The city-state of Sparta, which had command of over 3,500 square miles during its classical period, it was one of the greatest military powers at the time. Years after the Battle of the 300 Champions, from 431 to 404 B.C., the Spartans’ Peloponnese League took part in the Battle of Mantinea against the democratic power of the imperial Athens’ navy forces.
The battle lasted longer than either side had originally expected with the Spartan expecting to come out on top with ease. Six years after the initial start of the Battle of Mantinea, in 425 B.C., the Spartan armed forces decided to fake an attack on the region of Pylos on the southwestern Peloponnese coast line, but the Athenian naval troops surprised the Spartans, surrounding them on the island and remind the Spartans that they were not completely indestructible.
More significant to the fall of the Spartan empire, the Athenians’ involvement in Pylos during the Battle of Mantinea also inspired the Spartans’ government-owned serfs, the Helots, to ponder the possibility of independence and freedom.
The Spartans’ now feared the potential for a revolt by the Helots which stemmed from manifestation of the Pylos stronghold while the Athenians feared an imperial collapse of their city-state. Although the Spartans and the Athenians agreed to a sort of peace treaty, the Athenians still did not believe that the Spartans could be trusted and began to question their integrity, taking notice of the Spartans secretive ways. With the Athenians eventually surrendering, the Spartans scored a major victory in the battle.
However, thirty-four years after the Battle of Mantinea ended, Sparta was eliminated from the armed forces of Greece, signifying the decline of Spartan power and political influence. There were two kinds of Helots: natives of Laconia and the Messenian Helots, inhabitants of the westernmost point of the Peloponnese who at one point had been free citizens but were taken over by Spartans during the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. The Messenian Helots had not forgotten their former freedom and often acted stubbornly toward their Spartan masters whenever the opportunity arose. During the Battle of Mantinea, many of these Helots fled to the camp site of the Athenians at Pylos, causing the Spartans a mass panic.
Because Spartan society depended so heavily on the manipulation of the Helots for the sake of fulfilling agricultural and other laborious duties as well as gatekeepers during war times, the Spartans enlisted a group called the Similars to keep a watchful eye on the Helots for any signs of a revolt.
In fact, to further remind the Helots of their place in the Sparta society, the Spartans would declare war against the Helots every year and individually humiliate them. The Spartans also enlisted a team of assassins who would murder any Helots who acted rebellious in any way, shape, or form at night. As the Spartans began to find more value in the Helots’ services, they began to transition the Helots from being butchered at random to recruiting them as mercenaries in battle.
However, this makes more apparent an issue that had risen in seriousness by the end of the 5th century B.C.: the declining population of Similars due to war time casualties forced an even heavier reliance on the Helots by the Spartans. Once the Peloponnesian War broke out, Spartan society was wavering and could no longer successfully shield itself from outlying Greek and Mediterranean influence. Thus, the Spartans were deployed far from their home in Sparta, far enough away from the careful observation of their neighbors, and for extended periods of time. As the society of Sparta strived to meet the Athenians’ abilities to enlist mercenaries, maintain spread out armed forces for extended periods of time, and assemble a respectable naval force, the Spartan economy greatly expanded which caused fewer opportunities for Spartans to acquire wealth.
Following the Spartan victory in the Battle of Mantinea in 404 B.C., Sparta made alliances as quickly as they broke them with little concern for the consequences as many well-connected members of Spartan society engaged in irresponsible, greedy, and opportunistic military operations and many Spartans found that their home’s government did not acknowledge or address such behavior. Other Greeks, whether friends or foes of the Spartans, were no longer impressed by the Spartans and assembled an anti-Spartan coalition. Rapidly losing their diplomatic credibility, the Spartans had no other choice than to attempt to maintain a respected authority through corrupt tactics demonstrated by their armed forces.
The Battle of Coronea in 394 B.C. was a prime example of this. Spartan hoplites were still without a match; however, approximately 350 men were lost, and, thus, victories for Sparta proved to be too costly. Each casualty on the battlefield equaled one less Similar to fight against Sparta’s increasingly numerous and driven internal and external enemies. Furthermore, it was no longer evident that Sparta’s complete domination of usual hoplite tactics would continue to hold strong. During 390 B.C., the Spartans were shocked by the loss of an secluded Spartan regiment, and a loss of some 250 soldiers by an Athenian force of soldiers and armed, mobile, and incredibly skilled mercenaries who used spears and shields, customary tactics, and weaponry inspired by the mercenary Thracians from the Black Sea shoreline. Meanwhile, Sparta’s rivals were discovering more and more about Sparta’s military strategies on the battlefield. It had long been acknowledged wisdom by the Similars that Spartans should avoid fighting the same opponent too frequently. By the time 371 B.C. rolled around, the Thebans had battled the Spartans somewhat continuously for more than two decades and the Theban generals took notice that the Spartans’ strengths and weaknesses on the battlefield could be easily exploited to their advantage.
By the Roman era, Sparta had resort to being nothing more than a vacation destination for other Europeans as tourists flocked from around the Greek world to witness Spartan boys suffer through brutal whippings in traditional strength competitions conveniently held in outdoors to accommodate the large crowds of bystanders. These disturbing sources of tourist entertainment stood as unfortunate reminders of the dedication to punishment and public duty that had maintained a formerly proud society of Similar soldiers. Today, the Greek city-state of Sparta is a lively location in the center of Greece with the Eurotas valley in beautiful condition. However, there is little archaeological evidence of the valley’s celebrated yet dreadful history. And ironically, the ruins of Messene, where the Helots previously resided, which stand high atop the Kalamata plain, have remained far more remarkable.