The Spartan Empire

Last week, we looked at Sparta’s domestic political arrangements and saw how Sparta adopted a program of reform that was highly innovative but designed for long-term stability. This week, we’ll take a look at Sparta’s military and diplomatic developments, where, once again, Sparta proved extremely innovative.

The best-known feature of the Spartan constitution was that it created a military state: every adult male Spartan was a soldier and a soldier exclusively. When King Agesilaus was campaigning in Ionia, someone complained that he only had thirty Spartans with him. In response, the king ordered his entire army to sit out in a field and sequentially called out for the practitioners of various trades to stand up. By the end, everyone had stood up except the Spartans, for they practiced no trade but war.

As with many things, the relative militarism of Sparta has been overstated. In every Greek city, all adult men between 20 and 60 were liable for military service. What made Sparta distinct was that all citizens fought as hoplites and owned top-of-the-line gear. Other cities split their forces between hoplites, light infantry, and cavalry, with each citizen fighting with whatever weapons he could afford. In Sparta, however, citizens fought as hoplites, as did perioikoi eligible for military service, while helots served as light infantry. Since much of Greece is poor horse country, cavalry forces were not actually very useful, so Spartans converted their cavalry into their kings’ bodyguard, a strictly infantry force. These arrangements gave Sparta the largest and best-equipped army in Greece.

Not satisfied with this, Sparta also invented drill and mass maneuver. They actually trained as soldiers, an innovation all by itself that would not be duplicated in Greece for over two hundred years, and used flute music to help them march together in time. Their discipline and ability to maintain formation allowed the Spartans to triumph as much as their numbers and gear did. It also gave them the ability to perform maneuvers which no other Greek army could match. Agesilaus once found himself caught in a valley facing a larger army; in response, he instructed his line to fold back on itself, halving its length but doubling its depth. Still facing the enemy, Agesilaus conducted a withdrawal through a mountain pass in his rear and unfolded the army on the other side. The enemy followed but lost cohesion in the pass, so when battle was joined, the Spartans triumphed.

The Spartans needed their large and powerful army to assure the subjection of the Messenians. Maintaining control of Messenia was the principal aim of Spartan policy, and it forced the Spartans to move carefully in foreign affairs. The bulk of the Spartan army was always held in reserve, lest the Messians revolt: even faced with conquest by Persia, only half of the Spartans marched to Plataea in 479 B.C. Despite having the most powerful army in Greece, Sparta had to deploy it very carefully.

Political domination of the rest of the Peloponnesus was another prerequisite for the security of Messenia: any substantial rival to Sparta might incite the Messenians to revolt, and combined foreign and domestic troubles would be too much for Sparta to withstand. Shortly after the Second Messenian War, Sparta moved against the city of Tegea but ended up being defeated. This military failure signaled to the Spartans that they could not conquer their neighbors in the same way as they had conquered Messenia. Diplomacy was just as important as military power, and the great ephor Chilon designed the policy which brought Sparta to supremacy.

Eventually, the Spartans did defeat Tegea, but instead of being enserfed like the Messenians, the Tegeans became allies of Sparta: they would follow Sparta’s lead in foreign policy and lend troops in war but otherwise be allowed to conduct their own affairs. After Tegea, Sparta made alliances of this kind with cities throughout Arcadia, eventually encompassing almost all of the Peloponnesus and the Isthmus of Corinth. Argos was the major city which did not yield to Sparta’s supremacy, and that was by design: memories of Argive domination survived throughout the Peloponnese, and defense against Argos was one of the major selling points for a Spartan alliance.

The other plank in the Spartans’ diplomatic campaign was overthrowing the tyrants who ruled major cities in the sixth century. A strong tyrant was difficult to dislodge—and there was no such thing as a weak tyrant—so the Spartans merely provided external support to internal revolts. Tyrant after tyrant found himself threatened abroad by the Spartans and at home by his own subjects and inevitably fell. In the tyrants’ place, the Spartans installed oligarchies friendly to their interests. The practice of overthrowing tyrants won the Spartans much goodwill and a reputation as champions of liberty.

Sparta never seriously contemplated ruling all of Greece, at least not until the latter half of the Peloponnesian War. The system of alliances was admirably suited to Sparta’s aim of enforcing stability on the Peloponnesus. Even before the opening of the fifth century, Sparta held hegemonia or supremacy over Greece, which didn’t mean rulership. Rather, everyone recognized that Sparta was the most powerful city and so generally followed her lead. There were a few imperialistic Spartans during this period, who wanted to extend Sparta’s power as far as possible, but they were few, and the Spartan’s policy for the next century was focused on conserving the stable order they had built rather than aggrandizing their city.

Circumstances, however, did not allow the Spartans to sit back and enjoy their supremacy. Foreign threats emerged, and the Spartans repeatedly rose to the challenge and emerged victorious. They triumphed primarily through military skill, which involved not only mastery of old techniques but also adoption of new ones. Additionally, though the Spartan constitution made no provision for imperial governance, the Spartans managed to create such a system on the fly.

The Peloponnesian War, with its extraordinary duration and intensity, served as the catalyst for much experimentation in military and political affairs. The opening strategies of the Spartans and Athenians show part of the reason why. The Spartans planned to raise a massive army and invade Attica, forcing the Athenians to fight (and lose) or watch their food be destroyed; Pericles planned to let the Spartans come in and to purchase food from abroad, expecting the Spartans to realize that they couldn’t win and give up. The Spartans were cleverer than Pericles, however, since the Athenian treasury could only withstand three or four years of Spartan invasions. With Pericles’ death and the rise of Cleon, Athens shifted to a more aggressive strategy, forcing the Spartans to defend Laconia instead of invade Attica.

In response to Athenian attacks, the Spartans made two military adjustments. For one, they built fortresses throughout Laconia and established permanent garrisons. The soldiers stationed in these forts were accustomed to seasonal campaigning and complained of their new assignments, but it was a necessity for defending against amphibious assaults. The other innovation was the revival of the old Spartan cavalry. Infantry simply could not move rapidly enough to counter Athenian landings.

As the Spartans tried to counter the Athenians’ navy, the Athenians experimented with techniques to defeat the Spartan army. Demosthenes studied Aetolian light infantry tactics and used them to defeat a small Spartan force on the island of Sphacteria in 425 B.C. These tactics, however, required massive superiority in numbers, and the Spartans quickly developed countermeasures: when the enemy troops got close enough, the Spartans would rush out and slaughter them.

The Spartans also developed tactics to make their army all but unbeatable in the field. In 418 B.C., at the battle of Mantinea, the Spartans accidentally enveloped their enemy’s left flank and drove it from the field. Their discipline allowed them to then wheel right and to take the remaining enemies in the rear. In a strange case of victors learning from victory, the Spartans adopted and systematized this impromptu tactic, using it successfully in battles until 371 B.C. During this whole period, no other Greek city even tried to duplicate Sparta’s flanking tactics.

The greatest hurdle Sparta faced in the Peloponnesian War was waning social energy. To defeat the Athenians required the destruction of their empire, and that required sending troops outside the Peloponnesus. Unfortunately, few Spartans were willing to go so far—it was a risk, after all, since the Messenians could always revolt.

During the early Peloponnesian War, only one man in Sparta appears to have understood the strategic situation. Brasidas was a former ephor who constantly pressed for more aggressive action. Attached to the Spartan fleet as an advisor, he nearly browbeat the commander into burning the Piraeus; when the Athenians occupied Pylos, he led an amphibious landing against their fortifications. Brasidas was eventually given an army and allowed to campaign in the Aegean, where he captured the city of Amphipolis. Cleon and Brasidas met in battle in 424 B.C., and Brasidas outmaneuvered his Athenian counterpart, killing Cleon and routing his army, but dying himself. With Brasidas’ death, the Spartans were much more interested in peace.

Brasidas’ army, however, was something radically new. Unwilling to send large numbers of Spartans so far abroad, the ephors only allowed Brasidas to take mercenaries, Helots, and a handful of Spartan officers. When Sparta dispatched troops to Syracuse, the force was substantially the same except that only one Spartan accompanied the mission, a man named Gylippus.

Gylippus belonged to a new class of Spartans, mothaces, sons of a Spartan father and a Helot mother. Another, unnamed class consisted of men raised as Spartans but who could not afford membership in one of the public messes and so were excluded from politics. Both of these categories of men were ranked slightly below pure-blood Spartans, and they brought the energy required to lead Sparta to victory over Athens.

Lysander was also a mothax, and his naval victories at Notium and Aegospotami destroyed the Athenian fleet and empire. Lysander led a combined force of Spartans, allies, and neodamodeis, Helots who had distinguished themselves in war and been granted freedom and land by their Spartan masters. He also supported oligarchic factions throughout the Greek world and backed Cyrus of Persia’s attempted coup against his brother.

Lysander was the architect of the Spartan imperial system as well. He established a vast patronage network centered on himself at first and later his eromenos and protégé Agesilaus. Cities subject to Sparta were ruled by decarchies, narrow oligarchies led by Lysander’s friends, and by a Spartan governor called a harmost. Lysander essentially invented this system ex nihilo: nothing like it had ever existed in Greece before.

The new Spartan empire did not last long. What is remarkable about Sparta is not that it eventually fell, but how long it took to do so. For the thirty-three years between the defeat of Athens and the battle of Leuctra, Sparta faced coalition after coalition in war after war, all the while holding its own, and this when Sparta was on its last legs, only one catastrophe away from total defeat. Athens’ rise and fall took less than a century; Thebes was wiped off the map a mere thirty-six years after Leuctra; Sparta rose in the early sixth century and fell in the early fourth century, roughly two hundred years.

The secret to Sparta’s success was a constitution that limited internal conflict combined with the ability to improvise and adapt to changing circumstances abroad. Polybius noticed close similarities between Sparta and Rome, as did other ancient commentators. So why did Sparta fall while Rome conquered the world? Next week we’ll answer that question.

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  1. I’d pay for a book written like this.

  2. Alcibiades, the Athenian golden-boy turned traitor, had a lot to do with Sparta changing its strategy during the Peloponnesian war, especially his instructions to build forts in Attica (which the post mentions) instead of their seasonal, futile raids. And don’t forget that Sparta bowed out of the war after the bitter surrender of 400 or so Spartiates at Sphacteria. The Athenian debacle at Syracuse and Alcibiades’ treason did a lot to re-energize and revolutionize the Spartan war effort.

    It is great to think about those past societies and see models for us in the present. Since all of them fell one way or another, let’s not be too quick to idolize any individual one.

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