Persian War and beginning of animosity with Athens
Sparta’s role in the Persian Wars was mixed. After hearing a plea for help from Athens who were facing the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, Sparta decided to honor its laws and wait until the moon was full to send an army. As a result, Sparta’s army arrived at Marathon after the battle had been won by the Athenians.
In the second campaign, conducted ten years later by Xerxes, Sparta faced the same dilemma. The Persians inconveniently chose to attack during the Olympic truce which the Spartans felt they must honor. Other Greek states which lacked such foibles were making a major effort to assemble a fleet – how could Sparta not contribute on land when others were doing so much on sea? The solution was to provide a small force under Leonidas to defend Thermopylae. However there are indications that Sparta’s religious scruples were merely a cover. From this interpretation, Sparta believed that the defense of Thermopylae was hopeless and wished to make a stand at the Isthmus, but they had to go through the motions or Athens might ally itself with Persia. The loss of Athens’s fleet would simply be too great a loss to the Greek resistance to be risked. The alternative view is that, on the evidence of the actual fighting, the pass was supremely defensible, and that the Spartans might reasonably have expected that the forces sent, would be adequate. From then on Sparta took a more active share and assumed the command of the combined Greek forces by sea and land. The decisive victory of Salamis did not change Sparta’s essential dilemma. Ideally, they would wish to fight at the Isthmus where they would avoid the risk of their infantry being caught in the open by the Persian cavalry. However, in 479 BCE, the remaining Persian forces under Mardonius devastated Attica, Athenian pressure forced Sparta to lead an advance. The outcome was a standoff where both the Persians and the Greeks attempted to fight on favorable terrain, and this was resolved when the Persians attacked during a botched Greek withdrawal. In the resulting Battle of Plataea the Greeks under the generalship of the Spartan Pausanias overthrew the lightly-armed Persian infantry, killing Mardonius.
In the same year a united Greek fleet under the Spartan King, Leotychidas, won the victory of Mycale. When this victory led to a revolt of the Ionian Greeks it was Sparta that rejected their admission to the Hellenic alliance. Sparta proposed that they should abandon their homes in Anatolia and settle in the cities that had supported the Persians. It was Athens who, by offering these cities alliance sowed the seeds of the Delian League. In 478 BCE the Greek fleet led by Pausanias, the victor of Plataea, mounted moves on Cyprus and Byzantium. However his arrogant behavior forced his recall. Pausanias had so alienated the Ionians that they refused to accept the successor, Dorcis, that Sparta sent to replace him. Instead those newly liberated from Persia turned to Athens. The sources give quite divergent impressions about Spartan reactions to Athens’ growing power and this may reflect the divergence of opinion within Sparta. According to this view one Spartan faction was quite content to allow Athens to carry the risk of continuing the war with Persia while an opposing faction deeply resented Athens’ challenge to their Greek supremacy.
Sparta’s attention was at this time, fully occupied by troubles nearer home; such as the revolt of Tegea (in about 473-471 BCE), rendered all the more formidable by the participation of Argos. The most serious, however was the crisis caused by the earthquake which in 464 BCE devastated Sparta, costing many lives. In the immediate aftermath, the helots saw an opportunity to rebel. This was followed by the siege of Ithome which the rebel helots had fortified. The pro-Spartan Cimon was successful in getting Athens to send help to put down the rebellion, but this would eventually backfire for the pro-Sparta movement in Athens. The Athenian hoplites that made up the bulk of the force were from the well-to-do section of Athenian society, but were nevertheless, openly shocked to discover that the rebels were Greeks like themselves. Sparta began to fear that the Athenian troops might make common cause with the rebels. The Spartans subsequently sent the Athenians home. Providing the official justification that since the initial assault on Ithone had failed, what was now required was a blockade, a task the Spartans did not need Athenian help with. In Athens, this snub resulted in Athens breaking off its alliance with Sparta and allying with its enemy, Argos. Further friction was caused by the consummation of the Attic democracy under Ephialtes and Pericles.
Paul Cartledge hazards that the revolt of helots and perioeci led the Spartans to reorganize their army and integrate the perioeci into the citizen hoplite regiments. Certainly a system where citizens and non citizens fought together in the same regiments was unusual for Greece. Hans van Wees is, however, unconvinced by the manpower shortage explanation of the Spartans’ use of non citizen hoplites. He agrees that the integration of perioeci and citizens occurred sometime between the Persian and the Peloponesian Wars but doesn’t regard that as a significant stage. The Spartans had been using non-citizens as hoplites well before that and the proportion did not change. He doubts that the Spartans ever subscribed to the citizen only hoplite force ideal, so beloved by writers such as Aristotle.
Persian War and beginning of animosity with Athens