La dialettica fra tradizione e innovazione, fra immobilismo e dinamicità, fra conservazione e apertura al nuovo che caratterizza la storia di Sparta si esprime con significativa evidenza nella vicenda storica di alcuni dei suoi protagonisti: sovrani come Cleomene I, Pausania II e Cleomene III oppure uomini come il reggente Pausania, Brasida e Lisandro. Pur stretti nelle maglie rigide della struttura costituzionale spartana, tendente a deprimere ogni forma di personalismo e a risolvere l’individuo nella collettività, essi cercarono spazi di iniziativa autonoma e attirarono l’attenzione sulle riforme necessarie al rinnovamento dell’apparentemente immutabile kosmos spartano. I contributi qui raccolti concorrono a mettere in luce la complessa articolazione interna del mondo politico spartano e la presenza, al di là dell’immagine convenzionale di realtà monolitica, di un vivace dibattito interno, incentrato sulla vocazione politica di Sparta a livello panellenico e, di conseguenza, sulla capacità e volontà dei suoi uomini di esprimere un’azione congruente o non congruente con tale vocazione, nei termini in cui la definiva la tradizione.
The ancient tradition often compares ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’
Spartans. In our sources we can find typical Spartans, representing the best local
tradition, and innovating Spartans, who excited suspicion in their own city’s
public opinion and establishment. This paper considers such comparisons in
different historical contexts, without claiming to be exhaustive.
First of all, I consider the comparison between the Spartan king Archidamus
and the ephor Sthenelaidas in the «Spartan debate» in Thucydides’s first book.
Their speeches attempt not only to compare two individuals, but also to focus
on «Spartan and Athenian national characteristics»: Archidamus is the typical
Spartan, representing his own city’s traditional caution, hesitation, and inactivity;
on the other hand, Sthenelaidas is the alternative Spartan, representing a
more dynamic and innovating attitude.
Moreover, I consider two couples, Lysander and Kallicratidas, and Agesilaus
and Agesipolis, whose personalities and politics are often compared in our sources.
On the one hand, Lysander and Agesilaus are innovating leaders and represent
different imperialistic trends that are not consistent with Spartan tradition;
on the other hand, Kallicratidas and Agesipolis (like his father, king Pausanias
II) are more traditional leaders and conceive of Spartan hegemony as an instrument
of panhellenic policy, respecting freedom and autonomy of Greek states,
and following the ancient image of Sparta as the champion of freedom and the
enemy of imperialism and tyranny.
These cases emphasize some unchanging features in the comparison of different
personalities and political orientations. On the one hand, we find men
like Etoimaridas, Archidamus, Kallicratidas, Pausanias II and Agesipolis, representing
sophrosyne and dikaiosyne, traditional moral virtues and self-control, supporting
a panhellenic and ‘pacifist’ foreign policy, defending a panhellenic
balance of power based on dividing spheres of influence, on mutual control,
and on restriction of Spartan hegemonical ambitions. On the other hand, we
find men like Sthenelaidas, Lysander and Agesilaus, representing unscrupulous
military aggressiveness and ethical indifference, innovating capacity but also
paranomia and imperialistic trends on the ‘Athenian’ model. Such parallelism
has a strictly political character: the comparison is not between different personalities
or ethics, but between different ideas about the hegemonic role of
Sparta in Greece.
In any case, it must be noted that in fourth-century Sparta ‘unconventional’
and ‘revolutionary’ behaviour can be perceived as ‘traditional’. Xenophon (Hell.
V, 2, 32) mentions an interesting sentence by king Agesilaus about the case of
Phoebidas, who held the acropolis of Thebes, the Kadmeia, on his own initiative.
The ephors and most Spartiates angrily disapproved of Phoebidas’s behaviour as
he had acted «without authorization by the state»; however, Agesilaus said that
«if what he had done was harmful to Lacedaemon, he deserved to be punished,
but if advantageous, it was a time-honoured custom that a commander, in such
cases, had the right to act on his own initiative». In his contrast with Lysander,
Kallicratidas, at the end of the fifth century, had refused personal initiatives as
inconsistent with Spartan tradition; according to Agesilaus, an ambiguous and
many-sided character, personalism can be considered a traditional element.
Thanks to Herodotos, Cleomenes I is one of the earliest Spartan characters who
are more than mere names. The Herodotean evidence does not allow us to decide
whether Cleomenes was mad, but it gives us very interesting indications on
Spartan politics in the late archaic period. Two salient facts apprear: 1)the
importance of the popular assembly 2)the predominance of one of the two
The list of the Spartan kings’ gšrea in Hdt. VI 56-58 is both precise and ambiguous.
Till 506, the two Spartan kings may have had the right to decide a war if
they agreed with each other; when they disagreed – and they often disagreed –,
the damos had to decide. Anyway, the two kings led the Spartan army together.
After the dicostas…a of Eleusis in 506, the Spartans voted a new law laying down
that one king only should lead the expeditions abroad. This reform still increases
the inequality between the two kings: one of them, the more popular who
inspires Spartan foreign policy, is also chosen as war-leader, while the other king
–Demaratos between 506 and 491 for instance – only celebrates sacrifices at
Thucydides’ treatment of Pausanias, although far from perfect, remains the best
evidence concerning his downfall. The proofs of Pausanias’ Medism are probably
concocted, but the main lines of the story are still recognizable. Instead of
attributing to him great political ambitions, involving Athenians, Persians, and
Spartan factions divided on political targets, the paper tries to explain his acts
and Spartans’ responses to them – undervalued by Thucydides – in the light of
contemporary social values and political culture. The sense of honour, with its
attendant feelings of vengeance and shame, guided Pausanias’ actions, while the
Spartan officials feared the reaction of an offended offspring of Heracles: the
phantom of tyrannis, and of a ruler who could be put on the throne by Persian
spears, led them to putting Pausanias to death.
This paper aims at reading Brasidas’ military career in the light of his relations
with Spartan leadership. Our primary source – his «enemy» Thucydides (books
IV and V) – reveals in this respect clashing evidence between narrative parts and
personal opinions or evaluations. So it is not impossible to perceive, through his
literary presentation of Brasidas as an epic hero, the fil rouge of a loyal service to
political interests of Sparta. Brasidas was a leader more active or resolute than
other Spartans but not so inusual.
The Author analyses the sources concerning Pausanias’s three campaigns (in
Attica in 403, in Elis in 402/1, in Boiotia in 395/4) and his two trials (in 403 and
394); the A. concludes on these occasions Pausanias appeared as a conservative,
a loyal supporter of the traditional Spartan policy, an enemy of Lysander’s
adventurist policy: he is supposed to have been worried because Lysander’s
policy was damaging Sparta’s image in Greek public opinion. Only Pausanias’s
logos about the Spartan constitution seems «revolutionary»; he wrote it in exile,
suggesting the suppression of the ephorate, because, in his opinion, the ephors had
been responsible for Sparta’s crisis, thanks to their support to Lysander in 395.
In Lysander’s Life (14, 3) Plutarch mentions Lysander’s attempt to colonize Sestos
by installing there his seamen, after taking the town from the Athenians and
expelling its inhabitants. His attempt failed for Spartan opposition. According
to Plutarch, on this occasion, for the first time Spartan government didn’t support
Lysander who was compelled to abandon his plan.
Lysander’s project could not invoke a sure precedent in Spartan history. As
it seems, it was a new, personal initiative of ‘imperial’ politics, with the purpose
of strengthening the relationship between commander and soldiers, and of
making Lysander popular among his fleet’s sailors. Had Lysander any model for
his colonial initiative in mind? Or was it only connected with the navarch’s
powerful, innovating personality?
Lysander’s historical experience can conjure up several models, such as
Polycrates the tyrant, Brasidas the general, Pausanias the regent. Pausanias, in
particular, seems to resemble Lysander as far as personality, ambitions, care of
his public image, and way of life are concerned. Lysander’s contemporaries perceived
such striking analogy, as attested in a sentence by king Agis II: according
to Athenaeus (XII, 543 c), the king used to say that, with Lisander, Sparta bore ‘a
It has been stressed that Thucydides’ account on Brasidas seems to be influenced by Lysander’s historical experience. In the same way, Diodorus’s
account on Pausanias suggests that the image of Lysander influenced the perception
of the Spartan regent in the Bibliotheca historica. Diodorus’ main source,
Ephorus, seems to blame their analogous intolerance of the limits imposed on
individuals by the Spartan tradition, and their refusal of the typical ‘Spartan way
Thus, our sources suggest lively debate on Lysander as a ‘new Pausanias’
which involved historians as Ephorus and Theopompus. According to the fragments,
the former probably underlined the similarities between Pausanias and
Lysander, as in the contemporary tradition represented by king Agis; the latter
denied such similarities by depicting Lysander as indifferent to money and pleasures,
and not eager to imitate a foreign way of life.
If such debate occurred, then, Lysander’s taking of Sestos to colonize it with
his men as a private dominion did probably remind his contemporaries of the
shadow of Pausanias’s dominion in Byzantium after the Second Persian War.
Lysander did not likely mean to conjure up Pausanias’s alarming precedent; on
the contrary, he probably meant to imitate Brasidas who had been Amphipolis’s
founder unconditionally trusted by his soldiers, and who, nonetheless, still
respected Spartan tradition. However, Lysander’s unconventional behaviour
increasingly led to perceiving him as a ‘new Pausanias’, and spread worries
about his personal initiatives and their constitutional consequences. Spartan
apprehensions are proved by Agis’s sentence and in a similar remark by the
Spartan Eteokles who, according to Plutarch (Lys. 19, 5), used to say that
«Greece would not have suffered two Lysanders». So, ‘conventional’ Spartans as
Agis and Eteokles gave expression to the apprehensions of Spartan conservative
political groups about Lysander’s ‘unconventional’ initiatives.
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.
Cleomenes III personality shows a substantial agreement with the models of the
Hellenistic kingship, in spite of the themes of his propaganda, founded on the
formal acceptance of the ideals of Lykourgos. The abolition of the ephorate and
the radical modifications to the role of the diarchy and of the gerusia were a
break with the traditional Spartan constitution and the wide grant of citizenship
agreed with the Hellenistic practice. On the other hand, the honours given to
Lydiadas’s body and the formal sides of the position Cleomenes reserved for
himself in the relations with the subjects and the allies confirms the strong influence
on him of the Hellenistic political ideals.
Biografia degli autori
A questo volume hanno collaborato: Cinzia Bearzot, Pierre Carlier, Franca Landucci, Gabriele Marasco, Massimo Nafissi, Luisa Prandi, Marta Sordi.