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Spartan Rule by Xenophon

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Xenophon (430-354 BCE) was an Athenian aristocrat who grew up during the Peloponnesian Wars and witnessed the defeat of Athens. He blamed Athens' defeat in 404 BCE on the weakness of its democratic system of government, and became a supporter of the Spartan system of rule by oligarchy. Xenophon went on to join 10,000 other Greek mercenaries in the Persian army and fought in the eastern part of the Persian Empire, where he eventually became the commander of the Greek troops. Afterwards, he fought for Sparta for five years, and received an estate near Olympia as his pension when he retired.



Unlike the Persian Empire, which became the largest centralized state in the Intercommunicating Zone between 500-400 BCE, the Greeks were organized into relatively small city-states, peopled by what the ancient Greeks referred to as the "polis." The polis consisted of all people who, by reason of birth or luck, were citizens of the valley, but it did not include all residents, since wars and commerce brought others into the valley. The word "polis" might be translated as "members of the community." It identified those families who had the right to participate in political and economic decisions.

Map of southern Greece including Athens, Sparta, Argos,
and Mantinea
Location of places mentioned in the reading
model of Greek sailing ship, from a museum in
Model of a Greek sailing ship

As a result of the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE, the Greek city-states organized themselves into a defensive alliance called the Delian League. Athens was the strongest naval power among the Greek city-states and it contributed the most men and ships to the naval effort. Sparta was the strongest of the inland military powers, and it played the dominant roll in the organization of the army. The other city-states each contributed what they could to the alliance, which meant in practice that those near the coast provided ships and sailors while those from the interior provided soldiers, food, iron and other supplies to support the navy.

Although the Greeks were outnumbered by the Persians in both campaigns, they used their knowledge of geography and the winds to position their forces and gain victories. They had no way of knowing after the defeat of the second invasion that the Persians would not return, so they kept the Delian League in existence. Skirmishes with remnants of the Persian forces continued for another thirty years and seemed to confirm that they still posed a danger.

As long as there was a Persian threat, the Delian League operated fairly smoothly. But as time passed and the Persian raids subsided, other Greek city-states resented the fact they were expected to make payments to resist an invasion that never came. Resentment was particular strong among interior states who believed that the Delian League became a device that enabled Athens to tax everyone else. As resentment mounted, two factions developed around Athens and Sparta, and their rival social and political organizations developed into ideologies that influenced politics in every city-state. Athens maintained only a part-time military organization, directed by councils of its citizens, many of whom were traders and artisans. Sparta maintained a full-time military with generals for leaders. Compared to Athens, the Spartan population contained a higher percentage of free farmers and slaves.

The first war between Athens and Sparta, fought from 459-445 BCE, ended in a draw. The second war between 431-404 BCE became known as the Peloponnesian War and was described in great detail by an Athenian general named Thucydides. This second war involved all of the Greek city-states, and ended with a Spartan victory and the total destruction of Athens. That made Sparta the most powerful Greek city-state by the beginning of the fourth century BCE, but the other Greek city-states came to resent the Spartans as much as they had resented the Athenians. In 371 BCE, Thebes led a coalition of Greek city-states that conquered Sparta, and fighting erupted periodically between the Greek city-states for the next forty years.

The episode described in this reading -- the conquest of Mantinea by Sparta -- must have occurred after 404 BCE (when Sparta defeated Athens) and before 371 BCE (when Sparta was defeated by Thebes). In fact, it took place in 386-385 BCE. That was because, during the Peloponnesian Wars, Mantinea established a thirty-year truce with the Spartans in 417 BCE. The truce expired at the end of 388 BCE, leading to the Sparta's attack. NOTE: Mantinea was rebuilt in time for a major battle to take place there in 362 BCE.

This map shows how archaeologists believe the city of Mantinea was laid out. Notice the location of the river, the wall, and the agora.

map of Mantinea archaeological site
Map of the Mantinea archaeological site, adapted by Jim Jones


  1. What were the advantages of locating the city on both sides of the river? Were there any disadvantages?
  2. Why did Sparta attack Mantinea?
  3. How did Sparta attack Mantinea? What steps were required to conquer a walled city?
  4. After they won, how did the Spartans administer the conquered city? What were the Spartan objectives? What did the Mantineans want?
  5. Did Xenophon think the Spartans were successful in Mantinea? Why?
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