Sparta was probably the most famous military power of Ancient Greece. And yet Alexander the Great never conquered Sparta, even though Sparta waged war against him and got badly defeated by Alexander`s general Antipater.
But why didn`t Alexander the Great conquer Sparta?
Sparta was neither a member of the League of Corinth nor did it contribute soldiers to the wars of Alexander the Great. Sparta was able to maintain its political independence because of the nimbus it had gained in the Persian Wars, but also because Sparta had faded into insignificance and no longer posed a threat. Sparta’s political independence ended in 331 BC after a failed rebellion, but Sparta was still not conquered by Macedonian troops.
And even after Alexander the Great had died in 323 BC the city of Sparta did not play any role in the wars that ripped apart Alexanders’ empire after his death.
Let`s take a closer look at why Alexander the Great never conquered Sparta.
First, we have to acknowledge that while Sparta certainly had a strong army and massively contributed to the victory of the Hellenic League over the Persians in 479 BC, it had lost most of its power in the years after the Peloponnesian wars (431-404 BC).
But Sparta still had the nimbus that it had gained during the Greco-Persian Wars (and carefully cultivated afterward) even though most of Sparta’s real political and military power was long gone and Sparta was basically insignificant ever since 346 BC.
Do you want to find out more about how Sparta could fall from a highly successful military state to a basically insignificant state without any real military power? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Sparta, unlike most Greek city-states, did not join the League of Corinth that was created by Philip II in 338 BC as a Greek alliance against the Persian Empire. The reason why Sparta was not forced to join the League of Corinth after it refused to do so of its own free will might have been the political and military insignificance of Sparta.
But after Sparta refused to join the League of Corinth, an alliance of Greek states under Macedonian dominance, Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) occupied large parts of the territory that was controlled by Sparta in 338 BC and distributed it to the cities that had supported him. But even though Philip II took large parts of the territory that was controlled by Sparta away, he still didn`t conquer or occupy Sparta itself.
And Alexander the Great would also not conquer Sparta after he became king. But things started to get going again after Alexander the Great had left Greece for his war against the Persian Empire.
Sparta started a rebellion against the Macedonian dominion over Greece as soon as Alexander the Great left Greece for his war against the Persian Empire. (Here you can find out more about why Alexander didn`t have another choice than to go to war with the Persian Empire)
Sparta, which had kept a certain level of political independence despite the Macedonian dominance over Greece, started to prepare a rebellion against Macedonian dominance in 333 BC. The Spartan king Agis II even managed to convince the Persian King Darius II to send him military aid in the shape of 30 talents of silver and 10 triremes.
And in 332 BC, 8,000 Greek mercenaries from the army of the Persian king Darius II that had been defeated in the Battle of Issos also joined the Spartan forces of Agis II. With that kind of reinforcement, Agis could risk a rebellion against Macedonian dominance in the summer of 331 BC. He even managed to defeat the first Macedonian army that was sent to end the rebellion. Because of that first Spartan victory, Sparta could regain control over most of the Peloponnese and several city-states ended their affiliation with the Macedonians and joined the Spartan side.
But Athens refused to join the Spartan rebellion against the Macedonian dominion over Greece in 331 BC. And that was crucial!
The Spartan rebellion against the Macedonian dominion over Greece ended shortly afterward in the Battle of Megalopolis in the fall of 331 BC. Antipater, the Macedonian general who controlled Europe as long as Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, and his army defeated the Spartan king Agis II and his 22,000 men strong army. Agis II was fatally wounded in the battle and died soon after.
But even after Antipater had crushed the Spartan rebellion against the Macedonian dominion over Greece in 331 BC, Alexander the Great still didn`t see the need to conquer and occupy the city of Sparta since the high Spartan casualties in the Battle of Megalopolis meant that Sparta was now completely insignificant.
Speaking of high Spartan casualties. It is unclear how many of the 5,300 fallen soldiers of the Spartan army were actually Spartans. But even when we assume that only a tiny number of the 5,300 fallen soldiers were Spartiates, that still had a crushing effect on Sparta since its population of full citizens was extremely low.
Yet despite its defeat in 331 BC, Sparta was still not forced to join the League of Corinth. Sparta did however lose all of its political independence that it had maintained until this point in time.
Sparta would never recover from that. The time of Sparta was finally over. But the end of Sparta’s political power did not mean that Greek history became less interesting! But that is a story for another time.
Do you want to find out more about how the rise and fall of Sparta fit into the timeline of ancient Greece? Then I would like to recommend you my article on that topic.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*
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