Sparta was a powerful ancient European empire known for its military prowess and unique social structure. Despite its military capability and strategy, the Spartan empire began to decline in 371 BC, but what was the reason for this decline?
The Spartan Empire declined because it was involved in several battles that reduced its number of soldiers. The decline of soldiers meant the empire could not defend itself from attacks. It gradually lost its standing in Europe and was eventually taken over by Alaric, leader of the Visigoths.
This article explores everything about the downfall of Sparta, including the population decline and political conflicts that played such a big part in it.
What Caused the Downfall of Sparta?
Most historians argue that the Spartan empire fell because of a population decline. As a result, Sparta had less trained soldiers and lost their military strength. They became more vulnerable to invasions and suffered several significant military defeats.
This section considers the two main reasons why Sparta fell.
In the 4th century BC, Sparta was the most prominent empire in the Mediterranean region. However, it began to alienate several other states and powers in the region. For instance, it displeased Corinth and Thebes because it had not adequately compensated them after their support during the Peloponnesian war.
As a result of the dissatisfaction with Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Athens, and Argos began the Corinthian War in 395 BC. The war continued until 387 BC – while Sparta achieved several land victories, she suffered significant naval defeat. In 371 BC, Sparta was defeated again by the Theban army in the Battle of Leuctra.
Sparta’s losses reduced its power and significance in the Mediterranean region. Her military prestige continued to decline, and there continued to be power struggles in the region.
Sparta’s population decline was the other primary reason for the empire’s decline. Sparta’s population decreased because it lost thousands of men in battle. However, Sparta’s population also declined because of its unique social system.
Spartan society had two main parts. Spartan citizens were at the top of Spartan society – individuals could only become Spartan citizens by birth.  Spartan citizens were enrolled in training when they were seven years old. This training focused on courage, discipline, and military skill.
The other part of Spartan society were the helots – these were farmers and laborers who did not receive military training. As one could only become a Spartan citizen by being born to a Spartan, the population began to decline.
This decline escalated when Spartan soldiers died in battle. Records show that in 490 BCE, Sparta had 8000 military-trained Spartan citizens, while in 371 BCE, it had only 700 Spartan citizens.
Meanwhile, the population of helots continued to grow. Dissatisfied helots rebelled against the Spartan rulers at several points in Spartan history, weakening the Spartan political system.
Sparta’s military population reduced, and it became more vulnerable to internal and external attacks. Over time, the population decline led to Sparta’s overall decline.
When Did the Spartan Empire Fall?
The fall of the Spartan empire happened in phases. First, it was defeated by the Theban army in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. It then came under attack from King Pyrrhus in 272 BC and joined the Archean Confederacy in 195 BC. The empire finally ended in 396 CE when King Alaric sacked the city.
This section presents a timeline of the Spartan Empire’s fall.
371 BC – Defeat in Battle of Leuctra
The Battle of Leuctra was a battle between Sparta and the Boeotians, led by Thebes. Sparta lost 1000 troops and eventually lost the battle along with its military power in the region. 
This defeat prompted several states and cities in the region to reconsider their allegiance to Sparta.
272 BC – Siege of Sparta
In 272 BC, King Pyrrhus of Epirus began to siege Sparta.  As much of the Spartan army was away in Crete, many Spartan women took up arms against Phyrrhus’ army. Sparta was eventually victorious but lost many soldiers, including women, leading to an even more significant population decline.
195 BC – Joining the Achaean Confederacy
The Achaean Confederacy was a group of allies that began with twelve Achaean cities uniting.  Sparta was initially hostile towards the Achaean Confederacy and was part of several battles against it. However, in 195 BC, Athen compelled Sparta to join the Confederacy. This indicated that Sparta was losing its political autonomy.
396 CE – Sparta Officially Falls
Between 195 BC – 300 CE, the Spartan influence in the Mediterranean region continued to decline. In 396 CE, the leader of the Visigoths, Alaric, led a siege against Sparta. Sparta was wholly occupied and absorbed by the Visigoths, and the Spartans were sold into slavery.
What Is the Legacy of the Spartans?
Even though the Spartan empire no longer stands today, it left behind a strong legacy.
Sparta is remembered for its military strength and unique political system. It is also remembered for its empowering attitude towards women and its artistic endeavors.
Here’s a more detailed look at Sparta’s legacy:
- Treatment of women. Unlike many other ancient societies, Sparta offered its women a lot of freedom. Women could pursue an education, participate in sporting events, own businesses, and even fight in the army. This innovative approach to society began to sow early seeds for women’s empowerment.
- Military strength. At its height, the Spartan empire did not have walls. It is instead protected by its soldier population. Spartan soldiers were trained from seven and were wholly dedicated to the military. Sparta is remembered today for its army of hoplites, well-armed foot soldiers.
- Artistic endeavors. Spartans were also known for their artistic endeavors. They were gifted musicians and dancers and created tools and sculptures made from bronze, stone, and ivory. Several excellent Spartan arts and sculpture examples are displayed at The Met Museum. 
- Political system. Sparta had a somewhat unique political system. There were typically two kings from different Spartan families appointed at a time. This allowed one king to stay in Sparta while the other went on military campaigns. Councils also advised the kings of elders who oversaw law and order in the general population.
Ultimately, Sparta fell because of a decline in its military population. The decline of soldiers made it vulnerable to external and internal attacks.