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Actual Reason Why Spartan Empire Went Extinct

In this story, we explore the actual reason why the Spartan empire went extinct. The Spartans were one of the most feared warrior cultures in history, but their empire ultimately fell. In this article, we take a look at what factors led to their decline and eventual downfall.

By Jayveer ValaPublished about a year ago 20 min read

For hundreds of years, the Spartans were the most feared warriors in all of Greece. Spartan children were trained to be deadly at the age of seven, the Kings went into battle alongside their warriors, and no one could stop their conquest of Greece once it began. But nothing lasts forever, not even Sparta. What happened to this great civilization? It turns out that their greatest strength ended up being their downfall. Legend has it that the founder of Sparta was a son of Zeus named Lacedaemon.

However, if we go by historical and archaeological evidence, Sparta was founded around 1000 BCE by an unknown ruler who led a group of tribes belonging to the Dorian ethnicity to the region. However, there may also be a connection between the founding of Sparta and King Menelaus from the Trojan War epic. We do not know exactly who founded Sparta, but whoever it was created one of the most powerful warrior civilizations the world has ever seen. The city of Sparta grew in size and became very powerful very quickly. Two kings ruled the city-state at any given time, and its society focused on warfare and dedication to the State. Upon being born into Spartan society, a baby would be examined by a council of elders. They would look for any defects in the child, and if they were seen as unfit, the infant would be abandoned on a nearby hilltop. Some legends say that any unhealthy babies were thrown from the top of Mount Taygetus into a pit below. However, recent research suggests that the Spartans may have been more compassionate and raised their babies even if they were not perfect. But if a child did have a disability, it’s unlikely they would have been able to complete the rigorous training regimen that every Spartan boy had to go through at the age of seven. It was this military-education program known as the Agoge that set Spartan warriors apart from the rest of Greece.

Spartan children were voluntarily surrendered to the State by their parents, where they would begin their education and learn what it meant to be a true Spartan. During this training, they were also taught that their allegiance to Sparta was more important than anything else in their life. This included their family, wealth, or power. A Spartan child was taught how to be deadly in combat and never to disobey the orders of their commanders or their kings. This blind dedication and the elite combat skills acquired at a young age are what made Spartan warriors so deadly on the battlefield. In 480 BCE, tales and poems would spread throughout Greece about the bravery and strength of the Spartans. It was at this time King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans led a small force of Athenians and other Greeks against the massive army of Xerxes of Persia. These brave Spartan warriors held Xerxes' forces at the hot gates of Thermopylae for three days. No matter what the Persians threw at them, King Leonidas and his men repelled attack after attack. Xerxes even deployed his most deadly warriors, known as the Immortals, to try and break the Spartan line, but even they failed. In the end, Leonidas and his forces were betrayed by a fellow Greek who told Xerxes of a mountain pass that led behind the Spartan line. This allowed his men to surround the Spartan soldiers.

The sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae became legendary. It gave the people of Greece the time they needed to organize their forces and repel the Persians, forcing them off the Greek lands. Around 50 years after the Persian Wars, Athens and Sparta were the two major powers in Greece. Both wanted to spread their influence across Greece, which led to tensions between the two civilizations. These tensions quickly escalated into what became known as The Peloponnesian wars. The result of this would lead to Sparta becoming the most powerful city-state in all of Greece but would also cause their downfall. Between the Persian War and the First Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta carried out constant raids on one another. This led to skirmishes and battles that cost men and resources but never escalated into an all-out war. Then in the winter of 445 BCE, Sparta signed a peace treaty with Athens that was supposed to last for 30 years. However, in 431 Corinth, one of Sparta’s allies engaged the Athenian army in battle. When Athens retaliated by invading Corinth’s lands, Sparta came to its aid. This broke the Thirty-Year Peace treaty, and the Second Peloponnesian War had begun. Sparta launched campaigns into Athenian territories where they decimated their forces, sacked their cities, and conquered their land. Knowing that they could not beat the Spartans in combat on land, the Athenians took to the seas and used their Navy as a way to wreak havoc on Sparta. The Athenians launched raids from the sea, where their ships dominated the open and coastal waters. Before and after the Persian War, Athens built up an armada of fast ships that could manoeuvre into narrow waterways.

This allowed them to land almost anywhere along the Spartan coastline. Their ships would anchor just offshore, and Athenian troops would attack Spartan settlements. Before Sparta could reposition their forces, the Athenians would retreat to the safety of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and relocate to conduct another raid. The inability of Sparta to conquer the city of Athens due to its fortified position and the fact that the Athenian army would never be able to beat Spartan forces on land led to an eventual stalemate. In 421 it was agreed upon by both sides that Sparta and Athens would protect each other for the next 50 years. This meant the two city-states would not go to war with one another while what came to be known as The Peace of Nicias was in place. Both societies were strong, and their influence spread far and wide, so it seemed that everyone should have been satisfied for the time being. However, this was not the case. Only six years into the peace treaty, Sparta attacked Athenian territories once again. Sparta had become so powerful that it hungered for more land and resources. They did not want to make the rest of Greece Spartan, as their societal system was based around keeping Spartan citizenship exclusive to certain bloodlines. But they did want to grow their empire so that they could acquire more men to fight in their armies as helots and bring further wealth to their people. This time all of the allies of each city-state joined the fight. This put the Delian League led by Athens against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

War raged on for several more years. In 420 BCE, Sparta was excluded from the Olympic Games for breaking their sacred truce and throwing Greece into chaos once again. In 404 BCE the war finally came to an end when Athens was defeated by Sparta at Aegospotami. The Spartans had learned from their previous mistakes, they had to stop the Athenian Navy if they were ever going to defeat their enemy. So, they spent time and resources between the Peloponnesian Wars to improve their ships and make them comparable to what the Athenians had. The Spartan general Lysander led the Spartan Navy to victory at Aegospotami, which brought the war to a close. Yet, even with Sparta being victorious in the Peloponnesian Wars and extending its empire across Greece, the great civilization was on the verge of collapse. Sparta was now the strongest city-state in the region, yet it had a population problem. The reason for extending its borders was not because there were too many people within its territory. On the contrary, the population of Sparta was actually in decline, and it had been declining for a while now. The Spartans were the minority in their empire. They lost enormous amounts of men during the Peloponnesian War. All of their combat wins were bittersweet as every conflict cost them, citizen warriors. Now that the war with Athens was over, Sparta desperately needed to grow its population to replenish the soldiers lost in battle. Without a strong army, there would be no way to maintain control over their empire. But even though they knew this was a problem,

the citizens of Sparta didn’t seem to do much about it. Rather than focusing on increasing their population and strengthening their homeland, Sparta continued to wage war wherever they saw fit. Now that they were the dominant force in Greece, it seemed that the conservative nature of Spartan society had gone out the window and its citizens only desired more power and wealth. Spartan forces continuously broke alliances and invaded new territories. This led to revolts throughout the empire. One way to increase population size would have been to allow people from outside of Sparta to join their society. But this was against the strict rules that Sparta had been following for hundreds of years.

These rules not only hindered any efforts to grow the number of Spartan citizens, but the old rules also made it nearly impossible to quickly train more soldiers. The only way to become a Spartan warrior was to make it through the Agoge. And one of the key tenants of this process was that a student must supply his armour and make it through the rigorous and intensive training. If someone could not do these things, they were not allowed to become a Spartan warrior. Since not everyone who joined the Agoge made it through, the number of Spartan soldiers continued to diminish. This meant that Sparta had to rely heavily on outsiders to supplement their armies. These soldiers were rarely as well trained as the Spartans, and they were not as devoted to the Spartan cause as its citizens were. But it wasn’t just the lack of replacement soldiers and the dependence on outside help that caused the decline of Sparta in the years following the Peloponnesian War. Spartan leaders themselves began to become greedy and forget their traditional values to honour and protect the State. Generals and soldiers became more interested in themselves than in keeping Sparta strong. These changes in attitude and the desire to accumulate more wealth for themselves rather than to bolster the status of the State led to a wealth gap within Spartan society. Some citizens were becoming incredibly rich, while others were becoming poorer and poorer. As can be expected, this created some tension amongst Spartans. But the wealth difference also led to another problem, something that would further exacerbate the dwindling number of Spartan soldiers.

As Spartan families became poorer, they could not afford to pay for the equipment their children needed to participate in the Agoge. It was not that these young citizens wouldn’t have made excellent warriors, but the fact that they could not purchase their armour meant they were ineligible to be trained as Spartan soldiers. It’s unclear if this problem was recognized by the Kings of Sparta and other prominent members of society or if they just didn’t care. But the poor citizens of Sparta were becoming more discontent with the way their city-state was being run, while simultaneously being unable to fulfil their military duties. And without a pool of new soldiers, there was no way to keep the Spartan empire alive. By 375 BCE, things had become bad for Sparta. There were uprisings across Greece, and some of their enemies were gaining a lot of power. One city-state, in particular, was becoming an enormous thorn on Sparta’s side. This part of Greece would be responsible for the collapse of the Spartan empire. Thebes had become increasingly powerful in the years since Sparta and its allies had won the Peloponnesian War. Spartan forces had maintained control of the region for about 30 years, but they were slowly being pushed out of Thebes. This was unacceptable, so Sparta launched a campaign to subdue the Thebans. In 371 BCE, King Cleombrotus led Spartan forces into battle against General Epaminondas, who commanded the Theban army. This decisive battle would be fought at Leuctra, and the outcome would not only be unexpected but would change the course of Greek history forever.

Cleombrotus had just over 10,000 men at his disposal. However, due to the serious lack of Spartan soldiers, only around 700 of his men were Spartan warriors. This meant that the remaining men might fight well but would be nowhere near as effective as a force made up of purely 10,000 Spartans. But this was the new reality of Spartan warfare; even a King had to make do with only a few true Spartans in his ranks. Supplementing his soldiers, Cleombrotus also had around 1,000 calvaries. After years of fighting to keep Sparta in control of their empire, the men who were recruited from other city-states as helots were much less enthusiastic about going into battle than the Spartan King would want. On the other side of the field, 7,000 hoplites and 600 cavalry riders made up the Theban army. Epaminondas knew the Theban cavalry consisted of some of the best riders in all of Greece, and he would most certainly use them to his advantage. But the biggest advantage of all for Thebes was that Epaminondas himself was a brilliant military strategist. He had already won several battles and would make Sparta pay for oppressing the people of Thebes.

Most of the other Theban military leaders tried to persuade Epaminondas to retreat behind the walls of Thebes and make the Spartans siege the city. But Epaminondas would not be intimidated by the Spartans and retreat was not an option for him. He surmised that he could outmanoeuvre the Spartan soldiers because he already knew what their strategy would be. They had been using the same phalanx tactics for hundreds of years. It almost always worked, but Epaminondas concocted a plan that might just break the lines of Sparta and allow his forces to destroy them once and for all. At the beginning of the battle, Cleombrotus did exactly what Epaminondas expected; the Spartans set up in a phalanx formation, 12 men deep, with two wings. Traditionally the right wing was more heavily guarded than the left, and this is where Cleombrotus is located with his 300 bodyguards. Seeing this as a weakness, Epaminondas decided to make his enemy pay for not being more innovative with his tactics. He had his forces line up 50 deep on the left wing and made his lines narrower. Epaminonda also launched his cavalry from the left wing to create a formidable force that would cut through the Spartans.

The two Greek forces slammed into each other. Spears slashed through the flesh; shields shattered; soldiers fell from fatal blows. The ground became soaked in blood, but then something incredible happened. The Spartan line broke. This allowed the Theban cavalry to rush through the enemy line and wreak havoc on the soldiers from within their ranks. The Theban soldiers followed the cavalry through the break and surrounded the Spartans. Everything began to fall apart for Cleombrotus and his forces. While all that was going on, Epaminondas had his forces attack at an angle towards the left. This pushed Cleombrotus and his Spartan warriors further away from the main fighting of the battle. They were unable to reposition in time to provide support for the broken line. In a desperate attempt to try and salvage the battle, Cleombrotus broke rank with his men and rushed towards the opposite side of the battlefield. The elite Theban soldiers known as the Sacred Band were already in position.

As the Spartans approached, they were caught off guard. Cleombrotus was killed, and the Spartan forces had to retreat. It was the first time Sparta had lost a major battle in recent memory, and it would be the turning point for the Spartan empire as this would be the first of many battles they would lose. Epaminondas used the momentum from the defeat of Cleombrotus and his Spartan forces to move deeper into Spartan territory. He did not try to conquer the peoples of their lands; instead, he just freed them from Spartan rule. Epaminondas knew that if he could get the helots and other indentured servants of the Spartans to rise, it would weaken the great empire even more. After the loss at Leuctra, the Peloponnesian League was dissolved. Most of Sparta’s allies felt they no longer needed to be a part of the league as Sparta was slowly falling apart, and they were more of a liability at this point anyways. Helots and slaves of the former Spartan empire began to fight back. Independent city-states began to pop up around Greece once again. After defeating Sparta, Thebes became the most powerful city-state in the region. They threatened to create a new empire, which many Greeks did not want to be a part of. In 371 BCE, Athens tried to hold a peace conference to prevent further war, but the Thebans refused. They had crushed Spartan forces and removed them from their lands. It seemed as if nothing could stop them now, and they were right.

Things got so desperate that Sparta and Athens decided to put aside their differences and fight alongside one another against Thebes. But Thebes had found a new ally, someone who had once threatened the Greek way of life. Thebes allied themselves with Persia, which helped them continue their conquest of Greece. This alliance went on to defeat Sparta and Athens even as they worked together. There was nowhere else for the warriors of Sparta to go but back home. Even though they had lost all of their empire and influence, Sparta remained an independent city-state. They still had the best warriors in all of Greece, but they had overextended themselves following the Peloponnesian War, which cost them greatly. Now they only had enough soldiers to keep other city-states at bay as they tried to regroup and figure out what to do next. It is estimated that the Spartan population declined by over half from around 9,000 to 4,000 citizens between its height and the loss at the battle of Leuctra. This was mostly due to the death of soldiers during battle, even if the Spartans ended up winning the fight. And now that their forces had been weakened and they lacked sufficient numbers of young citizens to train as soldiers, there was no way to conquer the surrounding areas and force their inhabitants to fight as helots. Things became so bad that the Spartans began allowing non-citizens the chance to join their society to try and increase their numbers, but even this did not work. As the Spartan population continued to decline, the number of people in the surrounding city-states began to grow.

They no longer needed to fear the Spartans. Sparta kept to itself for over a century. Of course, the warrior civilization continued to raid the lands around them, but they did not have the power or the resources to rebuild their empire while also keeping invading forces in check. The last king of an independent Sparta was Nabis. He had reached the throne by executing two other Spartans who had a stronger claim than he did. To ensure that he would not be opposed, he ended their two bloodlines. Nabis was not a nice man and did not have the honour that the Spartans were known for. He was greedy and selfish. After becoming king, Nabis decided it was time for Sparta to regain some of its former glory. But he did not want this because it would benefit the average Spartan citizen but to make himself more powerful and wealthy. He sided with Macedon during the Macedonian Wars and was able to secure more territory for Sparta. But when the tides of battle suddenly shifted, Nabis decided to jump ship and throw Sparta’s support behind Rome. Eventually, peace was reached between Rome and Macedonia. But Nabis still had his eye on creating a Spartan empire. This led to the Laconian War of 195 BC, which was fought between Sparta and an alliance composed of Rome, the Achaean League, Pergamum, Rhodes, and Macedon.

During the Macedonian Wars, Sparta gained control of Argos. Rome let them control the territory as payment for their military service. This territory was incorporated into Laconia, which was the region of Greece controlled by Sparta at the time. Nabis stripped the wealthy landowners of Argos of everything they had and redistributed it to helots who were only loyal to him. He also started building a powerful navy and fortified Sparta to ensure its safety for what was to come. Socially Nabis tried to provide more economic opportunities for Spartan citizens, which in turn, would help rebuild its army. But this was a slow process. He freed the slaves in Argos, which were then conscripted as helots to improve the military strength of Sparta. So, they were just going from one oppressive ruler to another. Nabis seemed to be making good on his promise to create a more powerful Sparta, but he would not get to see his final plans come to fruition. When the Macedonian War ended, the Spartans refused to give up their new territory. Rome tried diplomacy to convince Nabis that he needed to hand over Argos to the Achean League, but he refused. This led to the coalition of Greek and Roman powers declaring war on Sparta. The Romans and their allies attacked the coastal cities of the Laconian region and stripped them from Sparta.

Argos was marched upon and captured by the Achaean League. Sparta was just not strong enough to repel the might of Rome combined with other Greek city-states. This was the final nail in the coffin for Sparta. The slight gains they had made were completely wiped out, and they did not have the strength or time to rebuild their crumbling civilization before what was to come next. Sparta was stripped of its independence, and they were kept under the close watch of Rome. Nabis ruled for a little while longer until he was assassinated in 192 BC. The last king of a free Sparta was now dead, and any dream of another Spartan empire died with him. Several years after the Laconian War ended, the Achaean League tried its best to maintain diplomatic relations with Rome while also ruling their region of Greece as they saw fit. However, the Romans made it clear that the Achaean League was not to expand their territory any further, especially not into Sparta. The Achaeans had wanted to incorporate Sparta into their League since the Laconian War but had held off out of fear of upsetting the Romans. The problem was that the Achaean League still had to deal with Spartan raids into their lands, which was becoming a real annoyance. But when the Achaeans brought this up to Rome, all they did was send some emissaries to try and negotiate peace. Sparta did not honour the agreement decided upon by these talks. In 148 BCE, the Achaean League had had enough and invaded Sparta.

They successfully entered the city-state and subjugated the Spartan people. Rome saw this as unacceptable and an insult to the arrangement they had decided upon with the Achaean states. The Romans launched an invasion into Achaea. Sparta demanded their independence and fought back against the invaders. The Achaean league now had to deal with Spartan forces and Rome at the same time. This combination ended up being more than the Achaean League could handle. Roman soldiers swept through the territory and claimed it as their own. The Achaeans could no longer be trusted to make their own choices, so the Roman Statesman Lucius Mummius ordered any walls protecting a city that was involved in the revolt by the Achaean League to be torn down. This restructuring of the region under Roman rule included the subjugation of Sparta. Eventually, Rome allowed Sparta and Athens to once again be independent city-states. This freedom meant very little though as Sparta had been occupied for so long that they had lost almost everything that had made their civilization unique in the first place. To add insult to injury, in 267 CE, the Goths raided Greece from the north and sacked Sparta. The Spartans could not even defend their homeland anymore.

The fall of one of the greatest Greek empires that ever existed was now complete. Sparta had grown from a nomadic tribe into a powerful city-state, held back Xerxes with only 300 warriors, conquered the Athenians, and formed a powerful empire. Unfortunately, they then overextended themselves, and everything they worked so hard for fell apart. The Spartan people tried to maintain their identity but ultimately were conquered. However, even today, the Spartans are still talked about as one of the greatest warrior civilizations that ever existed.


About the Creator

Jayveer Vala

I write.

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