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Rome’s war against Sparta

(195 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Greek world before the outbreak of the Second Macedonian War (2nd century  BCE)
The Greek world before the outbreak of the Second Macedonian War (II century BCE)

King of Sparta – Nabis – sought to strengthen the position of Sparta in the Peloponnese. Thanks to effective politics and an enlarged army, he subdued the city of Argos. The Roman Republic, using divisions among Greek cities, decided to intervene.

Background of events

After the death of the Regent Machanidasa in 207 BCE, the Spartan king Pelops was overthrown by the Nabis, who won the royal crown, referring to the origin of King Demaratus of the Eurypontid line. According to Polibius, Nabis gathered “a crowd of murderers, burglars, pickpockets and bandits”. In 205 BCE he concluded a peace treaty with Rome, but four years later he attacked the territory of Messenia, lost by Sparta in the middle of the 4th century BCE, and currently in good relations with both Macedonia and Rome. However, he had to back out of it after the Achaean offensive, commanded by Philopoemen.

Even worse, Philopoemen’s troops inflicted him the final defeat at Tegea, preventing territorial reclaimings for some time. The outbreak of Second Macedonian War gave lord of Sparta the hope of resuming active foreign policy. Philip V of Macedon offered Nabis to renounce his alliance with Rome and alliance with Macedonia in exchange for obtaining Argos. However, when the fate of the war began to favor the Republic, the sly Spartan changed the front again and helped 600 mercenaries from Crete a coalition led by Rome. In return for this gesture, partes kept Nabis in the possession of Argos. However, they did not withdraw troops from Greece, securing their interests here.

Nabis’ reforms

Coin of Nabis

Taking advantage of good relations with Rome, Nabis initiated reforms in his country. He confiscated the property of wealthy citizens on a large scale, and tortured people who disturbed him. Confiscated land went to liberated helots, and all recipients became the support of his power. Thanks to the funds obtained in this way, Nabis turned the port of Gythium into a major maritime arsenal and strengthened the capital of the kingdom itself. The ruler also supported Cretan mercenaries who could have naval bases in Sparta, treating them as a springboard for sea expeditions. The expansion of naval power had an additional plus, as it gave the opportunity to make a fair income to the poor Spartan, who served as rowers. These activities, however, were not acceptable to neighboring policies – members of the Achaean Union and Romans.

The number of full-fledged citizens of Sparta dropped dramatically from several thousand during the Persian wars to just a few hundred during the reign of Kleomenes III. One of the reasons for this was the impoverishment of residents who could not afford to participate in meals (syssytia), thereby losing their full citizenship. However, their descendants could still participate in Spartan upbringing and training (agoge). A small number of full citizens capable of serving in the army led to the necessity of including liberated helots and mercenaries in their ranks. During the times of Kleomenes, the number of fully-fledged citizens increased, creating an army of Falangites like the Macedonian model, but much less armed. However, the armed forces thus created were devastated at Sellaia in 222 BCE. Nabis made another attempt to revive the armed forces, carrying out a radical reform of the state. Its purpose was to create a new layer of citizens loyal to the ruler and able to serve in the phalanx. Nabis phalanxes were to fight in a compact and loose formation, and their armaments were to be spears longer than those used by the hoplites. The real innovation was the liberation of non-free helots, thanks to which the obstacle to the international expansion of Sparta disappeared (former full-fledged citizens put off fear of a helot rebellion from campaigns abroad).

Flaminius spartan campaign

Members of the Achaean Union could not come to terms with the fact that Argos was left under Nabis, so they appealed to the Romans to consider taking this policy from him. In Rome, this proposal was approved, because partes could not accept a strong state in the Peloponnese after the legions were withdrawn from Greece. In 195 BCE, the commander of the Roman army in Greece Titus Quinctius Flamininus convened a meeting of representatives of Greek states to Corinth to discuss the eventual war with Sparta. Traditional allies of Rome – Rhodes and Pergamon as well as the Ethol, Achaean, Thessaly and Macedonia participated in the talks. Everyone clearly voted in favor of the war, their own demands were made by the Etols and Thessals who wanted to defeat Sparta on their own. However, they met with the protest of the Achaean Union, which was afraid of the rise of the importance of the Ethols. According to Erich Gruen, the Romans, when deciding to issue a war, Nabis found an excuse to locate several legions in Greece that were to prevent the alliance of Ethols and Spartans from Antiochus III in the event of his attack on Hellas.

First Flamininus sent emissary to Nabis demanding that Argos be given to the Achaean Association, threatening to refuse war. When King Sparta rejected the Allied demands, 40,000 Roman soldiers supported by Greek contingents moved to the Peloponnese. After landing on the peninsula, the legions were supported by Aristajnos’ Achaean reinforcements, who brought 1,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. The combined forces of the Romans and their Greek allies moved to Argos. The city commandant on behalf of Nabis was Pythagoras, who was responsible for the army of 15,000 people. As the invasion army approached Argos, one of the city’s citizens tried to lead to an anti-Spartan revolution, which was nevertheless suppressed by Pythagoras. Several refugees from Argos, associated with anti-Spartan subversives, encouraged the Roman commander to come closer to the walls, which would encourage the inhabitants of this policy to a new revolt. When the Romans sent cavalry and light troops to search for a place to set up a camp (castra), the defenders made a lunge out of the city gates. After the fight with the Roman unit, however, the Spartans had to retreat. Flamininus reached the place of the skirmish and waited for another attack from the defenders, which, however, did not occur. At that time, a war council was convened and most of them were in favor of a further siege of Argos. However, the Roman commander agreed with Aristajnos, who proposed a direct attack on Sparta and Lakonia. The Allied army moved towards Tegei. In the town of Cary joined her quota refugees Spartan Agesipolisa, and 1500 Macedonians and 400 Thessalian cavalry sent by Philip V. To combat the Nabis, set off a Roman and Pergamon – Rhodesian fleet – Lucius Quinctius of 40 ships, 18 ships under the command of Rhodesian Sosilos and ruler of Pergamon Eumenes with 40 ships.

Nabis has recruited 10,000 citizens and an additional 3,000 mercenaries. The Cretans who supported him added 1,000 additional armed men to 1,000 already under the king’s banner. Meanwhile, Flamininus’s army approached Sellabia. When the legionaries built the camp, they were attacked by Nabis’ troops. This caused confusion among the consul’s men, but after the arrival of the main Roman army the Spartans withdrew. When an army of Romans and Greek Allies marched toward the Menelaus hills bypassing Sparta, its rear guard was attacked by Nabis. However, the commanding officer in this episode, Appius Claudius, rejected the enemy behind the city walls, inflicting heavy losses on him. Meanwhile, fleet commander Lucius Quinccius accepted the surrender of several coastal cities of Lakonia. The next target of the coalition partners was the port and sea arsenal at Gythium. Gythium was simultaneously attacked by land forces and a combined Roman-Pergame-Rhodium fleet, whose crew devastated the harbor walls with siege engines. Despite this, the defense withstood these attacks. However, not all Gythium defenders believed in victory. One of his commanders, Dexagoridas, sent a surrender to the Romans. His plan failed when another commandant Gorgopas found out about him and killed the would-be capitularist himself. Gorgopas continued his relentless defense until Flamininus further enlisted 4,000 soldiers. After another assault, the Spartans capitulated, and their commander fought at Flamininus the possibility of free march to Sparta.

Romans besiege Sparta

During the siege of Gythium, the Sparta garrison was joined by 3,000 people from the Argos crew. Upon hearing of the surrender, Gythium Nabis sent Flamininus to make peace. He proposed withdrawing the entire garrison from Argos and handing over prisoners and deserters to the Romans. Flamininus convened a war council, on which most participants opted for the siege of Sparta and the dethronement of Nabis. The Roman commander presented his peace conditions to Nabis: in addition to the rest of Argos leaving the rest of the Spartan garrison made up of the inhabitants of this city, he proposed autonomy to the coastal cities of Lakonia and the transfer of Nabis’ fleet to them. In addition, the king of Sparta was to pay war compensation for eight years and abandon alliances with Cretan cities. Nabis rejected these proposals, claiming he had the means to survive the siege. After unsuccessful negotiations, Flamininus set off to Sparta with 50,000 people. Under her walls, he defeated Nabis’s troops, and then launched an attack on the city itself. He decided to take them by storm, without a regular siege. Initially, the defenders were top, but their situation was hampered by the fact that the Romans hid large shields from the missiles. The Allies conquered the city walls, but their actions on its outskirts were hampered by narrow streets. It wasn’t until the center approached that the streets grew wider and the Romans conquered more parts of Sparta. Defenders set fire to the houses near the walls, and burning debris was thrown at the invading invaders, causing significant losses among them. Flamininus therefore ordered a retreat. For the next three days, defenders continued to resist, after which Nabis, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, sent MPs to Flamininus with the offer of surrender. The Roman commander finally agreed to the request of the defenders who accepted Flamininus’s previous terms.

The news of the siege of Sparta encouraged the people of Argos to anti-Spartan rebellion. They attacked the Spartan garrison, which, grouped in the citadel, decided to surrender. In exchange for his peaceful departure from Argos, the citizens of this policy serving with Nabis could return home.


Flamininus proclaimed Argos a free city, resulting in the accession of this policy to the Achaean Union. At Rome’s order, all Laconia’s coastal cities were separated from Sparta and transferred to the Union. Sparta was reduced to the role of a defenseless city, and its fleet was handed over to coastal cities. Nabis was forced to withdraw his garrisons from Cretan cities and cancel some social reforms. Hostages sent to Rome were to ensure his loyalty. As in the case of Macedonia after the defeat of Philip V, patres did not decide to completely oppress Nabis, who retained the throne and kingdom. It was to be a counterweight to the growing Achaean Union. It is significant that the Romans did not send back to Sparta the fugitives previously exiled by Nabis in order not to weaken the recent opponent.

In Greece proper there have since been four players: Macedonia, Achaean Union, Spartans and Ethols, the latter, hating the domination of the Romans, incited the ruler of Sparta to re-vindication. The Spartans once again strengthened the army and rebuilt the fleet. Before 192 BCE, Nabis again besieged Gythium. Concerned members of the Achaean Union sent a complaint to the Romans, who dispatched the fleet of Praetor Acylius and MPs to the waters of Peloponnese. Without even waiting for the Republic’s help, the Achaean sent the fleet and land army to the rescue of Gythium under the command of Philopojmen. However, fate has favored Nabis for now. The Achaean fleet under Tison suffered a defeat in the clash with the newly formed Spartan squadron, and the land army also failed and retreated to Tegei.

Only during the new campaign of Achaia did the Spartans succumb. The Romans saved Nabis from total defeat, and again prevented his country from being destroyed. The Spartan ruler agreed to surrender under the terms of the previous treaty. Then he established relations with the Ethols, who sent him 1,000 cavalrymen Aleksamenos. This decision, however, proved to be fatal to the Spartans, because Aleksamenos himself killed Nabis during military reviews. As a result, the newcomers began to plunder Sparta, but were driven out by the city’s population. Taking advantage of all the turmoil, the city was captured by the Achaean of Philopoyo who incorporated them into the Achaean Union. Sparta, deprived of access to naval bases, gained economically weak city of Las, a base of refugees from Sparta. Driven by fury, the Achaeans demanded the perpetrators of the attack. In response, the attackers announced the exit from the Achaean Union and asked for protection… Romans. Patres did not react this time, satisfied with the divisions in the Achaean Union.

Eventually, Philopojmen entered northern Lakonia in 188 BCE massacred opponents of the Achaean Union at Compasium. The walls of Sparta were demolished, and former Spartan refugees – Nabis’ enemies returned to the city. The Achaans overthrew the Spartan laws by introducing Achaean laws. For several decades, the Achaean Union became the only hegemon in Greece.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  • War against Nabis,

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