Persian-Spartan War (400-387 BC)

The Persian-Spartan War (400-387 BC) saw the Spartans break with their former supporters in Persia and attempt to replace the Athenians as the defenders of the Greeks of Asia Minor. They were soon distracted by the Corinthian War in Greece, and at the end of the war sacrificed their original allies in order to maintain their position of power at home.

Towards the end of the Great Peloponnesian War the Spartans had greatly benefited from the support of Cyrus the Younger, a younger son of the Persian emperor Darius II. In 404 BC Darius died, and was succeeded by his older son, who ruled as Artaxerxes II. Cyrus was accused of treachery at the very start of his brother's reign, but was pardoned and returned to his posts in Asia Minor. He then found himself in dispute with the satrap Tissaphernes, who had the Emperor's support. The Greek cities of Asia Minor preferred Cyrus, and supported him in his struggle against Tissaphernes. However Cyrus had his eyes on the throne, and began to raise an army with which he intended to overthrow his brother. This army included a significant Greek contingent, although the Greeks might not have known what Cyrus had planned when they signed up. Cyrus penetrated into the heart of the Persian Empire, but was defeated and killed at Cunaxa (400 BC). His Greek troops were victorious on their part of the battlefield, and later reached safety after the famous 'March of the 10,000'.

In the aftermath of this revolt Tissaphernes was given Cyrus's old posts and the task of punishing Artaxerxes's enemies. He besieged but failed to capture Cyme, and in response the Greeks of Asia Minor called for Spartan help. The Spartans had provided some support for Cyrus, and so probably felt that they were already compromised. They may also have been concerned by the damage done to their reputation by their alliance with the Persians, and so they agreed to intervene.

In the winter of 400-399 the Spartans sent an army to Asia Minor under the command of Thibron. He was given 1,000 emancipated helots, 4,000 Peloponnesian allied troops and 300 Athenian cavalry (although Sparta's Corinthian and Theban allies refused to take part). Thibron was joined by 2,000 local troops, and then managed to recruit the survivors of the '10,000', looking for a role after the end of their journey.

Encouraged by his new recruits, Thibron moved to Pergamum, and won over a number of nearby cities. Thibron then besieged Egyptian Larissa (399 BC), but was ordered to abandon the siege and move into Caria. He moved slowly to Ephesus, where he was removed from command for being too slow and replaced by Dercylides (398 BC).  

The new commander had previously served as a harmost under Lysander, and had some experience of Persian politics. He managed to arrange a truce with Tissaphernes, and instead moved the war in the territories ruled by Pharnabazus, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia.

Dercylides moved north into Aeolis, the northernmost Greek area in Asia Minor. At the time this area was ruled by Meidias, the son-in-law and murderer of the previous ruler Mania. The Spartans took advantage of the chaos in the area to establish their control. At the end of the year Dercylides established a truce with Pharnabazus, and moved to Bithynian Thrace on the eastern side of the Bosporus for the winter.

At the start of the campaigning season of 397 the Spartans moved west to the Hellespont. A group of Spartan commissioners arrived and ordered him to cross the Hellespont and build a wall to defend the Chersonese, so he arranged another truce with Pharnabazus. After completing the walls the Spartans returned to Aeolis and besieged Atarneus, where a group of exiles from Chios held out for eight months.

Soon after the siege ended Dercylides was ordered to move south to protect the Greek cities ruled by Tissaphernes. He advanced into Caria, a move that nearly triggered a major battle. Tissaphernes summoned Pharnabazus to help, and between them they had around 30,000 men. The Spartans followed the Persians inland, and the two armies came face to face near a large burial mound. The two sides lined up ready for battle, but neither side was entirely confident. The Spartans were steady, but their allies were wavering. On the Persian side Pharnabazus wanted to fight, but Tissaphernes had seen the 10,000 fight and was worried about the possible outcome of a battle.

The two sides eventually agreed to peace talks, although neither side really made any concessions. The Persians demanded that the Greek army disband and the Spartans take the first boat home. The Spartans demanded that the Greek cities should be given independence. A longer truce was then agreed, and the proposals sent back to their respective home governments.

At the same time Pharnabazus made a personal visit to Artaxerxes II at Susa, to press the case for continuing the war. He was able to convince the Emperor to fund the construction of a new fleet. The fleet would be commanded by the Athenian admiral Conon, who had been in exile at Salamis on Cyprus since the end of the Great Peloponnesian War.

The peace talks failed to take into account Artaxerxes's hostility to the Spartans, which would prolong the war more than once. On this occasion Pharnabazus was also in favour of continuing the war, and convinced Artaxerxes to let him build a fleet in Cyprus and Phoenicia. The new fleet would be commanded by the Athenian admiral Conon, who had escaped from the disaster at Aegospotami and taken refuge at the court of King Evagoras of Salamis on Cyprus.

News of this new fleet reached Sparta in the late summer or early autumn of 397. Lysander is said to have convinced King Agesilaus to offer to take command in Asia if he was given 30 full Spartiates, two thousand neodamodeis (enfranchised helots fighting for Sparta) and six thousand allies. His offer was accepted, but raising the allied troops demonstrated some of the tensions that would soon lead to the Corinthian War in Greece. Thebes and Corinth had refused to provide troops for the earlier Spartan expeditions, and they didn't change their attitude now. In addition the Athenians, who had taken part in earlier expeditions, now refused to supply troops. Agesilaus then went to Aulis to Boeotia, where Agamemnon was said to have sacrificed before the invasion of Troy, but the Thebans intervened and prevented the king from conducting his own ceremonies.

According to Xenophon Agesilaus arranged a truce with the satrap Tissaphernes, who promised to try and negotiate a peace that would give the Greek cities autonomy. Instead Tissaphernes asked for reinforcements, and then sent his own ultimatum to Agesilaus, demanding that the Spartans leave Asia. Agesilaus responded by ordering the Greeks of Asia to send reinforcements to Ephesus, and preparing markets on the road to Caria, part of Tissaphernes's satrapy. Tissaphernes responded by moving his infantry into the Carian hills and his cavalry further forward to hit the Spartans in the Maeander valley. Agesilaus then changed direction and moved north to raid Phrygia, in the neighbouring satrapy of Pharnabazus. Xenophon doesn't tell us what Tissaphernes did while this raid was going on. We do know that Conon and the fleet helped Rhodes revolt against Spartan rule, and captured a grain convoy coming from Egypt.  The Spartan fleet adopted Cnidus in the south-west of Caria as its main base, while Conon moved to Caunus in Caria and Rhodes, a little further to the east.

In the spring of 395 Agesilaus concentrated his army at Ephesus, and trained its various units. He then tricked Tissaphernes once again. This time he ordered markets to be prepared on the road north from Ephesus to Sardis. Tissaphernes assumed that this was a trick, and placed his army in Caria. Agesilaus then moved north, just as he had announced, and pillaged the plains of Sardis. Tissaphernes rushed north, and a battle took place (battle of Sardis, 395 BC). We have two rather different accounts of this battle, but in both cases the Spartans were victorious. Artaxerxes sent his vizier Tithraustes to execute Tissaphernes and take over his provinces. Tithraustes also came with an offer of autonomy for the Greeks of Asia in return for the payment of a tribute. Agesilaus agreed to a six month truce with Tithraustes while the Spartan government considered the offer, and promised to only fight in Pharnabazus's provinces.

Agesilaus then moved west to the coast, where he learnt he'd been given command of a sizable fleet. He chose his brother-in-law Peisander as commander of the fleet, and then continued north. He campaigned in Mysia, on the southern shores of the Propontis, and with the help of Spithridates (a Persian nobleman who had defected from Pharabazus) was able to convince the local tribes to join him. They then advanced further east to Gordium in Phrygia and the borders of Paphlagonia, where the local ruler was also won over. Agesilaus then went into winter quarters at Dascylium, from where his men raided Pharabazus's province. Over the winter of 395/4 his position was somewhat weakened, ironically as a result of a military success. Spithridates discovered the location of Pharabazus's camp, his court in exile. Agesilaus sent Herippidas, with a combined Greek and Asian force to attack the camp, and captured its rich contents. In these circumstances the Spartans normally sold all of the loot to merchants. Herippidas tried to extend this to their Asian allies, instantly alienating them. Spithridates and the Paphlagonains changed sides once again, and joined Ariaeus, the new ruler at Sardis. 

In the spring of 394 Agesilaus gathered a large army on the plain of Thebe, to the south-east of Mount Ida in the Troad (on the Asian side of the Hellespont). He announced a plan to advance east, and try and conquer as many areas as possible, but this seems an unlikely plan given his failure to take any cities in the previous winter. This plan was probably part of yet another attempt to bluff the Persians.

Events back in Greece meant that Agesilaus was never able to implement his plan, whatever it was. A border conflict in central Greece had developed into a major conflict (Corinthian War, 395-386 BC), and in the first major battle of the war Lysander had been killed (Battle of Haliartus). King Pausanias of Sparta was put on trial and forced into exile in the aftermath of this campaign, and the Spartans decided to recall Agesilaus.

Agesilaus left his brother-in-law Peisander in charge and Asia Minor and returned home at the head of around 15,000 men, including many of the men that had accompanied him to Asia Minor, some of the survivors of the 10,000, and a contingent from the Greeks of Asia. Peisander was said to have little or no experience of naval warfare, and within a few months of taking command he suffered a crushing defeat at Cnidus (394 BC). The Persians deployed with their Greek ships in the front line and the Phoenicians in the second. Things got worse for the badly outnumbered Spartans when their allies deserted them, but Peisander fought on. He was eventually killed fighting on his beached ship.

With their fleet gone, the Spartan position in Asia Minor collapsed. Conon and Pharnabazus captured or won over Cos, Erythrae, Chios, Mytilene and the major Spartan base at Ephesus. The only cities known to have held out for the Spartans were Sestos and Abydos, where a force led by the harmost Dercylidas, supported by a number of the harmosts expelled from other cites held out.

In 392 the Spartans sent the diplomat Antalcidas to Sardis to try and negotiate with the satrap Tiribazus. Their argument was that Conon and his fleet represented a greater threat to the Persians than the Spartans did. They proposed that they would abandon their support for the Greek of Asia. In return the Persians would recognise the autonomy of the Greek cities and islands. Tiribazus was won over, but the other Greek powers were opposed to the plan, as it would have stripped them of many of their possessions. Tiribazus was won over, and arrested Conon, but Artaxerxes was still hostile to the Spartans and ordered the war to go on.

In 391 the Spartans sent a new army under the command of Thibron, the failed commander at the start of the war. He performed even worse this time. After taking Ephesus he advanced into the Maeander valley, but was killed in an ambush organised by the Persian satrap Struthas.

Later in 391 the Spartans sent a fleet, commanded by the navarch Ecdicus, to support the exiled oligarchic faction on Rhodes. He was only given eight ships, and when he reached Asia Minor realised that he wasn't strong enough to intervene. Instead he moved to Cnidus, where he stayed quiet over the winter.

In 390 Teleutias, half brother of Agesilaus, was sent from the Corinthian Gulf to take command at Cnidus. By the time he arrived he had a much larger fleet, and he captured a squadron of ten Athenian ships going to help Evagoras of Salamis in his revolt against the Persians.

In 387 the Spartans sent a fresh embassy to Sardis in an attempt to end the war. The increasing conflict between Athens and Persia made their job much easier, and this time Antalcides was able to arrange a peace deal. Artaxerxes put his backing behind a deal in which the Spartans agreed to abandon the Greeks of Asia Minor, but at the same time to guarantee the autonomy of the Greek cities and islands. On his return from the Persian court Antalcides managed to break Athenian control of the Hellespont, greatly reducing their willingness to keep fighting. As a result the end of the Persian-Spartan War also resulted in the end of the Corinthian War (395-386 BC), and the King's Peace or Peace of Antalcidas briefly established the Persians and Spartans as the arbiters of Greece.  


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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 November 2015), Persian-Spartan War (400-387 BC) ,

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