Sparta was a town in southern Greece. It was already there in the Late Bronze Age, and appears in Homer's Odyssey as the kingdom of Menelaus and Helen. During the Dark Ages, Sparta declined like other Greek towns. In the early Archaic period, around 900 BC, Sparta began to grow again. Although most Greek towns got rid of their kings at this time, the Spartans kept their kings. In fact, the Spartans had two kings at the same time.
The biggest change in Sparta's history, though, came around 700 BC, when the Spartans seem to have conquered a group of people living near them, in Messenia. The Spartans enslaved the Messenians, whom they called "helots" (HEEL-otts), and made the Messenians (mess-EEN-ee-anns) farm all the land for them. They treated the helots very badly, often beating them and whipping them, or even killing them for no reason, and not giving them enough food. Spartan men, now that they didn't have to work anymore to get food, spent all their time training for war.
Spartan woman running, ca. 450 BC
(© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)
When little Spartan boys turned seven, they left home to live in dormitories with all the other Spartan boys their age. They did not learn to read or write or do math or play music, but instead they spent all their time learning to be good soldiers. They exercised, and they learned to use swords and spears. To make them tough, their teachers never gave them enough food or clothing or blankets. (Click here for the story of the Spartan boy who stole a fox).
Spartan girls lived at home with their mothers and fathers, instead of in dormitories, but they also learned to be tough, with plenty of exercise. The girls also learned to run houses, and how to spin and weave. But most of their work, like that of their brothers, was done by helot slaves.
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