Ancient History & Civilisation

Section Three

The Classical Period in Sparta

Part One: The Greco-Persian Wars

   The years between the conquest of Lydia by Cyrus the Great and the eventual conflicts between Greece and the Persian Empire saw a massive increase in Persian power. Shortly after incorporating Lydia into his domains, Cyrus would go on to conquer Babylon, expanding his empire across all of southern Mesopotamia, eventually building a land empire that would stretch from his claims in Anatolia as far east as modern-day India. The Ionian cities that had become part of the empire, however, would go on to begin a full-scale revolt against the Persians in 499 BCE. Originally, these cities had submitted themselves readily to Persia, likely not eager to engage in combat with the powerful military forces that had conquered Lydia. This revolt would come well after the death of Cyrus the Great during the reign of a Persian king not of Cyrus' own bloodline, the equally well-known Darius I, also known as Darius the Great.

  By the time of the rule of Darius, the Greek cities that were under the control of the Persian empire were ruled by tyrants who were appointed as governors by the Persians themselves. One such governor was Aristogoras, then the ruler of the city of Miletus. Aristogoras, after having undertaken a hugely unsuccessful venture to conquer the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea, incited the revolution of the Ionian cities to prevent his own removal from power at the hands of the Persians. This tactic, however, would prove to be futile, as the cities of Ionia had no ability to defeat the incredibly powerful Persian empire. The war would not prove as simple as it might otherwise have been, though, because of the intervention of Athens, along with the city-state of Eretria. These two cities, though not as militarily powerful as Sparta at that time, joined forces with the Ionian rebels in 498 BCE in order to launch a counteroffensive against the Persians.

  The Persians had been growing in power for some time, and it is possible that this move was meant to prevent the further spread of Persian influence into Greece. If this was, indeed, the plan hit upon by the leadership of Athens and Eretria before embarking on the campaign, it was one that would ultimately backfire. As the main offensive of the campaign against Persia, the combined forces of these allied states attacked the city of Sardis, formerly of the Lydian kingdom and now the main center of Persian power in what is today Turkey. The attack, though devastating for the city, was ultimately unsuccessful in destroying the Persian stronghold there. In the process of the attack, the city was set on fire, all but ruining it as a regional capital. The Greek forces, however, were eventually driven from the city by its remaining defenders and began their return to Ephesus, the city from which they had set out on the campaign after the forces had joined together there.

  Upon learning of the sack of Sardis, the Persians sent reinforcements to the city. The army that came followed the Greeks back toward Ephesus, where a battle would ensue that would ultimately end the Athenian involvement in the first war with the Persians. The battle was a Persian victory of monumental proportions, as the combined Greek forces suddenly found themselves faced with a much fresher enemy, while they had just fought the battle at Sardis. Some of the Athenian troops managed to escape back to Athens by sea, but they had already gained the hatred of Darius. Whether it is anecdotal or not, Herodotus records Darius assigning a servant to remind him of the Athenian participation in the sack of Sardis at every meal, so as not to allow him to forget their actions. The Ionian revolts had made war between the Greeks and Persians inevitable. Though this revolution did not directly involve Sparta, which was then still secure in its power in the Peloponnese, the oncoming wars with the Persians would be among the most defining historical events for the city-state.

   By 493 BCE, the Ionian revolt had finally been put down, but it was far from the end of the Greco-Persian wars that would ensue. The very next year, the Persians began their campaign to fully subjugate Greece and turn it into a Persian client state. The first campaign into Greece was led by a Persian noble named Mardonius. Though Mardonius would make great inroads in Macedon, which Persia already exercised a degree of influence over, his offensive was cut short when the fleet which had carried him into Greece was wrecked during a storm. Though Mardonius failed to launch the general offensive that the Persians had planned against the Greek city-states, it must have been clear to all of Greece by the time of the wrecking of the fleet that the Persian empire was prepared to invade with a massive military force.

  In an attempt to make his conquest of Greece easier, Darius deployed a diplomatic tactic in 491 BCE. Having demonstrated his military power with the invasion that had been led by Mardonius, Darius sent emissaries to the various cities and city-states of Greece. These representatives were sent to demand that the Greeks submit to the authority of the Persian empire. While many of the Greek cities acquiesced to the demand, both Athens and Sparta, in a moment of like-mindedness, refused to become parts of the Persian empire. With this decision, the all-out war between the Persians and the Greek city-states that stood in opposition to them was made completely unavoidable.

  At the time of the first invasion under the command of Mardonius, the two kings of Sparta had been Demaratus and Cleomenes. Shortly before the next wave of Persian troops would come to conquer the outstanding city-states that had not voluntarily joined with the empire, however, both of these kings would be replaced by the next in line of each house. Demaratus was replaced at the order of Cleomenes for supporting Aegina, which had been one of the cities to have submitted to Darius. Aegina had long been a competitor state to Athens, and Cleomenes was asked by the Athenians, now in an alliance of necessity with Sparta, to convince Aegina not to support Persia in the war. Once Demaratus had been deposed and replaced by his cousin Leotychides, the Spartans were more easily able to secure the cooperation of Aegina. Cleomenes, however, would not last long on the throne himself. The deposition of Demaratus would bring about much hatred of him in Sparta, and he was eventually sent into exile before finally being imprisoned. Joining Leotychides as joint king of Sparta, then, was the now-famous king Leonidas, probably the most well-known of all Spartan rulers today.

  The new Persian offensive began in 490 BCE, when the bulk of the Persian army boarded some 600 ships bound for Greece. Darius had assembled this force, most likely numbering some 20,000 or more, for the specific purpose of defeating Sparta and Athens. Although the main targets were already determined, the Persian forces wasted no time in dealing with other small areas of resistance. Indeed, the island of Naxos, the failed invasion of which had led Aristogoras to begin the Ionian revolts 9 years before, was one of the first places attacked by the Persian fleet as it made its way toward its enemies in Greece.

  The first major action of the war was  a siege against the city of Eretria, which had also been involved in the revolutions in Ionia. The defenders of the city, heavily outnumbered, opted to remain in the city, as a defensive position would have afforded them the greatest chance of victory against the Persian army, which was largely made up of light infantry. The siege lasted for seven days before the Persians were ultimately let into the city by two Eretrian traitors. In the aftermath, the city itself was destroyed, and its entire population was either killed or enslaved as punishment for Eretria's defiance of Darius during the revolt in Ionia.

  With one of the enemies that it had set out to destroy dealt with, the Persian fleet next set its sights on Athens. Although Sparta was also presumably a target, the Persians had yet to make any attempt to attack the Peloponnesian League. Indeed, it may have been that the Spartans planned to simply remain in their heavily defended city and wait for the Persian forces to come to them, as the tactical advantage to this strategy would have been great. When Athens was at last threatened by the Persian fleet, however, the Spartans would be called upon. The fleet landed at the harbor of Marathon, near Athens, and prepared to attack. It was accompanied by Hippias, a tyrant of Athens who had been exiled with the help of Sparta, who instructed the fleet to land there in order for its forces to march on Athens. When the Athenians learned of the fleet's presence, they sent a runner named Phidippides to Sparta to request the aid of the Spartan army.

  Sparta, however, was at that time engaged in a religious festival known as the Carneia, a devotional festival to the god Apollo. As was the custom of the festival, no Spartan army could march until the celebrations had ended. Sparta refused to send troops until the rising of the first full moon following the  festival, at which point it was formally ended. Some modern historians have questioned whether or not this was a legitimate display of religious devotion on the part of the Spartans, or simply a method of not involving themselves in the battle. However, ancient historians noted that religious piety was exceptional in Sparta, even as compared to the other highly religious city-states of Greece at the time. It is therefore probable, especially considering that Sparta did eventually march its army to Marathon (though by the time they arrived, the battle had ended), that the Spartans were held from participating in the battle by a genuine sense of religious duty in the observance of the festival.

  Fortunately, Athens would be able to win the battle, even without the aid of Sparta. Combined with a force of 1,000 hoplites from the city of Plataea in the Boetian region, the Athenians managed to defeat the Persian forces. The account of Herodotus suggests that the battle was delayed for five days prior to its beginning, with the Persians and Greeks in a stalemate. It is not known why the Athenians attacked before the arrival of the Spartans, but the victory that they won would be strategically critical in the war. The Greek tactics of the phalanx formation, combined with the experienced hoplite soldiers of Athens and Plataea, allowed the Greek forces to succeed against a greatly numerically superior enemy.  When the Spartans did arrive at Marathon,  the battle had already ended, even though they had executed a forced march from Sparta to Marathon and covered nearly 150 miles in just 3 days' time.

  The Athenians would go on to return to their city and deflect another attack on Athens directly. The first rounds of this war were, therefore, won by Athens, rather than by Sparta. With the battle of Marathon, the Persians would, for a time, be driven out of Greece. They would, however, return about ten years later. This time, Sparta would play a much greater role in the military actions necessary to keep them from conquering all of Greece.

  Little is known of Sparta during the inter-war period that made up the decade between the first and second Persian invasions of Greece. One major and important event, however, is recorded by Herodotus. Demaratus, the king who was deposed by Cleomenes, is said to have journeyed into Persia where, though his city had opposed Persia, he became a military adviser to Xerxes, the son of Darius who would later go on to mount and personally lead the second invasion. Demaratus, in his capacity as an expert on Greek military tactics, would even join Xerxes in the attack upon his own native land.

  When Xerxes made a second attempt to conquer Greece in 480 BCE, the army he amassed would likely have been the single largest in the ancient world. Estimates of the size of this force range anywhere from 100,000 men on the low end to a total of more than 5 million on the high (though the latter number is almost certainly far too high to have been historically accurate). In addition to these massive numbers of men, Xerxes arranged for transportation, engineers, livestock, supplies and all of the other necessary elements that would have been required to support the forces that had been mustered under his command. Thus, when the new king's preparations were complete, the invasionary force under his command would likely have been the largest that the ancient world had ever seen.

  In early 480 BCE, Xerxes began moving his troops into Greece via a now famous crossing of the Dardanelles, also known as Hellespont, from modern-day Turkey into Persia's Thracian territory, from which it would mount its attack on the Greek city-states. Greece, however, had been far from lax in its preparations since the first attempted invasion under Darius. Athens, under the guidance of a general and politician by the name of Themistocles who would go on to distinguish himself in the naval theater of the coming war, had enhanced its defenses, particularly its ships. Many of the Greek city-states had also formed an alliance that was broader than the Peloponnesian League which included both Athens and Sparta, as well as the various states allied to each of the major cities. Sparta, as always, had maintained its readiness for combat and was prepared for any military eventualities stemming from a second Persian invasion.

  Originally, the Greek city states had planned to cut off the Persian invasion in the central region of Thessaly as the massive army moved south from Thrace. However, there were several problems with this plan. The first was that Xerxes, in his preparation for the invasion, had turned Thrace into a massive support network for his army, giving the Persian army every advantage as it moved southward into Greek territories, rather than putting it in a field that was not prepared for it. The second was the size of the Persian force itself, which made any effort to cut it off difficult at best. The third, and most pressing, problem was that the original site that had been chosen by the alliance of Greek city-states was not as easily defensible as was originally thought. By a stroke of fortune, the Greeks were warned of this fact by Alexander I, then the king of Macedon. Had this warning not come, the result of a battle at the site, known as the Vale of Tempe or the Tempe Pass, would likely have been a disaster for the Greeks. Indeed, the Greek forces under Themistocles had already begun moving to occupy the pass when this critical intelligence was given, forcing them to redeploy.

  Eventually, a place was chosen for the defense of central Greece against the invading Persian forces, and the battle that would ensue there would become one of the most famous moments in the military history of any nation, ancient or modern. The site was a narrow pass on the Greek coast called Thermopylae that offered the best natural position between the Greeks and the advancing Persian forces. In order to advance into southern Greece, the Persian army would have to move through the pass, and so a double defensive strategy was adopted. A land force, consisting of between 7 and 8,000 Greek troops, would hold the Persians at the pass while the navy of the allied states under Themistocles would deploy across the straits of Artemisium, another strategic choke point that could be used to prevent the Persian fleet from moving into southern Greece.

  However, much like the first invasion, the second invasion occurred at a time that the Carniea was underway. To further complicate matters, the Olympic Games were also in progress, another event which called for a cessation of military activity. Once again, the incredibly rigid traditionalism inherent in Spartan society prevented the most powerful military that the Greek city-states had to offer from mobilizing to meet the threat. This time, however, Sparta could not avoid the conflict altogether. A middle path was chosen that would allow Sparta to participate in the defensive action at Thermopylae while also allowing the main Spartan army to wait until the end of the festivals to enter the field. Leonidas I, half-brother of Cleomenes I and now the king of the Agiad house, was chosen to lead a force of 300 Spartan hoplites, his personal guard known as the hippeis, to Thermopylae to fight the Persian forces at the head of the other combined Greek armies.

  Leonidas was perhaps uniquely qualified for this mission. As a half-brother to the heir apparent, he had grown up in the traditional Spartan training schools known as the agoge. As such, he was fully trained as a hoplite and would have been as prepared for a war as any man in Sparta. According to Herodotus, the Oracle at Delphi had already predicted that Leonidas would die in battle defending Sparta and the rest of Greece from the Persians. Such supernatural prophecies are common themes in the histories of Herodotus, but they must of course be dismissed in approaching these events in the light of modern history. The prophecy was used by Herodotus to explain the force that went with Leonidas as being only the hippeis, rather than any other assortment of Spartan soldiers. The guard, however, was changed in composition for the expedition to Thermopylae, as only Spartan men who already had sons were allowed to participate, strongly suggesting that even before his departure, Leonidas and the governing bodies of Sparta were aware that the defense might result in a suicide mission. The 300 Spartans were accompanied by some 900 Helots and free Perioeci, who likely served as attendants to the hoplite soldiers.

  Along the way, Leonidas put together as large an army as he could, eventually numbering some 7,000 or more made up from many of the states of southern Greece by the time that the Spartan-led force reached the narrow coastline pass. Establishing his defenses at the narrowest point, which would have afforded his forces the best possible defenses, Leonidas dispatched a force of Phocians who had come with him to the battle to guard a narrow path through the mountains above that could be used to flank the pass of Thermopylae. The failure of these Phocians to hold their position would ultimately lead to the Persian victory in the coming battle.

  Xerxes, at first, seems to have been reluctant to attack. The narrow pass would have severely reduced the advantage of his vast numeric superiority, and he almost certainly would have known from his adviser Demaratus that the Spartan-led force would not be an easy enemy to displace from such a well-chosen position. Instead, Xerxes twice attempted to convince the Greeks to surrender by sending an emissary to negotiate with them. The first time, the Persian representative is said to have offered them generous terms of surrender that involved land grants and a peaceful transition to Persian rule. The second time, the offer was simply a command to the Greeks to lay down their arms. Though likely an apocryphal story, Leonidas is said at this point to have told the ambassador, “Come and take them.”

  For four days, the forces of Xerxes held their positions, supposedly in hopes that the Greek forces might retreat in the face of a greatly superior enemy and save his army the casualties that would have been certain in a fight at the pass. It is also possible that this time was used to probe the immediate vicinity around the pass for alternative options that would allow his forces to circumvent the pass. On the fifth day, however, the battle that had been inevitable finally began.

  The opening act of the battle was a massive barrage of arrows from Persian archers. The tactic was likely intended to both shock the Greek soldiers and to wound as many possible to open holes in the tight line. However, arrows proved largely ineffective due to the heavy shields and armor that were typical of hoplites. With the first attempt to weaken his enemy deemed a near-complete failure, Xerxes next began sending his infantry forces against the Greek line. Here again, the superiority of the heavily armored close formation line in such a narrow pass became quickly apparent, as the light infantry tactics of the Persians failed to break the line. Long spears would also have given the Spartans and their allies an advantage, as they increased the reach of the Greek soldiers beyond the line of shields that almost certainly would have overlapped in the front rank of the Greek formation, derived from the classical phalanx tactic.

  With his initial assault completely thwarted and an overwhelming number of his men killed in comparison to very few on the side of the Greeks, Xerxes next deployed a force called the Immortals, his elite shock troops. The historicity of this particular infantry corps as presented by Herodotus has been heavily questioned by modern scholars, as there is no contemporary Persian account that seems to describe such a unit. Herodotus states that the Immortals (a term used only in his own histories) were a group made up of exactly 10,000 soldiers. Whenever one died or grew too old for service, he would be immediately replaced to maintain the number of 10,000, hence the name “Immortals.” While this may not be historically accurate, it is almost certain that an elite corps would have existed within Xerxes' army. These soldiers were meant for swift attack, being armed with wicker shields, short spears, bows and a light mail armor. However, they too would fail to break the ranks of the Greek hoplites, who successfully drew them in and then quickly turned on them to defeat them. The force was, however, not entirely destroyed, as it would return to face the Greeks again later in the battle and would also form part of the forces attested in the next year of the Persian campaign. The defeat of the Immortals ultimately ended the first day of battle at Thermopylae.

  On the second day, standard infantry forces were once again sent against the Spartan-led line on the assumption that the full day of fighting might have exhausted the Spartans and their allies. However, under the command of Leonidas, the Greek units had been rotating in and out of the front lines in order to maintain a constantly fresh fighting force facing the Persians, and the next infantry attack failed as miserably as the first. The tide would, however, turn in the favor of the Persians when Xerxes was informed of the existence of the mountain path that the Phocian forces had been assigned by Leonidas to defend when the Greek forces were first deployed. A commander named Hydarnes, the son of a Persian noble who had been governor of the Median lands, was given a force made up of the remaining Immortals and other regular infantry forces and tasked with flanking the Greek line.

  At the beginning of the third day of battle, the Phocians defending the path that would allow the Persians to flank the Greek line gave way, attempting to stage a defense on a nearby hillside. However, the Persians, instead of engaging, simply continued onward. With the Phocian failure to defend the pathway, the position at Thermopylae became entirely untenable. Leonidas, when informed of the development, ordered the other Greek forces to leave the battlefield while he and his Spartan forces remained to hold the position as long as it could be held. This move was likely made out of military necessity, as it would have ensured that the remainder of the Greek forces would survive to participate in future actions.

  Though he had ordered the other Greek units to leave Thermopylae, Leonidas was joined in his last stand by a group of Thespians and Thebens, two groups that volunteered to remain so that the other forces could retreat. The final assault from the Persians constituted a massive attack from both sides of the Greek line, with the forces under the command of Hydarnes, including the remaining elite Immortals, attacking from the rear while Xerxes pressed a full frontal assault with his infantry and light cavalry charges. The Greek line held as best it could under the circumstances, but the two-pronged offensive overwhelmed the defenses. The battle eventually degenerated to a close fighting scenario, with the Greeks switching to sword combat as their spears were broken or as the enemy became too close for pole weapons to be of any use. Leonidas himself was killed during this infantry assault, but the Greeks withdrew to an elevated position to make a final stand. This time, however, the Persians were close enough to use their archers effectively against the broken Greek line, and the remaining Spartans, Thebens and Thespians were destroyed in a massive hail of arrows. This much of the account of Herodotus has been archaeologically attested, as excavations at Kolonos Hill near the ancient pass have turned up masses of bronze arrowheads identifiable as Persian in origin.

  Following the battle, Xerxes and his troops surged southward, taking control of most of central Greece. However, a naval victory under Themistocles at the battle of Salamis would halt the Persian advance and keep the Peloponnese from falling under the rule of Xerxes. Salamis would act as a turning point in the war, as the Persian fleet, though not entirely destroyed, would be severely damaged enough that it was no longer an effective force for continuing the push southward. This blocking of the  Persian advance also prevented Sparta's land from being attacked directly.

  Xerxes' response to this defeat was an unusual one. Rather than pressing forward, he and much of the army that he had amassed for the invasion held back while forces under Mardonius, the commander who had led the first invasion as ordered by Darius, continued the campaign in central Greece. This force ravaged Attica, the region of Greece surrounding Athens, and indeed forced the Athenians to evacuate their own city for fear of destruction. Sparta, as a Peloponnesian city, preferred a strategy of defending the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, which was north of the Peloponnese and lay between it and the invading Persian forces. Athens, however, was less willing to accept such a strategy, as their lands would be offered no protection from it. Thus, the Athenians called on Sparta to at last deploy its armies into the field. Though initially reluctant, the Spartans decided that it was in their own best interest to defeat the Persian forces before they became trapped on the peninsula and agreed to lead the counteroffensive against Mardonius.

  The next great battle of the war would be the one in which the Spartans were most active. The battle against the forces under Mardonius would occur at Plataea, a city in Boetia to which Mardonius had retreated after learning that the allied forces of the Spartans, Athenians and other cities in resistance to Persia had decided to move against him. In 479 BCE, a force of 10,000 Spartan hoplites (5,000 full citizens, 5,000 free non-citizens) accompanied by 35,000 Helot soldiers led the allied forces against the remaining Persian infantry in Greece. This army of the allied Greek city-states placed itself under the command of the Spartan general Pausanias, who was acting as the regent for the son of Leonidas (not to be confused with Pausanias, the historical poet mentioned earlier as a source of information on the Messenian wars).

  The forces which squared off against each other at Plataea echoed the land battles that had occurred prior in the Persian invasions. The Persians had the force of sheer numbers on their side, but had failed to adapt their tactics to deal with the Greek martial traditions of the heavily armored hoplite and the close-rank phalanx formation that had been shown superior at Marathon and had held off a vast Persian army for three days at Thermopylae. Thus, when the two forces met head-on, the Greeks once again had a slight advantage. At first, the overwhelming numbers and light cavalry of the Persians kept pressure on the Greek lines, and the use of a preliminary attack to prevent the Athenians and Spartans, by far the two largest Greek forces present at the battle, from joining their lines together seemed to give the Persians a chance of destroying the forces while they were separated. However, as had happened in earlier battles, the heavier infantry of the Greeks would ultimately prevail. When the Persian lines began to break, they swiftly fell apart, and many of the Persian forces would even flee the battlefield in an attempt to return to friendly territory.

  When the Persians had begun to yield, the Spartans continued to advance, pressing their lines to ensure that they could not regroup effectively. In the ensuing chaos, Mardonius, who was personally present on the battlefield, was killed by a noted Spartan soldier named by Herodotus as Aeimnestus. With their commander dead, the Persians quickly fell apart, and their allies fled the field (some, if Herodotus is to be believed, without even having been engaged in the fighting). The Persian army, or what of it remained in Greece, was routed at Plataea, which is generally seen as the definitive moment of Greek victory in the Greco-Persian wars.

  Finishing the defeat of the Persian forces was the equally important battle at Mycale, which may have occurred on the same day as Plataea. Like Plataea, this battle was also decisively led by the Spartans, this time Leotychides, one of the two kings of Sparta (remembering, of course, that the son of Leonidas had not yet become a full king in his own right, and that Pausanias was acting as regent in his stead). Leotychides had become the commander of the allied naval forces in the interim between the battle of Salamis and the two-pronged Greek offensive at Plataea and Mycale. In order to make the victory complete, the remnants of the Persian fleet, already greatly diminished, had to be destroyed. This was accomplished at Mycale, where the Greek fleet engaged, captured the Persian ships and burned them. With this and the defeat of the army under Mardonius at Plataea, the invasion of Greece by the Persians was ended. Though the threat remained consistent, Xerxes would never again attempt to invade Greece, possibly because of the unacceptably high casualties that he had incurred during his first attempt, despite having massive numerical advantages over the Greek forces.

  Following the general defeat of the Persians at these two battles, there was still much cleaning up of remnant forces to be done, an undertaking in which the Spartans played a role, though one that was less critical than that of Athens. Pausanias would go on to take command of the allied naval forces and attack the Persian-controlled island of Cyprus and then Byzantium, where he would eventually set himself up as a governor. Pausanias, despite his great victory at Plataea, would eventually be put on trial in Sparta for his actions in Byzantium after having been forced out by Athens and would starve himself to death sometime around 470 BCE.

  The Greek military opposition to Persia would continue to manifest itself during the wars of the Delian League, in which an Athenian-led coalition would go on the offensive against Persia in the areas surrounding Greece. Sparta, however, would not participate in these expeditions, as it deemed the primary objective of the campaign (that being to keep Persian forces from conquering Greece) to have been accomplished. While it may seem odd that the most militarily oriented of the Greek city-states would have withdrawn itself from the war while others continued to fight, this was a decision that was wholly in line with the Lycurgan laws of Sparta, which suggested that it was never wise to engage in war with a single enemy for too long, lest that enemy become too familiar with Spartan tactics or, worse, begin to adopt them into their own army.

  The alliance that remained once Sparta and the other city-states of the Peloponnesian League had departed from the conflict, however, would go on to continue growing in power, and none more so than its leading state, Athens. Though the two states had been allies of necessity during the years of the Persian invasions, the differences between the two would soon set them in opposition to each other once again. In 464 BCE, a massive earthquake occurred with is recorded to have devastated Sparta, perhaps killing as many as 20,000 people. The earthquake had multiple effects that would have a significant impact on Sparta. To begin with, the earthquake is said to have stopped Sparta from engaging in a war with Athens, which it had been asked to do the year before by the Thasians, who were themselves at war with Athens. Though tensions with Athens would rise as a result of the aftermath of the quake, the actual war between the two had been forestalled. Secondly, it would have a profound impact on Sparta's population, as many Spartans had died during it, especially young men, many of whom had been crushed by the ceilings of gymnasiums that had fallen in at the time of the quake. Thirdly, it gave the oppressed Helot class of Sparta the opportunity that they had long sought to overthrow their masters.

  The ensuing Helot revolt is sometimes referred to as the Third Messenian War, as it was once again the Messenians who rebelled against their Spartan overlords. Weakness in the structure of the Spartan state was a rare occurrence, and so the Messenians had to move quickly in order to exploit it. The Messenians quickly moved to establish a defensive position on Mt. Ithome, much as they had done at the end of the First Messenian War. Sparta, though it was still not threatened at home, was greatly weakened by the effects of the earthquake, and so sent out to its allies for aid.

   Among the allies that were called were the Athenians, who sent a group of hoplites to help the state that was, for the moment, its ally in or around 461 BCE. However, almost as soon as the Athenians had arrived they were sent home for fear that they might decide to abandon Sparta in order to give support to the Messenian rebels. This was a particular insult to Athens as the commander of the force sent to aid Sparta, Cimon, was an advocate of cooperation between the Athenians and the states of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. Nevertheless, Sparta's distrust of the Athenians led to the removal of all Athenian forces from the Third Messenian War, and it was at this point that it became clear that a general war between the two superpowers of ancient Greece was imminent. The resulting wars, known as the Peloponnesian Wars, would be one of the most defining of all events in the history of ancient Greece, and of Sparta itself.

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