A tale of two cities

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By Rhona Dick independent educational consultant

Find out about the two most famous city-states in Ancient Greece – Athens and Sparta

There were many city-states in Ancient Greece and the inhabitants of each were fiercely loyal to their own polis. The concept of a united Greece, as it is today, did not exist. The two most famous city-states were Athens and Sparta.

Athens and Sparta contrasted greatly. Whereas Athens was an outward-looking city that sought contact with the world beyond, Sparta forbade travel and denied entry to people from beyond the city-state. A democratic government, elected by male citizens, evolved in Athens, but foreigners, women and slaves were not allowed to vote. Sparta was an oligarchy (meaning ‘rule by a small group’), ruled principally by two kings from two royal families and five ephors – a council of overseers. Spartan women had greater freedom and responsibility than their Athenian counterparts, who seldom left the home.

The state of Athens sponsored intellectual development and the arts, and there existed a culture of the written word in poetry, songs and plays, as well as history and philosophy. In contrast, Sparta eschewed literature. The significance of this is that much of our knowledge of Sparta and its way of life comes from the writings of the Athenians, who may not have expressed an unbiased opinion. It is important that children understand that in this instance we have only one interpretation of history.

Throughout history there have been political echoes of Sparta and Athens, even to the present day; some older children may be able to relate to examples of these.

Essential facts

Athens:

  • was an outward-looking maritime city-state with a strong navy, that welcomed trade with other city-states.
  • was a democracy, but only men could become citizens and attend the assembly.
  • encouraged the development of literature and the arts.
  • had many beautiful buildings, including the Parthenon, and civic buildings.
  • encouraged education to produce citizens who could take part in democracy and also fight in times of war. Girls were educated on how to run a home. Aristocratic girls would also have learned music, and most likely reading, writing, dancing and exercise. The women seldom left the home unaccompanied. When they were seven, boys attended school and studied music and literature. At 18 they spent two years at a military academy.
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