Sparta’s internal conditions as indicator of its foreign strategies
Sparta was a unique state constructed in a way to provide proper running of all parts of the country correctly. It was created with the help of well organized structure that divided functions of the state into three major parts. Those were: 1. Infrastructure of land plots, perioikoi and helots; 2.Government; 3. Ritual system. There was also an unusual situation with citizenship in Sparta. The non-citizens were under constant assault of the Spartans and served as ritualistic objects suffering from wars and invasions by the Spartans.
The role of the Helots was not merely important in freeing up the citizen body but also to help maintain the sense of equality among the citizen body. However while Sparta tried to deliberately avoid creating a class structure among its citizens, the existence of helotage ensured that there was always the possibility of a class war and opportunity for large-scale revolt. It was imperative for Sparta to keep the helots in check, since, if they were to lose control of them, they knew that the sheer numbers of helots meant that it would be nearly impossible to re-subjugate them. Sparta’s military interest was therefore with defending its own to maintain internal discipline and harmony “so that a united body of Spartiates could ruthlessly dominate their numerous helots and perioikoi.” Indeed Thucydides tells us that Spartans “were not quick to enter wars unless they had to.”
The internal threat of the helots was not only the potential class uprising but also the possibility that they might support a potential enemy invasion of Spartan territory. Sparta therefore needed to take out further insurance against them. The formation of the Peloponnesian league gave Sparta the security she needed; as long as it held together (and the member states had agreed to join indefinitely) Sparta would have allies to call upon to crush any potential helot uprising. The allies gained from having Sparta’s support to protect them from any outside attack and did not have any financial or military obligations unless a league war was occurring. Furthermore Sparta did not appear to infringe on the freedom of a state to carry out its own internal affairs: to choose magistrates and try its own citizens. However de Ste Croix believes that “Sparta infringed the autonomy of her allies at least as much as Athens did, by maintaining in them oligarchies which would otherwise have tended to disappear.” Therefore Sparta was able to encourage the leading men of these cities/towns to submit indefinitely to her hegemony by ensuring she would support oligarchies against rising democracy. Sparta, as hegemon, was in a superior position over the league; Xenophon reports that the allies had to have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans and “follow them whithersoever they may lead”.
The underlying cause of the Peloponnesian war was Sparta's fear of the growth of the power of Athens. This is Thucydides' own final judgment. The immediate occasion of the war concerned Corinth, Sparta's chief naval ally. Since the peace of 445 B.C. Pericles had consolidated Athenian resources, made Athens' navy incomparable, concluded in 433 B.C. a defensive alliance with the strong naval power Corcyra (Corinth's most bitter enemy), endangering the food supply to the Peloponnese from Sicily. Corinth and indeed Megara both appealed to Sparta for assistance and for this reason alone Sparta should have been compelled into the war. Sparta waited for an opportunity that came when Athens was temporarily embarrassed by the revolt of her subject-ally Potidaea in Chalcidice in the spring of 432 B.C. The rebel city held out until the winter of 430 B.C. and its blockade meant a constant drain upon Athenian military, and naval resources. The only plausible way for Sparta of defending Corinth and Megara was by full-scale Peloponnesian League invasions of Attica. If these failed Sparta would be dragged into a drawn-out naval war to which she was unsuited. Sparta relied on the traditional strategy of Greek warfare, hoping that by invading Attica and destroying the crops she would force Athens either to sue for peace or come out to fight the standard set piece battle in which typical Greek wars were decided. In numbers as well as discipline and combat effectiveness of troops Athens was decidedly inferior to the Spartan-Theban forces. The defect in this strategy was that Athens unlike other Greek cities could not be starved into surrender, nor be made to fight a pitched battle by occasional occupation of its individual citizen's farm-lands since her food mainly arrived through trade routes operating in the Aegean. Sparta now found itself drawn into exactly the long war that she had feared, aware furthermore that her need for attention away from the polis might jeopardise her situation at home controlling the helots. The eventual Spartan victory was paradoxical and went against many of the values that are believed to have been the cornerstone of their society. Their victory was financed by Persian money, which allowed them hire mercenary sailors to act for the most part in the place of her own citizen and allied hoplites. This Persian aid contradicting her claims to be promoting pan-Hellenism. Furthermore the Spartan victory was orchestrated not by a king or even a member of the gerousia but by a man of dubious origin, Lysander. However these factors were all necessary for their success; Sparta could neither have competed with the Athenian navy without Persian money or Lysander’s personality nor afforded to commit too many troops into Attica without neglecting their domestic concerns.
“His [Lysander’s] remarkable success in finally defeating Athens, combined with his skill in organising oligarchies directly dependent on himself in many Aegean cities, brought him very great personal influence.” Moreover Lysander was ambitious both for individual glory and Spartan dominance. At this point Sparta, rather than being concerned with how best to keep control over the territory it had acquired in defeating Athens (the Lycourgan system had not been established with consideration of Spartan possession of extra-Peloponnesian territory), was being encouraged by its most influential figure to expand. Indeed Sparta’s acquisition of an empire not only produced social and economic problems but also served to alienate them from their most important allies in the Peloponnesian league, unhappy at Sparta’s sudden power and her failure to share out fairly the fruits of her victory. It is now (400), with Sparta’s rule at its strongest that Agesilaos accedes to one of Sparta’s two thrones. In his reign Sparta’s power will dramatically decline so that at his death, forty years later, “Sparta has been forcibly deprived of half her former nuclear territory and was without a seat among the Greek powers that were.”
In considering the factors behind Sparta’s decline, Cartlege uses the career of Agesilaos as a framework for his narrative. It needs to be considered whether this technique is helpful and accurate in approaching the decline of Sparta. A necessary source for Cartlege in his endeavour is Plutarch’s Life of Agesilaos. However there are significant difficulties in considering Plutarch as a historical source. Plutarch’s other works (the Moralia and the Political Advice) indicate his concern in writing. The Parallel Lives were written with similar concerns, in particular to illustrate outstanding individuals and present them as moral exempla. Therefore consideration must be made of how much he may have manipulated the lives for his own means. Further problems lie in knowledge of his research, although it is fair to assume that he was able to call upon much more primary source material and he makes citations to numerous varied authors and works. A final issue lies in how far his work was written with the intention of demonstrating how Hellenised he believed Rome to be and whether he therefore allowed the political structure of his time to affect the past. These factors do concern Cartlege but he is grateful to have a biography that is more objective than Xenophon’s (the major source) account.
The narrative of the decline of Sparta seems simple enough and the first major factor was the unprecedented appointment of Agesilaos as general in Asia. Cartlege details his first major failing as being his lack of concern in naval matters while he succeeded on land. The ultimate failure of Sparta to muster any capable force at sea ensured a fruitless end to their hopes for expansion into Persia. Sparta now though had a thirst for control and was happy to pursue more military schemes. “Imperialism, whether it took the form of acting as Hellenic policeman or of directly controlling and exploiting Greek subjects, was now the order of the day, and probably all top ranking Spartiates were committed to it for private as well as public political and economic reasons.” The subsequent battles caused by such a policy resulted in complete dissatisfaction with Sparta and they soon found themselves opposed to a healthy coalition in the Corinthian war. Sparta again found herself needing to seek Persian financing to try and establish peace. Even with peace restored Sparta still felt the need to interfere in other states’ affairs with the purpose of renewing oligarchies. Agesilaos believed Sparta could still manipulate the peace to their own gains but “where Agesilaos went seriously wrong was in overestimating the strength of Sparta…For military as well as political reasons Sparta was unable to prevent or to reverse the liberation of Thebes.” This was the end for Sparta, with such a huge hole in her empire it was only a matter of time before she was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leuktra.
Cartlege is wary of Xenophon’s “unicausal explanations” which assign Sparta’s decline to her imperialistic greed, fondness for intervention in other states’ affairs and small number of citizens. However his narrative merely produces such an explanation. Indeed his claim that Plutarch improves on Xenophon seems equally unfair; Plutarch merely details an economic argument behind the shortage of Spartan citizens but the larger “unicausal” implication is the same as Xenophon’s: the Spartans in their imperialistic quest had too few citizens to look after all their concerns. Indeed while a narrative of Sparta’s decline based on Agesilaos’ career produces a well-written and coherent argument; it seems that it is necessary to look for wider reasons for Sparta’s decline outside the biography of one man. To me Sparta’s decline began as they reached their strongest power. By suddenly finding herself in possession of an empire, Sparta was already overstretched. As discussed earlier she didn’t even have an army capable of suppressing the helots without the help of her allies and therefore never had the means to successfully administer an extra-Peloponnesian empire. Furthermore the power she managed to obtain created greed and ambition and as soon as she began to alienate her closest allies, she was doomed to fail for these were the people she relied on in war. Ultimately Sparta’s failure, in my opinion, came as a result of her success in the Peloponnesian war that meant that her foreign policy became necessarily but then voluntarily concerned with foreign affairs ahead of her domestic concerns.
 M.I. Finley, Economy and Social History of Greece: An Introduction p.25
 Aristotle believed that for there to be equality of citizenship, a citizen should not be seen to be performing degrading work.
 G. de Ste Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War p.98
 I 118.2
 Although there is evidence that from 432 onwards she began sending out harmosts to be more than purely military commanders
 G. de Ste Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War p.99
 c.f. Hellenica II ii.20 and V iii.26
 G. de Ste Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War p.144
 P. Cartlege, Agesilaos and the crisis of Sparta p.398
 Ibid. p.360
 Ibid p.374-5