After the demise of their previous band, At the Drive-In, drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos got together and talked about forming a new band. Hinojos contacted former At the Drive-In guitarist and back-up vocalist Jim Ward to take the role of lead vocalist. After a brief stint with Erick Sanger, the three recruited Matt Miller, a native to El Paso and then bassist of the band Belknap to permanently fill the position of bassist, with Hinojos switching to guitar. The band then scored a deal with Dreamworks in 2001. The band released their first EP entitled Austere in early 2002 under the name Sparta. The EP met with mixed reviews, with most believing that the group had talent and the ability, but had yet to find their voice.
In August 2002, Sparta released their debut full-length album, Wiretap Scars. The album, although not well received by all of the mainstream Post-hardcore audience, brought well-earned respect and relieved some of the pressure brought on by the shadow of At the Drive-In. The record was deemed a cleaner, more accessible sound than ATDI's distortion fueled offerings. True to their roots, the opening song "Cut Your Ribbon" was described as "splintering, power-hungry rock", and other tracks such as "Cataract", "Glasshouse Tarot" and "Mye" were noted for their emotion and "absurdly exuberant melody". Sparta maintained its underground following with shows at smaller venues throughout North America and Europe. They were also exposed to a wider audience in April and May 2003, opening several shows for Pearl Jam. While on tour for Wiretap Scars, Sparta employed the help of their friend Gabriel Gonzalez to play third guitar and keyboards, he can be seen in the music videos from 2003's Big Day Out festival, among other videos circulating online. Gonzalez now performs with his own band, Volador, and is a member of Ward's side project Sleepercar.
On May 25, 2003, Ward's cousin, Jeremy, died of a heroin overdose. Jeremy was at the time the sound manipulator for The Mars Volta created by former At the Drive-In bandmates Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, and frontman of De Facto. The loss of his cousin would have a profound and lasting impact on Ward.
The band resumed writing new material, and on March 19, 2004 recorded a live album at La Zona Rosa. The album had seven tracks and six songs, including two previously unrecorded tracks: "Lines in Sand" and "La Cerca". The album captured some of the live performance experience, but was not sold in stores and only available as a promotional CD. Videos for the songs "Cut Your Ribbon", "Mye", and "La Cerca" can be found online, recorded by the music television station Fuse TV.
In July 2004, the band released their second album, Porcelain. Despite popular belief, none of the tracks are fueled by the loss of Jeremy Ward. Tracks such as "Death in the Family" and "Travel by Bloodline" stem from other personal losses, such as Jim Ward's grandfather and a close friend. In a 2004 issue of the magazine Alternative Press, Ward describes his feelings towards these events, and how they have affected him. "...he will admit that he hasn't yet made sense of it, and, perhaps for that reason, there isn't a song on Porcelain about Jeremy. I don't think I'll ever make peace with that," he says. Immediately prior to the release, Sparta toured as the opening act for Incubus, after which followed their own headlining tour.