Sunday, November 28, 2010

Expansion of Ancient Sparta

I’ve been reading a great book called Some Problems of Greek History by Arnold Toynbee, the well known English historian, which was published in 1969. Toynbee is best known for his The Study of History, a monumental work published in 1934 and 1939. This significant contribution to comparative history has been criticized for a variety of reasons mostly around his assumptions and use of questionable data. Still, A Study of History is worth reading because of its unique approach.

Some Problems of Greek History does not create controversy and is a rigorous review and dissection of all data known about parts of Greek history -- mostly Sparta. In my last post, I talked about the origins of Sparta and Lacedaemon. This time, we’ll review the expansion of Sparta geographically through the lower Peloponnese.

Sparta conquered Laconia and Messenia during the eighth century B.C, a date which Toynbee points out is more accurate than theoretical dates farther back which are unsupportable. Most notably, he asserts that the two Spartan royal families were extended backward by myth to Herakles, a connection that cannot be (and according Toynbee) should not be made. To him, the Dorian invasion and fall of Mycenae are not connected directly to the rise of the Lacedaemonians.


The first step in the expansion of Sparta was the conquest on Amyklai (eighth century timeframe unknown) and its incorporation into Sparta as an equal. This victory gained Sparta an influential ally and opened up southern Laconia to them. The Spartans then continued their southern expansion through Aigytis until they reached the coast, circa 720 B.C. I use that date because the Italian colony of Tarentum was founded by Sparta in the time period 708-702 B.C. and for Sparta to have sent colonists to Italy, she would have needed to control of a port for some period of time. That port was most likely Gythion, which we know was a Spartan naval base by 413 B.C.

While Sparta gave Perioecic status to the communities of the Mani peninsula down to Cape Tainaron, the lower Eurotos Valley was conquered and forced to choose between enslavement and deportation. This was the beginning of Helotry and the use of Messenian lands for agriculture.

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