Spartan Hegemony I

Johnny Shumate Illustrations

For the first time in Greek history, a single state was dominant, but Sparta’s position as leader of the Greeks did little to unify them, and in fact did not long remain unchallenged. The refusal of members of the Peloponnesian League to obey Spartan orders over Athens in 404–403 was a foretaste of the future. Within just a few years of the end of the Peloponnesian War, several of Sparta’s former allies had joined forces instead with a resurgent Athens and were waging war against Sparta and its remaining allies. The extent of the turnaround may be measured by the fact that the Athenians allied themselves with those who had demanded the destruction of their city in 404 against those who had argued for its preservation.

The major players continued to pursue the elusive goal of ascendancy over other Greeks—and pursued it, paradoxically, under the banner of liberating them. The Ionian–Dorian division of the fifth century was dropped as a diplomatic tool, since it no longer reflected reality in a world of shifting alliances. But this struggle was ultimately futile, since it only helped a new power grow in the north. “For all their attempts to impose their rule on one another, they succeeded only in losing their ability to rule themselves,” was a late historian’s somber but accurate comment. In 338, at the battle of Chaeronea, the Macedonians under Philip II defeated the Greeks and curtailed their cherished freedoms forever.

The Spartans also managed to irritate Artaxerxes of Persia enough for him to get involved again in Greek affairs. First, they supported the attempt of his younger brother, Cyrus, to take his throne (a young Athenian called Xenophon joined the expedition and memorably recorded the march of the “ten thousand” Greek mercenaries in his Anabasis), and then they invaded Anatolia in an attempt to keep the Eastern Greek cities out of Persian hands. Since the Spartans had recognized the Persians’ right to these cities in 411, this was treachery, but there had always been those in Sparta who saw the subjection of the Eastern Greeks to Persia as a temporary measure, to be revisited after the war.

The Greeks found it impossible to live at peace with one another. Internally, communities continued to be racked by conflict between oligarchs and democrats, which increasingly came to mirror tension between rich and poor. Externally, the most successful peaces of the fourth century were imposed by outside powers, while most Greek attempts at reconciliation were derailed by self-interested parties. Each of these peace treaties constituted a switch-point when the Greeks could have moved toward greater unity, but competitive belligerence and self-interested particularism were built into the fabric of Greek statehood, and the opportunities were never fully grasped. The fourth century showed that the polis system had run its course, because it was no longer capable of serving the Greeks’ best interests.

The Corinthian War

The Spartan forces in Anatolia at first achieved little. Their main weakness was at sea, so Pharnabazus, with Artaxerxes’ blessing, raised a large fleet and appointed as his admiral the Athenian Conon, who was working for Evagoras of Salamis, a Persian vassal king on Cyprus. By the summer of 396, Conon had won over the Rhodians and acquired a base in the Aegean. In response, the Spartans sent reinforcements east, and a fresh commander—King Agesilaus II, with an entourage that included Lysander. The Persians in their turn responded by sending money to political leaders in Greek states known to be hostile to Sparta, urging them to war.

Lame Agesilaus had come unexpectedly to the Eurypontid throne in 400. He was already over forty years old, since he succeeded his half-brother,  Agis II, when on Agis’ death his son was refused the kingship on the grounds that his father was probably Athenian Alcibiades. It was Lysander, formerly Agesilaus’ “inspirer” (pp. 109–10), who had been the prime mover of his elevation, in the expectation that it would allow him to retain power. But in Anatolia, Agesilaus, eager for his own glory, made it clear that he was the king and that Lysander was just one of his advisers. In the end, however, Agesilaus was scarcely more effective than his predecessors in Anatolia, but only because in 394 he was recalled to mainland Greece for the Corinthian War, just as he was poised to push deep into Persian territory. He left garrisons to protect the Greek cities, and obeyed the command to return.

The point of the Corinthian War (395–386) was to curb Sparta. It achieved exactly the opposite; at the end, Sparta was more dominant than ever. All over the Mediterranean, the Spartans had been settling matters to their liking, just as the Athenians had before them. In the 400s, they campaigned in the northern Aegean, in Sicily, and even in Egypt, which was once again in revolt from Persia, and would remain so until 343. Then in 400, at the conclusion of a two-year war with Elis, in which the Eleans had suffered terribly, the Spartans deprived them of their democracy and over half their territory, the inhabitants of which promptly formed themselves into confederacies, and in the same year they advanced into Anatolia. Sparta had to be stopped before it got too powerful.

It was the Boeotians who started the war, just as they had in 431. They provoked a border incident between the Locrians (their allies) and the Phocians (Spartan allies), knowing that the Spartans would retaliate, and formed an anti-Spartan alliance made up of their central Greek friends, along with Athens, Corinth, and Argos. The Spartan invasion of Boeotia in 395 was not a great success. Lysander succeeded in getting Orchomenus, which had long been an unwilling member of the Boeotian Confederacy, to secede from it, but he was too impatient to rendezvous with Pausanias as planned, and he lost his life trying to defeat the Boeotian forces by himself. How are the mighty fallen! On his return, Pausanias was prosecuted—for a crime for which he had already been acquitted once, that in 403 he had allowed the Athenian oligarchy, friends of Sparta, to be replaced by democracy—and went into exile. He was replaced by his son, Agesipolis.

After this failure in Boeotia, the war developed two main fronts: on land around Corinth (hence the name of the war) and at sea in the Aegean. Two major battles were fought on land early in the war: the Spartans won (just) at the Nemea River, near Corinth, in 394, and then again a few weeks later at Coronea in Boeotia, when Agesilaus, marching his men home from Anatolia, overcame an attempt to halt his progress. But after that the land war settled down to a stalemate. The allies dug in at Corinth and the Spartans did the same at neighboring Sicyon, and a war of skirmishing dragged on for another seven years. It was most significant for the demonstration the Athenian General Iphicrates gave of the effectiveness of light-armed troops, when he used lighter-armed hoplites (known as “peltasts” because of their crescent-shaped pelta shield) to sow death and panic in a Spartan troop of six hundred heavy hoplites.

At sea, the Spartans were thoroughly humiliated. In 394 their fleet of 120 ships was annihilated by Conon and Pharnabazus. The Eastern Greek cities celebrated the ending of Sparta’s ten-year dominance of the Aegean by mass defection. Then, early in 393, the Persian fleet freed the Cyclades from Spartan control, ravaged the coastline of Laconia, and occupied the island of Cythera. The Spartans could do nothing. Pharnabazus soon sailed home, but he left the fleet and Conon at the allies’ service and distributed large amounts of money, which the allies spent on hiring mercenaries, and rebuilding their fleets and their fortifications. Only ten years after its fortifications had been demolished, Athens was secure again.

The Spartans tried to end Persian aid to their enemies by arguing (or pointing out) that Conon was now plainly working for the Athenians, not the Persians. Tiribazus, the Persian satrap in Lydia, imprisoned Conon, but Artaxerxes was still angry with the Spartans and he ordered him released. Conon died shortly afterwards, but he had done his job and returned the Aegean to Athenian control. He was the first Athenian to receive the singular honor of a statue in the Agora in his own lifetime.

The Athenians’ recovery had been remarkable, and they began to wonder whether they could not regain, in some form, their grand naval alliance of the previous century. In 390 Thrasybulus took a step in that direction when he entered into a series of alliances with Greek cities and Thracian kings from Thasos to Byzantium, and resuscitated the questionable 10 percent tax on shipping passing through the Bosporus (p. 253). Since Athens was no longer the wealthy superpower it had been, Athenian Generals were frequently short of money in the fourth century, and they found creative ways of raising it—even hiring their men out as laborers at harvest time. Thrasybulus extracted some from his new friends, but more was needed, and he went to southern Anatolia to try his luck there. At Aspendus, however, some of his men got out of hand, and the furious inhabitants stormed his camp one night and killed him. It was a sorry end for the Hero of Phyle.

The King’s Peace

The Athenians’ successes in the Hellespont, where their forces were now commanded by Iphicrates, alarmed Artaxerxes, and he ordered his satraps to do what they could to check him. Sensing a change of heart, in 388 the Spartans sent Antalcidas, who had a long history of negotiating with the Persians, to Susa to secure peace on favorable terms. Artaxerxes was persuaded. His most pressing problem was the ongoing rebellion of Egypt, his most valuable province. He wanted his army of invasion to be spearheaded by Greek mercenaries, the best soldiers in the known world. He needed the Greeks to stop fighting so that the mercenary market in Greece could revive. So, in the spring of 387, Antalcidas returned with Artaxerxes’ terms.

There had been multilateral treaties before, but for the first time this peace was to be binding on all Greek states equally—a common peace, not restricted just to the belligerents and not limited in time. The Greeks were recognized as a people in their own right; finally, the futility of war taught the Greeks to accept a kind of unity. The principle that states should be allowed to govern themselves, free of external influence, was enshrined in the requirement that all states were to respect one another’s autonomy and territorial integrity, and were jointly to retaliate against any state that breached the treaty. There was very likely a clause stipulating the use of arbitration rather than military action as a way of resolving conflicts. The Eastern Greek states were ceded to the Persians, of course. But there was a stinger: any state that did not accept these terms would face the king’s wrath in military form. And who would police the Greeks for the Persian king? The Spartans, naturally. It would be up to them to decide what counted as autonomy and make sure that the Greek states obeyed.

It was likely that some parties would need persuading. The Spartans used the threat of force to break up the Boeotian Confederacy so that a weakened Thebes would toe the line, and also to dismantle the union of Argos and Corinth (the two states had surprisingly and uneasily joined together in 392, in an anti-Spartan democracy). As for the Athenians, on his return from Susa, in a brilliant campaign Antalcidas undid all of Thrasybulus’ and Iphicrates’ gains in the Hellespontine region, and trapped the grain ships bound for Athens in the narrow Bosporus. As at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were now funded by Persia, and the Athenians were faced with real difficulties if the grain ships could not deliver. The King’s Peace, or the Peace of Antalcidas, was accordingly sworn into existence in 386.

So far from having been laid low by the war, Sparta’s position as mistress of Greece had been confirmed. The cost was high, however. Agesilaus might quip that it was not so much that the Spartans had medized as that the Persians had laconized—that the Persians had helped the Spartans more than the other way around—but in fact the Spartans had betrayed the Eastern Greek cities. The Persians at last regained their long-lost subjects, and by 381 they had also brought Evagoras to heel on Cyprus, where he had been trying for ten years to make himself master of the entire island. They made no claim to any of the Aegean islands, so Athens kept Scyros, Lemnos, and Imbros, but lost the prospect of increasing its influence in general, since that would now be understood as impinging on others’ autonomy.

The Boeotian War

Ignoring their own oppressed and unfree populations, the Spartans drove the Olynthians out of Macedon, as a favor to King Amyntas III of Macedon, and broke up their new Chalcidian Confederacy on the grounds that it denied its members their autonomy. Without even the excuse of the autonomy clause, they also punished Mantinea and Phleious, former allies who had betrayed them. Mantinea had its walls demolished, and was broken up into villages, each ruled by an aristocratic, pro-Spartan family. The Spartans’ power was at its height, but they were using it in ways that worried their enemies and alienated some of their friends.

The most significant act of Spartan aggression took place in 382, when their general Phoebidas, ostensibly leading an army north to help Amyntas, accepted an invitation by pro-Spartan Thebans to seize and occupy the Cadmea, the Theban acropolis. This was a blatant breach of the principle of autonomy and the Spartans were compelled to punish Phoebidas, but he was Agesilaus’ man, and this was Agesilaus’ Sparta. So he received a fine rather than the death penalty—and the garrison remained in Thebes. The rest of the Greek world expressed shock, but did nothing except take in Theban exiles. Their leader, Pelopidas, was made welcome in Athens.

In the winter of 379/8, Pelopidas and a band of exiles slipped into Thebes and linked up with their friends inside. They assassinated the leaders of the pro-Spartan faction, released political prisoners, reclaimed the city, and instituted democracy.  The Athenians broke out of the general passivity that had followed the King’s Peace and supported the conspirators with a small force, which was especially useful in besieging the Spartan troops on the Cadmea into surrender—just in time, because Cleombrotus (who had come to the Agiad throne in 381 on the death of his brother Agesipolis) was only a day or two away with a relieving force. In the event, Cleombrotus was foiled by wintry conditions and achieved little.

The Athenians were naturally frightened that they might have provoked the Spartans to action against them, but the reaction, when it came, early in 478, was half-hearted. The Spartans had occupied Thespiae in Boeotia, and their general there, Sphodrias, marched into Attica and plundered the countryside near Eleusis. This was an act of war, but, not wishing to come to blows, the Athenians indicated that they would be satisfied if Sphodrias were suitably punished—but, just like Phoebidas a few years earlier, and again at the urging of Agesilaus (“the city needs men like him”), Sphodrias was scarcely punished. So the Athenians reaffirmed their support for Thebes, and stepped up their rearmament program.

They also decided to secure themselves by forming another grand alliance. They already had a few alliances here and there, and had been careful to make sure that the terms never transgressed the King’s Peace: “The Chians shall be treated as allies on terms of freedom and autonomy.”4 Now they decided to offer this kind of alliance to the Aegean world at large, along with an anti-Spartan stance. This was the beginning of the Second Athenian League, which would endure, somewhat shakily, until 338.

The league was announced in the summer of 378 with a manifesto that survives on an inscription published a year or two later. As well as keeping safely within the guidelines of the King’s Peace, the manifesto was careful to suggest that this new alliance would be nothing like the Delian League of the fifth century. Allied states would pay no involuntary tribute and would have access to league funds; Athens would not take over allied court cases; the allies would retain their autonomy and receive no garrisons or Athenian officials; and so far from having cleruchies imposed on them, no Athenian would be allowed to own land in any allied state at all. The allies would have their own council, which met in Athens, where their delegates could debate and vote (one vote per state) on league business without Athenian influence, before putting a proposal to the Athenian Assembly.

The Spartans kept hammering away at Boeotia with annual invasions, but they achieved little, and the Thebans began the process of recovering for their confederacy the Boeotian towns the Spartans had garrisoned. This renewed confederacy was to be democratic, but with Thebes firmly and forcefully at its head, and this was an embarrassment to their allies, the Athenians, who were promising prospective members of their new alliance autonomy. Having failed on land, the Spartans turned to the sea, but were twice thoroughly defeated by the Athenians. Athenian control of the sea was re-established, and would endure for the next few decades before being brought to a final end. A peace conference in Sparta in 375 was ineffective, except that, in adhering to the principle that everyone could keep what they had, the Athenians gained official recognition for their new alliance.

The Humbling of Sparta

In 371 the states made another attempt to bring the Boeotian War to an end. But instead of peace, the conference, in Sparta, led within twenty days to further fighting. The Spartans snubbed the Thebans by refusing to let them swear the oath for the Boeotians as a whole; they refused to recognize the Boeotian Confederacy and wanted each Boeotian town to swear separately. Showing the way—and revealing the Athenian drift toward friendship with Sparta rather than Thebes—every member present from the Athenian alliance swore separately. But the Thebans, led by their dynamic general Epaminondas, argued that the Spartans should free their Perioecic communities before the Thebans dissolved their confederacy, and the meeting broke up in rancor. The Spartans already had an army near Boeotia in Phocis, to protect the Phocians against Theban attacks, and Cleombrotus now delivered the Thebans an ultimatum: free the Boeotian towns or face the consequences. The Thebans refused, and Cleombrotus invaded.

The Spartan army well outnumbered the Thebans, but Cleombrotus was up against the two best tacticians of the era: he was outgeneraled by Epaminondas, and his men were outclassed by the Theban elite corps, the Sacred Band, commanded by Pelopidas. The battle of Leuctra (a village near Thespiae), fought in June 371, was won by Epaminondas’ brilliant use of cavalry and infantry working together, and it was a decisive victory for Thebes. Leaving aside other casualties, four hundred out of the seven hundred Spartiates present lost their lives, including the king, and they constituted at least a quarter of the existing Spartiate population. It was the first formal infantry battle that the Spartans had lost for three centuries.

The Athenians greeted the news with dismay, knowing that it heralded Theban ascendancy in Greece. They arranged a conference at which the Greek states reaffirmed their allegiance to the King’s Peace, and to the principle that each state was to rest content with what it had, or face obligatory retaliation from all the other signatories. It was a warning against Theban expansion. The Eleans, however, refused to take the oath, because the treaty recognized the independence of the Triphylian Confederacy; they had recovered some of the dependent communities they had lost in 400, but the Triphylians remained stubbornly independent for over a hundred years.

The Athenians, leaders of an expressly anti-Spartan alliance, were now paradoxically drawing closer to the Spartans. Thebes dropped out of the Second Athenian League and formed its friends, effectively all of central Greece, into an alliance of its own. In theory, this was an alliance of equals (and therefore not in breach of the King’s Peace), but in practice Thebes was dominant.

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