Ancient Civilizations: Athens and Sparta

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13085

Coke and Pepsi! Cats and dogs! Athens and Sparta! These Greek city-states were so different, they've become one of history's most famous rivalries. Learn all about them and decide which you prefer!


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Test what you already know about these city-states with this Was it Athens or Sparta? game!

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It's okay if you didn't get the answers right. As you progress through the lesson, you'll learn more about these two city-states and be able to tell them apart just as easily as cats and dogs!

Athens and Sparta were two Greek city-states that rivaled each other for power in ancient Greece.

If you look at a map of ancient Greece, you'll see that it was spread out between the Greek mainland, several peninsulas, the coastlines of territories all around the Aegean Sea, and all the many little islands in between.

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Just as ancient Greece was spread out geographically, it was not one united country but a collection of over 1,000 territories, called city-states, that governed themselves. They did have a common religion and language, and they did sometimes help each other out. However, there were also strong rivalries between them, and often they would fight against each other.

To learn some more about the Greek city-states, watch The Greek City-States - Ancient History #02 - See U in History:

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At first, all the Greek city-states were ruled by kings. Each king had an army and decided when to make an alliance with another city-state or when to go to war with it.

By 600 BC, most of the city-states decided they didn't want to be ruled by kings anymore. They wanted to govern themselves, write their own laws, and vote for their leaders. So they invented their own kind of government.

  • What is this type of government called?

Yes, the Greeks invented democracy.

Now each city-state had to decide its own goals and values for itself. Should they value military strength or learning? Should they try to conquer other territories or live in peace? According to their own beliefs and values, each city-state took its own individual path. We'll study Greek democracy more in a Related Lesson, found in the right-hand sidebar. For now, we'll focus on two of the most important city-states, Athens and Sparta, and the two very different paths they followed.

map of Greece


Athens was named after the goddess Athena and was the largest of the Greek city-states. A lot of its growth and development can be traced back to its early laws, written by a man named Solon.

Solon on coin

Before these laws, the poor farmers complained that they were becoming the slaves of the rich. Solon's laws did not favor the rich or the poor, but worked out a just settlement for each. Additionally, he made laws saying that all citizens, rich or poor, could participate in the government.

Solon's laws also encouraged the growth of trade, and the Athenians grew very prosperous.

Later, a leader named Pericles helped to make Athens even better. He guided Athens for about 30 years. Under his direction, the Athenians came to value learning, literature, theater, and poetry, which made Athens a center of education and art.

ancient amphora

Athens, like most Greek city-states, had at its center a large hill with a fortress for defense in times of war. In Athens, that great hill fortress is called the Acropolis (Greek for "high city").

Acropolis of Athens

They built several temples on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, which is the most famous temple to Athena.


To build this magnificent temple, 30,000 tons of marble had to be chipped out of mountains 10 miles away and brought to the site. They were moved with cranes and pulleys. Inside, there was a statue of Athena made of gold and ivory that stood 35 feet high!

By 500 BC, Athens became one of the leading city-states in Greece. They built an empire of sorts by joining up with other city-states and creating the "Delian League." They also built a very strong navy.


And what about the city-state of Sparta? Did they have the same level of democracy, education, art, and trade as Athens? Or did they have a different interest and focus?

Sparta was ruled by two kings, but they also had elected officers called magistrates, who did most of the actual law-making. The Spartans brought other city-states into alliance with them, forming the Peloponnesian League.

Like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Sparta had a famous lawmaker named Lycurgus.

Lycurgus did not care much for art or learning, except for the "art of war" and learning how to fight. Under his laws, Spartan children were trained to be strong, both physically and emotionally, and to care for Sparta more than their own families. Spartan boys were taken from their parents at seven years old in order to train for the army.

At 20, they joined the Spartan army and spent the rest of their lives living in the army barracks. They had to remain fit and ready for battle until the age of 60. At 30, they could participate in the assemblies that elected the magistrates and made important decisions.

Although Spartan citizens could gain this level of power, it was only a small portion of the people of Sparta that were actually considered citizens. Most of the people living in Sparta were Helots, or slaves of the city-state. They had to work in the fields and serve in the homes of Sparta, and they had few rights. There was another class of people in Sparta, called the Perioikoi. They were free people who could own land, but they were not considered citizens.

The military focus of Sparta paid off because they were able to lead the Greeks in battle against the Persian Empire. The Persians tried several times to take over Greece but were defeated each time. At the battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans cleverly maneuvered their enemy into a narrow pass through the mountains, and 300 Spartans held off the entire Persian army of over 100,000 for seven days!

King Leonidas

The Athenian navy then defeated the Persians at sea in the Battle of Salamis, and the Persians were forced to give up on Greece.

After battling the Persians together so bravely and cleverly, the Athenians and Spartans began to battle each other! But let's save that for the Related Lesson on wars, found in the right-hand sidebar.

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll compare and contrast Athens and Sparta and choose which one you'd like to visit!

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