For most of the Classical period Sparta was one of the major powers in Greece, on occasion rising to dominance, but that ended in the aftermath of the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 BC. Over the next decade the victorious Corinthians and their allies dismantled the basis of Spartan power in the Peloponnese, and after that Sparta became at best a regional power. Her attempts to regain power followed generally traditional routes until the accession of King Agis IV in 244 BC. He was the first of three revolutionary Spartan leaders who attempted a series of dramatic reforms, all officially aimed at restoring the Spartan constitution to its original form, as established by the semi legendary law maker Lycourgos. Agis IV, Cleomenes III and Nabis all attempted to strengthen the Spartan army, increase the number of citizens and restore some of the ancient institutions, while at the same time overthrowing many aspects of the classical Spartan constitution.
The author gives us a good description of the state Sparta found herself in at the start of Agis's reign and the problems that she faced. This is a complex issue, as the sources for the Spartan constitution are generally later than the events they discuss, so we can't be entirely sure how accurate our picture of Classical Sparta actually was. The gap between Leuctra and the reign of Agis IV also means that none of the Spartans of this period had any first hand experience of living in Sparta at her peak - at best the old men of 244 would have heard their grandfather's stories, but otherwise the direct line had already been lost.
The key elements of the Spartan lifestyle were seen to have been the Agoge (the youth training system), the syssitia (the public messes where all citizens were meant to eat), a visually simple lifestyle and little or no use of money. The city was ruled by two kings, operating alongside five elected ephors and the Gerousia, a council of 28 (including the two kings). Generally these reforms attempted to restore the Spartan lifestyle (although many of their reforms actually went against Spartan tradition), but at the expense of the traditional Spartan constitution - this was an especially dangerous time to be an ephor. A key element of all three sets of reforms were dept cancellation and land redistribution, both intended to deal with the long term decline in the number of full Spartan citizens. Inevitably these reforms triggered opposition within Sparta, and amongst their neighbours (in particular land reform), but this was misjudged - most of the Spartan reformers had no interest in spreading their revolution, which was after all designed to allow Spartan to dominate her neighbours, not to help them.
One fundamental problem faced by these Spartan reformers was that their basic aim was to restore the military power of Sparta, and use that power to regain control of at least some of the areas lost after Leuctra. That might have been a viable aim in earlier centuries, but by the third century the Hellenistic world was dominated by a series of superpowers. As a result Sparta's efforts ended up triggering wars with Macedon and then with Rome, inevitably ended in defeat. This wasn't just a Spartan failing - as the Romans would soon find out when the Greeks said they wanted their freedom, one key part of that was the freedom to make war on their neighbours.
This is a fascinating look at an often neglected period, tracing the political and military chaos caused by Sparta's last attempts to regain her lost glories. Sparta's last battlefield triumphs and defeats are seen alongside the political events within the city itself, which were often equally as violent, and we follow the story to the end of Spartan independence and her transformation into something close to a Spartan theme park within the Roman Empire.
1 – Dawn
2 – Zenith
3 – Eclipse
4 – twilight
5 – Pax Achiaca
6 – Pax Romana
Author: Miltiadis Michalopoulos
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military