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The Rise of Sparta

Updated on October 11, 2016

Foundation and Early Expansion

The Dorian conquest of the Peloponnesus was completed about 800 BC. By 750 Dorian Argos dominated the northern Peloponnesus and the eastern coastal plain. Around the same time a unified Spartan state was established in Laconia by kings Archelaus and Charillaus. The Spartan kings expanded their state north towards the Eurotas during their reigns (ca. 775-750).

Under King Teleclus (ca. 745) the Spartans made their first move southward. Pharis, Geronthrai and Amyclae were annexed. Geronthrai was settled by Spartan colonists but the Amyclaeans were admitted to Spartan citizenship. About the same time Spartan colonists were sent across Taygetus to three sites in the Nedon valley of Messenia.

Around 740 King Teleclus was assassinated by Messenians, which soon provided the Spartans with an excuse for a war of annexation. It was probably about this time that the Spartans began a mostly peaceful expansion south to the coastal cities.

The Southern Peloponnesus
The Southern Peloponnesus | Source

The First Messenian War

A few years later the First Messenian War (ca. 735-715) began. This war was possibly tied in with the larger conflict known as the Lelantine War (ca. 730-710). It was around this time that the Spartans captured Helos and enslaved the inhabitants. By 715 northern Messenia had been annexed. The southern part of Messenia may have retained autonomy, however.

After the Messenian War a large number of Spartan colonists were sent to Tarentum in southern Italy. This event may be the first indication of social unrest at Sparta.

The Reforms of Lycurgus

The reforms of Lycurgus, or the first of the reforms attributed to him, were enacted in 676, during the reign of kings Polydorus and Theopompus. The Great Rhetra was probably introduced at this time, granting power to the assembly of the people. Land allotments were made and the ephorate established, or more likely, reformed.

Sometime after 665 there was a sort of counter-revolution at Sparta and the kings and elders were allowed to set aside the decisions of the popular assembly if they deemed them unwise for the state

Lycurgus of Sparta
Lycurgus of Sparta | Source

The Second Messenian War

Around 675 King Polydorus began a war with Argos. The Argives entered into an alliance with the Arcadians. In 669/668 Polydorus was defeated by the Argives at Hysiae. In the following year the Spartans instituted the Gymnopediae in remembrance of their defeat. Polydorus was then assassinated by a disgruntled aristocrat. Lycurgus may have gone into exile about this time.

An anti-Spartan alliance was now formed between Argos, Elis, Sicyon and Arcadia. Sparta's only allies were Lepreum, and maybe Corinth. Messenia, possibly inspired by the Spartan defeat at Hysiae, now rose in revolt, inaugurating the Second Messenian War (ca. 650-620). The Spartans captured Phigaleia in Arcadia in 659 but later lost it. The oracle of Delphi was supporting the allies at this time. The Spartans were hard pressed by the Messenians and Arcadians in the upper Pamisos and Nedon valleys, but were able to hold on to the Stenyclarus plain. Fortunately for the Spartans the Argive King Pheidon died about this time and Argos became preoccupied with Corinth. As a result of this respite the Spartans were able to concentrate on the Messenians. Nevertheless, it took a long time for the Spartans to subdue Messenia. The struggle possibly led to many military reforms and austerity measures that later tradition also attributed to Lycurgus. The Messenians were finally subdued and a period of peace ensued from about 620 to 590.

The Peloponnesian League

Under King Meltas the Argives again allied themselves with Arcadia in the 580s or possibly somewhat later. When the Spartans marched into Arcadia their army was defeated and forced to surrender at Tegea. The prisoners were placed in the chains which they had intended to use on the Arcadians. Hence the engagement was called the Battle of the Fetters.

Around 560 Meltas was exiled from Argos and the Arcadian-Argive alliance ended. A few years later the Spartans changed their policy regarding Arcadia and other neighboring states. Under the leadership of Chilon and his followers the Spartans entered into alliances with Arcadia, Elis, Sicyon, Corinth and other Peloponnesian states. Argos remained an implacable foe but she was now isolated. This alliance, dubbed the Peloponnesian League by modern historians, made Sparta the undisputed master of the Peloponnesus and the most powerful Greek state at the time. Sparta even entered into an alliance with the non-Greek kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor. In 546/545 the Argives were crushed in the Battle of the Champions. The Spartans annexed Thyreatis, the entire coastal plain and the island of Cythera from Argos. The Spartans were now so confident of their own power that they even issued a challenge to the Persian king Cyrus the Great to leave the Greeks of Asia alone.

Sparta had risen from a collection of villages to become the most powerful state in Greece. It wasn't an easy process. She fought with all three of her neighbors and ultimately dealt with each differently, but effectively. She conquered Messenia, allied with Arcadia, and isolated Argos. Sparta had become the largest city-state in Greece, in terms of geographic size and influence. Her military reputation was unequaled. She was poised to expand beyond the Peloponnesus.


A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. by W. G. Forrest, W. W. Norton & Company (1969).

The Spartans: The World of the Warriors Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge, The Overlook Press (2002,2003).

Plutarch, Lycurgus, Perseus Library (online).

© 2016 Wade Ankesheiln


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