3 Main Reasons for the Downfall of Sparta

When we think of ancient Greece, then many of us immediately think of Sparta. The military might of Sparta, its military society, but also the fact that such a powerful state like Sparta still faded into insignificance has always intrigued people. And yet one question has been asked throughout time:

What caused the downfall of Sparta?

The biggest reason for the downfall of Sparta that is already acknowledged by writers like Aristotle was the Oliganthropia – the decline of the population from 9,000 to only a couple of hundred Spartiates. After the Peloponnesian War, Sparta also lost much of its reputation from the Persian Wars since Sparta allied with Persia against Athens. And the crushing defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC ended the nimbus of Spartan invincibility in large battles and amplified the first two reasons.

Let`s take a closer look. For that, I would like to start out by looking at why the number of Spartiates dwindled over time and how that affected the power of Sparta.

Oliganthropia: The Population Decline of Spartiates

The first and most important reason for the downfall of Sparta – the so-called Oliganthropia – has already been acknowledged by Aristotle in his works on Sparta.

Let`s take a closer look at that phenomenon and what caused the decline of the number of Spartiates.

The Population Decline of the Spartiates Over Time

The main reason for the downfall of Sparta was the declining number of Spartiates. The society of Sparta was extremely rigid and divided into 4 groups. But only the Spartiates, the smallest group that consisted of full citizens who had passed the agoge and exceeded a minimum wealth requirement, had a political say.

Even ancient Greek and Roman writers like Aristotle saw the declining number of Spartiates and Spartiate families as well as the wealth inequalities among the Spartiates as the main reason for the downfall of Sparta.

By the way. When Aristotle writes in his book „Politics“* about how the number of Spartiates declined, then he does not mean that large parts of the Spartan land are now uninhabited.

The declining number of Spartiates was also not a new problem for Sparta that suddenly emerged, quite the opposite. Sparta had had problems with a declining number of its full citizens from the very beginning. The fact that the Spartiates have always been a minority in their country (compared to the number of enslaved natives) was the reason why Sparta became a military society and why every Spartiate lived in barracks until he turned 30.

Even during its peak population Sparta only had about 9000 full citizens (Spartiates). In 480 BC, towards the end of the Persian Wars, the number had gone down to 8000 Spartiates. And in 370 BC only 1500 Spartiates were left. That number continued to go down until only 700 Spartiates were left in the middle of the 3rd century BC.

Needless to say that the decline of full citizens also caused a decline in the size of the Spartan army.

Aristotle himself blames wealth inequality for the population decline of Spartiates. According to him the Spartan lands (3243 square miles / 8400 km2) would be able to support roughly 31,500 Spartiates (so that 1500 would meet the wealth requirements for serving as cavalry while the other 30,000 would meet the wealth requirements for service as Hoplites.

Here you can find out more about the Hoplites and the wealthy requirements they had to meet.

The Size of Sparta in Square Miles

Oh, and by the way. The number of 3243 square miles might sound a little low for such a powerful state like Sparta. But remember, Sparta was a city-state that controlled many other city-states through its alliances. As a result, Sparta could also call the Hoplites of these city-states into service (which explains why the Spartan army was much bigger than the number of Spartiates).

Speaking of Greek city-states.

Each ancient Greek city-state consisted of a center, the settlement areas, and the periphery. The city-state of Sparta had a size of 3243 square miles or 8400 square kilometers.

Ok, so now we know the size of Sparta and we also know that – according to Aristotle – the settlement area of Sparta would be able to support up to 31,500 Spartiates.

So why did the population of Spartiates go down instead of up?

The 2 Reasons Why the Number of Spartiates Declined

There were basically two main reasons why the number of Spartiates declined. The most obvious reason where the high casualties of several battles as well as the casualties during a devastating earthquake in 464 BC.

Sparta actually recognized this problem and – according to some historians – created a quite interesting solution.

Have you ever heard the idea that Spartan babies were brought in front of a commission that then selected the weak babies that were left to die? And have you ever asked yourself whether or not that really happened?

Well, Plutarch claims that a commission of Spartan elders inspected the newborn babies to sort out the weak babies that were then abandoned. But there is another theory in which the commission was put in place to protect the lives of healthy babies. Remember, when a father didn`t want another baby then he could abandon the baby without any legal consequences.

So the theory goes that the Spartan practice of presenting newborn Spartan babies to an official commission was put in place to protect the healthy Spartan babies from being abandoned by their families in case their fathers didn`t want another child. That seems kind of logical since Sparta had a strong incentive to protect healthy babies since the number of Spartiates was going down.

However, that didn`t stop the decline in the number of Spartiates.

The population number of Spartiates fell especially quickly after Sparta was hit by a devastating earthquake in 464 BC. It seems like the highest number of casualties occurred among the Spartiate women, children, and teenagers of both genders which did hurt Sparta for decades, especially since the number of newborns would not be enough to compensate for the number of casualties.

It also didn`t help that Spartiates had to live in barracks where they were separated from their wives during their young adulthood. And while the idea behind young Spartiates living in central barracks was good, it drastically limited the occasions on which babies could be conceived.

The high casualties of both the wars and the earthquake of 464 BC led to an accumulation of more and more land in the hands of fewer and fewer families, which increased the wealth inequality that Aristotle named as the main reason for the population decline of Spartiates.

The population decline also showed in Sparta’s foreign politics.

Just one example: In 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was willing to go to great lengths to free 120 Spartiates who had been captured by Athens in a battle.

So: The casualties of several wars as well as the casualties of a catastrophic earthquake in 464 BC caused a growing wealth inequality among the Spartiates and accelerated the population decline of Spartiates since the number of newborns couldn`t compensate for the number of dead.

But the population decline of Spartiates also resulted in a decline in the size of the Spartan army.

But there were two more reasons, both of them actually linked to the Spartan army and its reputation.

Loss of Image and Prestige

Another reason was the loss of the Image and Prestige of Sparta in the years after the Peloponnesian War. Sparta had defeated its former ally Athens in 404 BC after 27 years of war.

After the Greco-Persian Wars, but especially after the Battle of Thermopylae and the death of King Leonidas, Sparta (just like Athens) stylized itself as the savior of Greece.

After Sparta had defeated Athens in 404 BC it was the last hegemonic power that remained in ancient Greece. That role also included the duty of protecting the Greek city-states in Asia Minor (these states had been allies of Athens and the responsibility of guaranteeing their security now fell onto Sparta).

Unfortunately, Sparta had not only allied with the Persian Empire during the Peloponnesian War but had also bargained away the Greek city-states of Asia Minor for much-needed financial help from the Persian Empire.

Needless to say that the fact that Sparta, a state that prided itself on protecting Greece against the Persian invasion, not only allied with the Persian Empire against Athens (Sparta and Athens had led the fight against the Persians) but also sold out Greek city-states to the Persians for financial support against Athens, severely damaged Spartas reputation among the Greeks!

But not only that. As the last hegemonic power, Sparta was also expected to act as a mediator among the other Greek city-states. But once again Sparta acted quite unfortunate, especially towards city-states like Corinth and Thebes. Both cities had been allies of Sparta during the Peloponnesian war (Corinth had even provided a good part of the Spartan navy) and both were now ignored by Sparta.

And it also didn`t help that Sparta copied the Athenian style of hegemonic behavior. And that included the habit of stationing garrisons in allied cities. But since Sparta – as already presented – suffered under a declining number of Spartiates, these garrisons were not manned by Spartiates.

Sparta decided to garrison their strongholds in allied city-states with so-called Neodamodes (freed Helots who were trained as Hoplites). Unfortunately, the city-states to which the Neodomodes were sent still saw these men as slaves. So to them, Sparta sent garrisons of slaves into their cities – and that badly damage Sparta’s reputation among its allies.

Do you want to find out more about the Helots and the other 3 social groups of Spartan society? Then please feel free to check out my article here.

Oh and speaking of slaves in ancient Greece. Have you ever wondered how much a slave cost in ancient Greece? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the price of slaves in ancient Greece (and how high that price would be in today’s currency).

Both factors, the population decline of Spartiates (and its effects on the Spartan army) as well as the loss of image and reputation would be exacerbated by the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

The Battle of Leuctra – the End of Spartan Supremacy in Greece

The Battle of Leuctra was the final nail in the coffin for the downfall of Sparta.

Until the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC Sparta still had the reputation of having an army that was undefeatable in large field battles. But that reputation came to a drastic end…

Thebes, a former ally of Sparta during the Peloponnesian war, had turned against Sparta and defeated the Spartan army in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC! That was a completely unexpected outcome of the battle.

Not only had the Theban army defeated the Spartan army, but they had also broken the reputation of the elite Spartiates being undefeatable in large field battles. But not only that, 400 of the 700 Spartiates that had fought in the 10,000 men strong Spartan army had fallen!

That was the end of Spartan supremacy in Greece.

In the following year, 370 BC, the Theban army marched into Messenia and liberated the Helots. And while the Theban army didn`t occupy the city of Sparta itself (even though Sparta was basically undefended), the liberation of the Helots destroyed the foundation of Spartan society.

Now the dominant power in Greece was Thebes and later Macedon. Sparta however would decline even further and lose all its political power. And when Alexander the Great secured his rule after taking over the crown of Macedon and the position of Hegemon over the League of Corinth, he didn`t even bother with conquering Sparta since the city-state was so unimportant.

But the wars of Alexander the Great are a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).

Aristotle: Politics.*

Plutarch: On Sparta.*

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