some idea of the abundant architecture of ancient Sparta. In the second century B.C.E., historian Pausanias documented hundreds of temples, public buildings, monuments and tombs crowded throughout Sparta.

Spartan architecture was in many cases functional and well designed. As a people of specificity, hard work and refinement, Spartans wanted to make buildings that meant something. As warriors who saw their empire as enduring, they wanted to build structures that could stand for centuries.

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