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Population Politics and Spartan Imperialism

Timothy Doran

Xenophon reduced the conflict between Lysander’s war aims and those of the Spartan King Pausanias after Sparta’s victory over Athens in 403 BC to personal issues, stating that King Pausanias envied Lysander’s growing, almost omnipotent power, and that he worried about Lysander’s desire to “make Athens his own.” (Xenophon, Hellenika 2.4.29). However, limiting this conflict to interpersonal rivalry ignores the larger demographic problem of Spartiate population decline noticed by Aristotle (Pol. 1270a30-37), and the attendant changes in the Sparta's military and administration. This paper argues that by the late Peloponnesian war the demographic collapse of the original Spartiate caste played a pivotal role in transforming Spartan imperialism, empowering traditionally subordinate elements within Lakonian society.

Older Spartan nomoi had become counterproductive to the acquisition of empire by the second half of the fifth century. Sparta had traditionally enforced a set of conservative policies: strict relegation of helots to servile activity,  restricting army command to Spartan royals or Spartiates, avoiding extra-Peloponnesian rule, hostility to Persia and a committment to the basic autonomy of other Greek poleis. While the shrinking elite caste in theory controlled the mechanisms of Spartan government, the dwindling of its numbers led to the enfranchisement of subordinate elements in Sparta's population. These various substrata were able to push for more aggressive imperial policies, such as the series of Spartan interventions abroad in the 390s. 

The Spartans had previously demonstrated some awareness of the need to give opportunities to the discontented lest they cause trouble (Thucydides 4.80.2) but cultural attitudes of Spartiate exclusivity prevented a full incorporation of these groups into the Spartiate caste. The attenuation of the Spartiate caste resulted in the dwindling of such earlier ideals, since fewer and fewer people inculcated in them were present to promulgate them. While the Spartiate caste was shrinking, the marginal groups had become huge (Xenophon, Hellenika 3.3.5). The Spartan admiral Lysander belonged to one of these marginal classes. They were discontented at not possessing first-class citizenship, as we see in the Conspiracy of Kinadon around 400 BC. Not long after, we see an aggressive turn towards overseas rule, which directly benefited soldiers and administrators drawn from subordinate classes.

Here we see the political power of an array of previously disenfranchised or marginal groups asserting themselves and actively seeking enrichment through the plunder now obtainable in overseas war. These burgeoning groups of sub-Spartiates promoted an aggressive imperial role for Sparta in Greece and the Aegean. The larger the empire became, the more staff was necessary for it, as the Spartiates were certainly no longer numerous enough to staff it. Thus the new Spartan empire demanded not just the use of non-Spartiates in Lakedaimon, but their promotion to positions of importance in Sparta’s international imperial administration.

In summary, the paper argues that Sparta’s newly aggressive foreign policy was strongly influenced by demographic shifts in Sparta during this period and by the desire of the previously disenfranchised classes for the rewards obtainable by war. The conflict between Pausanias and Lysander made sharply visible a contemporary clash of ideals that in fact reflected deeper social currents: a rupture between a traditional Spartan ethos, represented by the king Pausanias and Spartiates like Lichas, versus an increasingly aggressive imperialism that answered to the needs of burgeoning constituencies of non-Spartiates.

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Popular Politics and Ancient Warfare

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