Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome

I have previously read and written about Plutarch (46-120 AD),  the ancient Greco-Roman biographer who compared and contrasted the lives of noble Romans and Greeks.  My readings about Plutarch this time concern a pair of Spartan kings (Agis and Cleomones) and a pair of Roman brothers (Caius and Tiberius Gracchus). 

The commonality between these two sets is that both the Spartans (Greeks) and the Romans were trying to attempt major land reforms and redistribution of their country's wealth among the poor.  All four characters would confront intense resistance from the nobles in their societies. Likewise, all would die as a result of their attempts to reform their governments.  In some ways, these stories build off Aristotle's ideas of democracy (equality), but are also a proto-socialist state similiar to that suggested in the Communist Manifesto, which I discussed earlier. 


In the ancient world, Sparta was one of the world's greatest warrior states in no small part to the laws of Lycurgus (800-730 BC) which I described in a previous blog post.  These laws encouraged austerity, eschewed vice and wealth, and promoted equality among the citizens.
During the Peloponessian War (404 BC), Sparta and her allies defeated Athens leaving Sparta the preeminent power in Greece. The city state of Thebes and the Macedonians (i.e. Alexander the Great) later eclipsed Sparta and by 260 AD Sparta was in decline. The Spartan King Agis IV (264-241 BC) thought that the wealth gathered following Athen's defeat had corrupted Sparta, making her accustomed to luxury and coin, weak and effeminate.


King Agis IV decided to relign Sparta with the ideals of Lycurgus.  To do this he cancelled all debts and redistributed the land amoung the poor.  This was very popular with the lower classes, but vehemently opposed by the Ephors (Spartan nobles) and his co-monarch Leonidas II.  This was partially because Leonidas grew up in the luxurious court of the Greco-Persian King Seleucus II  and married a Persian.  King Agis had the obstructionist Leonidas exiled, then had all Spartan bonds, debts and securities and had them burned in the market place.  However, called to a military campaign, he was not able to redistribute the land as he hoped before he left.   

Leonidas later returned from exile with mercenaries, captured Agis, and together with the Ephors conducted a mock trial.  Fearing a popular revolt, they quickly had Agis put to death along with his mother and grandmother.  This was the first time a Spartan king had been executed by the Ephors - made all the worse given his noble intentions. 


After Agis's death, Leonidas II assumed the monarchy and forced Agis's wife to marry his son, Cleomenes (263-219 BC).  Cleomenes greatly admired Agis and his attempt restore Sparta to its former glory. Even more ironic, when Clemones became king of Sparta in 235 he would attempt the exact same reforms that Agis did!  Cleomones waged war throughout the Peloponese, fighting in Corinth, Argos, Megalopolis and Manitea and nearly succeeded in uniting the entire peninsula.  With his growing military honors he returned to Sparta and had the treacherous Ephors executed. 

Cleomones gave all his land to the state, and was followed in example by his family and friends, then by all the other citizens.  An equal division of land was given to each individual, and the state population was increased by granting citizenship to non-citizens.  Cleomones then instituted military reforms, including the introduction of the Macedonian sarissa (pike) and restoring social and military discipline. 
Unfortunately these reforms may not have come soon enough for Sparta.  Bad luck, bad timing and a massive Macedonian army lead to Cleomones defeat at the battle of Sellasia (222 BC) and he was forced into exile and death in Alexandria, Egypt.

Next...ROME and the comparison with Tiberius and Caius Gracchus!

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