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Spartan Religion Norvell, Sarah M.


Ancient Spartans, known also as Spartiates, lived in the city of Sparta, a settlement located in the region of southwest Greece known as the ‘Peloponnesos’. Positioned between the between the Eurotas River and the Taygetos mountains, Sparta during the Archaic and Classical periods controlled a large territory that included the regions of Lakonia and Messenia. Having subjugated the native populations of these regions during a series of conflicts thought to have taken place during the 8th-7th centuries BCE, the Spartans instituted a system—attributed to the quasi-mythical Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus—by which a small caste of full-citizen Spartiates were supported by the unfree agricultural and commercial labor of oppressed non- Spartan inhabitants of Lakonia and Messenia (known as ‘perioikoi’ and ‘helots’). Uniquely unconstrained by agricultural or economic obligations, Spartiate males devoted the majority of their time to rigorous physical and military training from the age of seven onwards. The educational system at Sparta, supposedly another Lycurgan initiative, specialized in the cultivation of civic and martial virtues such as bravery, obedience, and self-control, as well as physical prowess and mental acumen; physical training for Spartiate women also existed to promote the generation of strong and healthy children. As a result of this system, the Spartans maintained one of the most powerful and respected armies in all of Greece during the Archaic and Classical periods, and it is this martial aspect of Spartan society that remains most wellknown today. Beyond the reputation of the Spartans as formidable warriors, however, many aspects of Spartan society remain shrouded in mystery. Little written evidence regarding Archaic and Classical Sparta has survived unto the present day, and of the ancient sources that do survive, very few of them record contemporary Spartan perspectives. François Ollier first coined the term ‘le mirage Spartiate’ to describe this conundrum of attempting to reconstruct Spartan society from the testimony of outsider perspectives, most of which postdate the period in question and present an idealized account of Spartan society. Much of the ancient evidence concerning Sparta comes either from the period of Roman Greece, when Sparta was greatly admired by the Roman Empire, or from the 5th century BCE, when Sparta and Athens were locked in a struggle for the supremacy of Greece. Fueled by the ideological conflict and the perceived insularity of ‘conservative’ Spartan society, 5th-century Athenian writers tended to project their feelings about Athens—whether positive or negative—onto the antithetical ‘blank canvas’ of Spartan society. If reconstructing Spartan society remains a difficult task on its own terms, then reconstructing Spartan religion is even more challenging due to the scarcity of written evidence and the strong localizing tendencies of Greek religion. During the Archaic and Classical periods, each city-state in the Greek world practiced its own expression of a more universal ‘Greek religion’. Deeply embedded in a city-state’s civic institutions, these so-called ‘polis religions’ fused local religious traditions with aspects of Panhellenic belief and practice. In reconstructing Spartan ritual practices and festivals, every attempt has been made to temper the accounts of later writers such as Pausanias and Plutarch by turning to the testimony of archaeological evidence, particularly that excavated from Spartan sanctuaries and shrines under the auspices of the British School at Athens. In the absence of -emic sources concerning Spartan religious beliefs and cosmology, much of this material has been reconstructed from the testimony of early Greek poets such as Homer and Hesiod.

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