Did victory for the Spartans destroy their state?

Mike Anderson has written a very interesting article about the Spartan army after the Peloponnesean war, with that invaluable thing, numbers attached. 

At the end of the war, by 398 BC, the Spartans could field 6,000 hoplites – Spartiates, who lived as permanent soldiers and ate in the communal messes, under their peculiar but egalitarian polity.   But the loot of the war wrecked the state.  Once there was money, there were rich and poor.  Rich men are not keen to live as conscripts, and their sons less so.

Famously the Spartan ascendancy came to an end at the battle of Leuctra in 371, when they were defeated by the Thebans under Epaminondas.  The result of the battle was met with general rejoicing among the Greeks.  But Mike points out that only 1,050 Spartiates were present.  The rest of the army was made up of Perioeci, the associates.  Luxury had destroyed the Spartan system; new methods of fighting did the rest.


9 thoughts on “Did victory for the Spartans destroy their state?

  1. The lack of homoioi was a problem that Sparta faced ever since the Persian War. Herodotus talks of 8000 homoioi in 480 BC, there were less than 4000 homoioi at the time of Mantineia even with those not present in battle, when Agesilaus returned after Leuctra if they were to remove homoios status from the 300 survivors of the battle (punishment mandated by Law when a Spartan returns from a losing battle alive) they would only have 700 homoioi left. Sparta was never the socialist paradise the aristocratic party of Athens claimed. Social polarization had begun before the Peloponnesian War and by destroying the lower classes left the city without citizens. The earthquake of 468 BC and the Peloponnesian War had a major impact but it was to reinforce a pre-existing process, not to create one de novo

  2. ikokki,

    Thanks for your contribution. There is considerable evidence that the crisis in Spartiate manpower set in shortly after the defeat of Xerxes, and it is hard to believe that Sparta could really field 6,000 Spartiate hoplites in 398. However, I would like to know where you found evidence that Spartiate survivors of a lost battle lost their citizenship? Even the survivors of Thermopylae were not denied citizenship. One (Eurytas)took his own life and the other (Aristodemos) deployed with the rest of the Spartan army in 479 for the Battle of Plataea – where he distinguished himself and was killed, fighting in the Spartan line. There is also no indication that after defeats against Tegea and Argos earlier in Spartan history that the survivors were subjected to particular sanctions much less punished with the loss of citizenship. If you have evidence to the contrary, I’d be very interested in seeing it. Thank you. Helena P. Schrader (You might also be interested in my website “Sparta Reconsidered” at: http://elysiumgates.com/~helena/index.html, or my blog of the same name: http://www.spartareconsidered.blogspot.com)

  3. I’ve also heard the idea that Spartiates who showed cowardice or were defeated — my source was vague — were deprived of their citizenship. But I owe this information, not to any reliable source, but to a collection of Greek wit! Let me see if I can find the item, with its ancient reference, and post it here.

  4. My source was F.A.Paley, “Greek wit”, first series, p.67:

    236. After the defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra, there was a general panic in the city, since the law held every citizen to be disfranchised who had shown cowardice. Agesilaus being appointed by the State Legislator with full powers to annul the penalty, made the following proclamation:- “From tomorrow the laws are to be in force.” Ibid. 10.

    The ibid reference is to “PLUT., Reg. et Imp. Apophth, Lys. (i.e. “Sayings of kings and commanders: Lysander”). But it is actually under the sayings of Agesilaus, of course. An English translation is here:

    The law ordained that such as ran away should be disgraced. After the fight at Leuctra, the Ephors, seeing the city void of men, were willing to dispense with that disgrace, and empowered Agesilaus to make a law to that purpose. But he standing in the midst commanded that after the next day the laws should remain in force as before.

    I think this must be part of Plutarch’s Moralia. An English translation of all these, by W.Goodwin the grammarian, can be found here.

    It would be interesting to know what the Greek is, particularly for “disgraced”. I wonder if this is in Perseus?

  5. Very interesting! Thank you for taking the time to dig these sources up. Since we know Spartan survivors of earlier defeats (including Thermopylae) were not disenfranchised, the law in question was most probably added at a later date, presumably during the Peloponesian War. The introduction of such a draconian law would be consistent with increasing xenophobia and bigotry in Spartan society. We too often forget that Sparta existed as a distinct city-state for over 400 years and it was changed substantially during this stretch of time. I personally find archaic Sparta far more attractive as a society – which is why I like writing about it. Thanks again for responding to my query. Helena

  6. Glad to help! Just guessing, I would imagine it was added in the triumphalism after the Peloponesian War, and some time after. It’s hard for me to imagine Lysander, or any general with field experience, agreeing to it. To me it feels like something a jingo civilian politician might propose after the war, to show how martial he was, and everyone else agree to because they were afraid of looking cowardly. (C. S. Lewis records some of this sort of thing in his letters written in WW2). Of course it would work only while the army was only involved in skirmishes, with no real risk of defeat.

    Thank you for all you do on this!

  7. Roger,

    That sounds convincing to me. After all, we know the Spartiates who surrendered at Sphakteria were not only ransomed, but remained franchised since a law had to be passed, if I remember correctly, to prevent them from being elected to public office. It is not reasonable to think that Sparta would have sued for peace and paid huge ransoms for men they then intended to disenfranchise and otherwise humiliate. So even as late as that, Sparta had no law against surrender.


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