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The city of Sparta in the Peloponnese was important in the story of archaic and classical Greece, but the complex interweaving of myth and history, by both admirers and detractors, has made it particularly difficult to establish the reality of events. Sparta’s military prowess became legendary following its stand against the invading Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Spartans went on to dominate the Peloponnese, rivalling and eventually triumphing over Athens during the inter-Greek conflict known as the ‘Peloponnesian War’. A fascination with the Spartan way of life, which was considered exceptional even by contemporaries, has endured throughout the ancient and modern world. The harsh and rigorous educational system and life-training (agoge) of all Spartans, male and female, and the communal lifestyle of Spartan citizens, supported by enslaved or dependent peasants, the helots, have been considered both cautionary tales and models of behaviour.

Stories about Sparta loom large in the literature, but archaeologically the city was uninspiring, as Thucydides, the 5th century BC Greek historian, writes:

Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] was at all equal to their fame ... their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices...

(A History of the Peloponnesian War, I.10)

Today, even the few surviving remains of the Greek city are rarely visible in archaeological excavations, because of extensive overbuilding by the Roman and then the modern city.

Votive gifts from the sanctuary at  Artemis OrthiaHowever, archaeological remains outside the city are easier to find. On the west bank of the river Eurotas outside the city is the Spartan sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. The sanctuary was probably established in the 9th century BC, and by about 700 BC a temple had been built within a paved enclosed area. It continued to be important for centuries. The offerings at the early sanctuary, although small, were often made from expensive and exotic materials brought from far away, such as amber and faience, gold, silver and bronze. The most distinctive gifts discovered were over 100,000 tiny figurines of warriors, animals, worshippers and goddesses made of lead, perhaps from Attica. In the late 6th century BC the temple was rebuilt, probably after being destroyed by flooding, and the sanctuary continued to be important, being rebuilt and enlarged, for centuries. In the Hellenistic period the city walls were expanded to include the sanctuary, and in the Roman period (3rd century AD) a theatre was built in front of the temple for audiences to watch the famous ritual ordeal by flogging (diamatigostis) described by Cicero.

Roman authors describe several versions of the cults origins, but these are simply stories invented to give the Roman practices a long and authentic history. The form of the early Greek rituals and indeed the nature of the goddess herself, whose name was found written on pottery and roof-tiles from the sanctuary, remain uncertain.


The British School at Athens excavation of the Artemis Orthia Temple, 1906-10.

The sanctuary site was excavated between 1906 and 1910 by Richard M. Dawkins, working for the British School at Athens. This was the beginning of a long history of excavations in and around Sparta conducted by the British School. As well as the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, early excavations revealed the remains of the sanctuary of Athena Chalkioikos one of the most important cult sites of Classical Sparta, and a shrine known as the Menelaion, which was used since the Mycenean period, as well as Classical and Roman stoas, parts of the ancient city wall and a very large theatre with a moveable stage. Excavations continued in the 1920s headed by Arthur M. Woodward (and assisted by, among others, Winifred Lamb, then Honorary Keeper of Greek and Roman at the Fitzwilliam), in the 1970s under Hector Catling, and in the 1980s under Geoffrey Waywell and John Wilkes. The records documenting these excavations, which span over a century, are housed in the Archive of the British School at Athens.

In 1923 a selection of the finds from the Sparta excavations were given by the Greek government, through the British School at Athens, to the Fitzwilliam Museum and to several other museums in the United Kingdom, but the majority of the objects remain in Greece, displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Sparta and the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Some material from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is displayed in the Fitzwilliam Gallery 21 in showcase 5.

Further reading

R.M. Dawkins (ed.), The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta, Excavated and Described by Members of the British School at Athens 1906-1910, Journal of Hellenic Studies supplement (London, 1929).

J. Boardman, ‘Artemis Orthia and Chronology’, Annual of the British School at Athens 58 (1963) pp.1-8.

P. Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History (London, 2002).

H. Waterhouse, The British School at Athens (1986).