Leuktra [Leuctra]

The ‘beginning of the end’ of Sparta’s ability to project power outside its borders is typically held to be the battle of Leuktra in 371. It is worth remembering, however, that Sparta had been fighting Thebes since 379, and would continue to do so until 366 with few breaks (375–4, 371–70), and antipathy would sometimes break out into open warfare until the death of the Theban general Epameinondas in 362, during the battle of Second Mantineia. For the people who lived through that time, Leuktra was a disaster, but it was not necessarily seen as any more disastrous than Sphakteria in 425 or the more recent episode of the Athenian Iphikrates’ mangling of a Spartan mora outside Sikyon in 390 (Xen. Hell. 4.5.11–17). Tellingly, the Spartan response to the Iphikrates episode was strikingly similar to that which occurred after Leuktra: male relatives of the dead apparently rejoiced at the news (Xen. Hell. 4.5.17; compare with Leuktra, Plut. Ages. 30.2–6).

In this, perhaps, we can see something of the Spartan elite’s inability to face up to reality. There was something of a culture of ignorance amongst the Spartan citizenry, an expectation that their city’s reputation was reflective of current ability, and not only of past deeds. There is a significant difference, it must be remembered, between attitudes expressed in the rhetoric of some members of the political elite, and in the practical reality of governing. In some modern sources, Sparta is seen as being resistant to change – as stubbornly holding on to institutions and practices from the archaic and classical periods that actively damaged Sparta’s contemporary political standing (for example, Chrimes 1949; compare with Kennell 1995, and the contributions in Powell and Hodkinson 2002). Sparta can be seen to wrestle with the concept of change in a manner similar to other poleis. Unlike Athenian democracy or Theban military innovations, however, Sparta’s changes did not alter her political fortunes for the better, and as a result Sparta is erroneously painted as a stubbornly backward polis in a rapidly evolving world. In many ways the reigning Eurypontid king Agesilaos II epitomized the paradoxical nature of Sparta’s elite political culture in this period. He was at times brilliant, pragmatic, and innovative, and also stubborn, willful, and beholden to the language of tradition. Before his death in 360 BC, Sparta had spent the previous thirty years squandering its reputation in fruitless foreign adventurism, alienating those closest to home (see Cartledge (1987) 77–98), but it also reached its greatest extent and influence. In other words, this ‘culture of ignorance’ may also be seen as a ‘conflict of values’ between both internal and external forces (to steal a phrase from Hodkinson 1983).

Sparta had thrown its significant military and political weight behind the idea of ‘autonomy’ at the close of the fifth century. It had won the Peloponnesian War in 404 by using this idea to secure funding from Persian sources and support from Athens’ subject allies. The Corinthian War, and the King’s Peace of 386, only served to reinforce Sparta’s ideological adherence to the principle of ‘autonomy’, now guaranteed in treaty. But the notion of ‘autonomy’ was a powerful one amongst the poleis of mainland Greece, despite the fact that it rarely had a clear definition. The activities of Lysander and Agesilaos in the early fourth century suggested to some that for Sparta, autonomy meant hegemony. In 385 Sparta subdued Mantineia, a democratic polis in eastern Arkadia, north of Laconia, and dissolved the polis into its constituent villages (‘dioikism’, opposed to the more normal ‘coming together’ of ‘synoikism’). Athens also committed isolated violations of the autonomy clause, but seemed quite happy to ignore Sparta’s actions so as to maintain the idea of a ‘dual‐hegemony’ (Xen. 5.2, 6.3.10–17) and rebuild its naval confederacy. Thebes, however, was growing increasingly alarmed at Sparta’s heavy‐handed and one‐sided interpretation of the autonomy provision (as in Xen. 5.1.32f.). In 382, the Spartan commander Phoibidas (on his way to fight Olynthos in Thracian Chalkidike) aided the pro‐Spartan element in Thebes in seizing that polis’ acropolis, the Kadmeia. A Spartan garrison held the citadel for three years. According to Xenophon, Sparta attempted to justify this action within the terms of the King’s Peace, but he saw it as an act of impiety for which Leuktra was the punishment (5.4.1). Sparta’s actions were beginning to draw unwelcome attention from many quarters, not least from the perioikic poleis of Laconia.

The perioikic poleis are a topic of some discussion in contemporary literature (Shipley 1997; Kennell 1999; Ducat 2010 and in this work, Vol. 2 Chapter 23, offer the best introductions). These communities, mostly in Laconia but with a few also in Messenia, existed as city‐states in their own right, except for a level of dependence on Sparta (for this reason they are often called ‘dependent poleis’; see Ducat, this work, Chapter 23). These communities are traditionally seen as dependent in the sense that they were subjugated politically and economically, or that they had relinquished some of their political rights for guarantees of protection. Standard textbooks on Sparta tend to portray these ‘dwellers around’ as craftsmen and traders and little else, a convenient Spartan hedge around the Lykourgan prohibition on wealth‐generating activities. Recent research suggests the relationship is much more complicated than that – far from being nodes in a proto‐centralized economy, or subject peoples one step above helotage, the perioikoi are now seen as partners in the Spartan state – serving in Sparta’s army, and fighting in some phalanxes as Spartiates (Hodkinson 1983; Cartledge (1987) 37–43). Most evidence suggests that in the classical period they lacked political autonomia, or control over what we might call ‘foreign policy’, but their activities in the fourth and third centuries suggest that their abrogation of particular political activities was not a foregone conclusion (Shipley 1997).

While the evidence is scarce, perhaps the easiest way to view the perioikoi is as citizens of Lakonikē – the classical name for Spartan controlled territory – without the responsibilities or duties of Spartiates, but in all other aspects partners in the Spartan state: owning land, serving in the military, supervising helots, farming, trading, governing their local communities. This is not to suggest that they enjoyed equal standing with the Spartiate ruling class, but rather that they were members of the Spartan polity helping to create and maintain that polity, and ultimately sharing in its successes and failures as willing participants.

The increase in Spartan military activities in the fourth century up to Leuktra implies a concomitant increase in the numbers of the perioikoi having to serve in the military. As Spartiate numbers declined, a greater share of the military burden would have to be carried by those communities who had little say in the scope or direction of military activity (this was perhaps also mirrored by a rise in mercenary use: see Millender 2006). Furthermore, increasing military commitments saw an increase in casualties, if not outright defeats, as in the campaign against Olynthos (Xen. Hell. 5.2; Diod. Sic. 15.19), and during repeated Spartan invasions of Boiotia in the early 370s which resulted in the Spartan defeat at Tegyra in 375 (Diod. Sic. 15.37; Plut. Pelop. 16). Shipley evocatively summarizes the situation: ‘Once Sparta becomes a leaky vessel, we begin to see the perioikoi taking to the life‐rafts’ ((1997) 213). The acquiescence of the perioikoi in the fifth century helped shape Spartan success. Once those gains were squandered, once fewer and fewer Spartans took to the field, once the costs began to outweigh the potential gains, acquiescence became resistance (as noted by Xenophon in the immediate aftermath to Leuktra: Hell. 6.4.15).

In short, in the years before Leuktra Sparta had become increasingly enmeshed in the complications of its own ‘conflict of values’, a significant component of which surrounded the concept of autonomia and its application to other poleis. Sparta, in part, perceived its right to be guarantor of the King’s Peace through the lens of its military successes. It saw itself as the acknowledged hēgemōn, despite other poleis’ disagreement over that status. Yet at the same time, Sparta was also quite vulnerable: stretched militarily, increasingly dependent on non‐Spartiate military contributions, and stubbornly resistant to tactical innovation. Sparta’s problem in the fourth century was not simply an issue of oliganthrōpia (to use Aristotle’s term for declining population; Pol. 1270a33–34) or increasing military competition; the problem was the alienation and fracturing of the broader polity. Viewed this way, Leuktra is not a hinge‐point of history but simply one link in a long chain of political disaffection, a chain that continues well into the Hellenistic period, and extends back into the classical past.

Perioikic involvement in the battle of Leuktra is hard to gauge. An allied army of 11,000 marched into Boiotia (Xen. Hell. 6.3–4), and by day’s end we are told 1000 Lakedaimonians lay dead on the field, 400 of them Spartiates (Xen. Hell. 6.4.13–15; Diod. Sic. 15.55–6). Of the other 10,000, little is said – though thanks to the diagonal advance of the Theban Pelopidas, which scarcely engaged them, casualties were probably light. Perhaps we can assume the other 600 dead were from perioikic contingents, but there are certainly no definitive assurances in the extant sources. Either way, the perioikoi certainly formed part of the 11,000 and would have been witness to the ill‐conceived anti‐Theban campaign, the ramshackle preparations for battle, the reluctant leadership of the Spartan Kleombrotos, the brilliant restraint of the Thebans, and the pile of dead Spartiates – a literal pile, as the Thebans separated them from the rest of the dead in order to emphasize the nature of the Spartan (as opposed to Lakedaimonian) defeat (Paus. 9.13.11–12). The Spartan king Agesilaos’ long anti‐Theban campaigning seemed purpose‐made to alienate the remaining Spartan allies; Leuktra only solidified that growing estrangement.

The Aftermath of Leuktra

The immediate aftermath of the battle provoked a constitutional crisis in Sparta. Of the 700 Spartiates sent to the battle, 300 survived. Three hundred is an important figure (Figueira 2006), not unrelated to the 300 of the Theban sacred band (Plut. Pelop. 18–19), or the 300 seen in the Archaic Messenian hero Aristomenes’ elite corps (Paus. 4.18.1; his shield, in some accounts, was used by Epameinondas at Leuktra, see Ogden (2004) 129–51), or the 300 Spartiates involved in the Battle of the Champions in 546 (Herodotus 1.82;), or the Spartiates who died at Thermopylae (Herodotus 7.224). The juxtaposition is surely deliberate, especially within Plutarch and Pausanias (on numbers in historiography generally, see Rubincam 2003). The 300 Spartiate survivors lived because many of them had fled the fighting. Had they been branded tresantes (‘tremblers’: Ducat 2006), they would have been subject to economic and social sanctions – if we are to believe Plutarch. Ducat has quite convincingly argued that the status of ‘tremblers’ as a definitive group should be called into question (Ducat 2006). In any event, Agesilaos, displaying his capacity for political pragmatism, decided that in this instance ‘the laws must sleep for a day’ (Plut. Ages. 30.5–6).

The aftershocks of the Spartan defeat spread through the ranks of the Peloponnesian League. Mantineia, previously divided by force into five villages in 385 (Xen. Hell. 5.2.3–7), reformed under a revamped democratic constitution in 371/70. The Tegean oligarchy, which Sparta had previously supported (read ‘imposed’, Thuc. 5.81.2, 5.82–1.5), was forced out, in favour of a democratic constitution, with the aid of a Mantineian army. These two strategically important poleis formed the heart of a new Arkadian federal league, a league specifically designed to check the hegemonic ambitions of Sparta (Xen. Hell. 6.5.3–9).

Arkadia, it must be noted, was strategically significant to Spartan interests. Situated in the mountainous heart of the Peloponnese, Arkadia had long been viewed by Sparta as ‘her backyard’, and a series of conflicts – military and diplomatic – in the sixth century had brought it in line with Spartan interests (Nielsen 2002, 127–9; Welwei 2004). The promotion of pro‐Spartan factions within Arkadian poleis not only removed a potential threat on Sparta’s northern borders, but also provided Sparta with secure routes around the Peloponnese. In the classical period, it was a significant source of troops for Peloponnesian League expeditions. This relationship, however, was not always cordial – Arkadian poleis revolted from Spartan hegemony several times over the course of the fifth century, most notably following the earthquake of the mid 460s (Nielsen 2000).

The Thebans were well aware of the political factionalism present within Greek poleis – after all, the pro‐Spartan oligarchic contingent in Thebes had only recently been overthrown – and such factionalism was often exploited by dominant poleis to their own benefit. The Theban support of the new Arkadian League is a good example, not just because it represented a significant bulwark against Sparta and a convenient ally, but because it denied the pro‐Spartan Arkadian faction political traction. Agesilaos, perhaps realizing the necessity of a propaganda victory if not a military one (Plut. Ages. 31 is slightly more charitable), hastily pulled together an army to meet the new threat and marched around Arkadia bombastically but without any significant fighting in mid‐winter of 370. He returned home having highlighted the fact that Spartans still felt Arkadia was theirs by right, and that – should they choose – Sparta could still field a significant force (Xen. Hell. 6.5.10–21). In itself, this was not an insignificant act, especially in light of the risks of the invasion. Xenophon’s account itself seems to imply that Agesilaos is conscious of the superficiality of the strength of the force he has assembled (Hell. 6.5.20–1), but it is surely significant that the king himself is leading the invasion; the intended audience was not only Arkadian.

Unsurprisingly, the Arkadians wished to adjust Spartan thinking. They were well aware of Spartan weakness, and of the disaffection of the perioikic communities of Skiritis and Karyai situated along their shared border (Xen. Hell. 6.5.25–6). Expanding their alliance to include Argos and Elis, they issued a call to Athens and Thebes to invade the vulnerable Spartan homeland. Athens demurred, perhaps alarmed at the sudden rise of Thebes (see Cargill 1981), but the Theban Epameinondas seized this stroke of political good fortune and invaded Laconia, in 370/369, to Spartan minds the first such foreign invasion since the Herakleidai at the close of the Bronze Age.

Crucially, as the allied army of Thebes and Arkadia advanced south, several perioikic communities began to secede from Spartan control (definitely Skiritis and Karyai, and perhaps others. The evidence is far from clear; Christien (2006) 171–4). It is likely that without their compliance – in effect, active involvement – the invasion would not have been so immediately successful. In many respects, this was a bigger blow to Sparta than Leuktra. The border was a symbolically potent space, and there were a series of rituals required of any Spartan army which sought to cross it. The fact that this liminal area was no longer in Spartan control – that it had in fact chosen to secede – would have had powerful religious resonances (on the borders generally, see Christien, 2006). Tellingly, the perioikic communities of the south and east remained loyal, as did the Laconian helots, but the fissures were there for all to see. So great was the crisis that the Spartans offered freedom to any helot who volunteered to serve to fight on behalf of Sparta: more than 6000 answered the call.

Epameinondas continued to push south into the Eurotas valley, laying waste to the land as he went. He made it as far as the port city of Gytheion on the southern coast, which withstood a short siege behind its walls. While open to debate, some of his motives seem clear. It is unlikely that he intended to capture Sparta – given time pressures on his own command, which was due to end imminently, and his desire to leave a check on his newfound Peloponnesian allies – but he certainly wished to deprive the polis of the illusion of security, both militarily and economically. Striking into the heart of Laconia and moving quickly south to the coast sent a strong message not only to Sparta, but to Sparta’s subject and dependent peoples. A central component of the presumed perioikic bargain was the security that Sparta offered her dependent settlements. Rampaging Theban forces likely represented a severe shock to both Spartan and perioikic illusions on that front.

In a masterly stroke of military bravado, the Theban then took his forces north and west and in one bold move dramatically altered the political geography of the Peloponnese. He invaded the Pamisos valley of Messenia, recalled expatriate Messenians (some from as far afield as North Africa and Sicily), and founded at the foot of Mt. Ithome the polis of Messene (Diod. Sic. 15.66). Ithome represented a significant religious site for the subject Messenians and had an important sanctuary of Zeus. Many of the myths relating to Messenian identity reported by Diodorus and Pausanias (and therefore written down long after the events of our period) are tied to the site. Spartan control of the religiously important Ithome had been, no doubt, an important means of asserting and maintaining dominance, an importance echoed in the foundation ritual undertaken by Messenians, Thebans, and Argives (Grandjean 2003). Arguably the most important event for Sparta in the fourth century was not the defeat of Leuktra, but the foundation of this independent polis in the territory of its formerly subjugated neighbour. Sparta not only lost nearly half of her most fertile polis‐controlled territory, but gained a new threat on her western border.

The fortifications of the new polis alone were a significant deterrent to future Spartan aggression. Not only was the settlement at Ithome a showcase for developments in late classical fortifications (the impressive stone walls, still extant in some places, have been the feature of several studies: Winter 1971; Ober 1987; and ongoing fieldwork by Themelis [for this, see the database at: http://www.chronique.efa.gr/%5D), but settlements along the routes into Messenia were fortified and reinforced with garrisons (Christien 2006). In the extent, fabric, and expense of these anti‐Spartan fortifications can be read, inversely but clearly, the threat Sparta still presented. Thebes, her Boiotian and Peloponnesian allies, invested heavily in restraining Sparta, and conceived a concerted policy of economic, political, religious and military contestation of Sparta’s ambitions. The thick stone walls of Messene are not only testament to the tenacious will for self‐determination of the newly freed Messenians, but also show that other Greeks still saw Sparta as extraordinarily potent.

Along the Tegean border, Karyai was quickly fortified by the Arkadians, and Sellasia remained outside Spartan control for more than five years. Despite Spartan attempts to check the tide – as for example their victory over an army of Arkadians, Argives and Messenians in the Tearless Battle of 368 (Plut. Ages. 33.3–5) – the pattern was clear: Spartan resurgence was being opposed effectively. In the campaign of 369/8, the Thebans had a hand in the foundation of Megalopolis in the southwest Arkadian plain (Xen. Hell. 7.1.28–32; Diod. Sic. 15.72.4), a new city that would prove an effective and long‐lasting opponent to Spartan ambitions. It even incorporated several perioikic communities into its new citizen body: Oion, Belbina, Leuktron, and Malea in Aigytis (Paus. 8.27.3–4; Hawkins (2011) 429). Roads from Elis, Messenia and Laconia all went through Megalopolitan territory; all along the edges of Spartan (not necessarily Lakedaimonian) territory, in the stones and mortar of walls and forts, we can read the containment policy of Thebes and the Arkadian League. This was a concerted policy of containment, an ‘Arkadian wall’ hemming Sparta in.

These external political crises were mirrored internally in Sparta. Two separate conspiracies in 369 sought to overthrow Agesilaos: one amongst the perioikoi, the other amongst the Spartiates themselves (who perhaps saw rapprochement with Thebes as preferable to armed and enfranchised helots). Both were suppressed (Plut. Ages. 32.6.11), but they are symptomatic of the fracturing of support amongst the political classes within Sparta.

By 365 most of the Peloponnesian league had melted away, and a renewal of the King’s Peace in 367 had guaranteed the autonomy (and existence) of Messene, supported and sworn to by everyone except Sparta (Xen. Hell. 7.1.33–7). This most muscular of poleis was becoming increasingly isolated, obstinate, and (in a wide political sense) irrelevant. Powell (2001, 97–8) rightly cautions against relying on the old trope of ‘Spartan stupidity’ as if it were explanatory. Sparta, despite individual accounts of stupidity, short‐sightedness, corruption or self‐interest (all written by non‐Spartans, it must be remembered), cultivated a culture of shrewd acumen and strategic foresight amongst her leaders. The result was a delicate balancing act requiring the careful use of limited resources, purposeful misinformation, and occasional rapid action that allowed Sparta to dominate much of Greece from the mid‐fifth century and into the fourth. Sparta liked to be viewed as ‘simple’, as stolidly militaristic despite any evidence to the contrary, and it promoted that vision of itself to the outside world, but it was never accurate. That balancing act had taken centuries to create – the Messenian wars traditionally ascribed to the eighth and seventh centuries, the expansion into Arkadia and the northern Peloponnese in the sixth, the sequence of treaties that bound the Peloponnesian League together, its religious and political reputation burnished by the Persian wars and interactions with Athens – but it was only ever a delicate and continuously negotiated series of nested (and contested) relationships – the fallout from the earthquake of the mid 460s highlights this.

To this qualified picture we should add a caveat regarding the role of individuals in shaping Spartan history. The narrative sources – indeed many modern sources – focus on the actions of individuals, yet when we talk about ‘Sparta’s leaders’ we are talking about the kings (plural), and the ephors, and the senior members of the gerousia. These were the deliberative bodies of the Spartan state. Agesilaos is a prime example – central to Xenophon’s account, a subject of one of Plutarch’s biographies, and a focus of Cartledge’s exhaustive scholarship (1987) – but ultimately many of the actions ascribed to him were the results of decisions taken by the Spartan polity; he was an instrument, as well as a shaper, of policy. What we often do not have is the deliberative sequence, the debates, the contrarian viewpoints, the local political considerations that shaped the decision‐making process. We have collective decisions ascribed to individuals.

After the Theban invasions, Agesilaos spent the remainder of his reign trying to regain Messenia, establishing the pattern for ambitious kings to follow. ‘Regain Messenia’ became the enduring ambition for those seeking high office in Sparta for the remainder of the period under discussion. The king focused his attention on finding alternative sources for resources lost with Messenia, and essentially bartered his reputation and that of his city in order to do so. He made a circumspect foray to the Hellespont sometime between 366 and 364 in order to ‘advise’ Ariobarzanes, satrap of Phrygia, and Mausolus, dynast of Karia, in their unsuccessful revolt against Artaxerxes II (Xen. Ages. 2.26.7).

The money from these activities allowed Agesilaos to lead a citizen army once more, in 362. Competition between democratic and oligarchic factions within the Arkadian League had finally led to open conflict, with each side asking for military support from Thebes and Sparta respectively. Epameinondas once more led the Theban army into the Peloponnese, and Agesilaos marched out to meet him with his entire force. Upon hearing that Agesilaos had left the city of Sparta essentially undefended, Epameinondas hurried to attack the city itself. Agesilaos learned of this in time, and split his forces, managing to avert disaster by forcing Thebes to withdraw. The two sides met in full force near Mantineia, and though Thebes soundly defeated Sparta, Epameinondas and his two chosen successors, Iolaidas and Daiphantos, were fatally wounded (Xen. Hell. 7.5.27; Diod. Sic. 15.85–7). The battle was meant to secure Theban hegemony, and instead it produced a southern Greece with no clear leader, wearied by war. The first common peace without Persian involvement was drawn up as a result, and once more Agesilaos refused to swear an oath so long as Messenian independence was recognized (Isoc. 6.28; Plut. Ages. 35.3–5).

Time was running out for the aging king, however. The historiographic record places his birth in 444 BC, making him eighty‐four at the time of his death. By 360, he was in Egypt selling his services to another rebellion from Persian rule. His behaviour in Egypt typifies his approach to pragmatic politics, agreeing to work for one master, before deserting him for another. He died on the coast of Libya on his way back to Sparta with his fee of 230 talents (Xen. Ages. 2.30–1; Plut. Ages. 40.2–4; on Agesilaos as mercenary, see Cartledge (1987) ch. 15). Throughout his life, he fought for what he perceived to be Sparta’s best interests; he was, at times, short‐sighted in how he identified those interests. His willingness to privilege resolutions to internal political conflicts (as with Sphodrias and Phoibidas; though compare Cartledge (1987) 136–7 with Rice (1975) 120) despite the damaging implications for Sparta’s relationships with other poleis, and an obsession with Thebes, were part of what cost Sparta her hegemony, her reputation, and her ability to project power beyond the bounds of Laconia.


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