Sunday, November 26, 2006

The expansion of Sparta


We cannot trace in detail the process by which Sparta subjugated the whole of Laconia, but apparently the first step, taken in the reign of Archelaus and Charillus, was to secure the upper Eurotas valley, conquering the border territory of Aegys. Archelaus' son Teleclus is said to have taken Amyclae, Pharis and Geronthrae, thus mastering the central Laconian plain and the eastern plateau which lies between the Eurotas and Mount Parnon: his son, Alcamenes, by the subjugation of Helos, brought the lower Eurotas plain under Spartan rule.

About this time, probably, the Argives, whose territory included the whole east coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Cythera (Herodotus 1.82), were driven back, and the whole of Laconia was thus incorporated in the Spartan state. It was not long before a further extension took place. Under Alcamenes and Theopompus a war broke out between the Spartans and the Messenians, their neighbors on the west, which, after a struggle lasting for twenty years, ended in the subjection of the Messenians, who were forced to pay half the produce of the soil as tribute to their Spartan overlords.


Territory of SpartaAn attempt to throw off the yoke resulted in a second war, conducted by the Messenian hero Aristomenes; but Spartan tenacity broke down the resistance of the insurgents, and Messenia was made Spartan territory, just as Laconia had been, its inhabitants being reduced to the status of helots, save those who, as perioeci, inhabited the towns on the sea-coast and a few settlements inland.

This extension of Sparta's territory was viewed with apprehension by her neighbors in the Peloponnese. Arcadia and Argos had vigorously aided the Messenians in their two struggles, and help was also sent by the Sicyonians, Pisatans and Triphyhans: only the Corinthians appear to have supported the Spartans, doubtless on account of their jealousy of their powerful neighbors, the Argives. At the close of the second Messenian War (no later than 631 BCE), no power could hope to cope with that of Sparta save Arcadia and Argos.

Prehistoric period

Tradition relates that Sparta was founded by Lacedaemon, son of Zeus and Taygete, who called the city after his wife, the daughter of Eurotas. But Amyclae and Therapne (Therapnae) seem to have been in early times of greater importance than Sparta, the former a Minoan foundation a few miles to the south of Sparta, the latter probably the Achaean capital of Laconia and the seat of Menelaus, Agamemnon's younger brother. Eighty years after the Trojan War, according to the traditional chronology, the Dorian migration took place. A band of Dorians united with a body of Aetolians to cross the Corinthian Gulf and invade the Peloponnese from the northwest.

The Aetolians settled in Elis, and the Dorians pushed up to the headwaters of the Alpheus, where they divided into two forces, one of which under Cresphontes invaded and later subdued Messenia, while the other, led by Aristodemus or, according to another version, by his twin sons Eurysthenes and Procles, made its way down the Eurotas valley and gained Sparta, which became the Dorian capital of Laconia.

In reality this Dorian immigration probably consisted of a series of inroads and settlements rather than a single great expedition, as depicted by legend, and was likely aided by the Pelasgian elements in the population, owing to their dislike of the Achaean yoke.

The newly founded state did not at once become powerful: it was weakened by internal dissension and lacked the stability of a united and well-organized community. The turning-point is marked by the legislation of Lycurgus, who unified the state and instituted the training which was its distinguishing feature and the source of its greatness.

Nowhere else in the Greek world was the pleasure of the individual so thoroughly subordinated to the interest of the state. The whole education of the Spartan was designed to make him an efficient soldier. Obedience, endurance, military success—these were the aims constantly kept in view, and beside these all other ends took a secondary place.

It is rare in the world's history that a state has so clearly set a definite ideal before itself or striven so consistently to reach it. But it was solely in this consistency and steadfastness that the greatness of Sparta lay. Some maintain that her ideal was a narrow and unworthy one, and was pursued with a calculating selfishness and a total disregard for the rights of others, which robbed it of the moral worth it might otherwise have possessed. Nevertheless, it is not probable that without the training introduced by Lycurgus the Spartans would have been successful in securing their supremacy in Laconia, much less in the Peloponnese, for they formed a small immigrant band face to face with a large and powerful Achaean and autochthonous population.

According to the Apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, the Spartans are the descendants of Abraham.