The Polis in Decline

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The Polis in Decline



Reflection . While historians and other intellectuals of the fifth century b.c.e. took the polis for granted, the trauma of the Peloponnesian War led philosophers such as Plato to think beyond the political reality of the fourth century to speculate about a political Utopia, a model for a polis that could achieve some permanence. As important as Plato’s speculations have been for the history of philosophy, however, the political reality that he rejected was moving beyond the polis altogether. Government was needed that could encompass areas and populations greater than any one polls, and yet no city could achieve lasting dominance over the others.

Spartan Hegemony . The restoration of democracy in Athens in 403 had little effect in the rest of Greece, where Sparta’s power was unchallenged. This period of time is referred to as Spartan hegemony. The word hegemony is based on the Greek word hêgemonia, which means leadership; however, hegemony is stronger than leadership, although it does not quite mean domination. Through the strategy of their commander Lysander, the Spartans inherited most of Athens’s empire, with the contributions of its subject allies, to add to its own considerable holdings in the Peloponnese. Under Spartan harmosts (governors), councils of ten local citizens, called decarchies, ruled the affairs of the poleis in accordance with Spartan interests.

Diplomacy . Nonetheless, the Spartans had some decisions to make. In order to defeat the Athenians, they had sought and received help from the Persians in exchange for the Persians’ receiving a free hand to dominate the Greeks who lived on the coast of Turkey. Would the Spartans abide by their agreements with the Persians, or would they renew their role as champions of the Greek world and pursue war against Persia? The obstacles to their plans were no less true in 400 b.c.e. than they had been in 479 b.c.e. The basis of their livelihood was still the labor of the large population of Helots, against whom the Spartans had to stay ever vigilant. The Spartan agoge, or training, which produced such effective soldiers, also seemed to depend on the Spartans’ living only within their controlled lifestyle at home. Outside influences could quite easily corrupt. Spartans, dealing with money for the first time, succumbed to the temptation to steal. Harmosts given command over foreign populations for the first time quickly became tyrants. However, the involvement of many Greek mercenaries in a rebellion led by Cyrus the Younger in an attempt to seize the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 showed the potential strength that a united Greek army might have against the Persians. Cyrus’s mainly Greek force managed to defeat a Persian army at Cunaxa, deep in Persian territory in Babylonia. Only the death of Cyrus at Cunaxa prevented the ten thousand Greek mercenaries from asserting control.

Lysander . The successes of the Spartan commander Lysander became his own undoing. The personal loyalty that he enjoyed in so many of the cities he had captured was resented by the Spartans back home. Because he was not one of Sparta’s two kings, his extraordinary personal power and prestige were viewed as a threat to Spartan government. He was recalled, and the citizens who formed the many local decarchies were dismissed as if they were his personal clients. In 397 b.c.e., however, Lysander returned to some prominence when his boyhood friend Agesilaus was able to become king after a disputed succession.

Initial Victories . Agesilaus had great plans to pursue war against the Persians. Modeling himself on Agamemnon and the legendary Greek expedition against Troy, in 396 he assembled an army in the same location in Boeotia where Agamemnon’s fleet had disembarked. However, by this time Sparta’s former allies were growing weary of Spartan hegemony, and the Thebans marched out and interrupted Agesilaus’s preliminary sacrifice. The expedition set off, nevertheless, and won several victories in northwest Turkey.

Setbacks . Agesilaus’s successes were cut short, however, by two developments. First, in 395 an Athenian general, Conon, who had escaped the disaster at Aegospotami in 405 by sailing to Cyprus, returned at the head of a Persian fleet and defeated the Spartans at Cnidus in the southeastern Aegean. Second, in Greece, the cities of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos put aside their differences and united against Sparta. Agesilaus had to be called home.

The King’s Peace . Because so much of the fighting took place near the isthmus of Corinth in an attempt to restrict Spartan influence to the Peloponnese, the new war has been called the Corinthian War. Besides the four Greek poleis, the Persians also joined in opposing Sparta. Athens was the prime beneficiary of the Persian aid: it rebuilt its Long Walls and refortified its port at Piraeus. Soon the Athenians reestablished their influence in many parts of the Aegean, especially in regaining a corridor to the Black Sea for its grain supplies. Their renewed power and imposition of taxes on all maritime trade by their allies made the Persians and the Thebans worried, however, and both these powers turned their support to Sparta. By 387 the Spartans had managed to block Athens’s access to the Black Sea again, and the Athenians were forced to accept a peace brokered by the Persian king. Since it was dictated by the Spartan Antalcidas, it is variously known as the King’s Peace or Peace of Antalcidas.

Betrayal . The terms of the King’s Peace assured the Persians their control of the Greek cities in Asia Minor. As a result, it was seen by many as a betrayal of Greek interests. Within Greece, its guiding principle was autonomy: no polis was to impose itself on any other. This principle was directed mainly at the Athenians, but it also prevented the Thebans from dominating the other cities of Boeotia. It did nothing, however, to check Sparta’s domination of Messenia. In fact, Sparta became the enforcer of the Peace. In 382 a Spartan commander on his way to northern Greece to break up a league of states loyal to Olynthus took the opportunity afforded by a religious celebration in Thebes to seize the city’s acropolis, which was known as the Cadmeia. The unprovoked nature of the attack and its transgression against religious customs led the Spartans to punish the commander, but they held on to the Cadmeia. This sort of Spartan highhandedness led the Thebans to join with the Athenians and many of Athens’s former allies again to form what is now called the Second Athenian League. The terms of the League were carefully formulated to abide by the terms of the King’s Peace: no polis would surrender its autonomy to another. Unlike the Athenian Empire of the fifth century, this League was governed not by the Athenian Assembly but by an independent sunedrion (congress). At its peak, the League had up to seventy members. Although the Athenians were clearly the strongest member, especially with their navy, they allowed the synhedrion a veto over their actions, and they did not impose any clerychies on their allies.

Defiance . Despite the pious sentiments of 378 b.c.e. establishing the Second Athenian League while preserving the autonomy of its individual member states, the tendency for the stronger states to dominate the weaker was impossible to escape. Thebes took advantage of its alliance with Athens to consolidate its hold over Boeotia through the Boeotian Confederacy, and Athens itself took greater advantage of its hegemony over the maritime poleis. The Spartans were intent on putting a stop to Thebes’s ambitions. In 375, however, the Thebans under Pelopidas stunned the Greek world by defeating a relatively small force of Spartans in a battle at Tegyra. In 371, after a failed peace conference in which the Spartans had refused to allow the Thebans to settle terms on behalf of all the Boeotians, the Spartans came north with a force of more than ten thousand hoplites to destroy the Boeotian Confederacy. The Thebans under Epaminondas met them for battle at Leuctra.

Leuctra . Epaminondas had revolutionized hoplite fighting. He massed his hoplite phalanx fifty men deep on his left, directly against the Spartan strength. An elite force, called the Sacred Band, was in the front ranks of Epaminondas’s phalanx. By carefully timing his cavalry attack, and taking advantage of Spartan confusion at his unusual formation, Epaminondas charged the Spartans at the right moment, killing their king and forcing the enemy to withdraw with heavy losses. The Battle of Leuctra marked the end of Spartan military dominance in Greece. Economic problems in Sparta had led to a drop in population. Even if they had had the will, the Spartans could no longer field an army of sufficient size to dominate. Soon, other cities in the Peloponnese gained their liberation from Spartan hegemony.

Mantinea . The next year Epaminondas followed up his victory by invading the Peloponnese; however, instead of attacking Sparta directly, he led his forces to Messenia, the source of Sparta’s economic prosperity. He freed Messenia and reestablished it as a unified polis. In subsequent years he invaded the Peloponnese repeatedly, while Thebes enjoyed its brief period of hegemony over the Greek world. Loosely following the model that the Thebans had adopted for their Boeotian confederacy, Epaminondas initially encouraged the development of the Arcadian Confederacy as a buffer to the Spartans. It had its capital at Megalopolis and included an assembly of ten thousand, a council, and magistrates selected according to the size of their home polis. Soon, however, the Confederacy became fragmented and its members, encouraged by Athens, began to resist Theban control. In 362, in an attempt to put down unrest in the Peloponnese, Epaminondas was killed in the Battle of Mantinea.

Athenian Resurgence . The historian Xenophon ends his Hellenica, a history of the period 411-362, by noting the uncertainty that followed the Battle of Mantinea. Sparta’s time as a dominant military power had been finished after the Battle of Leuctra in 371 b.c.e. Now Thebes’s period of hegemony had passed with the death of its most decisive leader. Athens was once again the leading Greek polis, but without ambitions to pursue a war against either a Greek power or the Persians. With no threat from any of these quarters either, its justification for maintaining an empire seemed to have gone. Nevertheless, the Athenians were increasingly interested in recovering Amphipolis, a strategic commercial and mining center on the north coast of the Aegean, but this goal would have served only the Athenians, not their allies.


In 362 the Thebans defeated the Spartans and their allies at Mantinea. However, the Theban victory was marred by the death of the general Epaminondas, and as a result Thebes gradually lost its power among the city-states.

When these things had taken place, the opposite of what all men believed would happen was brought to pass. For since well-nigh all the people of Greece had come together and formed themselves in opposing lines, there was no one who did not suppose that if a battle were fought, those who proved victorious would be the rulers and those who were defeated would be their subjects; but the deity so ordered it that both parties set up a trophy as though victorious and neither tried to hinder those who set them up, that both gave back the dead under a truce as though victorious, and both received back their dead under a truce as though defeated, and that while each party claimed to be victorious, [27] neither was found to be any better off, as regards either additional territory, or city, or sway, than before the battle took place; but there was even more confusion and disorder in Greece after the battle than before.

Source: Xenophon, Hellenica, 7.5.26-7.

The Social War . Discontent among Athens’s allies grew until finally, in 357 b.c.e., Rhodes, Cos, Chios, and Byzantium revolted in what is now called the Social War, from the Latin word socii for “allies.” These states were helped and encouraged by Mausolus, the king of Caria who acted as the Persian governor, or satrap, for the area. The two-year conflict certainly prevented the Athenians from thinking about pursuing a campaign against the Persians. The Athenian citizens had long enjoyed the revenues generated by the Second Athenian League to finance ships and mercenaries to fight on their behalf. They no longer had the heart to pursue a war to maintain an empire after their navy lost a major battle at Embata in 356. Moreover, the Persian king threatened all-out war if the Athenians did not restrain their general Chares. Although Athens kept a remnant of its League intact, the loss of four of its major allies— as well as Lesbos shortly after the war—marked the end of an important chapter in Greek history and politics. The Athenians were no longer in a position to export their democratic ideas to other poleis. It was only a matter of time before its own democracy was threatened.

Mercenaries . The Athenians were not the only polis to rely heavily on mercenaries in the fourth century b.c.e., which had enormous consequences for Greek political institutions. The basis of polis government had been the phalanx of hoplite citizen soldiers and, in the case of Athens’s democracy, the trireme of citizen rowers. When the soldiers and rowers became hired noncitizens—mercenaries—the connection between citizens’ political rights and military service was broken. Constant warfare led many Greek citizens to abandon their farms and drift into service as mercenaries, which had agricultural and thus economic consequences, as well as military and political.

Military Technology . The preeminence of the hoplite soldier was also being challenged by changes in military technology and tactics. The citizen farmer had sufficient wealth to be able to purchase his own weapons. Now light-armed tactics, which were pioneered by Pelopidas of Thebes and Iphicrates of Athens, called for more-specialized skills in archery, slinging, siege operations, and the use of the lighter javelin and shield, or pelte, of the peltasts. Citizen soldiers rarely had the time or interest to develop these skills. Tyrants such as Jason of Pherae and Dionysius of Syracuse, as well as the Persian king, hired many Greek mercenaries for their armies, an indication that soldiers were now fighting less for their poleis and more for individuals and for money.

The Sacred War . In 355 b.c.e., in response to demands that it stop cultivating sacred land, the federation of Phocis, which lay between Boeotia and Delphi, seized the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi with the tacit support of Athens. The sanctuary was protected by a group of poleis known as the Amphictyonic Council, which included most of the Greek poleis, but which was dominated by those in Boeotia and Thessaly. Consequently, it fell to Thebes, as the leader of Boeotia, to recover the sanctuary; however, with the sanctuary and its huge treasury in their hands, the Phocians had ample funds with which to hire mercenaries. Led by their generals Philomelus and Onomarchus, the Phocians fought the Thebans in a long war, which was costly for the entire Greek world. Because it was fought over the religious sanctuary at Delphi, it is called the Sacred War. Many of the war’s largest battles were fought in Thessaly, where the Phocians entered the sphere of Philip of Macedon. By the end of the war in 347, both Phocis and Thebes were exhausted, and Macedon had become the dominant power over the Greek world.


Jack Cargill, The Second Athenian League (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (London: Duckworth, 1987).

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, 2 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985-1986).

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The Polis in Decline

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