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.

The conquest of Messenia

The success the Spartans had enjoyed in the conquest of Laconia encouraged further expansion. The collective eye of the Spartans turned to the territory to their west, called Messenia. After a bitter struggle, which is called by historians the First Messenian Way and, according to tradition, lasted 20 years and ended in 720BC, Messenia was incorporated into the Spartan polis. Most of the inhabitants there became helots. The helots were the largest part of Spartan society even before the conquest of Messenia (some estimate that there was as many as 7 helots per Spartan citizen), and the addition of so many helots would play an important part in future Spartan politics.

The conquest on Messenia made Sparta the largest of the Archaic Greek states – its territory covered over 3000 square miles, and was about a three times the size of Athens. Sparta was also a rich state, and its pottery and metalwork was amongst the finest to be found anywhere. The foundations on which this was built, however, were unsteady at best. Following the conquest of Messenia, there has been civil was over the question of how the new territory would be divided. The dissenters were eventually expelled by the polis, and they went to Italy, founding Sparta’s only colony, Taras.

Much more serious, however, were the dissatisfied rumblings which were coming from the helots in Messenia. Following the Spartan defeat at the hands of the polis of Argos in the 660s BC at the Battle of Hysiae, Messenia erupted into open revolt. The Second Messenian War is not very well documented, but it is clear that the Spartans were again victorious, and the leaders of the rebellion were exiled to Sicily, where they gained control of the city of Zancle, which they renamed Messene in honour of their former homeland.

The helot revolt in Messenia was a terrifying example to the citizens of Sparta of the results of their enslavement policy. Far from abandoning it, however, they decided to meet the threat head on, and began systematically to gear their entire society towards producing the finest hoplites in the world in order to ensure they could prevail over any future rebellions. The Spartan regime needed fighters who would rather die for their polis than crack and run away in the heat of battle.