A society in which corruption takes a hold is blamed for effeminacy: for the appreciation of war, and the delight in war, perceptibly diminish in such a society, and the conveniences of life are now just as eagerly sought after as were military and gymnastic honours formerly.
—Nietzsche, La Gaya Scienza
All Spartan education was considered admirable by the peoples around Sparta, who greatly respected its courageous neighbor though sometimes as a foe. Plato himself, when he wrote his Republic refers to State measures which seem directly taken from the Spartan laws, because those laws inspired him and were also admired by Aristotle—with some reservation as to the supposedly totalitarian and tyrannical Ephorate. (However, at the time of Aristotle Sparta was no longer the same.) In a time when the Greek city-states were already in decline, voices were raised calling for the adoption of the Spartan model. They were the fascist of the age. Anyway, Spartan laws provided a stability that the other Hellene States never knew.
In the sixth century BCE, Sparta launched new conquests over the neighboring villages. About the attack on Tegea, Herodotus said that one of the reasons was that the Spartans sought the mythological bones of Orestes (son of the legendary King Agamemnon, leader of all Greeks in the Trojan War), considered one of the distant ancestors of the Spartan village. The Pythia of Delphi promised victory to the Spartans if they found the bones. And sure enough, they found them and won. They found no normal bones, but a skeleton of immense size, like the giant heroes alluded to by Homer.
In the aforementioned case of Tegea, the Spartans were bold not to annex it but establish a treaty, by which Tegea was to provide soldiers, weapons and other equipment, and teamed with Sparta to follow it in all its foreign policy strategies. In return, Tegea could remain independent. By similar policies, Sparta won the states around the Peloponnese, eventually including Argos, Arcadia and Corinth to the point that, after the invasion of the Persians in 490 BCE, Sparta was the greatest Hellenic power, well above Athens.
According to Herodotus, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE 5,000 Spartans fought with 5,000 perioeci and 35,000 helots. Only the Spartans were consummate warriors, while others were forced to take up arms, and the huge number of helots (completely lacking in military training) were reduced to cannon fodder. In the period of greatest population, Sparta had 200,000 helots and 9,000 Spartan families. In 480 BCE there were a total of just fewer than 8,000 mobilized Spartan hoplites.
The Greek poet Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) put into the mouth of the mother of Xerxes: “I seem to see two virgins superbly dressed. One richly dressed in the fashion of the Persians; the other, after the manner of the Dorians. The majesty of both surpass the other women. Both a flawless beauty and of the same race” (The Persians). With this we see that even at that time there were individuals who were aware of the absurdity of these enmities in people of the same origin.
In 464 BCE a major earthquake hit Sparta that destroyed the gymnasium while the ephebes, the cream of the Spartan youth, were exercising, killing many of them. Diodorus Siculus exaggerated that about 20,000 Spartans died, as Plutarch did when saying that only five houses were left standing. However, the damage had to be large, and this tragedy helped the helots who, taking advantage of the disorder that the void created, initiated another revolt confident in their overwhelming numerical superiority over the Spartans. After the Messenian helots rebelled, the Laconian helots joined and even two perioeci communities: Thouria (in Messenia) and Ethea (in Laconia). Thus began the Third Messenian War, also known as the Mount Ithome rebellion.
The open rebellion was crushed by the Spartans effectively and without the slightest mercy. The spoils of the revolt were removed to Mount Ithome from which, under the Spartan siege, the Messenians were engaged for five years in a guerrilla war against the Spartans: also resorting to guerrilla tactics by using their fanatic “puppies” in selective hunting activities, repression and punishment. The Athenians sent to Sparta a military contingent of four thousand men led by the patriot and pro-Spartan Cimon to help them but the Spartans rejected the help, and the contingent returned aggravated to Athens in what is known as “the Ithome insult.”
After these five years, the Spartans, moved by a Delphic oracle, which advised to let go “the supplicants of Zeus Itometa,” let them escape the Peloponnese. The Spartan government further strengthened afterwards its severity toward those helots, while Athens endorsed a military pact with the fugitives, recognizing them not as helots but as representatives of a legitimate Messenian State under military occupation.
A priestess of Delphi