It became a tourist trap in the Roman Empire 


The decline began after Battle of Leuctra where Sparta was crushed by Thebes in 371 BC.

Spartan surrender to Thebes

In 338 BC they tried to make a comeback against Macedonia under Phillip II (father of Alexander-the-Great). You may know that story where King Philip II sent a message to the Spartans saying, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”, and the Spartans responded with only one word; “if” (or the Greek equivalent). Macedon followed through with the threat.

In 192 BC Sparta lost its independence when it was defeated and annexed by the Achaean League.

On 146 BC the Achaean League was defeated by the Roman Republic, and thus Sparta became Roman territory.

The Romans were fascinated by Spartan culture and thus made Sparta a free city, an independent city state that was permitted to have its own laws and customs under the supervision of a Roman government, backed by Roman auxiliary troops. In 31 BC a wealthy Greek named Gaius Julius Eurycles led a small force of Spartan ships in support of Octavian at the Battle of Actium.  When Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman emperor, he rewarded Gaius Julius Eurycles by installing him as the vassal king of Sparta.  He was a puppet king like King Herod was in Palestine.  Officially, he ruled Sparta, and taxed them grievously, backed by Roman troops, founding a dynasty that ruled Sparta for the next few centuries.

Spartan culture and customs became a part of Roman pop culture. The emperor Caracalla ( a fan) incorporated a 500 man cohort of Spartan hoplites 214 AD to serve as a component of the Praetorian Guards. Realizing the opportunity, the Euryclid Dynasty capitalized on the Spartan legacy by reorganizing their city into what was essentially an ancient Roman tourist trap.  The city had most of the things Romans enjoyed such as games, gladiatorial combat, theater, baths, brothels, and taverns. Like most other tourist hotspots there was probably a proliferation of tacky trinkets for sale.

As much as a visit to Spartan Land was a hit, the Romans were most interested in Spartan warrior traditions. The Spartans organized a show and wealthy Roman tourists paid to see it. The hottest show in town was the Spartan coming of age ceremony held at the Temple of Artemis Orthia were a Spartan boy would be whipped to near death, at which point if he survived, he would be considered a man and a warrior.  The Spartans rebuilt the temple into a theater so that large audiences could view the ceremony.  Watching children being beaten to near death was as entertaining as watching Christians being fed to the lions in the Colosseum.

As a popular tourist destination the city thrived, prospered, and grew wealthy. But good times don’t last forever. During the Third Century AD the Roman Empire was racked by civil war and tourism declined. By the Fourth Century, the Empire converted to Christianity, and in 381 AD, Theodosius outlawed public pagan ceremonies and orgies.

In 396 AD, the Goths led by King Alaric sacked the city, and its  in inhabitants were taken prisoner and sold into slavery.  And that ended “Ancient Sparta”. You can still visit Sparta when in Greece but there isn’t much to see other than the ruins of Spartan Land.


    • It ancient Rome, it was their version of the Mouse House. (a better mouse trap)

      When you consider what Sparta had once been, it was quite a come-down, but people make a buck where they can.

  1. Thanks for the fun history lesson! I guess everyone hears about Sparta and the near-mythology of how great warriors they were, but I sure never heard The Rest of the Story.

    • Sparta had its moment ini the Sun and then things went sideways for them and for their military caste.

  2. I wonder on occasion what will become of Disney World, and all the other properties they rule with an iron fist. Charging $9.00 for a hotdog and $7.50 for a small Pepsi to wash it down, and still the bumpkins from Omaha NE and Williston ND flock to these properties to be fleeced unmercifully year in and year out.

    Will tourists 200 years from now come to see the ruins of the Magic Kingdom, once the glitz and glamour fade away, much like Sparta? The only remnant here in the U.S. of that once great civilization is the mascot of Michigan State University, ‘Sparty.’

  3. As I read this interesting post I wondered, “Will he mention Caracalla’s hoplite phalanx?” And you did, nice.

    Alaric, as far as I can see, was pretty much a Roman auxiliary general. Perhaps the West would’ve turned out differently if “Alaricus” had become the Magister Militum he wanted to be and his troops awarded citizenship, grain and pay.

    As it is, Rome fell.

    • Technically Rome didn’t fall until World War 1. There was still a Holy Roman Empire (that was neither holy, Roman or an empire, but I won’t split hairs), with Germany being the last vestige along with Romania.

      • I thought Napoleon I did away with the Holy Roman Empire officially, though I think the Habsburgs kept some sort of fictional version around that no one recognized, especially after German Unification in 1871. Then again, the real living descendant of the Roman Empire didn’t go under until 1453 when Constantinople fell. Even long afterwards, if you asked a Greek resident about their ancestry and/or ethnicity, they would’ve told you, “Romanoi” (I think — the dratted cases of Greek and Latin always befuddle me, especially when in combination). They proudly considered themselves Romans (in Greek, no less), at least until Turkey won the post-WWI ethnic cleansing wars in 1922.

        I saw a soccer match on TV (no, I don’t watch soccer, but I heard the announcer mention it was Greek and Turkish national teams playing and that perked my ears up, so I stayed a while rather than scanning onwards). At one point after a goal, the Turkish audience (all on one side of the arena, of course) raised a huge, finely-made banner with a Turkish medieval knight that said “Istanbul since 1453!” I fully expected a riot to ensue, but I guess security was on the ball that day. I wouldn’t have wanted their job that day for any amount of pay.

        • Larry, there have been various claimants to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire through the Hapsburg line. I don’t know how valid they are. The Ottoman sultan Mehmed declared himself as the new Roman emperor after conquering Constantinople, but I don’t think that anyone outside of his clique took that seriously. And I don’t know that it matters at this point.

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