Ancient Sparta: Greeks Stuck in the Past


Sparta promised to protect the freedom and autonomy of states that were threatened by Athens, as well as  restore the freedom and autonomy of those enslaved by the Athenians. The Spartans celebrated their victory over the Athenian army as the aurora of “New Liberty Era” for Greece. However, the Spartans were not psychologically and socially shaped for the mission to protect the freedom of Greek people due to their outdated social development which was limited exclusively to military conceptions and rule of force but not cooperation.

Similarly to how it had been done by the Athenians before the war, Sparta also established the dominance of the “strong ones” and neglected the interests of those who had less military power. Such strong-arm policy and disregard to new advances and developments eventually led the Sparta to its downfall (Ober, 1998). In 371 B.C., the crucial defeat of the Spartans by the Thebes’ army at Leuctra terminated the great era of Greek military history and forever changed the balance of power. The battle at Leuctra, once and for all, dethroned the Spartan military invincibility that until that moment had still remained a bastion of Greek military greatness.

The paper is going to investigate the reasons of the downfall of Ancient Sparta. Particularly, it will examine  the consequences of the attempt to maintain the same military traditions and beliefs without changes for hundreds of years, which led to preserving the outdated laws and customs, and, as a consequence, to ignorance of social, cultural and engineering development that were necessary to keep up with the armies of the enemy. The paper is also going to consider the impact of the Spartans’ absolute dependence on services of helots in all aspects of their life,  even in military campaigns. The paper is going to prove that endless military campaigns were conditioned simply by the inability of the Spartans to conduct a peaceful way of life that included establishing trade relations with other states, as well as cultural and social development. The Spartans’ endeavor to preserve the military traditions of their great ancestors from generation to generation made them literally get stuck in the past (Hodkinson & Powell, 2002).

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The Great Empire

Sparta was never notable for its territory. It was positioned on  Peloponnese, which is a peninsula in southern Greece. Sparta commenced as a group of houses located on  both banks of the Evrotas River. Similarly to many ancient Greek settlements, Sparta was obliged to have a strong army to survive. Gradually, with the course of time, Sparta became a city-state, and then by 500 B.C. it turned into the most dominant city-state on the peninsula. The most remarkable thing is that Sparta managed to win the dominance with  total population of about 25,000 and the army of approximately 8,000 men (Ober, 1998).

To be born as a Spartan Similar was simultaneously a privilege and an ordeal. At birth, Spartan boys had to be brought to the Elders for examination of their physical fitness. If a boy occurred not up to standards, he was carried outside the city gates and left to die. Seven year old boys were taken from their mothers to start their education and mastering the art of war in obedience and discipline. Boys were divided into “herds” and had to go through  military education which resembled very much “art of war in hell”. Herds were supervised by  older boys, who were allowed whipping (literally) the young Spartans into shape. Moreover, these supervisors were the toughest juniors of Spartan army; therefore, violence, humiliation and insult against younger conscripts were terrifying (according to nowadays standards). Young soldiers were isolated from society, so homosexual relations were a normal practice. Moreover, it was a shame not to be in homosexual relations with other warrior. The Spartans considered that homosexual relations between soldiers encouraged their sense of solidarity, as well as valor and heroism; they reasoned that lovers would demonstrate only the best of them during the battle (Powel, 2001).

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Each Spartan Similar received a state-assigned lot of land with Helots to work on it. This land was the means of subsistence for the Similar and the means of providing his regular obligatory contribution to the mess unit. If the Spartan was unable to contribute into his mess unit, he got immediately discharged from the unit and degraded from the Spartan Similars (Ober, 1998).

A Similar spent a little time with his wife; moreover, he could  lend her to another Spartan soldier for reproduction purposes. Spartan women were obedient and accepted any decision of their  husbands without demur; Spartan mothers told their sons to return from war “with his shield or on it”, meaning a victor or a dead one.

Spartans Were Not Invincible Ones

For centuries, between  7 and 4h B.C., Spartan austere training produced the best soldiers of the ancient Greece. The Spartans spent every minute of their life preparing for the battle, and became extremely good at the art of war. However, it does not mean that a Spartan Similar was capable of defeating multiple individuals solely by himself. The strength of the Spartans was in team work. Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king who lived in Persia, in his conversation with Xerxes, the ruler of the Persian Empire explained that: “it was not outstanding capacity for fighting as individuals that distinguished the Spartans; rather it was the intense discipline and training that allowed them to fight effectively in the close order of the hoplite phalanx” (Hodkinson & Cartledge, 2009). Demaratus asserted that the Spartans were too loyal to their military traditions, so he assumed  that if the Spartans’ enemy had learned these tactics Sparta could be defeated. Thus, in 425 B.C., after six years of war, the Spartan army attacked Pylos that was secured by the Athenians. The Athenians learned the Spartans tactic very well, so the dynamic aggressive attack of the Spartans led to their surrender; moreover, several hundred of Spartan warriors were captured. It was the end of myth about the invincibility of Spartan soldiers (Powell, 2001). Considering that the Athenian presence at Pylos gave hope to Helots that their dreams of independence could come true, the situation was really serious. Nevertheless, this time, the Spartans made their conclusion and found an innovative military leader who solved the problem. Several years later, the treaty of peace was signed, but Sparta’s  most strategic allies believed that Peace was signed without considering their interests. Therefore, smart, guileful, and ambitious Athenians  started a diplomatic play with these unsatisfied ones; the consequence was a completely incomprehensible international situation among Sparta’s allies. Hence, by 418, when war disturbances recommenced a lot of Greeks believed that Sparta lost its military strength and did not represent such serious power as before. Therefore, Spartan fanatical devotion to tradition and outdated techniques regarding military practice as well as diplomatic inexperience regarding peace negotiations started to work against the Spartans (Cartledge & Spawforth, 2002).

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The Spartans Stuck in the Past

Beginning from the middle of the 6th century B.C., Sparta increasingly separated itself from the rest of Greek city-states. The Spartans did not welcome visitors anymore; they began to gradually reduce trade relations and shipbuilding. Sparta was the only city-state that continued to use applied spits as a currency rather than  coins. It seemed that the Spartans were only interested in military campaigns and did not consider that  other things were worth their attention. Some of them  were still interested in music and poetry, but they could listen to and read only  old compositions because there were no new ones. The fact was that poets and musicians were not  considered  welcomed members of the Spartan society. Sparta continued producing metal goods and pottery for  daily use, but those goods had poorer quality than the goods of other Greek cities. The Spartans even stopped participating in sporting events that were so popular in Greece. They  were so afraid to share their secret of military superiority that the city became almost isolated. The secrecy became so fanatical that there was prohibition on communication with other cities in Greece.

In addition,  Sparta’s education system excluded literature and academic activities. Such subjects as mathematics, geography, and science were also referred as not necessary. The obedience was the subject that had to be learned above all. Every citizen of Sparta had to be totally obedient to the law, and state ruler. There was no such notion as an individual opinion or free will. In the course of  education, boys played only team sports and competed in poetry and music also only as a team. Nobody could question or challenge the military order and laws of Sparta, and nobody could disobey the order (Cartledge & Spawforth, 2002).

Ascetic Spartans Could Not Resist the Temptation

Defeating the Athenians, the Spartan empire grew, so the Spartans were forced into a lifestyle that was entirely unfamiliar to them . The Spartans grew up knowing only obedience and war. They were taught not to question the social system of Sparta and its ruler, but at that point Sparta and its ruler  changed. The Spartan warlords were sent to run conquered states. They were not ready to wealth and luxury that was peculiar to these Greek cities, because they had never seen nothing like that in Sparta. The temptation was irresistible, so the commanders began to dress in delicate fabrics, eat delicatessen, wear jewelry, and drink expensive wines. The former unconquerable warlords turned into mollycoddled, unscrupulous and unwise rulers. For instant, one of the commanders Lysander became so greedy and wallowed in lawlessness that people of the city rebelled. When Lysander returned to Sparta, it was established that many Spartan high rankers were corrupt as much as Lysander; the similar incidents  happened in many other cities. Such behavior of commanders, lawlessness and corruption were leading Sparta on downward spiral. People of conquered cities hated the Spartans. As it was  mentioned before, they stopped believing in Spartan military power and were interested in Sparta’s downfall (Cartledge & Spawforth, 2002).

Battle at Leuctra brought the final struck to Sparta’s power in 371 B.C. The Theban army conquered the city and entered it.  In the course of thatwar, the number of Spartan army became dramatically low and consisted of about 1000 men. As it has been  noted before, the army of Spartans  was invincible owing to its famous discipline, which no longer was peculiar to corrupted and mollycoddled commanders and, consequently, their soldiers (Ober, 1998).

Helots and Downfall of Sparta

Helots were the serf caste that were bound to the soil; they could not be sold or bought, as a chattel slave, neither move from the land to which they were assigned. Helots were obliged to give the essential part of their harvest to the Spartan Similar who was their master. Spartan society was entirely dependent on the exploitation of the agricultural labor of Helots. However, since the Helots, particularly those from Messenia, were not satisfied with their slave position, the Spartans had to spend a huge amount of energy to keep their serf caste obedient (Hodkinson & Powell, 2002). Hence, Sparta, as a society, was doomed to as people say, “biting the hand that feeds it.”

The Helots were farmers but not soldiers, so Helots could not substitute Spartan worriers in the war. Practically, the end of Sparta’s military power began with their one more victory. After the Spartans defeated the Athenians, they themselves suffered from irretrievable losses. The numbers of Spartan worriers were extremely low, so they could not do without Helot soldiers. The general Brasidas defeated the Athenian army in northern Greece with help of Helots that were recruited by promise of freedom. Spartans met their promises and the survivors were freed and settled with some earlier freed Helots, at the city of Lepreon that were located in the northwestern from Sparta. Following the example of Spartans, the united Helot caste began the process of subdividing.

The obvious changing in policy, from humiliating ambitious Helots to making them armed and trained as worriers, turned into a one more problem for the Spartan society that had become especially acute in the last decades of the fifth century B.C. The Spartans now had the armed and trained Helots that began to rise in rebellions against the Spartans. The reason was obvious: there  were not enough Spartan Similars left to keep Helots obedient (Cartledge & Spawforth, 2002).

The Spartans hoped  to defeat the Theban army by Helots’ assistance, so they armed 6,000 Helots and promised them all freedom if the Spartans would win the battle. However, Helots were not outstanding and loyal worriers, so the Spartans were too few to defeat the Theban army. The stone wall in Messene that still represents a monument of Greek engineering military became the seal of Sparta’s doom. The Thebans freed the Messenians, so the city Messene became an independent state that turned into extremely hostile enemy to its former master. Without the labor of the enslaved Helots of Messenia, Sparta could not continue maintaining its military practice and quickly turned into second-tier polis, that could protect their small city from neighbors, but never again became a major player on the Greek scene (Powell, 2001).


Supervising a territory of more than 3,500 square miles, Sparta was indisputably the major military strength of the Greek classical epoch. Sparta is a outstanding example of contradictions: respected among the Greeks for its social and constitutional stability and considered by the majority of ancient writers as the incarnation of true Greek values of valor, individual bravery, civil loyalty, and unity, Sparta happened  to end up as an isolated, self-deceiving, fragile, and entangled society at the time of its most prominent military success. Nevertheless, the manifestation of the  famous “hoplite republic” was unable to produce enough warriors to protect its borders. At the core of those obvious contradictions there was  the military society, whose strength and power were provided by  an extremely conservative social order. That order was  proclaimed to preserve  a perplexing battle array of hostile to each other social castes (Hodkinson & Cartledge, 2009).

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The general reason of the seemingly abrupt drop in Spartan worriers’ population is obvious. Battleground casualties were high, yet, even more importantly , the brutal Spartan standards of obedience and conformity made worriers’ outflow from the Similars’ army a frequent case, whereas worriers’ infusion into the Similars was almost impossible. With the commencement of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans could not be  isolated from the influence of the Greek and Mediterranean cultures any longer. It was an inevitable necessity to send Spartans far away from the discipline and constant scrutiny. Sparta could not respond  to Athens’ ability to hire mercenaries and maintain strong navy, so for once-closed economy of Sparta such military campaigning and building a credible navy was increasingly complicated and confused. When the reopened Spartan economy became monetarized, the wealth was concentrated in hands of very few commanders. Many Spartan Similars became poor and could not afford mess-unit contributions and, consequently, they were demoted. The humiliation of being demoted into the sub-Similars was too unbearable to continue to be obedient. In the end of the 5th century, Spartan joy from the victory in the Peloponnesian War was clouded by the strong revolutionary movement of Inferiors, headed by Cinadon. The hostility of Cinadon and his movement in relation to the Spartan system was so big that they were willing to die but together with “Similars raw” (Cartledge & Spawforth, 2002).

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Therefore, in the end, Sparta’s downfall was caused by  rebelled Helots and inferiors, as well as unsatisfied citizens of cities that were run by the corrupted and greedy Spartan commanders. The Spartan strength and power was, literally, being eaten up from the inside. That Spartan strength failed to be restored after Leuctra because the Spartan society still had no idea that traditional rigid hierarchy, civil terrorism, and social conformity were those things that lead the state to its downfall (Hodkinson & Cartledge, 2009) The downfall was inevitable because Sparta’s tradition and habits surrounded it with enemies abroad and filled it with enemies inside. As one of the Proverbs of Solomon says, “Thou, too, shalt pass” (Solomon 965 – 928 B.C.), which literary means everything is changing. Every era has its own perfectly working social systems and theories managed to protect the interests of the society. Unfortunately, Sparta had been so proud of its military history that failed to see that time changed and old methods, if left unchanged, would destroy its society.



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