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Cleombrotus [king of Sparta] . . . did not enter Boeotia . . . at the point where the Thebans expected him and where they were guarding a narrow pass . . . but marching up from the seacoast, he encamped at Leuctra . . . and the Thebans encamped on the opposite hill not very far away. . . . His friends then went to Cleombrotus and said: ‘If you let the Thebans escape without a battle, you will be in danger of suffering the gravest penalty at the hands of your state.’ . . . Cleombrotus, when he heard these words, was spurred on to join battle. . . .

The space between [the two armies] was a plain, so the Spartans posted their cavalry in front of their phalanx, and the Thebans did likewise. But the Theban cavalry was in excellent training . . . while the Spartan cavalry was exceedingly poor. . . . When Cleombrotus began to lead toward the enemy, in the first place he did so before his own army even perceived that he was leading. Then the cavalry engaged and those of the Spartans were quickly beaten. In their flight the horsemen fell foul of their own hoplites, and then the Theban regiments were upon them. The men around Cleombrotus were at first victorious . . . but when Deion the war-chief was killed, and Sphodrias the King’s companion, and Cleonymus his son, and the King’s bodyguard, and the aides of the war-chief were slain, the remainder of the army, pushed back by the dense mass of opponents, fell back. And those of the Spartans who were on the left wing, when they saw the right pushed back, gave way too. . . . (Xenophon, Hellenica).

The decisive defeat of the Spartan hoplite army by the armed forces of Thebes at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. ended an epoch in Greek military history and permanently altered the Greek balance of power. One by one, the old certainties of the ‘Golden Age’ of the fifth century had been challenged and overthrown, but the image of Spartan military invincibility had, until this moment, remained a secure bastion.

Once, the very sight and sound of an advancing line of Spartan soldiers had been enough to break the nerve of opponents, even before the shock of arms. In their signature scarlet capes, nodding horsehair helmet plumes, and close-ordered shields, each emblazoned with L (lambda, for ‘Lacedaemon’ or ‘Laconia,’ two names for the Spartan home territory), the Spartans appeared as a series of rippling horizontal lightning bolts, the unbroken lines of warriors striding forward in measured lock-step to the shrill music of military pipers. Their capacity to move quickly over difficult terrain, concentrate their forces suddenly, and execute complex pre-battle tactical maneuvers was legendary. The shock of their final charge was as sure and deadly as the sky-god Zeus’s thunder weapon.

Just a short generation before Leuctra, in 404 B.C., the Spartans had decisively beaten Athens, long their most dangerous enemy. In so doing Sparta had seized the hegemony of the Greek world. Leuctra must have seemed to many observers of the contemporary scene like rain from a clear blue sky. Yet, in hindsight, when we look more closely at the history of Sparta as a military society, the collapse at Leuctra starts to make sense. By the time they met the Thebans there, Sparta had long been in serious trouble; it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to exploit Sparta’s profound inner weaknesses. The story of Sparta’s decline and fall is an object lesson in the intimate relationship between social organization and military power.

The city-state of Sparta, occupying the central finger of the southern Greek peninsula of the Peloponnesus, dominated the fertile valley of the Eurotas River and was overlooked by the craggy Taegetus Range. Controlling a territory of some 3,500 square miles, Sparta was unquestionably the greatest military power of the Greek classical era. On close inspection it is a remarkable study in contradictions: long-famed among the Greeks for its constitutional stability and regarded by many ancient writers as the embodiment of traditional Greek values of civic responsibility, personal bravery, and bluntly honest speech, Sparta proved to be a devious, self-deluded, brittle, and hopelessly confused society at the very moment of its most notable success. The epitome of the Greek ‘hoplite republic,’ Sparta was in the end unable to field enough hoplite-warriors to stave off military disaster. At the heart of those apparent contradictions was a society whose strength lay in a profoundly conservative social order, an order predicated on maintaining a bewildering array of mutually hostile social castes. Each Spartan caste was intended to be composed of precisely similar human units, and each caste was to remain utterly distinct from all others. At the top of this strict hierarchy were the Spartans themselves–a warrior elite who proudly called themselves hoi homoioi, ‘the Similars.’

Life as a Spartan Similar was one of privilege, but not of ease. At birth, a young Spartan male was brought before a board of elders and examined for physical deformities. If he was not up to standard, he was carried to a nearby gorge, where he was left to die of exposure. At age seven, a boy who had survived his initial review was taken from his mother to begin his formal education in discipline and obedience, a training that would effectively last the rest of his life. Young Spartans were divided among ‘herds’ of youths in an educational regime that resembled a Boy Scout troop in hell. Each herd was run by the older boys, who were mandated to whip (literally, in the case of certain endurance rituals) the younger ones into shape. In effect, the Spartan kindergarten was run by the toughest kids from junior high, and these were in turn urged on to new levels of toughness by stern elders, men who had suffered the same upbringing.

Young men undergoing training were isolated from the rest of society; it is perhaps not surprising that homosexual relations between boys and young men were regarded as standard. Indeed it was a mark of shame for a boy not to be courted by an older youth. The Spartans believed that homosexual relations between young men encouraged unit solidarity and battlefield valor, reasoning that a lover would surely not shame himself before his beloved by flinching back from the line.

The Spartan youths were taught to fend for themselves. They slept in the open, engaged in endless military drill, athletic contests, and mock battle. In order to sharpen their agility and resourcefulness, they were expected to steal most of their food from local farmers. Would-be Similars learned to depend on themselves and their unit-mates–and the devil take everyone else. Institutionalized thievery is the context of the story of the Spartan boy who had stolen a fox and hid the live animal under his cloak. Upon being apprehended, the youth bluntly denied the theft and never flinched as the desperate canine chewed through his innards. While surely apocryphal, the often-told tale gives some notion of the standard of toughness the Spartans had established as an ideal for themselves, and the steadfast, dying Spartan thief stands as a fitting symbol for a society that would eventually find itself dead on its feet, eaten away from the inside by its own unyielding code.

Upon reaching age twenty, the young Spartan sought induction into one of the collectivized mess units around which the lives of the Similars were organized. A youth who failed to be inducted into one of the units never became a true Similar; he was forced to join an inferior caste, his life in ruins before it had properly begun. The mess units, which contained about fifteen men each, were the basis of the organization of army and society alike: a Spartan fought beside, lived with (until marriage), and ate with his mess-mates. He owed them absolute fealty, and he owed them dinner on a regular rotation.

In principle, each Spartan inherited a state-assigned plot of land, and a set of Helot-serfs to farm it. That land was notionally adequate for his sustenance, and adequate to provide his regular contribution to the mess unit. If, through bad luck or mismanagement, the Spartan was unable to’stand his round’–to feed his mess-mates when his turn came–he was cast out of the unit and demoted from the Similars.

Disobeying an order or demonstrating any hint of fear during battle were further grounds for expulsion. There were several inferior castes of persons who had fallen (or whose ancestors had fallen) from the ranks of the elite Similars; each was given a derogatory name: ‘Inferiors,’ ‘Tremblers,’ and the like. ‘Tremblers’ did fight with the Spartan army, but in separate (and clearly inferior) units. There was, in brief, a good deal of social mobility in Sparta, but mostly downward. A Similar could be demoted for a variety of failings; neither he nor his descendants could expect to ascend back into the privileged elite.

The key privilege enjoyed by a Similar was the opportunity to participate full-time in public affairs: military training, battle, oversight of the youth, and state government. Money-making was meant to be strictly irrelevant to his life. (Many did make money, but they had to be sneaky about it.) All adult Similars were members of the Citizen Assembly of Spartans (the Apella), and as such they had the right to acclaim all matters of state policy (especially decisions on whether or not to go to war). Normally, however, their approval was indicated only by shouting in favor of the decisions reached by an inner elite of Spartan magistrates.

In addition to two hereditary kings, who served as religious officials and field marshals, Sparta was run by five state officers called Ephors (Overseers), elected annually by their Similar equals. The Ephors were in turn advised by a body of twenty-eight Elders, who were chosen from the ranks of the senior Spartans. There was much room for confusion in this system; the lines of authority between the two kings and the Ephors were unclear, and much depended in practice on the personality of individuals. Clashes between competitive, headstrong kings and intransigent Ephors led to deadlocks in Spartan policy. Those deadlocks were sometimes broken by personal initiatives, alternately bold or foolish. Sparta’s most ambitious king was notably remembered as ‘Cleomenes the Mad.’ Though at the end of his life, his behavior became extremely violent and erratic, it was Cleomenes’s aggressive policy with his neighbors that may have set up the madness accusation. The internal social rigidity of Sparta was weirdly complemented by highly erratic foreign policy.

The Spartan Similar did not enjoy much physical comfort–at least in public. ‘Similarity’ meant avoiding any public display of wealth or taste for luxury. Each Spartan was expected to dress in rough clothes exactly like his fellows, to maintain his family in a simple house no different from that of other Spartans, to dine on the rough fare (especially a black bean soup famous among the Greeks for its unpalatability) provided in the mess units. He would spend most of his life in public, under the jealous and watchful eyes of his fellow Similars. He would not spend much time at home. His male children, of course, were growing up in the herds, under the same harsh regime that he had endured.

He spent little time in the company of his wife; indeed he might lend her to another Similar for breeding purposes. Spartan women were expected to accept this sort of treatment without demur, and to devote themselves to inculcating the doctrine of obedience, bravery, and duty in their children. It is a Spartan mother who, perhaps apocryphally, enjoined her son to return from a military mission ‘with his shield or on it’–a victor or a corpse.

For a long time, from the mid-seventh century through the early fourth, this austere system worked to produce the best soldiers in the Greek world. The Spartan Similar spent his entire life preparing for the rigors of battle, and he became extraordinarily good at it. This does not mean that he was a berserker, capable of defeating multiple opponents in single combat. The fifth-century historian Herodotus imagined a conversation on the topic of military valor between Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king living in Persia, and Xerxes, the king of the Persian empire: In 480 B.C. Xerxes was preparing to invade Greece with a huge army, and he was interested in learning about what sort of men he might encounter. Hearing that the Spartans were the best warriors in Greece, he summoned Demaratus. Since Xerxes expected to fight at odds close to ten to one, he supposed that he would not encounter any great difficulties. But Demaratus quickly disabused him: 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.

Because the Spartans did not break ranks but advanced steadily, shoulder to shoulder, with shields locked, they took full advantage of the phalanx formation: an unbroken wall of shields bristling with thrusting spears. Xerxes’ Persians learned to their dismay just how devastatingly effective the Spartan phalanx could be: first at Thermopylae, where a mere 300 Spartans left as a rear guard in a narrow mountain pass inflicted terrifying casualties upon elite Persian infantry, and then at Plataea, where the Spartans proved capable of defeating the best Persian cavalry as well. The Spartan phalanx, some 9,000 men strong at the time Demaratus addressed Xerxes, was massive by Greek standards; on its own ground it was as close to an unstoppable force as the ancient world had ever encountered. Yet Sparta’s governmental and social structures were simply incapable of coping with an era of rapid change. And that is exactly what Sparta–along with the other Greek city-states–faced in the hard half-century between the battles of Mantinea in 418 B.C. and Leuctra in 371 B.C.

At the time of the battle of Mantinea, fought at about the midway point in the long Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), Sparta’s once-sterling reputation among the Greeks had already suffered considerable tarnish. The war between imperial Athens, an audacious democratic naval power, and the Spartan-dominated Peloponnesian League, had dragged on much longer than anyone had anticipated: optimistic Spartans had expected Athens to fold after two or three campaigning seasons. Albeit, Athens had a fine navy, secure overseas supply lines, and the cash resources of a maritime empire. Yet Sparta headed up a tested coalition of Peloponnesian states. The Peloponnesian League could field a land army second to none in size–and the Spartan heavy infantry provided a fine-honed cutting edge. Beginning in the summer of 431, the superior Peloponnesian land army repeatedly ravaged Athens’ home territory of Attica. But it failed to make a serious dent in Athens’ strength or internal cohesion and proved miserably inadequate at siege warfare.

Six years into the war, in 425 B.C., came a serious setback: the Spartan army botched an attack on Pylos, a headland on the southwestern Peloponnesian coast that had been seized and fortified by the Athenians. The Spartans sought to circumvent the walls of Pylos by attempting a marine landing, but when the Athenian navy suddenly appeared, a Spartan unit found itself stranded on the small offshore island of Sphakteria. The Athenians blockaded the island and landed lightly armed troops. Projectile harrassment eventually led to the surrender and capture of several hundred Spartan warriors.

The Sphakteria debacle was a shocker; it proved Spartan soldiers were not invincible. Moreover, the continued Athenian presence at Pylos fueled the subject Helots’ dreams of independence. The situation was serious, but the Spartans found among their ranks a genuinely innovative military leader. Brasidas, with a rag-tag army composed mostly of Helot recruits, opened a new front in northern Greece, threatening Athens’ access to vital grain markets and timber resources. The playing field was back to level: Sparta’s fears of Helot revolts spurred by the presence of the Pylos garrison were now balanced by Athenian fears of imperial collapse in the north. A few years later, the uneasy Peace of Nicias was negotiated; the first stage of the war was over and many Athenians and Spartans breathed a sigh of relief. But some of Sparta’s key allies felt that the Peace had been signed prematurely, without adequate consultation, and that their interests were slighted in the peace terms. Meanwhile, wily and ambitious Athenians–including the notorious Alcibiades–engaged in diplomatic intrigue with their Spartan counterparts; the result was a thoroughly confused international situation in the once-tidy Peloponnese. By 418, when hostilities recommenced, many Greeks doubted that the fabled Spartan courage, resolution and blunt straightforwardness were anything but a clever sham. Sparta’s fanatical devotion to secrecy in all matters regarding its military organization had begun to look like a cover.

Yet, as the Athenian-general-turned-historian Thucydides notes, all doubts were laid to rest at the battle of Mantinea. It was, for the Spartans, a must-win engagement in their own Peloponnesian backyard. Faced by a dangerous coalition of disgruntled former allies and traditional enemies, the Spartans and their remaining loyal allies fielded a hoplite army of perhaps 10,000 men, including perhaps 4,000 of the elite Similars.

The battle got off to a very bad start for the Spartan side: King Agis, as the commanding general, attempted a last-minute tactical redeployment to avoid being outflanked. He withdrew two units of sub-Similars–neither manned by full Spartiates–from the line and deployed them on his left flank, then commanded two regiments of Similars to withdraw from the right flank and fill the gap. But, putting the safety of their unit-mates before the good of the army as a whole, the two Similar regimental commanders refused to obey the order. This left a dangerous gap in the Spartan left wing. Their opponents poured through the gap, forcing back the Spartan left and inflicting numerous casualties.

A lesser army would have collapsed. But King Agis led the Spartan center in a confident advance and quickly put the troops facing them to flight. Indeed, says Thucydides, ‘most of [Agis’s opponents] did not even stand up to the first shock, but gave way immediately when the Spartans charged, some actually being trampled underfoot in their anxiety to get away before the enemy reached them.’ Agis then wheeled his troops to the left and put the enemy’s momentarily successful right flank to flight. The victorious Spartan soldiers marched home, just in time to celebrate an important festival on their busy religious calendar. They also banished the two regimental commanders who had refused the order, charging them with cowardice.

This was the Spartan war machine as the Greeks imagined it in their dreams and nightmares.

The defeat of the Athenians and their allies at Mantinea proved a propitious sign for the rest of the war. Although it dragged on for another fourteen years, Sparta eventually got the upper hand; Athens surrendered in 404 B.C. Sparta and Persia, the great territorial empire of the East, which eventually entered the war on the Spartan side, divided the spoils: Persia regained control of the culturally Greek western littoral of Anatolia. Sparta, now unquestionably the dominant mainland Greek state, established friendly governments and garrisons in island and northern Greek states formerly subject to Athens. It seemed the dawn of a new Spartan century.

Yet only thirty-four years later, at Leuctra, Sparta was permanently removed from the ranks of great Aegean powers. Leuctra was not just a setback–it marked the end of Spartan power and influence. By contrast, Athens, Sparta’s defeated rival in the Peloponnesian War, survived the seemingly cataclysmic events of the late fifth century and went on to flourish until the rise of Macedon in the later fourth century put an end to the era of truly independent mainland city-states. Just as Athenian devotion to democracy helps to explain Athens’ remarkable post-war resilience, so too Sparta’s rapid collapse is explicable in light of a highly distinctive approach to government and social organization.

It is the caste system that is the key to Sparta’s military successes, to the original development of the ‘armed-camp’ structure of Spartan Similar society, and to Sparta’s eventual collapse. There were three primary castes: beneath the superior Similars was an intermediate caste of ‘Fringe Dwellers’ (Perioikoi): free persons who engaged in trade and agriculture and served in the armed forces but had no right to vote or to participate in the government. Many of the Fringe Dwellers seem not to have been particularly hostile to the Spartan regime, but neither did they have any reason to be particularly loyal to the Similars when it came to a crunch. Beneath the Fringe-Dwellers was the enormous serf caste of Helots. The Helot was bound to the soil; he could not be bought and sold, as could a chattel slave, but neither could he move from the farm to which he was assigned, and he owed a significant part of the annual harvest to the Spartan Similar who was assigned by the state to be his master.

Helots initially came in two main varieties: those who were natives of Laconia, and the Messenians. The Messenian Helots, residents of the westernmost finger of the Peloponnese, had once been free citizens of their own polis; they were conquered by Sparta in colonial wars of the eighth and seventh centuries b.c. It was in the course of these hard-fought wars that Sparta’s military machine came into being. Despite centuries of subjugation, the Messenian Helots remembered their free origins; they told tales of their brave resistance in ancient conflicts with the Spartans. These folk memories stimulated the will to resist whenever the chance arose, the Messenian Helots rose up against their masters and fled to the steep slopes of Mount Ithome, which looms over the fertile Messenian plain. The best documented of the Messenian uprisings occurred in 463 B.C., in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed a number of Spartan Similars and disrupted Peloponnesian communications. A generation later, during the Peloponnesian War, Helots flocked to the fortified Athenian camp at Pylos–it was Spartan panic at the specter of Athenian support for armed Helot insurgency that precipitated the rash action that led to the Sphakteria debacle.

Spartan society was completely dependent on the systematic exploitation of the Helots, both as agricultural laborers and as porters during military expeditions: at Plataea, during the Persian Wars, each Spartan hoplite was attended by seven Helots. But since the Helots, especially those of Messenia, were far from willing accomplices, the Spartans were forced to expend enormous energies in attempting to keep their serf caste in its place. Sparta, as a society, was necessarily turned inward on and against itself. The Similars spent their lives nervously policing the Helots for signs of revolt and obsessively watching each other for signs of non-conformity–because only an unbroken front would keep the much more numerous Helots at bay.

To remind everyone of the real state of affairs in Spartan territory, the Spartan Assembly formally declared war on the Helot population each year. Individual Helots were ritually humiliated–for example, by forcing them to drink massive quantities of alcohol as object lessons for young Spartans in the virtues of moderation. But more serious was the dreaded Krypteia–‘The Secret Matter.’ Although, like so much in Sparta, the Krypteia was deliberately shrouded in mystery and misinformation, it appears that before being inducted into a mess unit, the would-be Similar was required to serve as a member of a highly secretive team of state-sponsored assassins. The youthful members of the Krypteia snuck about Spartan territory, especially at night, and assassinated those Helots thought to be outstanding in any way–it could be fatally dangerous for a Helot to be regarded as handsome, intelligent, or ambitious. How many Helots actually died under the knives or garrotes of the members of the Krypteia each year is unknown, but there is little doubt that the Spartans intended the Helot’s life to be spent in permanent insecurity and sheer terror–never knowing when the blow would fall, or why.

On some occasions, the individualized, random violence of the Krypteia was not regarded as enough. Thucydides notes that Spartans had once become’so afraid of [the Helots’] unyielding character and their numbers’ that they devised the following plan: they proclaimed that the Helots themselves should make a list of those Helots who had done the finest service for Sparta during military operations, implying that these men would be rewarded with their freedom. Thucydides continues: ‘This was, however, a test conducted in the belief that the ones who showed most spirit and came forward first to claim their freedom would be the very ones most likely to rise up against Sparta.’ Some 2,000 men were duly selected; they put on festive garlands and made thanks offerings to the gods. ‘Soon, however, the Spartans did away with them, and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed.’

And yet the Spartans soon found that they could not, in fact, do without Helot soldiers; a few years before Mantinea, the Spartan general Brasidas won notable victories against Athenian dependencies in northern Greece at the head of an army that included 700 Helots serving as hoplites–presumably they had been recruited by the same sort of promises once offered to their less lucky compatriots. But this time the Spartans evidently felt they could not afford to waste manpower resources: if the Helots died in battle, so much the better and good riddance to them while on campaign, but they were now regarded as too valuable to be wantonly slaughtered. And this time the Spartans proved true to their word: the survivors among Brasidas’s soldiers were freed by the Spartans and settled, along with some previously liberated Helots, at the town of Lepreon in the northwestern coastal borderlands of Sparta.

As in the case of sub-Similars, the unitary Helot caste was starting to be subdivided. The apparent switch in policy, from butchering ambitious Helots to employing them as mercenaries, points to a problem that had become serious by the last decades of the fifth century B.C.: there simply were not enough Similars left to get the job done on their own.

The general cause of the seemingly precipitous drop in Similar population is clear enough. Battlefield casualties were relatively high, but even more importantly the harsh Spartan rules of duty and conformity made downward mobility from the ranks of Similars a relatively easy matter, and upward mobility into the Similars was well-nigh impossible. With the onset of the Peloponnesian War, Spartan society was no longer able to insulate itself effectively from the influences of the wider Greek and Mediterranean cultures: Spartans were necessarily sent far from home, away from the careful scrutiny of their fellows, and for long periods of time. As Sparta struggled to match imperial Athens’ capacity to hire mercenaries, maintain far-flung armies for an ever-longer campaigning season, and build a credible navy, the once-closed Spartan economy was increasingly implicated into wider networks of exchange. And as the Spartan economy became increasingly monetarized, landed wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Many a Similar consequently found himself incapable of keeping up his mess-unit contributions and was rendered an Inferior. The humiliation of being forced into the ranks of sub-Similars was too bitter for some Spartans to swallow. In the last years of the fifth century, Spartan exultation over their victory in the Peloponnesian War was tempered by the exposure of a bold revolutionary plot by a group of Inferiors, led by one Cinadon. The hatred of Cinadon and his fellows for the Spartan system was summed up in their expressed willingness to ‘devour the Similars raw.’ Like the boy and the fox, Spartan society was, almost literally, being consumed from the inside.

The demographic processes that had led to the social demotion of Cinadon and his fellows became even more pronounced in the decades after the Peloponnesian War. Having won the war, Sparta immediately began to reap the spoils of a dismantled Athenian empire. Spartans were sent out as governors to the former Athenian dependencies. Not surprisingly, in light of their youthful education in theft, their ingrained habit of despising all non-Similars, and their sudden exposure to the luxuries of the non-Spartan world, these governors were typically rapacious and heartily resented by those they ruled. In the decades after the victory of 404, Sparta made and broke alliances with casual disdain for the international consequences; well-connected Spartans who engaged in foolish, greedy, or opportunistic military operations, often in blatant contravention of treaty obligations and traditional Greek mores, found that their home government was more than willing to turn a blind eye on their peccadillos. After all, they were members of the insider club, and they had harmed only ‘outsiders.’ The other Greeks, whether traditional allies or enemies of Sparta, became increasingly unhappy with Spartan hegemony, and a new anti-Spartan coalition was soon organized. With an ever-declining store of diplomatic credibility, the Spartans were increasingly put in the position of trying to maintain their authority by raw demonstrations of military might. The bloody battle of Coronea in 394 B.C., which Xenophon described, was a case in point:

[King Agesilaus] immediately countermarched his phalanx and led it against [the Thebans]. And the Thebans, too, when they saw that their allies had fled toward Helicon, wishing to break through toward their men, closed their ranks and came stoutly on. For what happened next, Agesilaus can unquestionably be called brave, but he did not choose the safest course . . . he closed with the Thebans face to face. And striking shield against shield they pushed, fought, killed, and died. At last some of the Thebans broke through to Helicon, although many were killed as they retreated. And when he had won, Agesilaus, being wounded himself . . . ordered Gylis the war-chief to draw up the army in battle order and set up a victory trophy, and for all the men to crown themselves in honor of the god and for all the flute-players to play.

The point was made: Spartan hop-lites were still without equal; but Agesilaus had lost some 350 men, and Sparta could not afford many of these costly victories. Every battlefield casualty meant one less Similar to stand against Sparta’s ever more numerous and determined internal and external enemies. Moreover, it was no longer clear that Sparta’s absolute domination of traditional hoplite tactics would last forever. In 390, the Spartans were stunned at the defeat of an isolated Spartan regiment, and a loss of some 250 men, at the hands of a mixed Athenian force of hoplites and lightly armed peltasts–highly mobile and highly skilled mercenary skirmishers who used javelins and light target shields, tactics and weapons adopted from mercenary Thracians from the Black Sea littoral. Meanwhile, Sparta’s enemies were learning more and more about Sparta’s military tactics. It had long been accepted wisdom among the Similars that Sparta should avoid fighting the same enemy too often; by 371 B.C. the Thebans had fought the Spartans more or less continuously for over two decades; the Theban generals learned Sparta’s battlefield strengths and weaknesses intimately–and proved more than capable of exploiting them.

The Spartans sent two-thirds of their standing army to Leuctra, but that proved to be only 700 Similars and perhaps 1,600 other Laconians. Too few to gain the victory by overawing their battle-hardened opponents; too few to withstand the massed ranks of Theban hoplites with their supporting cast of fine-tuned cavalry. And then too few to stop the damaging series of Theban invasions into Laconia that followed; Spartan women who had never seen an enemy soldier were forced to witness the sack and plunder of the rich outlying districts.

The Spartans were again too few to prevent the Thebans from building a new fortified capital city for the Messenians on the slopes of Mount Ithome. The great stone walls of Messene, which still stand as a monument to Greek military engineering, were the seal of Sparta’s doom. The Thebans liberated the Messenians, and Messene became an independent city-state–a state intransigently hostile toward its former master. Without the forced labor of the Helots of Messenia, Sparta could not maintain its military traditions and quickly became just another second-tier polis, capable of winning occasional border skirmishes with its neighbors, but never again a player on the larger Greek scene.

By the Roman era, Sparta had devolved to little more than an antiquarian theme-park; tourists flocked from around the Greek world to watch Spartan boys endure savage whippings in old-fashioned endurance contests–conveniently held in an outdoor theater to accommodate the jaded, bloodthirsty crowds. These spectacles stood as pathetic reminders of the devotion to discipline and public duty that had sustained a once-proud society of warrior-Similars. Today, the Greek town of Sparta is a bustling regional center; the Eurotas valley is still lovely, but there are few archaeological reminders of its glorious and terrible past: ironically the ruins of the former Helot city of Messene, which stand high above the Kalamata plain, are much more impressive.

Spartan society has often been idealized, in large part because of its long record of military success. The Enlightenment social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau took Sparta as his model for his influential book The Social Contract. American revolutionaries in 1776 and French revolutionaries in 1789 looked to Sparta as an idealized ‘republic of virtue.’ Since then, innumerable local sports teams have been nicknamed ‘Spartans,’ and some American towns boast the name ‘Sparta.’ But it is important to remember that the real, original Sparta broke with a sharp snap because it could not bend. The Spartans failed to rebound after Leuctra because they could not find a way to deviate from entrenched habits of rigid hierarchy, state terrorism, and social conformity. Leuctra was Sparta’s fate because those habits led the Spartans to surround themselves by enemies abroad, while simultaneously feeding the angry hunger of those restive internal subjects who would happily have eaten the few remaining Similars raw.

This article was written by Josiah Ober and originally published in the Summer 1998 edition of MHQ.

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