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The Perils of Plunder: Sparta’s Uneasy Relationship with the Spoils of War

Ellen Millender

            While describing the aftermath of the battle of Plataea, Herodotus recounts the Spartan regent Pausanias’ reaction to Xerxes’ tent, part of the spoils of the Lacedaemonians’ victory over the Persians (9.82).  At a surface glance, Pausanias represents the Spartans’ reputed scorn for wealth in his disdainful comparison of Persian excess with Greek frugality.  Herodotus’ emphasis on the regent’s visceral attraction to the Persian luxuries he wished to put on display, however, indicates that the spoils of victory did not sit well with the Spartans.  One cannot but wonder if Pausanias did eventually surrender to this plunder and thereby acquired the means to facilitate his supposed betrothal to the Persian Megabates’ daughter (5.32).  If we believe Thucydides, Pausanias indeed deployed these spoils to pay for Median clothing, a bodyguard, and banquets in his own bid for despotic power (1.95, 128-134). 

            While scholars have questioned these depictions of Pausanias’s tyrannical aspirations (cf., esp., Schieber 1980), they deserve careful consideration.  As this paper will argue, these accounts point to the threat that the material benefits of successful campaigns posed to Spartan society and the anxiety that such profits generated among the Spartan Homoioi.  This paper argues that the Peloponnesian War exacerbated the dangerous affects of war profits on Spartan socio-political structures, as access to wealth abroad gave rise to commanders who deployed funds to attain an unprecedented degree of power, prestige, and independence that threatened to destabilize the Spartan politeia.

            The Spartans’ uneasy relationship with plunder is reflected not only in Herodotus’ accounts of Pausanias but also in the Histories’ preceding description of the Spartans’ disposition of the valuable spoils from the battle of Plataea (9.80).  According to Herodotus, Pausanias ordered that only the helots were to touch these treasures.  He then recounts the helots’ assiduous attention to this task, down to their stripping of corpses and theft of plunder that they later sold well below market value to the Aeginetans.  The entire account casts the acquisition and management of plunder in a negative light.  Pausanias’ designation of the helots as the sellers of booty likewise points to the Spartan view of plunder as an unsuitable activity for the Homoioi.  The helots’ transaction with the Aeginetans, in turn, provides early evidence of the Spartans’ preference for selling their booty in the field and perhaps reveals an early concern not to bring plunder home (cf. Pritchett 1991, 403-16).

            As several ancient sources make clear, the Lacedaemonians’ concerns about the dangerous effects of booty on their society were validated in the late fifth century, with the rise of successful Spartan generals who used such funds to attain influence hitherto unavailable to the Spartan Homoioi.  Brasidas’ self-directed expedition in the Thraceward region in the late 420s, which included helots, paid Peloponnesians, and Thracian mercenaries (Thuc. 4.79-80, 5.6) clearly depended on the continuous acquisition of funds – likely from the sale of booty as well as contributions from allies (cf. Pritchett 1991, 407).  The success of this campaign led to Brasidas’ own acquisition of unprecedented honors and personal glorification, beginning in 423, when the people of Scione publicly decorated him with a golden crown as the liberator of Hellas (Thuc. 4.121).  Far more destabilizing, however, was Lysander’s later deployment of the vast wealth he gained from his victory over Athens, as he sought pre-eminence and perhaps even the Spartan kingship (Plut. Lys. 13.6).  Through his unprecedented self-glorification via monuments dedicated both at home and abroad (Paus. 3.17-18; 10.9.7-10), Lysander fully demonstrated the danger that material success in war posed for a Sparta that still gloried war but had not adjusted to the changing economics of Greek warfare.

  (599 words)

Session/Panel Title

Profits and Losses in Ancient Greek Warfare

Session/Paper Number

67.3

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