Ancient History & Civilisation


Meanwhile that concentration of wealth, which everywhere in Greece was enflaming the eternal conflict of classes, produced in Sparta two attempts at revolutionary reform. Isolated by its mountain barriers, Sparta had maintained its independence, had fought back the Macedonians, and had bravely defeated the immense army of Pyrrhus (272). But the greed of the strong generated from within the ruin that enemy forces had failed to bring from without. The Lycurgean laws against alienating the land from the family by sale, or dividing it in bequests, had been abrogated,* and the fortunes made by Spartans in empire or war had gone to buying up the soil.33 By 244 the 700,000 acres of Laconia were owned by one hundred families,34 and only seven hundred men had preserved the rights of citizenship. Even these no longer ate in common; the poor could not make the necessary contribution, while the rich preferred to feast in private. A large majority of the families that had once enjoyed the franchise had sunk into poverty, and called for a cancellation of debts and a redivision of the land.

It is to the credit of monarchy that the attempt to reform this condition came from the Spartan kings. In 242 Agis IV and Leonidas succeeded to the dual throne. Convinced that Lycurgus had meant the land to be equally divided among all freemen, Agis proposed to redistribute it, to annul all debts, and to restore the semicommunism of Lycurgus. Those landowners whose property was mortgaged supported the move for cancellation; but when the measure had been passed they resisted violently the remaining elements of Agis’ reforms. At the instigation of Leonidas, Agis was murdered, along with his mother and his grandmother, both of whom had volunteered to surrender their great estates for division among the people. In this royal drama the noblest characters were women. Chilonis, daughter of Leonidas, was the wife of Cleombrotus, who supported Agis. When Leonidas was exiled, and Cleombrotus seized his throne, Chilonis left her triumphant husband to share her father’s banishment; when Leonidas recaptured power and exiled Cleombrotus, Chilonis chose exile with her husband.35

Leonidas, to get the rich property of Agis’ widow into his family, compelled her to marry his son Cleomenes. But Cleomenes fell in love with his wife, and imbibed from her the ideas of the dead king. When he came to the throne as Cleomenes III he resolved to carry out Agis’ reforms. Having won over the army by his courage in war, and the people by the simplicity of his life, he abolished the oligarchic ephorate on the ground that Lycurgus had never sanctioned it; he killed fourteen resisters, exiled eighty, canceled all debts, divided the land among the free population, and restored the Lycurgean discipline. Not content, he set out to conquer the Peloponnese for the revolution. The proletariat everywhere hailed him as a liberator, and many towns surrendered to him gladly; he took Argos, Pellene, Phlius, Epidaurus, Hermione, Troezen, at last even rich Corinth. The ferment of his program spread: in Boeotia the payment of debts was abandoned, and the state appropriated funds to appease the poor; in Megalopolis the philosopher Cercidas pled with the rich to aid the needy before revolution destroyed all wealth.36 When Cleomenes invaded Achaea and defeated Aratus all upper-class Greece trembled for its property. Aratus appealed to Macedonia. Antigonus Doson came down, overwhelmed Cleomenes at Sellasia (221), and restored the oligarchic regime in Lacedaemon. Cleomenes fled to Egypt, tried and failed to win the help of Ptolemy III, tried and failed to rouse the Alexandrians to revolution, and killed himself.37

The class war continued. A generation after Cleomenes the people of Sparta overthrew the government, and set up a revolutionary dictatorship. Philopoemen, who had succeeded Aratus as head of the Achaean League, invaded Laconia, and restored the rule of property. As soon as Philopoemen had gone the people rose again, and set up Nabis as dictator (207). Nabis was a Syrian Semite who had been captured in war and sold into slavery at Megalopolis; smarting under suppressed ability, he had revenged himself by organizing a revolt among the Helots. Now he gave Spartan citizenship to all freemen, and freed all the Helots with one word. When the rich obstructed him he confiscated their wealth and cut off their heads. The news of his doings went abroad, and he found it a simple matter, with the help of the poorer classes, to conquer Argos, Messenia, Elis, and part of Arcadia. Everywhere he nationalized large estates, redistributed the land, and abolished debts.38 The Achaean League, unable to overthrow him, appealed to Rome for aid. Flamininus came, but Nabis offered so resolute a resistance that the Roman accepted a truce by which Nabis was to release the imprisoned rich, but would retain his power. At this juncture Nabis was assassinated by an agent of the Aetolian League (192).39 Four years later Philopoemen marched in again, propped up the oligarchs, abolished the Lycurgean regimen, and sold three thousand of Nabis’ followers into slavery. The revolution was ended, but so was Sparta; it continued to exist, but it played no further part in the history of Greece.

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