Sparta has been famous since antiquity for her military strength; indeed, it was believed by most Greeks that if Sparta rose against Attica, Athens would not be able to hold out for more than three years before surrendering. So, if Sparta was considered one of the strongest players in the classical world, why would she fall? The numbers of Spartiates have long been suggested as the main contributing factor in her decline. According to Plutarch, at the Battle of Leuctra in 379 BCE, a Theban army consisting of 10,000 hoplites met 700 Spartiates.
When one looks at the difference of the numbers between the two armies, it is not surprising that one asks “could the fall of Sparta have been because of the shortage of manpower’? ” Although historians offer panoply of possible reasons for the decline of Sparta, essentially its downfall was the result of one evident fault. This fault, although it manifested in a number of disparate ways, could be summed up in one word: short-sightedness.
This short-sightedness occurred in areas such as its attitudes, its failure to modify the rigid Lycurgus system, its tactical naivete, its failure to adapt when opponents began hiring mercenary armies, its misconduct, its lack of negotiation and cooperation with its own allies. Although Sparta had great military strength, it dissipated the effect of that strength by obtusely refusing to consider anything outside its narrow field of vision. It was like a bulldog on a single-minded mission, resolutely forging ahead as though no one else were worth caring about not even its own allies.
Ultimately, Sparta’s incredible and overweening short-sightedness caused it to lose its domination and become demoted from a world-class reigning military power to a much lesser power. Sparta was the epitome of military strength in the 10th century B. C. and seemed invincible from all perspectives. The Spartan army was untouchable, and it won battle after battle. However, Sparta did eventually decline, and the decline was due to a number of factors. One of these was its stubborn attitudes.
If Sparta were a person, it would be a perfectionistic, defensive person more introspective than extrovert and determined to maintain military superiority at all costs. Rather than working with allies and partners to collaborate under a common purpose, Sparta would be a distrusting unilateralist, preferring not to ally with anyone that might someday challenge its primacy, therefore only allying with partners weaker than it. That absence of cooperation did not gain Sparta many fans, and despite its military prowess, it could have used friends and allies.
Another cause of Sparta’s downfall was its failure to adapt the rigid Lycurgus system to accommodate a Pan-Hellenic system accompanied by wealth. Sparta simply believed that the Lycurgus system did not need to be altered. Furthermore, they were against Spartans having too much wealth or personal power. As a result, the Lycurgus system’s rigidity produced a closed society plagued by the effects of inbreeding. Some historians agree that “the Spartan hegemony ‘perished through ‘oliganthropia” – a lack of men.
This is not because of a population decrease in Laconia but just a lack of men of the Spartan citizen class who could serve as hoplites, called ‘homoioi’ or ‘Spartiates. ‘” The number of men that Sparta could call upon to send into battle diminished appreciably during the 5th and early 4th centuries B. C. This was not solely due to reduced numbers of men but also partly because they were reluctant to leave Laconia unguarded and tended to send fewer men to battle than they could have.
In the 5th century battle at Thermopylae against the Persians, only 300 Spartans and 1,000 allies held off the massive invasion of Persia’s King Xerxes that is estimated to number over 120,000 men. According to Herodotus, however, there were probably 8,000 Spartiates available to be deployed (Scipio, 2005). Sparta tended to depend on its training and conditioning to the exclusion of developing its tactical prowess. They were relatively “strategically naive” and could be outwitted on the field of battle.
This is, in fact, what happened when they were outmanoeuvred by the Athenians in 426 B. C. at Olpae and again at the Battle of Haliartos in 395 B. C. The Spartans were at a disadvantage whenever they could not “out-muscle” or scare off their opponents with their reputation, particularly when their opponents had a competent leader (Scipio, 2005). Another factor in Sparta’s decline was the declining numbers in the army, thus losing its impact and the war at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. The lack of navy also contributes.
Sparta fell because it failed to adapt to the times, as other colonies progressed and found new ways of doing things, Sparta stuck to their traditions, numbers lessened and they failed to live in the same way after the battle of Leuctra. They did still exist as a polis afterwards but a very different one at that. They fought as bravely as they always did, but they were defeated. They lost more than half of their Spartiates soldiers, and after the battle, the Theban general invaded Sparta and freed the Messenians. With Sparta’s now low birth-rate and loss of so many Spartiates in battle, her population was drastically reduced.