Friday, February 8, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Nine: Sparta

After the defeat of Troy, Greece entered an unstable period in its political history known as the Greek Dark Age. By this time Greeks had colonized much of the Mediterranean, and enjoyed prosperous trade with Egypt and Carthage. During this period, its long rivalry with the Persian Empire began. Then, beginning around 1104 BC, a new wave of immigration and invasion came down upon Greece from the north.

This catastrophe in the history of Aegean civilization is what modern historians know as the Dorian Conquest, and what Greek tradition has called the Return of the Heracleidae (since some of the Dorians claimed to be descended from the ancient hero Heracles, and therefore the rightful rulers of Greece).

The result was a long and bitter interruption in the development of Greece. Political order was disturbed for centuries. War flourished, poverty deepened and spread. This harsh backdrop had a hardening effect on the people who'd lived under the Mycenaeans and Minoans. In the southernmost part of Greece, called the Peloponnesus, this led to the rise of a famous and notoriously brutal empire called the Spartans.
Very few people who lived under the Spartan Empire were really Spartans. The vast majority were agricultural serfs doomed to endless servitude. This slave race, called the Helots, were held in place by the aristocratic warrior class, and constantly threatened to revolt. Discontentment among the Helots would be a weakness that would plague Sparta throughout its history.

Spartan children were killed, thrown from the cliffs of Mount Taygetus, for the slightest physical defect. Boys were taken from their mothers at age seven and raised in a military regiment determined to build martial courage and worth. To bear pain, hardship, and misfortune silently was required by all. At the age of thirty, if he survived with honor the hardships of youth, he was given the full rights and responsibilities of a citizen.

Corinth, controlling the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnesus, became one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the region. It had harbors and shipping on both the Saronic and Corinthian Gulfs, with a four mile wooden tramway which could transport ships across land between the two bodies of water.
Under its King Periander (625-585 BC), Corinth became an economic superpower. He stimulated trade by establishing a state coinage, and promoted industry by lowering taxes. A generation after his death, the city was absorbed by the Spartan Empire, lending its military might to Corinth's industry and influence.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on civilization, click here.

If you're interested in learning more about the Spartans, a bizarre and violent race, check out The Spartans, by Paul Cartledge. It's probably the best single volume work on the subject.
Not nearly as scholarly, but most definitely worth checking out is the graphic novel 300, by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. It was the basis for the popular film which came out last summer, and it's an amazing work of art in addition to telling a good story.

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