Journey from the original Olympic games to the defeat of the Spartan juggernaut in this extract from our latest 15-page special on the rise of Sparta.
Statue of Homer, the ancient Greek poet
c.776 BC: Traditional foundation date for Olympic Games
c.750 BC: Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey composed
c.700 BC: Sparta conquers Messenia
c.650 BC: Messenian Revolt followed by Spartan Reconquest
At this time, radical changes took place in Sparta, with a new constitution (the Laws of Lykourgos), the development of the hoplite phalanx, and the emergence of a distinct Spartan ethos, as immortalised in the poetry of Tyrtaeus. It was this ‘new Sparta’ – created by the military crisis of the Messenian Revolt – that became the basis of the very conservative system which then endured through the next three centuries.
c.550 BC: Foundation of the Peloponnesian League
The Peloponnesian League was a military coalition that existed from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC. The league was led by Sparta, the Peloponnese city-state with the most political and military clout. Reliable sources for the League’s history are scarce, but it is thought to have included Corinth, Kythira, Melos, Pylos, Mantinea, Elis, Epidaurus, Boeotia, Lefkada, Ambrakia, and perhaps Macedonia. The alliance was designed to maintain peace within the Peloponnese at the height of Sparta’s power – mainly by marginalising Argos – while also providing a defensive force capable of fending off outside invasion. The League led the defence of the Greek city-states against Persian invasions – though, critically, Athens fought alongside Sparta and the Peloponnesian League on this occasion.
Depiction of the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC
c.546 BC: Persian conquest of Lydia and the Anatolian Coast
In an attempt to expand his territory eastwards, King Croesus of Lydia led an invasion into Persian Cappadocia against Cyrus the Great. The two leaders met in a drawn battle at Pteria in 547 BC, but Croesus then withdrew and was pursued and defeated at the Battle of Thymbra, and Lydia came under control of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
490 BC: The Battle of Marathon
A stunning Athenian victory. The Spartan Army arrived too late to participate, but its soldiers surveyed the battlefield and attempted to draw tactical lessons.
480 BC: Xerxes’ invasion of Greece – battles of Thermopylae Artemisium and Salamis
The second Persian invasion was on a much greater scale than the first. Xerxes suffered a first decisive defeat at Salamis, a naval battle fought off the Athenian coast, and he was forced to withdraw the remains of his fleet and a large proportion of his land forces. However, a massive Persian army remained on Greek soil over the winter.
Coin depicting Emperor Xerxes
479 BC: Battle of Plataea
449 BC: Peace with Persia
431-404 BC: The Peloponnesian War
This epic ancient Greek civil war pitted the conservative, Spartan dominated Peloponnesian League against the democratic, Athenian dominated Delian League. Sparta was a landbased power, Athens a naval one, so for a long time it was a matter of the elephant and the whale, with the decisive victory eluding each side. Only when the Spartans developed a navy – financed by Persian gold – was it possible for them to break Athenian power and win the war. Sparta was then supreme in Greece for a generation.
371 BC: Battle of Leuktra
Spartan power was broken by Epaminondas and the Theban ‘heavy phalanx’ on the battlefield of Leuktra – a result confirmed by a second Theban victory over the Spartans at Mantinea in 362 BC. The resulting Theban supremacy also lasted only a single generation.
338 BC: Battle of Chaeronea
Alliance of Greek city-states defeated by Philip II of Macedonia.
This timeline is taken from our special 15-page feature on the Rise of the Spartans, by ancient historian Paul Rahe. Read the rest of the feature in our latest issue, MHM 79.