Sparta dopo Leuttra: storia di una decadenza annunciata
In the context of a general subject about tradition and innovation in Spartan history,
I am interested in a matter that is not linked to a single extraordinary character,
who is able, on his own account, to attract scholars’ attention: after 370
BC, Spartan people had so few important leaders that we remember only the
names of Agis III, who led an unfortunate revolt against Macedonia in 331/30,
and of Agis IV and Cleomenes III, the third century reforming kings who are
famous to-day especially thanks to their Plutarchean lives in parallel with the
lives of the better known Roman Gracchi.
But scholars are very interested in the social and economic history of late
Classic and early Hellenistic Sparta: as for this, the decline of Spartiate manpower,
the so-called oliganthropia, has been much studied; in the ancient world it
was analysed for the first time by Aristotle, in the second book of his «Politics»,
where we can see a direct connection between oliganthropia and land tenure in
For many years most scholars had thought that the Spartan system of land
tenure and inheritance was controlled by the government with rules which had
to ensure the estates remained undivided and that individual landholders didn’t
have any power of testament; but in the last 20 years S. Hodkinson and, after
him, numerous scholars have suggested another picture of Spartiate land tenure and inheritance. In his first, important essay, Hodkinson says that he has witnessed
« a (Spartan) system which was pre-eminently one of private estates transmitted
by partible inheritance and diverging devolution and open to alienation
through lifetime gifts, testamentary bequests and betrothal of heiresses»113.
In this general state of uncertainty, Spartiate oliganthropia is supposed to have
risen not only from demographic fenomena, but also from social and economic
events, i.e. the progressive fall of the citizens’ number due to the «declassing» of
many Spartiates, who lost their estates after Sparta’ s defeat at Leuktra, when
Messenian helots won their freedom with Epaminondas’ help.
After the loss of Messenian land, the old Agesilaus was the first Spartan king
to turn «condottiere» to earn the wherewithal to augment Sparta’s military
strength; he founded a tradition of mercenary service: like him, many Spartan
kings became «condottieri» in Italy and Sicily too and led mercenaries, most of
whom are supposed to be Spartans deprived of full citizenship by the loss of
their estates in liberated Messenia.
In my opinion, also the war Agis III fought against Antipater, Alexander’s
lieutenant in Europe, can be assumed to be linked to the problems of those
Spartan mercenaries, who, after the battle at Issus, had come back to their
homeland, where they could not live due to the loss of their estates: Agis III tried
to regain some of the lost Peloponnesian land, but he was crushed by
Macedonians soldiers led by Antipater.
Within the framework of tradition and innovation in Spartan history, we may
conclude that after the defeat at Leuktra Spartiate military strength was often
employed in mercenary adventures; in this light, Agis III is not the last hero of
the Greeks’ freedom, but a «condottiere» who, after Darius’ defeat at Issus, saw
his men in trouble, because they could not be hired by the Persian king: he vainly
looked to get land for them.