Athens vs. Sparta: Who Was More Powerful

Further Reading3 Reasons Sparta Won The Peloponnesian War Against Athens

Ask most students of history what the most powerful cities in ancient Greece and chances are they would say either Sparta or Athens. However, when pressed for more information most people are unable to say which of these city-states is actually more powerful. Well, the true answer is that it depends but luckily for us these two cities fought each over for dominance of the Greek world.

Generally speaking, the city-state of Athens was more powerful than Sparta. This was because Athens had a much larger population and economy. However, because Athens was so large it was susceptible to outside pressures which allowed Sparta to conquer it at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

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Without further ado, here is just who was more powerful between the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta.

Who Had The Stronger Army Between Sparta and Athens

When people think of who was the most powerful Sparta or Athens they generally think about who had the stronger army. Well, contrary to popular belief, the Athenian army was generally stronger and larger than the Spartan army.

I know. Your entire life you have heard of the unstoppable Spartan army. You grew up with the story of the 300 Spartans defending themselves against hordes of Persians at Thermopylae. Well, the truth is that while the Spartan army was extremely well-trained they were just another Greek army during the classical period.

By the time of the height of classical Greece both the Athenian and Spartan armies used the same tactics and gear. If you lived during the 5th century in either Sparta or Athens you would have seen hoplite soldiers running around daily. Both Athens and Sparta fielded these soldiers and their armies fought using the same tactics.

However, even if we assume that the Spartan army was better trained than the Athenian one there was the concept of manpower. The Athenian army was massive and they could easily field an army of 10,000 soldiers. Sparta on the other hand was tiny in population and could only assemble an army of 1/4 the size.

As such between Sparta and Athens, it was clear that Athens had a much larger army. Now one could argue that Spartan soldiers were better trained but no matter how well they were trained they could not beat a significantly larger force using the same equipment and tactics in the open field.

How Did Sparta’s Army Beat the Army of Athens in the Peloponnesian War Then?

So you might be asking then if Sparta did not have a more powerful army then how did it conquer Athens in the Pellopensian War?

Well, the answer comes down to a series of unfortunate events along with Sparta’s growing democratic power across ancient Greece. In 430 BC a massive plague struck Athens and then in 415 BC Athens lost nearly its entire army in a failed campaign in Sicily.

Because of these two events, the Athenian army was a shell of its former self by the time Sparta sieged the city of Athens. In 404 BC Athens ended up surrendering to Sparta.

However, it is important to remember that had Sparta and Athens met in an open field with their entire army during the start of the conflict the chances are Athens would have the stronger army.

Who Had The Better Economy Between Athens and Sparta

Economy of Athens

Between Sparta and Athens who had the better economy? Well at first the obvious answer might be Athens but when we dig closer the true answer is a bit more hidden.

It is true that the economy of Athens was massive. Athens and the surrounding Attica countryside was home to the metropolis of ancient Greece as well as the most minerally rich hills in the entire region. From these hills, silver was extracted by the cartloads to be minted into coins that helped to fuel the economy of Athens.

On top of this what arable land was outside the city of Athens was used by wealthy estate owners to build out farming plantations that helped to feed the massive population of Athens.

Inside Athens, the entire city was built around its port and the trade it brought. If you walked through ancient Athens you would experience a shoulder-to-shoulder shopping experience where in one port you could buy items from around the known world. From grain and fish to spices and equipment you could buy it all in the port of Athens.

However, the large population of Athens meant that it’s entire economy was reliant upon the port and trade routes which brought enough food into the city to feed the people of Athens. This creates a huge problem when we talk about which city-state was the most powerful; Athens or Sparta.

Sparta’s economy on the other hand was built around 3 sectors and was completely self-sufficient. The first sector was a massive agrarian machine that was powered by forced labor. The second sector of the Spartan economy was trade which was handled by a middle class of Spartans. Finally, the third sector was a large tributary sector where Sparta extracted wealth from weaker neighbors.

The entire Spartan economy relied upon farming and helot labor. Spartan society prided itself on being self-reliant and sufficient. Further, it was seen as bad for a Spartan citizen to ever handle money. Instead, a quasi-middle class of freed Spartan people became merchants and traded agrarian products around Greece.

Because of this Sparta developed an extremely resilient economy that was isolationist in practice. Once the Spartan economy started to grow rapidly in the 5th century BC then Sparta had enough power to start to conquer its neighbors and begin to extract tribute from them forming the third sector of the Spartan economy.

So between Sparta and Athens who had the more powerful economy? Well, surprisingly it was Sparta as their economy was completely independent of outside variables and could easily be scaled as they conquered more land.

However, the Spartan economy was nowhere near as profitable as the Athenian one. It simply was more stable and did not rely upon colonies that had to be defended.

Who Had the Larger Population Between Sparta and Athens

People of Athens and Sparta

The final part of finding out who was the more powerful city-state in ancient Greece between Sparta and Athens is to ask who had the larger population at their peak.

Well, this one is pretty easy. At the city’s peak population, Sparta had around 30,000-50,000 people living within its boundaries. This is a pretty impressive size considering that Sparta’s entire society and population was built around warfare and the Spartan army.

However, even at its peak, Sparta’s total population pales in comparison to the population of Athens. In the primary source of Xenophon’s Memorabilia there is a mention of Athens during the 5th century BC containing over 10,000 homes!

With this information, we can assume that Athens housed well over 110,000 people just within the city itself! This does not include the countryside or nearby port. It is possible that during the height of Athens that there were almost 200,000 people living in or around the city!

That means that the population of Athens was almost 4 times the amount of the peak population of Sparta.

With this information, we can clearly see that Athens was a much larger city-state than Sparta ever managed to accomplish.

So Which City State Is More Powerful: Sparta or Athens?

Sparta or Athens most powerful

So, now that we know all that we need to know to make an informed decision which city-state of ancient Greece was more powerful between Athens and Sparta?

Well to put it simply, the most powerful city-state in ancient Greece was Athens. This was because it had a massive population, overseas colonies, and a large military that could protect it at a moment’s notice.

However, even though Athens was the most powerful city-state it still was defeated by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BC. This was because Athens made a series of bad mistakes that ended up costing Athens the war.

Had Athens not made those mistakes and no plague hit the city then history might have been written differently and the Delian League led by Athens would have won the war.


There you have it; an entire article going over which ancient Greek city-state was more powerful Athens or Sparta.

It is always fascinating to learn more about ancient Sparta and Athens. Today if you visit Greece you can drive from Athens to Sparta and see all the history along the way. While Athens today is a massive city you really need to get out into the countryside to start to see the real Greece and learn more about how each city-state of ancient Greece operated.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Here at The History Ace, I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing it around the web.

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