chapter  12
12 Pages

SPARTAN FOREIGN POLICY AND PROBLEMS IN THE PELOPONNESE, 478–446/5

In the sixth century it had been the intention of the Spartans, building upon their success in Messenia, to attempt the conquest of the rest of the Peloponnese. However, defeat by Tegea in the middle of the century (c. 550) led to a radical rethink of their policy in the Peloponnese: instead of conquest, the Spartans embarked on a policy of forming with individual states a series of military alliances, in which they would hold the ‘hegemony’ (leadership). These allies would swear the oath ‘to have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans, and to follow the Spartans wheresoever they may lead’. The Spartans for their part would protect their Peloponnesian allies from outside attack; in return they could call upon their allies if they needed help and could summon them to participate in any military campaign in which they were engaged. This military organization, together with control of the Messenian helots, was the vital element in maintaining the Spartans’ supremacy in the Peloponnese. In the first place, the cultivation of Messenia by the helots for their masters ensured that the Spartans had the necessary time and opportunity to become a first-class military state, excelling in the art of hoplite warfare. This military superiority had two interrelated consequences: first, it ensured their hegemony over the other states in the Peloponnese; second, this hegemony ensured that these allies supplied the necessary military help to suppress any revolt of the helots, upon whom the Spartan system ultimately depended. While this virtuous (in the Spartans’ eyes) circle worked successfully, the Spartans had no fears about their supremacy in the Peloponnese and therefore their status as a Greek super-power. However, if they were to lose the helots, they would quickly lose their military superiority (having then to cultivate their own lands) and with it their hegemony over their Peloponnesian allies, as happened in the fourth century following their loss of Messenia in 370/69 (Diodorus 15.66.6) and the break-up of the Peloponnesian League in 366/5 (Xenophon, Hellenica 7.4.6-11 – see Chapter 24).