Spartan Hegemony II

Theban Ascendancy

After Leuctra, the Boeotians wanted to finish the Spartans off once and for all, but their ally, Jason of Pherae in Thessaly, persuaded them to be content with driving them out of Boeotia, just as he would shortly drive them out of their last outposts in Thessaly. He might well have thought that the Spartans would destroy themselves. Strictly, all the Spartiate survivors of Leuctra should have lost their citizenship and been treated with contempt for the rest of their lives, as those who did not die or win in battle traditionally were. But the reduction in citizen numbers would have threatened Spartan society with collapse, so Agesilaus “allowed tradition to sleep for that day.”

Jason was one of a new breed of warlords, lurking on the margins of the Greek world and poised to expand into it if the opportunities presented themselves; Evagoras of Salamis and Mausolus of Caria were cut from the same cloth, and the most successful of them all would turn out to be Philip II of Macedon. Over the past few years, Jason had, by force and intimidation, united much of Thessaly under his rule, and even extended his influence into Macedon. No doubt his advice to the Boeotians was self-serving: he wanted hostility to continue between them and the Spartans so that he would remain unmolested. On his assassination in 370, however, the Thessalian cities returned to their habitual internecine strife. But Jason’s successor (after another assassination or two), his nephew Alexander, inherited not just his position, but also his ambitions.

Spartan weakness instigated a period of turmoil throughout the Peloponnese, as helots and Perioeci rose in rebellion and anti-Spartan factions seized the opportunity to gain or regain power in the cities. Much blood was shed in the process, especially in Argos, where the poor rose up against the rich, killed them (even the democrats among them), and seized their land. More constructively, in 370 Mantinea was reformed as a polis, and along with its old rival Tegea formed an Arcadian Confederacy out of the Arcadian and Triphylian communities; the confederacy had a democratic constitution, and was to be centered on a new city called Megalopolis (“Great City”) in southern Arcadia, so as not to privilege any of the existing cities. Megalopolis incorporated the populations of forty previous towns and villages.

The Spartans declared war on the Arcadians, and the Arcadians appealed for help from Thebes. Epaminondas raised a large army from central Greece, which was further swelled by contingents from Elis and Argos. In the winter of 370/69, they launched a massive invasion of Laconia. Never before, as Agesilaus had boasted, had the women of Sparta seen the smoke of an enemy campfire. By dint of offering freedom to helots, the Spartans raised a large enough army to save Sparta itself, but the invaders then crossed into Messenia and liberated the helots and Perioeci, founding the city of Messene on Mount Ithome and creating Messenia for the first time as a political entity in its own right. Expatriate Messenians flocked home in joy.

The removal of fertile Messenia, the source of Spartan prosperity—the foundation of its culture, in fact—was a terminal blow. At a stroke, and within a generation of reaching the apex of its power, Sparta was greatly reduced. The Peloponnesian League was effectively defunct, after about two hundred years of existence. The previously unthinkable happened, and there was unrest even among the Spartiates themselves, a number of whom had to be executed. It was not a serious uprising, but what is remarkable is that it happened at all. The Athenians (who must, for historical reasons, have been not displeased by the reduction of Sparta) declared their opposition to the Thebans by harassing their army as it returned from the Peloponnese.

While warfare between Thebes and Sparta continued in the Peloponnese, the Athenians, who had gained recognition that Amphipolis was rightly theirs—assigned to them by the Peace of Nicias in 421, but not yet recovered—turned their attention Thraceward and renewed their attempt to secure easy access to northern minerals and ship-quality timber. But obsessively repeated efforts in the 360s came to nothing, as the crafty Amphipolitans entered into alliances with the two strongest powers in the region—first with Macedon, then the Olynthians (whose Chalcidian Confederacy had reformed as Spartan power waned), and then Macedon again. The Athenians were scarcely more successful on the Thracian Chersonese, where possession of the towns was being contested by several powers—especially the kings of the Odrysians, the most powerful Thracian people—and the Thebans and Alexander of Pherae were doing their best to interrupt Athenian efforts there as well.

But the Athenians gained a number of new allies in the north, including Potidaea, which received a cleruchy at its request, as a defense against Olynthus. This was the second cleruchy to be established in just a few years. In 366, in support of a rebel Anatolian satrap, the Athenians, after a ten-month siege, had driven a Persian garrison off Samos, which had been annexed by Mausolus, the aggressive satrap of Caria. The Persian garrison infringed the terms of the King’s Peace, but it was clear to everyone that the Athenian action was not disinterested. They wanted Samos for its fertile fields and its harbor (it once again became the Athenians’ main naval base in the Aegean), and they established a huge Athenian cleruchy on the island, partly made up of restored Samian democrats.

While Epaminondas had been leading the Thebans’ campaigns in the Peloponnese, Pelopidas was responsible for their attempt to regain influence in Thessaly, which meant checking their former ally, Alexander of Pherae. In 364, after several attempts, Pelopidas invaded in greater force, only to die in battle—but his troops and their Thessalian allies succeeded in confining Alexander to Pherae itself. But Alexander was assassinated in 358, Thessaly returned to impotent chaos, and the Thebans never tried to revive their control there.

In the Peloponnese, a critical point had been reached. Despite a crushing defeat by the Spartans in 368 (in the Tearless Battle, so called because there was no loss of life on the Spartan side), the Arcadians had gone to war with the Eleans over the Triphylian issue. But the war, which lasted from 366 to 362, had fractured the young Arcadian Confederacy along traditional fault lines (Mantinea versus Tegea), and in the end the Thebans, as current protectors of the King’s Peace, had no choice but to return to the Peloponnese to impose order. The Thebans and their central Greek allies were joined in the Peloponnese by the rump Arcadian Confederacy, Argos, and Messenia. They were opposed by the Mantineans, Spartans, Eleans, Achaeans, and Athenians, under the command of octogenarian Agesilaus. The Corinthians had adopted a policy of neutrality a few years earlier, and stuck with it, but otherwise this was close to being a pan-Greek war.

In 362 the two sides met at Mantinea, for the battle that was supposed to decide the question of which of the two alliances would be the leaders of the Greeks. But it did no such thing. The Thebans won—but Epaminondas was killed, and with Pelopidas dead as well there was no longer a strong hand on the Theban helm. Since Theban leadership outside of central Greece depended not on its institutional position in any league but on its prestige and ability to win battles, and since Pelopidas and Epaminondas had been chiefly responsible for both of these factors, their deaths spelled the end of the brief Theban ascendancy. With nothing resolved, the exhausted Greeks made peace, but Sparta refused to sign, since the only issue in which it was interested—the autonomy of Messenia—was not up for negotiation. But within a few years, one of the chief belligerents, Agesilaus, was dead. He died in 359 on his way home from Egypt, where, despite his advanced age, he had been working as the commander of a mercenary force, aiding the rebels against the Persians.

The Social War

By 375, the Second Athenian League, with over seventy members and a modest annual income of about sixty talents, was an entity of some strength and importance. All had joined of their own accord, voluntarily or by invitation, without apparent Athenian coercion. But it was primarily an anti-Spartan coalition, and after Leuctra it lost purpose and direction, not least because it was the Thebans who had humbled Sparta, not the Athenian alliance after all. Some members drifted away, and new allies were not required to join the league.

But Athens never gave up seeking to renew its influence in the Aegean. And, gradually, some of the old fifth-century habits re-emerged. League money was used to pay for specifically Athenian ventures in the north (the obsession with Amphipolis); rather than being ad hoc payments to cover the costs of particular campaigns, the Athenians wanted to introduce fixed annual payments—tribute, by any other name. Attempts by allies to secede—Ceos in 364, Euboea in 357—were suppressed. At least there were no cleruchies on allied land; the Athenians had kept their promise in that respect. But there were cleruchies on Scyros, Lemnos, Imbros, and Samos, and at Potidaea and Sestus, and it must have seemed that it was only a matter of time before one was planted on allied territory; after all, they had been promised no garrisons, but the Athenians had had no choice but to garrison towns temporarily that were near war zones, even if this was done “in accordance with the resolutions of the allies.” As Xenophon said, Athenian poverty was forcing them to treat their allies “with less than total fairness.”

Nevertheless, everyone could see that Athens did not have the strength to be as dominant as it had been in the past. And some Athenian allies therefore concluded that they would be better off in a different alliance. It was this, rather than concerns about Athenian abuses, that led a number of important allies—including Rhodes, Chios, and Byzantium (the last two founder members of the league)—to rise up against Athens in a “social” (allied) war in 357.

The Athenians had a large fleet of almost three hundred ships, but lacked the resources to man more than a few dozen at a time, and they suffered a series of naval defeats, which drove home the fact that others had acquired the skills that once had been virtually an Athenian monopoly. Once again, it was Persian intervention that brought the war to an end. At one point, the Athenian General Chares was forced by lack of money to work for a rebel Persian satrap in Anatolia. The Persian king responded by threatening to enter the Social War on the side of the rebels, and so the Athenians recalled Chares and accepted defeat. A number of former allies gained their independence or were absorbed by, chiefly, Mausolus or Philip of Macedon, leaving Athens with only a rump alliance. Athens accepted the necessity of pursuing a more cautious and defensive foreign policy, suitable for its limited resources.

Athenian Democracy in the Fourth Century

Against the background of the futile fighting of the fourth century, the Athenians made certain institutional changes designed, above all, to increase efficiency. One major area of inefficiency was the legal code, which had grown haphazardly throughout its history, until it was hard to determine the order in which laws had been made, or where they were stored, or even if they had been written down at all. Some laws contradicted others; many had become redundant. The redundancies led to the important distinction between “laws” (nomoi), which were binding on everyone and assumed to be permanent, and “decrees” (psēphismata), which applied to particular people or situations, and so could become redundant:

The authorities are not to use an unwritten law in any case. No decree of either the Council or the Assembly is to be more authoritative than a law. It is not permitted to make a law for an individual if the same law does not extend to all Athenian citizens and if it is not voted by six thousand people, in a secret ballot.

A committee had been formed in 410 to collect and collate existing laws. The work was interrupted by the Thirty, and then in 403 two boards of Legislators (nomothetai) were established. The job of the first was to complete the collection and collation, while the second, which had five hundred members, was to scrutinize every single existing law and decide whether or not it should go forward as part of the legal code for the renewed democracy.

Once the Legislators had fixed the code, the two boards made way for one, and no law could be made, repealed, or amended without the approval of this board, which was given only after a deliberately complex and lengthy review (the process was later somewhat simplified). Board members were chosen from the six thousand jurors empanelled for that year, because the oath the jurors had sworn was taken to apply also to this kind of work. The Thesmothetes were given the job of regularly reviewing the laws and reporting problems to the Assembly.

None of this was much of a restriction on the Assembly, since few new laws were made, and most business, including all foreign-policy decisions, was conducted by means of decrees. In 362 the Assembly had its judicial function—trying Generals and politicians for crimes against the state—removed and given to the courts. Since the courts were just the people sitting in another context, this was not felt to be a restriction either. It was a cost-cutting exercise, so that hundreds of jurors rather than thousands of assemblymen would be paid. And the number of cases heard by the courts was reduced by another frugal measure, the ruling that certain cases had to be heard first by an arbitrator (a senior man, in his sixtieth year), and would go to court only if the litigants disagreed with the arbitrator’s verdict.

Yet another cost-cutting exercise was the reduction of the number of Assembly meetings from four a month to three, although that was offset by the sensible decision to allow important debates to be carried over for a second day’s discussion. The Areopagus Council seems to have been resurgent or potentially resurgent in the 340s and 330s, but it was kept in its place by a tough law in 336 that made it impossible for the council to usurp the place of the democratic Council in the event of a temporary lapse of democracy in Athens—that is, an oligarchic coup: “They shall not deliberate, not even about one matter.”

So the Assembly’s powers remained pretty much as they had been, and in other respects Athenian democracy was extended, not curtailed. In 403 the Pnyx, the meeting-place of the Assembly, was enlarged and improved, and before long pay for attendance was introduced, since entrance to the Pnyx could now be controlled. This was a bold move, showing great commitment to democracy at a time when Athens had lost the resources of the Delian League and its financial situation was precarious. The rate was one obol a day, but that was soon raised to three; by the 320s it was one drachma (six obols) for the two less important meetings per prytany, and nine obols for the principal meeting. Remuneration was introduced not just as an affirmation of democratic principles after the regime of the Thirty, but also as a way to encourage attendance (and punctuality) when the population was low as a result of the Peloponnesian War, and as a form of poor relief.

In the fourth century, the Athenians were not turning their backs on democratic principles so much as refounding Athens after the horrors of civil war. The democracy was more self-conscious, not less democratic. Other current debates point in the same direction. I mentioned earlier that Thrasybulus had offered the slaves and metics in his rebel army citizenship when the democracy was restored. When the matter came up for debate in 403, Thrasybulus’ proposal was more or less shot down. This seems unfair, but it was the result of an intense discussion about citizenship. Thrasybulus’ proposal came to nothing, but neither did an alternative proposal, that, as in many other states, citizenship should be restricted to landowners, which would have disenfranchised several thousand of the poorest Athenians. And another outcome of the debate was the reinstatement of Pericles’ strict citizenship law of 451/0, which had lapsed during the manpower shortage of the last decade of the war. In fact, the law was soon strengthened by an outright ban on a male citizen’s marrying a female noncitizen. The effect of all this was to bolster the democracy by creating a sense of insiders and outsiders, and the effect was enhanced by the prominent placement of inscriptions honoring those who had supported the democracy in one way or another.

A New Professionalism

Lack of allied tribute left fourth-century Athens strapped for cash and heavily reliant on its wealthy citizens, who naturally protested. They were not as well off as their predecessors in the fifth century. The whole financial system needed taking in hand. In the first place, a census was taken of the value of every landowner’s property, so that taxation could be fairly distributed. Then, by the 350s, there were two powerful new treasuries, the Military Fund and the Theoric Fund (which was, in origin, a fund to pay for citizens’ attendance at festivals and public entertainments). A new form of budgeting had been introduced a decade or two earlier, whereby every spending authority was allocated a fixed proportion of the money available for each prytany, depending on projected needs—a rather rigid system, which tended to leave the boards short of money in those years (and there were many of them in the fourth century) when Athenian revenues were low. In the 360s, trials sometimes had to be canceled for lack of money to pay jurors.

If there was any surplus, at a time of peace it went to the Theoric Fund, and at a time of war to the Military Fund; both funds received their own regular allocations as well. The Military Fund was always controlled by a single official, and the post was elective, not subject to sortition, and could be repeated year after year. Just as ambitious men in the fifth century had exploited the fact that the Generalship was an elected post to gain personal power, so financial managers now began to exploit the same feature of their posts. The Theoric Fund was originally run by a board of ten, but in the 340s a single treasurer began to be elected for this fund too. Both funds—sometimes in parallel, sometimes alternately—grew to be very rich, and their treasurers correspondingly powerful. The Treasurer of the Theoric Fund at some point gained control of all the former financial committees of the Council as well. But his power no more threatened democracy than Pericles had in the fifth century. These men could always be brought low if they behaved irresponsibly. Eubulus of Probalinthus, re-elected as financial controller almost every year from 353 to 342, used his authority to introduce a greater degree of fiscal caution.

In the military sphere, Generals continued the trend begun during the Peloponnesian War and tended to specialize in military matters more than politics, just as Eubulus and other specialized in politics. Athenian Generals even hired themselves out abroad, in between their appointments in Athens. The age of the amateur was passing. Another important step toward professionalism was taken by the development of the ephēbeia (the Cadet Corps—literally, “those on the threshold of adulthood”). This was a corps of young men who, at the age of eighteen, embarked on two years of disciplined training, as a kind of National Service; the practice came to be imitated by many other states. They took an oath to defend the fatherland, obey the laws and the authorities, and honor the state’s cults.

In the first year, which consisted largely of basic training, they were posted in fortresses in Piraeus; in the second, they were based in fortresses out in the Attic countryside, with the job of patrolling the borders against enemy incursions and runaway slaves. They were trained to fight both as hoplites and as light-armed troops. As in the Spartan agōgē, the young men were bound together by athletic competition, communal dining, and shared performance at religious festivals. Each ephebe received a stipend, and at the end of the first year of training he was given a shield and a spear by the state. In Athens, for the period when the ephēbeia was funded like this by the state (335–322), it seems that over half of the available eighteen-year-olds joined up, between five and six hundred a year, giving the army a good core of trained soldiers but not reaching out to the poorest families. But when the ephebate was revived in 306, it was reduced to one year and, with a focus on cultural as well as military activities, it gradually became a kind of finishing school for a few dozen sons of rich households.

The new professionals of the fourth century were staking out their fields. Technical treatises were written on medicine (the ample corpus of works attributed, nearly always wrongly, to fifth-century Hippocrates of Cos), architecture, siegecraft, rhetoric, music, town-planning, art theory, and the theater. In his earliest works, written in the 390s and 380s, Plato had his mentor, Socrates (or a fictionalized version of him), engage with a wide range of experts—poets, sophists, orators, Generals, and politicians—and show them all up as ignorant about the fundamental issues of their work. Plato was trying to demonstrate that philosophy as he understood it, or rather as he was in the process of inventing it, was the only true source of education and even of self-perfection. Meanwhile, Isocrates, with his school of rhetoric, was making the same educational claim for what he called “philosophy”; the details are unknown, but he had a method designed to inculcate appropriate (by his lights) moral and political views in his students. Aristotle, who came to Athens from Chalcidice in 367 to study at Plato’s Academy, marks the culmination of this trend toward the systematization of knowledge. Starting from a few principles (but otherwise rejecting the kind of theoretical speculations that characterized the Academy), he intended to say the last word on everything from the ideal political constitution to the nature of God.

The fourth century was the time when philosophy as we understand it was invented; between the time of Socrates and Aristotle, the fundamental rules of logical reasoning were laid down, and great advances were made in every other branch of philosophy as well, from epistemology to ethics. It was the time when the rules of elegant and persuasive speaking and writing were developed, culminating in Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, in which the three main kinds of public speaking are identified (speaking for display, or in the law courts, or in a mass political assembly) and the manner of speaking appropriate to each kind is thoroughly explained, as well as the general principles of rhetoric. Poets and playwrights differentiated themselves to an increasing extent from prose-writers by focusing more on entertainment than instruction.

Lysippus of Sicyon, who was working between about 370 and 310 (and who was to become the favorite sculptor of Alexander the Great, the one who portrayed him as he liked to be seen), invented a new canon for portraying the human body:

He made the head smaller than his predecessors had, and the body more slender and firm, so that his statues appeared to be taller than they were. … He used to say that he made men as he visualized them, whereas his predecessors made them as they were.

Despite this final quip, realism was Lysippus’ object: the new canon, for all its slight distortions of the human body, allowed statues to be more lifelike to the viewer. Artists were still portraying men as generalizations—man of courage, man of destiny, king—but as the century progressed individualization made more of a mark on their work, and we will see this blossom within a few decades. The fourth century was a time of futile and brutal warfare, but it was also a time of great inventiveness and creativity, when human knowledge was being systematized even as new fields were being opened up.

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