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 vs. Dwarves for when this conflict is extended to entire species.
- 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.
- You have Metropolis and Gotham City. The former is a Shining City, the latter is a Soiled City on a Hill. One is seen as a futuristic "city of tomorrow" and is usually shown in broad daylight and bright colours, while the other is a Gothic post-industrial wasteland with Urban Segregation and Gothic architecture and is usually shown at night. Incidentally, each city serves as a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of New York City, but taking on different aspects of the city to better convey the dichotomy.
- 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. While it doesn't focus on their animosity, Word of God has stated that Sparta's region is Foil to Athens'.
- Woody Allen's 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.
- Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 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.
- Charles Dickens' 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.
- Jules Verne's 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Classical Mythology: The rivalry between the Greek Gods Ares and Athena was inspired by the real life rivalry of Athens and Sparta, as the two gods were the patron's of the cities. Both are war deities, but have different views on war. Ares, the patron of Sparta revels in violence and bloodshed. Athena, patron of Athens values honor and strategy. Interestingly both gods had a cult or smaller temple dedicated to them in their rivals city.
- Warhammer 40K:
- 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.
- Assassin's Creed sometimes features this in many of its multi-city games:
- In Assassin's Creed I 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
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas compares Los Santos with San Fierro. 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.
- 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.
- The Elder Scrolls
- Skyrim has Solitude and Windhelm. Solitude is the capital of Skyrim and main base of the Imperial Legion dispatched to end the Skyrim Civil War. Its design is heavily influenced by the cities in Cyrodiil and as such it has a cheery look and feel. Oh, and when you arrive you see an execution, and the Legion serves an Empire which is corrupt and grows weaker everyday. Windhelm is the home of the Stormcloak rebellion against the aforementioned Empire. They are determined to prevent Skyrim from being dragged down with the rest of the Empire and continue their war against the fascistic Aldmeri Dominion which threatens all of humanity. Windhelm is also home to crumbling and misshapen architecture, a a mysterious killer, Dunmer who live in the poorest slums, and Argonians who live on the segregated docks.
- The Elder Scrolls Online has lorebooks which talk about the Ayleid city states of Delodiil and Abagarlas. Delodiil was progressive and populated by artists and scholars, and its people worshiped Meridia, a Fallen Angel style Daedric Prince. Abagarlas was a military state whose people worshiped Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of Corruption and Domination. Abgarlas's King was so jealous of Delodiil that he planned on sacking it and sacrificing every one of its citizens to Molag Bal, but by the time he and his army arrived, Delodiil had vanished, and Abgarlas had been sacked. Thw Coldharbour arc reveals that Delodiil was absorbed into Coldharbour, Molag Bal's realm, and becomes the main trade hub during the Coldharbour quests. Abgarlas is explorable as a dungeon.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Trope namer is the real life rivalry between ancient Athens and ancient Sparta.
- In actual practice, both cities were built on slavery and both were militarily expansionist great powers who thought nothing of sacking weaker nations (like the Island of Melos). Athens' idea of democracy was restricted to men from native born families, who were expected to lead the armies (aristoi) and said to possess "the best qualities"/arete (from which we get the word aristokratia — Power of the Best). Later authors and historians noted that, on some level, the Spartans are more admirable because they didn't pretend they weren't a brutal slave-driven society, unlike the Athenians who saw themselves as promoting freedom. Spartans likewise had a greater role for women in society, whereas in Athens, women weren't even allowed the rights to public assembly, aside from prostitutes.
- Likewise, many Athenian philosophers admired Sparta. Some of them, such as Xenophon, fought for Sparta against Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. Some of the Spartan ideas of organizing society and the way they taught their elites, inspired England's Public School system, the Ivy League, and philosophers like Niccolò Machiavelli and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who noted that whatever their flaws, Sparta's system lasted longer and was more stable than Athens'.
- Bear in mind that Athens self-consciously styled itself as civilized and they are the source of all of our information about themselves and their neighbors. The Athenians famously derided foreigners despite their city being celebrated by Pericles as a "School of Hellas" and filled with foreigners. They used a word to describe all non-Athenians, barbarian, because to them all non-Athenians sounded like Funny Foreigners (their languages were mocked as nonsense like "bar-bar-bar", i.e. Black Speech).
- In the short term, the Spartans won The Peloponnesian War, but Sparta was eventually defeated by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra, and the occupying Thebans freed many helots and slave runaways. Sparta resisted conquest and subjugation by the Macedonians (under Philip II and Alexander the Great) but this meant that they famously played no role in the Alexandrian-Hellenistic eranote . Athens, under conquest, flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman era, remaining a major student town until Late Antiquity, and becoming the modern capital of Greece. Sparta was Demoted to Extra, becoming a theme park for Romans who saw Spartan rites and manliness as a kind of professional wrestling sports entertainment of antiquity, and saw The Spartan Way as the province of circus freaks. The modern city was rebuilt in 1834 and while Sparta now acknowledges Athens as the capital of Greece, the ancient rivalry continues in politics and sports. Modern Athens is more liberal allowing them to better resemble the city the ancient Athenians presented themselves as, while Modern Sparta is more conservative, but even the conservative modern Spartans would be more liberal compared to Ancient Athenians.
- The Punic Wars pitted The Roman Republic against Carthage. Both of them were expansionist city-states with client-kingdoms. The only sources for the conflict come down from Roman historians, who as a rule tended to paint Rome as the civilized land of virtue, patriotism and military glory and they loathed Carthage and its population, who they painted as "barbarians" (their word to describe all non-Romans, be they Italian, Gallic, Gothic, Britannic, Persian or anything else). The Romans noted that the Carthaginians practiced Human Sacrifice of children, of which we apparently have some archaeological evidence but it is highly disputed. Likewise, the Romans, as per Livy, themselves performed Human Sacrifice after their defeat at the Battle of Cannae but Livy is sure to remind us that this is the last time it happened.
- Roman writers went on about how Roman glory was built on citizen soldiers while Hannibal's army was composed largely of mercenaries. Indeed Carthage's Merchant Oligarchy hired mercenaries and clients to fight their wars for them, and Roman victory was because of its ideology and patriotism and their ability to subvert or annex Carthaginian allies. So in a certain sense, Carthage is the Athens to Rome's Sparta... the former is a sophisticated, worldly, commercial society while the latter is a military-driven society bound by strong ideology. Likewise, Carthage, like Athens, was primarily a naval power, while the Romans were largely and mainly a land army like the Spartans.
- Incidentally, during The French Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars, France painted England as "the Modern Carthage" with themselves as the Romans. They did this because they pointed out that England was a largely naval power while the French under Napoleon were a land-based power. The former was driven largely by mercantile and commercial interests while the latter was bound by ideology and promises like meritocracy and liberty. Of course, the English saw themselves as the true Romans opposing the Modern Hannibal, Napoleon.
- North Korea and South Korea. South Korea is a wealthy, technologically advanced and respected democracy with fast internet connection, and StarCraft tournaments. However, North Korea is poor, has scarce food, a HUGE military and is a communist dictatorship. Spying and espionage are common among the two Koreas and both want to reunify the country, but under their own ideals.
- This is largely a recent development. During the Korean War and its aftermath, both nations were brutal dictatorships that committed war crimes during the conflict and committed many human rights abuses after the war. North Korea likewise was bombed into the Stone Age during the war, with Pyongnang almost entirely destroyed and losing all its infrastructure, subsisting on aid given by USSR and China (who both had their own problems) while South Korea received much aid from America for redevelopment.
- In America, many people, especially New Yorkers and other East Coasters, see themselves as Athens to Los Angeles' Sparta — and vice versa, with Los Angelenos and other West Coasters considering themselves the Athens to the East Coast Spartans. Each of these two cosmopolitan coastal cities see themselves as the Melting Pot, the center of the art and theater worlds and of politics, agreeing with each other that the rest of America is flyover country of little interest, but each also sees the other city as a trashy West Coast wanna-be / East Coast has-been.
Fran Liebowitz: "Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel."
- The East Coast and the West Coast, particularly in and around the metro areas of the large coastal cities like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, together can be seen as the Athens to the rest of the United States Sparta. The Coastal states particularly the cites are rich centers of culture, while other regions tend to struggle a lot more with money and are generally seen as backwaters. A rule of thumb is that any part of the country that Republicans call 'Coastal Elites' are the Athens, while parts inhabited by 'deplorable redneck gun nuts' are the Sparta.
- In general, American liberals have proudly seen themselves as "sophisticated, wise, educated" Athens over the "crude war-mongers" of the other side while American conservatives have proudly seen themselves as "tough, practical, effective" Sparta over the "decadent dilettantes" of the other side, regardless of which party is conservative and which party is liberal that era.
- Lancashire and Yorkshire, two counties in the North of England. Historically, much of Yorkshire remained Celtic kingdoms after Lancashire became a Roman wasteland, and later the Wars of the Roses were fought (Lancs = red rose, Yorks = white rose). The rivalry persists today, with there only being one route between the neighbouring counties — and it's a dangerous mountain pass. Tykes insist that Lancastrians aren't actually Northern, which is the most damning of insults there. Lancastrians insist that their hotpot is better than the Yorkshire pudding.