A Macedonian phalanx / Design Johnny Shumate, Livius.org, Creative Commons
Spartan Power After the War
Scene of Spartan hoplites in battle – they used flute players marching behind them to coordinate their movements / “Chigi vase”, Louvre Museum
The Peloponnesian War is over. What a relief, twenty-seven bitter years, but it’s just one of those times through history that you discover no sooner is it over than another kind of trouble starts. Of course, as you know, the whole course has been filled with that kind of trouble and it will continue that way right to the end. Well, you remember what the Spartans allegedly went to war about back there in 431. They were going to free the Greeks, and the irony of that is really quite extraordinary. Remember Xenophon ends his tale of the end of the Peloponnesian War, how the Spartans and their people were all tearing down the walls of Athens to the music of flute girls.
Well of course, he was writing these years later and he knew perfectly well that was an illusion, because Spartan power, which had grown to an unprecedented degree in the course of the war, now presented the Spartans with problems and opportunities. I think that’s a very important thing to understand, and I think not enough people do. Power has a certain life of its own. The capacity to be able to do something without somebody preventing you makes you think about what you might do in ways that you never thought about before, when you didn’t have the power to do it, and of course this is what happens to the Spartans. They find themselves presented with choices that they could take. How were they to conduct themselves and their state and how were they to try to arrange the structure of states in the Greek world, and including their relations to Persia, because they really had enough power to be able to think of different things they might do.
The logic of the situation presented really three possibilities. They could, of course, do what they had done much of the time before the fifth century, mainly to confine themselves to the Peloponnesus, to maintain their control of the Peloponnesian League, and basically not to get involved in anything outside the Peloponnesus and much recommended that in Spartan tradition. It meant that the helot problem, which was always on their minds, something they couldn’t forget, they were desperately outnumbered at all times by people who hated them and whom they lived off. So, the notion of leaving with an army from the Peloponnesus at any time was always a questionable proposition, even though sometimes it was necessary.
As we shall see, changes had taken place in Sparta in the course of the Peloponnesian War, of which I suppose the most important was the appearance in the hands of Spartans of a good deal of money, which was made available by the Persians for wartime purposes, both in the doing, in the collecting of that money and also in the taking of many cities away from the Athenians, very prosperous cities the Spartans also gained a great deal of booty. So, for the first time there were lots of Spartans, who had lots of money and of course, as you know, not only was that not a characteristic feature of Spartan society normally, it was forbidden.
Sparta forbade coinage, instead using “iron spits”, to discourage Spartans from accumulating wealth so they could focus their energies on preparation for war. / Wikimedia Commons
The laws in Sparta did not permit coins. The closest thing to coins were these fistfuls of iron spits which don’t get you very far and don’t buy very much. It was — see the point is that the presence of that kind of wealth, and really no traditional way of coping with it meant that there were other uncertainties now and opportunities that various Spartans felt. So, anyway the idea of staying in the Peloponnesus certainly appealed to many Spartans, because they feared that involvement outside the Spartan world and certainly they fear the arrival of money, which would be necessary as they begin to be engaged outside that world, would undermine those traditions which they valued so much, which were part of their identity. Living according to the laws of Lycurgus was what it meant to be a Spartan and made you feel superior to other people. So, there was a feeling of danger in the minds of the conservative Spartans who would have preferred that.
But of course there was the other possibility that the Spartans could use this new-found power, and I suppose the money that went with it to govern things, and maybe to exploit opportunities outside the Peloponnesus and that choice also could be divided up into two. At the extreme, the Spartans had it in their power to contest control of the entire Greek world in the east. I mean, I’m leaving out, as we always do, western Greeks who live in Italy and Sicily, except when they get involved in the main theatre in the Aegean. But the Spartans could have and some Spartans did want to contest control of the Aegean and of the coast of Asia Minor, and of the Hellespont and the waters beyond, with the Persians, who would otherwise have controlled them now that the Athenians were out of the way.
This would require money but would also make money available, and of course it would take power but it would also produce more power. In a certain sense, Spartans who took this point of view had it in mind to take the place of Athens as the great imperial power in the Aegean and beyond. That was a possibility. We know for sure that some Spartans, and the chief figure here was Lysander, the Greek general, admiral, who had been responsible for winning the war, we know for sure that he and others around him liked that idea and sought to pursue it but they were not alone in that opinion.
Then there’s a third possibility that the Spartans had, and although the ancient sources don’t tell us that any Spartan leader specifically had this in mind, the sheer logic of it suggests that some of them must have thought this was a good idea, and certainly some of the Spartan actions suggest that they were pursuing such, or tried to pursue such a policy. That was not to be confined to the Peloponnesus, but also not to engage in this grander, or you might even say grandiose plan of supplanting of the Athenians, which would include necessarily, somewhere down the road, conflict with the Great Persian Empire.
Of course, the Great Persian Empire didn’t seem so scary as it had at one time in the past. Remember the Athenians had defeated the Persians — first of all, the Greeks had done that back in 480, 479 but even so, ever since then the Athenians had repeatedly defeated the Persians, over and over again. So, they weren’t anything like the scary thing they had been at the beginning of the century. But in any case, you’d have to take that on and many a Spartan would have been deterred by that prospect, and again by the prospect of having to have a fleet, because there was no way to pursue this third policy without having a fleet that began to approach the power of the Athenian fleet when it had been strong. Well, what did that mean? It meant using not the traditional Spartan military advantage — hoplite soldiers fighting infantry battles, but also rowers and expert naval people.
A reconstructed Greek trireme / Perseus Encyclopedia, Creative Commons
I don’t have the time to go into a detailed account of how naval warfare was carried on in the Greek world, but it’s easy to forget that in addition to the rowers of whom there were 170 in each trireme, who were the engine in a sense, they made the thing move, and officers and usually at least ten or so marines, who could be landed for behaving like hoplites on land. In addition to them, there were critically skilled people who made all the difference in the world, and whether you won or lost in these naval battles — who were well, they were sort of like chief petty officers if you think about it, or its master sergeants in the Army, professionals whose very great skills are critical for the functioning of the larger army. The Greek word for the most important of these was kubernetes, which means steersmen. They were that and they were more than that. By the way, it’s a very nice word, because all the words that have to do with governor, government, govern all derive ultimately from the kubernetes.
So, this would have meant that all kinds of people who were not Spartiates would be critical for the success of such a mission of the overseas type, and so many a Spartan felt that was too much of a derangement of Spartan life and didn’t like it for that reason. But you could still be in favor of a middle policy which would mean extending Spartan power or maintaining Spartan power on the Greek mainland, outside the Peloponnesus, and there were certain things that recommended that. For one thing, Athens had been knocked out as a main power in central Greece and that meant, and it had been demonstrated in the course of the war that it meant it, that Thebes, the dominant power in Boeotia, had already grown to considerable power, had developed a degree of independence which allowed the Thebans to challenge the Spartans frequently and there was a very real chance that Thebes would seek to become at least a power of the first rank, at least somebody who could sit equally at the table with the Spartans rather than subordinate to them.
The fear that some Spartans surely had was that if the Spartans simply stayed in the Peloponnesus, Thebes would become the master of Attica, which was a neighbor of Thebes, as well as of central Greece as a whole and suddenly they would become a real menace to the Spartans, and indeed, down the road, if you go far enough, that’s exactly what did happen. So, that would be the case; well, we need to establish ourselves on mainland Greece as a hegemon, the masters, if not — I shouldn’t say master, a hegemon means leaders. There’s always a conflict there too. When you have a power which is superior to that of the other states, but you don’t conquer them, the question is do you want to relate to them as the Greeks would have said as a hegemon, meaning the leader, which implies a degree of voluntary cooperation, or do you want to dominate, which means mastery and Spartans disagreed among themselves as to what was necessary, even if you were going to take that path.
Location of Aegospotami in the Dardanelles / Wikimedia Commons
But these three roots were theoretically, and I think as a matter of fact really, things that the Spartans argued about and there was a certain amount of moving back and forth as the Spartans shifted from one to the other as different individuals gained influence and as circumstances changed. It’s easy to designate at least two of the factions, and I’m inclined to think there were three that can be identified and identified with people. The most aggressive, overseas, let’s conquer and control everything in the Aegean — Lysander is clearly the leader of that faction. But “let’s stay in the Peloponnesus and stay out of interstate rivalries and competitions and just go back to our old ways” appears to have been led by the King Pausanias, and there’s another King Agis, and he is the one that’s unclear. It can’t be confident that he represented a third faction but I think there’s some possibility that he did and that that was the faction that wanted to limit Spartan power, influence control to the mainland of Greece and not to go to sea.
There were great arguments against the Lysander approach. For one thing, the number of Spartans was pretty small to control too vast a territory. We can’t be sure how many there were by now, but it’s pretty well agreed that in the middle of the Peloponnesian War there was something like 3,500 Spartiates, only that many, and the figure continues to go down. By the time we get to the decisive Battle of Leuctra that defeats Sparta finally in 371 there is perhaps about 1,000 Spartiates. Well, how do you run an empire? Forget about how do you conquer one. How do you run one with that kind of population, and also of course the Spartans had traditionally not been a naval power and had done very poorly at sea compared to the Athenians at least, and it was an open question how well they would do against the forces that served the Persian king at sea.
The fact was true that they had no experience with money and money was a critical part of maintaining such an empire as the Athenians could tell them, and everything in the Spartan tradition was based on land power. Now, we can over estimate that. After all, the Spartans had been sending fleets out to sea throughout the Peloponnesian War. In the last part of the war they won two important battles of which the final battle was critical, the Battle of Aegospotami, but if you really look at the whole story it’s not at all clear that the Spartans ever developed the kind of system that would produce a navy that would year after year, after year have the capacity to dominate the sea. So, that was a practical limitation.
Lysander and His Tyrannical Policies
Lysander was a Spartan general who commanded the Spartan fleet in the Hellespont which defeated the Athenians at Aegospotami in 405 BCE. This was a coin struck in 1553 portraying him as a Renaissance duke. Published by Guillaume Rouille, 16th century / Wikimedia Commons
Well anyway, however that might be, the man of the hour in 404 was Lysander, the great victor of the Peloponnesian War and his policy was the extreme policy, the “let’s conquer it all” policy. His policy was very much a personal policy, and here the personal is very important. The fact that Lysander was who he was made a very great deal of difference; Lysander was not a pure, legitimate Spartiate. He was what the Spartans called a mothax; he was technically a bastard. That means he had a Spartan father and non-Spartan mother, typically such women would have been helots, but in any case he was brought up, nonetheless as a Spartan, but not as a Spartiate and how to put these pieces together is very hard to know. But he did, as a few others like him in the last years of the war, rose to be a general and the very best general of all, and the man who was put in command of the forces.
But he was a man of extraordinary ambition, and the ancient writers tell us that he had developed the notion of actually bringing about a revolution in Sparta and changing the constitution in such a way that would allow him to become effectively the ruler of Sparta, and the kings, the traditional kings, who were born to the purple to be put aside. Well, if he was going to do anything like that, even if he was only going to try to retain the position he had achieved of tremendous influence and power, he would need to have a command, he would need to have money, he would need to have supporters of every kind, and his policy, therefore, for Sparta was very much a policy that fit the needs of Lysander.
Wherever he liberated a city in Asia Minor, which had been under the Athenian Empire, part of the Athenian Empire, he established a different kind of government. It consisted of ten men chosen from the local people who were friendly to him, who were reliant on him, his people, his puppets, if you will. The name for these establishments was decarchies, rules of ten, groups of ten, and they were his people. To make sure that they were safe he placed a Spartan garrison, or at least a Peloponnesian garrison in that city led by a Spartan commander called a harmost. It comes from the same word from which we get harmony, somebody who preserved order who was the military commander of that region.
All of these people, the harmosts, the decarchs were all his creatures, not anybody who had any independent power or influence, simply his people who did the job for him and liberators of the Greeks, as they had claimed to be, Lysander did not abandon collecting the money from these cities that he had allegedly liberated; the same amount apparently that they had given the Athenians, because our sources tell us that the Spartans were collecting 1,000 talents a year from the newly acquired empire which is something like what the Athenians got from it. So, all of that is in place.
This newly founded Spartan Empire was different from the Athenian Empire in a variety of ways. Remember the Athenian Empire, it started out as a voluntary association with a very clear common purpose, to liberate those Greeks who were still under Persian rule and to preserve their freedom from their Persian neighbors and former conquerors. On the other hand, this new empire under Lysander had no purpose and it was not voluntary in any shape, manner or form; it was thoroughly compulsory. I think it’s fair to say that the Spartans had simply betrayed the Asiatic Greeks whom they had engaged in the rebellion against the Athenians and instead of liberating them, put them under Spartan rule. In many cases, frequently, these governments established by Lysander were tyrannical and rapacious in which these governors and the harmosts and so on basically stole what they could from the natives; this is apart from the official payments they made to the Spartans. They enriched these Lysandrian creatures.
As one of our ancient sources writes, the will of any Spartan was regarded as law in the subject cities. It is clear from all the ancient writers that the Spartans were not easy people in their dealings with other Greeks. Everything in their tradition made them feel superior to other Greeks and they didn’t mind acting in that way. You remember the stories of how it was that the Athenian Empire was founded, or rather that Delian League — the Spartans had so alienated all the Greeks in that region by the way they treated them that they were glad to send the Spartans away and replace them by the Athenians, who did not treat them that way, at least they didn’t do it for some years before they developed into an empire. So this was another problem, Spartans were not good at this job, but at the beginning what was decisive was Lysander.
He was at the height of his power and influence, and I guess it’s fair to say, he reached heights that no mortal ever had reached in the Greek world. The oligarchs whom he had restored to power in Samos loved him so much, and were so grateful for what he had done, that they held religious ceremonies on the island and literally worshipped Lysander, as a god. This is the first time in Greek history that anybody had received such treatment. On the one hand, this elevated his influence and power, everybody wondered at him and so on. On the other hand, it presented a problem, because you can imagine how that went down among the aristocrats of Sparta, and most particularly with the Kings of Sparta, to see that this — I use a technical term not a street curse word, this bastard was now being worshipped as a god, and of course that kind of eminence was unheard of for a non-king in the Spartan world. So, that had all kinds of trouble down the road.
He was as ambitious as he could be, and it was as obvious as it could be. So, there was jealousy and resentment and fear at Sparta that something bad was going to happen to the Spartan way of life, to the Spartan constitution, and Pausanias and his tradionalists bided their time for the opportunity to put a spike into this development. There were other things that were flowing from what I’ve already described that were threatening the traditional character of Spartan life. This money, of course, allowed for corruption. Now, people who had money could buy people’s support, could buy people’s help in their own endeavors for influence and power in Sparta.
One of the things that we hear about that most scholars would like to place in this period, and it seems reasonable to me, was a new law about inheritance; that’s the Law of Epitadeus. He is the man who proposed it. It used to be that inheritance automatically went in a certain direction, nobody had any choice. You couldn’t make out a will and leave it to anybody you liked. It went through the family according to a certain pattern. The Law of Epitadeus changed that. You know could write a will and select your successors however you wished, your inheritors. That meant that there were ways you could work around that so as to buy somebody right while you were still alive.
If you wrote somebody into your will, you were in effect giving him money after you died. So, meanwhile he could serve you and be your political supporter. That was happening and people who had been raised as Spartans and expected to inherit their father’s property would sometimes find that they had been cut out and now they were Spartiates by birth, but they lacked the necessary wealth, necessary land to provide for their meals at the common mess and so they could no longer be Spartiates in the full sense. A term was discovered for them, they were called hypomeiones, which means inferiors and some of the guys who rose to power late in the Peloponnesian War as generals, because they were just good at it, came from some such class.
Resistance to Spartan Rule; Critias
Ruins of Spartan agora / Wikimedia Commons
So, you have a variety of Spartans who are important, who are not helots, who are not people you could just do what you want to. They play a significant role in society but they don’t have the position of honor, the position of belonging that was necessary and these were disruptive and troubling developments in the Spartan state. We get a clue about this; in 398. We hear about the planning of a revolution in the city. A man by the name of Cynadon, who was one of these hypomeiones, was planning to have an uprising in which they would kill lots of Spartans and set up a new regime that would give room to the people who were outsiders. Well, the plot was prevented, because one of the people that Cynadon approached told the story to Spartan magistrates and the plot was averted. But the story he told was this. He was standing one day in the agora in Sparta, and Cynadon approached him and he said look around you he said, how many Spartiates do you see? Well, the answer was forty. He said, and how many people are there around here who are not Spartiates? He said about 4,000. He was talking about hypomeiones, neodamodes, various other sub-species but also helots and also perioikoi, and said Cynadon to the men he was trying to recruit, these 4,000 as regards to Spartans would gladly eat them raw.
So, his message was why don’t we have a little revolution? Well, the answer was he was forestalled, but it does tell you that the situation had become sufficiently dangerous that such a possibility existed. So, there is Sparta coping with these various problems and trying to decide how to handle their future and I’d like to shift the scene now to Athens. Athens, which had been the greatest empire that the Greeks had ever seen, had been reduced now to total defeat, absolutely at the mercy of the Spartans, and indeed, the Athenians feared and certainly had reason to fear that the same fate they had visited upon some states that had defied them and there were two that fit the category I’m about to mention, Melos, the island that was conquered by the Athenians. Thucydides describes how the Athenians spoke to them in the famous Melian dialogue, and also a place that most people don’t remember but another town in Thrace. In both places, the Athenians killed all the adult males on the island when they had finally put an end to the siege and sold the women and children into slavery.
The Athenians had every reason to fear that that might be what happened to them. As a matter of fact, Corinth and Thebes, in the conference they had at the end of the war said let’s do that. Thebans especially said, let’s turn Attica into pasture land. Well, the Spartans didn’t do it and the reason they gave was well it would be wrong to treat such a people that way, such a people who helped us in such a critical way as our partner against the Persians when we won our freedom. Well, if you can believe that, you can believe anything. More to the point I think was their fear, that if they did destroy Attica — I mean the houses and the people and all that, what would have happened? This would really be a vacuum of people, of everything else and it’s certainly a vacuum of power, and it wouldn’t stay that way very long. Thebes and its Boeotian subordinates would come in and occupy it and that was not a desirable thing.
So, the Spartans didn’t do that. Instead, with Lysander very much in charge of the settlement that was going to be imposed on the Athenians, they placed in power a small group of oligarchic Athenians just as — by the way he had the same kind of people in the rest of the empire, but not ten. Athens was a very big place. Turned out that there were to be thirty of these new rulers of Attica, all of whom had to meet the criterion of being acceptable to Lysander, and the leaders of which, the really important top gun was a man by the name of Critias, a nobleman who had participated in democracy, but had turned very sharply against it. He was a brilliant man apparently, he had been trained by the great rhetorician and sophist Gorgias and he was also in the circle of Socrates, along with Plato and Xenophon and various other bright young men of the upper classes in Athens.
Also, he was a poet, an orator himself, a philosopher and so on and some of his fragments, of some of his works remain for us to look at, but one thing that he was by 404 was a bitter enemy of the democracy. He had been exiled or had voluntarily taken exile, in order to get away from the democracy, and he was determined now that there should be no democracy in Athens. Just to say a word about that for a moment. It was an easy point of view to arrive at in 404. People who were not friendly to the democracy could simply point to the fact that the democracy had just lost this great war and nobody could really understand how that had happened given the great power of Athens, and of course it was easy to point to the great event that turned the tide against Athens, the Sicilian Expedition, and to say this was an idiotic idea.
And it was exactly the kind of idiotic idea that a democracy would come up with so that democracy itself was seen to be not just — how can I put — Let me say it was seen to be inherently wicked, because it violated what seemed to be the truth about human beings and which was very much a part of all Greek tradition from the first time we hear about it in Homer until — well forever, which was, contrary to the principle of democracy which is that all men, adult male citizens are equal in some very fundamental way or should be, was the contrary view which had much greater support in Greek tradition, that no, men were in fact divided into different kinds of people, and in fact the Greeks thought a division into two kinds was the right kind, the most important kind, a division between the high and the low, between the good and the bad, between the noble and the base, and each of those pairs they’re all the same people. You’re rich, you’re wise, you’re well born or I should say, you’re rich and well born therefore you’re wise, or you are not. If you’re not, you’re obviously not equal to the other guys and therefore you shouldn’t have anything to do with ruling anybody.
So, that was the basic widespread view of what was natural in the Greek world. Now, you add to that that they’ve just lost this terrible war and you could point to what seemed to you to be both a wickedness and foolishness. How in the world could anybody think democracy was a good thing after that? Lest you think there’s something special about that, that’s such a characteristic of the human race. Whenever you have a great war, and if you have two different kinds of political systems vying with each other, winning has an amazing effect on what people think. So, take the First World War when the — let me just say that those countries who lost the war were very open to the idea — they typically had been monarchies and so on, but they had been rather, relatively speaking, liberal monarchies. They had legislatures and elections and things like that, and this came to be seen as a losing proposition and so fascism of one sort or another took root across Europe in states that had had that misfortune. And it was felt that success or failure had to do with the rightness or the wrongness of wisdom of the foolishness of the kinds of arrangements that you had.
Then while the Soviet Union was powerful and expanding around the world, it was expanding in part, along with the idea of communism, which was thought in the circles where it succeeded to be superior to the competition, and observed that when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, there may be communists around the world anymore but they don’t admit it. I mean, they call themselves something else. The idea has been discredited by success of the competition, by failure of that thing. So, it’s a phenomenon that is not amazing, even if this looks like the earliest example, I think, that we know.
So Critias, in any case, was determined that Athens in the future would not be a democracy. In fact, it looks like he was very much taken — again, this is typical, with the virtues of Sparta, because Sparta had won the war. So, it’s easy to say the characteristics that the Spartan state had must be good ones, because they can do the most critical thing that a state can do, win in competition with the other states. So, he had in mind a very narrow oligarchy. One scholar has suggested he actually had in mind to establish in Athens the closest facsimile he could of the Spartan Constitution; it could never be exactly the same, but he was trying to do something like that. That could be true, but it was going to be narrow, a smallish number of people were going to control the city. In fact — well, let me back up; I’ll come back to what I was about to say.
The Thirty Oligarchs
Theramenes is arrested on the orders of Critias, engraving from Greece, by Christopher Wordsworth / Wikimedia Commons
Now, however, when they set up the Thirty to rule Athens in 404, it was apparent to people who could judge matters pretty sensibly that given that Athens had been a democracy for over 100 years that it would not be easy to impose such a regime, and that if you made the regime too narrow and too oligarchical, you might find yourself having trouble in keeping your new regime in power. So, Lysander agreed to the idea of making the Thirty compose of twenty men who were Critias’ men, very extreme oligarchs, but allowing Theramenes, an Athenian general, who had flourished during the democracy, but who was very clearly not an old fashioned democrat. He had taken part in bringing about the oligarchic revolution of 400 in the year 411 and again, the group who had made that revolution was divided in something like the same way with the Thirty would be, that is to say, extreme oligarchs and people like Theramenes, whom I guess it’s fair to call moderate oligarchs, although oligarchs only, I think, in comparison with a thorough going democracy.
If you asked Theramenes, what would be the right number of people in Athens to participate in the government, his answer was, as it turned out 5,000, but he really wasn’t interested in that number. What he was interested in was the criteria for participation in government and that was to be a hoplite, to have the wealth necessary to fight in the infantry for your city. In a later sense, it’s not too much later, it was discovered that the number of men in Athens who actually fit that description was not 5,000, but 9,000 and at a time when the Athenian population of adult males was something like 21,000, so that nine out of twenty one would have been the people who participated in the regime; twelve out of the twenty one would have been too poor for that, would not have been allowed to participate; well, that’s not a democracy. It is an oligarchy but it’s a very broad oligarchy. The word “moderate,” I think, applies.
So anyway, Theramenes was to be given the opportunity to appoint nine others besides himself, so there were ten Theramenians, twenty supports of Critias in the Thirty, and that was to turn out to be a problem for the Thirty, as it had been for the 400, because when Theramenes saw that his colleagues in the 400 were trying to establish a narrow oligarchy, he led an uprising that overthrew that oligarchy and ended up finally restoring the democracy. So, that’s the picture of what’s going on in Athens. But Athens, of course, was also inhabited at that time by all of the exiles who had been sent into exile during the democracy, and they were bitter enemies of the democrats, at least lots of them were. So, you had a kind of a confrontation of different ideas and feelings that was a little unusual in Athens. Athens had been a pretty easy going place before the war and even throughout the war, through larger Greece, but now there were very hard divisions and very tense feelings between the different groups.
The Thirty ruled between September of 404 and May of 403, just a matter of months as it turned out, although nobody, of course, knew it was going to be so short when things got started. They established a council of 500 — well, that’s the same number as the Athenian council, but it was quite different. It was made up of extreme oligarchs; they were given judicial powers. Men who were identified as sycophants, and the Greek use of that term, you remember, is people who made money out of denouncing people on false charges in the courts and then winning payments as a result. They were very widely unpopular even in the democracy, and so the Thirty began with an act that was not unpopular by putting to death all the sycophants that they could find and identify, but they also put to death well known leaders of the democracy, people whom they knew would be their political opponents. So, it was bloody from the first, but it was only limited to a certain small portion of the population.
The Thirty — just to make the case that — actually a man who makes his case, a man named Peter Krentz, and he is an old Yalie, so, we ought to give him credit. If you look at the Thirty, if you look at Sparta, what comes to your mind? Thegerousia. Ultimately, in the course of these months, the Thirty limited citizenship, active participation in the government of any kind to only 3,000 Athenians out of what would have been at least 21,000 and probably more. Only these had citizen rights. The rest of the Athenians did not. Well, that’s about how many Spartans there were at this time in history. Another thing they did was to — at a certain point when life got tough, they drove from the city of Athens all those who were not part of the 3,000. Well, what do you call people like that who don’t live in the capital city but who live around? PerioIikoi. And so that’s why Krentz suggests that this is not an accident; that it’s a conscious effort to model the future Athenian state upon the great successful, admirable, Spartan state.
Well, Theramenes didn’t like that. This was far too narrow and far too troubling for the future for Theramenes. Indeed, he pointed out the contradiction, he says, how clever is this? Here you are, a minority in the state, and instead of trying to bring on more people to make yourselves stronger, you’re driving out people and guaranteeing that you will have more people against you than you have for you. He, himself, favored as he had in the time of the 400, he favored a hoplite census. Anybody who could be a hoplite could be a full fledged citizen, and I’ve told you about the numbers. Well, pretty soon people objected to what the Thirty was doing, made complaints, and the Thirty began to go after them.
Thrasybulus Opposes Sparta and Democracy Is Restored
Thrasybulus receiving an olive crown for his successful campaign against the Thirty Tyrants. / From Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata, Wikimedia Commons
One of the problems about talking about the Thirty is that it is not perfectly clear what is the chronology of events, and I can’t tell you with certainty in what order these things happened, but at some point in here the Thirty began to attack a larger group of Athenians, sometimes because they were seen to be political opponents, or thought to be political opponents, or related to political opponents. Sometimes when things got really bad, when the Thirty needed money they actually put people to death just because they were rich, so that they could take their money away and this of course increased the amount of resistance on unhappiness, so that finally a small, I want to emphasize small, very small group of Athenians fled the city and went into exile to neighboring cities, and this is interesting I think and important, the cities that were most receptive to these anti-Thirty, anti-oligarchical, anti-Spartan people, the one who received them most readily were Corinth, Megara, and Thebes, all enemies of Athens, all enemies of democracy.
Why are they doing this? The answer is, they are both angry at the Spartans and I think fearful that the Sparta that is arising now will be a menace to their autonomy. These particular towns were angry about different things. Corinth and Thebes, you remember, had wanted to destroy Athens entirely, and the Spartans hadn’t listened to them. They all shared in the fighting during that long war, but they did not share equally and not enough to suit them in the booty that was taken at the end of the war. So, there were grievances that these towns had, and so they accepted this small number of Athenians and the one town that was most important from this purpose was Thebes. In Thebes they were given a decent home. The Spartans, knowing about this, sent out an order saying that no state should give any home to these exiles, whereupon, the Theban regime at the moment voted that anybody who didn’t give help to these Athenians would be punished. They simply were defying the Spartans on this question.
The leader, the most important of the leaders of this group of exiles — it’s fair to call them democratic exiles, they wished to restore the old democracy, the most important man was Thrasybulus, who had been a general, his best fighting had been done as an admiral during the latter part of the Peloponnesian War. He was present at all the great Athenian victories, and he was not present at the great defeat that ended the war. He and another important politician by the name of Anytus actually began a counter revolution and the — with a very small number of men. The sources differ but the accounts that seem to be most plausible, with only 70 men they went from Thebes to a natural fortress in the mountains between Boeotia and Attica, a placed called Phyle, and built a fort there to which they hoped other discontented Athenians would flee and join them in the resistance.
I’m using the word resistance, and it brings to mind of course an analogy that has always struck me as helpful in comprehending the situation confronting the Athenians at this time. To my mind, it is helpful to think about France in June of 1940 after the Germans had defeated France and occupied part of it and left the other part unoccupied, but absolutely beholden to the Nazi Regime. Now, a Frenchmen had three choices, just as the Athenians did. One possibility would be to join up with the new regime and try to prosper as part of it and some Athenians did that. Others would do what Thrasybulus did, and in France it was the De Gaulle who did this, he happened to be in London at the time this happened and he began to organize, to undue what had happened, and to throw the Germans out, established the free French forces. It’s important to realize that after the war was over, it’s amazing how large that free French force had grown in people’s minds. In reality, it was a handful of people. That’s the way it always is and that’s the way it was in Athens as well.
WWII French General Charles De Gaulle / Wikimedia Commons
It was a terrifying prospect to tackle this regime, which looked like it was unbeatable. Remember, they had been put in place by the Spartans. The Spartans ruled the world. What could anybody expect to change that situation? Just as the Nazis looked like they were in business for the thousand years that Hitler had claimed he was going to have. So, it didn’t look like you were a very courageous man if you joined De Gaulle. What are Claude Raines and Bogey doing at the end of the war when he says, Louie I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When he says that they’re going to Brazzaville to join the free French. Well great, but what did people think about De Gaullel? They thought he was a fool, there was no chance, this was idiocy, sensible men — what are they trying to do? They tried to win as much as they could in collaborating with the Germans just to make their — the fate of the Frenchman less hard and to help France in the future in that way. That’s the way it was with most Athenians; most Frenchman and most Athenians didn’t do either of those things. They kept their heads down and tried to live their lives as best they could.
I think what you need to understand is happening and this all puts what Thrasybulus and Anytus, and their friends did in a very special kind of a light. These were extraordinarily brave, extraordinarily rash, and extraordinarily optimistic people, and as it happened in this case, it worked for them amazingly. They begin to gather forces that are helping them. Another interesting point is that it’s remarkable how few of the people with Thrasybulus were actually Athenian citizens. A surprising number of them were permanent resident aliens, metics, who, of course, were great targets for the Thirty, because they were typically well off and had money, and of course they had no rights and no power, so many of them, most of the meyics were certainly on the democratic side of this argument; many of them went to fight.
Others, like Lysias the orator, used his money to hire mercenary soldiers to fight for the Thrasybulus democrats as well. Well, the first test came in the month of January. There were these seventy guys or so up in the fortress on Phyle. By now the Thirty were worried enough about this nascent army to send an army of their own, much bigger, to try to get them and it’s at this point that I’m always reminded, again, talk about analogies of the events of Great Britain in the sixteenth-century England, I should say really, when the Spanish Armada was heading for England trying to gain control of the island for the Pope and Catholicism and one thing and another. And what happened was that nature, if you will, or as the British thought of it, maybe God intervened as the Armada was coming out a great wind came up and it blew the ships out of their path and wrecked many of them.
And really the British — the English fleet didn’t do anywhere near as much damage to the Spanish fleet as did the winds. So, from that day forward there sprang up the legend in England of the Protestant Wind, which had come along to save the new English faith against the forces of the Pope. Well, if they can invent a Protestant Wind I think it’s okay for me to speak about the democratic snow that fell on Phyle that went — that’s just what happened. A big snow storm came up, and so when the forces of the Thirty came after Thrasybulus, they just couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t get there; they were fought off and they had to retreat. And as they retreated the seventy came down after them and chased them, and killed them as they fled, and did a certain amount of damage, and the time, the passage of time was very important, because more and more Athenians were becoming hostile to the regime that they had fallen under. And they, more and more of them, although again, it’s amazing how few actual Athenians joined Thrasybulus, but by this time Theramenes had come into the picture.
He was more and more unhappy with what was happening, he stood up in the council and argued against Critias, and Critias finally had him put to death. That was an indication of how far the reactionary forces in the state had come, and we might mention also that the ancient sources estimate that something like 1,500 Athenians may have been killed by the Thirty tyrants. Well, that’s a very large percentage of the population when you think about how many Athenians there were. And finally, that caused so many of their relatives and friends to turn against the Thirty and to join forces, even if they didn’t go out there and fight, to be on the side of the democrats.
Ancient fortress at Phyle / Wikimedia Commons
A second attack on Phyle, taken at a later time, failed and now suddenly Thrasybulus had a large enough force, he marched to the Piraeus and gained control of that. When the Thirty brought an army out to try to defeat him there he defeated them. They were forced to flee to Eleusis on the northwestern frontier of Attica, and the democrats were in position to take control of the city again. The Thirty were deposed by the 3,000, because it was obvious they were losers and now the 3,000, the successor government to the Thirty, appealed to Sparta for help against this democratic army that Thrasybulus had put out.
Well, think about what should Sparta do? Now, you might have thought it would be obvious. Certainly what Lysander wanted to do is no surprise. He wanted to send a big army to restore the oligarchs to put his own people back in power, and of course, that was fine, but there were people in Sparta who didn’t want to do that, who saw this as an opportunity to deprive Lysander of his power and influence and to restore a more normal situation in Sparta. So the Spartans did vote to send an army in there to deal with Thrasybulus, but they did not put Lysander at the head of the army or even one of his people. Instead King Pausanias was sent out to do the job. Well, they met the Athenian army under Thrasybulus and defeated Thrasybulus, but they did not try to obliterate that army, or as we shall see, treat them as very serious enemies.
For one thing, the Athenians again as they had in the past, fought bravely and well and inflicted serious losses on the Spartan army, but also it was obvious that Pausanias was willing to negotiate a settlement. He wasn’t insistent upon defeating the Athenians and imposing a settlement. So, they worked out an agreement whereby a moderate group of ten would be chosen in Athens and Pausanias and a commission sent from Sparta to sit with Pausanias sat down with these Athenians and worked out a reconciliation for the future. Here’s the essence of what was worked out. A very important part of the story was that they voted — the Athenians did and Pausanias, of course, would have insisted on it too — an amnesty whereby there would be no punishment for people on one side or the other of the quarrel in Athens.
Of course, the people who would have been punished would have been oligarchs and their friends who were now the losing side. There would be an amnesty for anybody, no matter what, except for the Thirty themselves, the ten that the Thirty had put in charge of the Piraeus, the eleven — the eleven were the police force, so to speak, the head of the security forces in Athens and so on. Small groups of people who were thought to be especially responsible for the nasty things that had happened in Athens, but even they were not summarily put to death. They could submit their accounts at an euthyna and if they were cleared at these jury trials — I shouldn’t call them jury trials, tribunals really, they could take up their position as citizens in the new Athens as well, or they could be allowed freely to leave Athens without any harm. So, it was a very moderate conclusion.
What about real oligarchs, what about them? Well, even they were taken care of, the town of Eleusis which they had seized for their own protection as things were going badly, they were allowed to stay there after the settlement. Now, that left Thrasybulus and his friends in control in Athens, and they immediately reinstated the Democratic Constitution pretty much as it had been before all of this had happened. Briefly, in this period of transition, citizenship was limited to the top three Solonian classes, but that quickly fell through and really the full democracy was restored in the year 401. In the same year the democrats seized Eleusis and brought that back into Attica. So, if you’re there in the year 400 Athens would seem to be exactly as it had been internally before the defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Features of Restored Democracy
That newly restored democracy behaved with remarkable moderation. Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians goes out of his way to praise this successor Athenian Regime. They kept closely to the amnesty; they did not in fact, prosecute people that they should not have done. On the other hand, they and Aristotle praises this too, because — I guess his sympathies are very close to those of Theramenes, to moderate oligarchy or what Aristotle would call politeia, moderate regime. When Thrasybulus asked — this is an amazing thing, when he asked that those people who had served in his army, who had liberated Athens and restored the democracy that these people be granted Athenian citizenship, the Athenian people voted “no.” To me that is one of the most striking evidences of how the Greeks really felt about theirpolis because even in a situation like that, the idea of sharing citizenship with anybody who was not, so to speak, a member of the family, was beyond what they would contemplate, and even with Thrasybulus, the great hero, the great liberator, asking them to do it, they said “no dice.”
They also repaid the debts that the Thirty had accumulated. What they were doing of course was trying to get things calm as fast as they could, to achieve stability. It’s a very rare thing. Imagine — well, think of what the French did when the war was over. They took their collaborators, they tried them, and they killed them for the most part. That’s what civilized people do. I mean, look what they did in Rwanda, and other places like that where different sides in a civil war simply butcher each other. That’s a very normal situation. What the Athenians did was very abnormal. It was evidence, I think in part, of a great deal of wisdom on the part of the key leaders at the time, and I think it also shows you that Athens over the many years of its democracy had not had sharp edges between the classes. I think there was a general kind of good feeling that made that sort of mass execution something that seemed foreign and too undesirable.
Cornelius Nepos, 1st century BCE Roman historian / Wikimedia Commons
So, if we look at Athens in 401, the democracy has been completely restored and I’d like to draw my comments about this to a close by focusing on Thrasybulus, a man, who I think probably none of you had ever heard his name when you came into this class. You had heard of Pericles, you may have heard of Themistocles, you heard lots of different Athenians, but you never heard of Thrasybulus. So, you might be surprised to hear the following. Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian of the first century B.C., in writing lives of famous Greeks and Romans, wrote the following about Thrasybulus: “If excellence were to be weighed by itself, apart from luck, I believe I would rank this man first of all. This much is certain, I put no one ahead of him in sense of honor, steadfastness, greatness of soul, and love of country.” That isn’t bad but it’s not the end.
A few years before 180 A.D., Pausanias the great travel writer of antiquity, wrote his guide to the famous and historic places of ancient Greece. In the section on Athens, he described the graves of the heroes and men that lined the roads outside the city beginning with the one leading to the place known as The Academy. Here’s what Pausanias the travel writer says, “The first is that of Thrasybulus, son of Lycus, in every way the greatest of all famous Athenians, whether they lived before or after him.” Think of all the names that are involved in that and maybe the weight of Pausanias’ general comparison is intensified by something a little bit more specific, because the next words in Pausanias’ account are these: “His is the first grave and after it comes that of Pericles,” just in case you thought he missed Pericles by mistake.
Now, that’s extraordinary and there’s a great puzzle that I can’t solve and probably never can be solved. How could it be that these fellows who lived centuries afterwards said these things about Thrasybulus and we have never heard of him? I mean barely heard of him. I mean, the best answer I can give you is there must have been lost histories, and we know there are of the period, and they must have given Thrasybulus the kind of credit for his remarkable achievements that don’t show up in Xenophon and Diodorus and the orators.
The Greek Mercenary Army and the March of the 10,000
Route of the March of the 10,000 / U.S. Military Academy Department of History, Wikimedia Commons
In the year 401 the prince of Persia, Cyrus, who was a younger son and had recently succeeded the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, his older brother, was in power. Cyrus had always been ambitious for achieving the job of Shah in Persia and his mother had worked on his behalf, but it hadn’t paid off. He was not prepared to accept the verdict and so he set out in the year 401 to launch a scheme that would bring him to the throne of Persia, and his scheme was to hire a good sized army of Greek mercenaries and to trick them into becoming the army that would defeat the army of his brother Artaxerxes, and make him king. As it turned out, one of the men who joined up on that expedition was an Athenian cavalryman by the name of Xenophon, and he left an account of that experience in a work that is called in Greek, the Anabasis, which means “the march back.”
But it’s the story of how this body of roughly 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries, marched into the heart of the Persian Empire, defeated the army of the great king — but in the process Prince Cyrus himself was killed and since the whole point of the expedition was to make him king there wasn’t any point any longer. The great question — I’ve told you about this earlier in the semester, what should these 10,000 Greeks do? They end up, after their generals are put to death by treachery, to elect new generals and to fight their way out of the empire back to the Black Sea, which was the easiest way for them to get home, and then to do whatever it was they would do.
It was a very important event because — and I think Xenophon’s account of it was very, very important because it planted in the minds of many Greeks a new notion that the vast, powerful, wealthy empire of the Persians was remarkably vulnerable, and that it was possible, and many thought highly desirable, for the Greeks to turn the tables on the Persians, to invade Persia, and to take from it, to subdue it, and to take from it the vast wealth that the Persians had, and we shall see down through the years of the fourth century different speakers will come out and speak or write urging that the Greeks do exactly this. Isocrates, the Athenian teacher of rhetoric, was the foremost figure who kept seeking somebody who would undertake this chore.
One of the reasons that he gave for it more than once was that Greece was suffering, and, of course, had been for some time, from poverty produced by war and most particularly by civil wars between democrats and oligarchs that became more and more common in the fourth century, and his solution was if you need money, steal it. So, take it from the Persians and that would put an end to the troubles. Well, of course, none of the Greek city states was capable of establishing leadership in Greece during the period we’re studying now, so that it could carry out Isocrates’ wishes. So, he turned to a man that the rest of the Greeks regarded as, or many of the Greeks regarded as a barbarian, the King of Macedon Philip, and urged him to take on that course, and apparently whether it was Isocrates or simply the idea itself, Philip himself did intend to do exactly that, to conquer the Persian Empire, but he was killed before he could do it and the job was left to his quite young son, Alexander, who in fact accomplished it; but we’re looking down the road.
Let’s go back to 401 and there we see this expedition of 10,000 Greeks accomplishing what I mentioned to you. That there could be 10,000 Greek hoplites available for such a purpose I think is a consequence of the Peloponnesian War. It shows us how much that war had helped to uproot people and to impoverish many of them, so that the idea of becoming a mercenary soldier for a Persian prince was attractive enough to take them away from home, something that would have been less likely in the prosperous years before the Peloponnesian War.
Well, of course, that aside, that is a kind of a side show, it doesn’t very much affect what is happening to the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor who remain the issue as to what will happen. You remember, these were under Athenian control during the Peloponnesian War, and when the war was over they were taken over in many cases by Lysander. What was to happen to them ultimately still had to be decided, because the King of Persia claimed that territory still for his own. The Spartans had really agreed to that in the treaties they made with the great king during the Peloponnesian War, but now Lysander didn’t see any reason for carrying out those promises and so there was at the very least conflict. Of course, what the cities would have liked best of all was to achieve autonomy for themselves and they claimed that and regarded the rule either by Persian or by Spartan as improper and something to be resisted.
Coin of Tissaphernes, Persian statesman and soldier / Wikimedia Commons
Well, Tissaphernes the satrap of the region of Lydia and to the west, the ones that included the Greek cities, attacked those cities, which he claimed for the great king but which cities were holding out. Those cities in turn, because the great menace to them for the moment was Persian, turned to Sparta the great victorious power, and asked the Spartans to help. In the year 400 and 399 the Spartans sent an army under a general by the name of Thibron, who recruited about 6,000 of those 10,000 men who had marched into the Persian Empire and who still sought service as mercenaries rather than go home to poverty, plus about 5,000 or so Peloponnesians. All of the overseas activities of the Spartans in these years include practically no Spartans. They are just too short of troops to be risking them in overseas ventures.
So, they use their Peloponnesian allies, they sometimes use mercenaries, and they also use some of these folks I told you about the last time who were neither this nor that. The ones that they used on these campaigns are the ones that we are calling neodamodes, people who had been helots, but who were liberated and permitted to fight for the Spartans, and the notion of sending neodamodes overseas to fight was very attractive to the Spartans, because it got them out of Laconia, for one thing, and provided them with soldiers as well. So, that kind of army is the one that Thibron is now using to fight against the Persians, who just a few years ago had been the allies of the Spartans for control of the Greek cities of Asia Minor.
Conon was an Athenian general at the end of the Peloponnesian War, in charge during the decisive loss of the navy at the Battle of Aegospotami. / From the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, Wikimedia Commons
Now, meanwhile we have to turn our attention to the sea, and especially to the island of Cyprus. It’s a Persian possession, but on that island there are some cities that have a degree of autonomy. One of them has as its king a man called Evagoras, and he is very ambitious for himself and for the Cypriotes, and so he is eager to fight against the Spartans, presumably on behalf of the great king, although his motives are not made clear by our sources. Reasonable guess is that he may have hoped by achieving something great for the great king he might receive back thanks from the great king in whatever form you can imagine. It might be allowing him to rule over Cyprus, it might mean to give him wealth, who knows, but also on the island of Cyprus where he had taken refuge was the Athenian Admiral Conon, who had been one of the admirals at the final defeat at Aegospotomi.
He had escaped from that battle and had not gone home to Athens; he felt that the air there would not be healthy for somebody who lost the entire fleet at Aegospotomi and so he went to Evagoras, who it took good care of Conon and he was a great sailor. One of the very most distinguished admirals in Greek history, and he too now continued his feeling that Sparta was the enemy. So, he joined Evagoras in urging the great king to build a navy, which would then defeat the Spartan navy, which would by itself rid Asia of the menace of Sparta and be a great thing for the Persians. Conon, I suspect, had some other hopes out of this activity, which in fact will come to fruition and I’ll tell you about them in due course. Well, the Spartans have their fleet out there and the king agrees and he starts building a fleet of his own, which will ultimately be a very large one indeed — some 300 ships, and the king puts Conon in charge of that fleet, which is smart in a way because Conon is a great admiral. Maybe not so smart if you look at what Conon is really up to.
In the face of these activities, the Spartans decided to raise the ante and they sent an expedition into Asia Minor. Thibron had not done very well and after about a year the Spartans replaced him with another general by the name of Dercyllidas, who does better, but there’s no decisive victory out there. The war is dragging on and so they choose to send the new King Agesilaus, who is the son of Aegis, whose characteristics are among other things, that he was born lame; he probably would not have been allowed to live had he not come from the royal family, but he did and he grew to be an ambitious, aggressive Spartan King, who I suspect — I mean, a cheap psychology when you have a handicap like that in a society which values physical valor and strength, and military success so highly as the Spartans did, you’re twice as aggressive, and twice as ambitious as an ordinary Spartan.
Marble bust of Agesilaus / British Museum
In any case, that was the way Agesilaus turned out to be. Another interesting thing about Agesilaus is that he had been the tent mate of Lysander and it’s hard to believe that Lysander could ever have achieved the eminence that he did, the command that was given to him, had he not been a friend of the young man that people looked to as the next king, or possibly the next king. But as yet, Agesilaus, being a much younger man than Lysander, he seemed to be deferential and everything was okay and so he was very keen on doing what the Spartans did, which was to send Agesilaus out with a new expedition to win the war against the Persians out there. Agesilaus, it is plain, had extremely lofty plans for himself and for this expedition. The way the expedition worked, Agesilaus chose to leave with his fleet from the town of Aulis, which is located in Boeotia.
Agamemnon took off for the Trojan War at Aulis, and you remember how the legend goes. The winds were against the Greeks, they wouldn’t let the ships get away, and they asked a holy man to tell them what the gods were up to and the gods said, well you can’t go until you sacrifice your daughter, your little daughter Iphigenia to the god for that purpose. So Agamemnon did and the winds relented, and Agamemnon would pay the price when he got back from Troy. But it is precisely that the Greek fleet against the barbarian, against the non-Greeks, the most important ones in all of their legends, namely the Trojans, it was at all Aulis that they left and Agesilaus wanted to bring that to the mind. He was the new Agamemnon and he was not leading a Spartan fleet against the Persians, he was the spokesman for the Greeks. He was the leader of the Greeks revenging that original offense, whatever that might be.
He was trying to make the case for a panhellenic motive for what was absolutely a strictly Spartan one and raising himself to a legendary level practically. Well, that turned out to be a mistake, because the Thebans happened at that moment to be, as far as we can tell, led by a faction that was very hostile to the Spartans. So, as Agesilaus’ people were setting up the altars for sacrifices before they took off, along the road came a Theban army, knocked over all of the altars, and asked them who the hell invited him into Boeotia in the first place, to get the hell out of there, grossly insulting Agesilaus and forcing him to skulk out of Aulis, not in the grand way that he had imagined. This turned out to be very significant. Agesilaus took it personally. He didn’t like that, and I suppose — well, never mind I was about to make a bad joke, let it go.
It had an enormous impact on him because for the rest of his life Agesilaus will be hostile to Thebes, and when he could he would promote a policy of attacking Thebes, of trying to defeat it, to subject it to Sparta, and a whole piece of Spartan foreign policy, which was to be very costly and damaging to Sparta was the result of Agesilaus’ attempt at vendetta against the Thebans. Well, he goes to Asia and begins to encounter the Persians. He does pretty well, as always, Greek hoplites if they can get the Persians to fight them in a nice flat field will beat them, and he did that on several occasions, but he was never able to bring a large force of Persians to battle, so that he could really destroy a good chunk of Persian power in the region so that the victories were not decisive. They could not win the war, he could win the battles, but you couldn’t win the war, at least he didn’t.
Meanwhile, things turned around against the Spartans from the side that you might expect, that is to say, from the sea. Conon, with the Persian fleet, sailed against the very important Island of Rhodes and captured it and brought it back to — took it away from the Spartans in any case. Where the Spartans went, you will remember, they establish oligarchic governments, and in this case the victorious Athenian admiral removed the oligarchic government and in its place there rose up a democracy. I’m sure the great king didn’t care what kind of regime it was for the moment, he just wanted to get rid of the Spartans, which he did. But it was, of course, on the Greek scene, it was a great defeat for the Spartans and it was a challenge to the Spartans. It was obvious that Conon, at least, and who knew what might happen on the part of other Greeks, were going to resist Spartan power and Spartan aggressiveness, and that if he wanted to come back, then he would have to have a navy.
The Spartans set out to increase their navy to meet this challenge and just to look ahead a few years, as I think we need to at this moment, it was that Spartan fleet that Conon defeated thoroughly and decisively a few years later in 394 at the Battle of Cnidus, which really puts an end for considerable time the whole idea of Sparta fighting at sea entirely. It really means that that approach — remember we were talking last time about the three different possibilities that the Spartans had to choose among, and they chose for a while this thoroughly aggressive one overseas, that’s out now. If you had been defeated at sea, you don’t have a navy that can challenge your opponents, you can’t do it. As a matter of fact it will not be very much longer when events in Greece compel them to withdraw their army under Agesilaus and bring him back home and no Spartan army ever goes back to Asia again. We’re looking ahead but the action that caused that was the victory at Cnidus.
Now, of course, with the Spartans being defeated in that part of the world, the Greek cities that have been under Spartan rule now typically rebel against the Spartan rule, and we must imagine that for a few years there are really quite confused conditions in Asiatic Greece. Some places may have continued to be under Spartan rule, some may have continued to be under Persian rule, no doubt about it, some of them became autonomous. We just don’t know what the numbers were and there could have been mixtures of things going on too. I make that point because when, later on, a final settlement is produced there, it is imposed upon a condition of confusion rather than simply overthrowing a single thing that was characteristic across the board. Still, many of those towns as I say did return to Persian rule as well. That’s the situation which leads us to the next great event in Hellenic history across the board.
The Corinthian War
The Corinthian War, as it is called, which breaks out in 395 and runs down to 387-386, so called because the bulk of the fighting on land was around the city of Corinth. But it was a war that engaged all of the major cities of Greece right around its core and its center. I think a fair way to see it is the cause of that war was, in its most fundamental sense, Sparta’s tyrannical behavior towards the other Greek cities which produces a variety of reactions. Let me remind you of some and tell you about some others that we haven’t talked about. Remember there were these grievances that lingered from the end of the Peloponnesian War when Spartan allies like Corinth and Thebes had been very dissatisfied with the way the booty had been shared that came from the defeat of the Athenians, and you remember those two cities were aggrieved also because the Spartans ignored their wishes as to what should happen to Athens and went their own way there too.
I think I mentioned as well that in all contacts with non-Spartans in this period, the Spartans seemed to be very arrogant, very hard to get along with, and they certainly inspire considerable unhappiness and discontent. Those things you know about. Now in 402, the Spartans launched a war against the polis of Elis located up in the northwestern corner of the Peloponnesus. Olympia is included in that area, just to help you fix it in your mind. Now, the Spartans called upon their allies to join them in this expedition, as is their right, according to the traditional rules of the game in the Peloponnesian League. Thebes and Corinth refuse to send their contingents. That is practically an act of rebellion against the Spartans. It’s a violation of their treaty agreements and it shows you how much irritation there existed between them. The whole campaign seemed to these states very annoying because why were the Spartans attacking Elis, partly because they had a continuing debate, a conflict with them about a border town, the old stuff.
But also I think as an act of revenge, because the Elians had been disloyal during the Peloponnesian War, during the Peace of Nicias after 421, Aulis was one of the four democracies that joined up in this new separate league that ended up fighting against the Spartans for a period of time. At the great Battle of Mantinea, in which the very existence of Sparta was at issue, Elis was on the side of the enemies of Sparta. So, that was why the Spartans suddenly decided to attack them and the allies didn’t think that was right, the ones who were discontented in any case.
So, that’s in the background, and all these other irritations that I have mentioned, but it wasn’t enough because even if you were as mad as you could be at the Spartans and determined to try to undo their effort at hegemony over the Greeks, there was no easy way to think of fighting them successfully. All of these states that were discontented Thebes, Corinth, and as we will quickly see, Athens as well, were isolated from each other. They didn’t belong to any common activity and they all were not strong enough, individually, to take on the Spartans. Moreover, there was the problem if you wanted to fight these people, it would require money, and all of them were short of funds for that purpose. So the critical element necessary to create a coalition that could undertake a war against Sparta — that decision was made by the Persians.
Coin of Pharnabazus / British Museum
The King of Persia presumably, although it very much looks like the new satrap in that region — there were two satraps in the western part of the Persian Empire remember; the one whose capital is at Sardis in Lydia, and the one whose capital, or whose territory is along the Hellespont and the straits in general, Pharnabazus, our old friend Pharnabazus from the Peloponnesian War, and a new satrap in Sardis, both want this to happen and so they find a Rhodian Greek and give him a batch of money and send him to the Greek cities seeking out those factional leaders who were known to be hostile to Sparta and offering to give them some of the money that he was carrying, which was not in itself a vast amount and certainly not enough to fight in any war, but was obviously a sign of good faith saying the King of Persia and his satraps in this region are against the Spartans and would like for you to put an end to the things you don’t like that are happening in the Greek world and he will support you with his money. That, I think, turned out to be an absolutely critical act.
He went to a town I have not mentioned that belongs in the company of the anti-Spartan people at this point, of course is Argos, the traditional enemy of Sparta running back at least into the eighth century and perhaps further than that, who seem to find themselves in a war with the Spartans at least once a century and it looks like this is the time in the fourth century for them. Argos is a democracy too, and as you know that is a relevant fact. Corinth is not a democracy, but they are so angry they want to play too and they join up. Thebes, again, it’s hard to tell what the government is. It looks throughout this entire period as oligarchy and democracy may well have been very close to one another, so that at any time one faction or the other may have the upper hand. And, of course, Athens, which is a democracy again. Now, the Athenians have been very, very reluctant to do anything to annoy the Spartans for very good reasons. They have no navy, they have no walls, and they have no money so to buck the Spartans would be an act almost of suicide, because all the Spartans needed to do was coming marching into Attica and they have no defense.
Up to now therefore they’ve been very, very careful not to annoy. In fact in 402 when the Thebans and Corinthians refused to go to Elis with the Spartans, the Athenians sent their force, as they were required to do by their treaty with the Spartans. But the new situation changed things in Athens just as it did, perhaps even more than it did in other cities. Now the great king — the Persians were not the enemy, the Persians were going to support the war, if they were ready to launch it against the Spartans. There was no war yet I should point out when this money is being handed out. This is an effort to stir up that kind of activity. Of course, the enemies of the policy refer to these transfers of money as bribes and there’s nothing in Greek practice or Greek tradition to reject the idea that some of these Persian coins ended up in the pockets of the men that they were given to, but I don’t think we really should think of them as bribes. Most of the money was used for the purpose for which it was intended, to help these leaders stir up support for a war against Sparta. It was something they believed in anyway, it was a source of their ability to carry out their wishes. But as I say, the Greeks didn’t think there was anything wrong with picking up a few bucks along the way.
Now, a war breaks out on the frontier between Phocis and Locris, two towns in central Greece, both of which are quite close to Boeotia, the land ruled by the Thebes. The Spartans, and I think this was probably — well, I’m pretty confident that it was what — motivated by the Spartan unhappiness about Thebes, the Spartans assist Phocis against Locris, knowing that Thebes is allied to Locris, and that this would be, they believed and hoped, a pretext for war. This was their chance to get even with the Thebans for all the things that the Thebans had done that irritated them since the war. So, Sparta invaded Boeotia; their strategy to win this war was that they would invade Boeotia from two sides. One army coming from central Greece, from the region of Phocis and Locris, where they were assisting the Phocians, and another army being sent up from the Peloponnesus itself; they do finally meet in 395 at a town in western Boeotia called Haliartus where there is a battle, and where by the way, Lysander is killed in the fighting and removed from the scene.
But even before that happened, as it was clear that the Spartans meant to fight the Thebans, the Thebans went to Athens and asked the Athenians for help and of course they had a case that was very attractive. First of all, they certainly reminded the Athenians of the roll Thebes had played in liberating Athens by giving a home to Thrasybulus and his free Athenians when they were in the position of defeating the Thirty Tyrants and driving them out. I have a feeling they didn’t remind the Athenians about that little congress they had after the war in which they suggested that they destroy all the Athenians and take away their land and turn the whole place into a great big cattle farm. I think they probably didn’t remember to mention that. But they had that reason, but more important than that, was what they were saying, you have a chance now to escape from your bondage to the Spartans, where the Athenians certainly were and to re-establish yourself as an autonomous polis along with us and all the others who want to take away power from the Spartans, which they are abusing so terribly.
Now, the remarkable thing to me is that Xenophon, who very likely was there, reports that the Athenian assembly voted unanimously in favor. Well, it’s worth pointing out, of course, that the number one advocate of doing that, of joining the rebellion against Sparta, was Thrasybulus the great hero of the time that certainly made a big difference. Thrasybulus had been one of the cautious leaders before who had been against getting the Spartans mad, because he knew Athens was incompetent to fight them now, but with the Persian support and with the prospect of forming a coalition against Sparta, the strategic situation had changed and Thrasybulus now came out a hundred percent for the war. But unanimous vote in favor of the war, I can’t imagine the Athenian assembly giving unanimous vote in favor of getting a drink of water. It’s just so incredible to me. So, how do I explain it?
Well, I got to make it up. I think if there was an overwhelming sentiment in favor obviously the attractions were great but there were reasons to fear. If you lose the price could be very, very high. But I think what happened was that the emotion was so strong at the moment that once it was evident that there was a large majority in favor of the motion, nobody wanted to be seen as being against it. It would had the look of cowardice, of a lack of patriotism, and people in these circumstances, it has been my experience, hate to seem not to be going along when everybody is enthusiastically going in a particular direction. So that’s how I interpret Xenophon’s remarkable testimony, but whatever the truth of it, what is clear is the great enthusiasm, overwhelming majority, they are prepared to fight for their true autonomy in the war to come.
Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis / Wikimedia Commons
So, the coalition is finally formed. Athens, Thebes, Corinth, Argos, those are the main states on the mainland and they’ll do most of the fighting, but it’s worth pointing out that there are other places that join too. Euboea, the island to the east of Attica, not surprising; they’re so thoroughly influenced by the Athenians. That’s not a great surprise but it’s interesting that many a town up in the north of the Aegean, on the Chalcidice also joined in this anti-Spartan coalition, and likewise, the region in the west on the Ionian Sea of Acarnania also join, which I think suggests that there was quite a lot of anti-Spartan sentiment in the Greek world at this time, which very often comes about if any state seems to be too strong, too powerful, too much of a threat to what everybody else wants, people tend to cut it down.
Political scientists tend to formulize this into the notion of — if you join up with the most powerful state that’s called bandwagoning, what do they call it if you’re against the — balancing, that’s the word. Sorry, I am weak in my political science technology. Balancing is what’s supposed to happen; the truth of the matter is that you never can tell which way states will go in these situations and there you are. But in this case I’m simply making the point that there was a lot of hostility to Sparta out there and some people you wouldn’t think of joined in this, but it’s the big four that really matter and they do most of the fighting in the war. Well, there’s no point in going through the war in great detail; just a few highlights, I think, need to be mentioned. The largest highlight of all being how in the world are you supposed to win this war, what is the strategy on each side? It’s remarkable how similar they are.
The Spartans want to gain control of the isthmus of Corinth, it’s Corinth and Megara especially, so that they can get out into central Greece and defeat their opponents individually in Boeotia for the Thebans and Attica for the Athenians and Corinth, of course, right there in the isthmus. The other folks, the big four, want to push into the Peloponnesus where they can raise up rebellion of the helots and the perioikoi and defeat the Spartans right there and strip away their allies in the Peloponnesus. So, each side basically has to gain control of the isthmus and then move forward to carry out the conclusion of the war in their favor, and the bottom line is neither side is able to do it. The bulk of the fighting throughout the years of that war surround the city of Corinth, walls are put up by the Corinthians meant to keep the Spartans out, they do so for a great chunk of time, Spartans can take part of the walls but they can’t manage to take everything and to punch through, and so for all these years that’s what happens.
There are some big battles that are fought. There’s one in 394, soon after the beginning of the war at Nemea, which is located to the south of Corinth. It’s a very big tough standard hoplite battle, both sides having strong armies, both sides fighting well and determinedly. The Spartans technically winning — it’s one of those victories where you know who won because they put up the trophy and they were able to collect their dead, and the other guys had to ask permission to collect their debt. But it was another one of these victories that did not have strategic consequences, neither side had been able to destroy the other, neither side could now advance into the region that they had to get to in order to make a difference, so that I think is the major story of that war. There’s another event in there that has interesting consequences for future Greek warfare that deserves mentioning.
Iphicrates’s Light-Armed Troops; Conon’s Fleet
Athenian-born general Iphicrates was the mastermind behind the professional organization of the unstoppable Greek phalanx and many other military innovations. / Wikimedia Commons
At a certain point in that war the Athenians, under an extraordinary general by the name of Iphicrates, had put together a force of light-armed troops, not hoplites, people without hoplite armor and shields who threw missiles at the other side, probably mainly slingers, but they also would have been spear throwers, throwers not thrusters, and bowmen, and these guys could never confront the phalanx in the normal way and they would normally not even be able to do much harm in an extraordinary way, but what was new was that Iphicrates had trained them as a professional force, so that they could move swiftly and together as a body in such a way as to be as effective as it was possible for light-armed troops to be against a phalanx. It happened that Iphicrates was able to maneuver a whole division of Spartan soldiers in such a way that they got stuck in a dead end, in a cal du sac, and were absolutely victimized by Iphicrates light-armed forces and about 600 men making up this division of the Spartan army called a mora, were wiped out and the Greek world was astonished by this, because no such thing had ever happened before, and it led to the increased use of well trained, light-armed infantry who play a larger role.
They never replace the phalanx as the major form of land warfare but things become more complicated in the fourth century as they have already begun to be in the Peloponnesian War, as you have different branches that are able to perform more usefully than they were typically expected to do in the past. Perhaps as big an event as any that occurred in that war was the event I mentioned earlier. Conon, using the Persian fleet, defeating the Spartan fleet at the Battle of Cnidus in 394. But what does he do? Conon takes his victorious fleet, sails back to Athens, the Athenians have already begun the process of rebuilding their walls, but now with the help of Conon’s men and the money that he carries and gives to them, they are building those walls at a much faster clip and before the war is over the Athenians will once again be a walled city, with a walled port, and with long walls connecting them. In other words, the basis for having an independent naval policy will be in place thanks to Conon’s victory.
On top of which, he takes the Persian fleet and goes to the Athenians and says, this is now your fleet and suddenly the Athenians have again probably the biggest fleet in the Greek world, just like that. Similarly, or rather as a consequence of all this, because for a while at least they are able to dominate the Aegean Sea with these forces and with Conon around they regain those famous islands that are so crucial to them, the stepping stones to the Hellespont: Lemnos, Imbros, Skyros — become Athenian owned again. They also gain control of the scared Island of Apollo at Delos. They also make an alliance with the important Island of Chios and suddenly you have what are the bare beginnings of the reconstruction of the old Athenian naval alliance; you might want to call it an empire. Let me make it very clear that even when they become far more powerful in years to come, they are never able to recreate the old Athenian Empire. They never reach the point which was so decisive for their power where it is truly an empire where almost every state in the league is contributing money, which allows the Athenians to not only build but to sustain in peace time and war time the biggest navy and the best navy around. They never get there.
They do become very important as a naval power again, they are going to be a very significant state again, but even though they are turning in that other direction they never get there. But I think we need to remember that probably there’s a very good chunk of the Athenians, who regard those days as the good old days and as the natural state of things, and is the place to which they ought to be going towards that empire. Certainly a lot of their behavior in the Corinthian war and afterwards suggests that that was a widespread opinion. There was, undoubtedly, also hostility to that opinion as people look back on the experience of what happened last time, look at the consequences. There were important socioeconomic political significance of pursuing such a policy; it meant democracy, it meant a naval democracy, it meant the most extreme democracy, and a lot of people’s memories, especially those of the rich were of the mistakes and defeats that that democracy had brought about.
Ruins on Chios / Wikimedia Commons
When you read Plato, particularly about the Athenian democracy, or even Aristotle, I think you have to remember that these people were very, very critical of what the Athenian democracy had done in the fifth century, blamed the democracy for that defeat, and then that was tied up with their political views in general that democracy was a very bad wicked thing, and that should help you understand this very strong bias against democratic government on the part of such people. Another special event in the course of the Corinthian War, which would have some consequence for Greek life later on, during that war there was a union between the cities of Corinth and Argos. It was brought about by a special emergency situation created by the war in which all the fighting was around Corinth in which there was terrible destruction of Corinthian property, in which poverty came to be a problem with Corinth in a way that it had never been.
There was a topsy-turvy situation. It had been throughout the whole fifth century back into the sixth century — an oligarchic government, a broad oligarchic government, one that was widely thought to be a good government, and that so far as we know was never touched until sometime here in the Corinthian War when these extreme conditions produced what looks like a democratic faction, which seized power, which murdered the leaders of the opposition in a brutal way. By the way, on a holy day, it was a memorable and horrible event. So, it was after that event had taken place that you see this union between Argos, which is a democracy, and this democratic government in Corinth, which is under siege for the reasons that I have suggested, and what they do is they arrange for a new situation where citizens of one state will be citizens of the other as well. So, theoretically, if you lived in Corinth and you wanted to go to Argos to sit in on the Argive Assembly you could do it and vice versa. This is something absolutely new.
The idea of anything but a polis being by itself or being on top of other poleis, but the notion of their being a sharing of a regime interpoleis sharing of governmental responsibilities is really new, and it becomes more usual in the course of the next century and the century after that. This one hardly lasts at all; it’s just a few years as a consequence of the war, and it’s undone at the end of the war. But it’s an indication of what people might be thinking about and we shall see that in the course of this century there will grow up federations — that’s something different, but still it’s the same thing in a way. A federation is a political union that allows for the maintenance of local powers on the part of the original members, but also takes some powers for a central body, which is made up of more than one.
We Americans of course have some idea about that, but there was the Arcadian League that came into being, and the Achaean League that came into being, and the Aetolian League which came into being, and as a matter of fact our founding fathers read very carefully about these experiments in federal government as they were writing the American Constitution, we have hard evidence about that. The best evidence for those confederations does not occur in our period, it occurs later, typically in the third and the second centuries B.C., and the accounts of them are in the works of Polybius, if you’re ever interested. So, Polybius was a very important figure for the American founding fathers who wrote the Constitution. But the first seed of this kind of interstate cooperation on a basis that was not merely alliance, but was co-citizenship is in the case of Corinth and Argos in the course of this war.
The War Comes to an End
Tablet remnants of the Peace of Antalcidas / Wikimedia Commons
Well, as the war dragged on, it became clearer and clearer that neither side had any way of prevailing. But another thing that happened that was to play a very important part in how the war came to an end was that the Athenian control of the sea was rapidly making Athens stronger and stronger, and more like that scary thing which Athens had been to its neighbors and its opponents in the fifth century B.C., such that the Persians, who after all, had started the war by virtue of encouraging the anti-Spartan factions to get together and had been supporting it to some degree during the war in general, began to feel that maybe Athens was becoming more frightening from the Persian point of view than Sparta was. After all, Sparta was out of the navy business now and they were not likely to be able to get back into it, and if you don’t have a navy you really can’t threaten Persia very much, at least until Alexander came along and figured out a way to do it. So, all of that gives the Spartans, who really want to get out of this war, because it isn’t going anywhere, the hope that they can bring about a peace and so the Spartans try to make peace with the aid of Persia.
There’s a Spartan political figure by the name of Antalcidas who emerges on this scene, and we shall see in his life, the few times we hear about him he’s always engaged in attempting to contain Sparta’s ambitions, to certainly exclude the possibility of overseas commitments and I would argue, I think most scholars would agree, even not to be engaged outside of the Peloponnesus very far. He seems to represent a traditionalist point of view, which obviously comes to the fore as this war, which the Spartans have started really as part of Agesilaus’ aggressive policy, isn’t working. The Spartans are having to constantly fight, they are suffering casualties, their allies are becoming more and more restive, and look what’s happened, suddenly Sparta which was absolutely in charge of everything is practically on the defensive. So, for all these reasons there’s opposition to the bold policy and Antalcidas represents that. He gets the Spartan assembly or the Spartan gerousia in efforts to support a mission to the King of Persia in which he tries to negotiate a peace.
It doesn’t work in large part, because the enemies, that is Athens and Thebes particularly, and perhaps the others — sorry Corinth and Argos also, and I’ll tell you why in a moment, are not ready to do what is necessary from the Spartan point of view. What the Spartans really want is to break up this coalition and all anti-Spartan coalitions. That’s really the bottom line for Sparta. There’s no sense making peace, if you leave these people in tact. What’s to stop the whole thing from happening again in the future? That’s the bottom line and they are unable to persuade the Greeks to make the concessions that are necessary. So, the war continues and nothing really changes except things get worse. This time Antalcidas again negotiates a peace and he really negotiates it with the great King of Persia.
The King of Persia has changed his mind about where the great threat comes from. Thrasybulus in the 390s, in the latter part of the 390s, engages in a series of naval campaigns all around the Aegean Sea in which he recovers one city after another that used to be under Athenian rule and once again puts it under Athenian rule. He even once again starts collecting money from them. He did something also that the Athenians had done late in the Peloponnesian War; he establishes a customs house in the Hellespont in the Bosporus and every ship that goes through pays a tax to the Athenians. So, there’s a real feeling in Persia obviously that the Athenians are coming back to rebuild their empire, and we better stop them and the Spartans are safer from our point of view having been chasing by events, and so I think that’s probably the single most important reason why the great king comes out and backs, and as we shall see, insists on a peace in Greece which meets Sparta’s needs and the needs are that all these international organizations should be broken up.
Ancient Argos ruins / Wikimedia Commons
Obviously, the league of four states that have conducted the war must stop, but on top of that, the union between Argos and Corinth must be broken up; that’s especially critical to the Spartans. That’s right next door. Argos would be strengthened by its association with Corinth and if it were allowed to continue, it would be a problem in the future. So, it had to be broken up. Thebes, of course, was a great problem for the Spartans and they insisted that before peace was to come, the Thebans had to give up their control of Boeotia. They had used the war as an opportunity to reconstruct the old Boeotian League, which left Thebes at the head and in control of the bulk of Boeotia that was to be broken up in order to reduce Theban power.
Originally, the Spartans had wanted the Athenians to give up the things that they had acquired in the course of the war but they couldn’t do that. Athens was still too strong in the one field that they couldn’t be challenged in easily — their control of the sea and so a compromise had to be made if a peace was to be made. Athens would not join unless it was allowed to keep Lemnos, Skyros, Imbros. So, that was permitted. So the peace came and the critical part — Xenophon reports the exact language of a message that King Artaxerxes sent to the Greeks that was in effect the instrument that made the peace. Here’s what it said, “King Artaxerxes thinks it just that the cities in Asia, and the islands of Klazomenai and Cyprus shall belong to him. Further, that all the other Greek cities, small and great, shall be autonomous.” Listen to that word, that’s critical. This peace is associated with the principle of autonomy, there shall be no breach of autonomy except, says the king, “Lemnos, Imbros and Skyros which shall belong to Athens as in the past. If any refuse to accept this peace, I shall make war on them, along with those who are of the same purpose, both by land and sea and with both ships and money.” Ancient writers and modern writers have disagreed as to what is the name of this peace, some of them speak of the Peace of Antalcidas, more of them I think speak, and I think they’re right in this decision, as the King’s Peace.
This is not the product of a negotiation and the king is very careful even though it really is, but he’s very careful to make it clear that that’s not the way he sees it. This is a command leveled by the king at the Greek states saying, this is how you will be, I say so, and if you don’t like it I will beat the hell out of you. That’s the message that comes. But, of course, the reason he can say that, with as much confidence as he does, is that his partner in the peace is Sparta. This is a peace that will benefit Persia and benefit Sparta at the expense of everybody else. The Spartans take it as a license to run Greece in the way that they see fit. Notice nobody says that the Spartans have to break up the Peloponnesian League, that doesn’t count as any kind of a violation of autonomy and so that’s the nature of the peace, whether among the results are that the Asiatic Greeks are abandoned by the Greek states once and for all, and of course that means Sparta mainly, until finally Alexander will impose his rule when he conquers the Persian Empire.
The Boeotian League is dissolved, Argos and Corinth are split, and Athens loses all that has been gained except for those three islands that are mentioned. Sparta regains, and in a certain sense, gets greater control of the mainland Greek situation. It is the hegemon of Greece now as a kind of a partner of the great king, and the great king leaves Greece essentially to the Spartans without any interference. How did he do that? In the same way that they did it to win the Peloponnesian War. An enemy of the Spartans would say because they were Medizers, they had done the work of the Persians; they had collaborated with the Persians against the Greeks. That’s now how the Spartans saw it of course; they would have something like — I guess there’s a crack in Plutarch somewhere, it says, we have not Medized; it’s the Persians who have Spartanized, but that’s a very kind way of looking at it. It is without question, if you look back on it, we’re talking just about 100 years after the Persian war and it’s a reversal of the Persian Wars.
The Greeks won the Persian Wars and the proof of it was they chased the great king out of Europe, eager to stay alive and completely unable to do anything about what the Greeks were to do with the coastal regions of the Persian Empire. Now the King of Persia is telling the Greeks what they must do. It was widely seen as a cause for great shame and by those people who were not friendly to Sparta a great cause of anger against the Spartans, who were responsible for this condition of things. But the Spartans didn’t care much, because they were now in a position to exercise the power that the dominant force in Sparta, who is Agesilaus and his supporters, wanted to do. So, in 385 we see the Spartans attacking the city of Mantinea. Once again, the story is very much like the story of Aulis in 402. This time Mantinea had been again, one of those states in the Peloponnesus that had joined in a quadruple alliance against Sparta in 421, the great battle that so much threatened Spartan existence in 418 had been fought on the territory of Mantinea. It had a democratic history and democratic tendencies.
Ancient Mantinea ruins / Wikimedia Commons
So, with no pretext really at all, the Spartans invaded their territory, besieged the city, managed finally to defeat Mantinea by diverting the waters of a river that ran through Mantinea to the point where it undermined the walls and they had to surrender. Xenophon learns an important lesson about warfare from this event and he concludes his account of this by saying, well, that shows you that you should not build your city around the river. So, if any of you are planning, keep that in mind. Then soon afterwards, the Spartans turn on another city in the Peloponnesus, the city of Phlyus, which is to the southwest of Corinth, not a very big city but not a small tiny one either, and what it turns out here is that the thing that the Phylasians have done that the Spartans don’t like is that they have been a democracy for part of the time. King Agesilaus basically removes the government after fighting a war and besieging the city. It was not an easy task, it was expensive and time consuming, but they do gain a victory and Agesilaus puts in a new government made up not just of oligarchs, which of course they were, but they were the personal friends of Agesilaus.
If you look at it, historically it resembles the stuff that Lysander was doing at the end of the Peloponnesian War and afterwards in placing these decarchies of his friends in the cities, so that they would not be only pro-Spartan but pro-Lysander, and here Agesilaus did the same thing in Phylus and it’s not the only place that he did. Then enormity followed enormity as the Spartan power was unchecked in this period of time. Up in the north the city of Olynthus, in the Chalcidic peninsula was gaining control of that peninsula, basically establishing itself as the hegemonal power over cities in that region. In 383, a couple of cities up in that region came to Sparta complaining of what the Olynthians were doing and urging the Spartans to defend them and to undo these things, using as the basis for their appeal the King’s Peace. This was a violation of their autonomy; the Spartans were to be the upholders of Greek autonomy according to the King’s Peace, and so they ought to send a force up.
The Spartans did so and in the course of that war which lasted from 382 to 379, they defeated Olynthos, dissolved the confederacy, and destroyed again any notion of a league other than the Spartan League. There was an event that was connected with that movement up towards the northeast, up to the Chalcidice, which was the most famous, I think — there’s a small competition for a couple of events, but one of the most famous anyway in this period illustrating the arrogance and power of the Spartan hegemony, a Spartan force was sent off ostensibly to reinforce their Spartan army up there in the Chalcidice. It was led by a general named Phoebidas. As he was moving north on a route that would not have been the normal route to take, a route that took him right past the city of Thebes, he camped out at night and on his way there he was contacted by an important official in the government of Thebes, an oligarch, a friend of Sparta. The next day the Spartan army seized the Acropolis of Thebes, which is called the Cadmea. They did so on a sacred day, a holiday was being celebrated, everybody was in the same shape people are on a holiday. Nobody was ready, they took the city; the enemies of the dominant party that had invited the Spartans in were put to death, if they could not flee successfully.
The Spartans left a garrison on the Cadmea and took control of the city and had their stooges run the city thereafter. Now, this had not been determined by the Spartan assembly, this was not the consequence of a policy decision that the Spartan officials or people had made. When Phoebidas came back to Sparta he was put on trial and there was great anger against him and there was great anger against Sparta of course throughout the Greek world. There was no real case for him, but surprisingly enough, even though he was not a member of Agesilaus’ faction. Agesilaus got up at the trial and simply said, you guys are all talking about the wrong thing. There’s only one question that should be asked about the behavior of Phoebidas. Was what he did good or bad for Sparta? Well, it was obviously good. Why in the world do you want to punish him? He was not punished with any severity; a mild fine or at least a fine was imposed. We don’t know if he ever paid it. In any case, the critical thing was what would Sparta do about the action itself? The fact that it had a garrison up there on the Cadmea. If they thought it had been the wrong thing to do, if it had been the idea that Phoebidas and what didn’t represent Spartan policy, then they should have withdrawn the garrison. The garrison stayed, so that Sparta now — this was something that rang all around the Greek world. This was the worst thing anybody could remember in peace time with no allegation of cause, they had simply seized another city, an ancient city, a great city, and they refused to back off.
Ancient Cadmea fortress ruins / Wikimedia Commons
Finally there’s one other example of this same kind of behavior. The government in Thebes was tyrannical, imposed upon an unwilling people; some of the people who had fled did a reverse of what happened in the time of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens. They fled to Athens, and, of course, the Athenians gave them support, and protected them and then in 379 a small number of these exiles launched a clever plot that allowed them to sneak into Thebes and to make their way to the Cadmea and to kill the oligarchic leaders of the city in the dark when nobody could really do anything about it, and to drive away a number of the Spartans and to free the city.
Thebes became free, it became democratic too, because these people now belonged to a democratic faction and more and more, if you’re a democrat, you’re anti-Spartan, if you’re an oligarch, you’re a pro-Spartan, and so all of this is the beginning of what we will get to next time, which is the flowering of Theban power. It’s going to happen as they get stronger and stronger, but the event I wanted to mention as the twin of the Phoebidas thing is that in 379, a Spartanharmost of the one of the garrisons in Boeotia by the name of Sphodrias took a force by night, marched into Attica, ostensibly his plan was to reach the Piraeus and then that would allow them to take control of Athens, because they could cut them off from their port at the sea. He didn’t get it quite right. By the time morning broke and they were visible he was still miles and miles, and miles away from the Piraeus and so all he could do was to do some harm to the Athenian territory and then to go home.
Well, when he got home again he hadn’t gotten any vote from the Spartan assembly or from the gerousia or from theephors to do anything, another thing that he had apparently done on his own. So, there was another trial and this time the only thing he had going for him apparently — well, he still had Agesilaus’ general approach, but he was the lover of the son of Agesilaus, and so Agesilaus who ostensibly was hostile to what had happened was made to speak in his defense and this time his argument was simply, Sparta has too few men of quality to be able to execute any for whatever reason whatsoever and so we shouldn’t do anything to Sphodrias. So, they didn’t. That was yet another signal and it had fantastic consequences.
In Athens they had been holding some Spartan ambassadors when the Sphodrias’ raid had taken place and they were holding them in effect as hostages, but the Spartans said, look we had nothing to do with it, this was — Sphodrias did it all on his own, and he’ll certainly be condemned when he gets back to Sparta. So, the Athenians said okay, you can go home, and then he wasn’t and so the Athenians now were determined that they would have to fight Sparta. In the process, they set about organizing an alliance, a general alliance, meant against Sparta, which they were able to do in considerable part, because of all of the irritation that had been felt all around Greece by these terrible actions of the Spartans, and as I think I’ll tell you next time, they put together what we call the Second Athenian Confederation, and they made an alliance with the newly liberated Thebes. Thebes, which is going to get stronger and stronger, and stronger and so we have now a threat once again to the Spartan hegemony which will be very serious, but of a different kind from the one we had before.
The Rise of Theban Hegemony
Theban hegemony / Wikimedia Commons
Let me remind you that the Spartans, ever since their victory in the Peloponnesian War had been attempting to extend their hegemony, at first all the way over into Asia, and then when that was thwarted, they tried to do so on the mainland of Greece, and one consequence of their effort and the failure to achieve it in an easy way was the restoration of Athens to a primary position in the Greek world. Again, not as powerful as Sparta, but once again an independent state that was capable of being a serious opponent of the Spartans. Today, I want to talk about the emergence of a third great power in this period which had never had a position, I think, of something resembling equality with the leading powers in the Greek world, although it had had periods when it was very strong anyway. Thebes is what I’m talking about.
Now, if you look at the situation in 379, when the Spartans were in control of Thebes as a consequence of the actions of Phoebidas, there was a Spartan garrison there in the city, on its acropolis, there were Spartan garrisons in other towns in Boeotia and it was probably as a low a point for the Thebans as they had experienced since the 450s when the Athenians gained control of Boeotia. But starting with the successful Theban rebellion which overthrew the Spartan command of the city, the Thebans launched a period of growth in power, influence, wealth, and even to some degree extent which justifies modern historians in speaking about a period perhaps beginning in 371 and running at least a decade, to which they give the name the Theban Hegemony, and today I want to talk about how that happened and how it sort of developed and ended.
The Spartans invaded, after the Theban overthrow of Spartan rule and in the first year the leader in that invasion was given to the young King Cleombrotus, not to Agesilaus, and his failure to undertake that command exercised the minds of ancient writers as well as modern ones. One answer whenever Agesilaus doesn’t take command of an army, which is following a policy that he likes, people suggest that he might have been physically incapable of doing it. He was an old man and he had been injured and so that’s a plausible reason at any time, and yet the ancient writers were persuaded that there were times when he was simply playing politics in some complicated way and choosing not to take the command. This is one of those occasions when they speculate that he was trying to get Cleombrotus engaged in this anti-Theban policy, which would provide for greater support for that general Agesilean policy and that that’s why he had worked it so that Cleombrotus got the command.
We simply can’t be sure about what the truth of that is. Cleombrotus, however, did not wage a very aggressive campaign and that first invasion of 378 produced very, very little. However, subsequent Spartan invasions also, even those led by Agesilaus, were not successful. The Thebans were able gradually to gather their strength, to recover parts of Boeotia and bring them under their power, and to drive the Spartans away without yielding anything of importance. One of the consequences — I’m talking really about the years 378, 377, 376 and into 375.
One of the things that the Thebans engaged in, in this period, and it’s extremely important because it provides the basis for the power that they will develop, was a reconstruction of the Boeotian League. The Thebans had commanded or led, or dominated the Boeotian League before. They changed its constitution, however, in these years in a way that was rather important. In a word, to simply the matter, the entire operation of the league became more democratic. They used to have the decisive bodies that determined the Theban policy in the form of four separate councils, which were sort of indirect regimes that really made the policy. The new constitution made the decisive place really an assembly in which all the representatives of the Theban cities came and made policy in an assembly not in separate councils, all of which could be more readily controlled by oligarchic figures, and the only thing is that the meetings of the Boeotian League took place in Thebes.
Ancient Boetia / Wikimedia Commons
Now, not only did Thebes have a majority of representatives in that league, or at least the largest number by virtue of its size and its leading role, but the fact that it all took place in Thebes meant that there would be more Thebans there and more Thebans playing an influential role in what was going on. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount the truly democratic nature of this regime. It’s a new thing. Boeotia and Thebes used to be bulwark of oligarchy, and it became a remarkably democratic city, and I think there’s reason to take note of the fact that this seemed to have had an impact on Thebes and Boeotia much like the one that Herodotus praises so highly back when Athens became democratic, when they threw out their tyrants, and established the Cleisthenic regime, Herodotus says that they became better warriors. They produced a better army; they began defeating their enemies as they had not done before.
I think that is very clearly also what happens in Thebes. We can’t get away from the fact that Thebes became a more formidable military power thereafter. Whether or not it’s linked to democracy is open to argument, but I think there is a real argument that would say it worked that way. At least, we don’t know the details of this very well, but a very unusual thing seems to have happened. The Thebans ultimately were able to increase the size of their army by using farmers, who would not ordinarily have been able to afford hoplite equipment, but somehow the state managed to equip poorer farmers and to turn them into hoplites, so that ultimately the army that Thebes commanded — when you get down to the years after the Battle of Leuctra, in which the Thebans and their friends defeated the Spartans, you will see that really a huge army, by Greek standards, goes marching into the Peloponnesus of which a large portion was this Theban hoplite group that was much more potent, because of its size and it could be argued because of the spirit of these newly hoplited democrats, you might say.
Well, as the Thebans were developing this league they were also fighting the Spartans and gradually driving the Spartans back. For instance, they destroyed the city of Plataea, which was always on the side of the enemies of Thebes. In this case they were on the side of the Spartans, and it would take a while before that was undone. They also placed a number of cities under Theban command. They didn’t need to do that, for most of the cities in Boeotia, because mostly they seemed to be satisfied and pleased to cooperate with — and why not? I mean, I should make the point clear as to why they would be happy to do that. When the Spartans invaded Boeotia they didn’t only beat up Thebes. In fact, Thebes was less hurt than were the other towns because Thebes was further away and better equipped to defend itself.
Every time the Spartans came in they ravaged the Boeotian countryside and did harm to these Boeotian towns. So, it was Thebes that was the defender, the protector of the Boeotians against the Spartans, and this certainly gave them popularity; it helps explain why this new Boeotian confederation was so effective and so loyal. The Thebans were doing a key job for Boeotia and the Boeotians. Meanwhile, this new army that was being put together — it wasn’t of course entirely new, its heart would have been the old Boeotian hoplite farmer group, but it was added to and it was given this new twist. I think really a combination twist of two kinds of elements that explain a kind of enthusiasm, a kind of morale boost that they had.
One was a greater sense of what we would call nationalism. It’s obviously an anachronistic for the city states but we don’t have a better word for it. That is to say, this constant warfare, these constant attacks by the Spartans, culminating in this seizure of their city against all custom, against all law and in a very unpleasant way, and the support of these oligarchs as against the common people, the ordinary folks, so that when this new regime led — I should point out by these two extraordinary military leaders, Pelopidas and Epaminondas, when these fellows also were responsible for the liberation of Thebes, especially Pelopidas, and when they were leading the fight for the defense of Boeotia, all of that meant that there was a growing feeling of “we are Boeotians, we are together, and the enemy is the Spartans and we need to fight them.” To that, if you throw in the feeling that democracy appears to have in its first burst especially — I should point out that the Athenian extraordinary success on land occurs right after the democratic revolution of Cleisthenes.
I don’t say they become bad thereafter but they’re never again quite as extraordinary as a land force as they are then. An analogy that’s often drawn is with the armies of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, which really were fantastically successful right after the revolution began and they began enrolling and de-conscripting great numbers of people who would never have been in the army before in the name of the nation, in the name of freedom, in the name of all kinds of lovely things. Again, it’s often neglected that the French already had a terrific army before that happened and they had wonderful officers and generals, and were skilled in the art of war. So, it was a kind of a best of all worlds where they had a solid base for military superiority, to which was added this great business of numbers and the zeal that went with it.
Something like that I believe is going on here in the 370s to help explain what’s happening to what becomes this enormously powerful and successful Theban army. The fighting goes on. The Thebans, you remember, joined with the Athenians against the Spartans back at the time of the foundation of the Second Athenian Confederacy in 377 and they do work together for a time, but it doesn’t take very long for there to grow up differences between the Athenians and the Boeotians. They are, if you look back at the whole history, more frequently enemies than they are friends. There are longstanding differences, suspicions, attitudes that are not entirely friendly and so on, and as Theban power grows, and as the threat from Sparta diminishes, the Athenians become less enthusiastic about their alliance with Thebes, because the Thebans are now emerging as a contender for the leading position for a hegemonal position in Greece. So, we will see the Athenians and the Thebans gradually moving apart in the decade of the 370s.
The 375 Peace Proposal
Bust of Diodorus / Wikimedia Commons
There was in 375 a proposal for peace to be established in the warring Greek world. It was apparently — there’s some difference of opinion among our sources, but one thing that seems clear, the King of Persia was in favor of it. The ancient writers explain his reason for doing that, for being interested in having that happen, because he had other wars to fight. As to often was the case, there was a rebellion in Egypt, which was always a serious menace, so he wanted peace so that he could hire Greek mercenaries to fight in his army. Perhaps that wasn’t the only reason that the great king had. He must have been worried at the growth of Athenian power and influence at sea, which was continuing throughout this period. The Second Athenian Confederacy never had the power and extent that the great empire had had in the fifth century, but it was scary from the standpoint of the great king and so he might very well have wanted to restore peace to Greece as a way of stopping excuses for further expansion on the part of the Athenians.
On the other hand, the Athenians were not unhappy to make peace as an opportunity to consolidate the gains that they had had and because that would put a stop to what I think was beginning to worry them, the expansion of Thebes. Now, mind you, they’re still worried number one about Sparta in 375. Spartans haven’t been defeated by anybody; they’re still the most serious power, and they’re still the power that stands for Persian power in the Greek world, but things have become more complicated as Thebes has emerged on the scene.
Well, the ancient writer, Diodorus especially, speaks of an event — well, let me describe the event. He says that when it was time to sign this common peace — maybe I want to say a word about that too. The Greek words for common peace are koine eirene; it is a term that comes up again and again in the fourth century in attempting to bring peace agreements among the Greek states. It’s a new thing. As you know, peace in the past usually took the form of the swearing of oaths to accept a peace treaty on very specific terms between combatants in that war. The koine eireneconcept has a more modern ring to it, and it seems to have the idea that there should be a common peace among all the Greeks, and that the signatories should be responsible for upholding that common peace. It’s a very interesting idea and it sparked enormous interest in scholars, I think especially after the First World War, when all of the hopeful talk about the League of Nations and Kant’s picture of perpetual peace and all of that stuff was flying around in certain circles, so people hoped to see in the koine eirene, this might have been a preliminary sign of that same kind of idea.
But it didn’t work any better in the ancient world than it has worked in the modern world. To get back to the first suggestion in 375 about having such a thing, the states were agreed to do it, and then trouble came when Thebes insisted that just as the Spartans could sign on behalf of all of their allies for the Peloponnesian League, the Thebans wanted the right to sign for all of their Boeotian allies on behalf of the Boeotian League. It would have been the de factorecognition of the Boeotian League with Thebes as its leader. This is really what happened, if you put your minds back to 445 in the thirty-years peace that concluded what we call the first Peloponnesian War. When the Spartans allowed the Athenians to sign and speak for all of the members of its league they were giving de facto recognition and regarding the Athenians as their equals. This was something that the Spartans no doubt led chiefly in this view by Agesilaus; they were not going to let the Thebans do it.
In fact, we’re told in a very bold action Agesilaus struck the Thebans from the lists, the list of those who would take part in the peace because they insisted on this clause. Now, there’s a problem about this. The same story almost identically is told in 371 when we come to the attempt at another koine eirenee, to bring peace to the general Greek world, the whole story is told in pretty much the same way and the up shot of the one in 371 will be the Great Battle of Leuctra. This had led some scholars to say Diodorus, who is the source of these tales, simply has screwed up, has got it wrong; this is what they call a doublet. Somehow he projected backwards an event that really happened in 371 and has it happen twice.
I’m very, very suspicious about modern historians who are prepared rip up pieces of ancient historians, because we know better and it just doesn’t make any sense is the argument. The truth is, I can see no reason why this shouldn’t have happened twice. Certainly, Epaminondas would have insisted on that, certainly the Spartans would have objected to it, the actions that go with it strike me as being perfectly okay in 375 and when four years later a similar circumstance emerges, why shouldn’t the same thing happen again? I haven’t really looked into this, but I can imagine if you look through the whole Cold War history I’m sure you’ll find many of the things that are happening over and over again in exactly the same way because the circumstances haven’t changed. So, with my characteristic gullibility I believe in the story as it is told in 375.
Fighting Resumes; The Sacred Band of Thebes and the Battle of Leuctra
Battle of Leuctra / Wikimedia Commons
Well, fighting resumes since the peace really didn’t hold and the Thebans continue — and the Boeotians in general continue to successfully fight off the Spartans. I should have mentioned in the course of this fighting, soon after the treaty, there’s an amazing occasion which has harbingers for the future. A Spartan army is marching in one direction, a Theban army is marching in another direction, the Spartans outnumber the Thebans very greatly. In fact, the whole Theban force is simply the 300 men who had been formed pretty recently into a special elite fighting core called the Sacred Band. Their special quality was that in addition to be excellent warriors and trained especially for their job, they were homosexual lovers who stood and fought right next to each other. This was just carrying forward the principle that the Spartans had used in one way and another, and it turned out to be equally successful.
This Sacred Band was a tremendous fighting force and will play a critical role in the important Battle of Leuctra. Anyway, they managed to defeat in a hoplite battle, a Spartan force that is greater than they are. It’s not a real hundred percent hoplite battle, the numbers — there are only 300 Thebans, even though there’s about 1,000 Spartans. The way the battle is fought is not traditional, typical, it’s a little peculiar so you really can’t regard it as the decisive time, somebody beat a Spartan hoplite phalanx in battle. That will have to wait until Leuctra. On the other hand, the evidence of the ancients is that it really impressed the Greek world in general, and even this form of a victory over Spartan hoplites, was unprecedented and it really I think kind of shook some people in terms of their confidence that the Spartans would always win a battle like that.
So, the fighting goes on, on all the fronts that I have mentioned to you, until finally we get down to 371 and in 371 the same thing happens. There is a pressure from the Persians for a general peace, the Athenians are not against that idea, but the same tale I told you last time, there’s no question that it happened at Leuctra, nobody doubts that and the result was a renewal of the war with the Spartans taking the lead, aggressively moving into Boeotia as they had done every time before. I think it’s very worth mentioning that we don’t have any case up to now, up to 371, in which the Boeotians and their friends and allies march into the Peloponnesus. All the attacking has been by the Spartans into Boeotia, which means these wars have always been costly to Boeotia but not to Sparta, and we’ll see that one of the things that Epaminondas wants to do when he can is to reverse that situation.
So, this brings us to the Battle of Leuctra; Leuctra is a town in southwestern Boeotia. The two armies march towards each other; there’s a lot of maneuvering this way and that way, but finally they come onto this rather small field. You can go there today and look at it; it really is pretty easy to place the ancient story into the modern geography. There’s a plain between two hills, one to the south and one to the north. Boeotian army took up its position on the northern hill, and the Spartans took up theirs on the southern hill, and then finally when the daylight came they move forward and fought each other in this field which is sort of — it’s plenty big enough for any kind of hoplite battle that you want to have. Some scholars have wanted to make the battle in terms of a limited space but I think that really isn’t an issue. This is a sort of a typical hoplite battlefield.
The Sacred Band of Thebes, depicted on this ancient Greek vase, was a troop of picked soldiers who which the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BCE / Wikimedia Commons
So, Cleombrotus marches on Thebes, again, it’s not Agesilaus, and I mean this looks like the culmination of Agesilaus’ anti-Theban policy; he’s not there. Again, the ancient writers and modern scholars wonder why he wasn’t there. I’m prepared to take the simple-minded view; if he wasn’t there, he couldn’t have been there. He must have been out of action for physical reasons, because I can’t imagine any good reason why he wouldn’t want to be there for the payoff here. Anyway, there was something in the neighborhood of 10,000 Spartan hoplites and maybe 1,000 cavalry and the Boeotian side is less clear maybe 6,000 maybe 7,000 Boeotian hoplites. So, they are outnumbered and I think that has a lot to do with the tactics that Epaminondas employs in fighting this battle.
It’s a famous battle; it’s an important battle. So, I’ll take a few moments to talk about the battle itself. Again, this is much debated; it’s not easy to know what’s going on or why it’s going on. Let’s start with the important point that the Thebans were outnumbered. So, it really was up to Epaminondas to think of some way to overcome this disadvantage. Normal course of events 6,000 or 7,000 against 10,000 in a regular hoplite battle you can — the bookies would take the game off the board. I mean, especially if they’re Spartans and Peloponnesians. The bigger battalions are going to win. So Epaminondas comes up with certainly — nobody can deny that he came up with some kind of plan. What am I fussing about here?
Some scholars have wanted to emphasize not the tactics of Epaminondas, but rather the superior fighting qualities of this new Theban, democratic, national army. Well, I certainly think that made a difference. I give real credit to that element and yet I can’t escape thinking that there really was a very tricky, unusual, strategy of tactics or operational plan used by Epaminondas that accounts in a considerable part for the success of the Thebans in this battle. The normal way you line up is — sort of the leading forces on each side take up the right wing of their phalanx. That’s the position of honor and that’s where you try to beat the other guy. That has the consequence incidentally of meaning that the best army doesn’t fight against the best army. In each case, the best army is fighting against a weaker portion of the enemy army.
That’s not what Epaminondas wanted. He put his Theban forces with the 300 Sacred Band members at the front of it; his own group was at the left side of the Boeotian line facing the Spartans directly. Now, the Spartans had to realize when they saw what was going on — forgive me, I forgot to tell you another very important thing. Instead of the usual depth of the phalanx eight, twelve, maybe sixteen ranks, Epaminondas loaded his left wing fifty men deep. It may be precedented, but if so it’s extremely rare in the past. Then when he started for battle he took his left wing and moved it obliquely further to the left. The plan being to flank the Spartans, if they could, and come at them from their vulnerable side and to do so in tremendous strength.
I think the idea of the tremendous strength and depth was to win on that side quickly, because he was weak, obviously, on his right. I suppose that the force immediately after the Thebans would itself present a problem, because if the Thebans went sharply to the left on this occasion with their deep powerful phalanx, the guys next to them probably would move with them to some degree, but not with the same speed and not with the same determination, because the situation — so there was the danger of there being an opening right there; that would have been very scary. Apparently, Epaminondas told the people on the right — I would have thought everybody to the right of his outfit, to proceed only very slowly. If that’s the case, the Peloponnesian army on their left would have had to take some time before they could encounter the Boeotian army. So, the first fighting would be on the left, where Epaminondas wanted it and his hope was in a way this is a variety of the Marathon strategy.
You remember the big thing there was the Athenians under Miltiades hoped to win swiftly on the wings where they had greater depth. They knew they would lose in the middle, they just hoped they would lose slower, than they would win on the wings. I think this is a version of the same idea. So, Epaminondas and his block of Thebans goes to the left, and I would argue and the ancient sources say this too, swiftly as Herodotus said of the Athenians at Marathon, dromoi, on the run. Well, I guess that means on the trot, and so they wanted to get that fight going as fast as they could and to win it as fast as they could. Well, that’s the essential idea, that they would win powerfully on the left and send the Spartans into route and thereby destroy their whole campaign. Now, we have to account for funny things that happen apart from the phalanx.
Before the battle is over, both sides take their cavalry from the usual position on the wings, on the flanks of the phalanx, meant either to protect your wings or to assault the enemy on his wing and move it to the center of the battlefield where it plays a role, and so the question always is what are they doing, what’s this all about? I think one can only speculate. Surely, it would have been a wise thing for Epaminondas to move his cavalry into the center of the field in front of the center of his line, not in front of him but in front of the guys to his right, because they too would have had an effect of slowing down any Spartan attack where there was a vulnerability. So, if you take it from that point of view you could think the Spartans, who definitely moved their cavalry out front did so in order to combat the Theban cavalry.
Epaminondas, an idealized figure in the grounds of Stowe House / Wikimedia Commons
That would be an explanation enough, but some scholars make an argument, and there’s some reason to think they might be right, that the Spartans seeing what Epaminondas was doing knew that he was trying to flank them on the right side and so they wanted to take steps to prevent being flanked on that side, and so they did something which they tried to do at the Battle of Mantinea, but it didn’t happen for them, they pulled troops out from the center of their line, sent them around behind the phalanx, and put them out on the right wing to prevent exactly that kind of an event. But to prevent the Boeotians from charging that empty spot until it was filled, they sent their cavalry up front to shield them, not only to shield them but in effect to hide them. Certainly, the cavalries being out there would have kicked up a lot of dust, and they could have hoped that the Thebans wouldn’t know what was going on. So, that’s the theory.
What is a fact is that the Boeotian cavalry and the Spartan cavalry clashed, and as I think again the bookies if this had happened, would have predicted the Thebans defeated the Peloponnesians. The Thebans had a superior cavalry. It had to do, of course, with the nature of their land which is better for horses than most of Greek country and so they drove the cavalry back into the Spartan phalanx helping to create confusion and to break ranks and all that kind of stuff. But the real payoff, the real victory in the battle was one where Epaminondas hoped it would be, on his left flank, on the Spartan right flank. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Theban phalanx came swiftly to the place where the Spartan king was located, Cleombrotus, and killed him.
If you look at Greek battles throughout all of their history, killing the general in command is a really good idea, because when you do that you usually win. Have you got numbers Curtis on that or just got a general idea? Of how often that is a decisive or an important element? Very frequent, isn’t it? When you kill the general you win; Curtis knows more about military history in the Greek world than anybody. So, I have to consult him. So that being the case, the Spartans fought bravely and strongly around the body of their king, but that only led more of them to be killed and before very long the Spartan phalanx broke and ran and the Thebans, the Boeotians had won a clear cut unmistakable, blatant victory in a normal hoplite battle, on a normal field, and this was the shock felt round the Greek world that this had happened, just changed everything.
Here’s an interesting fact that tells you something else that’s important about what’s going on in the Greek world. There were only perhaps 700 Spartiates in the whole battle and of these 400 were killed. Think about that; I mean, that’s devastating in so many ways. It had all kinds of effects. We shall see it immediately shook the control of the Spartans, even over the Peloponnesus. It made people think the Spartans were vulnerable and that they might have come to the end of the line, but another interesting contrary consequence was that suddenly Sparta wasn’t scary, but Thebes was very scary, and the Athenians who had already come to be nervous about the Thebans — notice I haven’t mentioned them. They had been the allies of Thebes; they were not at the Battle of Leuctra. As a matter of fact, they were clearly working with the Spartans already to check Theban power and Theban expansion before the Battle of Leuctra. They stayed neutral; they didn’t show up at the battle at all, but it tells you a very important change in the seam in the Greek world at this time.
The End of Spartan Supremacy and Thebes’s Growth
So, I think it’s safe to say the Battle of Leuctra put an end to Spartan supremacy. The Spartan hegemony is over and now the question that awaits Greece is what happens next. I think in the normal course of events prior to the build up of this new Thebes, there would have been a division of power between the states, the Athenians would have used some muscle, the Thebans would have used some muscle, some lesser states would have emerged in the vacuum created by the destruction of Spartan power but that would have been that. However, given all that had had happened in Boeotia and the kind of leadership that existed in Thebes, something amazing then happened; the Thebans decided to put an end to Spartan power forever and took a number of measures to bring that about. Just the defeat of Leuctra meant the disintegration of the Peloponnesian League.
Arcadian states / Wikimedia Commons
A number of states obviously took advantage of Sparta’s weakness to just pull out and get out from under Spartan control. Then in the year 370, the Thebans put together a tremendous army and ultimately marched into the Peloponnesus to do what they were going to do. One of the things that happened reflecting the collapse of the Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnesus was that the towns in the region of Arcadia, the mountainous region to the north of Sparta, put themselves together in the form of the Arcadian League. I mentioned this to your earlier, I believe; it is one of the first federal leagues of a different kind from the one we’ve seen up to now. There is no hegemonal state. It is not some big state and its friends, which even the Boeotian League is still in that category.
It is, in fact, a collection of states that are ostensibly equal and this is entirely voluntary. They are coming together, these Arcadian states, in order to protect themselves and to pursue their interests against the many troubles they’ve had over the years. The question always is then — this is both evidence of what I’m saying that it was a new kind of a league and it reveals the fact that there was no state that was sufficiently superior to the others that could make it obvious that the capital so to speak of this new confederation would be that state. They built a brand new city. It was called, I love it, Megalopolis. That means it ran from Washington to Boston. No I’m sorry. It meant, of course, big polis, big city, big state, whatever you want. But it was the place where the league council met, state sent their representatives to it, their business was done there, and it’s really quite an interesting event, especially as you look ahead in the history of Greece and as I told you last time, that kind of thing had the remarkable influence on the thinking of the shapers of the American Constitution.
The Athenians’ attitude towards this — we think about all this long rivalry between Sparta and Athens that resulted in such terrible wars, it just goes to show you — what was it — Palmesrton in the nineteenth century, British statesman, I think he once said, Britain has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. I think whether that was true of Britain or not at the time, I think we should always realize that that is true of the way states operate in an international system. It is not that they don’t have inclinations and longstanding friendships do have some impact, and longstanding enmities have a greater impact and yet anything can happen. I mean, just to get some sense of that who would have believed that in the 1930s that Great Britain and France would join with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for any purpose whatever, since they, especially the British, had been interested in putting an end to that regime from the moment that it was invented, and that Winston Churchill would be the greatest advocate of this alliance with Stalin. Winston Churchill, who I tell you, had been a leading figure in having an invasion of Russia in 1920-21, in order to bring down the Bolshevik Regime.
Winston Churchill / Wikimedia Commons
Churchill’s answer, I think, to the question of why you’re doing this, tells you a lot about this general point I’m trying to make. I’m not going to get this exactly right; I don’t have Churchill’s gift and my memory is fading. He said, you know, why are you joining up with Stalin? You’ve been denouncing him forever. He said, if the devil — no I’m sorry, if Hitler invaded hell at the very least I would want to say a few kind words about the devil in the House of Commons. That ought to tell you something about the permanence of these kinds of things. Interests are what matter and the Athenian interests have changed. Thebes was becoming a challenge to the Athenian growth and influence in power, and they did not want the Thebans now to destroy Sparta’s control of the Peloponnesus and replaced it with a Theban control of the Peloponnesus and that accounts both for why Athens is not helping the Thebans, but also in fact, intriguing with states in the Peloponnesus to try to stand up to the Thebans, rather than to do what might seem obvious.
Now, the Thebans were continuing — I’ll come back to their invasion in just a moment. They were continuing to grow, they were gaining allies in central Greece, Phocis, Aetolia, Acarnania, Locris, Euboea. Here again, I’m going to be teaching you general truths about international relations that don’t seem to be part of the ordinary education and that is, power has a fantastically attractive quality. When a state is suddenly enormously powerful — I think the political scientists’ rules and I admit what I just said has been known and been said by many of them many times, but the favorite thing is if there’s a great power what happens next? What happens is all the other states get together and join up to control that power to which the answer is “sometimes.” A lot of times, and they have another term to consider the alternative, which they call bandwagoning and that is states are attracted by that power, want to get on the right side of that power, join up with that power, and that’s what happened here where suddenly the Theban power in that area seemed so strong that you wanted to be on that side.
I’m just in this terrible analogizing mood today so please forgive me, but lest you think the study of ancient history is not relevant to your understanding of the world today, and I know none of you would be so foolish as to think that, let me just look at what’s happening in the Middle East. And I’ll say it before it’s common wisdom, so that you’ll see how smart I am. Syria, which has been nothing but trouble for our side all this time, all of a sudden seems to be behaving in a different way, and even the United States government says that the Syrians seem not to be feeding more Al Qaeda people across the border into Iraq. Why is that? What have they found religion? I guess they had religion already, but the answer is because suddenly the American forces are kicking hell out of everybody in Iraq and suddenly there’s a powerful American army sitting there, which is right next door to Syria. It’s also right next door to Iran. That should have interesting consequences too; the result is that the Syrians are suddenly talking very differently.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there’ll be a permanent change; that will depend upon realities. But you get fed so much gunk in a different direction. The most important single element in international relations, not the only one by any means, but the most important one is power and the perception of where the power is, and the perception of whether that power is growing or shrinking. Nothing is as important as that, everything else contributes, but doesn’t have that central role. Well, that’s the situation that the Thebans have created with their victory and so they are expanding all over the place. Thebans were great landlubbers, they’re even building a navy, they are moving out into the Aegean Sea, and that’s one of the things that has created this nervousness in Athens and explains the Athenian behavior.
The Great Invasion
Charon placed his only son in the arms of Pelopidas / Wikimedia Commons
Now comes this great invasion over the year 370, 369. The total force of hoplites in the army put together by Epaminondas is reported to be 40,000. Now, there’s just not a number like that in the whole fifth century, or any time before this. It’s just an amazing army and we are told there were some 30,000 others on the campaign who were not hoplites, maybe many of them weren’t even fighters but a lot of them would have been cavalry, light arm infantry and so on. But in any case, here are 70,000 people meaning no good to the Spartans pouring into the Peloponnesus in that year. It is the largest military force reported in Greek history.
The men in charge are these two extraordinary men, Epaminondas and Pelopidas, who repeatedly proved themselves. By the way, it was Pelopidas who won that victory in 375 at Tegyra, you remember that with the 300. So, he has that great victory on his record and Epaminondas, of course, is the architect of the victory at Leuctra and they just are amazing and remarkable people. If you read some of those — we do not have a Plutarch biography of Epaminondas, although he does give us a Pelopidas, we’re happy about that. But before I get through I will try to remedy that as I tried to do in the case of Thrasybulus by bringing to your attention how great was the reputation of Epaminondas in the Greek world; maybe I should just say a word about him now.
He is reputed to have been a person of great intellect. Apparently, he was a philosopher and took that seriously and was regarded with respect by others of that ilk in that world. Of course, it looks very much as though he is a man of political convictions of such a kind as almost to suggest political theory. I mean, he seems to have been committed to the idea of democracy as a good thing in itself. On this latter point we just don’t have very much evidence, nothing that he said, but we do have what he did which squares perfectly with what we are talking about. It would be — I mean it breaks my heart — these lives that Plutarch did not write. What I would give for a life of Cleisthenes by Plutarch, and similarly of Epaminondas and I’m amazed. I don’t know. Who knows why Plutarch did what he did. But in any case it would be really fascinating in his case, because of the complicated nature of his mind and his life, but there he is along with Pelopidas leaving this armed force in there.
They move down into Laconia, the home territory of the Spartans. Now, the Spartans are forced to huddle in their city and to try to resist anything that comes at them. They cannot go out to fight these people invading their homeland. Their homeland has never been invaded in anybody’s memory. This is out of the question, nothing like this would have been possible, and here they are just hiding in their city. Not even a walled city, because it was part of their pride, they don’t need walls, they have an army. Nobody can come in there and attack their city and there they are. What does Epaminondas do? He does not go after them in that city, because probably — one reason would have been — fighting in the city, urban warfare is always difficult and costly, and nobody until lately, is really good at it.
Laconia / Wikimedia Commons
I mean, I don’t know much you paid attention to what’s going on in Iraq these days in the so called surge, but if you study it as a military problem, then you see how they dealt with that military problem. It is one of the really most brilliant things I have ever seen, because to be successful in the war I’m talking about now requires not only shrewd use of military forces for military purposes, but it has to be integrated with constant political negotiation and conversation with the natives, which has to be associated also with certain economic conditions being brought about so that the people who might be on the other side can be on your side and then you can have them work for you. I’ve only touched on the beginning of all the complexity of that. But in any case, until that happened there are very few cases of really successful urban warfare without a tremendous cost.
Well, of course, before they figured out what to do in Iraq they had some tremendous costs of not figuring it out. What I’m getting at is, yes I’m sure that if Epaminondas had wanted to, he would have been able to defeat the Spartans in their city, but he would have paid a great price. Now, there’s perhaps another consideration. Before I come to that, let me just tell you that what Epaminondas did. He bypassed the city, ravaged the countryside wherever he found it, doing as much harm as he possibly could, and even as this was happening and was obviously reported back to the Spartans, the Spartans did not come out to fight. Now, here’s where I think once again Victor Hansen’s splendid imagination comes into the picture in what I find to be a very persuasive explanation of what’s going on.
He makes this explanation based on an analogy he draws with the army of general Sherman during the American Civil War in Sherman’s famous march to the sea or his march through Georgia. When there is as confederate army to the north of where he goes but he doesn’t seek them out. He goes marching towards where he wants to get to, doing as much damage as he possibly can, destroying the food, the crops, animals, everything, burning down houses, being as nasty and unpleasant as he can be. Why is the question? Well, he is a nasty, unpleasant fellow; not really. We do know a lot about what Sherman thought he was doing because he wrote about it. Sherman apparently hated the southern slaveocrisy.
He wasn’t satisfied with defeating the South as many a northerner was, and then sort of letting it be what it had been before or perhaps destroying slavery itself and leaving everything else pretty much as it had been. He seems to have thought this was a terrible wicked society, and if it wasn’t to go back to its old bad ways, it not only had to be defeated; it had to be humiliated. In his view, part of the success of the south was in building up what he would have thought of as a myth of their aristocratic superiority, which made slave holding appropriate, because the people who were superior were ruling over people who were inferior, and they deserved it, because they were better fighters than anybody else. Everybody thought at the beginning of the war, certainly that the south had a better military tradition, and that they were better soldiers, and I think they were and that they were courageous. Being a great military man means being courageous. All of that justified the system and provided the pride that made it possible to work.
Well, Sherman wanted to show it wasn’t so, and here they were burning down houses and barns, and food, and women folk having to stand there and watch it, and where was the confederate army? They didn’t come down to challenge them and he felt in the process, he was destroying the myth that was more potent. Well, I think Hansen certainly has that right when he talks about Sherman, and it’s very attractive to think that maybe Epaminondas was after the same thing. Here were the Spartans cowering in their city, it would be said, while Epaminondas was doing as he liked with the Peloponnesus. There would never again be a time where people would accept the story that the Spartans were the great fighters, the great heroes etc., etc.
Ruins of Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons
In any case, that’s what he did and then — I think all of this is assisted by some of the things he did and some of the things that he actually said. He went to Mycenae and indeed he went to the place where the Mycenaeans had withdrawn for security in their rebellions up there and he established, or re-established a city called Mycenae. It was powerfully fortified, it was up on a mountain, it was a place where you could really defend it, and it became the capital of Mycenae, which would now be a free Mycenae in which the former helots, the former slaves of the Spartan state, would now rule their own country as they had not done for centuries.
It was a liberation and that was language that Epaminondas used of it. It had the marvelous psychological effect that I am speaking of and also a very practical one. Here was a fortress on the flank of the Spartans, which was controlled by people who hated the Spartans bitterly and that would guarantee that the Spartans would not lightly gain control of the western Peloponnesus again. If you add to that that the Arcadians had suffered plenty from the Spartans and were unwilling to allow the Spartans to rise again, and there was Megalopolis, a walled powerful city that would see to it that the Spartans would never likely be able to make their way into control of central and northern Peloponnesus again. So, all of this combination of power and the strategic use of power, along with this psychological warfare that was involved brought about the permanent check on Sparta.
Sparta amazingly enough would emerge from this still an independent city still somehow taken seriously by others, but never again in the position of threatening the security of other states. Now, some of what was happening began to create a counter force as it always does. Here was this blatantly democratic force that had been unleashed in the Peloponnesus, most of which had always been oligarchic. So, in Arcadia there began to be a revival of oligarchic activity, people who wanted to overthrow the regime that was being established, and to restore oligarchic governments, which would, of course, naturally be friendly to Sparta and some of these oligarchs in Arcadia began to assist the Spartans.
We know the Spartans were finished but they didn’t know it. The Greeks at the time didn’t know it so that — I’m just touching on the high points here. In 362, by now I should report that Pelopidas was dead. He had died fighting in Thessaly against an autocrat there by the name of Jason from the city of Pherae about whom we don’t know a lot, except to say he got to be very powerful indeed, and was pretty soon challenging both Thebes on the land and also challenging Athens to some degree at sea and who knows how much trouble he would have made had he not died before he could do so. But Pelopidas died fighting in a battle against Jason. I think it was 364. So in 362 when the Thebans again put together a force to invade the Peloponnesus, to put down those forces that were working against his settlement, it was only Epaminondas who was in charge.
Apparently, in the Battle of Mantinea — this is the second Battle of Mantinea, the first took place in the Peloponnesian War in 418, but this one in 362 apparently Epaminondas used some of the very same tactics that had been successful in the battle at Leuctra and the Thebans won the Battle of Mantinea. However, Epaminondas was killed in the fighting and it turned out that that was more important than anything else. With both Pelopidas and Epaminondas gone Thebes never again shows that kind of special quality that brought it swiftly to power and will swiftly bring it down. Although, as we look at the world in 362, we should realize that Thebes remains a very formidable power and the Greeks again, I want to warn you, don’t know that Thebes isn’t going to come back with two new leaders or ten new leaders, or one or whatever and become the same kind of a menace that it had been before, but looking back we can see that that was the outcome.
Statue of Epaminondas in Thebes / Wikimedia Commons
So, the Thebans won the victory, but in effect they really lost the war, because that was the end of their special quality. Since we’re all writing about this, centuries later called Epaminondas the foremost man of Greece. There is an inscription, or there was an inscription, on Epaminondas’ statue that was erected on his death at Thebes, and it is as though he was speaking. It must have been taken somehow from something he said or wrote. Here’s what he said, “By my plans was Sparta shorn of her glory and holy Mycenae at last received back her children. By the weapons of Thebes was Mycenae fortified, and all Greece became independent and free.” Now, of course, the claim that everybody was seeking independence for the Greeks, autonomia, is an old stale one that never really worked.
This is the first time that I am aware — no actually that’s not true. The Spartans entered the Peloponnesian War claiming that they were fighting to free the Greeks; but of course, they immediately began enslaving as many of them as they could when they won the war. But Epaminondas says, well, we did this, we accomplished this and at the end of the day all of Greece was free, he claimed. I’m sure it wasn’t perfectly true, but there was a lot in it and that’s what he was proud of. That’s what he thought he was doing. I think that’s the important point about that quotation. It tells us what he would have wanted as indeed it has worked out that way, to come down as his legacy. What did Epaminondas do?
Did he say he increased the power of Thebes ten told, he made Thebes name ring in the Valhalla; he never heard of Valhalla. The Valhalla of heroes throughout history, that’s not what he wanted to have said. What he wanted to have said was, I restored the Mycenaeans to their land, I restored them to safety, I gave them freedom, I left Greece free and independent. Xenophon, writing after his description of the Battle of Mantinea says the following, and these are the last words in his Hellenica, in his history of Greek affairs in his time. “Since nearly all the people of Greece have come together or had come together and formed themselves in opposing lines, there was no one who did not suppose that if a battle were fought, those who proved victorious would be the rulers and those who were defeated would be their subjects. While each side claimed to be victorious, neither was found to be any better off than before the battle took place. But there was even more confusion and disorder in Greece after the battle than before.”
So, here’s a case for the unimportance of warfare, you might say, for those people who want to make that case. Here was all this fighting, here were all the dead, and at the end of the day nothing had been settled. That is often the case in war. Although, it might be said, that something pretty serious had been settled by the campaigns that the Thebans had fought before the Battle of Mantinea and that Greece would never be the same again because of the fighting that had taken place before. But as we look forward not backward, it’s worth noticing that the years of competition for hegemony, which go back you know at least to the days after the Persian Wars, had left Greece weakened and divided, and therefore, open for exploitation and even conquests by a new threat from outside the system, which was not even dreamed of by the Greeks as a menace in 362 at the Battle of Mantinea.
There’s something to be learned in there too. I mean, if you had taken a poll of the Greeks and said, where are the dangers to us now, what problems do we have, they would have been talking about the traditional conflicts between the Greek city states. No one, I think, would have used the word Macedonia as part of anything that looked scary, and, of course, nobody would have uttered the name Philip, because Philip wasn’t even king of Macedonia yet. And yet, within a few years, Philip would be the king of Macedonia, and within a couple or three decades there would suddenly be a real menace from the north that would be very threatening.