What Caused the Decline of Sparta?
Sparta is one of the most famous states in the Classical era. It is often regarded as the epitome of the military-state that is devoted to war. Sparta's history has fascinated intellectuals from Plato until today and inspired great leaders such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon. For most of the Classical period of Greece, it was the greatest military power and had a formidable army. To many, it seemed that Sparta was invincible, and indeed its army had never been defeated in battle.
However, in 371 BCE, Sparta was defeated, and this marked the beginning of the end of Spartan power and gradually became a minor power over time. This decay occurred because Sparta's population declined, change in values, and stubborn preservation of conservatism. Sparta ultimately surrendered its position as ancient Greece's preeminent military power.
History of Sparta
For many decades Sparta was the greatest power in Greece. This power was based on its well-disciplined and much-feared army. The Spartan Hoplite was considered the best soldiers in the Greek world  The state was focused on the development of fine and brave warriors. The need to produce outstanding soldiers shaped Spartan history and society. The origin of the Spartan probably lay in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in 2 century BCE.
During this time, Greek invaders from the north spoke a variant of Greek known as Doric invaded the Peloponnesian. They overthrew the Mycenaean Kingdom and established their own state. The new state was ruled by a Doric-speaking elite who enslaved many of the existing population. These were the helots, a large population of people who were the serfs of the Spartan elite. The helots had no legal rights and had to provide their Spartan overlords with food and labor. The need to control the helots shaped Spartan society.
According to Spartan mythology, Lycurgus, who was almost certainly a mythical figure, gave them their unique constitution that set out the state’s political system and its social order. two kings from two royal families headed the political system. A council advised them of elders, and every Spartan citizen could vote in a general assembly. Every Spartan male citizen was expected to be a warrior, and the duty of every Spartan woman was to bear a warrior.
Sparta was a totalitarian state in many ways, and the government oversaw every aspect of the lives of the citizens. Infants who were deemed unfit were killed soon after their birth. Young boys were taken from their families and enrolled in the Agoge. To ensure that the Spartans produced enough warriors, they developed the Agoge system.
In this system, male children were trained from an early age to be warriors. They were exposed to many hardships and privations to toughen them up. This education produced the finest soldiers in Greece, and the Spartan hoplite was invincible on battlefields all over Greece. Sparta had traditionally adopted a cautious foreign policy and was happy to dominate the Peloponnesian League. In the aftermath of the defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece, they decided not to continue the war against the Persians.
Sparta was always conscious that the Spartan citizens were a minority in their own land, and they knew that if their army were defeated or lost, the helots would rise and destroy Sparta. This changed during the Peloponnesian War when Sparta and her allies entered a life and death struggle with the Athenian Empire. The Spartans were able to prevail but only at a high cost. It could expand its influence across the Greek world in the aftermath of the defeat of Athens.
This new power disrupted Spartan society and over time undermined the unique system that had allowed the Spartans to become the finest soldiers in Greece. A little over thirty years after their victory over Athens, the Spartans were defeated by a new rising power in Greece, Thebes. The defeat at Leuctra was the first inflicted on the Spartan army. The Spartans lost control of much of their empire and no longer the greatest power in Greece. Indeed they were something of a backwater and entered a period of profound decline. However, they remained independent until the Roman Empire's rise, which annexed it in the 2nd century BCE.
Decline in the number of Spartan Citizens
Sparta was a society that was based, according to many historians, on a caste system. The Spartan citizens were the highest caste, and they dominated the other groups in society. The other groups in Sparta included the helots and the Pereoki; this was a group of freemen who were not citizens and were usually craftsmen and traders. Spartan citizens, a male or a female, had to be able to trace their ancestry back to the original Doric conquerors. They also could not be of helot extraction. To be a Spartan citizen, one had to undertake the Agoge's rigorous education. Only those who had completed their education in the Agoge was entitled to be a citizen.
Now there were some exceptions to this, including a helot or a foreigner who was adopted by a ‘Spartiate’ family. To be a citizen, the Spartan had to pay his way in the agoge. That is, he had to contribute to the running of the system supply his armor. Failure to pay their way meant that a Spartan could be expelled from the Spartan student body. The criteria for a Spartan citizen was very high. While the system ensured that the Spartans were dedicated and well-trained warriors, it also led to problems replacing those who died in battle.
The population of Sparta was never very high. Even at its peak in the 6th century BCE, the number of Spartan citizens was approximately 9000. This is known from the size of the Spartan army at the time. By the time of Leuctra's battle, the size of the Spartan citizen population, once again based on the size of their army, was only 4,000. The Spartan citizen body had been dwindling over time.
Even though the Spartans had allowed some non-citizens to enroll in the citizen body at various times of crisis, the Spartan leadership had long been very nervous about the decline in the citizen numbers, especially as the helot population continued to grow. The exact reasons for this decline are not known. It is believed that over time that the Spartan birth rate declined. The precise reasons for this are not known. It may result from the rigorous agoge system and the fact that the family was not as important for men as their comrades in the agoge.
Another reason for the diminution in the number of citizens was that increasingly many Spartan citizens could no longer afford to pay their dues in the agoge system as that society became increasingly divided between rich and poor. Sparta's growing wealth was concentrated in the hands of the few, which meant that fewer men could meet the financial demands of a citizen. This decline in the Spartan citizen meant fewer soldiers overtime to fight its wars. The sheer brilliance of the Spartan hoplite meant that even though their armies were getting smaller for many centuries, they could overcome their enemies in battle. However, by the time of Leuctra's battle, the Spartan army was just too small, and it was defeated for the first time in its history.
The collapse in Spartan Values
Sparta was much admired in Greece. The Greeks admired the harmony and order produced by the Spartan Constitution. Indeed many Greeks wanted their polis to adopt a similar form of government. The city-state system also influenced philosophers such as Plato, and its influence can be seen in his great work, the Republic. The Spartan system was based on the idea that the collective came before the individual. The state demanded total obedience from the citizen whose service to the state came before their family and personal wishes. The Spartan warrior and indeed other citizens saw themselves as members of the collective, which is best seen in the agoge system. The Spartans were expected to renounce personal wealth and gain and use all their personal resources for the state's good and the citizen body.
The citizen body was a band of equal all committed to the defines and glory of Sparta. However, over time these values were eroded, and Sparta came to resemble its turbulent and very individualistic neighbors. This was a long-term process, and there were many reasons for the decline in the traditional Spartan values that underpinned its political system. However, the Peloponnesian War accelerated this trend. The booty from the war led to a growing divide between the Spartan citizens. A wealthy class of citizens emerged rich from booty and payments from Sparta’s allies. This meant that many citizens could no longer be members of the agoge system but were under the control of a wealthy elite.
It is also believed that the growing inequality in wealth also resulted in a falling birth-rate. Then Sparta was increasingly bedeviled by internal dissent and political in-fighting. This was because many Spartans had leadership experience outside the city-state and were no longer willing to obey the old elite. Spartan generals such as Lysander began to seek personal power, which led to growing instability in a political entity that seemed so fixed and stable through the centuries. Before the fateful battle of Leuctra, Sparta was no longer as unified as it once was, and this was a factor in its decline.
The Spartan system and the entire society was built around one aim, and that was to maintain the existing order. They sought to preserve their ascendancy over the helot population and their leadership of the Geek world. It was a society that distrusted change and believed that it was destabilizing. Sparta’s Constitution was handed down from generation to generation, and it was not altered or changed. The system or society that was sanctioned by the constitution did not change either. The Spartans were notoriously conservative, and they refused to endorse change, unlike the rest of Greece who was continually changing, especially the Athenians.
The conservatism of the Spartans was often a strength but also a weakness. The state or society did not change and adapt to new social, political, and military realities. Sparta was unable to change- this meant that it was inflexible, and many even saw it as a petrifying society. The Spartans did not change their military tactics and still used the traditional tactics even when other states in Greece, such as Thebes, were updating the phalanx formation. Then the Spartans could not change even when the citizen body went into a precipitous decline. There was no meaningful effort to reform the agoge system. The society seemed incapable of dealing with many of the problems that it faced in the wake of its victory in the Peloponnesian War.
Spartan was the victor of the Peloponnesian War, and by 400 BCE, it was the greatest power in the Greek world and a major player in the eastern Mediterranean. However, by 377 BCE, the Spartans had been defeated in the battle for the first time, and it lost Greece's leadership. Spartan power declined due to the military, social and cultural factors that allowed other states to challenge their preeminent position in the Greek world.
Among the longer-term trends that undermine Sparta was the decline in the numbers of citizens and since they formed the backbone of the army, this greatly weakened Spartan power. The premium placed on stability and order meant that the Spartans distrusted change, and this conservatism meant that Sparta could not change to meet the challenges it faced. Then the Peloponnesian War produced tensions in society, and the increasing wealth resulting from war-booty created growing inequality between the citizens.
- Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 56
- Hanson, p. 57
- Cartlidge, Paul, The Spartans (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 6
- Plutarch. Sparta (London, Penguin Books, 1994), p. 43
- Plutarch, p. 56
- Plutarch, p. 67
- Cartlidge, p. 77
- Cartledge, Paul, Spartan Reflections (London, Duckworth, 2001), p.112
- Thucydides 5. 6
- Plutarch, p. 113
- Cartledge, 2001, p. 56
- Plutarch, p.69
- Cartledge, 2002, p. 118
- Plutarch, Plutarch's. Morals (Boston, Cambridge University Press, 1891), p. 113
- Cartledge, 2002, p. 123
- Pausanias. Description of Greece. With an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones (Boston, Cambridge University Press, 1918), p. 345
- Thucydides. 6. 7
- Cartledge, 2002, p. 176
- Forrest, W.G., A History of Sparta, 950–192 B.C., New York: W. W. Norton & C, 1968), p. 113
- Forrest, p. 145
Updated December 5, 2020