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Sparta's Fall, Macedonia's Rise

To give meaning to its victory at the end of the Great Peloponnesian War, Sparta assumed the role of policeman among the Greek city-states. Sparta supported local aristocratic oligarchies against populist threats, and it collected tributes with brutal methods. Sparta presented itself as the champion of liberty, but it was the liberty of aristocratic warrior slave masters.

Sparta supported an anti-democratic oligarchy in Athens to be known as the Thirty Tyrants, led by Critlus, a former student of Socrates. The oligarchs murdered some 1500 fellow Athenians whom they considered dangerous. The oligarchy also executed resident aliens whose wealth they wished to confiscate. And there are allegations of personal corruption. About five hundred democrats fled Athens and became the nucleus of a resistance group based in Thebes. The Thirty Tyrants were in power thirteen months, until 403 (one year after the war's end) when a rebellion by outraged Athenians overthrew them, and in seeking security for their regime they moved against those suspected of having supported the oligarchs. Among the accused was Socrates, whom they executed in 399. His former student-admirer, Plato (in his early twenties), from an influential aristocratic family with connections to the oligarchy, fled Athens for Megara, which had been an ally of Sparta.

In policing the Greek states between 395 and 386, Sparta fought numerous little wars. It fought against a coalition that included Boeotia, Corinth, Argos and Athens. Greeks in Asia Minor rebelled again against Persian rule, and they asked Sparta to act on its claim as the defender of liberty for Greeks. The Spartans had promised the Persians that they would recognize Persia's power over the Greeks in Asia Minor, but now Sparta tried to redeem itself as the claimed defender of all Greeks and went to war against the Persians. As usual, wars were debilitating, and military operations weakened Sparta. This encouraged Greek cities to form a coalition against Sparta. In response, Sparta again made peace again with Persia, which offended many Greeks. It was more than thirty years since the Great Peloponnesian War and enough time for changed attitudes. Athens was able to create a maritime confederacy that included most of its former allies. Athens and Thebes fought skirmishes against Sparta. In 378, believing that it was defending its dominant position in Greece, Sparta moved against Thebes. In 371, the Thebans defeated Sparta's army at the Battle of Leuctra, destroying the myth that Sparta's army was invincible. Greeks far and wide were on their way to recognizing that Sparta's domination of Greece had ended. Then Greek cites turned against Thebes and its dominance ended at the Battle of Mantinea in 362, with Athens and Sparta on the same side with Ellis and other cities.

Sparta by now was not the Sparta that had triumphed during the Great Peloponnesian War. It had lost much of its manpower, and Spartan values and way of life had been changing. There was a loss of enthusiasm for war. The slave-owning Spartans had held their land in common (and had managed their slaves collectively). With all their military and diplomatic missions outside their city, Spartans had been looking around and acquiring an appetite for possessions. Land in Sparta was now being bought and sold — two-fifths of the landowners being women, the survivors of war. With the new inequality some Spartans were declining into poverty and becoming malcontents. Those Spartans with land and slaves were holding on to their fear of a slave rebellion and added to it the fear that the malcontents among them might make common cause with the slaves.

The Rise of Macedon

To the north of Greece were the Macedonians, descendants of the Dorian Greeks. They worshiped Greek gods but spoke a dialect of Greek that the Greeks south of them found difficult to understand. Greeks to the south of them thought them uncouth barbarians. But as a nation, the Macedonians were united politically into something bigger than a city-state. (map) It was a nation that had been unified by the monarch Philip II, a nation that had timber, great mines, herds of sheep, cattle, good pasture for raising horses, and it was developing agriculturally. The Macedonians were hardy, unaccustomed to soft living and luxuries, and many of them lived for war. Philip encouraged trade, which provided him with more revenue. He had an army that was highly disciplined, with a cavalry better at horsemanship than were the Greeks. Macedon had siege weapons, and it had a new formation called the phalanx: rows of soldiers packed closely together unweighted by body armor and carrying pikes fifteen feet long, longer than those carried by Greeks to their south.

Macedon expanded against powers on its southern border. And in 357 Philip took possession of Amphipolis, a city on the northern coast of the Aegean — Athens having failed to win back Amphipolis as an ally. or to prevent further expansion by Philip. A little to the northeast, in 356, Philip took the Thracian city of Crenides and renamed it Philippi, a city from which he began controlling neighboring gold mines. He now had more land to award nobles for their loyalty. And his military successes lifted the optimism and morale of the common Macedonians.

In 339, Philip moved his army into central Greece. Thebes and Athens put aside their warring and joined forces against him. Philip defeated them both. Philip garrisoned Macedonian soldiers in Thebes and stripped the city of its power in Boeotia. And he offered Athens an alliance that he was to lead but which Athens was glad to accept.

Philip created a federal constitution for a new league of Greeks — a league without the Spartans. League representatives were to meet and settle differences at a headquarters in the city of Corinth. They were to be collectively responsible for defense against brigandage, against piracy and against trouble from those seeking a redistribution of wealth or abolition of debts. The league's politics were to be conservative, bringing an end to the trend toward reform and democracy that had begun in Athens with Solon more than two hundred years before.

Philip had a son who was one of his generals: eventually to be known as Alexander the Great. In the year 336, when Alexander was twenty and already a successful general, a conflict arose between Philip and one of his many wives, Olympias, Alexander's mother, and doubt was raised concerning Alexander's legitimacy. Then Philip was assassinated. Alexander held an inquiry that concluded that the assassination was the work of Persian agents. Historians are not sure who was responsible. Alexander stayed close to his mother and was recognized as Philip's successor. He took over Philip's plan to expand against Persian rule of Greeks in Asia Minor. A new expansion and a new era — the Hellenistic Era — was about to unfold.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.