What Happened to the Ancient Spartans?

The fall of the “Iron State”

Nick Iakovidis
15 min readJul 12, 2021
The ruins of the ancient Spartan theater (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

WWhen we first hear the word “Spartans,” our minds imagine a group of buffed “super-hoplites” in shining bronze armor, armed with long spears and shields with the red letter “Λ” painted on them. The ancient Spartans have achieved a sort of mythical, godlike status in history, being Antiquity’s most feared men, and possibly one of the most recognizable warrior types in History, along with medieval knights and Japanese Samurai. But, if we remove a few keywords like “Leonidas,” “Thermopylae,” “Honor,” “This is Sparta,” and “Gerard Butler,” most people don’t know anything about who were really the ancient Spartans (or Lacedaemonians as they liked to call themselves). And, most importantly, if they were indeed the most elite warriors of their time, how did they disappear from the face of the Earth? Why does their famous city lie today in ruins? What happened to the ancient Spartans? Today we are going to solve this mystery and learn what led to the fall of Sparta and its mythical warriors.

If we needed to select a specific date connected deeply with the fall of Sparta, this would have been July 6th of 371 BCE, the day when the Spartans were decisively beaten at the battle of Leuctra by the Thebans. This date serves more as an anchor point, from where our research starts than the actual event that ended the Spartans’ existence since they managed to survive for almost 800 years after that battle.

There are many reasons why Leuctra was so catastrophic for the Spartans, from the death of their king, Cleombrotus, to the loss of almost the entire Homoioi (meaning, the first-class Spartan citizens, who had political rights and fought as hoplites) population in one single day (Cartledge, Spawforth, 2002, 19). However, the real reason why Leuctra “signaled the End Times” for the Spartans, was because it made their worst nightmare come true: it showed the world that they were not undefeatable. It shattered their reputation and destroyed years of carefully designed propaganda. From Leuctra the clock started counting backward for them, reaching closer every day to the final collapse. But, let's take a few steps back in time to better understand this statement.

From Humble Beginnings

Map of Peloponnese, Greece. It depicts the ancient geographical regions of the peninsula, along with its major rivers and mountains. The core of Spartan territory was located in Lakonia, and more specifically, in the narrow Eurotas valley. To its greatest extend Sparta consisted of the valuable Messenia region, and Cunuria, which was always a disputed area between the Spartans, the Arcadians, and the Argives (image source: Wikimedia Commons).

Back in the early archaic period, around 800 BCE, Lacaedaimon — the land between the mountain ranges of Taygetos and Parnon — was inhabited by small populations of farmers, living in scattered, insignificant villages. Due to a lack of fertile land to cultivate (the Eurotas valley was infamous for its large swamps) the natives of the region were relatively poor and few in numbers. Under constant threat from their more powerful and numerous neighbors like the Arcadians and the Argives to the north, and the Messenians to the west, these populations were forced to unite in order to have a chance of standing against their enemies. The only way to survive was by the means of unity, instant militarization of their society, and aggressive expansion towards more valuable regions (Matyszak, 2017, 21).

These three goals were the reasons behind the creation of the famous “Lycurgus’ Laws,” which resembled more a set of military camp rules than actual laws to properly govern a group of people. The Spartans learned to always obey their state’s orders, just like a private obeys his officer without question. Under these laws, men were forced to spend the majority of their lives in the army, always preparing to repulse or wage an invasion. Women were charged with housekeeping because their husbands were always fighting, and with child laboring to provide the state with more soldiers, who were necessary for their survival. There were slaves, the Helots, who were forced to work as farmers, and second-class citizens, the Perioikoi, in charge of metal forging, who provided food and weapons to the warrior class. As a reward, the Homoioi protected them from their enemies.

Ancient sources claim that Sparta adopted the phalanx formation and hoplite equipment from the Argives, who were the leading power of Peloponnese in the early Archaic Period (Matyszak, 2017, 18). After all, the hoplon shield — the weapon responsible for the phalanx’s creation — was called the “Argolic Aspis,” or “Αργολική Ασπίδα”, meaning “Argive shield” in ancient Greek, which may indicate that the weapon was first used or created by the Argives (Stamatopoulou, 2004, 29–30). The existence of other forces in Peloponnese, equipped with superior technology and tactics, who were eager to invade Sparta, resulted in the constant presence of fear within the Spartan society.

This fear was greatly increased after the conquest of the rich Messenian valley to the southwestern Peloponnese. The native Messenians, being defeated, automatically lost their status as free citizens and became slaves (Matyszak, 2017, 57). The Laws of Lycurgus did not support social movement between classes. This led to the massive increase of the third class, which was now the most oppressed, poor, and unprivileged and yet, simultaneously, the most numerous. Suddenly, the Spartans had to face an internal threat inside their own home. Even at the point when the Homoioi population reached its peak, they were seven male Helots for every male Spartan!

Having learned to always be loyal to their laws, the Spartans did not engage in any social reforms to face this serious problem. Instead, they did what an army officer would have done if he suspected a group of his soldiers was about to mutiny. They tighten their grip around the Helots, forcing on them strict punishments and even more unfair treatment, in order to break their spirit. As I already have stated, these methods might work in a military camp, but they are useless when you have to cope with an entire population of women, children, and men, and not just a group of misbehaved soldiers.

The result was that throughout its history Sparta faced not only numerous external enemies but also multiple slave revolts, which all ended in unnecessary bloodshed. This of course had a huge impact on the state’s economy and population growth. Sparta spent almost three centuries (from 8th to 5th century BCE) trying to survive and expand its territory. While cities like Athens, Corinth, and Thebes had the chance to make social reforms, adopt different systems of government, colonize unknown lands, and establish trade relationships, Sparta was busy fighting its neighbors and its own population in long wars.

When in a war, you don’t have the time to care for your economy. Spartans always paid little attention to money. They were an agricultural society, and survived with their own supplies, unlike for example Athens, which depended on Egypt and the Crimean Greek cities for its annual grain supplies. For the majority of their existence, they preferred to exchange goods instead of using money as a measurement of value. The use of this old economic model, instead of actual currency which was invented around 600 BCE and was used extensively all over the Mediterranean, further emphasizes the anachronistic character of the Spartan economy, and its poor performance. Archaeological records prove that there were indeed minimum to no trade relations between Sparta and the other Greek cities (Gainsford, 2018).

Sparta did not forge coins until the late third century, but used large iron sticks (or disks), as a measurement for wealth, which prevented its citizens from collecting vast amounts of wealth (Gainsford, 2018). This fact can be attributed also to the low presence of valuable metals such as gold, or silver, which are crucial for coinage making (Gainsford, 2018).

If you’ve reached this point in the article, you know what’s coming next. Repeat after me: “The rules of a military camp are not the proper way to govern people.” You know what happens when you are forbidden from owning a thing, but all your other neighbors own that thing? You start to break the rules and secretly own vast amounts of that thing.

This is exactly what the Spartans did throughout their history. Theoretically, they were trained since childhood to always look down upon wealth, and instead care about their spiritual needs, and how to be good soldiers. In reality, however, Spartans had a reputation throughout Greece for being one of the most corrupted and easily brided people! Pausanias, the Spartan king who joined the Persians after the battle of Plataea is a perfect example. During the Peloponnesian War and after its end the Spartans found themselves fighting as mercenaries in foreign lands, hoping to make a fortune, being brided by other Greeks and even the Persians, and gaining great amounts of wealth by controlling large portions of the local black market.

To conclude, life in ancient Sparta was by all means pretty rough. They had a series of conservative, anachronistic laws which unsuccessfully tried to fully militarize their society, while completely neglecting its economic and social development. Their economy was crippled, because trading and generally speaking, any relations with foreigners, were not welcomed. They faced ongoing civil struggles and rebellions. And finally, even the Homoioi, the most prestigious and noble class, were corrupted to the core. The question is how did Sparta — ancient Greece’s most dysfunctional family — managed to not only survive but thrive and be a major power in Greece for over three centuries?

The answer is simple. A powerful tool used multiple times in human history from the oldest empire of the world up to modern times:


The Spartan Propaganda

“The Selection of the infant Spartans”, a painting by Giuseppe Diotti, based on the myth that the Spartans examined their infants and if not strong enough, they were thrown from the cliff of Kaiadas (image source: Wikimedia Commons).

It needs to be clear that ancient Sparta wasn’t a living nightmare. Just like any other human society, it had both good and bad aspects. The Helots were enjoying more freedoms than any other slave of their time! Spartan warriors were indeed the best of their kind. And their laws had many valid points and positive aspects. What the Spartans did however was to strongly empathize those three aforementioned things, while hiding all the other negative ones under an “invisibility cloak”. The Spartan propaganda was so well executed and carefully planned, that to the other Greeks, even their Arcadian and Argive neighbors, Sparta seemed like a semimythical place filled with powerful and virtuous beings, who were governed by the best laws mankind could ever have!

Imagine, if you were told that Tolkien’s Elves exist and live in an exotic land, where few to no people are allowed to enter. Imagine if you were about to fight these Elves in battle. You would be paralyzed with fear, because you simply didn’t know anything about them, except that they were the best warriors in the world, they were undefeatable and knew no fear. This description aims to transmit your feelings, similar to the ones the ancient Greeks felt, whenever they had to fight the Spartans. This is why in multiple cases only the sight of their marching phalanx was enough to make their enemies flee!

The Spartans themselves exaggerated these rumors, in every way possible. They had an immense spy network, gathering valuable intel for every friend and enemy. Their agents spread countless rumors about their supernatural war skills and virtuous character, making every other Greek either fear or admire them.

Except for a handful of honored guests and ambassadors, they did not allow anyone to step outside or inside Lakonia. For an ordinary person, the only way to see a live Spartan was either on the battlefield or in the Olympic games. Spartan trade relations were very limited, in order to keep any foreign influence to the minimum. By the use of propaganda however Spartan goods such as weapons, hunting dogs, oranges, and especially chariots, became exotic luxury items for the ones lucky enough to find and afford them!

The Bitter End

Unfortunately, relying heavily on propaganda comes with a serious price. It only takes one strike and your mythical image will collapse to the ground like a house of cards. For the Spartans, this strike was Leuctra. They had been defeated multiple times before, but always came up with an excuse for their defeat. In Spakteria, for example, the Athenians used peltasts and archers to wipe out an entire Spartan army. They won however by using ranged weapons, which the Spartans considered to be “a coward’s choice” and not direct hoplite combat, in which they were unbeatable. So their image had taken a scratch but was saved. In Leutra there was no room for such an excuse. The Thebans were simply proved to be better soldiers.

After Leuctra, the veil was lifted and the whole world learned what was Sparta really like: a giant walking on thin ice, which began to crack… After Leuctra Sparta remained a regional power in the Peloponnese but was never able to regain its leading place among the Greeks. Not that they wished it anyway. The world had suddenly become too big for them. The age of the city-states and hoplite warfare was over. The time of large, multicultural Hellenistic kingdoms had come, and Sparta was not willing to participate.

Instead, they chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. They would continue to use the same laws which remained unchanged for almost 500 years, refusing to make any major social or economical reform. Most of the Hellenistic rulers let Sparta unharmed because simply it wasn’t an opponent worthy to worry for. Some may have even wished, out of respect, to leave alone the force which once ruled the Greek world. In an age where wars included large-scale battles, units from all over Europe and Asia, and campaigns in different continents, Sparta continued to fight Argos and the cities of Arcadia — its traditional enemies — by using the good, ol’ hoplite phalanx, a long-outdated style of fighting. But in a few times when they pulled the rope too far, they were instantly crushed by the Hellenistic rulers of Macedon and Epirus and forced back to their isolated home.

After Leuctra, the Messenians were finally free after almost 400 years of slavery (Hutchinson, 2014, 200). They took back their homeland, depriving Sparta of its rich Messenian valley. Meanwhile, the ongoing population decline left the Homoioi numbering around a few hundred. These last Spartans, instead of making finally reforms, and step out of their regional conflicts, chose to fight each other in a bloody struggle to rule what few pieces of land remained to them. Corrupted tyrants and puppet kings took control instead of the once-powerful noble ancestors of Hercules.

The last king of Sparta, Nabis (Νάβις) perfectly depicts the state of corruption and misery that is described as dominating Sparta by the ancient historians. Once in power, he killed all the descendants of the previous Spartan kings, ending a bloodline that had survived for almost 700 years (Chakra, 2018)! He then made a series of useless reforms, which had the purpose of serving more his own interests, than his people’s. He freed thousands of Helots to gain popularity among them (Cartledge, Spawforth, 2002, 87), but chose to keep their social class alive, out of respect for Lycurgus’ Laws. He built walls around Sparta, seized the wealth of his opponents, and made a fleet in Gytheio (Cartledge, Spawforth, 2002, 87–89). After managing to secure his position he did what Spartans did best, invade Messene and Argos. He was badly defeated by the Achaean League but kept causing small-scale problems, like an annoying thorn on the side of the Achaeans. Finally, the Achaean League asked Rome for aid. The Romans asked Nabis to return home and stop the invasions. When the latter refused, they invaded Sparta, capturing Gytheio with ease and forcing Sparta to become a member of the Achaean League (Chakra, 2018). Nabis was assassinated a few years after, thus ending Sparta’s independence in the most shameful way possible.


When the Achaean League declared war on Rome the latter conquered the Peloponnese, including Sparta, thus starting the long Roman rule over Greece. There were no longer Helots, Homoioi, or Perioikoi, only Lakones, the people who lived in the valley of Lakedaemon. Their populations gradually abandoned their cities and became once again farmers living in small villages, just like they did before their rise to power (Cartledge, Spawforth, 2002, 192).

During Roman times, Sparta became a thriving tourist destination. Because its lands had confined arable soil the locals needed an alternative source of income. Romans, Greeks, and people from all over the world visited Sparta to attend its numerous cultural festivals and paid their respects to the Leonidio, a temple built in honor of Leonidas and his 300 warriors, who fell in Thermopylae. It is worth noting that the Spartan contemporaries of Leonidas, did not wish to remember him as a mythical hero because for them he had simply done his duty and died on the battlefield. But, for these “Roman” Spartans, who had not seen a bright day since the time of Leonidas, the long-dead king represented the ideal Spartan, an honored, virtuous warrior-king, who sacrificed himself for his city during the old golden years of Sparta.

Leonidas became a cultural hero and his sacrifice became the cultural heritage of his weakened descendants. With no dignity left, they tried to capitalize on everything their ancestors accomplished. They sold souvenirs and showed with pride their monuments and temples, telling stories from the past, when the days of old were better. If this rings a bell to you, congrats, you live in a weak, corrupted country, which depends on others to survive…

When emperor Caracalla campaigned against the Parthians in the Middle East — who were in a way the cultural inheritors of the long-gone Persian Empire — he recruited a number of Spartan legionnaires, who might have fought as hoplites, or phalangites in his army. This was a symbolic move. Just like Leonidas, Caracalla wished to be seen as the “Shield of the West,” the rightful leader of Greeks and Romans, who would lead them to victory against their “eastern nemesis” (Weapons and Warfare, 2015).

The Spartans fell victims to their own propaganda. They participated in the campaign, hoping to relive their forgotten golden days. Instead, their force was disbanded once the war was over, without receiving any recognition for their role. They were mere tools, hoping to once again lead the world. Their only pride left, was that they were lucky enough to be descended from the old Spartans and bear their legacy. But the problem with legacy is that it has no real value when compared with other material goods. When king Alaric and the Visigoths invaded Greece in 396 AD, the Romans let them sack Sparta, massacre the population, and loot the city’s monuments and treasures of old. There were simply other territories with strategic, economical, or political importance, worthy to be secured. After all, trade centers and industrial towns were more important than small tourist resorts.

Maniates warriors, late 18th century. Together with Tsakones they are the long descedants of the ancient Spartans (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The sack of Sparta ended officially the era of the ancient Spartans. The remaining native population, the last descendants of the once-proud Spartans, fled to the mountains, where they were safe against any foreign invasion. This was their wisest choice after centuries. With the mountains providing shelter, they built their villages and stayed there, without having much interaction with the rest of the world. They even managed to keep their pagan gods up until the 10th century AD, when Byzantine emperor Basil I forced them to accept Christianity. There they lived, refusing to change as the centuries passed. And there, in the slopes of Taygetos and Parnonas, they still reside.

If you happen to go on vacation in Greece and instead of the famous Santorini, Mykonos, or Athens, choose south Peloponnese as your travel destination, you should definitely visit the beautiful port town of Gytheio, the mountainous villages of Mane, and the castles of Mystra. Alternatively, for a more off the beaten path experience, you should try traveling to southeastern Arcadia and see the villages of Leonidio and Tyros. Near the majestic beaches of Gytheio and the medieval stone castles and towers of old, you will come across a hardy, but friendly folk, a group of people known as Maniates. If Arcadia is your destination of choice, you will find among the endless greens, and the cold, blue waters of the Aegean, another weird group of Greek peoples, who go by the name Tsakones, and speak a long forgotten and soon extinct language, which bears elements of the Doric Dialect, spoken by the Classical Age Spartans (Vagenas, 1971, 277–278).

Those two Greek groups are the last descendants of the long-gone Doric Lakones, the people who inhabited the lands of ancient Sparta, almost two thousand years ago. They keep living close to the mountains and remember with pride their famous ancestors, who were once the greatest warriors on Earth.


Gainsford, P., (2018), Paying the iron price: Spartan Money, available at http://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2018/02/paying-iron-price-spartan-money.html, (last access: 04/07/21)

Chakra, H., (2018), Nabis, the Last King of Sparta, available at https://about-history.com/nabis-the-last-king-of-sparta/, (last acceess: 04/07/21)

Hutchinson, G., (2014), Sparta: Unfit for Empire, published by Frontline Books, Yorkshire

Cartledge, P., Spawforth, A., (2002), Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: a tale of two cities, published by Routledge, London

Vagenas, T., (1971), Ιστορικά Τσακωνίας και Λεωνιδίου, published by the “Municipality of Athens”, Athens

Weapons and Warfare, (2015), Legionary Singularis of the Spartan cohort of Caracalla (216–217 AD), available at https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/12/31/legionary-singularis-of-the-spartan-cohort-of-caracalla-216-217-ad/, (last access: 04/07/21)

Stamatopoulou, V., (2004), Όπλον: Η αργολική ασπίδα και η τεχνολογία της, available at https://thesis.ekt.gr/thesisBookReader/id/20347?lang=el#page/1/mode/2up, (last access: 07/07/21)

Matyszak, P., (2017), Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation, published by Pen & Sword Military, Yorkshire



Nick Iakovidis

Studying History and Philosophy of Science at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.