When the Peace broke down in a matter of months, Spartans found themselves confronting an unstable alliance of Athens, Thebes, and Thessaly. Thebes’ capture of Plataea and Thespiae in 373 put Theban relations with Athens under great strain, but the alliance held, for the moment (Diod. Sic. 15.46.4–6). By 371, however, Athenians were so nervous about the intentions of their ambitious ally that they joined in sending ambassadors to Sparta to hammer out another general peace agreement (Diod. Sic. 6.3.1–2). All went well until a dispute broke out at the signing ceremony between the Theban representative Epaminondas and Agesilaus, now back on the scene, over the touchy matter of autonomy. Epaminondas refused to sign for Thebes alone rather than for the Boeotians as a whole unless Agesilaus did the same as Sparta’s representative. To Agesilaus’ angry question whether he would allow Boeotian cities to be independent, Epaminondas asked the same question of Sparta and the Laconian cities. An intelligent politician, Epaminondas must have been prepared for Agesilaus’ reaction: he struck Thebes off the treaty and soon declared war (Xen. Hell. 6.3.2–20; Plut. Ages. 28; Diod. Sic. 15.50.4). For the moment Thebes stood alone, as the rest of Greece implemented the terms of the new Peace. In the debate over what to do with Cleombrotus and the army, still in Phocis, Spartans rejected the advice of one Prothoos, perhaps an ephor, that they disband the army and forge a coalition specifically to deal with Thebes, in favor of immediate action (Xen. Hell. 6.4.2–3). Reluctantly, Cleombrotus marched his allied army of some 11,000 into Boeotia, where he encamped in sight of the Thebans and Boeotians in the territory of Thespiae, near a place called Leuctra (Xen. Hell. 6.4.4).
Cleombrotus was an unwilling battle commander; only by threats of dire punishment awaiting him should he not engage the enemy, did his “friends” persuade him to join battle with Epaminondas (Xen. Hell. 6.4.5). He was not alone in his ambivalence, for it was rumored that the Spartans drank until noon on the day of the battle to sharpen their courage (Xen. Hell. 6.4.8). When the battle lines were drawn, Cleombrotus chose a standard arrangement of Spartan hoplites in columns twelve deep on the right, with allied troops to the left. He unwisely positioned his badly trained cavalry in front of his hoplite phalanxes, to protect them and screen their movements. He took the usual commanding position on the right wing surrounded by his bodyguard of three hundred elite young troops. Epaminondas, on the other hand, threw the rule book away. Opposite the Spartans and their king he massed his 4,000 Theban troops on the left at an astonishing depth of fifty men, led by Pelopidas and the newly instituted Sacred Band. The Boeotians he lined up eight or twelve deep on the right facing the Spartans’ allies. He countered the placement of the Spartan cavalry by putting the battle-hardened Theban horse in front of his own lines (Xen. Hell. 6.4.10–12; Diod. Sic. 15.55.1).
Cleombrotus sent his cavalry forward to engage the enemy while units from his left wing redeployed to his right to meet the Theban danger opposite. This maneuver was never completed. The Theban cavalry quickly repulsed the Spartan and pushed it back into the hoplite lines. Confusion broke out. Meanwhile, Cleombrotus’ attempt to stretch his line to the right to outflank his enemy had opened up a gap between the Spartan and allied ranks that no one could now fill. The Thebans and Boeotians advanced, but not in the expected way. Epaminondas had got his troops to move forward as if they were a massive hammer, the head of which comprised the Theban columns. As the fifty-deep Theban phalanxes readied themselves to strike against Cleombrotus and his Spartans, the Boeotian troops advanced in a diagonal line with those on the right hanging back somewhat from those on the left. Pelopidas and the Sacred Band rushed forward from the Theban columns. Cleombrotus ordered the Spartans to counterattack, but many did not receive the order because of the confusion caused by the cavalry. Pelopidas’ onslaught broke the Spartan front ranks, allowing Epaminondas to apply the full force of the Theban left in smashing through those behind. When the dust cleared, the Thebans were in control of the field and 1,000 Lacedaemonians lay dead, including Cleombrotus. Casualties among the Peloponnesian allies were relatively light since the Boeotians in their diagonal advance had scarcely engaged them. The disaffection of Sparta’s allies was well known – some were even said to have been not displeased with the outcome – and Epaminondas clearly hoped to win them over by showing that Thebes’ quarrel was with Sparta alone (Xen. Hell. 6.4.13–15; Diod. Sic. 15.55–6).
The news reached Sparta on the last day of the Gymnopaediae, while the men’s chorus was performing. The ephors allowed it to finish before they announced the defeat and the names of the fallen. Xenophon tells us that the relatives of the dead walked about with smiles on their faces while those of the considerable number of survivors were dejected (Xen. Hell. 6.4.16). A politically convenient recurrence of Agesilaus’ infirmity meant that the relief force was dispatched to Leuctra under his son Archidamus. That army never engaged the Thebans, as a truce was negotiated through the agency of Jason of Pherae (Xen. Hell. 6.4.17–19, 22–6). At Sparta, the survivors of Leuctra precipitated a constitutional crisis. Sparta had sent 700 citizens to the battle, where 400 had been killed, among them the 300-strong royal bodyguard of the best soldiers aged twenty to thirty (Xen. Hell. 6.4.15). Of the 300 survivors, many had fled the battle and so were guilty of cowardice. As “tremblers” (tresantes) they would normally have been subject to a range of social and economic sanctions, but Sparta could hardly afford to alienate so sizeable a chunk of its Spartiate population now that the total citizen body numbered only slightly over a thousand. Agesilaus, restored to health, was vested with supreme constitutional authority and announced that on this occasion alone, “the laws must sleep for a day” (Plut. Ages. 30.5–6).
But there were bigger problems than a few hundred less than enthusiastic hoplites. Leuctra shattered the illusion of Spartan invincibility. In 371/0 Mantinea dared to re-amalgamate under a democratic constitution, the Tegean oligarchy was forced out, and a federal league was founded to embrace all Arcadians (Xen. Hell. 6.5.3–9). To meet this new threat and to punish the Tegeans, Agesilaus led troops into Arcadia. True to form, he captured a minor city, laid waste some land, and returned to Laconia without any major engagement (Xen. Hell. 6.5.10–21). The Arcadians, however, were no longer willing to allow their land to be used as the Spartan army’s dancing floor, and so approached the Thebans for help. This appeared in the form of a massive army of Thebans and their new Peloponnesian allies. As the Theban army marched south, perioecic communities began to defect (Xen. Hell. 6.5.25, 32). Epaminondas then struck straight down into the Eurotas valley, destroying fields and houses as he went. The unimaginable had happened. An invading army was in the Laconian land. So alarmed were the Spartans that they offered freedom to any helot who would take up arms against the invader. Six thousand answered the call, to the considerable unease of the remaining Spartiates. Two separate conspiracies were uncovered: one among the perioeci and inferiors, and another, more worrying, among full Spartiates. Agesilaus successfully repressed both, resorting to extra-judicial killing in the case of the Spartiate conspiracy (Plut. Ages. 32.6–11).
Despite the Spartans’ fears, however, Epaminondas had no intention of destroying their city, just their military and political power. So, after ravaging the land around Sparta and down to the port of Gytheum, he took his army north and west into Messenia, where he inflicted a more damaging blow than burning Sparta’s temples and dwellings could ever have been (Xen. Hell. 5.6.31–2). He liberated Messenia from Spartan rule and recalled the exiles to found their city anew (Diod. Sic. 15.66). Stripped of their most productive land and a large part of their helot workforce, Spartans would be forever reduced to the status of a second-rate power. In a second invasion of the Peloponnese later in 369 (Xen. Hell. 7.1.14–25; Diod. Sic. 15.69–70.1), Epaminondas managed to detach several more states from their alliance with Sparta. Even the Spartan victory in 368 over an allied army of Arcadians, Argires, and Messenians in the Tearless Battle, so named because supposedly no Spartan died, resulted simply in the Arcadians founding the city of Megalopolis to be yet another obstacle to a resurgence of Spartan power (Xen. Hell. 7.1.28–32; Diod. Sic. 15.72.4).
Needless to say, Agesilaus and the Spartans never accepted the loss of Messenia. Spartans refused to be party to any agreement that recognized Messenian independence, explicitly or implicitly. Their intransigence alienated the Great King, whose 367 decree calling for the renewal of the Peace guaranteed Messenia’s independence and effectively repudiated his alliance with the Spartans (Xen. Hell. 7.1.33–7). When Spartans allowed the Corinthians and any remaining allies who wished to make peace with Thebes in 365, they refused to renounce their claims on Messenia (Xen. Hell. 4.7–11), causing the final dissolution of the Peloponnesian League. For his part, Agesilaus spent many of his final years trying to gather funds to hire the now-necessary mercenaries that would enable Sparta to regain its lost possession. Mercenaries sent by Dionysius of Syracuse had comprised the overwhelming bulk of Archidamus’ army in the Tearless Battle, which for the time being had revived Spartan confidence (Plut. Ages. 33.3–5). But Sparta could not rely simply on the generosity of strong men like Dionysius; money was needed, and so Agesilaus’ own career as a mercenary began, with a discreet mission to the Hellespont sometime between 366 and 364; he returned richly rewarded for services rendered to the rebellious satrap Ariobarzanes and the dynast Maussolus of Caria (Xen. Ages. 2.26–7).
Agesilaus commanded a citizen army one last time, in 362. The Arcadian League had split into democratic and oligarchic camps, and each called on the appropriate outside power for support. On the side of democratic Tegea, Epaminondas led an expeditionary force into the Peloponnese and, when he learned that the Spartan army had left the city undefended as it marched to meet him, launched a lightning raid into Laconia. Splitting his forces, Agesilaus hastened back and was just able to deploy his men as Epaminondas attacked the city. After some street fighting, the Thebans withdrew to Arcadia. The two sides met near Mantinea. There, Epaminondas and his vast allied army won a resounding victory over oligarchic Mantinea, Sparta, Athens, and Elis, but his death in battle robbed Thebes of the ability to capitalize on his success (Xen. Hell. 7.5.27; Diod. Sic. 15.85–7). Wearied by war, the combatants drew up a Common Peace, the first without Persian involvement, to end the pointless interstate conflicts that had exhausted Greek resources for decades (Diod. Sic. 15.89.1–2). Like other recent treaties, it recognized Messenia, making it unacceptable to Agesilaus and his still (inexplicably) powerful supporters, who effected yet another Spartan refusal to participate and kept the city in a state of war with its western neighbor (Plut. Ages. 35.3–5).
By 360, Agesilaus was in Egypt selling his services to one rebel against the Persian Empire before deserting him for another more likely prospect, all the time representing himself and the other mercenaries as an officially sanctioned Spartan military expedition (Plut. Ages. 36–9). He died on the coast of Libya on his way back to Sparta with his fee of 230 talents, a tiny fraction of his booty from Asia Minor in 394. His body encased in wax, Sparta’s twenty-sixth Eurypontid king was brought home for burial in the family plot in Limnae (Xen. Ages. 2.30–31; Plut. Ages. 40.2–4). A competent but not brilliant general, he had spent his talents over the years in a single-minded effort to promote Sparta’s interests, unfailingly choosing short-term benefits over long-term gain. His obsession with Thebes brought his city to disaster and ensured its continuing isolation. Domestically, Agesilaus built a reputation for liberality and loyalty, helping his friends profit whenever he could and sheltering them at all costs and in the face of clear evidence of their wrongdoing (Xen. Ages. 5.1–3). His political techniques at home were sophisticated, but Spartans paid dearly for Agesilaus’ management of international relations, limited throughout his reign only to confronting Thebes.
At this point, with Sparta’s dream of reconquering Messenia fading and the city’s proud military tradition in tatters, we have an opportunity to trace the development of the Spartan army over time and to see what sort of military forces were available to Agesilaus during his reign. There are three traditional “fixed points” around which discussions of the army have centered – Herodotus’ account of the battle of Plataea in 479, Thucydides’ description of the battle lines drawn up at Mantinea in 418, and the data that can be gleaned from Xenophon’s Hellenica and Constitution of the Lacedaemonians on the army of his own time, the first decades of the fourth century down to the battle of Leuctra in 371. No two authors use precisely the same terminology nor, in fact, do they seem at first sight to be describing exactly the same military structure.
Before the Persian Wars, matters are very hazy indeed. From the few surviving scraps of Tyrtaeus, we can infer that the Archaic army was organized in sections according to the three Dorian tribes, Hylleis, Dymanes, and Pamphyloi (F19 West2, lines 8–9). It may have fought in hoplite phalanx formation, though this is far from clear, and certainly included light-armed soldiers (P Oxy. 3316, line 14). In the Battle of the Champions (c. 545) the first inconclusive phase involved the selection of 300 warriors from each side to fight it out in Homeric style. Although victory in the end had to be determined by a normal, full-scale battle, the Battle of the Champions shows how fluid combat formations could be, even at such a relatively late date (Hdt. 1.82).
Only with the battle of Plataea do we finally have some real troop numbers, as well as names for units and officers, though naturally none are beyond dispute. The Spartan force at Thermopylae the previous year – 300 Spartiates out of 3,100 Peloponnesians plus 1,100 Boeotians and maybe a total of 2,000 from Locris and Phocis – was anomalous for its size and unique in the (possible) absence of any perioecic troops (Hdt. 7.202–203.1). To meet the Persians in Boeotia, on the other hand, Herodotus writes that the ephors dispatched 5,000 Spartiate warriors, each accompanied by seven helots, for a total of 40,000 men. Next day, the astonished Athenian envoys were sent to meet them with an additional 5,000 elite perioecic troops (9.10.1, 11.3). When combined with warriors, both hoplite and lightly armed, from the other members of the Hellenic Coalition, the Greek army at Plataea totaled 110,000, according to Herodotus, including an oddly unarmed contingent of 1,800 Thespians (9.26.2–9.30). As often with ancient calculations of military strength, however, even this apparently straightforward set of numbers holds problems. Herodotus seems here to have forgotten about the 5,000 perioecic hoplites sent out after the Spartiates. Not just that – when they do reappear implicitly in his numbers for the Lacedaemonian and Tegean troops isolated later in the battle, they are joined by a hitherto completely unmentioned contingent of 5,000 light-armed troops (9.29.2, 31.2). Sparta thus fielded an army of 50,000 men at Plataea, of which only 5,000 – one in ten – were full citizens. The small (and declining) proportion of Spartiates in the Spartan army was a constant throughout the fifth and fourth centuries, symptomatic of an increasingly serious demographic problem as Sparta literally began to run out of Spartan citizens. The Spartiates at Plataea were organized into lochoi (9.53.2, 57.2), apparently under officers Spartans called lochagoi (9.53.2; cf. Thuc. 5.66.3–4; Xen. Lac. 11.4). Most historians believe that there were five Spartan lochoi at Plataea, each recruited from one of the five constituent communities (ôbai) of the city, because Herodotus identifies one of the lochoi as “the lochos of Pitane” (9.53.2).
In contrast to Herodotus’ sketchy allusions, Thucydides offers a detailed analysis of the Spartan-led army at the Battle of Mantinea in 418 (5.66.2–67.1, 68.1–3). The Spartans had raised a full levy of their available troops (pandêmei) which they dispatched post-haste under King Agis’ command into Arcadia to prevent Tegea and the rest of Sparta’s still loyal allies from defecting to the Argives. Upon reaching Orestheion to wait for his allies, Agis ordered home one-sixth of the army, comprising the oldest and youngest, to provide homefront security (5.64). The army at Mantinea represented five-sixths of Sparta’s total military assets. On the left wing were the Sciritae, a unit of perioeci who held this as a traditional privilege; next were the Brasideioi, the helot hoplites freed after their service in Thrace, and with them the Neodamodeis, the other newly liberated helot warriors. In the center were the Lacedaemonians arranged in lochoi, then Arcadians from nearby regions (Thuc. 5.67.1). On the right wing were the Tegeans and “a few” (oligoi) Lacedaemonians. Cavalry was stationed on both wings. Opposite these forces stood the Argives, Athenians, and their various allies in an army whose total manpower has been calculated at approximately 8,500 to 10,000.
The problem lies in Thucydides’ numbers. Thucydides admits his inability to obtain accurate figures for the Spartans at Mantinea because the size of the Spartan army was concealed “as a matter of state secrecy” (dia tês politeias to krupton), an often quoted phrase (5.68.2). Yet he claims to have been able to reach an estimated total by calculating from the disposition of the Spartan forces that were present. He then proceeds to describe the organization of the army on that day: apart from the 600 Sciritae, seven lochoi fought, in each of which there were four pentakostyes (“fiftieths”?), each of them comprising four enômotiai (“sworn bands”). Four men fought in the front rank of each enômotia, and the enômotiai were, on average, eight ranks deep. Thus, concludes Thucydides, the front rank of the Lacedaemonian part of the army was 448 men strong, excepting the Sciritae on the left wing (5.68.3). From this, historians have deduced that the lochoi held about 3,584 men. With the Sciritae added, along with Agis and his 300-strong bodyguard of hippeis, forgotten here but mentioned later (Thuc. 5.72.4), the Spartan portion of the army totaled 4,485. Since Sparta’s Arcadian allies probably could have contributed no more than 3,500 troops at the very most, the whole army would have been about 8,000 men strong. But Thucydides twice states that the Spartan army appeared to be and was actually larger than the enemy’s (5.68.1, 71.2). The only way for this to be true is if the cavalry stationed on both wings and the “few” Lacedaemonians on the right numbered anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 troops. Scholars therefore reject his numbers as being too small.
The most commonly accepted solution is that Thucydides made an error in military terminology. Instead of lochoi, he should have called the largest units morai, which are known to have existed at least from 403 B.C.E. onwards (Xen. Hell. 2.4.31). Each mora comprised two lochoi, one of Spartiates and one of perioeci. Not only does this expedient effectively double the number of Lacedaemonian soldiers at Mantinea, it also accounts for the curious absence of perioeci in Thucydides’ narrative. A further benefit relates to the Spartan officers: in his account of how orders pass quickly down from the king, Thucydides mentions four ranks – polemarchoi, lochagoi, pentekonteres, and enômotarchai – but only three levels of unit (Thuc. 5.66.3–4), leaving the polemarchs with no troops to command. Although they might have been the equivalent of general staff officers, it seems better to consider them as commanders of morai in 418, as they were in the fourth century (Xen. Lac. 11.4). A simple textual emendation removes the objection that Xenophon in the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (Lac. 11.4) states that there were four lochagoi for every mora.
The Brasideioi and Neodamodeis almost certainly fought in a single combined unit (Thuc. 5.67.1), which may have been called a lochos, but actually had a strength equivalent to a mora. This unit would not have been affected by Agis’ orders that one-sixth of the army return home, because it would not have been structured along year-class lines, as were the other units. No Brasideioi were recruited after the Thracian campaigns, and Neodamodeis could hardly have been recruited from the helots strictly according to age-cohort. The Spartan troop-strength can then be calculated as follows: 600 Sciritae + c. 1,200 Brasideioi and Neodamodeis + c. 6,144 Spartiates and perioeci in 6 morai comprising 12 lochoi of c. 512 men each + 300 hippeis, for a total of c. 8,544, not including cavalry and the few Lacedaemonians on the wings. With the Arcadian troops added, Agis would have led an army of over 12,000, easily justifying Thucydides’ claim that it was the larger.