Athens and Sparta were vital centers that enjoyed influence over other Greek city-states and could unite them. Their political and economic systems differed significantly, which sometimes could even lead to civil wars. Herodotus, who created the founding work of history in Western literature, managed to show considerable differences and similarities between the two major Greek states. It is essential to keep in mind that the ancient historian wrote Histories during the Archidamian War, during which Athens and Sparta clashed over the influence on the entire peninsula. The fact that it was hard for Herodotus to stay fully impartial helps modern readers understand the vital features he wanted to pinpoint in his history work.
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The most important similarity between the two cities is their willingness to prevent being “crushed and enslaved by a foreign invader” (Herodotus, 106). Moreover, they were desperate to inspire the entire Greek world to do the same. The influence, respect, and soft power they received afterward for being brave enough to stop the invasion elevated their status even more. Despite being brave and honorable, Athenians and Spartans had different attitudes toward other Greeks.
The ways cities were governed differed significantly as well, with numerous people deciding the fate of Athens. “The Athenian troops were commanded by ten generals” (Herodotus, 103). Meanwhile, the power the kings of Sparta enjoyed was generally utilized for the entire Greek world’s benefit. While Aten’s rulers are described as unprecedentedly wise and capable of uniting Greek states, Spartans are believed to be extremely brave. Moreover, the latter always shows readiness to support allies. At the same time, Herodotus blames Athenians for hybris towards other Greeks and Spartans for anxiety and hesitancy in foreign affairs.
There were various reasons for numerous city-states to join Athens and Sparta in their fight against Persians. Nevertheless, over time it became clear that it was important for each Greek city-state to choose just one of the cities as its powerful main ally. The necessity to make such decisions always had far-reaching consequences and did not actually contribute to unity in the face of foreign invaders’ attacks.