Sparta after the Persians

Johnny Shumate Illustrations

As Athens grew powerful and wealthy – and just a little cocky – the Spartans watched from their safe haven deep in the Eurotas river valley of the Peloponnesus. Content to remain at home since the Pausanias affair, the Spartans were more concerned with the ever menacing presence of the helots. Critical to this control was their dominance over their neighbors, most of whom were members of the military alliance that Sparta led, the Peloponnesian League.

But in c. 464 disaster struck: an earthquake of tremendous force left virtually every house and building in Sparta destroyed. Striking in daylight, loss of life was severe, including a school full of boys of elite status. Only a few of these survived, having run after a rabbit that appeared moments before the earthquake struck, killing most still inside. Years later remains of the school, now the tomb of those killed, the Seismatias , remained a visible reminder of the tragedy (Plut. Cim . 16.5).

The Messenian helots, ever dangerous, quickly seized the moment and rose in rebellion, pressing the Spartans hard. Establishing a formidable position on Mt. Ithome, the Messenians repelled successive Spartan attacks. In one of these Arimnestus, Mardonius ’ killer at Plataea, died with three hundred others in the battle of Stenyclerus, having taken on the Messenians unaided (Hdt. 9.64.2). So severe was the situation that the Spartans appealed to the Athenians for aid. A lone Spartan envoy appeared before the Athenians, a simple and silent suppliant. Moved by this appeal, Cimon led a thousand Athenian volunteers to rescue the Spartans. Soon after arriving, however, the Spartans worried about their would – be saviors. Perhaps afraid that the democratic Athenians might switch sides and help the Messenians, the Spartans told the Athenians that their help was no longer required.

This Spartan volte – face ruined Cimon ’s stature in Athens and explains the circumstances of his ostracism (c. 461) engineered by his opponents. When fighting with the Spartans flared up and that with the Persians soured in Egypt and the east, Pericles and others called him home, soon sending him off to Cyprus where he died campaigning. But before his death he managed to bring about a five – year peace between Athens and Sparta (c. 452/1). This was only a temporary cessation in the hostilities. Relations between the two states would harden considerably in the following years.

But the Spartans still needed help against the Messenians and called in assistance from other communities, perhaps thought more trustworthy than the Athenians. The struggle with the helots, especially those of Messenia continued for years.  Those Messenians holding out in their mountain stronghold on Ithome (as late as 456?) finally agreed to terms with the Spartans, only too happy to grant their safe exit. The Messenians found protection with Athenians who were just as happy to settle these battle – hardened veterans at Naupactus, a port in Ozolian Locris, which guarded the northern approaches to the Corinthian Gulf (Thuc. 1.103.1 – 3).

After the Persian Wars, Athens and Sparta had taken divergent paths. Sparta remained an old – fashioned tribal community whose goal focused on preserving the status quo – maintaining control over the Peloponnesians to ensure control over the helots. Athens, however, was becoming increasingly a ‘ modern ’ state where, as Pericles emphasizes in Thucydides, democracy had reshaped its citizens into lovers of the polis .  Democratic institutions established at the end of the sixth century continued to be expanded and refined throughout the fifth – magistrates with defined tenures of office ce, a functioning assembly that wielded real authority, law courts and juries that expressed the will of the people.  To maintain this development – and the wealth of empire that came with it – Athens had to stay the course, to exercise power and authority wherever possible.  

But this Athenian reality may be expanded. Political scientist John Mearsheimer has argued that democratic states are as driven by power politics as their authoritarian counterparts and practice similar policies of aggression. Such analysis fi ts democratic Athens in the middle years of the fi fth century. In stark contrast to slow and ‘ conservative ’ Sparta, as the Corinthians emphasized in an illuminating comparison (Thuc. 1.70), Athens constantly looked for opportunity wherever it could be found. The tensions between these two states were not only between a ‘ land ’ power and a ‘ sea ’ power, but between two communities that for more than two generations had been heading in opposite directions.

A long-term peace treaty between Athens and Sparta in 445 proved illusory, though, for as Pericles put down several revolts within the empire he alarmed the Spartans. In 440-439, for instance, Samos revolted and received some aid from Persia, only to be crushed in an eight-month blockade and siege by Pericles and his reinforced fleet of 160 triremes of Athens and another 55 from Chios and Lesbos. As penalties, Samos lost her autonomy and navy altogether. Then, in 435, war broke out on the Adriatic coast-Corinth of the Peloponnesian League and Epidamnus (later Dyrrachium, modern Durazzo) against Corcyra (Corfu)- during which, the next year, the Corcyran fleet destroyed or captured 75 Corinthian triremes in a naval battle off Actium, then blockaded and captured Epidamnus. Angered by this reverse, Corinth created a 150-trireme fleet of new and allied Peloponnesian vessels, whereupon Athens gave support-10 triremes-to Corcyra. In the naval battle off the Sybota Islands in 433 Corinth claimed 60 Corcyran ships, but was checked from finishing the job by the Athenian intervention.

Athens’ brief war against a Spartan ally, Corinth, now precipitated the general Peloponnesian War in 431 between the two major powers of the Greek world-already mutually suspicious competitors. For ten years Athens pitted her maritime strategy against the armies of continental Sparta. Aided by allied vessels from Chios and Lesbos, the Athenians used their navy to blockade and raid the Peloponnesus, the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and the Gulf of Corinth, while Spartan and Boeotian armies ravaged the Attican countryside, leading to a strategic stalemate. When, in 429, a Corinthian-Spartan fleet of 47 and then 77 triremes attempted to wrest command of the Gulf of Corinth from an Athenian squadron of 20 galleys under Phormio, he routed it in two successive engagements at Chalcis and Naupactus (Lepanto). However, the cramped conditions of insular, walled-in Athens gave rise to a disastrous plague which claimed the life of the brilliant Pericles in 429. His successors, notably Cleon and Demosthenes, continued his strategy by suppressing revolts in Lesbos and Corcyra in 427, but began to overextend Athenian energies by carrying the war overland into Boeotia and overseas into Sicily.

Then, in 425, Demosthenes brought the war home to Sparta by taking the coastal city of Pylos and offshore Sphacteria by amphibious operations, capturing a Spartan fleet in the process. Athenian warships also occupied the island of Kythera to further strangle Peloponnesian overseas communications, and the theater of active fighting shifted northward to mainland Boeotia and Thrace, where the Spartans tried to cut the Athenian grain routes to the Black Sea. Refusing to make peace following the success at Pylos, Athens suffered sufficiently in the north-where Cleon met his death-to accept a settlement in 421.

But Athens had become so aggressive, particularly under the new leadership of Alcibiades, that cold war ensued throughout the Aegean and finally grew into a full-blown world war. While Sparta crushed a revolt by Argos and other cities, Alcibiades used 30 triremes to virtually annihilate the small island state of Melos in 416 and then to extend the Athenian Empire west to Sicily. Little had happened there until 415 when the cities of Segesta and Leontini appealed to Athens for help against Syracuse, ally of Corinth. The next year Alcibiades and Nicias led a fleet of 136 galleys to Catana, Sicily, followed later by reinforcements under Demosthenes. Alcibiades fled his political enemies by defecting to Sparta, which now rallied to the side of Syracuse and again declared open war on Athens.

An Athenian blockade of Syracuse was broken by a skirmish with a Spartan Corinthian squadron in 413, thus opening maritime communications between Syracuse, Sparta and Corinth. Athens tried to disrupt these connections by stationing a 33-ship squadron off the Gulf of Corinth, only to have it ravaged by 25 Corinthian triremes equipped with a new, reinforced prow for bows-on ramming. Then the Syracusans blocked the 115 Athenian triremes returning to the blockade in the harbor of Syracuse by sinking several hulks at the harbor entrance. There, after several skirmishes, on September 9, 74 Syracusan triremes – all reinforced with the new Corinthian prow-pressed in on the cautious Nicias and aggressive Demosthenes. In cramped waters that prevented the use of their diekplous and periplous maneuvers, the Athenian fleet was roundly defeated, losing 50 triremes sunk to 30 of Syracuse. Trapped, the Athenians scuttled their surviving craft and attempted to escape overland, only to be pursued and captured, Nicias and Demosthenes being executed. Still, the loss of 200 triremes did not deter Athens from raising another fleet and conniving successfully to get Alcibiades back from Sparta to command it. More colonies revolted, Persia intervened on the side of Sparta, and long-quiescent Carthage became involved in the Sicilian theater. The Peloponnesian War had become general.

Because of the remarkable Athenian ability to recover from the disaster in Syracuse and retain command of the Aegean, the issue would have to be settled at sea-for which non-maritime Sparta only slowly and with great difficulty prepared itself. A general Ionian revolt against Athens in 412 resulted from the news from Syracuse, but under the inspired political and naval leadership of Alcibiades between 411 and 407 Athens so isolated rebellious Lesbos, Chios, Thasos and Euboea by his naval and amphibious victories that pro-Athenian parties managed to return to power throughout the Aegean, with Samos being restored as the staunchest of Athenian allies and main naval base in the eastern Aegean. Sparta developed a fleet to cut Athenian supply routes to the Black Sea, but its various inexperienced commanders suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of Alcibiades, in 411 at Cynossema and Abydos and in 410 at Cyzicus, where the main Spartan fleet was wiped out. Alcibiades restored Athenian control over the Hellespont, only to be removed from command by his political enemies in 407.

Sparta built another fleet of 170 triremes, a contingent of which under Lysander won a small engagement at Notium in Asia Minor, and then moved against Lesbos under Callicratidas. This fleet trapped 70 Athenian triremes under Conon in the roadstead of Mytilene, only to be attacked and defeated by a relieving force of 150 triremes from Athens off Arginusae which sank or took 70 ships and killed Callicratidas. By now, the Athenian thalassocracy had degenerated into a military despotism which executed six admirals, allegedly for their poor performance at the battle. By contrast, Sparta placed its fortunes in the hands of Lysander, who cemented relations with Persia and took the offensive at sea with yet another fleet. The Athenian fleet of 180 ships under Conon moved to Aegospotami near the Hellespont to guard the supply route and in 405 was there surprised at anchor and on the beach by Lysander, whose fleet made quick work of the helpless Athenians, destroying some 170 triremes. With Athenian lifelines to the Black Sea now severed and the fleet destroyed, all Aegean cities submitted to Spartan sea power, and Lysander commenced a land-sea siege of Athens itself. In April 404 Athens surrendered.

As long as Athens had followed Themistocles and Pericles in their maritime strategy aimed at commanding only the sea, she had prospered, but Athenian commitments on the mainland and abroad in Sicily had dangerously overextended her resources and irreparably undermined the thalassocracy. With the demise of Athens, maritime stability collapsed in the Aegean, and the victor states hastened to improve their fortunes.

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