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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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 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.

    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
  • 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.
  • 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.

    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.

    Real Life 
  • The Trope Namer is the real life rivalry between ancient Athens and ancient Sparta. Their rivalry has long since ended; nowadays, modern Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece, while modern Sparta is a town in the rural Peloponnese with little choice but to yield to Athens's dominance (modern Sparta plays fifth fiddle in today's Peloponnese, behind not only illustrious names like Corinth but also towns that barely existed in ancient times like Kalamata and Tripolis).
    • In modern Greece, Athens seems to be at odds with its co-capital, Thessaloniki, a rivalry which itself is parodied over and over again in Greek media, due to both of them being the biggest and most powerful cities of the country.
  • Athens and Sparta were themselves predated by the Mycenaean Greeks, who were warrior kingdoms and the Minoans, traders and artists and the basis of Atlantis, with little archaeological evidence of extended warfare until the Mycenaeans attacked them.
  • The Punic Wars pitted The Roman Republic against Carthage. Both of them were expansionist city-states with client-kingdoms. The only known 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" (for a time 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 how much it was actually done 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 Barca'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.
  • Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two main Middle Eastern powerhouses, can be seen as Athens and Sparta respectively. Saudi Arabia is a (slightly sketchy) ally of the United States, with Crystal Spires and Togas as buildings and wealthy businessmen who make big investments in oil. It is sparsely populated with an average-sized army equipped with advanced contemporary technology. Iran, on the other hand, is considered one of America's greatest foes. Most of its urban buildings are rather ill-coloured, and the streets can be seen as far more tradition with bazaars and markets. It is also a theocratic dictatorship with a highly skilled and disciplined soldiers despite using mostly military technology from the '80s and '90s. Oh, and the two are using smaller Middle Eastern countries to fight a proxy war against each other.
    • Arguably deconstructed, similarly to the original Athens and Sparta. While Saudi Arabia may be the wealthier nation, the lack of freedom and the sheer amount of human rights violations in the country is on par with, if not even worse than, its northern Shia rival. In fact, only recently did the country allow women to drive thanks to the policies of the new prince Mohammed bin Salman (who more or less only permitted them for publicity). Overall, it is just another brutal theocratic dictatorship not all that different from Iran but it gets better treatment from the rest of the world because it's better at public relations.
  • 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 inhabited by what Republicans call 'coastal elites' are the Athens, while parts inhabited by what Democrats call '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/region is conservative and which party/region is liberal that era.
    • Texas has its own version: the (very liberal) big cities, especially Austin, San Antonio and Houston, are Athens, and the (very conservative) rural areas in between them are Sparta.
  • Some of the strongest sports rivalries between cities occur as fanbases tend to sort themselves into two sides with differing cultures, especially so if the cities are geographically close to each other. A few examples:
    • During the early part of the 20th century, the rivalry between Major League Baseball's New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers had this kind of connotation. Although Brooklyn had ceased to exist as a separate municipality from the City of New York as of the 1898 consolidation, it very much retained its own character as a working-class area. This extended to the local fanbase — the Dodgers nickname came from some writers saying that their spectators had to dodge the trolleys crisscrossing the streets of Brooklyn on the way to Ebbets Field. By contrast, the New York Giants based in Manhattan were the team of the well-to-do, Manhattan being where all the big banks and cultural centers were. They even played at the Polo Grounds, a sport traditionally associated with the rich. When the franchises left for California in 1958, their rivalry was carried with them.
    • The National Football League's Raiders have spent most of their existence in metro areas shared with another NFL team — with the 49ers during their tenures in the Bay Area and with the Rams during their time in Los Angeles. Especially during their time as the Oakland Raiders, they and the Raider Nation fanbase considered themselves the Sparta (Oakland being the working-class main port of the Bay Area and the team cultivating an industrious, nose-grinding bad-boy outlaw image) to San Francisco's Athens (the more established and posh city with the international renown).
    • At the college level, the long rivalry (nicknamed "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate") between the University of Georgia (UGA) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) spills over into how their host cities are seen. Though both are universities for higher learning, Georgia Tech is primarily an engineering school who focuses more on solving problems, and Atlanta is more known for being a major industrial and transportation center with a culture that is less tied to the rest of the South than many others, making it the Sparta (relatively speaking — this is certainly not to suggest that Atlanta lacks culture of any kind). As for UGA? Besides being focused more on the liberal arts, the city their main campus is in is literally called Athens.
  • 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.
  • France has its two largest cities, Paris and Marseille. Paris, for all its flaws, is the greatest political and cultural center in the country, which makes it Athens. Marseille, while equally rich in history and actually more ancient than Paris, is Sparta, with its friendlier but also more aggressive social culture and high levels of delinquence. This trope is often exacerbated by soccer fans, as the PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) and the OM (Olympique de Marseille) are the two teams with the greatest rivalry in the country.