NONAGGRESSION PACT, DEFENSE OF
DEMOCRACY, AND DEFIANCE OF PERSIA
Despite the undoubted effectiveness of
Sparta's professional army, its foreign policy relied on
diplomacy as much as force of arms to solve its differences with
In fact, the Spartans demonstrated an
acute appreciation of the limits of their power and of their
vulnerability, which in turn gave rise to a cautious foreign policy
that relied heavily on effective diplomacy.
Sparta produced the first known permanent
alliance system in history, comparable to NATO: the Peloponnesian
Sparta had a reputation in the ancient
world for supporting democracy against tyrants.
The hardships and bitterness of
the Peloponnesian War brutalized Spartan society, crushed its
creativity, and turned it into a mere caricature of what it had been in
the age of Chilon and Leonidas.
like most other cities in ancient Greece, initially followed an
aggressive policy towards her neighbors. In two lengthy and
bitter wars in the late 8th and early 7th century, Sparta
subjugated its western neighbor, Messenia. Exhausted from
this struggle, Sparta thereafter sought more subtle means of hegemony.
When, during the mid-6th century, Sparta came
into conflict with its
northern neighbor Tegea and suffered a humiliating defeat, Sparta made
the – at the time astonishing – decision to seek
not a temporary but a permanent peace. This remarkable
initiative is attributed by ancient sources to a certain Spartan
citizen, Chilon, whose reputation for wisdom was so great that he was
regularly counted among the "7 wise men" of the ancient world.
Chilon is credited with the famous sayings carved in stone at
Delphi: "Know thyself" and "Everything in moderation" (sometimes
translated as "Nothing in excess"). Both sayings suggest that
recognition of Sparta's limited resources induced a change in foreign
policy at this time.
The complete victory over Messenia had created a constant internal
threat in the form of a subject population not reconciled with its
status and so possibly planning a revolt. The treaty of
nonaggression and mutual support negotiated with Tegea not only
prevented an expansion of the problem posed by the threat of Messenian
revolt, but bound the Tegeans to provide support to Sparta in the event
that the Messenians did rebel. After this precedent had been
set with Tegea, Sparta went on to make similar treaties of mutual
defensce with a series of other cities on the Peloponnese. (My
novel The Olympic
Charioteer describes the conflict with
Tegea and the founding of the Peloponnesian League.)
By the second
half of the 6th century, Sparta's sphere of influence
stretched from Sicily and Africa to Persia, and it was in this period
that Sparta won a reputation as the bulwark of democracy against
tyranny. Plutarch claims, for example, that Sparta was
instrumental in deposing the Cypselids in Corinth, Lygdamis of Naxos,
Aeschines of Sicyon, Symmachus of Thasos, Aules of Phocis, Aristogenes
of Miletus, and Aristomedes of Thessaly. Certainly,
the Spartans were instrumental in driving Hippias out of Athens.
Modern historians have questioned this list, but admit that
there had to be some basis for Sparta's reputation
as the nemesis of tyrants. They also suggest that the
motivation for these interventions was the tendency of tyrants to ally
themselves with Persia – something which effectively turned
Spartan foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other cities
into preventive self-defense. Another explanation, of course,
is that the tyrants tended to be populist leaders who catered to the
mob. As such, they were viewed as more dangerous to the
conservative Spartans than democracies dominated by aristocratic elites.
A combination of military and diplomatic successes made Sparta the most
powerful city-state in Greece in the second half of the 6th century.
This position of preeminence induced many foreign powers to
seek Spartan support for their own objectives. King Croesus
requested Spartan aid in the mid-6th century, and during the reign of
Cleomenes I (520-490), Sparta received requests for aid from Samos,
Scythia, Athens, and Miletus – all of which were,
surprisingly, turned down. Despite its active foreign policy on the
Peloponnese and to a limited extent north of the Isthmus of Corinth,
Sparta recognized the limits of its own power and avoided military
entanglements too far from home. Thus, when a number of Greek
vassal cities in the Persian Empire rose up in revolt in the first
decade of the 5th century, Sparta again refused to send aid.
Failure to support the Ionian revolt can be seen as callous
or even unpatriotic. However, it reflected the fact that at this time Sparta
effectively had no fleet, and so no way of supporting a war on the
other side of the Aegean.
While Sparta failed to support the Ionian uprising against Persia,
Sparta nevertheless demonstrated consistent and passionate opposition
to Persian designs on mainland Greece during this period. Sparta made
itself ridiculous – in the eyes of the powerful Persian
monarchs – by warning them against enslaving Greeks.
The Persian Great King, as the master of an empire stretching
from modern India to modern Turkey, had never heard of Sparta.
He asked who these people were who dared "warn" him.
He was even more astonished to learn that they came from a
city-state that controlled only a portion of the mountainous peninsula
of the Peloponnese. When the Persians later sent ambassadors
demanding submission to Persia, the Spartan Assembly responded by
throwing the ambassadors in a well – an unprecedented breach
of diplomatic immunity. When the invasion of mainland Greece
finally came, Sparta was elected by the informal alliance of
anti-Persian cities to take command. Sparta sent one of her own kings,
Leonidas, with an advance guard of three hundred citizens and larger
contingents from other members of the anti-Persian alliance, to try to
halt the invasion at the pass of Thermopylae. When a traitor
betrayed their position, King Leonidas released the other allies to
return to their homes; but he and his Spartans, supported voluntarily
by 700 Thespians, remained in position and died to a man in a gesture
of commitment. (Read more about Leonidas.)
Less than a year later, Sparta fielded an army composed of
what must have been every able-bodied man in the city-state and sent it
north of the Isthmus – a significant fact because it
demonstrated Sparta's commitment to defend all of Greece and
not just the Peloponnese. This army met the significantly
superior Persian land forces still threatening Greek independence
despite the defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis the previous fall.
Together, the Spartans and Athenians, under Spartan leadership,
managed to defeat the much larger Persian forces and end the direct
threat of Persian invasion.
In addition to this defeat of the Persian Empire, the beginning of the
5th century saw two other key developments. First, although
Sparta initially dominated the Peloponnesian League, sometime in the
reign of Cleomenes I (520-490) the other League members, led by
Corinth, forced a revision of its structure that gave each member of
the League, Sparta included, an equal voice. Thereafter,
Sparta required the consent of the majority of League members to take
the League to war. In short, by the 5th century, the
Peloponnesian League was no longer a Spartan empire disguised as a
league, but a genuine alliance system.
The second key development was the rise of Athens. Only by
cooperating had Sparta and Athens succeeded in banishing the threat of
a Persian invasion during the period 490 to 479; however, Athens
benefited more than Sparta from the victory over Persia, because it
opened up the Aegean to Athenian trade. Athens first set up a
defensive system of alliances with the cities in the Aegean with an
anti-Persian agenda, called the Delian League. However,
Athens' ambitions grew with her successes, and soon Athenian policy
became aggressively expansionist. While the Peloponnesian
League had started as one dominated by a main power and evolved into
something more democratic, the Delian League turned from a genuine
alliance into an instrument of oppression. The members were
required to pay tribute to Athens or suffer draconian disciplinary
action; revolts against Athenian domination started to occur.
A conflict between the old (Sparta) and new (Athens) dominant powers
was inevitable. Nevertheless, the conservatism of Sparta's
5th-century foreign policy is reflected in the fact that Sparta was
extremely reluctant to move against Athens – despite rising
pressure for support from the city-states chafing under Athens'
increasingly oppressive policies. Effectively, its allies in
the Peloponnesian League pushed Sparta into the drawn-out and crippling
war we know as the Peloponnesian War.
Sparta went to war reluctantly, and with the clear statement that
Athens could prevent hostilities if Athens would "let the Greeks go
free". But soon the war had taken on a life of its own.
The dead of early battles and the humiliation of early
defeats fed hatred and fanaticism. The long, drawn-out war
brutalized both societies. Athens slaughtered the entire male
population of the neutral city of Melos in 417, taking the women and
children back to Athens as chattel slaves – a fact that did
not prevent them from hypocritically calling Spartan treatment of
Messenians harsh. Two years later, Athens embarked on a
completely unprovoked invasion of Syracuse, while routinely executing
her own generals and politicians for imagined failures.
Sparta's population went into dramatic decline, its exports
choked under an Athenian blockade, and xenophobia seized the body
politic. By the time Sparta finally won the Peloponnesian
War, it bore little resemblance to the Sparta of Chilon or Leonidas.
The hardships and bitterness of the war had brutalized
Spartan society, crushed its creativity, and turned it into a mere
caricature of its former glory. Overextended, its few
remaining citizens soon found that the temptation to abuse power was
too great even for Sparta's vaunted discipline.
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Text varies on this site between British and American English
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