Among all the city-states of Classical Greece, the most famous are certainly Athens and Sparta. Sometimes allies, often enemies, despite their shared language and culture, these two could not have been more different. So in the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, who ultimately emerged the winner?
In the 5th century BCE, the dominant city-state was Sparta. It was hierarchical, authoritarian and ruled by tyrannical kings and aristocrats. It’s greatest cultural values were discipline and conformity, and the kings of this highly militaristic state were also its generals. Sparta was incredibly effective at concentrating its resources to conquer a chosen goal – the phrase “the tip of the spear” could have been invented for them. As a result, Spartans were feared in battle across the Greek world, and Sparta was able to impose its military will on its neighbors.
But then, Athens began to rise to prominence and oppose the hegemony of Sparta. It became a famous center of creativity in the arts, learning and philosophy, home to Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. Athens also gave the ancient world Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles and many more philosophers, writers and politicians. Its schools and forums were often lively, open-air marketplaces for competing ideas. It thrived on chaos. Even more remarkable were its experiments in democracy that included a unique combination of direct and representative democracy: everybody was expected to participate in and contribute to Athenian civic life. In stark contrast to Sparta’s general-kings, Athens elected its generals according to the needs of each war.
For a century, Athens and Sparta were in almost constant conflict for dominance of the Greek world, pausing occasionally and briefly to unite against a common enemy. Finally, in 404BCE, Athens was defeated for good and fell under Spartan rule. So did this mean that Sparta had won? Not exactly: Sparta’s dominance was short-lived. Neither Athens nor Sparta ever fully recovered from the costs and destruction of their wars, which impoverished most of the Greek world and ushered in the end of Greek pre-eminence.
So if both Sparta and Athens lost, who won? While Sparta and Athens were exhausting themselves in civil war, far to the west a small village called Rome was growing into a regional power. Rome was something strange and new: it borrowed many ideas from the Greeks, but had no real artistic culture of it’s own. Its sculpture, painting and poetry were second-rate derivations, sometimes even direct copies, of the works of the Greeks. It contributed no significant advances in mathematics or science, and barely anything to philosophy. Even the gods that the Romans claimed to worship were obvious imitations of the Greek pantheon. And yet, the Romans were exceptional engineers, great builders and implementers of others’ ideas. While the Greeks declined, Rome conquered a vast empire, convincing native populations almost everywhere that it was in their best interests to assimilate into Roman ways.
In the end, neither Sparta nor Athens won: both lost to Rome.