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What Was the Origin of Ancient Sparta?

Ruins of ancient Sparta
Ruins of ancient Sparta. Credit: Nickthegreek82, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Sparta is one of the most famous ancient Greek city-states of all time. It has featured in numerous myths and legends from Greek mythology, as well as plenty of modern films too. It had a massive impact on Classical Greek history. Therefore, the origin of Sparta is a subject of major importance.

Was Sparta Founded in the Mycenaean Era?

Can the origin of Sparta be traced right back to the Mycenaean era of Greece? Well, Sparta features prominently in many legends from Greek mythology, and many people assume that these legends are about the Mycenaean era. For example, King Menelaus of Trojan War fame was the king of Sparta. Most scholars believe that the Trojan War should be placed in the Mycenaean era (although not all scholars agree).

Menelaus was a powerful king, so Sparta supposedly existed and was powerful in the time of the Trojan War. But does archaeology support this tradition?

At the site of Sparta itself, there is no evidence that it was inhabited in the Mycenaean era. However, there is a nearby settlement which does go back to the Mycenaean era. Some scholars argue that this might be the ‘Sparta’ from these legends.

The site is called Menelaion, and it is about 5km from Sparta. However, the idea that this was the origin of Sparta is doubtful. Ancient Greek writers used the place name ‘Therapne’ to refer to this area, not ‘Sparta’.

The Real Origin of Sparta

The real origin of Sparta comes from the Archaic era, not the Mycenaean era. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest villages at Sparta from the tenth century BC. There were four distinct villages at that time. By about the middle of that century, these four villages merged into one settlement. Thus, the origin of Sparta was in c. 950 BC.

At some point, Dorian Greeks settled Sparta. However, scholars fiercely debate the timing of this settlement and the exact nature of it. In any case, the Spartans of Classical Greece called themselves Dorians.

Whenever it happened, the Spartans developed a kingship over their settlement. But this kingship was unusual. It was a dual kingship. Two kings from two separate dynasties ruled over Sparta simultaneously. Some scholars believe that this unusual arrangement is connected to the fact that Sparta seems to have originally come from four distinct villages. Perhaps two of the villages remained independently prominent.

The Origin of Sparta According to Legend

According to Greek mythology, Sparta was founded by a man named Lacedaemon, the son of Zeus. He ruled as king over the city and the surrounding country. He married a woman named Sparta, whose name he gave to the city.

Lacedaemon’s dynasty continued ruling Sparta for the next few generations. One of his descendants was Tyndareus. This Tyndareus was the father of the famous Helen of Troy, in whose time control of Sparta was handed over to a new dynasty. Menelaus became the new king, and then his nephew, the son of Agamemnon, founded a royal line that continued for a few generations.

After this, the descendants of Hercules allegedly led the Dorians to conquer Sparta and various nearby areas. This, according to legend, was the origin of Dorian Sparta. Aristodemus, the great-great-grandson of Hercules, fathered twin sons. Their names were Eurysthenes and Procles.

Supposedly, the origin of the dual kingship of Sparta lies with the fact that Aristodemus had these twin sons instead of a single heir. Whether these sons really existed or not – or whether the origin of the unusual kingship of Sparta came from the distinct villages that initially existed there, as some scholars believe – we may never know.

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