Book Review: In the Name of Lykourgos: The Rise and fall of the Spartan Revolutionary Movement (243-146 BC)


by Miltiadis Michalopoulos

Barnsley, S. York.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2017. Pp. xxviii, 260. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1783030232

The Sparta Revivalist Revolution during the Hellenistic Era

With In the Name of Lykourgos, Militiadis Michalopoulos gives us a fascinating political-military history of a unique period in the history of Ancient Greece, the successful reform that transformed the Spartan state at the end of the 3rd Century BCE. The story goes back to the origins of the Spartan state, when its leader Lykourgos set up the institutions of Sparta, two hereditary Kings, five elected Ephors with the power to check the kings and protect the interests of the people, and finally a 30-member assembly, the Gerousia, with only the power to introduce legislation. Spartan citizenship was restricted to property owners with enough land to make the syssita, a monthly payment for public messes. Spartans were supposed to dedicate themselves to being warriors, ignoring the corrupting effects of trade and business, while relying on the slave-like helots to work the land.

By the 4th Century, Spartan society started to experience severe problems as land increasingly became concentrated in a small number of families, which in turn led those families to have fewer children in order to pay the syssita that allowed them to remain citizens, by not allowing their lands to be divided amongst too many children. The result was fewer and fewer warrior-citizens each year, to the point that when Epaminondas crushed the Spartan army at Leuctra in 371 BCE, a third/3 of Sparta’s male citizens were killed. Although Sparta was broken as a great power, it took more than a century for anyone to suggest that the state’s institutions needed to change.

A reform movement began with King Agis IV’s (265-241 BCE), who in 243 BCE tried to redistribute land and cancel existing debts in order to expand the number of Spartan citizens, and therefore warriors. Opposed by his fellow king, Leonidas II, Agis’ reforms were blocked in the Gerousia by the wealthiest Spartan families, who held the majority of Spartan debt and land. Agis tried to have Leonidas removed on the pretext that he had had children with a foreign spouse, prohibited by an ancient law on the punishment of death. When that failed, Agis refused to resort to violence to get his way, leading to his arrest and execution by Leonidas’ faction. Ironically, Leonidas’ son, Kleomenes III (235-222 BCE), revived the reform movement two decades later.

Learning from Agis’ mistakes, Kleomenes built his faction in secret, and looked for a war to seize the power he would need to implement such drastic reforms. A successful campaign against the Achaean League in the Northern Peloponnesus (229 BCE) gave Kleomenes the support to march on Sparta, and execute the ephors who could block reform. The ephorate was abolished, and Kleomenes made his brother the other king in violation of custom (the 2nd kingship was vacant at the time). A series of land reforms were implemented that expanded the Spartan army greatly. Unfortunately, Kleomenes still had to deal with not only the Achaeans, but now attracted the attention of the greatest power in Greece, Macedon. Kleomenes tried to block the Macedonians at Corinth, but was forced to retreat when news arrived of a successful revolt in his rear at Argos. In combination with the Achaeans, Antigonos III’s Macedonian army under moved into the Peloponnesus. At the battle of Sellasia (222 BCE), Kleomenes was defeated in a close battle, with the loss of 5,800 Spartans. Kleomenes went into exile in Egypt, and killed himself after a failed coup against Ptolemy III (219 BCE). Sparta was stripped of her army by the Macedonians but was allowed to remain independent.

King Nabis (207-192 BCE) reignited the reform movement. The Spartan state took over the cost of meeting the syssita for citizens, and a number of former helots were made citizens, expanding the army to at least 10,000. Nabis then sought to re-establish Sparta’s hegemony over the Peloponnesus through a war against the Achaean League. The city-state of Argos was ‘liberated’ by the Spartan army and the Nabian reforms were exported to that city. But Sparta’s success at Argos only accelerated her demise, the newly invigorated state came to the attention of the greatest of all ancient powers, Rome.

A Roman army under Lucius Quinctius Flaminius besieged Sparta itself (196 BCE) and Nabis capitulated after a valiant defense. Flaminius proved to be a magnanimous victor, freeing Argos, but leaving left Sparta intact so as not to upset the balance of power in Greece.

Having learned nothing, Nabis renewed his war with the Achaeans and was defeated at the battle of Tegea (192 BCE). A request for support from the Aetolian League brought a fifth column into Sparta, which proceeded to assassinate Nabis. Sparta collapsed into chaos, and was ultimately transformed under Roman rule into a “museum city” for tourists to gawk at (the Emperor Hadrian was the most prominent man to visit, and was honored by the Spartans with the title of patronomos).

Michalopoulos has done a fine job in explaining a very complex series of political and military events, using ancient sources (largely Plutarch and Polybius) that do not always agree. He argues that the Spartan reform movement matches the characteristics of what we would now call a revolution, with the fundamental transformation of Spartan society being the result. His assessment of both politics and the military campaigns in this period is judicious, with careful attention to the geography of the important battles (the terrain of which has been walked by the author). He deals effectively both with the modern historiography on Sparta and the ancient historical sources. To sum up, it’s worth reading if you have an interest in Ancient Greek warfare or politics.


Note: In the Name of Lykourgos is also available in several e-editions


Our Reviewer: Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, and Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies


Reviewer: Alexander Stavropoulos   

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