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Athens, Sparta, and Macedonia


The history of ancient Greece is an interesting confrontation of polies with different political and social structures. Athens built its democracy, overturning long-standing oligarchy, whereas Sparta maintained its oligarchic and highly militarized structure. Their differences and priorities led to the Peloponnesian War, where Sparta was victorious, but both became weakened. This led to Macedonia becoming a major force, which, as a result, defeated its southern neighbors.

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The Rise of the Polis

The rise of the Polis marked a highly significant moment in Greece’s history. It is important to note the fact that the event was influenced by various cultural, geographic, and political factors. One of the very first major cultural changes took place in the ninth century B.C.E., where the Greeks replaced the Mycenaean alphabet with the Phoenician one (Cole and Symes 79). Such a major shift in language elements led to the fact that the given society was reshaped by various literary and artistic traditions of a newly adopted culture. Another geographic change was manifested in the fact that the Phoenicians’ seafaring techniques inspired the Greeks to cover larger distances in the Mediterranean Sea due to newly adopted ship designs (Cole and Symes 79). In other words, the society was gradually expanding its territory by having broader access to new locations, which were previously inaccessible due to poor seafaring measures. It is also important to note the fact that the overall Greek population grew in a substantial manner, where many small villages became towns and Athens’s population became four times larger (Cole and Symes 79). Evidently, this leads to a greater need for resources to sustain the ever-growing population since people required more food and shelter.

All these changes directly impacted the third major factor, which is politics. One should be aware that politics manifested itself in an individual identity rather than a specific location because it was structured in a membership format. In addition, Greek politics was a combination of both informal customs and formal legal institutions, which merged to create new political frameworks and elements, such as agora or central marketplace. Lastly, urbanization was a major force in Greek socioeconomic changes, where synoecism took place, which meant the “bringing together of dwellings” (Cole and Symes 79). Therefore, the overall rise of the Polis was a driver by three major catalyzers, such as geographic, political, and cultural shifts.

Athens and Sparta

It is essential to point out the fact that two key poleis of Greece were Sparta and Athens. It is important aristocracy and oligarchy were highly prominent in both regions, but Athens, under Solomon’s reforms, changed drastically by introducing democracy into the society (Cole and Symes 88). In other words, the Athenian democracy was initially met with resistance from powerful elites, who viewed Solon’s ideas as too radical to be implemented in Greek politics. One of the key aspects of Solon’s changes was manifested in the fact that he forbade the notion of debt slavery and, most importantly, allowed people coming from non-aristocratic families to be eligible for political offices. In other words, one needed to have the required qualifications to be a political influencer and policymaker in order to be able to hold such positions. However, the new Athenian democracy, which replaced the old aristocracy, was met with resistance and the short triumph of Peisistratos, who established a tyrannical system in 546 B.C.E. (Cole and Symes 89). Although he was a ruler until his death, he enforced Solon’s laws by making the demos stronger.

It should be noted that such an oligarchy-based rule was primarily sponsored by Sparta. After Peisistratos’s death, his sons were unable to hold on to the power they inherited because Athenians were already familiar with democracy and subsequently overthrew them. The structure of Athens was reshaped, where there were ten voting districts established, and the overall Athenian assembly was greatly strengthened. Another important element of Athens’s societal organization is the fact that it had a practice of ostracism, where every year, people had an opportunity to banish an individual for a decade (Cole and Symes 89). Therefore, Athenian society was primarily structured around its democracy and its democratic institutions and practices.

In the case of Sparta, the society was highly militarized and aristocratic, and one can argue that Athens was progressive, whereas Sparta was highly conservative. It is stated that the given society was the most militarized polis of Greece, where the key focus was mainly put on the growth and maintenance of its hoplite-based army (Cole and Symes 89). All male citizens of Sparta were made into phalanx soldiers, and it was institutionalized to examine newborns for their health, where any indications of their “flaws” meant that they were killed through an abandonment practice in the mountains (Cole and Symes 89). Since Sparta was highly militarized, all male citizens underwent barracks life, where young men were tested for their physical prowess.

Spartiate men over thirty years old were allowed to be a member of apella, which was an assembly of citizens, who were able to vote on council’s propositions, and the latter was a called gerousia or assembly of elders (Cole and Symes 91). Another important aspect of Spartan society is the fact that it was opposed to innovation and novelties, and thus, it highly cherished conventional customs and traditions. Sparta also condemned commercial cooperation with outsiders since they believed that monetary aspirations would become a distraction from a martial goal (Cole and Symes 91). Therefore, Sparta’s societal structure had a major demographic disadvantage, where only a few men were able to become full Spartiates.

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Societal Differences and the Peloponnesian War

The societal and political differences ensured the fact that a war between Sparta and Athens was inevitable. The latter was gaining more and more power, and by the 440s, Sparta was the only real rival in Greek (Cole and Symes 102). One of the key turning points, which inevitably led to a major conflict, can be found in Pericles’s approach, where he established a formal peace with Persia and focused his efforts on Sparta instead. It was a highly radical turn of events, where he put the Greek independence below the Athenian dominance over Sparta, which resulted at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Both sides were initially confident that they would come out victorious, but in reality, the war took twenty-seven years. The major impact of the war was rooted in the fact that it weakened the entire Greek, which put in danger its independence. It is important to note that Athens had a dominant fleet, but on land, Sparta was more superior.

Therefore, Pericles hid its entire Athenian population behind Athens’s walls and sustained people with supply from ships, and thus, he avoided confrontations on land with Sparta. Athenians were regularly raiding the Spartan territory, and the war was turning in Athens’s favor. However, a typhus outbreak resulted in the death of one-third of the Athenian population since they were all crowded behind the city’s walls (Cole and Symes 102). The outbreak also killed Pericles himself, who was the only person capable of managing the political situation, because the ones who replaced him failed at managing continuously. The major downfall of Athenians was manifested in the Syracusan disaster, where thousands of Athenian warriors were defeated, killed, and enslaved (Cole and Symes 103). As a result, the fleet has also failed to sustain the people of Athens, which resulted in Sparta’s victory.

The Rise of Macedonia

Under all this turmoil, major poleis overlooked their northern neighbor, Macedonia. Its rise to power began with the reign of Phillip II, who was highly ambitious and made the southern Balkan tribes join his territory. New resources allowed him to build a strong army of hoplites and an elite squad of cavalry called the Companions (Cole and Symes 122). Phillip attempted to establish an alliance with Athenians in order to invade Persia from both land and sea. However, Athenians refused to cooperate, which resulted in war, where Macedonian emerged victoriously. After the victory, Phillip established peace among all Greek poleis and made them supply forces to invade Persia, but he was assassinated in 336 B.C.E (Cole and Symes 122).


In conclusion, it is important to note that both Athens and Sparta rose to power by building their societies around democratic and oligarchic institutions, respectively. These differences resulted in a major conflict, which is the Peloponnesian War. Sparta was victorious, but the war weakened both poleis, and as a result, Macedonia was overlooked, which rose to power under Phillip II and defeated its southern neighbors.

Work Cited

Cole, Joshua, and Carol Symes. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

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