A Spartan Warlord: Lysander

By Johnny Shumate

A detailed analysis of Lysander’s character is key to understanding the historical development of Sparta-and, by extension, of Hellas-during the late fifth and early fourth century BC. The study of this historical figure, however, demands great caution, since the historical sources reporting Lysander’s actions and intentions have been biased by their own ideology and views on the Spartan general. These works tend to focus their criticism of Lysander on three key aspects. First was his perceived cruelty towards his enemies, particularly the Athenians (incidentally, the vast majority of sources available are Athenian). The second criticism was made regarding his friendship with Cyrus the Persian-in other words, his Medism. A prime example of one of these historical sources is found in Plutarch’s biography. In his work, Plutarch compared Lysander to none other than Sulla, addressing, with a clearly moralizing slant, the dangers posed to the state and individuals, due to Lysander’s excessive lust for power. This perspective is so transparent that L. Canfora has argued that, in Plutarch’s view, Lysander’s ultimate goal was to become the `King’ of Hellas, an assumption based primarily on numerous sculptures and monuments that he had erected in his honour. The third area upon which the classical authors focused their criticism on Lysander was the political arena, in other words, his imperialist strategy. Lysander’s political project has been consistently linked to a disproportionate sense of personal ambition, with his main interest lying in the fulfilment of his lust for power, particularly regarding the prospects of becoming a tyrant. This, indeed, seems to be an accurate portrayal. Even in ancient times, comparisons were made between Lysander and Alcibiades on several occasions, and it is no coincidence that some modern authors believe that Lysander wanted to turn Sparta into a new Athens.

However, Lysander had a more prosaic take on reality and, unlike Alcibiades, his ambitions did not extend beyond securing a leading position for himself and his group within Sparta. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that Lysander wished to overthrow the Lacedaemonian social and political orders. Rather, if Aristotle is to be believed (Politics 1306b 34-36), his goal in opening up access to the diarchy to all `equals’ was to turn Sparta into a purely oligarchic system. This suggests, as discussed in further detail below, that Lysander did not intend to carry out a political revolution, but rather sought to benefit from the discontent shared by many where Spartan politics was concerned. Therefore, it can be concluded that he conducted such a strategy in order to gain political clout in the city.

Sparta: New Challenges (404-396 BC)

To argue this point, it is essential to consider the state of Sparta’s society after the Peloponnesian War. In agreement with Charles Hamilton’s view that following the victory against Athens, Sparta was beset with strong social tensions as a result of the different political projects, which arose in regards to how to manage this victory. Lysander’s political project consisted of leveraging the Athenian imperialist network in order to build a Spartan maritime empire in the Aegean Sea. According to the traditional view, this led to the introduction of substantial amounts of gold into Sparta, which threatened to overturn the Lycurgan order by greatly increasing the economic disparity among the homoioi. However, perhaps it was not the homoioi who benefited the most from the maritime empire devised by Lysander, but rather the numerous social groups that were disenfranchised from the Spartan political system. These included the hypomeiones (those deprived of their right to citizenship due to failure to meet economic requirements mandatory for homoioi, such as participation in the syssitiai or communal meals); those who failed to pass the agoge; the tresantes (`tremblers’) who had fallen out of step with the diaitia (Lycurgan code of conduct) when fleeing the battlefield; the nothoi (illegitimate sons of Spartans and helots); or the desposionautai (helots who were employed as rowers in the Spartan fleet). The following brief observation by Xenophon alludes to the social status of harmosts: `Nay, it is their helots whom they deem it proper to appoint as governors. They are under the tyrant rule both of the governors and of the decarchies, which Lysander established in each city’, (Xen. Hellenica (Historia Graeca) 3.5.12-13).

This last passage has generated several historical interpretations, the most daring of which have considered it to be an allusion to Lysander’s helot origins. In accordance with Krentz’s suggestion, this statement should be regarded as a rhetorical exaggeration made by the Thebans. Most likely, not even the harmosts (or even Lysander himself) fit the strict definition of a helot, but clearly most of them did not belong to the `equal’ class either, indicating that they came from one of the previously mentioned groups. There is another episode that could support the Theban view of the Lacedaemonians offered by Xenophon. Plutarch reports that in 404 (just before the fall of Athens), Lysander, in a personal initiative, intended to colonize Sestos in order to allocate plots of land among men from the `inferior’ class who had participated under his command in the Lacedaemonian fleet (Plut. Lys. 16.1), but ultimately this initiative was aborted due to the opposition of the ephors (Plut. Lys. 21.1). It appears that this series of events was the origin of much of the internal strife endured by Sparta over the following years. Accordingly, the fact that Lysander and, by extension Sparta, needed to recruit individuals from the class of `inferiors’ for the army in order to carry out his/its imperialist project, may also be understood in an opposite manner: that is, Sparta needed to launch an imperialist project in order to offer a viable economic outlet to the `inferior’ groups, thereby alleviating social conflicts in the polis.

Lysander’s great political merit lies in his understanding of the fraught sociopolitical reality of Sparta, risking his own sociopolitical status in order to offer opportunities both to `inferiors’ and also perhaps to less-favoured `equals’, which would have been impossible without the creation of a Spartan empire. In this sense, it is significant, although somewhat suspicious, that Athenaeus (through the historian Phylarchus) would regard Gylippus, Lysander himself and even Callicratidas as nothoi (6.271 e-f), which suggests that it is perhaps more a reflection of the important role of the `inferior’ classes in the Lacedaemonian fleet led by Lysander rather than an actual historical reality. The truth is that Gylippus, an actual Mothax, may be considered a good example of the opportunities offered by war to its participants: the son of Cleandridas, a Spartan general sentenced to death for breaking the Lycurgan code of conduct, rose to great fame and prominence after his victory over the Athenians in Sicily (Diod. 13.106.8; Plut. Nicias 18.5-7), in other words, as a result of the war.

The Empire spawned war; war generated new opportunities; and those opportunities fed Lysander’s power in Sparta (particularly in Asia Minor, therefore making a powerful fleet so essential). The reasons behind Lysander’s thirst for power are speculative to say the least. However, it seems, beyond all doubt, that Lysander led a purely militaristic faction that defended the building of an empire, while in the political arena he was content with other factions with different agendas. The rapid acquisition of power positions that were not held by the ancient Spartan elite (the Greek fleet and colonial world from Syracuse to Asia Minor) provided an opportunity for the `inferior’ Lacedaemonians who temporarily occupied these positions under Lysander’s exclusive orders. He is not, therefore, someone competing with the state, but someone coming from a distinct faction of the same background who understands that imperialism is the best form of alleviating internal tensions within the city, since it offers opportunities to the largest social group of the state: namely, those situated between the homoioi and the helots. With good reason, Cinadon suggested that the `declassed’ or `inferiors’ surpassed the `equals’ by a proportion of one hundred to one (Xen. Hell. 3.3.5). Common sense would indicate that this was an exaggeration, but at least it reflects the actual difference regarding their numerical composition.

Despite the rather inconclusive nature of the historical evidence, an overview of some of the events already mentioned here brings the Spartan Lysander very close to the modern definition of a warlord, a relevant individual who encourages conflict based on the view that war is positive and necessary in order to fulfill his own (mainly political) interests. It is often argued that the actual existence of warlords in any historical period corresponds to times of state weakness and direct confrontation with it. However, in Lysander’s particular case, the exact opposite seems to occur. At a time when the state had the necessary strength to initiate an imperialist expansion movement, the social group, which was to obtain the greatest benefit from this political project, actively lobbied to carry it out. To summarise, it would seem that the Conspiracy of Cinadon acted more as a stimulus for Lysander’s imperialist project (and later for Agesilaus’) than as an anti-imperialistic conspiracy.

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