Last week, we saw how Sparta rose to supremacy in Greece by combining a stable constitution with adaptability and innovation in military affairs and foreign diplomacy. Still, the Spartan empire fell, and today we’ll take a look at how and why that happened.
It is easiest to point to specific events which built upon each other and culminated in Sparta’s defeat. The first was the battle of Cunaxa and the death of Prince Cyrus in 401 B.C. During the war with Athens, Lysander had forged a close relationship with the young prince of Persia, and Cyrus’ aid was crucial for Sparta’s victory. In return, Lysander supported Cyrus’ bid for the Persian throne, allowing him to recruit over ten thousand Greek mercenaries and keeping his intentions secret.
Supporting Cyrus’ coup was a bold move and risky. When it failed, Sparta earned the enmity of the new Persian king Darius II. The Spartans held their own against the Persians until revolts in Greece by nearly every other major city, financed with Persian monies, necessitated a withdrawal from Ionia. Sparta simply didn’t have the resources necessary to rule Greece and fight Persia at the same time.
One of the early casualties of the Corinthian War was Lysander himself, the architect of the Spartan empire. Lysander was a superb admiral but out of his element on dry land: he allowed himself to be caught off guard by a Boeotian army and fell in battle at Haliartus. Spartan politics also contributed to his death. Lysander headed up the Imperialist faction, while King Pausanias led the Traditionalists. Pausanias was supposed to bring an army into Boeotia and rendezvous with Lysander, but he marched too slowly. When Pausanias arrived at Haliartus, he retrieved the bodies of the Spartan dead under truce, effectively conceding defeat without a fight. For his tardiness and cowardice, Pausanias was banished from Sparta, but Lysander was still dead and his army scattered.
The defeat at Haliartus forced the recall of Agesilaus from Ionia. Dercylidas, a brilliant general, remained behind, but he lost much ground to the combined forces of Persia and Athens. While Agesilaus marched home, Sparta experienced both success and defeat: at the Nemea River, the Spartan home army crushed the allies, but the Spartan fleet was destroyed at Cnidus. When he arrived in Boeotia, Agesilaus defeated the allies again, but the Thebans especially distinguished themselves and gained confidence even in defeat.
The Corinthian War seesawed back and forth for another seven years. The key variable was Persian support. If Persia backed Sparta, then the Spartans could subjugate Greece; if Persia backed the other Greeks, Sparta could merely hold her own in constant warfare. Eventually, the Persians grew concerned that Athens might reclaim her old empire, and so Darius II concluded a peace with the Spartan ambassador Antalcidas guaranteeing Spartan supremacy in Greece in exchange for control over Ionia. The King’s Peace, as it was called, was humiliating—the Spartans handed free Greeks whom they had fought valiantly to protect over to the Persian yoke—but it restored a measure of peace to Greece and assured Sparta’s position for another seventeen years.
Sparta’s supremacy was far from secure, however. The Spartans destroyed the nascent Chalcidian League but were powerless to interfere with the tyrants of Pherae in their attempts to seize control of Thessaly. In 382 B.C. the Spartans seized the Cadmea of Thebes, but they were expelled in 379 B.C. by a democratic coup and popular uprising. For the next eight years Sparta and Thebes dueled as Thebes attempted to consolidate control over Boeotia.
Matters came to a head in 371 B.C. Agesilaus had repeatedly invaded Boeotia successfully, but he declined to lead the Spartan army this time, pleading his advanced age. His colleague Cleombrotus, a veteran soldier but untested as a battle commander, thus led the invasion. Cleombrotus forced the Theban army led by Epaminondas to give battle at Leuctra, hoping to annihilate the Theban forces.
Unfortunately for Sparta, virtually everything went wrong that day. The Spartan cavalry met defeat at Theban hands and retreated through the Spartan infantry line. Additionally, a river disrupted the Spartan’s flanking maneuver, throwing the line into disorder. Seeing the Spartans in confusion, Epaminondas advanced his left flank, including the famous Sacred Band. Caught out of position and facing Thebes’ best troops, the Spartans were slaughtered. For the first time in two hundred years, a Spartan army met defeat in open battle.
The battle of Leuctra launched Theban supremacy in Greece. In 370 B.C., Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnesus and even invaded Laconia. Most decisively, Epaminondas stripped the Spartans of control over Messenia and founded the city of Megalopolis as a hedge against Spartan expansion. Without the Messenian lands, Sparta’s material resources were slim. Agesilaus held the Spartan state together during this period of crisis, but Sparta’s glory days were gone. Sparta survived primarily as a source for skilled mercenaries.
These events explain how Sparta fell but not why. The obvious explanation was that Sparta was beaten down by repeated wars. Sparta’s manpower and resources were insufficient to rule Greece; other states were wealthier and more populous and so could sustain conflict for longer.
But this merely changes the question rather than answers it: why was Sparta relatively poor? After all, Laconia has some of the richest farmland in Greece, and the Spartans controlled the resources of Messenia as well. By contrast, Attica is extremely poor farmland, but Athens sustained much more severe losses, saw her empire stripped from her, and still could bounce back and be a major player in Greek politics.
Sparta had an agricultural rather than commercial economy, which contributed to her poverty. One of the Lycurgean reforms was to forbid private possession of gold and silver. This measure helped preserve Sparta’s constitutional structure by limiting upward mobility: there was no class of wealthy merchants and craftsmen demanding participation in politics and agitating for further reform.
Lysander was much blamed in antiquity for reintroducing gold and silver to Sparta after his victory over Athens but unjustly. Following the letter of the constitution, Lysander presented his plunder to the ephors, who used it primarily for state purposes. Illicitly wealth made its way into private hands, and ancient commentators claimed that this made the Spartans soft and weak. This was not the case, however: the Spartans remained superb soldiers, ready and willing to do whatever necessary for the preservation of their state. The problem was that there were very few Spartans remaining by 371 B.C.
A more serious change in Spartan economics involved the Messenian lands. According to the Lycurgean system, these lands were owned by the Spartan state and distributed in roughly equal portions to young men as they graduated from the agoge and reverted to the state upon their “owner’s” death. At some point—precisely when is unclear—these lands were made personal property, transferable and inheritable. This led to consolidation of land in the hands of a very small number of men, and only those men who owned land could call themselves Spartans.
With no means of upward mobility and much opportunity for downward mobility, the maintenance of the Spartan population depended upon the Spartans’ ability to reproduce. Simply put, the Spartans did not have enough children. Under the Lycurgean system, there was little incentive to have children, since a father’s income in his old age did not depend on the labor of his sons. Toleration of homosexuality did nothing to help matters. Herodotus reports that in 480 B.C. there were nine thousand Spartans; by Leuctra, there were less than three thousand.
The Spartans made errors, of course. Cleombrotus fumbled Leuctra; the loss at Cnidus occurred because Agesilaus appointed an incompetent admiral; Lysander and Pausanias both failed at Haliartus. The sort of errors the Spartans made, however, were not errors of policy. With her small and declining population, Sparta relied on geniuses like Lysander, Dercylidas, and Agesilaus to maintain her position, and not only were there not enough of these men but even they sometimes failed.
The closest Sparta came to policy debacle on the order of the Athenians’ Syracuse campaign was backing Cyrus’ revolt against his brother. Even here, however, the risk was calculated and limited. Greek military prowess vastly outclassed that of the Persians even in 401 B.C., and both Cyrus and Lysander reasonably calculated that the Ten Thousand would assure victory, which they very nearly did. Even when Darius II turned his ire against Sparta, his generals were repeatedly defeated by their Spartan counterparts. The Persians learned well from their defeats, so that when Alexander III of Macedon invaded Persia in 334 B.C., Darius III employed more Greek infantry than he did.
After her fall, Sparta made a number of bids to regain something of her hold position. While Alexander campaigned against Persia, King Agis III rose in revolt against the Macedonians. Antipater, Alexander’s regent in Macedon, raised his own army twice as large as Agis’ and defeated the Spartans in battle at Megalopolis. Only once more would Sparta be a significant political force in Greece.
King Agis IV led a reform movement in the mid-3rd century extremely similar to the movements which rocked the rest of Greece in the 7th and 6th centuries resulting in the rise of the tyrants. Agis failed in his efforts, but Cleomenes III took up the standard after his death. After scoring a surprise victory over the Achaean League, Cleomenes established a tyranny, began modernizing the Spartan state, and came close to conquering the whole Peloponnesus. However, the Achaeans called upon their Macedonian allies and defeated Cleomenes at Sellasia. Sparta was finished for good.
Next week, we’ll try to discover general lessons from Sparta’s history.