Social decline of Sparta
The quest for genetic purity may have been Sparta’s Achilles heel.
When I encountered Plutarch’s Lives a decade or two ago, I was surprised to find an old history lesson embedded there. I was surprised because Plutarch is not what I would call a reliable source. He presents Romulus and Remus (who were supposedly raised by wolves and are the mythical founders of Rome) as historical figures, for instance, and discusses their lives. I was surprised because what Plutarch says about ancient Sparta had been summarized in my old junior high textbook (The Ancient and Medieval World) and presented as fact.
You may be familiar with how—according to the classic description of ancient Sparta—sickly children were taken and placed outdoors to die. Plutarch describes it this way:
A father had not the right of bringing up his offspring, but had to carry it to a certain place called Lesché, where the elders of the tribe sat in judgment upon the child. If they thought it well-built and strong, they ordered the father to bring it up, and assigned one of the nine thousand plots of land to it; but if it was mean-looking or misshapen, they sent it away to the place called the Exposure, a glen upon the side of Mount Täygetus; for they considered that if a child did not start in possession of health and strength, it was better both for itself and for the state that he should not live at all.
It is clear from historical sources that Sparta was an intensely militaristic state. It famously fought and won the Peloponnesian War against Athens and was important in assisting the Greeks to hold off the expansionist Persian Empire. But the famous city state declined in importance after losing the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. In his Politics, Aristotle refers to this battle—“a single blow”—and the reason for Sparta’s decline:
the state did not succeed in enduring a single blow, but perished owing to the smallness of its population. They have a tradition that in the earlier reigns they used to admit foreigners to their citizenship, with the result that dearth of population did not occur in those days, although they were at war for a long period; and it is stated that at one time the Spartiates numbered as many as ten thousand.
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