The great earthquake of 464 BC was arguably the single most influential event in the history of classical Sparta. Certainly it ranks with the defeat of the Persians, and the defeat of the Athenians as a momentous turning-point; a point in time so significant that what came after was drastically different to what came before. It could also be argued that it set Sparta on the course towards its eventual downfall. The earthquake shuddered and rended and devastated Sparta. Houses and buildings collapsed on a scale that caused massive casualties and death – according to some reports only five houses remained standing. The figure of twenty thousand Lacedaemonian dead, if true, would have killed a significant fraction of the Spartiate population overnight, likely burying a disproportionately high share of the ephebes who were housed together. Today we know that the earthquake was high on the Richter scale (perhaps 7.2) and its epicenter was near to Mt. Taygetus, overlooking the Eurotas valley, the Spartan heartland. Back then, the Spartans interpreted the event as a punishment by the gods, specifically Poseidon, whose temple had been violated when some helots had been dragged from there and executed.
While historians question the reports of the number of dead, there is no doubt that the earthquake left Sparta substantially weakened. A helot revolt in Messenia soon erupted, and it was joined by some outdweller towns there who saw the opportunity to rid themselves of the Spartan yoke. Some helots in Laconia, home to the more docile helot population, also rose in rebellion. Archidamus, the Eurypontid king, immediately called the reserves to muster, but the revolt was either too widespread or the Spartiate hoplite numbers insufficient, for they could not regain control. A force of three hundred Spartiates led by Aeimnestus, a hero of Plataea, was wiped out on the plain of Stenyclarus in central Messenia. The uprising was so great a threat to the diminished Spartiates that they resorted to a drastic measure: they called on their Peloponnesian allies, and even the rival Athenians (who were still formally bound to Sparta by the Hellenic League alliance and against whom the Spartans had recently been plotting war over the issue of Thasos) to help them put down the Messenians. For the first time in over a century, foreign forces would be requested to set foot in Sparta’s dominion. Only with their backs to the proverbial wall would the secretive and proud Spartiates have allowed their vulnerability to be on such public display.
Mantinea, Aegina, Plataea and Athens sent contingents to reinforce the depleted Lacedaemonians. Cimon of Athens, who was noted as a pro-Spartan and an advocate for peace between the two cities, led a four-thousand strong force of hoplites to aid Sparta. Perhaps he believed that the assistance would be recognised as a gesture of goodwill; if so, events proved otherwise. As early as 475 BC factions within Sparta had pressed for war with Athens. Already then, Athens’ rising power was manifest and the long walls it was building to Piraeus were clearly intended to make the city itself impregnable to siege by land. Thus some had argued for a preemptive war before Athens became an even greater threat. Until the Athens-Thasos conflict, the hawks had been checked by more dovish factions, but just prior to the earthquake the hawks had garnered enough support, and a decision to invade Attica had been made, but before war had been declared the earthquake had struck. Weaker and more vulnerable after the earthquake, many Spartans must have viewed Cimon’s ‘goodwill’ force with fear, suspicion and even paranoia. It would not take long for a rupture to occur.
As in the previous wars, the Messenians were eventually pressed back, and they withdrew to Mt. Ithome, the mountain in central Messenia which served as a natural fortress. There they were surrounded by the Spartans and their allies in 462 BC. While the Athenians were thought superior in siegecraft, even their efforts at conquering Ithome were futile (the stalemate there would last until 455 BC when Sparta would let the Messenians leave into exile). Spartan patience, if it could be called that, with the Athenian force soon ran out. Wary of the presence of their democratically-minded rivals in the southern Peloponnese, and particularly of the subversive influence the Athenians might have on the non-Spartiates, the Spartans dismissed Cimon and his hoplites, alone amongst the allies. It was an act of humiliation which laid bare the enmity for the Athenians. The affair cost Cimon his position in Athens, and the hawks there withdrew from the alliance with Sparta and moved to ally with Argos, Sparta’s bitter rival in the Peloponnese. It was a step just short of war, and a collision between the two powers was imminent.
Sparta’s obvious weakness in the wake of the earthquake invited challenges from its northern Peloponnesian neighbors. Argos settled scores with Mycenae and Tiryns before allying with Tegea to confront Sparta. The Arcadians in the central Peloponnese gave battle at Dipaieis but lost. On the Isthmus, Sparta’s allies, Corinth and Megara, disputed their mutual border, and when Sparta chose not to intervene, the Megarans defected from the Peloponnesian League to the Athenian alliance. Meanwhile Athens continued to expand its empire, fighting the Persians in Asia Minor and Egypt. It established a colony for the Messenian helot exiles at Naupactus near the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. Now allied with Megara, Athens was perceived as a threat to Corinth in both east and west, giving rise to an enmity that would endure independently of the Athens-Sparta rivalry.
Distracted by multiple challenges, Sparta only gradually reasserted its power in the Peloponnese. The Tegeans were defeated, but the Argives, supported by Athens, continued to give trouble. Corinth fought Athens, and Argos and Athens managed to defeat a Spartan force at Oenoa in the Argolid, perhaps during the same conflict. The defeat was not critical however for a few years later around 457 BC a Spartan-led army marched north into Boeotia to aid the Dorians who were at war with Phocis. It was a large force, counting 1,500 Spartan hoplites and 10,000 allies.
Along with the military campaign, the force, led by the Agiad kinsman Nicomedes, had a political agenda. Thucydides states that the Spartans had secret communications with a group of Athenians which planned to do away with the young democracy there. It also engaged in discussions with nearby Thebes about an arrangement that would allow Theban domination of Boeotia to counterbalance the growing Athenian influence in central Greece. Athens recognized a strategic threat and moved decisively to trap the Spartans in central Greece and defeat them. Together with their Thessalian and Argive allies, Athens marched 14,000 men to meet the Peloponnesians at Tanagra in Boeotia. Nicomedes gave them battle there and won a tactical victory, even securing the defection of the Thessalians, but both sides suffered heavy losses. Despite their defeat, the Athenians remained committed to campaign in central Greece; the Spartans were less so. Nicomedes retreated southwards, ravaging disloyal Megara en route, and essentially left Boeotia open to Athens which invaded barely two months after the battle, and defeated the Boeotians. The first Peloponnesian war had begun.
- Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War.
- Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.
- Rusch, Scott. Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns.
- Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans.