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This is Sparta!

Ancient Greece’s most brutal city-state may seem legendary, but the harsh way of life depicted in the movies was very real
BOYS TO MEN Spartan children were raised in the agoge – a mix between a barracks and an old-fashioned boarding school. It was a harsh environment where punishments were doled out on a regular basis

In a nutshell: Greek city-states

The Ancient Greek civilisation was made up of hundreds of city-states known as ‘poleis’. These were essentially groups of villages that had banded together in order to improve security and trade. Despite all worshipping the same gods and speaking the same language, each polis had its own government and army, and war between them was not uncommon.


King Leonidas was not one to be crossed. As the leader of Sparta, a notorious Greek city-state, he had gained a reputation as a man of astute military prowess – not to mention ruthlessness. Yet, one day, a messenger arrived at the city gates demanding submission to Sparta's mortal enemy, the Persian Empire. Unsurprisingly, the well-oiled Greek had other ideas, and booted the unfortunate man into a deep well. It defied all the laws of the time, but Leonidas was a man who lived by his own rules. This, after all, was Sparta.

This memorable scene from the 2007 film 300 – based on an account by the fifth-century-BC chronicler Herodotus – has since shaped our perception of a once-great civilisation. But who were this diehard bunch of warriors, and what was life really like for the average Spartan?


The phrase ‘Laconic wit’ – meaning dry humour – has its origins in Sparta. The Spartans’ short, sweet and often very blunt remarks gained a reputation.

WARRIOR KING Leonidas became a hero of self-sacrifice long after his death

“Infirm infants would be ceremoniously tossed into a chasm at the “Infirm infants would be foot of Mount Taygetus”


The region of Sparta in southern Greece (modern-day Laconia) has been occupied since at least the sixth millennium BC. In the Late Bronze Age 1600-1100 BC), it was invaded by Macedonian tribes from the north, who set about expanding its borders. Because of Sparta's mountainous surroundings, it never had a need for fortification, and by the seventh century BC, it was the dominant land-power in Ancient Greece. However, few Spartans could enjoy the privilege their exhalted position in the region might have offered. For most, life was tough from start to finish.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Follow the rise and fall of France's most infamous dictator, Napoleon, all the way from emperor to exile. Also inside, celebrate 200 years of Jane Austen and discover what life was really like for Ancient Greeks living in Sparta, the civilisation's most brutal city-state. We've also lined up ten of the greatest partnerships in history, from Marks and Spencer to Rolls and Royce, plus meet the man who inspired 007 – Elizabeth I's forgotten spy, John Dee.