The ancient city of Sparta, even in its most prosperous days, was merely a group of five villages with simple houses and a few public buildings. The passes leading into the valley of the Evrótas were easily defended, and Sparta had no walls until the end of the fourth century B. C. The inhabitants of Laconia were divided into Helots (slaves), who performed all agricultural work; Perioeci, a subject class of free men without political rights, who were mainly tradesmen and merchants; and the Spartiatai, or governing class, rulers and soldiers, descended from the Dorians, who had invaded the area about 1100 B. C.
The foundation of Spartan greatness was attributed to the legislation of Lycurgus, but was more probably the result of ascetic reforms introduced about 600 B. C. In the seventh century B. C., life in Sparta was similar to that in other Greek cities, and art and poetry, particularly choral lyrics, flourished. From the sixth century B. C. on, however, the Spartans looked upon themselves as merely a military garrison, and all their discipline pointed to war. No deformed child was permitted to live; boys began military drill at the age of 7 and entered the ranks at 20. Although permitted to marry, they were compelled to live in barracks until the age of 30; from the ages of 20 to 60 all Spartans were obliged to serve as hoplites (foot soldiers) and to eat at the phiditia ("public mess").
The earliest struggles of Sparta were with Messinía, the southwestern region of Pelopónnisos, and Árgos, a city located in northeastern Pelopónnisos. The Messenian War terminated about 668 B. C. in the complete overthrow of the Dorians of Messinía, most of who were reduced to the status of helots. In the wars with the descendants of the original Achaeans and with the Dorians of Árgos, the Spartans were usually successful. Under their stern discipline, the Spartans became a race of resolute, ascetic warriors, capable of self-sacrificing patriotism, as shown by the devoted 300 heroes at Thermopylae; (see also Leonidas I), but utterly unable to adopt a wise political and economic program. The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B. C. finally brought the rivalry between Sparta and Athens to a head. Upon the overthrow of Athens in 404 B. C., Sparta became the dominant Greek state, but the Thebans under Epaminondas in 371 B. C. deprived Sparta of its power and territorial acquisitions, reducing the state to its original boundaries. Sparta later became a portion of the Roman province of Achaea and seems to have prospered in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. The Goths under their king, Alaric I, in 396 A. D., destroyed Sparta itself.