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Athens and Sparta

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There is a city, and it is a shining example of achievement. It is populated by scholars, artists, dancers, and scientists. The streets and air are clean, the buildings sparkle, there is a big city park with trees, grass, a playground and bike trail. If there is a religion practiced here, expect it to be centered around a deity of goodness. Outside the city are magnificent forests and Arcadia. The city's ruler is most likely a democratically elected official, but if it's a monarchy, expect the ruler to be king, or queen or a princess. But most importantly, the people here are friendly and peaceful. Oh, they can defend themselves if needed and have a small, but powerful military, but they prefer to use diplomacy. In hindsight, this place seems perfect. What could possibly go wrong?

Well... not far away, there is another city, and it is the exact opposite. It is populated by warriors who most likely give the city its economy via mercenary work. Anyone who is not a warrior is most likely a retired soldier or a slave. The streets and air are polluted and foul, the buildings are misshapen and ill-colored. Instead of a park, expect a training ground where instead of play, children engage in warrior training worse than hell. The people most likely worship a deity of evil or a god of war. Outside the city is a Polluted Wasteland and Mordor hellhole where little to nothing lives or grows. The ruler is most likely an emperor or warrior monarch. If the leader is democratically elected, expect an Antagonistic Governor or President Evil and the people are probably not very nice.

Needless to say, these two cities probably do not get along and might even wage wars on each other. And seeing as they are right next door to each other, violence and espionage are probably common. At best the two cities are rivals, at worst they are sworn enemies. Named after the real life Greek cities, a work's conflict centers on two cities with opposing cultures. Expect the one that focuses more on peace to be the protagonist faction 100% of the time. In fiction, this is a good justification for a black and white conflict and a way to find the heroes likeable, and the villains despicable.

The trope doesn't always need to have the conflict between two cities, though. Sometimes it can be between two countries, or planets, or even cultures and political beliefs. Sometimes the good city is part of a kingdom while the bad city is part of an empire. It could also be a case of a good republic and an evil empire.

See also Elves Versus Dwarves for when this conflict is extended to entire species and Scientist vs. Soldier, which this trope is basically a leveled up version of. Sub-trope of Brains Versus Brawn and Romanticism Versus Enlightenment.


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     Comic Books 
  • In the DC Universe:
    Dennis O'Neill: Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.
    • Jack Kirby's New Gods is almost certainly modeled on the classical examples, with Apokolips being Mordor led by militaristic tyrant Darkseid, and New Genesis being represented as Crystal Spires and Togas, a benevolent verdant and hilly area ruled by benign gods. A twist is that both cultures are populated by effectively immortal deities.
    • Wonder Woman: Starting in Wonder Woman (1987) the Themysciran and Bana Amazons have this correlation. While not exactly next door to one another, at first, Themyscira and Bana-Mighdall have this relationship down to a tee. The first is the idealized group of Amazons who strive for equality and peace and the second a militant misandrist group.
    • More recently, the Atlantis of Aquaman is often foiled with the Themiscyra of the Amazons. Which is the Athens and which is the Sparta is very much Depending on the Writer since some stories show one as more warlike and more civilized than the other.
  • For the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is often shown as the Athens of Fictional Country as compared to the more Spartan nations — Atlantis of Namor and the Latveria of Doctor Doom.
  • Democracy features these two cities as a Foil to each other. Sparta is a close, oligarchic and militaristic polis who runs through fear, while Athens is far more open and is depicted taking its first steps into forming a politics that would be praised and adapted in the future generations, which leads to her eventual rise.

    Fan Works 
  • The Encanto and Berk respectively in The Dragon and the Butterfly Saga. Both are isolated societies that, through the space-time anomaly that let Hiccup and Toothless to the former, are now cultural allies to one another. While the Encanto is set in the heart of a tropical jungle, Berk is in a frigid island. While the Encanto is a culture built around peace in isolation, Berk is an island of warriors accustomed to danger and has coped with it through allyship with other islands in similar strife. Both are cultures with a love of festivities, but while the Encanto is musical and benign, Berk has a "hint of mania" that makes it fun, but also inherently violent.

  • Annie Hall: Famously features Alvy Singer upset about coming to Los Angeles, hating the architecture, the advertising, the lack of cultural refinement and poor West Coast fashions, while he prefers New York, the land of the Melting Pot, true culture and cosmopolitan sophistication.
  • Black Panther: Wakanda Forever: A loose example can be seen with the kingdoms of Wakanda and Talokan. Both possess valuable resources and advanced technology that has allowed them to remain isolated from the outside world for centuries, and in both cases the isolation was self-imposed as protection. Beyond that, there are significant differences.
    • Wakanda is a recognized political entity by the wider world, and historically only kept its resources and technology hidden. By contrast, Talokan was unknown to all outside of it until the film’s plot forced its people to reveal themselves.
    • Wakandans are ordinary humans and can easily blend in with the wider world. The mutated Talokans - with the exception of Namor - require breathing apparatuses when above water. Being out of water also reveals their naturally blue skin.
    • Between their apparently landlocked status and historical isolationism, Wakanda is almost entirely a land-based power. Talokan is hidden deep under the ocean and its people can travel any waterway on Earth virtually undetected.
    • When the outside world made a major intrusion on Wakanda’s isolationism, King T’Challa made the decision to end that policy and open up his country to the world. By contrast, when scientific exploration threatened to reveal the existence of Talokan, Namor unleashed his army and was prepared to declare war on the surface world to maintain his people’s secrecy.
  • Cleopatra: Contrasts Ptolemaic Alexandria with Late-Republican Rome. The former is a bustling, advanced city of knowledge, sexuality, and antique glories, while Rome is a kind of boring dilapidated area filled with conservative, boring senators. Julius Caesar's attraction and romance with Cleopatra VII and later hers and Mark Antony's is framed in the film as stuffy Romans enjoying and preferring Hellenistic sophistication (or decadence in the eyes of Roman senators), while the conservative Octavian scapegoats Cleopatra as a slutty vamp, and proceeds to (ahistorically) murder a wise Egyptian astronomer in Rome, to prove which is the better civilization.

  • The Begum's Millions: Has Dr. Sarrasin's France-ville, an utopian city built with public health in mind, opposed by "proto-Hitler" Dr. Shultz's Stahlstadt, a militaristic city dedicated only to building weapons of war, and with a vow to destroy France-ville.
  • Dune: Gives us Caladan (Athens) and Geidi Prime (Sparta). Caladan is a bit harsh and primal, but still beautiful, covered in vast oceans, has a somewhat Mediterranean climate, and is ruled by the just and fair House Atreides. Geidi Prime is an industrial hellhole ruled by the sadistic and hedonistic Harkonens. The visual design on the David Lynch film really drives the point home. The prequel novels reveal that this wasn't always the case. Prior to the Butlerian Jihad, Geidi Prime was fairly green and pleasant, and Xavier Harkonen expressed a desire to settle down there one day. Then it suffered a Colony Drop and, eventually, became the seat of power for House Harkonen (they initially only had the icy world of Lankiveil) and heavily industrialized.
  • The Inheritance Cycle: Has Terim, a coastal city that is well laid out, has fancy buildings, and both Eragon and Roran have found aid in the city from Jeod Longshanks. However, one of the cities neighbors is Dras-Leona, a hellhole of a city with ramshackle buildings crammed together, people so poor that the children are half feral, and a corrupt church holds a lot of influence. To make matters even worse, slavery is even legal in Dras-Leona After the defeat of Galbatorix, Terim becomes an independent City State, while Dras-Leona is absorbed into the newly revived Broddering Kingdom.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Has Gondor, a human kingdom that is noble and heir to a powerful and advanced civilization, but on its final legs by the time of the book. Sadly, it is located right next door to Mordor.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: While not sole or direct rivals, the Free Cities of Volantis and Braavos are antitheses of each other in many ways.
    • Volantis is the oldest and southernmost of the Free Cities, while Braavos is the youngest and northernmost.
    • Volantis possesses a massive land army, while Braavos arguably has the world's most powerful navy.
    • In Volantis there are five slaves for every free citizen, while in Braavos slavery is strictly prohibited.
  • A Tale of Two Cities: Naturally paints London as the embodiment of peace and stability over disorderly Paris. This largely reflects his English, and Victorian, biases, but the novel also points out that London is filled with inequality and corruption and could face problems if they get too complacent, while Paris is a great city that will recover from the violence of the Revolution.

     Live-Action TV 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The Eldar see themselves as the only civilized people in a galaxy of barbarians, and will not hesitate to sacrifice thousands of humans to save a single Eldar's life thousands of years down the line. Justified somewhat in that they're the second-oldest people in the galaxy fighting to retain what's left of their empire, and can't reproduce without a very strong chance of losing their soul.
    • The Tau see themselves as bringing peace and enlightenment to the ignorant races around them. Unfortunately, due to being cut off from the rest of the galaxy for millenia they're unaware that these other races have been in constant war for 10,000 years.
    • Orks are the barbarian race to everyone else by default, and proud of it.
    • Khorne and Slaanesh's minions have this relationship. Slaanesh is the god(dess) of hedonism, whose worship involves excess and the use of senses (including art in all its forms), so the Slaaneshi see Khornates as brutal morons. Khorne is the embodiment of rage, who demands constant bloodshed both from his enemies and his troops, so Khornates see the Slaaneshi as limp-wristed and effeminate. Khornates and Tzeentchians (Squishy Wizards, schemers and manipulators who worship the god of sorcery and deceit) see each other in a similar way, and for much the same reasons.
  • Warhammer Fantasy:
    • The High Elves are the Athens of the Warhammer world. They live in a shining, magical civilization with schools of magic, libraries, and are fond of poems. However, they are constantly under threat from the Dark Elves, the Sparta of the Warhammer world. In Dark Elf Society, everyone is expected to become a bloodthirsty warrior, or die. Any non Dark Elf is a slave.
    • The Empire of Man is the mightiest human nation in the Warhammer world with major advances in technology, magic, and culture. That being said, the Empire is known for having greedy, corrupt and amoral politicians and officials who are constantly trying to gain more power. On the other side, we have Bretonnia, a Kingdom that values unity, Knights and honor. While also having peasants who are viewed as sub-human and little more then property by their landlords and are treated like crap.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed sometimes features this in many of its multi-city games:
    • In Assassin's Creed you have Damascus as the Athens to Acre's Sparta during the third Crusade. Despite the warfare and violence surrounding it, Damascus is a bustling, colorful Merchant City, filled with amazing and lively souks, ornate palaces and drenched by the sun, while Acre is a cold, grey, bleak coastal town. The portcullis of Damascus has merchant stands, while that of Acre has plague victims laid out. Likewise, each city has a Rich, Poor and Middle District, but even the poor district of Damascus looks a lot more alive than the rich district of Acre.
    • Assassin's Creed II is set during The Renaissance and while the cities don't have active rivalries against each other, Florence is more or less the Athens to Venice's Sparta. The former is a center of culture, art and philosophy, while the latter is an expansionist city-state-empire. The public square of Florence, Piazza della Signoria is an active bustling city center with shops, and city-life, while San Marco Square in Venice is a heavily guarded military area defending the Doge's palace. Furthermore, the biggest monument and most active area is Santa Maria Flore and Il Duomo while that of Venice is L'Arsenale, a factory which is almost a city-inside-a-city.
    • Assassin's Creed III contrasts Colonial Boston with Colonial New York City during The American Revolution. In a shocking reversal from the modern era, the former is bigger, richer, and a much more lively area of activity while New York City (as it was during the Revolution) is occupied by the British and filled with Loyalist sympathizers. New York City has a heavier military presence, a much tinier map and is depicted as a little bland and colorless.
    • Assassin's Creed: Odyssey depicts the trope namer cities themselves at a historical period when their differences are starkest: The Peloponnesian War
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert has the Allies and the Soviets. The Allies is The Alliance of western democratic nations formed to defend their countries from Soviet aggression. They rely on fast moving, high tech units in winning battles. The Soviet Union are an aggressive militaristic state of Eastern European nations that has no problems in using military force as a show power and expand their reach. Their doctrine is brute force and large numbers, which they utilize to great effect to overwhelm their opposition.
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas compares Los Santos (Sparta) with San Fierro (Athens). Los Santos is a gang-ridden city filled with Urban Segregation with limited social opportunities and advancement, while San Fierro has less of a gang-presence, is much more developed and sophisticated and is the city where the hero achieves some kind of social mobility (legal and illegal), while also interacting with a real Melting Pot and weird bunch of Ragtag Bunch of Misfits.
  • Mass Effect 2: Omega (Sparta) and Illium (Athens). Omega is a former mining station turned utter hellhole with only one rule ("don't fuck with Aria"), while Illium is a thriving mercantile port. However, Illium's got a seediness of its own, being described by one character as just being Omega "with better shoes".
  • Pokémon Red and Blue has the rivalry between the Fighting (martial artist trainers) and Psychic (trainers with psychic powers)-type gyms, with the Psychic gym having handily won the title of official gym due to Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors.
  • The Elder Scrolls
  • A major source of conflict in Stellaris.
    • In general, every empire has an ideology of 2-3 ethics which are the basis of their government. Each ethos has a polar opposite, so one can be sure that at least one neighbouring country has opposite ethics to yours, at least partially. Playing as an authoritarian empire, expect to have an egalitarian neighbour. Same goes for xenophiles and xenophobes, militarists and pacifists, spiritualists and materialists. These empires will usually have very bad diplomatic relations and will try to subjugate, "liberate", or straight up eradicate their rival.
    • More specifically, the two Human factions in the preset options reflect this dichotomy: The United Nations of Earth are cultured, egalitarian Federation Builders, while the Commonwealth of Man are aggressive, xenophobic Hegemonic Imperialists.
  • Similarly to the above-mentioned example, the fourth Master of Orion game has the diplomatic and friendly Human Republic and the expansionist and xenophobic Terran Khanate. Even the two leaders represent this trope: the President looks like a diplomat and speaks like one, while the Khan is wearing a dark military uniform and a face mask. While both human factions' ship designs are identical, humans use primarily white colors, while terrans prefer dark-gray and red.
  • In Ar Tonelico Qoga, according to All There in the Manual, this is the story behind the song EXEC_EP=NOVA. Two countries both worshipped the sun god, but went to war because of their different features. One country has pale people with golden hair, while the other has black-haired people with tanned skin. They tried to use their features as proof they're the real follower of the sun and the other's features as proof they're the devils. In the actual game, however, the song is sung by Cloud Cuckoo Lander Saki, so she turned it into a song about cats who don't get along.
  • Kill Zone has Helghan and Vekta. The former is a toxic world whose human inhabitants mutated into the Helghast and formed a militaristic, nationalist dictatorship, while the latter is a shining colony of the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance that gets invaded by the former, kicking off the events of the franchise.
  • The New Order Last Days Of Europe has Tomsk and Omsk in the collapsed Russia. Tomsk is a beacon of democracy in Siberia, one of the last refuges of the Russian cultural and scientific tradition, ruled by a Wide-Eyed Idealist caste of intellectuals and artisans who prefer diplomacy to unify Russia (but won't back down if threatened by force) and seek to spread the fruits of the democratic enlightenment to every corner of Russia (fittingly enough, Tomsk was called "the Siberian Athens" in real life). Meanwhile, Omsk is a highly-militarized, barrack-type Citadel City that is fully committed to the forceful unification of Russia and the destruction of Germany and is led by highly cynical and Ultranationalist generals who believe that absolutely nothing short of the total obliteration of Germany is needed to ensure Russia's prosperity.
  • This is at play with two major national rivalries/conflicts in Dragon Age:
    • Orlais (Athens) and Ferelden (Sparta). Orlais (or the Orlesian Empire) is a vast, centrally governed empire based largely on medieval and early modern France, with an opulent aristocracy constantly engaged in subterfuge and intrigue against each other, and an empress who commands loyalty from all. Orlesian nobles dress in Impossibly Cool Clothes with elaborate masks, and their buildings are ornate and gilded architectural marvels. Ferelden, by contrast, is a loosely united kingdom made up of various classes of nobles who all compete for the loyalty of the commoner freeholders; the monarchy, while far from powerless, fundamentally still has to play by the same rules of enticing lower-borns to do their bidding rather than ruling by fiat. Fereldan nobles dress in much simpler attire and live in castles whose design puts function far above form, and their noble culture values aristocrats working with their subjects side-by-side, especially in military service. There's also the element of Orlais having invaded and occupied Ferelden for nearly a century, only being overthrown by plucky Fereldan rebels about 30 years prior to Dragon Age: Origins.
    • Tevinter (Athens) and the Qunari (Sparta). The Tevinter Imperium is, at least according to Dorian, at least as decadent and opulent as Orlais, with a strict hierarchy of nobility and firm mage supremacy. They once ruled the entire continent with their powerful magic, and hence often view themselves as above the "barbarian" Southerners. Rivalry and backstabbing are especially common among Tevinter nobles. Meanwhile, the Qunari, with whom they are engaged in a Forever War, are a highly disciplined and militarized hyper-collectivist society where all individuality is shunned. The Qunari spurn magic, preferring industry and technology far beyond what is available to their foes, including powerful cannons and advanced alchemical formulas. Every aspect of Qunari life is strictly regimented and centrally planned, from career choices to marriage partners to even where they may live.

    Web Comics 
  • Phillip M Jackson's fantasy-adventure webcomic Battle Bunnies has the world's eastern continent divided between the dragonlike Khans and the tigerlike Raji. The two cultures are stated in the opening pages to have been in various degrees of conflict for ages, over everything from trade to religion. There is one other group: the rabbitlike Westlanders that inhabit the western continent. They purport to be Lawful Neutral, but the mercenary protagonist and her comrades are solidly Chaotic Neutral.
  • Aisopos features these two city-states, as well as various others, like Corinth and many greek islands, like Lesbos.

    Western Animation 
  • VeggieTales: In "The Tale of Flibber-o-loo" (their adaptation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, renamed "A Tale of Two Cities" in reissues) there are two cities atop neighboring mountains. In Flibber-o-loo, the citizens all wear shoes on their heads. In Flibber-dee-lot, the citizens all wear pots. This headwear disagreement is the cause of an ongoing war, which mostly consists of the two cities catapulting shoes and pots at each other, all day and night.
  • Disney Television's Buzz Lightyear of Star Command has the planet Tangea, home to both the Royals in their World in the Sky and the Grounders that are earthbound. The Grounders are regarded as primitives despite their power of telekinesis, while the Royals (of whom The Lancer Mira Nova is one) live an ivory tower existence with their power to phase through solid objects. Both races lose their powers when near one another, and cohabitate Tangea in a Cold War-like relationship.
  • The Trope namer was played for laughs in an episode of Hercules: The Animated Series with the conflict largely being driven by their patron deities, Athena and Ares.
  • The World of Twelve has Brakmar, the Evil Is Not Well-Lit, founded-by-demons Wretched Hive of corruption, shabby construction and general unpleaseantness, and Bonta, a city specifically founded to keep Brakmar in check, built mostly of white stone and blue tile, sunny, airy, spacious and home town to Joris.