What Caused The Downfall of Sparta?
Length: 1871 words (5.3 double-spaced pages)
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Hypothesis: Sparta collapsed because they did not allow the helots to fight in battle
The Beginning of Sparta In about 100 BCE, the Dorians invaded Greece from the North. During the Dark Ages, the Dorians made their way south, capturing the inhabitants of the lands they passed through as helots. At the beginning of the Dark Ages, it is thought that there were many Dorian settlements in Laconia, each with their own helot population. At some time during the Dark Ages, Sparta overtook these fellow Dorian settlements and their helot populations, as well as control of the whole of Laconia. The Spartans kept the helots as a huge, strong slave race and, although they did not enslave their fellow Dorians, the other Dorians were made perioci, meaning "those who live round about". The perioci were needed to be the craftsmen, tradesmen and manufacturers for the Spartans, who were trained as full time soldiers.
At the end of the Dark Ages, there was nothing exceptional about Sparta (except her control of the helot population) but from about the middle of the 6th Century BCE, Sparta gradually turned away from the rest of Greece. They no longer welcomed visitors, cut their trade ties, stopped building ships and when the rest of Greece began using coins instead of iron spits, Sparta continued to use the spits. Sparta still had poetry and music, but instead of listening to new poems and songs, they learned only the compositions of the past, and new poets and musicians were not welcomed. Sparta still produced pottery and metal work for every-day use, but it was of poorer quality than the work of other cities. Spartans no longer participated in athletic festivals in other parts of Greece and the whole city became secretive and withdrawn, refusing to communicate with the rest of Greece.
Education The Spartans were raised and educated to be perfectly obedient and obey the state without question. Spartan education had no interest with literature, intellectual or academic activities and did Spartans were not taught subjects like mathematics, science or geography. Even as babies, Spartiates were treated harshly - they were made to eat whatever food they were given, left alone, left alone in the dark, and it is probable that no attention was paid to babies when they cried.
A Spartan Boy's education as a soldier began when the boy was about 7 or 8 years old.
At this time, the boys were removed from their home and taken to live at the barracks like soldiers, having companies and platoons for each barrack. The boys were 'looked after' by the Paidonomos, who had complete rule over the boys and could punish for misbehaviour. The Paidonomos were helped by the Eirens - boys over 18 who had the right to give orders and punish the boys. It is believed that the Eirens were very cruel, as they carried whips to punish the boys. This first stage of education was designed to make the boys physically strong through athletics, physical training and wrestling, as well as to teach obedience and communal living. They boys learned how to look after themselves, get on together, take orders and share responsibilities.
When the boys turned 12, they began their advanced training. This was similar to the first stage, but even harsher - the boys were only allowed to wear a single garment all year round and were forced to sleep on beds made from reeds, which they had to cut from the banks of the river. During this stage, the boys were fed so little that they had to resort to stealing food from nearby estates just to get by. If the boys were caught stealing, however, they would be publicly whipped and given even less food. This was meant to teach the boys how to live off the land.
The most important part of the education in Sparta was the part of obedience. Everyone was taught to be completely obedient to the state, and taught that the individual was the least important. During their education, boys would only play team sports, and compete in music and poetry competitions only in groups. It was very important to the Spartans that no one questioned the thoughts, ideas or laws of Sparta and that everyone was completely obedient. However, once this rigid obedience was broken, it would have been hard to continue 'the Spartan way of life'.
The Helots The Helots were a very resentful slave population. They were constantly threatening to rebel, but never did, probably due to the fact that the Spartans kept them under such close watch. Just to show their supremacy, each year, the Spartans would declare war on the helots, allowing any Spartan to kill any helots. As well as declaring war on the helots, the Spartans would select some helots to be beaten publicly, and it is said that any helot who seemed particularly strong was killed, just to ensure that he did not lead a rebellion.
The helots were farmers and not soldiers and would not have stood up well in battle. If they had been allowed to fight alongside the Spartans, they would have been more burden than help.
The Downfall of Sparta The end of Sparta began when Sparta overran Athens, destroying the city walls and leaving the city with only 10 ships. But Sparta only just survived the war. The numbers of full Spartiates were very low, and no thought was put into increasing the Spartiate population. This is probably due to them basking in their newfound wealth in other states their army had overrun.
The Spartan empire began to grow, and the Spartans were forced with a completely new way of life - completely different to the simple life they were used to living. They had been brought up knowing only one way of life and had been taught vigorously not to challenge the ideas of the state, but now the state was changing. Sparta sent out commanders to conquered states, and, outside of Sparta, these commanders were surrounded with wealth and luxuries, the likes of which they had never known in Sparta. The temptation was too much for these commanders like Lysander, and began to dress in fine clothes, dine on expensive food and wear delicate and expensive jewelry. Away from the protection of Sparta, power went to some of these commanders' heads. For example, Lysander became rich and arrogant, so much so that people refused to serve under him. Although Lysander was recalled to Sparta, it was found that he had been smuggling riches into the city of Sparta itself, and it is thought that this happened in many other cases. With this corruption to the Spartan way of life going on all around, Sparta was on the way to its end.
The final blow for Sparta came with the battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, when the Theban army, lead by Epaminondas, marched into the city of Sparta itself. During this war, The number of Spartiates was drastically reduced, probably to less then 1000 full citizens, and now the discipline that Sparta was famous for was no longer due to the corruption, it was almost impossible to raise another professional soldier race.
With the Theban army facing them across the Eurotas, the Spartans armed 6,000 Helots and promised them their freedom if they fought well1. The Spartans allowing the helots to fight in the Battle of Leuctra was a desperate measure that had never been tried before, because Sparta had never been so desperate. However, the helots were a strong force, as it is said by Xenaphon "they feared the number of the helots when they saw them ranged alongside them and thought that they were too many".
Conclusion I think that the helots did nothing for the Spartans while in battle, as proved during the Battle of Leuctra in 371BCE. The only way Sparta could have benefited from the inclusion of helots in their forces would have been if the helots were trained as soldiers like the Spartans, but this would have meant that there was no-one to farm for the soldiers.
Even if the helots were able to win the Battle of Leuctra for the Spartans, there was still much corruption in Sparta, which had ruined the simple Spartan way of life. This was also a major part of the downfall of Sparta, not just the fact that they were beaten at war.
Analysis Deciding on a hypothesis and question was quite difficult, though after reading general books on Sparta, I became interested in the downfall of Sparta and why it happened. Sparta was a strong city, with a huge slave population, and a population of fill-time, professional soldiers. How could other Greeks whose armies consisted of normal people with only limited military training beat them? At this time, I did not know about the use of the helots in the Battle of Leuctra. It turned out that helots had in fact been used in The Battle of Leuctra, a battle which the Spartans lost.
I eventually came to my final question: What caused the downfall of Sparta? and my hypothesis: Sparta collapsed because they did not allow the helots to fight in battle.
I found that my hypothesis was incorrect, because in 371BCE, at the time of the fateful Battle of Leuctra, the 'Spartan way of life' had been totally ruined and corrupted by wealth brought into Sparta from all over Greece by people like Lysander. Even if the Battle of Leuctra had been lost, but the 'Spartan way of life' was still intact and the Spartiates were still obedient to the state and all its laws, I think that Sparta would have picked itself up again and continued as it had done. But with all the corruption, Sparta could no longer survive.
Finding information on Sparta was relatively easy, but many of these general books on Sparta did not cover the downfall of Sparta, and the Battle of Leuctra is not even mentioned in many, so finding books relevant to my specific topic was more difficult than I thought it would be.
Review of Sources
It was very difficult to find the relevant parts of each ancient source, because these books were written to be read as stories or poems, rather than books of non-fiction used for research. I consulted Life of Lycurgus by Plutarch, The Histories by Herodotus and Constitution of the Spartans' by Xenaphon.
It is very hard for modern historians to use ancient sources, though, because the stories can often be biased and could even be used as propaganda, especially when Sparta is involved, because they were well known for influencing literature that their enemies could read.
Barrow, R., Sparta, Greek and Roman Topics, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, England, 1975
Boardman, J., Griffin, J., Murray, O., Greek and the Hellenistic World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1992
Forrest, W.G., A History of Sparta 950-192 BC, Hutchinson & Co. (publishers) Ltd., London, England, 1968
Hennessy, D., Studies In Ancient Greece, Thomas Nelson Australia, South Melbourne, Australia, 1991
Star, C. G., The Ancient Greeks, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1971
Forrest, W.G., A History of Sparta 950-192 BC, London, England, 1968, p.138