Sparta’s oligarchical society was built for conquest, but hid contradictions that ensured its decline
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Sparta spent nearly three centuries as the preeminent military power in Ancient Greece. It rose to dominate the Peloponnese, Greece’s large southern peninsula, and led an alliance of city-states to defeat a Persian invasion which became immortalized in Western history.
The Spartans went on to subjugate Athens during the Peloponnesian War, but their hegemony was not to last. Sparta began a rapid decline after the city-state of Thebes inflicted a shocking defeat at the Battle of Leuctra.
But how did Sparta emerge into the power that it did? A curious group of geographical, social and political circumstances created the city-state’s legendary military culture and propelled its expansion around the 6th century B.C.
But its explosive growth — and oligarchical society — contained a hidden demographic time bomb which would contribute to its later eclipse.
Sparta’s location differed from most other Greek city-states. The city of Sparta — like the modern city — was more than 20 miles north of the Peloponnese’s southern coast.
To be sure, Sparta certainly couldn’t compete with Greece’s seafaring city-states in terms of trade. But it could match, even exceed them, by expanding physically and with muscle. Sparta’s center of a large agricultural region gave it a boost.
But the Greek city-states, Sparta included, lacked the technology to build sophisticated siege weapons, and the peninsula’s small populations — Sparta had around 40,000 inhabitants in 500 B.C. — discouraged lengthy campaigns.
Making expansion by conquest more difficult, the Peloponnese’s mountainous geography made terrain easily defensible. To vanquish their regional foes, the Spartans came up with better ideas.
Mainly, the Spartans sent raiding parties to scour the farmlands of their enemies, exhausting their populations and stoking internal divisions. And they were adept diplomats, recruiting allies through coercion and cajolery.
After Sparta subjugated Laconia — a region which present-day Sparta serves as its administrative capital — and Messenia to the west, the city-state grew to control most of the Peloponnese by the 530s.
Keeping such a vast area under control was a challenge even for the Spartans, and they quelled several revolts. To keep Spartan lands pacified also required the city-state to develop an efficient, organized and disciplined political structure. In fact, it was Sparta’s political system which helped drive conquest in the first place.
For one, Sparta had two kings. Thus, battlefield success was a way for the dueling monarchs to one-up each other, according to historian Scott Rusch’s 2011 book Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics, And Campaigns 550–362 B.C.
The drive to conquer also tied back to the fact that Sparta was an oligarchy that relied on a form of slave labor. Spartan citizens, or Spartiates or Homoioi, served in the military from age 20 to 30 — with reserve duty lasting until 60. A state-owned class of helots, or serfs, worked the land in addition to slaves.
So instead of expanding the economy by seeking new markets as a colonizing seafaring power would have done, Sparta grew by conquering, subjugating and/or enslaving nearby lands.
The link between oligarchical slave societies and military conquest has appeared in other eras, such as 19th century American filibusters who attempted to carve out new slave territories in Mexico and Cuba, and Nazi Germany’s attempt to enslave Europe through warfare in the 20th century.
“That the [Spartan] kings competed in conquest is explained by geography,” Rusch wrote. “The inland Spartans were ill-suited to trade or piracy, making war with neighbours the obvious route to martial glory, good farmland, and slave labour.”
Of course, keeping a majority of the population in the active or reserve military also helped Sparta to suppress slave and serf revolts, allowing the wealthiest land-owning elites to maintain their status.
Furthermore, while Spartan society privileged men, and women could not be citizens, women had a relative degree of freedom for the time that included handling administrative and business tasks, which was virtually absent in Athens’ extreme patriarchy. Naturally, this freed up men for more warfare.
Sparta — a well-organized, disciplined society geared toward territorial conquest. Obviously, this meant turning young men into warriors, and the Spartans did that very well. Spartan boys trained from a young age.
However, Rusch in Sparta at War noted “indoctrination and initiation, not education as such, was stressed.” The Spartans also prized athleticism and physical fitness, but suffice to say modern filmmakers have probably exaggerated the adult warriors’ physique.
In any case, the Spartans were generally fitter and stayed fit. They regularly worked out when campaigning, and stuck to regular schedules — basically, there was no skipping leg day. The soldiers were also fanatical to the point of suicidal in combat and the society punished cowardice through severe social ostracization.
If you weren’t cut out to be a soldier, Spartan society really sucked.
“Often when sides are picked for a game of ball [the coward] is the odd man left out,” the Athenian historian Xenophon wrote in the Constitution of the Lacedaimonians — another term for the Spartan kingdom.
“In the chorus he is banished to the ignominious place; in the streets he is bound to make way; when he occupies a seat he must needs give it up, even to a junior.”
He must support his spinster relatives at home and must explain to them why they are old maids: he must make the best of a fireside without a wife, and yet pay forfeit for that: he may not stroll about with a cheerful countenance, nor behave as though he were a man of unsullied fame, or else he must submit to be beaten by his betters.
Small wonder, I think, that where such a load of dishonour is laid on the coward, death seems preferable to a life so dishonoured, so ignominious.”
Spartan battle tactics were varied and complicated. One of the biggest differences from other city-states is the Spartan emphasis on organizing groups of soldiers in files, or columns, as opposed to ranks — with officers at the head of each file. According to Xenophon, this meant the Spartans were quicker to maneuver and face threats on their flanks.
When Sparta went to war at sea, it handed command to a “navarch” with a one-year term limit, according to Rusch. This was a peculiar way of dealing with inter-service rivalry … in favor of the army in typical Spartan fashion.
However, Sparta’s oligarchical society was unsustainable, because of a catch-22 inherent in what it meant to be a citizen. All Spartiates were required to eat communally, which contributed to military and social cohesion, but it came with a fee. And to pay the fee required owning enough land.
Now, let’s say you’re an ordinary, middle-class Spartan. Who inherits your land if you have multiple children? And you better have more than one or two considering the high death rate from disease, accidents and illness in the ancient world.
The answer is that you would split the land equally among your progeny.
But that risked your children inheriting insufficient land to pay the fee, thus they’d all lose their citizenship. Meanwhile, the wealthiest Spartiates kept on buying land — remember, Sparta was an oligarchy — and increased the gap between rich and poor.
In other words, Sparta’s mechanism for reproducing itself went haywire. The eventual result was a demographic and military collapse, which Thebes took advantage of in 371 B.C. at Leuctra. Sparta never returned to her earlier glory.