In the Name of Lykourgos: The Rise and Fall of the Spartan Revolutionary Movement (243–146 BC)
Miltiadis Michalopoulos (translated by Marion Kavallieros & Maria Anna Niforos)
Pen & Sword
258pp, 9 black-and-white illustrations and 12 maps
Hardback, £25

In The Spartan Mirage, 1933, the French historian François Ollier suggested that because non-Spartans had written the surviving accounts of ancient Sparta, both ancient and modern understandings of Sparta suffer from idealisation and, hence, unreliability. True as this may be, the Spartans themselves also suffered from a kind of 'Spartan mirage', an idealised and unreliable view of their polity's mythical origins under the historically insubstantial lawgiver Lykourgos.

Visual distortions and illusions happen at twilight, as well as in the heat of the desert. In the Name of Lykourgos: The Rise and Fall of the Spartan Revolutionary Movement 243–146 BC is a thorough, well researched account of the 'Spartan twilight', an era that was less prone to idealisation. Still, as Miltiadis Michalopoulos shows, the image of the past retained its inspirational power even as Sparta's political and military might weakened, after its defeat in 371 BC by Theban troops at Leuktra.

Despite the loss of prestige and soldiers, and the revolt of the helot population of Messenia, a reduced Sparta staggered through the 'general economic, social and moral crisis of the Classical world' during the 3rd century BC. While other city-states accommodated themselves to the states and empires of the Hellenistic world, Sparta endured, even as its warlike traditions led it into disastrous battles first with Macedonia and the Achaean League, then with Rome.

This survival owed much to the revolutionary revival that began in the reign of Agis IV, who ascended the throne of 'a poor and weak city of seven hundred citizens' in 245–4 BC. Agis, like many contemporaries, subscribed to the 'naïve theory' of revivalism. In Sparta's case, this meant the ancient traditions of equality and militarisation. His plan to reallocate land brought him into conflict with his cosmopolitan and 'anti-Lykourgic' co-monarch Leonidas II. But in 241 BC, Leonidas II's men strangled Agis.

Leonidas II, then, established a 'regime of terror and intense censorship' against anything that smacked of Agis' ideas, and married his son Cleomenes III to Agis' widow. Irony being a concept with Greek origins, Cleomenes III continued Agis' reforms after his ascent to the throne in 235 BC. He reduced the power of the ephorate, the elected component of Sparta's Lykourgic constitution. He weakened the Gerousia, the Lykourgic council of elders, by creating a rival, a six-member patrinomoi. He also appointed his brother Eukleidas to the vacant throne of Sparta's other royal house, the Eurypontidai, giving Sparta 'two kings from the same house for the first time in history'.

In 227 BC, Cleomenes III cancelled debts, increased the citizen body by 3,500, and added his family's holdings to a land redistribution. He also revived the agoge, the programme of military training. To confirm Sparta's revival, in 229 BC the tiny state went to war with the Achaean League, and supplanted the League as the most powerful alliance in the Peloponnese.

But the revival was too successful, and too Spartan. Cleomenes was a 'social revolutionary' for Spartans, not for all the peoples of the Peloponnese. His Sparta stood on as narrow a base as Lykourgos' Sparta. The Achaeans appealed to Macedonia for help. In 222 BC, Cleomenes' army was defeated at Sellasia. Captured for the first time in its history, Sparta was incorporated into the Hellenic League. Yet Sparta reclaimed a leading role in Greek affairs under Nabis (207–192 BC), the 'last of the Spartans', who continued Cleomenes' reforms, held off the Achaeans, and rebuilt Sparta's power by playing Rome against Philip V of Macedonia. In 195 BC, the Roman general Lucius Mummius invaded Greece. The mirage of Sparta's 'Lykourgic polity' survived that, too. The strangest of all political acts committed in the name of Lykourgos was the creation of Roman Sparta, a peaceful 'museum city' for tourists.
Dominic Green