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Chapter 11 Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II: The Golden Age of Greek Democracy (c. 375–​350) and Its Critics

Chapter 11 Greek Democracy in Credit and Crisis II: The Golden Age of Greek Democracy (c. 375–​350) and Its Critics

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Act III

Figure. 11.1
Model of Athenian Acropolis c. 400
The ‘High City’ of Athens had been the political and religious centre of the region since time immemorial,
but in the fifth century, following the Persian sack (480 and 479 bce), it was rebuilt, reconfigured, and
embellished to an extraordinary degree. Through the monumental entrance way (Propylaea) the visitor
was confronted by a plethora of statuary and minor shrines, above which towered the great Parthenon
and Erechtheum temples, both dedicated to the city’s patron Athena. With permission of the Royal
Ontario Museum © ROM.

within the period to be covered here there was born and grew to maturity one
of the great innovating intellectual geniuses of the ancient—​or indeed any—​
world, a ‘giant thinker’, as one of his most devoted followers (Karl Marx) aptly
called him: Aristotle, son of Nicomachus of Stageira (or Stagirus) in northern
Greece (384–​322). In about 335 Aristotle founded at Athens his philosophical school known to us as the Lyceum, and it was exclusively for students of
this school that the work that we call the Politics was produced. Later scholars
divided the work as a whole into eight books, but it is a mark of its rawness and
the occasional inconsistency due to its origin in lecture notes that the ordering
of the books is disputed. Mine follows the majority view.
Book 1: what is the (nature of the) polis, and who are its necessary constituents. Book 2: ideal poleis, whether actual (e.g., Sparta) or imagined
(e.g., Plato’s Republic), that had been proposed as models but which Aristotle
finds variously flawed. Book 3: what is a citizen? Aristotle’s own definition of
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the polites, the adult, free male polis member or citizen, as he who actively
shares and participates in judgment, including legal judgment, and ruling,
was by his own admission better suited to defining the citizen of a democracy
than of an oligarchy. Book 4: still very theoretical, setting out typologies of
regimes. Democracy was not itself one single thing; rather, it could be further
analysed into sub-​species, of which the Athenian democracy of his day was
taken to be one of the few to represent the last or most extreme version. Books
5 and 6: the mainly empirical books, either somehow based on or related to the
158 Politeiai compiled by him and his students, of which only the Athenaion
Politeia (Ath. Pol.) survives as such. Book 5 focuses on how staseis (political
revolutions or other major disturbances) arise and how they may be avoided;
Book 6 looks at the varieties of democracy and oligarchy, again with an eye to
how they may best be conserved and preserved. Books 7 and 8: an incomplete
sketch of Aristotle’s own ideal utopia, to which we shall return at the end of
this chapter.
Most golden-age Greek democracies were less extreme, more moderate,
than the Athenian. Sparta, on the other hand, was not a democracy at all, in
the accepted political-​constitutional sense; but what exactly it was posed a real
problem of classification. Aristotle’s account in Book 2 well reflects the difficulty that ancient analysts had in assigning Sparta to any one defined constitutional form. The explanation for that lies in Sparta’s achievement of a stable
constitutional form very early on, perhaps earlier indeed than any other Greek
city, and thus well before democracy had been invented either as an institutional practice or as an analytical category. Since the Spartan polity seemed to
possess monarchical (or at least kingly), oligarchical-​aristocratic and democratic features, one vaguely respectable escape route touted by Aristotle among
others was to dub its politeia ‘mixed’. Most commentators, however, saw it as
some form of aristocracy or oligarchy. Xenophon was alone in speaking of it
as a ‘kingship’. Those who were prepared to bite the bullet and call it a democracy significantly did not do so on grounds of the city’s strictly political, decision-​making institutions, but because of two cardinal social institutions: the
common, compulsory, and centrally imposed upbringing, successful passage
through which was a requirement for attaining citizenship; and the common dining-​messes, membership of which was a requirement for gaining and
retaining citizenship status.
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Taken politically, however, Sparta’s politeia failed the democratic tests
across the board:  all offices, including therefore the most powerful, were
either elective (none was allotted) or hereditary (the kingship). The chief
executive office of the Ephorate (a board of five) was open to all Spartans
and annual, whereas the Gerousia (the Senate, twenty-​eight members plus
the two kings ex officio) was probably restricted to members of a few elite
families and election was for life. Neither elections nor (normally) other
modes of public collective decision-​making, however, were conducted on
the basis of absolute political equality of all citizens—​that is, through application of the one citizen, one vote principle. The usual method of voting
was by shouting, and shouts were collectively guesstimated rather than individually counted; obviously, individuals had naturally differing strengths of
voice. The one attested use of voting by division, as opposed to by shouting,
in the Assembly was resorted to in 432 only as a last-​minute expedient by a
unilateral decision of the elected Ephor presiding over the meeting, in order
to secure the largest possible majority for a decision to go to war with Athens
despite the opposing advice of the senior king. The Gerousia enjoyed the
right of initiative and preliminary deliberation, in effect a prior veto over
the formal decision-​making by the Assembly; moreover, if the Assembly’s
mood seemed to them to be taking an unwelcome turn, they were entitled to
dismiss it or even override its decision. There were no written laws, and no
popular judiciary; the Ephors, who were not accountable by means of regular popular audit, and not therefore responsible to the People (damos), interpreted and applied the laws as they saw fit. Conjointly with the Gerousia
they served as a supreme court, having the power even to try and convict
kings, who therefore were accountable—​but not directly to the People (see
further below). In short, kratos for the Spartan damos as apparently specified
in a probably authentic text known as the Great Rhetra (seventh century?)
did not equate to and could not possibly have equated to fifth-​and fourth-​
century style demokratia.
The Spartans themselves seem to have referred to their mode of self-​
governance as eunomia, an archaic term meaning something like ‘lawful government’ or ‘submission to the right kind of laws’. However exactly one would
wish to characterise it, though, abroad the Spartans consistently and consciously championed more or less reactionary oligarchy—​even if they had to
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impose it by force or threat of force, and even when imposing it meant, as we
shall see, that they had to break their own religious oath. Given the Spartans’
extreme and normally inflexible religiosity, their willingness to make an exception in this type of case is really very revealing indeed. In what follows we shall
first examine Sparta’s relations with a series of mainland Greek cities, most
allies or former allies, in which the issue of democracy versus oligarchy played
a—​or the—​major role.
Having crushed the Athenians and dismantled their empire in 404, if only
thanks to very extensive financial aid from Persia, the Spartans enthusiastically
set about placing their broad feet into the Athenians’ imperial shoes. Their new
Aegean empire, however, was to be one of subordinate oligarchies and indeed,
to begin with, ‘dynasties’—​extreme and narrowly based oligarchic juntas, such
as that of the Thirty at Athens. However, assuming Athens’ liberationist imperial rhetoric and acquisitive imperial ambitions quickly landed Sparta on the
horns of a dilemma. Included among the many subjects of Persia in 404 were
Greeks, the Greeks of ‘Asia’—​the very Greeks whose freedom from Persia the
Athenian empire had ostensibly been set up and maintained to deliver, and
whose liberty the Spartans had themselves already once sacrificed in 412/​1
in return for vital and abundant Persian cash. By the early 390s Sparta had
reversed its friendship with Persia and was fighting on land in Asia on behalf of
Greek freedom, and it had abandoned the dynasties idea in favour of supporting more conventional oligarchies.
But even that policy reversal was no longer sufficient by the mid-​390s to maintain the loyalty of two oligarchies actually within Sparta’s own Peloponnesian
League alliance: Corinth and the Boeotians, that is, the Boeotian federal state
dominated by Thebes. Both had been disaffected during the Peloponnesian
War, and Corinth had indeed temporarily abandoned Sparta in 420 for an
alliance with Sparta’s perennial enemy Argos, whereas the Boeotians had
remained loyal to Sparta precisely because they considered Sparta would be
more favourable to their oligarchy than would the Argive democracy. But in
395 the Boeotians and Corinthians jointly revolted from Sparta, having entered
into a quadruple alliance with Athens and Argos, and thereby initiated the so-​
called Corinthian War—​actually, a war that was fought between 395 and 386
on the sea as well as the land and not only around the Isthmus of Corinth, but
throughout the Aegean.
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As in the Peloponnesian War, so in the Corinthian War Sparta eventually
won, but only by again going cap in hand to Persia, and in this case the collateral damage caused by the war was considerably more devastating for Sparta.
For a start, the alliance of Corinth with Argos in 395 represented a geopolitical catastrophe: not only was Sparta now deprived of its major naval ally but
its freedom of movement by land into and out of the Peloponnese was virtually terminated. Worse was to come in the shape of the so-​called Union of
Corinth and Argos in 393/​2, one of the more remarkable political experiments
of the entire polis era of ancient Greek history. An extreme outbreak of stasis
in Corinth brought the bloody massacre of the pro-​Spartan oligarchs running
the city (as their predecessors had done ever since it had first allied with Sparta,
by 525 at the latest). Corinth, now democratically governed, entered into a pact
with long-​since-​democratic Argos. The boundary stones marking the common
frontier between the territories of the two poleis were symbolically removed,
and thenceforth formerly Corinthian citizens could exercise the rights of
Argive citizenship within the polis territory of Argos, and Argive citizens vice
versa within the territory of Corinth. The Spartans, in kneejerk response, led
on ferociously by the stubbornly anti-​democratic King Agesilaus II, did all they
possibly could to break the Union by main force; in 390, however, they suffered an unprecedented disaster on land near Lechaeum, one of Corinth’s two
main ports. It was not until the Spartans had performed yet another diplomatic
somersault in 388/​7, securing the renewed Persian funding that enabled them
to enhance their efforts at sea under the admiralty of Antalcidas among others,
that the tide of war turned decisively in their favour.
Under Agesilaus’ co-​king Agesipolis, the Spartans had invaded the territory
of Argos in 388, but been forced to withdraw without inflicting major damage.
In 387/​6, however, the mere threat of renewed Spartan force with the backing of the Spartans’ renewed diplomatic agreement with Persia was sufficient
to compel the break-​up of the Union of Corinth and Argos and to foster the
re-​
establishment in the former of a pro-​
Spartan oligarchy, while Argos
remained more genuinely autonomous and democratic. A threat of force was
likewise enough to influence the Boeotians, still under a moderately oligarchic regime, to break off their alliance with the Athenians and return to the
Peloponnesian League fold alongside Corinth. There was then concluded, at
Sparta’s instigation, a diplomatic instrument known alternatively as the King’s
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Peace or the Peace of Antalcidas in 386—​the king in question being Persian
Great King Artaxerxes II, and Antalcidas being the Spartan who acted as
the chief negotiator on the Greeks’ side. When the Spartans were accused of
(again) betraying Greek freedom—​specifically that of the Asiatic Greeks—​and
so being guilty of ‘medism’, Agesilaus is said to have replied with a typically
laconic ‘apophthegm’ to the effect that it was not the case that the Spartans
had medized but rather that the Medes (Persians) had ‘lakonized’ (turned pro-​
Spartan)—​so clearly were the Spartans the chief beneficiaries of this first ‘common’ peace. It was common in the sense that all relevantly situated cities were
deemed to be subject to its terms whether or not they’d positively signed up
to them. But yet even that restoration of the status quo obtaining vis-​à-​vis the
Boeotians down to 395 did not satisfy by any means all in the upper reaches of
Spartan policymaking, as we shall see.
First, however, we must return to consider the post-​Peloponnesian War fate
of the two Peloponnesian League allies that had become democracies (relatively
moderate, we assume) as long ago as the first half of the fifth century: Elis and
Mantinea (see Chapter 9). Elis was not only a notionally autonomous member
of the Peloponnesian League but also the city that managed the Panhellenic—​
all, and only-​Greek—​Olympic Games every four years and permanently oversaw the religious structures and observances on the site of Olympia, including
an oracular shrine of Zeus. In 420, the first Olympic year after the temporary
cessation of hostilities in the Peloponnesian War (the Peace of Nicias, concluded
in spring 421), Elis had exercised its supervisory authority to ban all Spartans
from competing in the Games. There were various reasons for Elis’ disaffection
from Sparta, which went as far as the Eleans seceding from the Peloponnesian
League, but it was their Olympic ban on Spartans that struck the deepest psychological blow, not least because the Games were in essence a religious festival. The Spartans’ revenge on Elis was necessarily long postponed until after the
Peloponnesian War had been won, but all the more severe when it did eventually fall in 401/​0. In two successive summer campaign seasons, Agesilaus’
older half-​brother Agis II led major punitive expeditions against Elis that not
only inflicted huge economic damage but also terminated the democracy and
replaced it with a narrow oligarchy headed by men personally connected to the
king. Agis then died and was succeeded, controversially, by Agesilaus, thanks
to crucial support from Lysander (the victor of Aegospotami).
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The case of Mantinea was rather different, and rather more difficult for Sparta.
It was a city of Arcadia, but traditionally it was at odds with the other major city
of that region, Tegea in the far south (which typically had maintained cordial
relations with Sparta since the mid-​sixth century); uncomfortably for Sparta,
it was located much nearer to Argos. During and after the Peloponnesian War,
Mantinea had been a less than enthusiastic ally of Sparta, despite—​or because
of—​a separate thirty-​year treaty concluded in 417. Presumably the Spartans had
sought to tie down the Mantineans by treaty in the wake of their victory over
the Athenians at the battle of Mantinea the previous year, so as to pre-​empt
the kind of insolence and insubordination they had suffered from Elis in 420.
A further complicating factor was the residence in Mantinea since 395 of the
exiled Spartan king Pausanias.
Sparta’s legal system was in many ways rather unpolished; as mentioned,
there was no popular judiciary, and the chief judicial magistrates were also the
state’s chief executive officers, the Ephors, who exercised legal judgment without the constraint either of written laws or of formal legal precedent. When
sitting in judgment upon a king, they sat together with the other twenty-​nine
members of the Gerousia, forming a supreme constitutional court of sorts. In
403 that supreme court had acquitted Pausanias of the charge, levelled by his
fellow king Agis, of un-​Spartan activities: for being in effect soft not just on
the Athenian democrats in the Peiraeus but even on democracy as such, since
he had overseen the democratic restoration at Athens in the teeth of Spartan
opposition from above all the fanatically pro-​oligarchic Lysander. In 395 supporters of the late Agis and of Lysander, including pre-​eminently Agesilaus
(whose vote would have had to be delivered by a proxy, since he was away
campaigning in Asia at the time), saw their chance to wreak their revenge at
last upon Pausanias, and he was put on trial again, on exactly the same charge
as in 403—​Sparta’s legal system countenanced double jeopardy in such cases of
alleged high crimes and misdemeanours. This time he was found guilty and,
rather than have him executed (which would have raised delicate religious
issues, since Spartan kings were to a degree sacrosanct), the Spartans banished
him sine die (as indeed they had banished his father, Pleistoanax, half a century
before in 445). Pausanias’ decision to spend his exile at Mantinea was not without political calculation, although whether it was influenced by any ideological
sympathy for democracy—​as opposed to principled respect for the genuine
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autonomy of Sparta’s allies as laid down by sworn treaty agreement—​cannot
be determined.
At all events, Pausanias was very visibly present in 385 when, under cover of
the King’s Peace, the Spartans led by his son and successor Agesipolis I set out
to punish Mantinea for its disloyalty—​and democracy—​in the most strongly
political way imaginable. That is to say, they effected a break-​up of the polis of
Mantinea as such, which was decomposed into its original five villages. That
was not the first such break-​up of another city carried out by Sparta: between
403 and 401 they had hived off the deme of Eleusis from the rest of the polis of
Athens and separately recognised it as an oligarchic statelet within the borders
of Attica. But this was far more drastic and comprehensive. In place of the
overall democracy of the unified state, each of the Mantinean villages was now
ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy, and the walls built around the political centre were symbolically dismantled. Xenophon with superb hypocrisy says that
the major Mantinean property owners were delighted with the new arrangement, since it enabled them to live closer to the estates from which they drew
their wealth. In practice, this situation was to last for only fifteen years, well
under a generation: following Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra in 371 there was a general rebellion against Sparta in the Peloponnese, and in 370 both democracy
and central city walls were restored to the once more autonomous polis of the
Mantineans.
Sparta’s unhappy experience with democratic Mantinea was partially replicated with nearby Phleious, a city important not so much for itself as for its location: its wide plain served as a convenient muster-​ground for Peloponnesian
League armies. It was probably in the later 390s that, like Corinth, Phleious
had first turned democratic. In 381, following their interventions in Mantinea
and Thebes, the Spartans at the instigation of Agesilaus responded positively to
a plea from a small group of oligarchic Phleiasian exiles. Phleious was placed
under siege for some twenty months between 381 and 379, until it was finally
starved into surrender. The oligarchs were restored not just to their city and
estates but to political power, with fervent Spartan ideological support orchestrated by Agesilaus in person. But even Xenophon felt obliged in retrospect to
include in his Hellenica narrative a remarkable exchange of opinions taking
place within the Spartan siege army: ‘We are making ourselves hated’, so some
Spartans were allegedly moved to observe, ‘by a city of 5,000 men’.
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The size of the democratic citizen body of Phleious was a doubly relevant
argument. Sparta’s own citizen body was by this time reduced to only about
2,500 to 3,000. But for Agesilaus it was not the size of Phleious’ citizen body
that most motivated him but the fact that it was a disloyal democracy. He
therefore gave every support and comfort to the handful of exiled oligarchs,
encouraging them to behave as much as possible like Spartans in order to win
the besieging Spartans’ respect—​a tactic that proved by no means wholly successful. In another work of Xenophon, his posthumous encomium of the king
known simply as the Agesilaus, this irredentist, politically retrograde attitude
of Agesilaus is given a wholly positive, moralistic spin: regardless of its political
dubiety, it was for his eulogist a classic example of Agesilaus’ virtue of love for
his close political comrades. That paid practical political dividends in the form
of the passionate loyalty shown thereafter to Sparta by oligarchic Phleious. In
particular, the city was especially energetic in the 370s in supporting Sparta
against democratic Thebes, and remained unswervingly loyal even after the
disaster of Leuctra in 371 and the dissolution of the Peloponnesian League in
the mid-​360s. For that conspicuous loyalty, it earned Xenophon’s highest praise.
So we come to focus on Thebes, the major player in mainland Greek politics
after 404 along with (and often locked in a fateful triangle with) Sparta and
Athens. Thebes had been allied to Sparta since the late sixth century, and, as the
leading city of the oligarchic Boeotian federal state (formed in 447 following
the liberation of Boeotia from Athenian control), it remained loyal—​just—​to
Sparta throughout the Peloponnesian War. But in 404 Thebes claimed to be
exceptionally annoyed that Sparta had not physically annihilated Athens, and
in 403, though still oligarchic, it had supported the restoration of democracy at
Athens, precisely so that Sparta could no longer use a tamed oligarchic Athens
as a catspaw against itself. In 395, when still oligarchic, Thebes and the Boeotians
finally did revolt from Sparta to join a quadruple alliance with Athens, Argos,
and Corinth. In 386, therefore, it was a principal target of Sparta’s vengeful
resentment, and a principal motive for Sparta’s conclusion of and swearing to
the terms of the King’s Peace was to keep Thebes in what Agesilaus—​allegedly
a Thebes-​hater—​in what he considered its proper, subordinate place.
The peace’s autonomy clause ostensibly guaranteed to all cities freedom from
external interference or control, but it was more than once breached by Sparta,
and most blatantly of all in the case of Thebes in 382. Sparta then imposed
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on moderately oligarchic Thebes—​as it had on formerly democratic Athens in
404—​a junta of extreme pro-​Spartan oligarchs backed up by a Spartan garrison
(located on the city’s commanding acropolis, the Cadmea). Not only was this
intervention grossly illegal, however, but it constituted also a sacrilegious violation of the oaths underpinning the King’s Peace. The normally pro-​Spartan but
also exceptionally pious Xenophon was so horrified that, in retrospect, he saw
this particular violation of the peace as the beginning of the end of the domination or empire that Sparta had exercised over the Aegean Greek world for
most of the period from 404. For it was through Thebes that the hand of divine
retribution, as he saw it, was to be wielded against Sparta eleven years later, at
and after the Battle of Leuctra in 371.
However—​and it is a very big however—​the politeia under which Thebes
was ruled in 371 was not the politeia of 382 and the immediately following years,
or even the far more moderately oligarchic one of 447–​382: for early in 378, for
the first time ever, and with significant Athenian encouragement, inspiration,
and physical assistance, Thebes had become a demokratia, following its liberation from Spartan control by a small band of politically motivated exiles led
by Pelopidas. Not only Thebes but also the Boeotians (Xen. Hell. 5.4.46), that
is the federal state as a whole, went democratic: central, federal finances and
the increasingly efficient federal army (as commanded by Gorgidas and the
great Epaminondas as well as Pelopidas) were now to be managed democratically, ultimately under the jurisdiction of the democratic federal Assembly. Full
active and participatory citizenship was extended below the level of the cavalry and hoplites to the broader demos, whereas under the former oligarchic
regimes the exercise of a craft or the practice of commercial exchange in the
marketplace had been sufficient to disqualify a Theban and most Boeotians
from active citizen privileges.
So the Boeotians and Thebans continued, constitutionally speaking, despite
a major diplomatic falling-​out with Athens (which actually allied with Sparta
against a rampant Thebes between 371 and 362), until the democratic city made
the irretrievable and ultimately fatal mistake of antagonising the rising monarchical power of Macedon. In the 360s, at the time of its shortlived hegemony,
Thebes could get away with holding a younger brother of the Macedonian king
as a hostage in Thebes for three years (probably 368–​365). But when that brother
became Philip II, king of Macedon, in 359 and rolled over all southern Greece,
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including Thebes and its renewed ally Athens, on the battlefield of Chaeronea
in Boeotia in 338, Philip took a leaf out of Sparta’s book: he terminated the
Thebans’ democracy, replaced it with an oligarchy, and installed a garrison to
guarantee the new order. When nevertheless Thebes rose up in revolt against
Philip’s son and successor Alexander III, that was considered a step too far, and
in 335 Alexander ordered to be done to Thebes what Thebans had wanted done
to Athens in 404: physical annihilation.
Little or nothing of that unhappy demarche could have been predicted in
the newly democratised Thebes of 378. Indeed, in that year Thebes was so
gung-​ho and on such good terms with Athens that it consented to join, as
one of six founder members, a new and fundamentally anti-​Spartan alliance headed up by Athens, the Second Athenian League, even though it was
a basically maritime organisation. Alongside those two stood the island-​city
of Rhodes (founded only at the end of the fifth century), Byzantium (later
Constantinople), Methymna (one of the five cities of Lesbos, already democratic and uniquely loyal to Athens back in 427), and Chios, another east
Aegean island-​city. Boeotia does have a coastline (including Aulis of Homeric
fame), but inland Thebes was hardly less landlubbing than inland Sparta. The
other five founder allies were significantly naval, and all were democracies.
Rhodes, largely because of its strategic location, was the site of fierce ideological internal battles and political reversals both at the end of the Peloponnesian
War and in the early fourth century. Of Byzantium’s internal politics little is
known, but its strategic situation at the mouth of the Bosporus made it a vital
asset to Athens and a key prize in the struggle for Mediterranean supremacy
between Athens and Sparta. Methymna had been a democracy already in the
later fifth century, when as noted it alone had stood aloof from the revolt of 427
against Athens of the other four Lesbian cities led by then oligarchic Mytilene.
But Chios, like Thebes, had never been a democracy until the early fourth century; indeed, Thucydides had singled it out for praise as a city that conducted
its oligarchy with exemplary sober moderation (8.5–​6, 9, 14, esp. 24), and it
was as a ship-​contributing oligarchy that it had revolted from Athens’ alliance
in 411, thereby contributing significantly to Athens’ naval embarrassment in
the eastern Aegean. Yet when it first made alliance again with Athens, in 384—​
the year after the break-​up of Mantinea, at a time when Sparta was blatantly
exploiting its position within the framework of the King’s Peace to drive its
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