(The GREEKS at WAR (494 to 371 BCE – continued)

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The GREEKS at WAR, 494 to 371 BCE (8 of 8)

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Sparta Turns Victory into Defeat

Sparta had been promising to protect the liberty of those threatened by Athens and to restore liberty to those states that had been "enslaved" by Athens. It celebrated its victory over Athens as the dawn of liberty for Greece. But the Spartans were not suited for the task of protecting liberty. Like the Athenians before the war, the Spartans believed in rule by force rather than cooperation. Like many Athenians, they believed that the strong should dominate those who were weaker and that victors should dominate the vanquished.

At the war's end from among Sparta's allies came calls for killing Athenian adult males and enslaving its women and children – as Athens had done to Scione. But Sparta spared the Athenians, claiming that it was doing so because of the good service Athens had provided the cities of Greece generations before in combating Persia's invasions. Sparta, however, had another motive for sparing Athens: they feared that a destroyed Athens would add to the growth in influence of Thebes, just north of Athens.

Sparta placed hope in an anti-democratic oligarchy in Athens, and that oligarchy executed some fifteen hundred fellow Athenians whom they considered dangerous. They also executed resident aliens whose wealth they wished to confiscate. And about five hundred democrats fled Athens and became the nucleus of a resistance group based in Thebes.

Sparta left a military force in various cities that supported local aristocratic oligarchies. Violence erupted against these oligarchies, and Sparta's warriors busied themselves in putting down these rebellions.

Amid the turmoil, a coalition of moderate conservatives and democrats managed to overthrow the oligarchy in Athens. Sparta was fighting numerous little wars, and from 395 to 386 it fought against a coalition that included Boeotia, Corinth, Argos and Athens. Then Greeks under Persian rule in Asia Minor rebelled again against Persian rule, and they asked Sparta to act on its claim as the defender of liberty for Greeks. The Spartans had promised Persia that they would recognize Persia's power over the Greeks in Asia Minor, but now Sparta tried to redeem itself as the defender of all Greeks, and it went to war against Persia.

Sparta was discovering the disadvantages of being the supreme defender of Greek liberty. Military actions were weakening it. Persia defeated Sparta's fleet, which ended Sparta's naval superiority among the Greeks. And to the alarm of Sparta and the Persians, Athens – a quarter-century after the end of the Peloponnesian War – was rebuilding its navy. And in 379, benefiting from a degree of recovery, Athens was able to help Theban exiles liberate their city from an oppressive, pro-Spartan oligarchy.

Ultimately, security for Sparta lay not in its physical might but in support it had from other cities. Sparta was generating a lot of animosity toward itself, not only by interfering in local politics but also by using brutal methods to collect tribute they believed was their due as the defender of Greek liberty.

In response to the threat of the coalition that was forming against it, Sparta made peace again with Persia, which offended many Greeks. With the Greeks responding to new realities and forgetting the Peloponnesian War, Athens was able to create a maritime confederacy that included most of its former allies. Thebes built its own federation among neighboring cities in Boeotia, and Thebes and Athens fought skirmishes against Sparta.

Sparta, Athens and Thebes attempted negotiations to settle their differences, but the negotiations collapsed over the insistence by Thebes that its federation in Boeotia be recognized. In 371, believing that it was defending its dominant position in Greece, Sparta moved against Thebes by invading Boeotia in force. Sparta by this time had already lost its dominance in Greece, and the Thebans defeated Sparta's army, destroying the myth that Sparta's army was invincible.

Greeks far and wide recognized that Sparta's domination of Greece had ended. New coalitions were formed. Thebes was the strongest military power, and, to check Theban power, Athens joined a coalition with the humbled Sparta and the city-states of Elis, Achaea and Mantinea.

Sparta's way of life, meanwhile, had been slipping away. Sparta had lost much in manpower, and many Spartans had lost their enthusiasm for war. Those Spartans traveling beyond their own city on military or diplomatic missions had acquired new attitudes. Outside their own city they were less inhibited, and they lost the forbearance that had been their tradition. They acquired an appetite for possessions. They became more interested in leisure and other pleasures. Trade between Sparta and the outside world had increased, with some Spartans accumulating luxuries. Land in Sparta was beginning to be bought and sold – two-fifths of the landowners being women, the survivors of war. The acquisition of money promoted inequalities among the Spartans. Some were declining into poverty and becoming malcontents. And those who were still wealthy with land feared that these malcontents might make common cause with the Helots.

The birth rate in Greece was rising again, adding to the chaos. There was a loss in Greece's ability to export manufactured goods to pay for the greater need to import food. A ruinous shift in the balance of trade developed against Greece's cities. These conditions gave rise again to numerous Greeks looking for places to emigrate. Desperate young men sold themselves as mercenary soldiers to almost any power.

With all of their heroism, sacrifice, speech about glory and the need to be tough, and their communications with the gods, the Greeks had failed to elevate their well-being.


Herodotus, the Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by A.R. Burn, 1972

The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, Walter Blanco translator, 1998

The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, Rex Warner translator, (Penguin Classics), 1986

The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, by Donald Kagan, 1981

Armada from Athens, by Peter Green, 1970

Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to AD 650, by Josef Wiesehofer, 2001

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.