The valley of the Eurotas river, unusually fertile for Greece, is a rich prize conquered in the 12th century BC byDorians - few but fierce invaders compared to the settled people they overwhelm. A military society is one way of stabilizing such a situation, with an elite group of soldiers keeping the villagers hard at work. When Sparta emerges in history, in the 8th century, a system of this kind is firmly established.
The peasants of Sparta, known as helots, are serfs owned by the state. They do all the manual work of the community, enabling the citizens - an exclusively military caste - to concentrate on warfare and politics.
At the age of seven the sons of all Spartan citizens leave home to enter a state education system in which the emphasis is on courage and discipline. Corporal punishment is used not only to punish but also as a test of endurance. This schooling continues to the age of twenty, but there is no evidence that learning to read is part of the curriculum. Girls in Sparta are educated in the same austere virtues, training them to be good wives and mothers. Unlike the boys, they are allowed to live at home.
On graduating from this regime, at the age of twenty, a Spartan becomes a member of a group of men, something like an officer's mess, with whom he will spend most of the rest of his life - leaving them only from time to time, after marriage, for the requirements of conjugal life.
Gainful employment plays no part in this manly existence. Spartan citizens are forbidden by law to engage in any money-making activity. Instead each is provided by the state with a lifetime interest in a plot of land. This is farmed for him by the state's slaves. The warrior lives off the produce.
Sparta is able to provide for its citizens in this way thanks to the conquest of Messenia, a rich plain to the west beyond Mount Taygetos. Messenia is annexed in the 8th century. In the 7th, after an uprising against Spartan rule, the Messenians are reduced to the status of helots - more than doubling the amount of land available to support the Spartan army.
Sparta is both strengthened and weakened by this form of exploitation. The weakness derives from the permanent danger that the helots will rise in revolt against their military masters. On several occasions they do so. The constant threat prevents this rigid society from relaxing or developing.
One of the stranger Spartan traditions, which survives through the centuries, is shared rule by two kings. Each crown is hereditary within a family, dating back perhaps to the time when neighbouring villages coalesced to form the original city-state of Sparta. Spartan armies are nearly always led into battle by one of the kings.
The Spartan kings, even when in agreement, do not wield absolute power. The state is governed by a well balanced combination of two kings, five ephors, a council of elders and an assembly of all the citizens (see Ephors and elders). An accepted part of the system is that the kings can be tried by due judicial process, and in practice they quite often are.
Leaders of the Greek world: 6th - 5th century BC
By the middle of the 6th century Sparta is the strongest