At the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, Athens assumed preeminence in Greece, becoming increasing imperialistic. While victory over Persia was due to the synergetic unity of Hellenic military forces, cooperation rapidly evaporated when Sparta, alarmed by domestic Helot rebellions, withdrew and became politically isolated. In doing so, it left Athens’ military unchecked to, by all necessary means, ruthlessly consolidate power. As Athens developed an expansionist foreign policy — displayed in atrocities against dissenting Melians — its escalating aggression triggered the debilitating Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE). Nonetheless, these legendary clashes were influenced by differences in political and social infrastructure, providing historians today with critical insights into the way each society operated.
Athens, for one, epitomized contradiction; while it made unparalleled advancements in the arts and humanities, below its gilded opulence existed ferocious slavery, misogyny, and imperialistic ambition. And while it was fascinated by issues of reality and morality, Athens was simultaneously dominated by the phallus, with “inferior” women seen as vessels of childbirth, and the family established “for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” In the same manner in which Achilles had his heel, Athens’ vibrant democracy, unbounded artistic achievement, and celebrated naval prowess, were ultimately cut short by fatal weaknesses: severe social stratification, obsession with expansion, and elitism towards former allies.
On the contrary, Sparta’s mixed political organization emphasized kingship, with oligarchical and democratic components as well. With two royal families, a system unlike almost any other, dual kingship was tradition in Sparta; and, unlike the democracy of Athens which ostracized those whose ambitions and popularity threatened the democratic process, these rulers were stationed at the pinnacle of Spartan society, expected to serve as priest, judge, jury, and executioner. But Sparta was also for its time politically progressive — with a distribution of authority amongst the council of elders, popular assembly, and overseers — much like the US electoral college that insulates critical decisions from the unpredictable masses, while simultaneously promoting democratic involvement. However, while Sparta’s political system was more flexible than that of Athens, its social organization was less remarkable, producing no great works of literature and philosophy. As Athenians delved into theater and art, Spartans instead lived by the sword, their survival from childhood predicated on warfare.
As such, they were more engaged in the present moment and profoundly interconnected with one other, deeply valuing the communal good. They ate together, pledged themselves as state property; even their fighting style was an intricate consolidation of highly choreographed, individual movements. It was precisely this obsession with the self preservation of the community, of being neither greedy nor excessively risk-taking, of being socially in tune with one another — their friendships forged in the brutality of battle — that made Sparta profoundly similar to Carthage, where there too existed social clubs, communal tables, and a mixed political system. In bridging together the aristocracy and the commoner, both societies regarded merit and wealth, understanding that one’s genetic pedigree should not in any meaningful capacity serve as the sole prerequisite of leadership.