The decline of classical Sparta was relatively rapid viewed externally: its shocking defeat at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC was the beginning of the end of its military hegemony of Greece. Within a few years, Sparta’s power would be reduced to its Laconian borders. The rapid collapse was due to the fact that the core institutions and ruling class of the city-cum-empire had been weakening for nearly a century. Paradoxically, while Sparta reached the apex of its external power and influence with the close of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., it was in some ways in an advanced stage of internal decline by then. The earthquake of 464 B.C. coupled with the calcification and numerical decline of the Spartiate class had dramatically reduced the number of Spartiates able to take the field. Along with its failure to innovate militarily, these factors made the Sparta of 371 B.C., which lost at Leuctra to a smaller army, an overripe fruit ready to fall. Though they were diminished, the Spartans did not cease fighting to reclaim what they had lost.
Losing the Military Edge
Before its defeat at Leuctra, Sparta had for centuries been the preeminent Greek fighting force on land. Renowned throughout Greece, the Spartan hoplite phalanx was second to none. Despite this image, the Spartans were neither undefeated nor undefeatable; they had lost a famous battle against the Arcadians (the Battle of the Fetters c. 550 B.C.), been humiliated at Sphacteria (425 B.C. against Athens). They had lost to their old rivals the Argives at Hysiae (c. 670 B.C.) and to Athens in the Battle of Lechaeum in 391 B.C. The Spartan reputation overshadowed these defeats however and rightfully so.
The Spartans had mastered the tactic of the phalanx at a level beyond the other Greeks. Their heavy infantry outmatched their opponents in set piece battles, and the Spartans played to their own advantage and took care not to engage their enemies when outnumbered (Thermopylae being a key exception). Generation after generation, the Spartiate class in Laconia was trained to a level of skill in infantry combat which drew admiration and emulation. In the generation-long Peloponnesian War, Athens retreated behind its Long Wall and repeatedly refused to give battle against Spartan armies, even as these pillaged Attica. When Athens did decide to challenge Sparta on land, as at Mantinea in 418 B.C., the Athenians and their Argive allies were comprehensively defeated.
The problem was that the Spartan specialization in heavy infantry, and even more narrowly on the phalanx tactic, gradually became a military anachronism. Warfare was changing and the Spartans kept using the same tactic against enemies, which unlike the Persians of the fifth century, were highly familiar with it. Other Greeks employed the phalanx tactic and closely followed developments and changes in its use.
At the same time, developments showed the importance of other tactics which the Spartans couldn’t or were not inclined to master. For example, the Peloponnesian War illustrated clearly that no matter how hard they tried the Spartans were unable to match the Athenian level of naval warfare. Indeed, Spartan victory in that war would not have come about without massive Persian financing of new fleets after the previous ones had been defeated by Athens. Of the many admirals sent to fight the Athenian navy, only Lysander proved successful. And even then Spartan naval dominance was short-lived: only a decade after defeating Athens, the Lacedaemonian fleet was wiped out by the Persians at the Battle of Cnidus.
Cavalry, siege and missile warfare were other military developments neglected by the Spartans. The training in the agoge was oriented towards infantry combat only, and a Spartiate fought, slept and ate with his fellow infantry warriors in a mess group. There was no prestige or status in being a cavalryman, and it was not sought after. Similarly, missile warfare, archery, slings etc. were considered cowardly forms of combat, and looked upon with outright disdain. Siege warfare was a poorly developed science in Classical Greece to be sure, but even then Sparta was not at the forefront of its advance. They refused to build walls of their own around their villages, and did not pursue the military innovations necessary to destroy walls. In simple terms, they only knew how to defeat a city through a few tactics: ladders, starvation and betrayal.
On the eve of the battle of Leuctra, the renowned Spartan phalanx was a one trick pony, yet still formidable. The key to defeating it lay in exploiting two of its central weaknesses: a lack of mobility and speed, and its tendency to collapse once its rank and files were sufficiently disrupted.
The Battle of Leuctra
Fought in the summer of 371 BC, the battle pitted a smaller Boeotian force led by Thebes against a larger force consisting Sparta and its allies. The background for the fighting was a contest of power between Thebes and Sparta over Boeotia in recent years. Led by King Cleombrotus, the Lacedaemonians had come to assert their power and numbered eleven thousand, while the Boeotians only numbered about six thousand. In a classical set piece phalanx battle, the odds tipped heavily in the Spartan favor. Despite misgivings amongst some, the Boeotians decided to give battle and two of their leaders, the Thebans Pelopidas and Epaminondas were particularly confident.
Pelopidas was the leader of the Sacred Band, an elite infantry unit which numbered only three hundred; these were dedicated, professional warriors, who were homosexual couples, and whose mutual devotion on the field of battle was distinctive. Epaminondas was a Theban general and aristocrat who together with his close friend Pelopidas had retaken power in Thebes and ousted the pro-Spartan faction there.
Both men were very familiar with Spartan tactics, having fought both with and against the Lacedaemonians repeatedly in the past. Significantly, Pelopidas had defeated a larger Spartan force at a surprise encounter at Orchomenus in 375 BC, using tactics of speed, concentration of force and mobility. While cavalry had engaged the flanks of the static phalanx, the Sacred Band had spearheaded into the Spartan formation successfully dividing it and killing the leaders. The disrupted formation had crumpled and broken. Pelopidas’ plan for Leuctra would run along similar lines.
Meeting in the plain between the hills where they had been encamped, the two sides arrayed themselves for battle. The Spartans extended their phalanx wide, forming twelve man deep files. On the right flank in the place of honor stood Cleombrotus with his elite Hippeis and a mora of Spartiates. Opposite them the Sacred Band formed on the Boeotian left flank with ranks fifty men deep. In the open field between them the Boeotian and Spartan cavalry units would contest to see which unit would command the flanks. Fielding one thousand horsemen, the Spartan cavalry had numerical superiority, but their Boeotian counterparts were both better trained and more experienced.
The Spartan horsemen were swiftly defeated by the Boeotians, and broke and fled. Adding disaster to defeat, the fleeing horsemen rode through the Spartan phalanx causing disruption at a critical moment. Realizing that the spartan flank would now be unguarded by its cavalry, Pelopidas had taken his Sacred Band formation running out to his left in loose formation toward the open flank of Cleombrotus. Seeing this the latter was extending to his own right to match the progress of Pelopidas, but the phalanx by its very nature was slower in doing so. Pelopidas struck quickly and with great force at either the open side of the phalanx, or in its reforming front line. For a short while the two masses of men clashed with enormous effort; the elite Hippeis fought toe-to-toe with the Sacred Band. Then Cleombrotus fell, followed by the polemarch Deinon, and others of the King’s entourage. The Hippeis buckled under the sheer force of the fifty-man deep ranks of the Sacred Band and other Boeotians, and then collapsed and were overrun, trampled and slaughtered. The Spartan left and center morai, which were composed of mixed Spartiate/non-Spartiate units fell back to their camp on the ridge above.
The Spartans had lost the day, but even more telling was the body count. Of the seven hundred elite Spartiates in the field, more than four hundred had perished when their phalanx collapsed. The King and most of the Hippies were dead. A total of around a thousand Lacedaemonians had died. When the news of the defeat reached Laconia, the reaction was typically stoic, but underneath the facade the Spartans must have been deeply alarmed at the development and what it portended. The ephors immediately called up all the reserves and sent them north to fight, but before they arrived the survivors of Leuctra had withdrawn under truce.
The highly mobile combination of cavalry and elite infantry was the one-two punch, which when properly delivered, would tear apart and break down the phalanx. The Theban leaders Epaminondas and Pelopidas now held the tactical keys to fighting Sparta on new terms which the latter did not master. The fountainhead of Spartan power – the elite Spartiate hoplites – had been outwitted and outmatched, and disturbingly for Sparta there were too few of them left to reestablish its edge on the battlefield. The decline from power now became rapid.
Spartiates: The Drying Well
As terrible a loss as Leuctra was, taken in isolation it did not have to spell the end of Spartan preeminence in Greek affairs. A stronger Sparta would have been able to rechallenge Thebes and the Boeotians, and even defeat them by force of numbers. The problem was that the loss laid bare a longstanding problem in Sparta: its ruling hoplite class, the Spartiates, had dwindled dramatically in numbers to a mere fraction of what it had been just a century earlier. Its original source of military prowess and strength was neither sufficient to recoup the empire nor to prevent a further fall in regional power.
At its height, the Spartiate class probably numbered between nine to ten thousand elite hoplites. At Plataea in 479 BC against the Persian army, the Spartiate contingent alone had numbered five thousand with thousands more presumably held in reserve in the Peloponnese. How then could Sparta field so few Spartiates but a century later both prior to and in the wake of Leuctra? The answer is two-fold: the disastrous earthquake of 464 BC and the generational shrinking of the Spartiate class through greed, and social practices which were antithetical to the Lycurgan ethos.
In 464 BC over a decade has passed since the defeat of the Persians, and Sparta enjoyed hegemony in the Peloponnese. A massive earthquake struck the city and its villages. It is speculated that the epicenter was nearby in the Taygetus range and the force of the earthquake may have been as much as 7.2 on the richter scale. Contemporary sources estimate the death count to be as high as 20,000, but modern historians consider it likely to have been lower. In any case the effect was devastating on the military strength of Sparta as the helots felt confident enough to revolt, and Sparta had to call on allies in order to put down the revolt. It is of course pure speculation, but the Spartiate hoplites who (slept in groups) may have seen their numbers halved or more overnight. More seriously perhaps, the deaths of many young boys and youths in the agoge, who also shared living quarters, would have decimated a generation of future hoplites and fathers-to-be. With so many unmarried and childless men and boys dead, the effect of the earthquake would have been to limit the future offspring of the Spartiate class to a fraction of what it might otherwise have been. Population decline was not just an immediate effect of the earthquake, it was the catalyst for even further decline in the future.
The effect on the Spartan military was noticeable decades later. The Peloponnesian War saw a very visible increase in helot units (i.e. under Brasidas), the elevation of mothakes to positions of powers (i.e. Lysander) and the reaction of Sparta to the capture of one hundred and twenty Spartiates at Sphacteria in 425 BC (they immediately sued for peace with Athens in an attempt to secure their release). Reading between the lines, one clearly discerns the post-earthquake Sparta was concerned with manpower issues. It ceased to risk Spartiates in battle in great numbers; it preferred to arm and train helots and out-dwellers despite the risks of insurrection, and it made increasing use of low status Spartiates in key positions (possibly because competition for said positions was less than it had been). Sparta had made adaptations in order to continue to prosecute war, but the Spartiate population also continued to stagnate and decline.
Whereas post-earthquake Sparta became increasingly inclined to send non-Spartiates to war, there is little evidence that entrance into the Spartiate class itself was eased significantly. Indeed, as discussed elsewhere, there were substantial obstacles for entrance even to those boys born of Spartiate parents. To be sure some foreigners were allowed to join the agoge on an individual basis and some Spartiate youths were adopted into the richer families, but the natural trend of the selection system in Sparta, given the casualty rates and the limited pool of applicants, was to diminish the size of the Spartiate class. Moreover, in light of the elitism that developed in the Spartiate class, it was a difficult trend to reverse. Rather the opposite was the case: the negative trend was further exacerbated as economic egalitarianism failed.
The End of Economic Egalitarianism
Over time and with the introduction of wealth from the empire, the Lycurgan ideal of economic egalitarianism was abandoned. More and more Spartiate families became unable to afford the agoge fees due to the accumulation of land in the hands of a few. Their sons and daughters would not become Spartiates and they would have inferior status. While a Spartiate was allocated a lot of public land as he entered the army, this was a very limited means of wealth. The real wealth of Sparta lay with those who held the vast tracts of private land; land which was passed down from generation to generation, and which for a large part was controlled by the widows of Spartiates. Aristotle claimed that at one point forty percent of the land was controlled by Spartiate heiresses.
Spartiate women, as opposed to the men, spent most of their time at home in Sparta. Served by helots, the rich Spartiate heiresses had ample time to manage and indulge in their private wealth – Aristotle criticized them for overindulgence in luxuries. Were they to remarry, their incentive was to marry a rich Spartiate (i.e. one who also owned private lands), a factor which only served to further concentrate the holdings of private land amongst fewer and fewer families. While this trend cried out for land reform to reestablish the wealth of poorer Spartiate families, there must have been considerable opposition from the wealthier Spartiates to doing so. With the introduction of massive wealth from the empire from 404 BC onwards and the (alleged) reform of Epitadeus, which allowed the giving of private land as gifts, there was less and less incentive for individuals and families to cling to the asceticism of past years. The Lycurgan value of austerity was eroded. Wealth and greed served to limit and shrink the Spartiate class and to accelerate an already negative demographic trend.
In the aftermath of Leuctra, the number of able bodied Spartiate hoplites probably did not exceed two thousand, and may even have been closer to one thousand. Their numbers were so few that when the issue of those who had retreated at Leuctra (retreat was often associated with cowardice in Sparta) came up, King Agesilaus had to put the laws in abeyance, for the survivors represented too great a proportion of the remaining Spartiates and putting them on trial may have led to civil strife and weakened the city at a critical time.
Despite trying, as they now did, to swell their ranks with helots and outdwellers, the qualitative edge on the battlefield that Sparta had enjoyed for centuries was so diluted as to be lost. Added to that problem were the new tactical nemeses, personified by Epaminondas and Pelopidas, who were keen to break Spartan power once and for all. Sensing blood, the Peloponnesian rivals, namely the Eleans, Arcadians and Argives now rallied together to challenge Sparta on its very doorstep in the Peloponnese. With the help of its remaining allies, Sparta might yet have had the strength to see off its northern neighbors, but the Boeotians joined the northerners and in the winter of 370 BC launched a massive invasion of Laconia.
Progressing southwards through the Parnon range, the invaders sacked towns and garrisons and soon reached the Eurotas valley. It was winter however and the river was fast and swollen; the natural barrier helped the Spartans to fight crossing actions of the enemy near Sparta and Amyclae. These battles were within sight of the city though and for the first time on record a real panic developed amongst Spartan women. When the invaders finally crossed the river, King Agesilaus was successful in ambushing them just south of the city. To make matters worse, treasonous actions and plots by both Spartiates and non-Spartiates occurred – but these were summarily dealt with by the king. Repelled and aware that Spartan allies had landed in the east and were en route, the invaders left Laconia, and entered Messenia completely unopposed.
Messenia had been under Spartan rule for over two centuries. Freeing its helots dispossessed Sparta of vast agricultural production and manpower and destroyed Sparta’s power in the Peloponnese. Encouraged by Epaminondas, the allies began to build a new city at Mt. Ithome and to fortify it. Messenian exiles were called on to return and resettle their land along with other Greeks. In order to prevent a reconquest by Sparta, Epaminondas devised a strategy which settled and fortified key roads between Laconian and Messenia and Arcadia. This strategy was effected in the 360’s BC and proved successful.
Decline and Fall
The 360’s saw more battles in the Peloponnese and another invasion of Laconia. While Sparta remained unconquered by the skin of its teeth, its attempts to regain Messenia were futile. In 362 BC a second battle of Mantinea was fought (the first was during the Peloponnesian War) in which the Spartans were soundly defeated by the Boeotians who again used tactics of massed and mobile infantry and cavalry to crack the phalanx. Epaminondas was killed in the battle however, and both sides were so exhausted by the war that a stalemate was the outcome.
After a decade of intensive war, the number of Spartiate hoplites might now have numbered in the hundreds only. Stubbornly refusing to accept the loss of Messenia, yet unable to reconquer it, Sparta remained weak and diminished. The threat to Sparta itself disappeared though as divisions broke the alliances of its northern Peloponnese rivals, and Thebes turned its attentions elsewhere in Greece. In the far north, Macedonia under Philip was a rising power which would eventually dominate all of Greece.
Sparta would continue to struggle vain against its northern Peloponnese rivals and the Macedonians for the next century. The Lacedaemonians knew some successes but were also frequently defeated. In the middle of the third century, when the Spartiate class had shrunk to only seven hundred full citizens, land and citizenship reform were finally undertaken. Land was redivided, and select outdwellers and foreigners were allowed to become Spartiates. The Lycurgan revival was short-lived though; the Macedonian King Antigonus III Doson crushed the Spartans at the battle of Sellasia in 222 BC and the city fell to a foreign army for the first time since the Dorian invasion. By the turn of the century, both the Agiad and Eurypontid houses were executed by the despot Nabis, who was later deposed by the Romans. Classical Sparta had ended, but not without putting up a long fight.
- Rusch, Scott. Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns.
- Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans.
- Aristotle. Politics.
- Cawkwell, G. L. The Decline of Sparta.
- Rahe, Paul. The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta.