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At the age of thirty, Spartan males became full citizens of the state, enabling them to participate in its electoral process. Their wives, meanwhile, ran the household, bringing up the children and disciplining the servants. Spartan servants were even worseoff than their employers. They came from the ranks of the ‘helots’, lower-class serfs who were not permitted to become citizens of the state. They formed the bulk of the population, while the Spartan citizens worked hard to keep them in check. So fearful were they of a helot uprising that once a year the state formally declared war on them, permitting all troublemakers to be killed on the spot. This was the only time the Spartans smiled. As well making war on their own servants, the Spartans also liked to fight other races, most notably the Persians under King Xerxes who for ten years after 490 BC were constantly trying to take over the Greek cities. The most famous episode in the war from the Spartan side was the story of the Brave 300, who faced down the full might of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae and, despite being heavily outnumbered, were all killed.

The Athenians The great city of Athens developed a quite different culture, and fortunately for the rest of Greece, this is the model most poleis chose to follow. If the Spartans were the George Foremans of ancient Greece, strong, silent and stoic, the Athenians were the Muhammad Alis. While the Spartans bludgeoned with fists, the Athenians boxed with words. This was reflected in their democracy. In the Spartan version, citizens could vote but not debate, and the city was held together by force. In Athens, people did nothing but debate and sometimes whole decades passed without a decision being made. On the credit side, however, they did invent the practice of ostracism, whereby each year the people could vote on which public figure they would most like to see thrown out of the city. If enough votes were cast, the unlucky fellow was cast into exile, not to return for at least ten years. It was said that because of this sophisticated system, Athens did not suffer an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in over eight hundred years. The resulting peace and quiet allowed the Athenians to indulge in a lot of culture. They wrote plays, which were either tragedies (in which everybody died) or comedies (in which everybody died but in a fairly amusing manner). They also had footballing philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, Zico, and Aristotle. 4

A Brief History of the Greeks  

A brief, irreverent history of the classical Greek civilisation. Free extract from the book from Random House UK. Learn about the Trojan War...

A Brief History of the Greeks  

A brief, irreverent history of the classical Greek civilisation. Free extract from the book from Random House UK. Learn about the Trojan War...

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