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Spartan Society to the Battle of Leuctra 371 BC

The Spartan social structure and economy

Jeffrey Lumb

Blacktown Girls High School


H1.1 describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context
H2.1 explain historical factors and assess their significance in contributing to change and continuity in the ancient world

use historical terms and concepts appropriately

H3.4 explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past
H3.3 analyse and evaluate sources for their usefulness and reliability

Principal Focus:

The investigation of key features of Spartan society to the Battle of Leuctra 371 BC, through a range of archaeological and written sources and relevant historiographical issues.

Students learn about:


Lycurgan reforms and Spartan society

Whether we accept the existence of the man Lycurgus or not, the social system that he is supposed to have created is one of the most distinctive aspects of life in ancient Sparta.

Here is an overview of the Spartan social order

The Lycurgan reforms



Three basic classes in society:

The Spartiati (external website) (Spartans) formed the citizen body. It was divided into peers and inferiors.

Click here (external website) for more information on the Spartan system and definitions of key terms.

To preserve the Spartans as the elite or superior class. Numbered some 9,000 Spartiati.
The perioikoi (dwellers around) formed townships of loyal Messenians and remnants of unimportant Dorian tribes. Were autonomous within their own communities though were subject to Spartan magistrates. Most without land ownership so they turned to industry and trade/ commerce, especially in woollen goods and iron work; they had a monopoly of trade; they generally were well off despite taxes to Spartiati. Inferior in status to the Spartiati but had considerable freedom within their own social sphere.
The helots, the "slave" under-class, were owned by the state and allotted to Spartans to work the assignment of land given to them at birth. Helots seem to have been Messenians who had been conquered by the Spartans. Helots provided the Spartans with a workforce which would free them for public service. The helots were always a threat to Sparta as they were oppressed, dissatisfied and were often the focus of mistrust and fear on the part of their Spartan masters.
These classes were fixed and immobile. These rules caused dissatisfaction, especially among the helots.

Marriage between Spartiati was encouraged to maintain the population. Bachelorhood was discouraged by the state (even ridiculed in some circumstances).

Intermarriage was forbidden.

To maintain a declining population.

To preserve the pure Spartiati body of elite.

Even in spite of the many provisions to encourage population growth, wars and insignificant population growth played a important part in the demise of Sparta as a great power.

The social system: (external website)

Click here (external website) for an explanation of key terms in Spartan society

The helots and the economy

The Spartan economy was based on the labour of the helots. Helot families were granted land from the state and worked this land while the Spartiati (Spartiate) master was on military duty. Helots were permitted to keep surplus produce once their quota was filled. Originally this quota was 50%! Helots could not move from place to place without government permission. They acted as servants to Spartiati during war...they sometimes served as lightly-armed skirmishers in battle. A helot who distinguished himself in battle might be freed (these persons were termed neodamodes).... but was dangerous.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, [4, 80] Thucydides makes these interesting comments:

“that the Helots who had been judged by the Spartans to be superior in bravery, set wreaths upon their heads in token of their emancipation, and visited the temples of the gods in procession......”.

Thucydides goes on to note that only a short time later some 2,000 helots who had been so freed had vanished without trace! Clearly the krypteia had been busy indeed.

Helots, though fundamental to the economic order of Laconia, presented a constant threat to Spartan security. They were discontented and rebellious.

Scholars have suggested that the helots outnumbered Spartiati 20 to 1. In real terms this would mean that, if there were 9,000 Spartiati, then the helots numbered some 180,000!

The helots and their working of the land were fundamental to the operation of the "Spartan system". At the very heart of the Spartan economy were the land and its produce.

At birth each Spartiati was assigned a klaros (or kleros), which was a package of land, along with helots to work it. This economic independence freed the Spartiati to concentrate all their time and energies on training and fighting. A Spartiati could not sell, divide or lose this land; it was passed on to male heirs. If there were none, then it went to the daughter. Interestingly, women came to own some 40% of all Spartan land. Though they were not able to vote, the economic power of Spartan women was enormous.

The perioekoi

The perioekoi (perioici) (or perioekos if only one!) were the so-called "dwellers around". (Sometimes the word is translated as "neighbours" or "those on the periphery".) The perioekoi communities (there were over 100 of these communities scattered over the area controlled by Sparta) provided a "buffer zone" against escaping helots. They performed non-agricultural trades and duties that included mining, fishing and trading. They were also fine ship-builders and were renowned as the best sailors in the Spartan "navy". In time of war they served as light infantry. There was a perioekoi presence at both the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) and the Battle of Plataia (Plataea) (479 B.C.)

The perioekoi maintained a form of political independence. Their communities were self-governing. In these communities they had their own citizenship. Even though there was this "degree of freedom" the perioekoi owed allegiance to Sparta. In the event of a dispute between a perioekos and a Spartiati, the case would go before the ephoroi for resolution.

Spartans were forbidden to engage in trade. They were also forbidden to travel abroad, except on state instructions. Foreigners were not admitted to Sparta without supplying a very good reason for doing so. This was to prevent the citizens from being corrupted by foreign ideas and morality.

As the Spartiati (Spartans) were forbidden to engage in trade, the perioekoi gained considerable "wealth". However the development of a wealthy merchant class in Sparta was hampered by Sparta’s adherence to the iron coinage mentioned by Xenophon (see below). One reason why wealth was less desirable lay in the fact that Sparta's authorities refused to adopt the system of making silver into coins in the manner of other Greek cities. Instead she continued to use unwieldy iron bars for money. Such a clumsy currency discouraged trade between Sparta and other city states. Trading in such a medium was, on one hand, unwieldy, while on the other, silver was clearly preferable to iron.

Of the Spartan system of currency, the historian Xenophon commented "a thousand drachmas' worth would fill a wagon".

The 'inferiors'

Another group in the Spartan social order were the inferiors, people who were neither slaves nor citizens. They included:-

Partheniai, illegitimate children of Spartiati fathers and helot mothers.

Mothoces, sons of helots often "adopted" as playmates of Spartan boys. They shared in training.

Neodamodes, helots whose courageous service or act had earned them their freedom.

Tresantes, cowardly Spartiati who had been deprived of their citizenship (not necessarily permanently).

The true nature (external website) of the Spartans?

It is easy to gain an impression of the Spartan as a totally dour and joyless people, all that is indicated by the word " spartan" as it is used in English.

Click here (external website) to read some of the stories that have been written about the ancient Spartans.

There was, however, another side. There is no evidence that the Spartans as a whole ever became restless over their way of life although, of course, there are examples enough of Spartans who failed to live up to the ideal standards expected of them. For many, the communal spirit and dedication to the state must have been very satisfying. It was also a feature of life in the messes that there was a great deal of banter, which was neither to be resented nor repeated outside the mess.

Another Hellenic adjective for Spartan, lakonikos, has also passed into our language in the word "laconic", of a dry wit which says much in a few words. This was the style which the Spartans encouraged and for which they were famous.

When a Spartan was asked why it was that Lycurgus had made so few laws he replied: "Men of few words require few laws." Another, in reply to someone who was praising the people of Elis for their fairness in the management of the Olympic Games, answered: "Yes, they deserve a lot of praise if they can do justice on one day in five years."

The retort of a Spartan to an Athenian who had said that the Spartans had no learning was: "You are right. We alone of all the Hellenes know none of your bad qualities."

It can be seen from such remarks that the Spartans were both intensely patriotic and sure of their superiority over others. They had chosen to remain a select minority dominating a majority of inferiors, in the form of the helots and the perioikoi. The helots did all the everyday work, so that the Spartans could be free to become exceptional soldiers. Curiously, in order to preserve their privileged position, they adopted a system of living in which their individual freedom was very slight. Nevertheless, there were many people from other parts of Greece who greatly admired Sparta. Among these was the philosopher Plato, and when in the course of his philosophical inquiries he constructed an imaginary "ideal state" (utopia), it had many points of similarity to Sparta. Most of the admirers were people whose political views were in favour of aristocracy. Living very often in city-states which had reached democracy by a series of upheavals, they looked enviously at Sparta with its order and discipline. Sparta had avoided the total democracy of many other states by compromising at an early stage and adopting a constitution which had some of the features of monarchy, some of aristocracy (the gerousia) and some of democracy (the ephoroi and the assembly).

Let us return to Lycurgus' reforms and the effects on Spartan society.

The Lycurgan reforms





The three old Dorian tribes were abolished. Five new tribes were substituted, based on new locality. Each new tribe provided a regiment, each of which was elaborately divided into platoons and sections.

Discipline was secured by a system of lifetime training.

The Spartans needed a strong military organisation to control their subject populations (perioiki and helots), to maintain their position as the controlling elite and to protect their state from outside influences.

The Spartan state was so conservative it could be said that it had stagnated.



Citizenship depended on a man owning enough land to live on the produce and devote his energies to public service.

This land or kleros was owned by the state and allotted to each Spartan for his life.

Spartan women became very important in the ownership and inheritance of property.


The old iron currency was maintained.


Luxuries were prohibited in Sparta, but the Spartans were permitted to beautify themselves in times of war.

These measures prevented the accumulation of wealth by an individual so that "all Spartans could be equal".

It was physically impossible to accumulate wealth. Other Greek city states which had moved towards the Attic Standard were loath to trade with Sparta.

Luxuries encouraged the Spartans to look forward to the prospect of booty when at war outside the state.

The system was open to corruption, as "wealth" could not be accumulated legally.

Spartan women enjoyed considerable power and position in Spartan society.

There was no growth of a mercantile "middle class" in Ancient Sparta. Such a situation suited the Spartans.

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The structure of Spartan society: in summary

Spartan men

Were the original Dorian conquerors of Laconia and numbered c.9,000
A privileged social class of full-time soldiers holding all political power
At age 30, as full citizens, could sit on the apella and elected the gerousia and ephoroi
All "equal" under the law and subjected to the rigid discipline of the state
Lived a life that stressed courage, loyalty, endurance and obedience
Appears there were rich and poor but there is controversy over a nobility
Were supported by the state, each having a kleros (farm) with helots to work it
Forbidden to engage in farming, trade and industry

Spartan women

Could not hold public office or vote
Spartan women held a unique position in Greece
Mingled freely with men, sharing their sports
Trained as rigorously as their men in order to be fit companions and mothers
Held some 40% of Sparta’s land and wielded significant economic control
Grew up in physical freedom, yet were modest and careful of their health
Known for their beauty; jewellery, cosmetics and perfumes forbidden


Dorian in origin and lived in some 100 scattered settlements
Villages were a buffer zone to prevent helots from escaping
Lived in self-governing communities having local citizenship
Perioekoi had no role in formulating Spartan policy
Owed allegiance to Sparta but were not permitted to marry Spartans
Chief contribution was economic and they were the traders and craftspeople
They also engaged in fishing, shipbuilding. The best sailors were in the "navy"
The Spartan kings' revenue came from their estates in the lands of the perioekoi
All male perioekoi were expected to serve alongside Spartiati during time of war


Illegitimate children of Spartiati fathers and helot mothers
Helots who had been freed for some courageous act or for service to the state
Could include helots "adopted" as playmates of Spartan boys and who shared in training
Spartiati peers: cowards who had lost citizenship (not necessarily permanently)


Pre-Dorian inhabitants of Laconia and people of conquered lands
State-owned serfs who, along their families, worked Spartan lands (kleroi)
Were forbidden to move without government permission
Duty was to supply a fixed produce annually to their Spartiati masters
Were able to keep or make a profit from any surplus produce
Often acted as servants to their Spartiati masters in time of war (as skirmishers)
Could be freed for acts of outstanding courage or service
Often treated harshly and were always suspected

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Click here (external website) for more information on the Spartan system and definitions for key terms.

  1. What was a Spartan's ethnic origin?
  2. What was the correct name given to a full Spartan citizen
  3. What was the Krypteia? Who was in charge of the Krypteia?
  4. How did one become a citizen of Sparta? What was the minimum age of a citizen?
  5. What was a kleros?
  6. What names were given to Spartan inferiors?
  7. How might a Spartan lose his citizenship? By what methods could he regain it?
  8. Which was the largest group of people in Sparta?What were the major features of life for this group of society?
  9. Who were the landowners of Laconia?
  10. Who were the landowners of Messenia?
  11. Did Spartans engage in trade? Fully explain your answer.
  12. Who were the perioekoi? What role did they play in Spartan society?
  13. Who provided food for Sparta?
  14. What do we know about the lives of Spartan women?
  15. Give a brief overview of the way in which Spartan society was organised
  16. What do the ancient sources say about:
    • the Spartiati?
    • Spartan women?
    • the perioekoi?
    • the helots?
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Looking further

All of these books are easily obtainable:

Barrow, R. Sparta, pp 21-38
Bradley, P. Ancient Greece Using Evidence, pp 52-77
Bury, J. B. & Meiggs, R. A History of Greece, pp 89-101
Ehrenberg, V. From Solon to Socrates, pp 28-49
Hennessy, D. (ed.) Studies in Ancient Greece, pp 57-78
Hurley, T. (et al) Antiquity 2, pp 39-66
Koutsoukis, A. J. History of the Ancient World - Ancient Greece, pp 44-50
Lawless, J. (ed.) Societies from the Past – Part 4 Sparta, pp 146-205
Roebuck, C. The World of Ancient Times, pp 198-203

The following Internet sites are excellent sources on many aspects of Ancient Sparta:

Sourcebook of materials on ancient Sparta: (external website)

A site with key terms and definitions for Spartan society: (external website)

Some stories about ancient Sparta:
(external website)

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