Philip Matyszak has published several volumes of ancient history geared primarily toward the general reader, and this volume fits quite well into that category. The book is well organized, his style is clear, vivid, and entertaining, and he ably draws his readers seductively down the path toward his rationale for the fall of the Spartan state.
That being said, it is somewhat discomforting that at the outset of the book, prior to any arguments being presented, he makes sweeping statements which may bias the less knowledgeable reader (e.g. “As we follow Sparta’s attempts to maintain the hegemony of Greece after the Peloponnesian War, the intellectual sterility of the state is revealed as never before...”, p. ix). This is followed by direct praise of the Athenian state.1
Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Spartan state after the battles of Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC. His first point concerns the “surprising” behaviour of the Spartans when they appeared, at the height of their reputation and military prowess, to reject the leadership of the Hellenic League (and hence of the Greeks). He then states that the Athenians, who were more “enterprising” were happy to accept the mantle of leadership. Matyszak does ask why they acted in this manner – and his answer is that Spartan domestic policy, specifically the resources and attention necessary for the continued subjugation of the Messenians, largely dictated its foreign policy. He goes on to note an interesting rationale for Sparta’s creation of the Peloponnesian League: “basically formed to protect Sparta from those states which made up its membership…” (p. 6), rather than a form of Spartan imperialism. I am not convinced, however, that the Spartans lacked an imperialistic vision for the Peloponnesian League. Could it not rather be that Spartan imperialism was more localized – i.e., that the Spartans recognized the limitations of their sphere of influence? Control of the Hellenic League would have required an imperialistic involvement outside of this locale.
Chapter 2 attempts to identify the beginning of the end for the Spartans. One cause, according to Matyszak, concerned the civic structure at Sparta, which was basically a series of checks and balances – two kings from two different families, plus the Ephorate – designed to avoid autocracy. When there was instability among these parties, this contributed to tarnishing Sparta’s reputation among Greeks after the Persian War. An example he provides is how the divergent avenues pursued by Pausanias (regent for the Agaid king Pleistarchus during his minority), and Leotychides (the Eurypontid king), together with the lackluster performance of the Ephors, all led to the Athenians being able to rebuild their city walls, despite Spartan opposition and without Spartan retribution.2 Chapter 3, which is a brief overview of the fall of Pausanias, serves as a concrete example: it illustrates that the actions of the two kings and the ephorate resulted in “irritated and confused” allies who had begun to view the Athenians as the better leaders, albeit with misgivings.
Chapters 4 through 7 discuss Spartan leadership before and during the Peloponnesian War. One of the author’s first topics is the major earthquake throughout Laconia in 464 BC, which caused not only widespread economic damage, but also an “inevitable” helot revolt. During this period, according to Matyszak, the Spartan king Archidamos had introduced more diplomacy into the Spartan body politic, which resulted in the capture of Mt. Ithome from the helots via negotiation rather than military force. He subsequently spends some time outlining various battles, alliances, etc., which were drawing Spartan attention away from Laconia, employing titles such as “Battle of Tanagra, late 460s”, “Congress of the Allies”. His main source for this period is Thucydides, who was somewhat contemporary (e.g., he could at least have interviewed people who had participated in some of these activities). Also included in his discussion is the Spartan reaction to the Megarian Decree, which was perhaps more typical of them: “Sparta wants peace. Stop oppressing other Greeks, and peace will happen.” (p. 42). Spartan diplomatic patience had expired.
The Archidamian War is described inasmuch as it relates to Spartan missteps, e.g., the unsuccessful siege of Plataea, Sparta’s inability to counter the Athenian plan to avoid direct military confrontation and use their navy. The only partially bright spot in this period was Pylos, where Sparta managed to keep Athens to a stalemate. There was, however, one serious negative issue arising from the Pylos campaign – the stranding of some 400 Spartiates on the island of Sphacteria. Matyszak makes a major point that one of the main causes of the fall of the Spartan state was its constantly diminishing numbers of Spartiates – full Spartan citizen hoplites – which eventually reached the point of no return. I must admit to some puzzlement at the statement Matyszak makes concerning these “vanishing Spartiates”: “The reasons why this should be so have been hotly disputed by academics in a debate which has lasted considerably longer than the Peloponnesian War itself. There is no space here to examine the various theories and counter-arguments.” (p. 57). I would have expected at least a summary these hotly disputed reasons. Moreover, he then says that, since there is no space for that discussion, he will “take Plutarch at his word (while accepting that there are reasons for doubting him” (p. 57). This is an unsatisfactory solution. If Plutarch offers one of his major arguments for the outcome, the reader should have been presented with more detailed discussion.
Chapter 7 outlines the well-known stalemate between the superior Spartan army and the superior Athenian navy, as well as the vagaries of Persian funding for both sides. The War eventually ended, owing in part to the Spartan fort at Decelea preventing Athenian access to their silver mines, as well as the success of the single great Spartan admiral, Lysander (and the Spartans’ Persian backers, which included Cyrus).
Chapters 8 through 10 describe in more detail the circumstances which led to the rather abrupt decline in the Spartan state after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Matyszak points out several reasons: decline in the number of Spartiates, 3; Spartan acceptance of Persian funds, which reduced their reputation for “unflinching honesty and integrity”; Spartan armies becoming paid mercenaries outside Laconia and the Peloponnese; their handing over of the Ionian cities to Persia; the unlawful seizing of the Cadmeia in Thebes by Phoibidas; the stunning Theban victory at Leuctra; the dismantling of the Peloponnesian League and the creation of the Arcadian and Achaean Leagues, which further curtailed Spartan influence; the invasion of Laconia in 370 BC; the Theban enforcement of the independence of Messenia; finally, Spartan misreading of the rise of the Macedonian kingdom. The Battle of Megalopolis in 331/30 BC accelerated the severe decline in the number of Spartiate hoplites available to the state. Indeed, he states that after the Lamian War of 323/22 BC, “Sparta was the last remaining fully independent state in Greece, although its people had to face up to the bitter fact that this was mainly because they were not deemed worth the effort of conquering” (p. 130).
Chapters 11 and 12 summarize the attempts made by Spartan kings in the late fourth and third centuries BC to reform the Spartan state, e.g., Agis IV, Cleomenes III, and finally Nabis. None of these efforts proved fruitful. One characteristic remained, however, since even though the Romans under Flamininus eventually defeated Sparta and, at the death of Nabis in 192 BC, the Spartan state ceased to exist in an independent manner, the Spartans still proved that Laconia was the home to “some of the best and most stubborn warriors in Greece”.
There follows an Epilogue in which Spartan influence in modern media, including computer games, is noted, as is, Spartan influence on Nazi philosophy. I am unsure of the value of this Epilogue.
Overall, this book is a good introduction to this particular topic for a generalist audience and it is well written (indeed I applaud the fact that the author eschewed the use of endnotes), albeit with some orthographic errors, e.g. “Megaran”. It is disappointing, however, that there is only a thin bibliography and that more detailed discussion of pertinent issues is omitted. Even though this book is directed to the general reader, it would have been beneficial for there to have been fuller discussion of some of the most important points, if not in the main text, then at least in explanatory footnotes.
1. Other gratuitous examples, just from the Introduction, include: “…Sparta offered only a mindless conservatism combined with an amoral militarism…”, p. x; and “…study of a downward social spiral and an object lesson in the dangers of short-sited chauvinism”, p. x.
2. “According to Thucydides, the Spartans showed no anger at [Themistocles’] speech. Instead they merely commented mildly that their suggestion had been intended as being in the best interests of Greece as a whole.” (p. 17).
3. He calculates the number of Spartiates after the Battle of Leuctra thusly “It has been estimated that before Leuctra there were around 1,400 Spartiates…Some 400 of these had fallen at Leuctra. If proper Spartan procedure were to be followed the surviving 300 in that army should now lose their citizenship…This would leave the city with a grand total of 700 Spartiates – somewhat less than the 10,000 that Sparta could field in its prime. This was so unacceptable that Agesilaus decreed that ‘the laws should sleep for a day’. The 300 survivors kept their Spartiate status and the question of systemic reform to address the underlying problem was ducked yet again.” (pp. 111-112).