“Owl” is a common term for the Drachma, the most well known silver coin of ancient Athens. This coin generally had an image of Athena of the Obverse and an Owl on the reverse. There was a saying in ancient Athens about “taking owls to Athens”, meaning being redundant, like the English would say “taking coals to Newcastle”.
Once the treaty was signed between Sparta and Athens ending the Peloponnesean War, the owls invaded Sparta as gold and silver currency was transferred to the victors. The result of this seemingly small event would prove to be calamitous for the Spartans.
As Aristotle said:
“A people trained consummately but exclusively for warlike contact with its neighbors found itself suddenly compelled, by the outcome of one particular war, to enter into non-military relations for which they were not only unprepared but were positively unfitted by their peculiar institutions and habits. Those peculiarities which the Spartans had developed in order to grapple with a previous problem, and which had given them superhuman strength within the limits of the narrow environment within which their lines had previously been cast, now took their revenge upon this peculiar people by making them inhumanly or infra-humanly incompetent to live in the wider world into which the fortunes of war had eventually carried them.”
The Spartan authorities ruled that gold and silver hoarding was legal for the state as a monopoly and illegal for individuals. This unrealistic attempt at the control of wealth failed immediately and, instead, fostered the subversive social effects that derive from a money economy in the hands of a people previously sheltered from same. The new money impacted the Spartan attitude toward control of private property and drove the upper and lower classes further apart. Where there had been only a slow concentration of wealth since the reforms began, the imbalance now accelerated.
In addition, the import of money was met with an export of Homoioi, who were sent abroad as administrators of the conquered. Now the number of Homoioi would decrease in greater numbers than those caused by attrition at home. Quoting Toynbee,
“Now that Sparta had inherited from Athens a domination over the entire Hellenic world, she found herself compelled to second her Homoioi from military service, from which they could not safely be spared, to non-military duties with which they could not safely be entrusted.”
And attrition at home would also grow worse on its own. Each Homoioi was given land to own in perpetuity – enough land to support his family. But the state kept no land for itself, so it had no mechanism to adjust an imbalance in the allocation of land to each Homoioi. How was a man to provide for multiple sons with only enough land to support one family?
A policy that seemed logical at the time of the reforms now began to unravel, as Homoioi began to limit the size of their families or look for ways to add to their land holdings. The former was accomplished in any one of several strange ways including polyandry, wife sharing, and pederasty.
With regard to adding to land holdings, the innovations were equally clever. A Homoioi could adopt a member of another family and receive that family’s holdings or a man could marry a women who was her father’s heir because she had no brothers. Others were able to acquire land by the taking of dowries, which were apparently large in ancient Sparta.
The Spartan Government, once it realized the outcome of inaction, tried to combat this problem by offering an exemption from military service to those Homoioi with three children. A father a four was even exempted from paying taxes. How ironic that a system put in place to remove the cares of a man by giving him land would now create an undercurrent of subversive cupidity designed to avoid concern over a man dying landless.
We can now see the reasons behind the rapid decline of Homoioi from the end of the Peloponnesean War to 371 B.C. (Leuctra) when there were only 700 left.