Whatever Happened to the Spartans?

Who doesn’t love the Spartans?  Those wacky, ripped super-men of few words and huge enslaved underclass that built an entire society around warfare and preservation of their way of life.  Laconophilia, or a love of Sparta and Spartan culture (named after Lacedaemon Λακεδαίμων, an alternate name of Sparta), has been an underlying current of the Western world since antiquity (and even among politicians now), and even a movie of dubious historicity.

But even with the questionable history around the Spartans, the image of Sparta is a persistent one.  However, one thing that many people are unaware of is the fate of Sparta after their high-water mark of power in the 4th century BCE, during the Peloponnesian Wars and their stand against Persia.

In the short-term, Sparta lost a critical battle in 371 BCE called the Battle of Leuctra to another major city-state named Thebes which was an oligarchic society, and a frequent foe of both Sparta and Athens.  The victorious general, Epaminondas, knew he would have trouble dealing with the power Spartan phalanx head-on, so he employed unconventional tactics to attack the right-flank of the Spartan military and causing the rest of the line to collapse.  The Spartan military was powerful, but inflexible, and this became a theme of the Spartan downfall I believe.

Let’s take a step back and look at Spartan society, which was basically divided into two classes: the spartiatés (Σπᾰρτῐᾱ́της) who were full-citizens and the helots (εἵλωτες) who were the enslaved underclass.  Spartan society was built around the idea that the helots would do all the menial labor so the Spartiates (namely, men) could focus all their time and honing their military skills.  Other social classes existed somewhere in the middle (for example conquered peoples who were neither Spartiates nor Helots), but were sidelined by Spartan society.  This social structure did not always exist, but was designed as a kind of social-experiment by one Lycurgus after a period of societal collapse around the 7th or 8th century.

In order to be a Spartiates, this meant that you had to be descended Spartan citizens, but also that you had to pay a membership “fee” which helped fund the training schools, communal mess halls, etc.  At its height, Sparta may have had around 25,000-30,000 such citizens.

What happened though was that after Sparta lost wars such as the Battle of Leuctra, it couldn’t replace its losses very quickly.  The bar for being a Spartiates was so high, that even Spartiates sometimes lost their status and were demoted.  Generations later, the Spartans couldn’t field more than 1000 soldiers at most.  Further, Sparta’s economic system was unusual. Its currency was iron bars, not coins as other Greek city-states used, and due to unusual inheritance laws, its wealth by and by was concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of wealthy land-holders.  Other Spartan citizens became mired in debt (and unable to generate new avenues of wealth due to Sparta’s backwards economic system) and lost their citizen status as a result. By the reign of King Agis IV (see below), there were no more than 700 Spartiates left, and thousands had recently lost their status.

Sparta eventually came to realize that its highly elite social structure also meant that it was inflexible (not to mention strangled innovation), and certain kings attempted to introduce reforms during the Hellenistic Period.  The first, King Agis IV (r.244 – 241 BC), attempted a sweeping land-reform that would correct the wealth imbalance that plagued Sparta, while also increasing the pool of Spartiates by allowing Perioikoi (Περίοικος, conquered people who were partial Spartan citizens) to be Spartiates.  As Michael Grant writes in From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World:

Opposition, however, was strong. The owners of the large properties, though glad enough to have their debts cancelled, were naturally hostile to the redistribution of their own land; and some of ephors, horrified at what sounded like a recipe for revolution, supported these objections. Moreover, even by having their debts cancelled, found it very distasteful to have perioikoi as fellow-citizens and sharers in their new property.

King Agis IV didn’t last much longer and was ultimately killed by the opposition, particularly by his co-monarch King Leonidas II.1 Soon after came Cleomenes III (r.235 – 219 BC), son of Leonidas II. Cleomenes started his rule with some forceful military victories but then turned his attention back to Sparta and abolished the ephors altogether and cancelled debts, enlisted perioikoi and even allowed some helots to buy their freedom. All the while, he redistributed land holdings as well. As Michael Grant writes, these measures were drastic, but intended to increase the Spartan army enough to take on the rival Achaean League. Despite these efforts, the Spartan army was almost entirely destroyed in the year 222, and Cleomenes fled to Egypt. Cleomenes’ rule was popular with the poor, but tyrannical and ultimately self-destructive. Finally, came Nabis (r.207 – 192 BC) who attempted to revive the reforms of Cleomenes and liberated even more helot slaves, but his reckless foreign policy against Rome and the Achaean League made him no friends and was soon killed by a former ally.

Michael Grant explains the decline and failure to revive Sparta like so:

The Spartan ‘revolutions’ had failed, because they were backward-looking and made no attempt to create new wealth, of with there was not enough to go round.

Sparta was conquered not long after and became a literal tourist-trap for Romans and later visitors. Romans at the time would often holiday there and see its weird, exotic traditions, but ultimately that was the end of Sparta as an independent state.

While the idea of Sparta might be fascinating, in practice it was an odd social-experiment that didn’t really pan out. Sparta’s social structure looked good on paper, but eventually lost as its enemies adapted and the weight of its own hard-headed (not to mention oppressive) traditions stifled it. Compare with the Roman military of the early Republic which lost many, many times, but eventually defeated its enemies because they were willing to experiment and take their lumps until they got it right. Each time, they faced a new threat, they adapted and pushed back. Sparta, by contrast, remained proudly conservative in the face of change, and ultimately just petered out until it was irrelevant.


P.S. Compare with the city-state of Athens, which gradually reformed itself multiple times until it became the democratic system we all know.

1 Sparta was unusual as it was a diarchy, not a monarchy. The two kings ruled equally, and took turns, with the Ephors keeping both in line.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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