Culture and Technology in Athens and Sparta

Tina Stancheva

The culture of a society, as determined by its political, social and religious structure, is a major factor in the development of its technology. Even societies that exist in the same time and environment can progress in different directions, depending on the interests and goals of the public. The ancient city-states or poleis (polis-sing.) of Athens and Sparta provide an excellent example of how cultural differences influence the development of technologies.
Athens and Sparta were the main rival poleis in Ancient Greece around 4th century BC. Besides the fact that they were both called polis, the two cities had very little in common. Athens controlled the whole Attic region and could be defined as a perfect democracy. Its citizens were free to express themselves in public, the government was a representative body for the whole society, and justice was the highest measure. Sparta was a strict military polis, with two kings and officials selected by wealth and good breeding. Its political system was defined as oligarchy and all aspects of the social life were aimed at improving the armed force of the state.
One of the most prominent features of the Greek polis was the city wall. Athens was built on a hill, the Acropolis, and hosted the palaces of the most prominent Greek Gods. A system of massive walls protected the Acropolis, the entire city, and eventually reached out to its ports (Chant, p. 77). Since Athens was a major trade center, the construction of these walls provided both basic military defense and safe access to sea. Even though Sparta boasted with the best military system in Ancient Greece, the polis was not enclosed by a wall. One reason for that is that the city of Sparta had no clearly defined urban center. In addition, Spartans were proud of their army and believed that a basic protection like a city wall was shameful and unnecessary. The construction of a city wall was also considered a wasteful display of wealth, which Spartans despised (Pomeroy, p.140).
The different geographic location of Athens and Sparta had a great impact on their military strategy and technologies. Athens was close to the sea, therefore it expanded by conquering nearby islands. This necessitated the construction of ships, which was expensive and required a lot of wood material and cheap labor. Both of those were supplied by Athens' allies; wood was purchased with paid tributes and labor came from conquered slaves (Pomeroy, p.22). Sparta was situated far inland on the Laconian plain and had no access to sea. It directed its military expansion towards the neighboring poleis and relied mostly on its standing army. In return, its allies were expected to provide military support to the Spartan army in an effort to appropriate even more land on the Peloponnesian peninsula.
Athens and Sparta shared the same sources of income, agriculture and slave labor, but they managed them in different manners. The slaves in Sparta were called helots and since they had no rights, they were often treated as tools rather than as human beings. The helots belonged to the state not to their landlord, so they can be considered a part of the agricultural technology. Since Spartans major obligation in life was serving in the army, they left the management of their land to their wives and the helots (Pomeroy, p.134). The helots could farm, trade and sell the land on behalf of their landlord. However, like any other technology, the helots soon became a problem. One could be a true Spartan only by birthright, so all inhabitants of the conquered territories were considered helots. Very soon the helots outnumbered the citizens of Sparta by a ratio of 7:1 and it was hard keeping them under control. The Spartans had to subject the helots to an annual beating in order to keep them humble and prevent them from rebelling (Pomeroy, p.148).
Athens had a different approach toward the slaves. The Athenians took pride in possessing and farming their own land, so the slaves, called metics, were mostly craftsmen. However, the citizens of Athens were not very efficient at exploiting their land. They did not practice crop rotation and their yields were insufficient. The pressing need for grain to feed the population encouraged trade with nearby port-cities. Athens' biggest assets were wine and oil, which were often exported in finely decorated vases. In exchange for that, Athens received hides, cattle, fish, hemp, wax, chestnuts, iron, and most of all slaves. Slaves were used mainly to build the splendid temples on the Acropolis. This had a dual function. On one hand, Athens could display the wealth it had accumulated from its allies and on the other hand, it was a way to keep the metics busy so that they would not turn against their landlords (Pomeroy, p.317).
Architecture, indeed, was the most prominent technology developed in Athens, and it was heavily subjected to the religious cults practiced by the Athenians. The building of the magnificent marble monuments on the Acropolis required that certain religious constrains were met. The plan for the construction of the Erechtheum, the temple of Zeus, challenged the existing technology with its complexity. The Erechteum "needed to enclose the mark of Poseidon's trident on Athenian soil, and a salt well on the northern side; to shelter Athena's original olive tree that stood nearby on the west and to include her shrine in the eastern section; to cover the tomb of Athens' first king Cecrops under the southwest corner; and to house other venerable cult objects (Pomeroy, p.279)." It is evident that the building of irregular religious monuments led to the advance of architecture.
Another tribute to Athens' technological progress were the various water-supply systems and inventions. Since the Acropolis was surrounded by walls, a fresh source of water within the city had to be constructed. Water was delivered through an underground aqueduct from Mt. Pentelikos and distributed through terracotta pipes (Chant, p.77). Another interesting invention of Athens was the water clock. Since the democratic society of Athens was also a very litigious one, numerous trials were conducted on a daily basis and the time for those trials had to be limited in some way. This is how the water clock or klepsydra came into existence. It was a simple tool made from an upper and a lower vessel. Water was emptied from one vessel into the other, which took several minutes. The time needed for ten vessels to empty was allocated for trials involving large sums of money (Pomeroy, p.346).
None of the beautiful architecture from Athens could be seen in Sparta. Unfortunately, archeologists have found very little remains from the original polis, but judging from the existing evidence, arts and crafts were not revered in Sparta. The houses were built in a very simple manner and public construction was restricted to a few government buildings, gymnasium and the temple of Artemis Orthia. Grave offerings were forbidden and there is little evidence for craftsmanship (Pomeroy, p. 133). Another product of technology, or more accurately lack thereof, was the printing of books. The Spartan government discouraged the reading of books by the citizens with a purely military objective in mind. Keeping the citizens illiterate was an easy way to avoid discontent (Powell, p 239).
It is evident that technology in Athens and Sparta progressed in different directions due to the discrepancy in the political and religious organizations of the two poleis. Technology develops in order to meet the needs and to fit the customs of a society. The laws and morals in a democratic state such as Athens were very different from those existing in a oligarchic state of Sparta and this divergence had a direct impact on the advance of technology.

Chant, Colin. 1999. Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. Routledge Press.
Pomeroy, S., Burstein, S., Donlan, W., and J. Roberts. 1999. Ancient Greece. A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.
Powell, Anton. 2001. Athens and Sparta- Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC.
New York: Routledge Press.
Todd, S.C. 1996. Athens and Sparta. London: Bristol Classical Press.


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