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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Spartan Diplomacy

Clausewitz claimed that war was diplomacy by other means. This may explain why Sparta, popularly known as a militaristic society, was in fact a city with a long history of effective diplomacy and high regard for the diplomatic profession. 

Sparta founded the first non-aggression pact in recorded history when it stopped seeking to conquer it's neighbors but sought defensive alliances with them instead. A series of bilateral treaties evolved into the Peloponnesian League. While initially this organization was an instrument of Spartan hegemony, which required Sparta's allies to follow her lead, in or about 500 BC the allies successfully asserted their power and effectively converted the League into an alliance in which every member - including Sparta - had an equal vote.

Sparta also sent an envoy to the Persian court late in the 6th Century, long before the Persians had become interested in Greece. Allegedly, the Spartan envoy warned the Great King against enslaving Hellenes - which prompted the bewildered master of the Eastern world to ask who (in the hell) the Spartans were?

After the diplomatic breech of murdering the Persian ambassadors sent to obtain earth and water in 491, the Spartans were concerned enough about diplomatic niceties to send two men to Persia as sacrifices to atone for the murdered ambassadors.
Furthermore, Leonidas used diplomacy not force to form a coalition of Greek city-states who opposed the Persian invasion of 480 BC.

Sparta's diplomatic culture deserves much more attention and research. A comprehensive work on Spartan diplomacy would be a welcome addition to existing scholarly literature - or have I missed something? If anyone is aware of a good source on Spartan Diplomacy, please let me know.
My novel The Olympic Charioteer imagines what it might have been like in Sparta the defeat by Tegea in the mid-sixth century BC -- an event that led to the creation of the Peloponnesian League.

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  1. Hey Helena,

    If Herodotus (1.83)is to be believed, then the Persians came close to meeting Spartans in battle in 547 BC, when, contrary to their later insularity, they were sending a military force to aid Croesus in his battle against Cyrus's invasion. They also sent a substantial force to Samos, with whom they seem to have had something of a special relationship, in the late 6th c that besieged thir city for 40 days (Hdt.3.56).

    Sparta in the 6th c had a number of treaties, both Symmachia or mutual aid in times of war, and Epimachia or strictly defensive aid if one side was attacked.

    The common perception of a rapacious Sparta seeking to expand militarily probably died with their failure to take Tegea. From then on,as you noted,they would coerce diplomatically what they could not take by force. In any case, the helot revolt of 490 and the earthquake of 465 made just maintaining the status quo their priority. This explains why they vertibly blunder into hegemony, then bungle as hegemons, in the late 5th c.

  2. Paul,
    Thank you for adding these details. They underline the need for a comprehensive analysis of Spartan diplomacy.

    Meanwhile, I have a question for you. You refer to the helot revot of 490. I have heard it hypothesized that there was a revolt in 490 as an explanation for Sparta's delay in responding to Athen's request for assistance against the Persians. I was not aware of any evidence - either literary or archeological - that supported this thesis. Could you provide me with more information on this revolt?

    Thanks again! Helena

  3. Helena,

    I believe the Helot revolt of 490 is a myth. A.H.M. Jones in his "Sparta" accuses Plato of making the story up (Laws 692d-e). Others including Herodotus tell that a religious observation was the reason. It's interesting that Forrest in his "A History of Sparta" states on page 95 that "the Helot revolt was tidied up by 488". Was he assuming Plato?

  4. Mike,

    Thank you. I agree. A helot revolt would have made it unthinkable for the Spartans to send 2,000 men to Athens just a few days later. While a religious festival might be the explanation, it is also possilbe that some kind of domestic crisis delayed the response. My bet is that it was dynastic, since Sparta ultimately sent the 2,000 without a king in command - something that was unprecedented at that time, no? Leotychidas does not appear to have enjoyed trust as a commander, and Cleomenes was by this time going mad, if not still in self-imposed exile. I think strife over who should command the army might have delayed its deployment. Any thoughts on this thesis?

  5. Hello my name is Daniel. I am very curious as to what you could tell me, hopefully everything that you may know, about Sparta, their diplomacy, politics, and economic system. I wish to understand them in order to better describe them in the books I am writing.