The Surprising Artistic Life of Ancient Sparta

an illustration of a Spartan
Illustration by Tracy Walker

King Agesilaus II—who led the Spartan Army at the peak of its power in the fourth century B.C.—proclaimed that one of Sparta’s greatest strengths was its citizens’ “contempt of pleasure.”

Nonsense. Spartans were devoted to all kinds of pleasurable pursuits, particularly the arts: It is widely believed that there were more poets in Sparta during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. than in any other Greek city-state.

Full citizens had ample time for entertainments because Spartan law forbade them to work, and there were two lower classes of people to look after their needs. The city-state’s helots, or serfs, took care of agriculture, while the higher-ranking but non-citizen perioikoi oversaw crafts, military procurement and commerce.

Granted, Spartan citizens also pursued rugged pastimes such as equestrianism, but their love of poetry and dance belies a contempt of pleasure. In histories written by Plutarch, Herodotus and others, we find a picture not of stern, militaristic ascetics but of bons vivants and patrons of the arts. Indeed, foreign poets would often go to Sparta to perform because they were assured of a warm reception.

In seventh-century B.C. Sparta, the poet Alcman helped pioneer lyric poetry, which diverged from the epic’s celebration of war and focused instead on desire, emotion and a fascination with nature (“the birds, long-winged, who bring their omens, are now in slumber….”). It was performed to the strumming of a lyre—hence the name. This revolutionary style would prove central to many poetic traditions, from ancient Rome to medieval France to Renaissance England and into the present.

Meanwhile, Spartans were surprisingly serious about music. Plutarch reports that a magistrate named Emprepes once winced to hear a harpist named Phrynis butchering a song by playing too many notes. In response, Emprepes used a hatchet to slice two of the nine strings off Phrynis’ harp, admonishing the minstrel: “Do not abuse music.” Lionized for declaring war on other city-states, Spartans also went into battle for art’s sake.

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