Classical Sparta traces it roots to the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese around 1000 BC. Legend has it that the Dorians crossed the Corinthian Gulf, and defeated the Achaean/Mycenean inhabitants of the Peloponnese, including those of the Eurotas valley in Laconia. Archaic, Dorian Sparta was established in the late tenth century BC and is identified with five villages in the valley: Cynosura, Limnae, Mesoa, Pitana and later on Amyclae.
Sparta is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, where it is primarily represented by King Menelaus of Sparta and his runaway wife, Helen. When Helen is seduced and taken away by the handsome Prince Paris of Troy, Menelaus and his brother, King Agamemnon, launch an all-out decade long war against Troy to win her back. However the stories of the Iliad predate the establishment of classical Sparta, and King Menelaus was king of a Mycenean Sparta, and not of Dorian Sparta.
Not much is known about the fall of the Myceneans in Sparta, but the broad collapse of Mycenean civilisation in Greece is dated between 1200 – 1000 BC. Dorian Spartans claimed descent from non-indigenous tribes who had taken the land by force, and this idea of their foreignness was central to their understanding of themselves as outsiders in the Peloponnese. Their lack of a ‘native’ claim to the land had to be compensated for by a divine mandate, and upheld by the sword and spear.
Return of the Heraclids
The divine mandate stemmed from the myth of the powerful Hercules, a mortal hero and half-god. The illicit son of Zeus, Hercules took on and completed twelve incredible challenges, known as the Twelve Labours. According to Greek legend, Hercules was given the Peloponnese to rule by Zeus, but the land had been usurped by the schemes of Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife. The Heraclids – descendants of Hercules – were Dorian kings who had returned and conquered their rightful land in the century after the Trojan War. The Dorian tribesmen themselves were not Heraclids, it should be noted, and so they were mere tools in this adventure. The land of the defeated Myceneans was divided into lots, and the Heraclid twins Procles and Eurysthenes received Laconia wherein lay Sparta and thus they became its founder-kings. From the twins descended two dynasties of Spartan kings, the Agiads and the Eurypontids. The kings of each dynasty were diarchical rulers of the Dorians tribesmen who settled in Sparta, starting from the ninth and tenth century BC.
Historical scholars speculate on a slightly difference course of events in the establishment of archaic Sparta. It has been suggested that the pastoralist Dorians had begun to migrate their herds into the Peloponnese around the turn of the millenium when conflict erupted with the Myceneans. Archaeological evidence indicates that a wall was built by the Myceneans across the isthmus of Corinth, presumably to prevent invasion or migration. Unfortunately for them, the way to the Peloponnese by sea was much harder to defend and a Dorian invasion force may well have landed on the northern coast. Either way, in the wake of these events, the original four villages of Sparta were inhabited by Dorian tribes with their respective kings by the late tenth century. The two kings, the evidence suggest, were wont to compete militarily, and also for religious authority. Over time, the tribes amalgamated, and Sparta became a single polity under joint rulership. In the middle of the eighth century, the nascent city-state extended its control to Amyclae which lay further south in the Eurotas valley and to Therapne where a cult to Menelaus and Helen was established. In the north near the headwaters of the Eurotas, the Spartans destroyed the village of Aigys and claimed the area. The southern plains of Helos where the Eurotas meets the Mediterranean also fell to Sparta in the late eighth century, and in this area the evidence for the existence of a major serf-class, or helots appears. The warlike Dorians subjugated the remnant Myceneans and forced them work for the land for them; this economic structure would be greatly expanded upon and in the course of time would become a foundational element of classical Sparta. Lacedaemon, as the lands of Sparta came to be called, had been established.
By Sword and Spear: Spartan Campaigns in the Eighth Century
The Dorian Spartans held territorial ambitions far beyond the Eurotas valley. To the east beyond Mt. Parnon lay the fertile plain of Cynouria, and to the west across Mt. Taygetus lay Messenia. Despite these natural obstacles, the Spartan kings seem to have had plenty of appetite to dominate their neighbours. Around the mid-eighth century, the Agiad King Archelaos and his partner the Eurypontid King Charillos swept north and eastwards, through Cynouria close on the borders of Argos. Teleklos, Archelaos’ heir to the throne, took Pharis and Geronthrae to the east. Afterward he led an army across the Taygetus range, descended into Messenia, conquered Pherae, and established three communities on the Nedon river. Alcamenes, the next Agiad king, extended Sparta’s control from Helos south to Cape Taenarum and together with the Eurypontid King Nikandros, he embarked on the first Messenian War.
The First Messenian War
A major and long war erupted between the Dorian Messenians and Dorian Spartans during the latter half of the eighth century. According to Pausanias, ethnic and religious tensions between the two communities had existed for decades and had finally come to a head. Years prior, the Agiad King Teleklos had been killed by Messenians at an incident at the temple to Artemis Limnatis on the border. Others ascribe ulterior motives to the Spartans, such as the desire for the land and riches of Messenia. In any case, diplomacy failed and blood was drawn at a bitter meeting between the respective kings; a Spartan invasion across the Taygetus range quickly followed. Notably, the Spartans swore an oath not to cease fighting until all of Messenia had been subjugated, which may well indicate what their intentions were with the war.
At this early stage in its development, Sparta had already established a reputation for martial prowess and developed an army which displayed a high, even professional, level of training and discipline. Their first attack was on the Messenian town of Ampheia on the western flank of Mt. Taygetus. A night attack was launched with no warning and a slaughter of the inhabitants ensued. The Spartans would use Ampheia as a forward base from which to observe events in Messenia and from which to raid the Messenian plains.
Wary of the well-trained Spartan army, the outraged Messenians refused to give open battle to the invaders. Instead, they garrisoned themselves in such a way as to make siege warfare inordinately difficult for the enemy. Eventually the Spartans withdrew, and four years would pass with mutual raiding and a single stand-off, before the two sides would meet at close quarters. The Spartans hurried to meet the Messenian army which they knew had marched out.
Pausanias relates what seems to have been an epic showdown. The Messenians rushed the Spartans repeatedly and with the abandonment of a people fighting for their lives and freedom. The Spartans on the other hand stuck to a tight formation which some speculate may have been a prototype of the phalanx. Bitter and hard-fought, the battle ended in a draw. The problem now facing the Messenians was that their strategy so far had weakened them in key ways: garrisoning the towns was expensive, their slaves were deserting, and they had been struck by a disease resembling the plague. They settled on a new defensive strategy. All Messenian towns were abandoned, and the entire citizenry moved to Mt. Ithome which was hoped to be an impenetrable position.
Five years passed before the Spartans marched on Mt. Ithome. Another inconclusive battle was fought, but this time the Messenian King Euphaes was mortally wounded. His successor, Aristodemus, maintained good relations with the Arcadians and Argives, and the former joined the Messenians on raids into Lacedaemon. Five years later the sides met again at Mt. Ithome, and this time the Spartans brought the Corinthians and the Messenians were joined by the Arcadians, Argives and Sicyonians. Using light troops to flank and harass their enemy, the Messenians caused the Spartans to break ranks and become demoralized. Eventually the Spartans were routed and Pausanias speculates that their losses were heavy. Retreating homeward, the Spartans thought hard on how to regain the initiative.
Using deception, a stratagem for which they had become renowned, the Spartans sent spies pretending to be deserters to Ithome. Aristodemus saw through the ruse however. Next the Spartans sent envoys to Arcadia in an effort to lure the Arcadians out of the alliance with Messenia, but that also failed. For their part, the Messenians were exhausted by the war both economically and morally. In the twentieth and final year of the war, they sent to the Oracle of Delphi to hear how they might gain victory. The Oracle responded that the first to make a tribute to Zeus of one hundred tripods at Ithome would be granted victory and the lands of Messene. Confident that they would be the ones, Aristodemus and the Messenians were perhaps slow to act. In the mean time, the Spartans learned of the prophecy; being pious themselves and in what became a devastating blow of psychological warfare, they managed through subterfuge to make the tribute first. When the Messenians discovered they had been preempted, they were psychologically undone. In despair, Aristodemus committed suicide, and although Ithome held out some months longer, it was ultimately undone by desertions. The Spartans razed Ithome and enslaved the remaining population. Messenia had fallen, and at the close of the eighth century, Sparta was the master of the southern Peloponnese, and rivalled Argos for preeminence in all the Peloponnese.
The Battle of Hysiae
Argos was Sparta’s neighbor to the north as well as being a fellow Dorian city-state. Long before Sparta and Athens would clash, Argos was Sparta’s main rival and the enmity between the two communities would span centuries. For long periods Sparta would hold the upper hand, but it was not always the case. The two sides often clashed on issues of territory, and one of their earlier clashes was the first Battle of Hysiae c. 669 BC. Little is known of the circumstances leading up to the battle, but its location just across the border within Argos’ territory implies a Spartan incursion. Historians speculate that the period of the battle saw the emergence of the hoplite warrior and the phalanx formation. In all probability, Sparta’s defeat at Hysiae accelerated its own adoption of those military innovations.
The Second Messenian War
Pausanias states that the revolt of the Messenian helots against their Spartans overlords took place thirty nine years after the capture of Ithome. It should be noted however that there is disagreement on his dating of both wars. The Messenians were led by Aristomenes whose impressive exploits would make him a hero. Having offered the Spartans battle at Derae in Messenia, Aristomenes acquitted himself well although the battle was a draw. The warring sides with their respective allies met again the following year at a place named The Boar’s Tomb. There Aristomenes routed King Anaxander and his personal guard. Pausanias’ description of the fighting does not indicate the use of a phalanx by either side, or at least not by the Messenians, who seem highly mobile on the battlefield. Evicted from Messenia, the Spartans despaired and even considered suing for peace. Tyrtaeus, an Athenian poet and counsellor to Sparta, rallied them, and to compensate for the losses, the Spartans drafted helots to their ranks – a move unthinkable in later years when the caste-like social structure of Sparta would solidify.
The initiative was now fully with the Messenians; Aristomenes raided Pharae in Laconia, and afterward kidnapped maidens of Caryae which he ransomed. Another raid at Aegila in Laconia went badly though and Aristomenes escaped after being captured there. It was but the first of many close calls for the Messenian hero.
The third year of the war saw another pitched battle at a place known as The Great Trench. There Sparta would once again resort to deception by bribing the Arcadian King Aristocrates, who was the nominal ally of Messenia. Just before contact was made between the two sides, Aristocrates made excuses to his own men and once battle was joined he ordered their flight from the field. His retreat left the Messenians completely exposed and bewildered. A slaughter ensued wherein leading Messenian chieftains succumbed, and they took heavy losses. Aristomenes and the survivors made their escape to Mount Eira to which they were pursued by the Spartans.
At Eira, Aristomenes held out for eleven years by resorting to brigandage in the neighboring areas of both Messenia and Laconia. Unable to capture him, the Spartans resorted to keeping those areas bare and uncultivated. Leaving farmland idle caused tensions within Sparta however and the citizens were distracted by this issue when Aristomenes launched a daring raid on Amyclae, one of the home villages. By the time reinforcements arrived, the Messenian leader and his men were gone.
Aristomenes was eventually captured, thrown from a cliff, but survived and escaped, and then recaptured and escaped again in a storyline which is truly legendary. Eira itself fell in a savage three day battle and was sacked, but only after Aristomenes had negotiated safe passage for his people to Arcadia. Even there the Messenian hero would not give up and plotted a surprise attack on Sparta itself with a few hundred Messenians and Arcadians. The Arcadian king was still in the Lacedaemon corner and the Spartans were forewarned by Aristocrates. His duplicity was discovered however and the king was stoned to death by his own people. As for Aristomenes, he and many of his followers left the Peloponnese.
At the close of the war around 668 BC, Sparta again controlled Messenia and the land was distributed among them. All knew that the Messenians remained bitter helots, who would bid their time for another revolt.
The Formative Influences of the Wars
Having arrived in the Peloponnese as non-native conquerors, and having fought two long wars on their own doorstep, the archaic Spartans were acutely aware that their power, position and even existence stemmed from the sword and spear. The wars had included several defeats and attacks on the home villages which must have been traumatic. In the aftermath, having arranged themselves as overlords of a vast dominion (around 8,000 square kilometers) with a large and hostile helot population, the already warlike Spartans were entrenched in a permanent state of suspended conflict even in their home areas. At a very fundamental level the archaic Spartans came to view the existence of their community in military terms: to continue to exist necessitated the transformation of Spartan society and culture into something similar to a military camp. The Lycurgan reforms were the answer to their situation and they became the foundation of classical Sparta.