Spartan Territory: Its Archaeological Correlates

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


This paper was given as part of the 'International Sparta Seminar: Sparta and Archaeology' panel. 

Sparta was one of a small number of poleis which controlled large territories, the largest on the Greek mainland (c.8000 km2) and rivalled only by the apoikiai of Magna Graecia. Despite being one of the best documented and studied communities of ancient Greece, the means through which Sparta maintained and controlled this territory within some measure of stability for the best part of 400 years is unclear. In this paper, as a means of understanding Sparta’s degree of managerial control, I discuss the possible archaeological correlates of Spartan territory (namely, the road-network, forts/fortification, and survey data). Significant attempts have been made to incorporate survey material especially into a wider account of Spartan history (Alcock, 2002; Hodkinson, 2003; Luraghi, 2008). In building upon this literature, this paper seeks to assess the history of territory with regard to specific historical and interpretative problems. Are road networks and fortifications always to be interpreted as evidence of ‘state’ power? How far can we hang historical reconstructions on chronological divisions in survey material, and to what extent can historians assume agency and purpose in the use and occupation of particular areas of countryside (e.g. in the increase of Late Archaic-Early Classical material)? Can we locate particular groups (perioikoi, helots) in the landscape, even when this question is inextricably linked to the visibility of status in archaeological data (such as the interpretation of the PRAP settlement patterns as ‘helot residences’). By what criteria might we assess this problem, and how might we overcome potential archaeological obscurities (Morris, 1998)?

I will conclude that the exploitation and maintenance of Spartan territory was a multivalent process incorporating a number of different phenomena. The interpretation of infrastructure in the context of territorial exploitation must be underpinned by an understanding of the social and economic networks that produced said infrastructure. Whilst settlement histories can be reconstructed from survey material, we must be cautious about assuming any ‘sudden’ expansion based on our existing ceramic chronologies. As to the issue of status, identifying specific categories from our existing material is more challenging. Any attempt must begin with considering differential categories within the material itself (e.g. quality of ceramics). The goal of a holistic Spartan history cannot seriously be disputed. However, as in other areas of Greece (Stewart, 2013), the plying of archaeology to historical questions (and vice versa) can both obscure and clarify past scenarios. In the Spartan case, our reconstructions must reflect this critical insight.

Period18 Jul 2022
Event title13th Celtic Conference in Classics
Event typeConference
LocationLyon, FranceShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Sparta
  • Laconia
  • Messenia
  • Territory
  • Archaeological Survey