After the Persian Invasion: Sparta’s Difficulties as the Greek Superpower

In 478 Sparta’s reputation stood enviably high. Even before the Persian invasion reached Thermopylai, Sparta had been trusted and respected as a military leader: sufficiently trusted to be given sole command of the Greek resistance to the invasion. And the actual fighting had crowned Sparta’s status. One Spartan king, Leonidas, had proved his devotion to the common cause by fighting and dying, with all his Spartan force, at Thermopylai (480). Another Spartan king, Leotychidas, had commanded at a crushing defeat of Persian naval forces in the eastern Aegean, at Mykale (479). And in the same year a further royal Spartan ruler, Pausanias the regent, had been the general in charge of the decisive victory over Persia’s land forces, at Plataia in central Greece. A distant observer might have expected the following decades to see a long, if not serene, domination by Sparta of Greek affairs, in the Peloponnese and far beyond. And yet no such thing occurred. Instead, Sparta would withdraw, under pressure, from the leadership of the continuing anti‐Persian alliance of Greeks. She became preoccupied with problems internal not just to the Peloponnese but to her own heartland, to the revered villages on the River Eurotas which were Sparta. The consequences of village politics would be felt over most of Greece. Sparta in effect allowed Athens to take her place as leader of anti‐Persian campaigning. Athenian power was allowed to grow to the point where Sparta had to contemplate re‐engaging, in other grand ventures outside the Peloponnese. But this time she would lead not against Persia but against Athens.

It is both difficult and intriguing to reconstruct Sparta’s problems, and Spartan strategic thinking, in the (almost) half‐century between the defeat of Persia and the beginning of the great war – the ‘Peloponnesian War’ – which Sparta began against Athens in 431. Secrecy was part of Sparta’s military armoury: the Spartan authorities were not normally going to advertise the nature of their own problems, for fear of giving information which enemies might exploit. But some things could not be hidden, things which were visible to other Greeks. And these few things allow us to detect patterns of Spartan behaviour; here is a society which to a remarkable extent ran according to formulae.

For the half‐century which followed the Persian invasion our best source for Sparta is Thucydides, who cast glances back from his main theme, the Peloponnesian War of 431–404. Here is Thucydides’ summary of the ‘approximately fifty years’, as he called them:

… the Athenians established their rule more firmly and advanced to a position of very great power. The Spartans, for their part, realised what was going on but only made brief attempts to prevent it. For most of the period they did nothing; it had been their practice even in earlier times not to take up war in a hurry unless forced to. Now they were also inhibited to a degree by internal wars – until Athens’ power was blatantly in the ascendant and encroaching on Sparta’s own alliance.

Thucydides’ report on visible processes – the wars, and periods of peace, involving Sparta – is vital information, to be explored in a moment, with important help from his predecessor the historian Herodotos. On what was invisible, Spartan mentality, we may form an opinion rather different from that of Thucydides, but it is an opinion which derives largely from his own information.

One of Sparta’s greatest problems came right at the beginning of the half‐century. It could not be hidden, so the Spartans chose to explain it with a mass of colourful detail: the decline and fall of regent Pausanias. After the defeat of the Persian army at Plataia, Pausanias led Greek naval forces eastwards, campaigning (probably in 478) against strategic Persian possessions, Cyprus and Byzantion. The trauma for Greece of the Persian land invasion had been immense. And there was no reason to suppose that the Persians would not try another invasion. This is a point seldom allowed for in modern accounts (Rhodes (2006) 16 is a distinguished exception). Scholars have commonly shared the hindsight of Greeks in later decades: that since the Persians in the event did not re‐invade, any such prospect must have been negligible at the time. But if we neglect the fear of re‐invasion, we risk failing to understand the policies of Sparta, of Athens and of many other states over decades. The Persians had, after all, reacted to their defeat at Marathon, near Athens in 490, by launching the great invasion of 480‐79. A possible third invasion – perhaps even larger than before – might seem crucial for restoring Persia’s own prestige; for Greeks, it had to be energetically forestalled. As much strategic damage as possible should be done to the Persian empire even after the victories of 479. However, as stratēgos, Pausanias proved unacceptable. Thucydides reports his unpopularity among the Greek sailors and soldiers. Violent, aloof, unapproachable, even surrounding himself with a bodyguard in Persian style – these were some of the criticisms made of him. More worrying for the eastern Greeks was the Spartan advice to the Greeks of Ionia, Persia’s former subjects of western Asia Minor with everything to fear from a Persian comeback. Sparta suggested that they emigrate westwards; a clear signal that Sparta did not wish to defend them in their homeland against Persia. Following the complaints against Pausanias, Sparta recalled him for investigation. The Greek naval forces then refused to accept Sparta’s replacement, Dorkis, as commander, and chose instead to be led in future by Athens, the greatest single provider of warships.

Sparta did not react violently to this striking rejection, coming so soon after her triumphant leadership against Persia on sea as well as on land. She evidently accepted that the war in the east was necessary; her sending out Dorkis to command shows that. Thucydides reports that the Spartans believed Athens to be well‐disposed to themselves and a suitable leader for the naval war. We know that Themistokles, Athens’ naval strategist and leader during the Persian invasion, had pleased Sparta by the way he had worked under Spartan leadership in the crisis of 480. Herodotos (8.124) reports that Themistokles was received and fêted at Sparta with extraordinary honours. But part of the attraction for Sparta of allowing Athens to take over the leadership – and the costly fighting – against Persia was connected with altogether darker and more intimate motives.

Sparta was restless under the control of royalty (Powell, 2010). In her propaganda, she claimed that her political constitution had been loyally respected for centuries, and that the dual kingship, the dyarchy, was the oldest of all surviving offices (Thuc.1.18.1, Xen. Lak. Pol. 15.1). But the very fact that there was such Spartan insistence on these and similar claims should make us suspicious. In reality, the rough treatment of Pausanias was entirely in keeping with Spartan treatment of royalty in the fifth and early fourth centuries. Most Spartan royal rulers of that period were either imprisoned, or effectively put to death, or threatened with exile, or actually exiled. And even exile was not secure: three of the dyarchs‐in‐exile had reason to fear that they would be pursued by Sparta and killed. So recurrent is this violent impatience of Sparta with her kings that we should probably regard hostility to these rich and hereditary officials as a continuing part of the ‘Lykourgan’ revolution which aimed for a state made up of ‘Similars’. From the few decades before the fall of Pausanias, Sparta’s best‐known king was Leonidas, acclaimed – after his death – for courageous leadership at Thermopylai. But the story of Leonidas and his 300 was a distraction, as we have seen. It distracted from thoughts of Spartan failure to hold the pass of Thermopylai. It also distracted, perhaps intentionally, from thoughts of what had happened to other Spartan kings of the period. Damaratos had been exiled and pursued, to the point that he fled to the king of Persia (491). His enemy and fellow king Kleomenes had died violently as a prisoner at Sparta (490), after being exiled and recalled. King Leotychidas had suffered the frightening humiliation of being handed over to the control of Aigina, a state which he had offended in the course of his execution of official Spartan foreign policy. Sparta had second thoughts: Leotychidas was not sent to Aigina. He lived to lead Spartan and allied forces at Mykale against Persia – only to be exiled in permanent disgrace a few years afterwards, as we shall shortly see. There were evidently many powerful Spartans who needed little persuasion to sweep aside royalty. Pausanias would be put to death at Sparta, some little time after his recall from campaigning in the Greek east. The official story told against him was utterly damning, and was no doubt meant to be: he had supposedly plotted with the helots to overthrow the Spartan state, and had also conspired with the king of Persia to bring an end to Greek freedom. Both Spartan citizens and most other Greek states thus had reason, according to the official story, to approve of his being put to death.

Thucydides makes no mention of the fate of Sparta’s other royal victor of 479, Leotychidas. Herodotos, however, reports that, sometime after Mykale, this king was in charge of an expedition against the Greek rulers of Thessaly (6.72). These Thessalians had, under extreme pressure, taken the Persian side in 480 and Sparta was evidently seeking now to replace them with a loyalist regime. Leotychidas, however, did not succeed. The story – no doubt officially inspired from Sparta – was that he was caught during the campaign trying to conceal a ‘sleeve’ – cheiris – full of silver. Now a cheiris was a distinctively Persian garment. Here, according to the story, was the most perfectly symbolic proof that Leotychidas had accepted a bribe in the Persian interest. The image was unforgettable both because of its moral clarity and its visual force; visuality, whether staged in concrete form or evoked in words, was a Spartan forte. Those who heard the story would think for ever of Leotychidas crouching in his tent, vainly trying to conceal the tainted, alien, object. In connection with the killing of regent Pausanias, Thucydides wrote that the Spartans did not like to take irrevocable action against their own people without unshakeable proof. Tales of extreme wickedness perpetrated with symbolic clarity were the best which could be offered to persuade a Spartan public which could not see for itself what went on in a royal tent during a remote campaign. A Spartan court condemned Leotychidas. His house was destroyed, to signal – once more with an enduring visual effect – that he had no future at Sparta. He went into exile at Tegea, not far from Sparta’s northern border.

True or not, these stories about Pausanias and Leotychidas would tend to discourage the Spartan state from taking further part in anti‐Persian campaigns. That both the victorious Spartan commanders of 479 had supposedly been corrupted by the wealth or grandeur which Persia uniquely could offer suggested that further commanders might go the same way. Thucydides writes to this effect (1.95.7), explaining why Sparta made no great effort to retain command of the anti‐Persian war once Pausanias had been removed from control. Sparta frequently distrusted her own highest officials, once those were away on campaign, out of sight of the domestic institutions, such as the ephors and the court of the gerousia, which had the power to control them. This structural fault recalls another statement of Thucydides: that it was Sparta’s internal harmony which made it possible for the state to impose its will upon other Greek communities. That statement is made in the same sentence as the claim that the Spartan constitution had survived successfully for more than four hundred years (1.18.1). It was argued above that the latter claim was false, propaganda from Spartan authorities nervously aware of the exact opposite, that their constitution was in fact neither old nor secure. The connected statement, about internal harmony producing external success, may have a similar origin. Recurrent extreme failures of the early fifth century involving their kings – their hereditary generals for life, as Aristotle described them (Politics 1285a) – had made the Spartans acutely conscious of how their foreign policy might be crippled by internal dissent. With retrospect, Sparta might see that the Athenian takeover of leadership against Persia, and thus the beginnings of the Athenian empire, had been owed to Sparta’s own constitutional incoherence.

There were other unpleasant concerns which in the 470s and 460s encouraged Sparta to turn away from the war against Persia. Modern historians, trained to explain the behaviour of states by grand, collective, economic motives, are sometimes reluctant to take seriously explanations involving personal jealousy and enmity. But our best sources for Sparta record that such things mattered. Thucydides reports that regent Pausanias had significant personal enemies (echthroi, in Greek: 1.132.1) opposing him at Sparta. Decades later Brasidas, one of the most successful strategists and bravest soldiers that Sparta ever had, found his campaigning inhibited by personal resentment on the part of other Spartans. One reason why he did not receive reinforcements from Sparta in 424/3 was, states Thucydides (4.108.7), that ‘leading men of Sparta were jealous of him’. Here indeed was a structural fault of profound importance, if the state’s success was to be limited by private rancour.

However, for explaining Sparta’s withdrawal from leadership of the anti‐Persian alliance in the 470s, perhaps most enlightening is a comparison with Sparta’s actions in, and shortly after, 404. In the 470s, as we have seen, Sparta was freshly crowned with success as leader against the Persian invasion. In 404–3 Sparta was similarly triumphant, this time over the Athenian empire. At both periods, intense opposition arose within Sparta to the general who had proved most successful. Lysandros, like the victorious Pausanias three quarters of a century earlier, was accused of plotting to overthrow the Spartan form of government, to put himself in sole charge. Lysandros, we hear from a good, contemporary source, was opposed through jealousy on the part of a Spartan king (Xen. Hell. 2.4.29). This emotion, which curbed Brasidas and Lysandros near the end of the fifth century, was surely part of the reason why, decades earlier, Pausanias was permanently withdrawn from the anti‐Persian campaigning which had made his glory.

Spartans chose to call themselves the Similars. That almost certainly reflected a fear of dissimilarity, as we have seen. And one form of dissimilarity particularly feared was to do with wealth. Spartan life was constructed to mask and to palliate divisions between rich and poor (Hodkinson, 2000). Unlike in most societies, there was to be no competition in the selfish flaunting of wealth. (Rivalry in the exceptionally expensive sport of chariot racing did continue among the richest Spartans, but that was no doubt tolerated as advertising to Greeks generally the virility of Spartan society.) The main permitted sphere of competition was to do with military courage and skill in the community’s interest. That competition was exceptionally intense. It is small wonder that all Sparta’s most important military victors of the fifth century – Pausanias and Leotychidas against the Persians, Brasidas, Gylippos and Lysandros against the Athenians – were either effectively killed by Spartans (Pausanias) or exiled (Leotychidas, Gylippos; see later below), or recorded as the objects of jealousy (Brasidas, Lysandros). The very military virtues which Sparta required and revered tended to bring their most noted possessors to destruction. But what allowed the jealousy of some to be converted into a decision of the community, to crush, expel or restrict its supreme soldiers, was the fact that military success tended to make such commanders rich, rich enough to threaten the stability of the Similars. And where an external enemy was rich, such as the Athenian empire or, far above all, the empire of Persia, there was special reason to be suspicious of victorious commanders who might get their hands on enemy wealth. It might seem preferable, on balance (and perhaps after intense debate: Diod. Sic. 11.50 with de Ste Croix (1972) 170–1), for Sparta in the 470s to disengage from war against Persia and not to challenge Athens, in the interests of the – fragile – political and social harmony at home. Along with personal jealousy there is indeed, to explain Sparta’s policy, a grand collective motive.

In explaining why Sparta withdrew from campaigning against Persia, and acquiesced in the rise of Athenian power, Thucydides alluded to ‘internal wars’. What were they? There was, as we shall see, a long war against the helots – especially those of Messenia – which began in the mid‐460s. Athenian troops were among those brought in by Sparta to resist the helot insurgents. This may be one reason why the Athenian Thucydides gives a few details about this conflict, when writing over half a century later. On other wars in the Peloponnese we know even less. Sparta’s enduring power depended on the many thousands of hoplite allies from Peloponnesian states who regularly fought in the Spartan‐led army. So the fact that some of those states had, soon after the Persian Wars, gone to war against Sparta was perhaps something the Spartans later might wish not to mention. Why remind other Greeks that Sparta’s alliance was so vulnerable? There was, however, one reason for Sparta to boast on this subject. And Herodotos reports the boast. It concerned a military soothsayer, Tisamenos, one of the religious professionals who accompanied a Greek army and gave advice on military movements, and especially on their timing. This Tisamenos, a specialist from the state of Elis whom Sparta had imported for his skill, took part with the Spartans in five very great and victorious contests … The five contests were these: the first was … at Plataia [against the Persians, 479], then came the one at Tegea against the Tegeates and Argives, after that the one at Dipaieis against all the Arkadians except the Mantineans, then the one against the Messenians … and finally the one at Tanagra [458 or 457] against the Athenians and the Argives.

This list, in so far as we can check it from elsewhere, is in chronological order. Twice, then, in the period between 479 and the early 450s, Sparta had to fight Tegea. On the first occasion Tegea was allied to Argos, and on the second to fellow Arkadians. Argos, a polis of the north‐eastern Peloponnese and comparable to Sparta in citizen numbers, was a perennial enemy but lacked Sparta’s capacity for forming an enduring military alliance among neighbouring states. While Sparta, without our advantage of hindsight, could never be sure that Argos’ defiance would not one day acquire crushing force, probably what worried Sparta more at this period was the hostility to Sparta of Tegea and other Arkadians. For Arkadia at other times supplied important contingents for the army of the Spartan alliance. Also, Tegea lay near north‐east of the borders of Messenia, the territory where lived a large proportion of Sparta’s subject population, the helots. If Tegea became a permanent enemy of Sparta, Messenia itself, and thus the Spartan economy, could be destabilized if runaway helots gained shelter, and perhaps established armed forces, in Tegean territory. That both Tegea and Argos fought Sparta twice in this period means that for each the first battle, although claimed by the Spartans as a victory, was not decisive. Each was ready for a second battle against Sparta before long. We do not know how emphatic was Sparta’s second victory against Tegea (and fellow Arkadians) at Dipaieis. And certainly the second victory against Argos (and Athens) at Tanagra was not overwhelming; Athens was able within a year or so to gain control of the large territory (Boiotia) of which Tanagra was part. With her northern neighbours putting up sustained armed resistance, Sparta was in trouble.

Two other fragments of information point to further reasons for Spartan alarm about her dominance within the Peloponnese. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the Roman period but using a fourth‐century BC Greek source, states – in connection with the year 471/0 – that ‘the Eleians, who inhabited several small cities, now came together into one city which was named Elis’ (11.54.1). Eleian territory lay to the north west of Messenia. And the coming‐together of villagers to form a single (defensible) city was typically associated with the formation of dēmokratia against the Spartan interest. Sparta preferred that allied states of the Peloponnese were governed by oligarchies, that is by rural landlords ruling over a scattered agricultural population far from the safety of city walls. The synoikism into the single city of Elis was either done in defiance of Sparta, or at the very least threatened Spartan dominance in the area.

Our other fragment of information, this time from the more reliable Thucydides, concerns Themistokles. This astute politician and strategist, praised to a unique degree by Thucydides for foresight and rapid, successful improvisation (1.138.3), had been exiled from his home city of Athens. Sparta would not forget the commanding role he had played in deploying the Athenian fleet alongside Sparta during the Persian invasion of 480–79. Nor would the Spartans forget, in quite a different way, how Themistokles had afterwards used up his political capital at Sparta. In the aftermath of the Persian defeat, he had been welcomed at Sparta with the greatest – indeed spectacular – honours. Later, however, Athens, began – on Themistokles’ advice – to rebuild her ruined defensive walls (Thuc. 1.89.2–92). The Spartans objected, privately but patently wishing for Athens to remain open to invasion and thus more easily influenced either by fear of Spartan attack, or by the need for Spartan aid against attack from elsewhere. Themistokles, with a deceitfulness which his Spartan admirers were not expecting, came to Sparta again, to give assurances that Athens was not rebuilding its walls, while secretly urging the Athenians to rebuild with all speed. When he received news that the wall was at last defensible, he informed the Spartans that Athens now had the means to be independent, and that Sparta should accept the fact. This time, we can be sure, Themistokles left Sparta without the splendid official send‐off which had marked his previous visit. He, and his state, had moved a long way towards becoming enemies of Sparta.

Later still, perhaps in the early 460s, Themistokles found himself formally exiled – ostracized – from Athens. Thucydides tells us that he went to live at Argos, and from that base made ‘frequent visits to the rest of the Peloponnese’ (1.135.3). Sparta reacted ferociously, persuading the Athenians to convert their ostracism of Themistokles into full‐blown persecution. Closely pursued by Spartan and Athenian agents, Themistokles fled for refuge to Persia, the arch‐enemy which he had done so much to defeat. That gives a measure of the danger he felt himself to be in from Sparta, and in turn suggests how fearful Sparta had become of him. What had he been doing on his ‘frequent visits to the rest of the Peloponnese’? Almost certainly he had been persuading states of the northern and central Peloponnese of why they should oppose Sparta, and of how they should do it. The formidable political intelligence of the man had been recognized by the Spartans, as it would be later by Thucydides. And with his record as a triumphant strategist against Persia, combined with the intimate knowledge of the Spartan high‐command which he had gained in the process, Themistokles – even as an exile – might prove very persuasive. He may, for all we know, have helped promote the hostility to Sparta which Tegea and Argos showed at this period. And we should not assume that Themistokles restricted his ‘frequent visits’ only to the centre and north of the Peloponnese, outside Spartan territory. Thucydides says that from Argos he visited ‘the rest’ of the Peloponnese. Strictly, that expression should include Sparta’s own territories of Lakonia and Messenia, which together formed almost half of the landmass of Peloponnese. If so, Themistokles would quite likely be fomenting anti‐Spartan revolution among the helots. Indeed the Spartans associated his activity with that of their own problematic leader Pausanias (Thuc. 1.135.2), himself accused of stirring up helot revolt.

By collaborating with Sparta in the expulsion of Themistokles from Greece, Athens did not manage to protect herself from Spartan aggression for long. When (probably in 465) an important state of Athens’ alliance, Thasos in the far north of the Aegean, revolted from that alliance and asked for help from Sparta, Thucydides reports that the Spartans ‘gave a promise, hidden from the Athenians, that they would help’, by invading Athens’ homeland, ‘and were on the point of doing so, but were prevented by the earthquake at which the helots … revolted against them and took to Mount Ithome’ (1.101.2). These few words of Thucydides again cast a bright light on large areas of Sparta’s thinking. In spite of all the recent troubles in northern Peloponnese, Sparta was ready to lead a full‐scale invasion against the most powerful city of central Greece. Her sense of timing, her acute eye for an Athenian weakness to exploit, is now exemplified: we shall see shortly that such well‐timed aggression by Sparta formed a pattern. In the present case, Sparta could predict that Athenian land‐troops would be tied down in large numbers and for many months in laying siege to the town of Thasos. Sparta’s remarkably consistent behaviour in matching aggressive moves to a prospective opponent’s times of weakness suggests that the desire in principle to attack may have existed in Sparta for some time, rigorously kept in check until occasion should present. Sparta’s citizen troops, heavily outnumbered (by helots and others) even in their own homeland, were not expendable. It was important to make war with an economy of losses. And if Sparta indeed could keep hostility in suspense, targeting another Greek state long before attacking it, the logic of secrecy is clear. The target was not to be given long advance notice, allowing it to make its own preparations, and perhaps even to look in turn for Spartan weaknesses to exploit. Here we see Sparta’s characteristic secrecy, noted elsewhere by Thucydides as a general phenomenon, recorded by the same author in the particular case of Thasos, and linked with Sparta’s planned invasion of Attike in the mid 460s.

The desired invasion did not happen. Sparta’s most intimate and feared enemy of all was in arms: the helots. They themselves, as Aristotle would later write (Politics 1269a), looked out in general for weaknesses of Sparta to exploit, and in (or very soon after) 465 such a weakness arrived. Sparta was afflicted by earthquake: ‘the great earthquake’, as Thucydides would call it (1.128.1). Modern scholars have sometimes suspected that Sparta’s citizen demography was damaged gravely and for ever by the numbers killed as buildings collapsed (Hodkinson (2000) 417–20). The scale of the helot revolt was correspondingly great. Thucydides says that ‘the helots’ (rather than ‘some’ or ‘most’ of them) took part. Herodotos refers to a war now against ‘all the Messenians’. But since Thucydides in this connection helpfully tells us that the helots in general, whether from Lakonia or Messenia, were called simply ‘the Messenians’, Herodotos may mean here exactly what Thucydides himself suggests: that virtually all of Sparta’s unfree subjects rose up. Even two communities of the normally‐loyal perioikoi revolted, which Sparta would have found especially worrying. The Spartan army depended on peroikic hoplites for its expeditions abroad, and no doubt also for police actions at home against helots. It took Sparta years to put down the revolt: between nine and ten years, according to the surviving text of Thucydides; the order of events in his narrative may, however, suggest about half that time (1.103.1 with Gomme (1945) 302–3, 401–11). The helots withdrew to the mountain range of Ithome in northern Messenia, from which the classic Spartan method of soldiering, the hoplite phalanx advancing on level ground, could not dislodge them. Sparta called in allies from other Greek states, a sign of near‐desperation, since outsiders were not usually to be shown evidence of how fragile was Sparta’s control over its huge subject population. Among those brought in now were hoplites in large numbers from Athens. Rather than let the helot revolt succeed, Sparta preferred to take the risk of inviting in soldiers from a powerful rival state, one which she had, very recently, targeted for aggression.

The Athenian presence at Mount Ithome was not a success. Alone of the various allied contingents which came to help, Athens’ was sent away. The reason, according to Sparta, was that the Athenian force was no longer needed. But, Thucydides adds, the real reason was that the Spartans felt that they could not trust the Athenians, and even feared that their soldiers would promote revolution and go over to the enemy, helot, side (1.102.3). The Athenians, after all, came from a democratic polis, and it might not take much imagination for them to see the (Greek‐speaking) helots as the true dēmos of the southern Peloponnese, oppressed by landowning oligarchs, the Spartans. Here, also, is another reference by Thucydides to Spartan attempted deception of the Athenians. They would not tell the Athenians the true reason for their dismissal, rather as they tried to keep secret their earlier promise to attack Athenian territory.

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