The dramatic decline in the
Spartiate population between Thermopylae (480 BC) and Leuktra (371) has often
been cited as the cause of Sparta’s political decline as well. At Thermopylae,
a full call-up of all citizens over the age of 20 and under the age of 55,
enabled Sparta to field an army of 6,000 citizens (Spartiates) – not counting perioikoi
or helots. Yet at Leuktra, when again there was a full call-up of 35 age cohorts,
the Spartan army consisted of only 700 citizens.
The Great Earthquake of 464, on the other hand, is an event which allegedly took 20,000 lives in Sparta alone, and its role in Sparta’s decline needs to be re-examined. The accounts of the earthquake are nothing if not dramatic. Pliny claims only five houses were left standing, and there are less credible tales of youths surviving because they ran out of a gymnasium to chase a hare, while the army was saved by being marched out in time. While the details may be hard to credit, I think it is safe to say the earthquake was catastrophic without, notably, impacting the strength of the army.
(2) Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, The Classical Press of Wales, London, 2000.
(3) Thomas Figueira, “Population Patterns in Late Archaic and Classical Sparta,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 116 (1986), pp.165-213.