When I was choosing the subject of my doctoral thesis my first choice was the reign and reforms of King Cleomenes III (235-222 BC) of Sparta or, more properly, Lakedaimon. However, my doctoral supervisor wanted another subject and in the end he won the debate and was probably right. Nevertheless, I retained an interest in late Sparta and the attempts of Kings Agis IV and then Cleomenes to restore it from its state of decay, and in some ways parallels of their struggles can be constructed with the current fallen state of our once great nation.
The Spartan constitution and way of life was a subject of fascination, and frequently admiration, by ancient writers and politicians, and even some modern ones. Its admirers were motivated by its reputed political stability over many centuries, its constitution containing elements of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, its predominant position within Greece over two centuries due to its military prowess, and of course its starring role in leading the Greeks to victory against the odds during the Persian invasion and later the three-decade duel to the death with Athens which, again against the odds, it won.
Oddly, despite being in effect a brutal military feudal state which invented the secret police, the Spartans could be quite unpredictably sentimental such as when their allies urged them to destroy defeated Athens and enslave its populace (Athens had done this to several of its enemies), the Spartans refused and spared the Athenians on account of its role in defeating the Persians 80 years earlier.
The purpose of this article is not to examine the peculiar features of the Spartan state or to speculate on their origins – although in some ways Sparta set its face against all the developments in its world, even refusing to mint coinage – but they were perhaps shared to some degree by some Dorian Greek states before 500 BC, but reached their unyielding apogee in Sparta.
All Spartan male citizens (Spartiates) were in effect militarised from a very young age, brought up away from home in military training camps until they graduated in their late teens after service in the Krypteia (secret police) and joined a regimental mess which was to be their life until marriage. They were full time professional soldiers, their needs being met from kleroi (farms worked by feudal serfs or helots). They were by far the best soldiers in the ancient world at the time and Sparta ended up leading an alliance of many Greek states called the Peloponnesian League, the NATO of its day, and it was this League that provided most of the resistance to the Persians and later Athens.
At its peak in the early fifth century Sparta could field probably about 8,000 Spartiate soldiers, a similar number of non-Spartiate freemen (not professionals, more like the other states’ part time citizen soldiers) and several tens of thousands of helots as auxiliaries (albeit the Spartans rarely armed them for fear that the helots would turn on the Spartans themselves as they did on several occasions).
By the late 240’s BC though Sparta’s glory days were long gone, although its constitution was technically intact. A devastating earthquake followed by a protracted helot revolt in 464 BC appears to have reduced Spartan manpower on a permanent basis, which then went into a long-term decline. By the end of the Peloponnesian War the number of available Spartiates seems to have at least halved. The breaking of Spartan supremacy by the Thebans in the 360’s BC and the loss of the Messenian helots caused further declines so that by the time Cleomenes succeeded to one of the two positions of king (Sparta had dual kings and royal families) there may have been less than a thousand military qualified Spartiates left.
If this wasn’t bad enough, plenty of people of Spartiate ancestry had lost their land and were non-citizen malcontents at home and a threat to the country’s stability, especially if they teamed up with the remaining Laconian helots. And owning a kleros, or minimum plot of land worked by helots, was essential to becoming a Spartiate warrior citizen. Other factors not fully understood seem to have contributed to the ever-greater concentration of kleroi in fewer Spartiate hands, reducing the number of citizens still further. Even more uniquely for its day, Spartan women could own property in their own name (Spartan women were the freest in the ancient world) and by the time of Cleomenes it seems that over half of Spartan land was owned by women, thus reducing the number of military males still further.
So the rich were getting richer, the land-poor poorer and more excluded, to the detriment of the country’s strength, and Sparta was hanging on to a precarious independence against a dominant Macedon and the two rival Greek federal leagues of Achaea and Aetolia. Agis IV had tried to get the land redistributed to restore the ancient constitution in the 240’s BC, but had been judicially killed by Cleomenes’ father, the other then dual King, who then forced his son Cleomenes to marry Agis’ widow to cement his power.
Oddly, Cleomenes seems to have loved his new wife and been inspired by her stories of Agis’ thwarted attempt to restore the glory of Lakedaimon, so that when Cleomenes succeeded his father to the throne he had a plan, but also far more political ruthlessness than Agis. A talented soldier, Cleomenes spent the next nine years defeating Sparta’s enemies, the Achaean League and resurrecting the part of the old Peloponnesian League, so that by 226 BC returning home victorious he in effect took complete power replacing the other dual King with his uncle and deposing the powerful Ephors (elected magistrates) in a coup.
He, his family and other land rich then donated all their property to the Sate which then parcelled it out to all Spartiates, all landless descendants of Spartiates and others of sufficient standing to create a rejuvenated Spartiate citizenry of over 4,000 (the exact number is unclear). He also reformed the army on Macedonian army lines, using the pike phalanx, and set about smashing what remained of the Achaean League, which began to fall apart.
But more deadly to Cleomenes’ external enemies than his rejuvenated military was his message of land reform. All Greece had seen declining numbers of citizens as the rich got richer and the poor lost their land, and Cleomenes’ actions sent an electric shock throughout Greece. A series of cities overthrew their rulers and went over to Cleomenes. The Achaean League, based in the northern Peloponnese, was on the edge of extinction and its leaders in their desperation, invited their previous enemy, King Antigonos Doson of Macedonia, to intervene by pledging their loyalty to him.
The Macedonians were still a great power and far too strong for the still immature revolution of Cleomenes, and so after a very tough campaign Cleomenes’ army was defeated at Sellasia in northern Laconia, and Cleomenes driven into exile where he died by his own hand three years later. Antigonos, not trusting the Achaeans, allowed Sparta to retain its independence, a position it retained under the Romans, but its great days were gone for good and it shrank into a curiosity and a parody of its former self.
Could Cleomenes have avoided defeat? Up until 226 BC, he had played it brilliantly, concealing his real intentions from his domestic enemies until he was in a position of overwhelming prestige, and then radically reforming the state and citizenry into a strength unseen for 150 years. Should he have tried to reach an accord with the Achaeans so they didn’t feel so threatened that they called in the Macedonians? Up to a point yes, he needed time to bed in his reforms, and so might be accused of impetuosity, but the Achaean leaders would have still tried to bring him down because his social radicalism was what they really feared. And perhaps he never dreamt they would team up with their former arch foes of Macedon against him. Ultimately the timing was just wrong, a decade or two later with Macedonia distracted by its war with Rome everything might have been different.
So does this have any relevance to us today as we try to overcome our domestic enemies that have undermined and weakened our country, enemies that will stop at nothing to retain their toxic grip on our nation, enemies quite prepared to co-operate with a foreign federation that seeks to dominate and absorb us into its stifling embrace? Perhaps. Radical action to restore our ancestral constitution must be a part, as will rebuilding our military and citizen body; finding a leader of vision and genius like Cleomenes is still a major issue, but most of all it’s essential to get the timing right and to take no reckless gambles unless absolutely necessary. It’s a long game.