A History of Sparta and its impact on Greece from the Persian Wars to Rome
In the 2nd Persian war Sparta had her finest hour for it was under her leadership and with the Dorian spear that Greece could call itself free from Persian power. What happened to all this goodwill that Leonidas and the Spartan hoplites who died at Thermopylae had paid for.
After the Persians had been driven out of mainland Greece. Pausanias the victor of Plataea led a victorious expedition to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor. However his arrogant behavior upset the Eastern Greeks and led to his recall and exile and Spartan withdrawal from the war. This left a vacuum that Athens was more than ready to fill and the Delian League ostensibly created to carry on the war against Persia was formed but which turned out to be more than a vessel for Athenian empire building. The Spartans retreated to their Peloponnesian League, a league where the members had far greater autonomy than the Delian league. The great earthquake in 464 which devastated Sparta sparked off a major revolt of helots in Laconia and Messenia, this in its turn caused tension between Athens and Sparta which culminated in the first Peloponnesian war, a series of military conflicts at most. War by proxy inevitably led to all out conflict in what became known as the Archidamnian war. The Spartans being under considerable pressure to restrain the growth of Athenian power brought upon by fear and suspicion.
It had been anticipated that the fall of Athens would mean the triumph of the principle of autonomy. If Athens had surrendered within a year or so of the Sicilian catastrophe, this anticipation would probably have been fulfilled. It was the last phase of the struggle (412-404 B.C.) that rendered a Spartan empire inevitable. The oligarchical governments established by Lysander recognized that their tenure of power was dependent upon Spartan support, while Lysander himself, to whose genius, as a political organizer not less than as a commander, the triumph of Sparta was due, was unwilling to see his work undone. The Athenian empire had never included the greater part of Greece proper; since the Thirty Years' Peace its possessions on the mainland, outside the boundaries of Attica, were limited to Naupactus and Plataea. Sparta, on the other hand, attempted the control of the entire Greek world east of the Adriatic. Athens had been compelled to acknowledge a dual system; Sparta sought to establish uniformity. The attempt failed from the first. Within a year of the surrender of Athens, Thebes and Corinth had drifted into an attitude of opposition, while Argos remained hostile.
It was not long before the policy of Lysander succeeded in uniting against Sparta the very forces upon which she had relied when she entered on the Peloponnesian War. The Corinthian War (394-387 B.C.) was brought about by the alliance of all the second class powers Thebes, Athens, Corinth, Argos- against the one first class power, Sparta. Though Sparta emerged successful from the war, it was with the loss of her maritime empire, and at the cost of recognizing the principle of autonomy as the basis of the Greek political system. It was already evident, thus early in the century, that the centrifugal forces were to prove stronger than the centripetal.
Two further causes may be indicated which help to explain the failure of the Spartan empire. In the first place Spartan sea power was an artificial creation. History seems to show that it is idle for a state to aspire to naval supremacy unless it possesses a great commercial marine. Athens had possessed such a marine; her naval supremacy was due not to the mere size of her fleet, but to the numbers and skill of her seafaring population. Sparta had no commerce. She could build fleets more easily than she could man them. A single defeat (at Cnidus, 391 B.C.) sufficed for the ruin of her sea power. The second cause is to be found in the financial weakness of the Spartan state. The Spartan treasury had been temporarily enriched by the spoils of the Peloponnesian War, but neither during that war, nor afterwards, did Sparta succeed in developing any scientific financial system, Athens was the only state which either possessed a large annual revenue or accumulated a considerable reserve. Under the conditions of Greek warfare, fleets were more expensive than armies. Not only was money needed for the building and maintenance of the ships, but the sailor must be paid, while the soldier served for nothing. Hence the power with the longest purse could both build the largest fleet and attract the most skilful seamen.
The battle of Leuctra and the consecutive Theban triumph transferred the hegemony from Sparta to Thebes, but the attempt to unite Greece under the leadership of Thebes was from the first doomed to failure. The conditions were less favorable to Thebes than they had been to Athens or Sparta. Thebes was even more exclusively a land power than Sparta. She had no revenue comparable to that of Athens in the preceding century. Unlike Athens and Sparta, she had not the advantage of being identified with a political cause. As the enemy of Athens in the 5th century, she was on the side of oligarchy; as the rival of Sparta in the 4th, she was on the side of democracy; but in her bid for primacy she could not appeal, as Athens and Sparta could, to a great political tradition, nor had she behind her, as they had, the moral force of a great political principle. Her position, too, in Boeotia itself was insecure. The rise of Athens was in great measure the result of the synoecism . . . of Attica. All inhabitants of Attica were Athenians. But "Boeotian" and "Theban" were not synonymous terms. The Boeotian league was an imperfect form of union, as compared with the Athenian state, and the claim of Thebes to the presidency of the league was, at best, sullenly acquiesced in by the other towns.
The destruction of some of the most famous of the Boeotian cities, however necessary it may have been in order to unite the country, was a measure which at once impaired the resources of Thebes and outraged Greek sentiment. It has been often held that the failure of Theban policy was due to the death of Epaminondas (at the battle of Mantinea, 362 B.C.). For this view there is no justification. His policy had proved a failure before his death. Where it harmonized with the spirit of the age, the spirit of dissidence, it succeeded; where it attempted to run counter to it, it failed. It succeeded in destroying the supremacy of Sparta in the Peloponnese; it failed to unite the Peloponnese on a new basis. It failed still more importantly to unite Greece north of the Isthmus. It left Greece weaker and more divided than it found it. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of his policy as a destructive force; as a constructive force it offered nothing.
The constant battle for hegemony between the Greek cities after their Persian triumph, firstly between Athens and Sparta and secondly between Sparta and Thebes allowed the rise of the more northern city states, firstly the Thessalian League which lost its chance when Jason of Pherae was assassinated and then the uniting of Macedonia under the strong leadership of Phillip allowed the Macedonians to fill the power vacuum and take on the pan-Hellenic mantle of a crusade against Persia. Chaeronea in 338 consigned the Greek cities to a subservient and secondary roll in this. As for Sparta, Agis' III belated rising in 331 against Alexander and a reformed if short-lived Spartan Peloponnesian league under Areus ended in disaster as a sideshow of the Succession wars were brief interludes in a period of Spartan impotency until the reforms of Agis IV and Cleomenes III in the last third of the 3rd century B.C when Sparta once more steps up a division to challenge on the world stage. Lack of money, men but not resolve lost the day and only a brief last hurrah under Nabis punctuated Sparta's' decline into the Achaean League and eventual heritage status under the Romans when Spartan prestige was measured more by the number of magistrates than military power.
Demographic reality doomed Sparta's system, which allowed for mobility downward from the ranks of the Similars, but no upward mobility. In each generation fewer persons had a stake in the armed camp that was Spartan society. Sparta's later reputation may be attributed to the antidemocratic sentiments of ancient writers seeking a contrast to Athens's open society and modern nostalgia for an imaginary ideal polis.