ElAnt v3n6 - Spartan Aims in the Spartan-Elean War of c.400: Further Thoughts

Volume 3, Number 6
February 1997


J. Roy, 
Department of Classics, 
University of Nottingham, 
e-mail: abzroy@arn1.arts.nottingham.ac.uk 

A recent article by Falkner (1996) has brought out clearly the importance of the naval clauses in the peace treaty which c.400 ended a war between Sparta and Elis, arguing that, while Sparta had other motives of longer standing for conflict with Elis, an immediate Spartan aim in the war was to secure the strategic advantages of controlling the Elean coastline with its two ports at Kyllene and Phea. This note offers some observations intended to support and supplement Falkner's conclusions. Falkner does not discuss at length the several problems of source-material concerning the Spartan-Elean war, considered in Roy (1997 forthcoming), but her main arguments and conclusions are entirely acceptable.

Falkner rightly stresses that good harbours are rare on the Elean coastline: indeed Kyllene and Phea are the only two. On the archaeology of Kyllene see Servais (1961), who makes a convincing case for identifying the physical remains immediately adjacent to modern Killini with ancient Kyllene (despite the lack of conclusive documentary evidence). There was a town on the site at least from the 5th century B.C. to the Roman imperial period, and the considerable finds include a number of fragments of amphorae, suggesting trade passing through the harbour; there is no direct evidence of ancient fortifications in place, but Servais (p.140) found a number of large blocks of stone (some reused in Byzantine fortifications) which he identified as having once belonged to ancient fortifications. For the archaeological remains of Phea see the report of Yalouris (1961), including examination of remains now under the sea. There was settlement at Phea from prehistoric times, and in particular a flourishing town from the archaic period to later Roman times. Yalouris did not report traces of a city-wall round the settlement as a whole, but did record ancient fortification of the hill Pontikokastro, which he identified as the ancient acropolis. Other harbours along the Elean coastline are negligible. At Kunupeli, not far south of Cape Araxos and so in the northernmost stretch of ancient Elean territory, there is a modest harbour in a small bay, though modern Kunupeli is not listed as a harbour by either Denham (1982) or Heikell (1992); it has been proposed that ancient Hyrmine should be located there, but Servais (1961) 145-150, after examining Kunupeli, doubted that it had been an ancient site at all. The Arkadian community Phigalia may have had harbour facilities a little way inland on the river Neda, adjacent to southern Triphylia, but they cannot have been extensive: Cooper (1972) 359-362 tentatively identified moorings and shipsheds for small ships on the Neda.

On the island of Zakynthos, 16 km. off the Elean coast, there is also a harbour, and Falkner (p.20) notes the Spartan attempt to win control of it early in the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 2.66.1- 2). Falkner (p.22) says that the postwar allegiance of Zakynthos is unknown: but we do know that, while Zakynthos was still an ally of Athens at the time of the Sicilian Expedition in 413 (Thuc. 7.57.7), it later fell under Spartan domination and was controlled by pro-Spartan oligarchs, who apparently were at some point ousted but regained control (Diodorus 15.45.2-4, cf. Xenophon Hell. 6.2.2-3). What is uncertain is when Zakynthos passed from association with Athens to association with Sparta. The change probably took place in the later stages of the Peloponnesian War, or when the war ended (see Gehrke (1985) 198- 199, suggesting that the pro-Spartan oligarchs had control already in 404): it seems unlikely that the Spartans, already aware of the importance of Zakynthos in 430 and obviously concerned about the Elean ports in the years following the Peloponnesian War, would have neglected Zakynthos when Athens could not defend it. In that case at the time of the Spartan- Elean war Zakynthos may very well have been already under effective Spartan control.

The western coastline of Messenia had harbours at Kyparissia, Pylos, and Methone, not directly mentioned by Falkner, but these do not appear to have been greatly used for military purposes. It is not clear how much use was made of the harbour at Kyparissia in Messenia c.400: Kyparissia is not mentioned at all in the classical period before its capture by the Arkadians in 365 (Diodorus 15.77.4): on the small modern harbour at Kyparissia see Denham (1982) 76 and Heikell (1992) 118-119. The large natural harbour at Navarino beside Pylos is excellent (see Denham (1982) 76-80 and Heikell (1992) 120-123), but ancient Pylos appears to have been deserted when the Athenians landed and set up a fortified position in 425 (Thuc. 4.3.2, 4.27.1: see Wilson (1979) 48-50 on the interpretation of Thucydides' words). Farther south there is a small harbour at Methone (Denham (1982) 80-81, and Heikell (1992) 123-124): its importance as a port c.400 is not clear, and, though the Athenians thought it worth attacking the town of Methone in 431 (Thuc. 2.25.1-2), no harbour is mentioned in Thucydides' report of the attack. The patchy evidence suggests that the harbours on the western Messenian coast were not well developed c.400. The failure to develop the Messenian ports would make the Elean ports Kyllene and Phea all the more valuable to Sparta. The greater the potential value of the Elean ports to Sparta, of course, the stronger Falkner's arguments become.

A Spartan desire to have strategic control in the area can also be deduced from another incident in the war, not examined by Falkner. During the war oligarchs in Elis tried to overthrow the existing democratic regime: on this episode see Gehrke (1985) 53- 54. Xenophon ( Hell. 3.2.27-30) reports the failed oligarchic coup, and adds that after losing a battle against the democrats the oligarchs took refuge with the Spartan forces in Elis led by Agis. Xenophon does not say so, but we learn from Pausanias (3.8.4) that Xenias, the leader of the oligarchs, was not only the Spartan proxenos in Elis but also a personal friend of Agis. It has therefore been suspected (see especially Cartledge (1987) 250-252), and indeed it seems extremely likely, that the Spartans had from the outset encouraged the oligarchs' attempt to take control in Elis: certainly Pausanias (5.4.8, 7.10.2) explicitly calls Xenias a traitor to Elis, implying that his actions were in Sparta's interest. Bultrighini (1990) 246-250 argues against Spartan involvement in the coup, objecting that there cannot have been complicity between Agis and Xenias because the oligarchs were not given control of Elis at the end of the war, but his argument carries little weight: Sparta could well have decided in the end not to remove the democrats from control for various reasons - because Xenias was incompetent, because Agis was less involved at the end of the war, because the democrats were firmly entrenched and it was easier to leave them in power but weakened than to impose oligarchic rule. It appears that Sparta had wanted to see a political group favourable to Spartan interests in power in Elis.

It is possible that the elimination of the Elean navy at the end of the war was also intended as an anti-democratic measure, albeit minor. There is no reason to think that the Elean navy was large enough to generate major political influence, and we know virtually nothing about where it found its crews; but it was no doubt seen as a democratic rather than an oligarchic force. It must be admitted, since the failure of the oligarchic coup showed that democracy was solidly rooted among Elean citizens, that many Elean hoplites were presumably democratic sympathisers. Nonetheless, those Eleans whose sympathies tended towards oligarchy rather than democracy were likely to be found among the hoplites, while Eleans committed to the navy or to work in the harbours were more likely to include democrats. In acting against the navy the Spartans may therefore have been ideologically motivated, however little practical effect the measures had on internal Elean politics. In any case, if the oligarchic coup had been successful, Spartan influence in Elis would have been greatly strengthened.

How openly Sparta had declared its aims at the outset of the war is not clear. Before the war Sparta issued an ultimatum to Elis. All reports of the Spartan ultimatum which led to the war (Xen. Hell. 3.2.23, Diodorus 14.17.5, Pausanias 3.8.3) agree that Sparta demanded that Elis leave the Elean perioikoi free. Diodorus also says that the Spartans demanded that Elis pay its share of the cost of the Peloponnesian War: nothing more is heard of this demand. There is no mention of any other Spartan demand, in particular no mention of anything concerning the Elean navy or ports. Also, at the end of the war, the Spartans considered depriving the Eleans of control of Olympia, but finally did not do so because the rival claimants (unnamed) were not fit to run the sanctuary (Xen. Hell. 3.2.31): nowhere else is it suggested that control of Olympia was at issue in this dispute, and the question is certainly not mentioned in the reports of the original Spartan ultimatum. There are therefore grounds for believing that Sparta changed its declared position during the war. (Without insisting on the point, Falkner (1996) 23 suggests that the Spartan may have demanded the surrender of the Elean fleet and the dismantling of the fortifications of Kyllene and Phea before the start of the war, citing the work of Missiou-Ladi (1987) on the diplomacy of capitulation in classical Greece: however Missiou-Ladi (p.343) in fact believed that Elis finally accepted terms worse than those set out in the initial Spartan ultimatum.) On the other hand, even if Sparta stepped up its demands during the war, it may well have realised from the outset what could be achieved by a war. Xenophon's telling expression ( Hell. 3.2.23), that Sparta delivered its ultimatum to Elis because the Spartan ephors and assembly had decided to sophronisai the Eleans ("make the Eleans see sense"), used a term with oligarchic overtones (Cartledge (1987) 250-251). If the Spartans had from the outset envisaged that some change to the democratic regime in Elis might be brought about, then they might also have had in mind the advantages of winning control of Elis' naval resources. These Spartan thoughts need not have been expressed in the original ultimatum: since it was not to be expected that Elis would accept the ultimatum and surrender control of all its perioikoi (Diodorus 14.17.6 actually says that the Spartan ultimatum was only a pretext for provoking war), Sparta could foresee that rejection of the ultimatum would lead to war, and to an opportunity for Sparta to institute changes in Elis and benefit from them.

Works cited:

U. Bultrighini, Pausania e le tradizioni democratiche (Argo e Elide) (Padua, 1990)

P. A. Cartledge, Agesilaos (London, 1987)

F. Cooper, 'Topographical notes from southwest Arkadia, Athens Annals of Archaeology 5 (1972) pp. 59-367

H. M. Denham, The Ionian Islands to the Anatolian coast: a sea-guide (London, 1982 edition)

C. Falkner, 'Sparta and the Elean War, ca 401/400 B.C.: revenge or imperialism?"', Phoenix 50 (1996) pp. 17-25

H.-J. Gehrke, Stasis. Untersuchungen zu den inneren Kriegen in den griechischen Staaten des 5. und 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Munich, 1985)

R. Heikell, Greek waters pilot: a yachtsman's guide to the coasts and islands of Greece (5th edition, St. Ives, 1992)

A. Missiou-Ladi, 'Coercive diplomacy in Greek interstate relations (with special reference to presbeis autokratores)', Classical Quarterly 37 (1987) pp. 336-345

J. Roy, 'The perioikoi of Elis', Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre (forthcoming, 1997)

J. Servais, 'Recherches sur le port de Cyllene', BCH 85 (1961) pp. 123-161

N. Yalouris, 'Exploratory investigations in the bay of Pheia in Eleia' [in Greek], Arkhaiologike Ephemeris 1957 [1961] pp. 32- 43

J. B. Wilson, Pylos 425 BC: a historical and topographical study of Thucydides' account of the campaign (Warminster, 1979)

Jim Roy
e-mail: abzroy@arn1.arts.nottingham.ac.uk

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 6 - February 1997
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606