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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Cultural Diversity in the Greek World

The City-States of Athens and Sparta

In the ancient world Greece was never a unified country. Greeks were connected by cultural similarities such as shared gods, language, and custom, but beyond that there was great variety in what it meant to be 'Greek'. The mountainous landscape of Greece meant that communities developed and lived separately from one another. Out of this situation emerged the concept of the city-state, cities that were self-governing and exerted control over the land, people, and resources of the region surrounding them. Although there were times of co-operation, these city-states often competed in bloody rivalry for power and authority.

The Peloponnesian War

In the fifth century BCE, the rivalry between states reached its peak. In a struggle for supremacy, the two most powerful states, Athens and Sparta, clashed head-on in the cataclysmic Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). This conflict drew attention to the considerable differences between the two cities. Luxurious Athens, in Attica, was a modern, imperialistic power experimenting with new ideas of democracy, whereas Sparta, way down in the south in Laconia, retained its traditional, militaristic austerity and politics based on kings and councillors. The differences seemed irreconcilable and each side fought for the destruction of the other.

Despite the endless bloodshed caused by these differences, occasions such as religious festivals and athletic contests brought the Greeks together. The cultural continuity provided by religion can be seen even in those two bitter rivals, Athens and Sparta. The Temple of Athena Parthenos on the Athenian Acropolis is a world famous landmark (it is better known by the name Parthenon).

Attic oinochoe [51.7.1]

Less well known is the fact that their arch-enemies also dedicated a temple to Athena on the Acropolis of their city, the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos: some remnants of this latter temple can be seen in the Ure Museum [23.11.28]. While Athens boasted its cavalry on architectural sculpture that decorated the Parthenon (see a similar image on an Attic oinochoe, [51.7.1] Spartiates (Spartan warriors) dedicated lead images of themselves in their Temple to Athena (Chalkioikos): see [23.11.31A] and others.

Other City-States

This delicate balance of similarity and difference existed for communities all over the Greek world. On the mainland, other city-states struggled for recognition alongside the two major powers. Corinth, for example, was a wealthy and technologically innovative city while its neighbour, Argos, boasted a rich sanctuary to Hera (see a bronze phiale from the Heraion, 71.12.2) and much further north Thebes, in Boeotia, fought to dominate its neighbours.

Greeks were living all across the known world, since their dispersal, through colonisation, in the eighth century BCE. In the West, communities existed in Italy and on Sicily (kylix, [29.4.2]). To the East, Greeks lived up and down what is now the west coast of Turkey, in major cities such as Miletos and Halicarnassos (brazier handle, 71.6.1). Up North, Greeks lived in the lands surrounding the Black Sea (Crimean loom weight, [14.9.111]). There were even, far down to the south, Greek communities across North Africa, along the coast of what is now modern Libya.

Despite the great range in location and circumstance, all these communities retained a sense of their Greek identity. The material culture that survives now mostly in museums is a fantastic guide to understanding how that cohesion existed alongside difference.

Consult the database

Follow the links below to look in the Ure Museum database. Each link will return a list of object reference numbers, each object is related to Athens or Sparta. Follow the link by selecting an object number and see the database record, and images if there are any related to the record for that object.

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File last modified: 20 Sep 2017