Sparta was located in Laconia (see map), and was also known in antiquity as Lacedaemon. At the end of the Mycenaean period, the entire area suffered a severe drop in population, much like the rest of Greece, and many settlements were abandoned. In the 10th century BC, however, there are indications that the population began to rise again, and new settlements were either created or re-founded on the sites of old ones.

Sparta had its origins not in 1 large settlement, but in the union at some time before the eighth century BC of 4 villages based on the Laconian plain around the Eurotas river. At the start of the 8th century, the town of Amyclae, situated 3 miles from the original 4 villages, was incorporated into the growing polis.

This fairly rapid growth presented Sparta with some problems, however, namely how they were to feed their burgeoning population. The polis had no access to the sea, located as it was in the centre of the Laconian plain. The nearest port was Gythium, approximately 27 miles to the south. Due to this relative isolation from the sea, Sparta was initially unable to relieve pressures caused by the population increase by founding overseas colonies, as happened with nearly every other Greek polis. The Spartans therefore decided instead to turn their attention to the conquering of all of Laconia, something which they largely achieved in the course of the 8th century. Even when they did have access to sea, they did not start to found colonies in large numbers - in fact, only 1 Spartan colony would come into existence, that of Taras in Southern Italy.

Having conquered the whole of Laconia by the end of the 8th century, the government in Sparta was presented with a problem - namely, what they were going to do with all the new subjects they had acquired. Here again they happened upon a novel solution, establishing what has been called by some the "Spartan apartheid". In order to ensure their continued control over the fertile and important Laconian plain, the Spartans reduced the inhabitants of this area to "helots", who were hereditary subjects of the Spartan state, and whose status rose little above that of slaves. The rest of the people in Laconia who didn't reside in Sparta itself were known as "perioikoi" ("neighbours"). Unlike the helots, these people were free, and enjoyed some degree of local autonomy. They were also obliged to serve in the Spartan army, but could take no part in the government of Sparta itself.

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