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uring the war that devastated Greece in the years 431 BC — 404 BC, the powers in Athens and Sparta fought with those in the Aegean region. The war of this period would change the course of Western civilization in the following centuries. The war led to the creation of a “power vacuum” to be filled by the king of Macedonia, Philip II. His son Alexander (Alexander the Great) later conquered the Persian Empire, which led, in the Hellenistic period, to the clash of cultures in a Greek-dominated world.

The Peloponnesian War was a political one. Following the defeat of the Persian king Xerxes I during the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC, the ambitions of the Athenians were directed toward the empire. While the Athenians continued to push the borders of independence, those who could not retain their sovereignty turned to Sparta. This was the only state that could stop the threat of Athenian domination.

Fearing they would lose their position as the dominant power in Greece, the Spartans did not capitulate, which led to the beginning of a long and destructive war. After several years of fighting, neither side has made significant progress. With a force of famous soldiers, the Spartans destroyed the territories of Attica in an attempt to scare their opponents. But the Athenians did not give up.

This copper engraving by Matthaus Merian illustration depicts the Athenian naval defeat near Corinth over the Corinthian and Spartan fleet around 430 B.C. (Source: Museum Factory)

Neither side had any mortals to fight on the opponent’s territory, so much of the war was fought in mandatory conflicts while the remaining cities tried to choose one of the sides. Those who joined Sparta were known as the Peloponnesian League, in that the areas dominated or allied with the Athenians formed the League of Delos.

The political system in Sparta

The Battle of Pylos (425 BC) marked an important point in the Spartans’ despair for peace and the war’s end. A group of 420 Spartan soldiers was shipwrecked on an island near the Peloponnese coast. Athenian naval forces surrounded them. The most important aspect is that 120 soldiers were from the elite of Spartan society. Their loss was a catastrophe for Sparta’s social and political system.

The Battle of Sphacteria was a land battle of the Peloponnesian War, fought in 425 BC between Athens and Sparta. (Source: Public Domain)

The elite of the Spartan army was composed of those who were specially trained for war and were prepared to save it. They were the citizens of Sparta who owned land and were part of the group of those who reflected democracy in their leadership. Because the elite focused more on politics and struggle, much of Spartan society was made up of people who were not considered citizens and who performed the economic and material tasks that supported the militarization of the state.

The Spartans’ attention to military training and social segregation needed to support the system made procreation a ritual task performed occasionally. Although the elite always maintained their status, they struggled to maintain their membership.

The second class, inferior to the Spartan elite, was composed of peers, the middle class, and the working class. They were artisans, blacksmiths, and merchants. The couple performed the tasks necessary for civilization to function at the highest level. Even so, being a lower class of the Spartan elite, they were not citizens of Sparta.

The helots were slaves, being the lowest class but also the most numerous. They took care of growing and harvesting the crops needed to feed the army. Most of the helots were Greeks from Messinia, inhabitants of the southern Peloponnese peninsula west of Sparta. They had been conquered by the Spartans during the “Dark Age of Greece”, a period that began in the 12th century BC. Following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and the rise of classical Greece in the ninth century BC.

The weakness of Sparta

Since the helots were often oppressed by the Spartan elite that controlled the slaves, they tended to revolt and help Sparta’s enemies. The ritual slaughter of the helots was considered a necessary measure to maintain the place that slaves occupied in the social structure of Sparta. This was part of the Spartans’ rigorous military education, as the helots could be killed for any reason by their masters.

Parisians and soldiers often accompanied the Spartan army to support them. The possibility of losing 120 Spartan soldiers, although considered a small number, could cause panic among the Spartan leadership. Sparta was known for its reluctance to fight outside their territories, so the lack of Peloponnesian soldiers provided an opportunity for the soldiers to revolt and create chaos in Spartan-held areas. If the thugs only managed to break their chains, Sparta could collapse completely.

The fall of Sparta

The port created by the Greeks and the narrow island of Sphacteria led to the formation of two entrances to the present-day Navarino Gulf. When the Athenian fleet reached both entrances, the Spartan ships were destroyed. A Spartan army contingent used the island as a starting point for the attack on Pylos, but they were actually isolated and surrounded by Athenian fleets.

In uncharacteristic despair, the Spartans demanded peace. Following the negotiations, the Spartans were forced to hand over the remaining triremes so that the besieged troops could receive food. Despite attempts to persuade the Athenians to achieve long-term peace, Commander Cleon turned down their offer. Thus the Spartans returned home defeated, and the temporary armistice in Pylos ended. The Athenians refused to offer Sparta the ships detained during the negotiations. They insisted that during the armistice, a group of Spartan soldiers tried to invade their fortifications.

Then, during the battle of Sphacteria, the famous Spartan soldiers were defeated. In order not to take responsibility for the disaster, Sparta’s leadership sent a message to its soldiers: “Decide for yourself, as long as you do not do something dishonorable.” Thus, the Spartan soldiers decided to surrender their weapons and become slaves of the Athenians.

They were then used to prevent a future Spartan attack in Attica. Otherwise, the Spartan soldiers were killed, and the elite could not afford to lose so many citizens. Later, although the Spartans emerged victorious after the Peloponnesian War (404 BC), this was due to catastrophic military mistakes by the Athenian army.

Battle of Leuctra 371 BC (Source: Reddit)

After reaching the hegemonic power of classical Greece, the system of Sparta failed to maintain control over other city-states, so problems often encountered led to the loss of the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. This defeat to Thebes was the basis of the subsequent conquests of Alexander the Great.

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