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Sparta Travel Guide

History of Sparta

Of the early history of Sparta, it is said to have been founded by its first king Lacedaemon, the son of Zeus and Taygete, who married Sparta, the daughter of Eurotas. The written history of Sparta started with the Dorian invasions, when the Peloponnesus was colonized by Greek tribes coming from Epirus and Macedonia, submitting or displacing the older Achaean Greek inhabitants. The Mycenaean Sparta of Menelaus described in Homer's Iliad was an older Greek civilization, whose link to Hellenic or Classical Sparta was only by name and location. What is widely known today as ancient Sparta refers to state and culture that were formed in Sparta by the Dorian Greeks, some eighty years after the Trojan War.

It did not take long for Sparta to suppress all towns in the region of Laconia and turn it into its kingdom. In the 7th century it also incorporated Messenia. In the 5th century BC, Sparta and Athens were reluctant allies against the Persians, but after the foreign threat was over, they soon became rivals. The greatest series of conflicts between the two states, which resulted in the dismantling of the Athenian Empire, is called the Peloponnesian War. Athenian attempts to control Greece and take over the Spartan role of 'guardian of Hellenism' ended in failure. Following the defeat of Athens, Sparta briefly became a great naval power. The first ever defeat of a Spartan hoplite army at full strength occurred at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, after which Sparta's position as the dominant Greek city-state swiftly disappeared with the loss of big numbers of Spartiates and the resources of Messenia. By the time of the rise of Alexander the Great in 336 BC, Sparta was a shadow of its former self, clinging to an isolated independence. During the Punic Wars Sparta was an ally of the Roman Republic. Spartan political independence was put to an end when it was eventually forced into the Achaean League.

After the Roman invasion of Greece, Spartans continued their way of life and the town became a tourist attraction for the Roman elite who came to observe the "unusual" Spartan customs. Evidently, following the adversity that befell the Roman Imperial Army at the Battle of Adrianople (AD 378), a Spartan phalanx met and defeated a force of raiding Visigoths in battle. There is, however, no genuine evidence of this occurring. In CE 396 Alaric destroyed the city, and at a later period Laconia was invaded and settled by Slavonic tribes, especially the Melings and Ezerits, who in turn had to give way before the advance of the Byzantine power, though preserving a partial independence in the mountainous regions. It has been theorized that speakers of the now-moribund Doric derived language of Tsakonian are the descendants of Spartans who were isolated as a result of barbarian invasions. The Franks on their arrival in the Morea found a fortified city named Lacedaemonia (Sparta) taking up part of the site of ancient Sparta, and this continued to exist, though greatly depopulated, even after William II Villehardouin had in 1249 founded the fortress and city of Mistra, on a spur of Taygetus some 3 miles northwest of Sparta. This passed shortly afterwards into the hands of the Byzantine Greeks, who retained it until the Turks under Mehmed II captured it in 1460. In 1687 it came into the possession of the Venetians, from whom it was wrested in 1715 by the Turks. Thus for nearly six centuries it was Mistra and not Sparta which formed the center and focus of Laconian history. The Mani Peninsula region of Laconia retained some measure of autonomy during the Ottoman period, and played a significant role in the Greek War of Independence.

In 1834, after the War of Independence had resulted in the liberation of Greece, the town of Sparta was rebuilt as a modern city on part of the ancient site from the designs of Baron Jochmus, and Mistra decayed until now it is in ruins and almost deserted. Today the city of modern Sparta occupies the very same territory of the ancient city.

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