Ancient History & Civilisation

Section Two

Sparta in the Archaic Period

  With the onset of the Archaic Period, Sparta would have been well on its way to becoming the warrior state of the Classical Period. It's historical significance in the Archaic Period, however, would be great. Sparta's character had already been set, and the reforms of Lycurgus would provide a framework for the growth of the Spartan society into one where devotion and service to the state would become the sole concerns of the citizen. The Lycurgan laws seem to have already been well in place by the beginning of the Archaic Period.

  Some scholars have questioned the chronology of Lycurgus because of the fact that other groups in the Eurotas river valley appear to have continued to practice the arts and other traditions that would come to be banned in Sparta under the reforms of Lycurgus. However, the more likely explanation is that Spartan society, already fully developed, was accompanied by other peoples in the river valley who did not adopt these attitudes, the Perioeci previously mentioned as the possible artisans of the later periods. For this reason, some degree of artistic tradition appears to have survived in Laconia, but there is little reason to believe that the Spartan citizens themselves actively engaged in these traditions.

  The first major and reasonably well-attested event involving Sparta during the Archaic period was a war with a neighboring group of Achaeans, another of the four major ethnic groups of Greece, in the nearby region of Messenia. This event is generally referred to by historians as the First Messenian War. Part of the ostensible background of this war hearkens back to the legendary period of Greek history and the supposed events surrounding the Dorian invasion. Archaeologically, however, the war is known to have occurred at more or less the time that it is said to have, with dates ranging anywhere from about 710 BCE to around 745 BCE, depending upon the source.

  While an almost certainly apocryphal story regarding the stealing of cattle by a Spartan from a Messenian is invoked by the much later geographer and historian Pausanias, whose Description of Greece is frequently used as a source of information for modern historians, the more likely cause of the war was a fairly straightforward explanation involving ethnic and regional tensions caused by the Dorian migration into the Eurotas valley and the subsequent rise in power of the Spartans. Pausanias also makes mention of an event that occurred some 25 years before the onset of the war, during which the Spartan king Teleclus was killed in a religious festival at the temple of Artemis that was attended by both the Messenians and the Spartans. If true, this story would certainly explain the war between the two, as it was Alcamenes, the son of Teleclus, who would eventually go on to fight the First Messenian War. It is also important to note that Teleclus, during his lifetime, is said to have engaged in regional expansion of Spartan power, conquering towns and villages in the nearby areas. This roughly matches the course that the Spartan state would have had to take in order to achieve its later regional dominance. If the story of the death of Teleclus is not historical fact, it certainly reflects very real regional tensions that must have been at play around the time when he is recorded to have died.

  Later descriptions state that the first action of the First Messenian War was an unexpected attack by the Spartans on a Messenian town by the name of Ampheia, which has sometimes been archaeologically identified with a ruin called the Castle of Xuria. The attack came in the form of a stealth movement by night against the city, which is recorded to have been unguarded by a garrison of any size. The attackers, supposedly lead by king Alcamenes, quickly seized the site and established it as a strategic position for further incursions into the Messenian lands. The Messenians, unwilling to engage with the main Spartan army, which almost certainly would have been a militarily formidable force even at this early point in Spartan history, decided to fight a defensive war, forcing the Spartans to attack fixed positions instead of allowing themselves to be drawn out into open combat.

  This strategy had its merits, as the Spartans could not have easily taken such positions without incurring casualties that would have been unacceptably high, particularly if they were forced to engage in many such battles. However, it also had more than its share of drawbacks. With the Messenian forces occupied with the defense of population centers, the Spartans would have had free access to the rural lands around the cities and towns, meaning that the agricultural yields of the Messenians would have plummeted, likely below a sustainable level. Mindful of the possible usefulness of this land to the state (indeed, Messenia would later contain many land plots employed by the Spartans), the Spartans were cautious not to destroy anything that could have been put to use, but are known to have plundered the countryside for all that might have been readily removed back to Laconia, such as existing grain stores. The Messenians, therefore, would be forced to begin a more offensive campaign in order to hold on to vital resources.

  The Messenian king, whose name is thought to have been Euphaes, began to employ his new strategy in the fourth year of the war by dispatching troops to create a new fortified position closer to the Spartan garrison at Ampheia. Euphaes strategically positioned his forces in a currently unknown location that is said to have been anchored by a difficult to pass ravine that would have offered Euphaes and his forces a high degree of natural fortification to keep the Spartans, who were positioned  on the other side of it, at bay while a fortified position was established by the Messenian forces. Though the Spartans are said to have made an effort to execute a flanking maneuver by sending forces farther up the ravine to a point where it might have been crossed without the danger of Messenian attack, a cavalry force dispatched by Euphaes was able to deny the Spartans the crossing, leaving the Messenian forces ultimately in command of the field.

  Before the beginning of the next campaign season, which would be a critical one for the Spartans, Alcamenes would die and be succeeded by his son Polydorus. Though Alcamenes' death may have created some small difficulty in maintaining military continuity in the war, it is important to keep in mind that in Sparta, there were two kings at any one time. Alcamenes, like his father Teleclus and his son Polydorus, belonged to the Agaid dynasty of kings. Alongside these kings, however, were the Eurypontid kings, of whom Theopompus was the representative at the time of the First Messenian War. The death of Alcamenes and the succession of Polydorus, therefore, would have caused few problems for the Spartan army, though the death of a king in the middle of a war might have been gravely critical in any other society.

  The following campaign season would see a complete change in the nature of the war, as the Messenians for the first time engaged the Spartans in a traditional battle in the field. Though fighting had occurred during the establishment of the fortified Messenian camp near Ampheia, it had been a very limited engagement. This time, however, the Messenian and Spartan forces would engage in a pitched battle that would be the deciding action of the war, even though the First Messenian War would not truly end until some time later.

  The site of this pitched battle is not known, although it is generally thought to have occurred somewhere in the general vicinity of Ampheia, as it was here that the Messenian troops had established their defenses in the previous season. This battle is sometimes presented as historically problematic, as Pausanius presents it within the context of the phalanx warfare typical of later Greek battles. Evidence has not been forthcoming that the phalanx was in use in Greek warfare at this time, leading some to question whether or not this account is historically accurate from the perspective of reliably recounting the tactics that were used. It is not, however, inconceivable that this type of warfare or some early prototype of it would have been in use by the Spartans as early as the Archaic Period. Having fought in many smaller actions in the acquisition of land surrounding Sparta, the professional soldiers would have had ample opportunity to develop a close-rank line formation that would have been highly effective against the less organized militaries that surrounded them. While there is no conclusive proof for either side of this argument, it seems reasonable to assume that this description is no more or less accurate or reliable from a tactical standpoint than any other action from the same period that is recounted in the Description of Greece.

  The result of this battle was said to have been a decisive victory for the Spartan forces, led by Polydorus and Theopompus. The Spartans, keeping their lines together, were able to defeat the less organized and less disciplined Messenian army, though their foes survived and retained sufficient order to retreat from the battlefield without being slaughtered. After this retreat, the Messenians are said to have taken up yet another defensive position, this time on the easily defensible Mt. Ithome. The war is not thought to have truly ended until several years later, and is recorded to have been 19 years in total length. Upon the final defeat of the remaining Messenian forces, the Messenains were finally subjugated and forced into a form of slavery, bringing them into a serf class known as the Helots.

  Helots were far from a new innovation in Sparta, as it is recorded that the people of the town of Helos (from which the word 'Helot' is thought by some to derive) were enslaved as Helots during an early expansionist phase of Dorian Sparta. In enslaving the Messenians, however, the Spartans would ensure that they would forever have to be on guard, as the Messenian Helots would almost certainly have revolted if their Laconian rulers had ever shown any signs of weakness. Such a revolt may have come in the form of the contestable Second Messenian War.

  The Second Messenian War, if it did occur at all, was probably an event of some 40 to 50 years after the end of the First Messenian War, most likely inserting it in the Spartan chronology sometime in the first half of the 7th century BCE (one common theory dates the war from 685 BCE to 668 BCE, a total of 17 years. This, however, is far from an absolute date). This war is so difficult to ascertain because of the extreme lack of evidence for it in both archaeological findings and more contemporary historical sources. There is, however, a good chance that it occurred, as some remnants of works from a contemporary poet named Trytaeus, himself most likely a Spartan widely recognized for his glorification of the Spartan state through the use of verse (and, incidentally, one of very few known examples of the literary arts in Sparta, probably allowed to flourish because of the subjects of his work), seem to make reference to the war.

  Later historians would attribute the Second Messenian War to the fairly likely cause of a revolution of the Messenian Helots. However, if the later accounts are to be believed, the Second Messenian War had a much greater significance in solidifying the power of Sparta than one might expect from the putting down of a mere slave revolt, and would also complete the character of the Spartan state that we see in the Classical Period.

  The revolt, according to what sources exist regarding it, began well for the Messenians. At the Battle of Derae, which was the first battle of the war, the long-oppressed Helots fought the more organized and more militarily capable Spartans to an inconclusive draw. At this battle, the Messenians were led by a man by the name of Aristomenes. Because of his accomplishments at Derae, the Messenians offered him kingship. However, he rejected the offer, instead preferring to remain a general, although he did request the absolute control of the armies, which was granted to him in place of the royal title that the Messenians were prepared to confer.

  The accounts of this war, like much of what has been discussed of Sparta's history thus far, may well be to one degree or another mythological. The following section of the history of the Second Messenian War, however, is almost certainly identifiable as a myth. After having taken command as the new general over the Messenian armies, Aristomenes is said to have entered Sparta itself by night to place a shield in the temple to Athena that sat in the acropolis of the city. Alarmed by this, the Spartans supposedly went on to consult the Oracle at Delphi, who instructed them to look to Athens for an adviser. The Athenian adviser is recorded to have been Tyrtaeus, whom modern scholars generally agree was probably a native of Sparta, rather than an Athenian. The poems of Tyrtaeus, at least according to this likely mythological portion of the history of the war, would inspire the Spartans to victory in later battles.

  The Second Messenian War, much like the first, is said to have ended with the Messenians secured in a mountain stronghold, from which Aristomenes and his troops would launch attacks, likely nothing particularly larger than raiding parties, into the Laconian countryside. The Messenians were, in the end, defeated, securing Sparta as the preeminent power in the Peloponnese. Ultimately, many of the Messenains would escape to Italy before the Spartans reasserted their total control over their lands, and Aristomenes himself is thought to have been finally captured by Spartan forces, although one surviving account of the war states that he was captured and escaped on three separate occasions.

  However, the Second Messenian War is also thought to have had broad implications in the development of Sparta's militaristic society. Warfare and martial virtues were already integral parts of the Spartan state. This military tradition, however, was likely not the overarching driving force of life in Sparta that it would be during the Classical Period until after the Second Messenian War. In his laws, Lycurgus had set out the guideline that Sparta should engage in war often so as to keep its military capabilities sharp. After the revolution of the helots, this idea would permeate Spartan society much more thoroughly, as the constant military preparedness of Sparta would be necessary to prevent any other such uprisings. By further tightening down the controls of the state and instituting military training as a nearly constant aspect of day-to-day life, Sparta would ensure that Helot revolts would be much too costly to attempt. This tactic, however, would not entirely solve the problem of Helot revolts, particularly as the population differences between the Spartans and their slaves grew to a point that would have made maintaining control nearly impossible.

  The war also helped Sparta to establish a general dominance over its region of the Peloponnese. The military power that it had acquired between the two wars, as well as the subjugation of Messenia and other parts of the peninsula, left Sparta as the strongest city-state with very little competition in its immediate surroundings. Such would likely not have been the case had Sparta's location not been so well defended as a matter of simple geography. Because it was so difficult to attack, however, breaking the hegemonic regional power of Sparta over the Peloponnese at this point in the Archaic Period would have been too great a task for the other city-states to undertake.

  It was this dominion over its immediate area that led to the next notable event involving Sparta in the Archaic Period, the formation of the Peloponnesian League. Despite its modern reputation for being driven entirely by military ambitions, Sparta was also an early pioneer of diplomacy in Greece, and it frequently used this skill to its own benefit. In the buildup to the formal establishment of the league was the continued rise of Sparta in power. Particularly important was the position that it had taken over the competing city-state of Argos, which was the next largest and most powerful political entity in the Peloponnese at the time. Though Argos would remain opposed to Sparta for almost all of its history, it would not be able to break the grip of the more powerful city-state on the Peloponnese, leaving it in an inferior but autonomous position of power through much of Greek history. This position is said to have been gained largely as a result of the Second Messenian War, as Argos may have allied itself to Messenia during the conflict. As with all things involving the second war, however, it is important to remember that the details are questionable at best, and that this account may therefore be a historically inaccurate way of explaining the transfer of power in the region from Argos to Sparta as the highly militaristic city-state grew in influence.

  Sparta had also cultivated strategic alliances with the city-states of Corinth and Elis, both major regional powers that would certainly have benefited Sparta as allies. In the case of Corinth, the alliance had been cultivated as Sparta supported a revolution against the Corinthian tyrant Periander, which ended with the assassination of his presumed successor, freeing Corinth from its autocratic form of rule under the short-lived Cypselid dynasty in the early 6th century BCE. Sparta's alliance with Elis, on the other hand, had had nothing to do with military power. Instead, Sparta had secured the friendship of Elis by helping it to regain the sanctuary that gave it a right to hold the Olympic Games. The sanctuary had been unlawfully seized by a king of Argos, and the influence of Sparta was used to facilitate the transfer of it back to Elis, granting them the prestige of hosting the games after what is thought to have been only one year of interference. These states would form the basis for the powerful military and diplomatic alliance that would become Peloponnesian League.

  Precisely when the Peloponnesian League came into formal existence is disputed among scholars, but it is generally dated to the early 6th century BCE, as it is after this general time frame that the group seems to have acted with a greater degree of solidarity under the leadership of Sparta. What is known is that this group of city-states, under Spartan leadership, would go on to play a critical role in the history of ancient Greece. From its earliest days, the league was entirely Spartan-dominated. The cities that became members of the league did so through the exclusive method of allying with Sparta, though individual states were free to form external alliances with each other that were separate from the league.

  One of the events that would mark the expansion of the league was the subjugation of a city known as Tegea in the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese. Arcadia remained as one of the last places in the Peloponnese where Doric culture had not become universal. The region, a remote highland area, had thus resisted the Dorian Spartans since the Dark Ages, when they had first arrived on the peninsula. As a leading city in this region, Tegea had fought to maintain its independence from the growing power of Sparta. However, the isolation of Arcadia would not last. Tegea is generally thought to have finally succumbed to Spartan power during the reigns of the Spartan kings Ariston and Anaxandridas II. These two kings are of great importance in the history of Sparta, as it is with them that more definite chronologies become possible from contemporary accounts. Tegea is thought to have ultimately been defeated sometime around 550 BCE, but by around 530 BCE it had made a complete transition to membership in the Peloponnesian League.

   The military might of the Peloponnesian league would go on to make it the leader in the series of bloody wars that was soon to come with the Persian empire. These wars are among the best-known pieces of Greek history in the popular mind today, and helped to define the early part of the Classical Period of ancient Greece. However, the prelude to the wars was to begin in the Archaic Period, just as Sparta and the Peloponnesian League were reaching the height of their power. The Persian entrance into Greece began in either 546 or 547 BCE, when the noted Persian king Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) conquered the Lydian kingdom in modern-day Anatolia. The attack was a retaliatory strike for a similar attack launched against the Persians by Croesus, then the king of Lydia. When Croesus and the Lydians were defeated, Cyrus incorporated the Lydian kingdom into an empire that would grow to include huge swaths of the ancient world, including all of Elam and the Mesopotamian kingdoms. With Lydia came a group of Greek cities in the Ionian region over which Croesus had established final Lydian rule during his reign. Ionia was the first Greek region that would come to be controlled by the Persians, but it would be far from the last that the Persian empire would attempt to bring under its control.

  Even though the Persian presence in Greece went back to nearly half a century before, it would not be until roughly 500 BCE, with the onset of the Classical Period, that the Greek city-states would have to fend off a general Persian invasion. By this time, Athens was well on its rise to great military power, and the might of Sparta was sufficient for it to act as leader against the Persians. It is with these wars that the Archaic Period is generally agreed to have ended and the Classical Period to have begun. However, it should be noted that the boundary between these two periods is far from cleanly divided, and many different dates and events have been proposed to define precisely when the Archaic Period gave way to the Classical.

  What is entirely clear, however, is that the Archaic Period of Spartan history, and indeed in ancient Greece in general, set the stage for the events that were to come. Sparta would emerge from the Archaic Period as the militaristic, state-oriented and sophisticated society that we today still think of when its name is used. From the beginning of the Archaic Period when the reforms of Lycurgus were still a  relatively new development, Sparta had grown to become the war machine of the ancient Greek world. The Spartans' two wars with the Messenians had given them much military experience, and had also forced them to adopt the uniquely Spartan idea of a permanently militarized society in order to control the massive number of Messenian Helots that were now under their control. Sparta, though it would go on to great successes in the Classical Period, had emerged from the Archaic Period fully-formed and at its height. Now, the many wars of the Classical Period would test the all-important military prowess of Sparta and its allies.

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