Although Sparta had a great military reputation for several centuries, she was only politically dominant within the Greek world for just over thirty years, between her victory in the Great Peloponnesian War and the battle of Leuctra, where she suffered her first major defeat in open battle. This book focuses on the birth of that political power in the last few years of the Great Peloponnesian War, how Sparta used and abused it, and how it all fell apart within such a short period.
A key theme throughout the book is just how bad Sparta was at exercising political power. Once before, after the defeat of Xerxes's invasion of Greece, the Spartans had emerged from the Peloponnese to take power in the outside world, but their governors had been unpopular and corrupt and the Spartans withdrew within a year, leaving Athens free to rise to power. The same problem emerged after the Spartan victory in 404. Once again the governors she appointed proved to be corrupt and harsh - men who lived almost without money at home proved to be easily corrupted by it when away. She alienated her allies, both within the Greek world and outside it.
She provided a little support to Cyrus the Younger during his attempt to seize the Persian Throne, and by 400 BC was effectively at war with the same Persians who had helped her to victory in 404. Soon after this she found herself at war with Thebes, Argos, Corinth and a resurgent Athens in the Corinthian War, fighting her old allies of 404 as well as her great Greek enemy. Sparta even managed to make a mess of the King's Peace of 386, which ended the fighting and effectively made her the arbiter of Greek affairs with Persian backing. Once again she abused her power and was quickly at war with former allies.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was to overthrow the government of Thebes in 382, seize the citadel of Thebes and install a pro-Spartan regime. The Spartans were soon kicked out, and a new Theban-Athenian alliance successfully fought off Spartan attempts to recapture the city. This war ended with the great Spartan defeat at Leuctra, at the hands of the Thebans of Epaminondas, where novel tactics overwhelmed the Spartan line. This is where the detailed text ends, but we do follow Epaminondas as he systematically destroyed Spartan power in the Peloponnese, turning Sparta into a purely local power.
One gets the impression that this is a period of decline for Sparta. Although there are no great set-piece defeats before Leuctra, there are plenty of smaller-scale setbacks, and a crucial naval defeat, each coming with Spartan casualties. The key message is clearly not to try and do too much with limited resources - there were never many full Spartans, and thirty years of near constant warfare saw those numbers drop. At the same time Sparta still had some very able leaders during this period, with Agesilaus II perhaps the best, but even he was unable to stop the rot.
This period falls just after the end of Thucydides, and we do suffer from the lack of a great historian. The two main sources both have their flaws - Xenophon is terribly pro-Sparta and often misses out or underplays their failures and setbacks. Diodorus is sometimes good but sometimes gets confused and repeats events, or compacts several years of activity into a single campaign, although his reputation has improved in recent years. Despite these problems the authors have done a good job of producing a clear narrative, while also admitting where the two sources disagree. In these cases they look at both accounts and suggest which is most convincing.
This is an excellent account of a neglected period, often skipped over as broader accounts rush from Athenian defeat in 404 to Spartan defeat in 371, with Xenophon's escape from Persia filling the gap. This work is thus a valuable study of a key period in ancient Greek history.
1 - Alcibiades' Return
2 - Lysander Triumphant
3 - Liberation and Tyranny
4 - The Hobbling Prince
5 - A Year of Battles
6 - On Land and Sea
7 - A Corinthian Revolution and an Athenian General
8 - Attempts at Peace and War
9 - The King's Peace
10 - Theban Campaigns
11 - A Maritime Confederacy
12 - A Plain in Boeotia
Author: Mike Roberts and Bob Bennett
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military