Rise to Power of Sparta

Spartans at Plataea
Spartans at Plataea. Wikimedia Commons
"[The Spartans] had obviously committed themselves to assisting the Athenians in any clash with the Persians. Nevertheless, when the news arrived that the Persians had landed at Marathon on the Attic coast in 490, the Spartans were careful to be celebrating an obligatory religious festival that prevented them from coming immediately to the Athenians' defense." —Greek Society, by Frank J. Frost.

The regimented, fearless, obedient, upper-class Spartan warrior (Spartiate) that we hear so much about was actually in the minority in ancient Sparta. Not only were there more serf-like helots than Spartiates, but the ranks of the lower classes grew at the expense of the upper class, in this early communist society, whenever a Spartiate member failed to make his required contribution to the community.

A Small Number of Spartans

It has been claimed that the Spartan elite had grown so small that it avoided fighting whenever possible. For instance, although its role was crucial, Sparta's appearance in the battles against the Persians during the Persian Wars was often late, and even then, reluctant (although the lateness was sometimes attributed to Spartan piety and observance of religious festivals). Thus, it wasn't so much by concerted aggression that Sparta gained power over the Athenians.

End of the Peloponnesian War

In 404 B.C. the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans — unconditionally. This marked the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. Defeating Athens had not been a foregone conclusion, but Sparta emerged victorious for many reasons, including:

  1. Tactical errors of the Athenian leaders Pericles and Alcibiades*
  2. The plague.
  3. Sparta had the backing of allies it had previously helped: Sparta entered the First Peloponnesian War to aid an ally, Corinth, after Athens had taken the side of Corcyra (Corfu) against this, its mother city.
  4. A newly-created, large naval fleet — a major factor contributing to Sparta's victory.

Previously Athens had been as strong in its navy as Sparta had been weak. Although pretty much all of Greece has the sea to one side, Sparta fronts a dangerous stretch of the Mediterranean — a situation that had prevented her earlier from becoming a sea power. During the First Peloponnesian War, Athens had kept Sparta at bay by blockading the Peloponnese with its navy. During the Second Peloponnesian War, Darius of Persia supplied the Spartans with the capital to build a capable naval fleet. And so, Sparta won.

Spartan Hegemony 404-371 B.C.

The next 33 years following Athens' surrender to Sparta were known as the "Spartan Hegemony." During this period Sparta was the most influential power in all of Greece.

The governments of the poleis of Sparta and Athens were at opposite extremes politically: one was an oligarchy and the other a direct democracy. Other poleis were probably run by governments somewhere between the two, and (although we think of ancient Greece as being democratic) Sparta's oligarchic government had been closer to the Greek ideal than Athens'. Despite this, the imposition of actual Spartan hegemonic control chafed the poleis of Greece. The Spartan in charge of Athens, Lysander, rid the polis of its democratic institutions and ordered political opponents executed. Members of the democratic faction fled. In the end, Sparta's allies turned on her.

*Under Alcibiades as strategos, the Athenians planned to try to deprive the Spartans of their food supply, by cutting it at its source, Magna Graecia. Before this could happen, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens because of vandalism (mutilation of the herms), in which he was implicated. Alcibiades fled to Sparta where he revealed the Athenian plan.


Greek Society, by Frank J. Frost. 1992. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0669244996

[formerly at www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/PELOWARS.HTM] The Peloponnesian War
Both Athens and Sparta fought a war of attrition. After Pericles died of the plague, Nicias took over and arranged a truce until the colorful Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to attack the Greek city-states in Sicily. Athens' strength had always resided in her navy, but much of the Athenian fleet was destroyed in this foolish campaign. Still, Athens was able to fight effective naval battles, until after the Persians had lent their support to Sparta, Athens' entire naval force was destroyed. Athens surrendered to the great (but soon to be disgraced) Spartan general Lysander.

[formerly at www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/SPARHEGE.HTM] The Spartan Hegemony
Richard Hooker's page explaining the way the Spartans used their period of dominance in Greece to their disadvantage by engaging in an ill-advised alliance with the Persians and then by Agesilaus' unprovoked attack on Thebes. The hegemony ended when Athens joined Thebes against Sparta.

Theopompus, Lysander and the Spartan Empire (ivory.trentu.ca/www/cl/ahb/ahb1/ahb-1-1a.html)
From The Ancient History Bulletin, by I.A.F. Bruce. Theopompus (author of Hellenica) may not have believed Lysander's empire was a serious attempt at panhellenism.

Ancient History Sourcebook: 11th Brittanica: Sparta
The history of the Spartans from prehistory to the middle ages. Explains how ill-suited the Spartans were to rule the Greek world and how they surrendered hegemony to the Thebans.

Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War. 2003. Viking. ISBN 0670032115

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Gill, N.S. "Rise to Power of Sparta." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/sparta-rise-to-power-of-sparta-111921. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Rise to Power of Sparta. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sparta-rise-to-power-of-sparta-111921 Gill, N.S. "Rise to Power of Sparta." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sparta-rise-to-power-of-sparta-111921 (accessed June 5, 2023).