The central core of the Peloponnese is the luxuriantly spreading Mount Ménalo; but due south, in the Lakonian Evrótas valley, are Spárti and its Byzantine companion, Mystra, both overlooked and sheltered from the west by the massive and astonishing wall of the Taïyetos mountain ridge. Spárti had a big role in the development of ancient Greece, while Mystra, arrayed in splendour on its own hillside, is one of the country’s most compelling historical sites.
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Despite lying on the site of the ancient city-state of Sparta, modern SPÁRTI, capital of Lakónia, has few ancient ruins, and is today merely the organizational centre of a huge agricultural plain. Spárti’s limited appeal is its very ordinariness – its pedestrianized side streets, café-lined squares, orange trees and evening vólta. The reason for coming here is basically to see Mystra, the Byzantine town, 5km to the west, which once controlled great swaths of the medieval world.
Commanding the Lakonian plain and fertile Evrótas valley from a series of low hills just west of the river, ancient Sparta was at the height of its power from the eighth to the fourth century BC, a period when its society was structured according to extremely harsh laws (see A Spartan upbringing). The ancient “capital” occupied more or less the site of today’s town, though it was in fact less a city than a grouping of villages. Lykurgos, architect of the warlike Spartan constitution and society, declared that “it is men not walls that make a city”.
The Spartans famously defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 421 BC and later established colonies around the Greek world. They eventually lost hegemony through defeat to Thebes. A second period of prosperity came under the Romans – for whom this was an outpost in the south of Greece, with the Máni never properly subdued. However, from the third century AD, Sparta declined, as nearby Mystra became the focus of Byzantine interest.
The annual September Spartathlon, a 246km run from Athens to Spárti, commemorates the messenger Pheidippides who ran the same route in 490 BC: the current course record is 20 hours and 25 minutes.
There are a few ruins to be seen to the north of the city. From the bold Statue of Leonidas, hero of Thermopylae, at the top of Paleológou, follow the track around and behind the modern stadium towards the old Acropolis, tallest of the Spartan hills. An immense theatre here, built into the side of the hill, can be quite clearly traced, even though today most of its masonry has gone – hurriedly adapted for fortification when the Spartans’ power declined and, later still, recycled for the building of Byzantine Mystra. Above the theatre a sign marks a fragment of the Temple of Athina Halkiakou, while at the top of the acropolis sit the knee-high ruins of the tenth-century Byzantine church and monastery of Ósios Níkon.
Out on the Trípoli road (Odhós-ton-118, just past the junction with Orthias Artémidhos), a track leads to the remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. This was where Spartan boys underwent gruelling tests by flogging. The Roman geographer and travel writer Pausanias records that young men often perished under the lash, adding that the altar had to be splashed with blood before the goddess was satisfied. Being addicts of morbid blood sports, the Romans revived the custom here – the main ruins are of the spectators’ grandstand they built.
The archeological museum
All moveable artefacts and mosaics have been transferred to the town’s small archeological museum on Áyios Níkonos. Among its more interesting exhibits are a number of votive offerings found on the sanctuary site – sickles set in stone that were presented as prizes to the Spartan youths and solemnly rededicated to the goddess – and a fifth-century BC marble bust of a running Spartan hoplite, found on the acropolis and said to be Leonidas. There is a dramatic late sixth-century BC stele, with relief carvings on both sides, possibly of Menelaos with Helen and Agamemnon with Klytemnestra; the ends have carved snakes. There are fragments of Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, and numerous small lead figurines, clay masks and bronze idols from the Artemis Orthia site.
The Museum of the Olive
At the southwest corner of town is the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, at Óthonos & Amalías 129, worth a visit for its informative displays covering the primordial history, uses and production technology of the olive.
A Spartan upbringing
A Spartan upbringing
As the blood-spattered 2007 film 300 would seem to confirm, the famously tough Spartans can still stir the imagination. In part this stems from their legendary upbringing. Under a system known as the agoge, Spartan boys were rigorously trained by the state to develop physical toughness, loyalty and cunning. Babies judged unlikely to make the grade were left exposed on the slopes of Mount Taïyetos. Other boys were taken from their families at the age of seven to live in barracks. They were habitually underfed, so that they would learn to live off the land. At the age of twelve, they were required to form a sexual bond with a young Spartan soldier, who would act as their mentor. At eighteen, they would become provisional members of the army until the age of thirty, when it would finally be decided if they were worthy of Spartan citizenship. At this point they were expected to marry and produce offspring. The system was much admired in the ancient world, and boys from other city-states were sometimes sent here for their education.