Siege of Sparta

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Siege of Sparta
Part of Pyrrhus' Invasion of the Peloponnese
The Siege of Sparta by Pyrrhus, Jean-Baptiste Topino-Lebrun
Date Spring 272 BC
Location Sparta
Result Spartan-Macedonian victory
Epirus Sparta
Commanders and leaders
Pyrrhus Areus I
26,000 men,
24 elephants
2,000 +
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

The Siege of Sparta took place in 272 BC and was a battle fought between Epirus, led by King Pyrrhus, (r. 297–272 BC) and an alliance consisting of Sparta, under the command of King Areus I (r. 309-265 BC) and his heir Acrotatus, and Macedon. The battle was fought at Sparta and ended in a Spartan-Macedonian victory.

Following his defeat in Italy by the Roman Republic, Pyrrhus was forced to retreat back to Epirus. On this return to Epirus, he declared war against Antigonus Gonatas, managing to take control of Macedon. In 272 BC, he was approached by a Spartan Prince, Cleonymus, a claimant to the Spartan throne who had been overlooked. Pyrrhus saw this invitation as an opportunity to extend his wars of conquest to the Peloponnese and invaded Sparta. Despite the majority of the Spartan army campaigning in Crete, the remaining Spartans were able to mount a defence led by the Spartan Crown Prince Acrotatus. The Spartans were able to withstand the Epiriote assaults until Spartan, led by King Areus I and Macedonian reinforcements arrive, prompting Pyrrhus to abandon the siege.

After this failure, Pyrrhus ravaged the Spartan hinterland whilst fending off counter-attacks by the victorious Spartans. On the invitation of an Argive ally, Pyrrhus attempted to seize Argos. The assault culminated in a fiasco with Pyrrhus being attacked by both his Argive opponents and a Macedonian army commanded by Antigonus Gonatas. Pyrrhus was slain in the battle, ending Epiriote hopes of establish a hegemony in Greece.


In 281 BC, at the request of the Greek city of Tarentum,[1] Pyrrhus, the King of the Greek state of Epirus, went with an army of 25,500 men and 20 elephants to Italy to help fight the Romans. The Romans had succeeded in conquering most of Italy and were now moving in to take the Greek cities in Magna Graecia.,[2] After arriving in Italy in 280 BC, Pyrrhus defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Heraclea, near Tarentum. Pyrrhus repeated his success against Romans by defeating another Roman army at the Battle of Asculum.

However, these victories proved to be very costly to Pyrrhus and he diverted his attention to Sicily, where the Greek states on the island were appealing for his help against Carthage. Despite defeating the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus' behavior alienated him from his Greek allies and he was forced to abandon Sicily and return to the Italian mainland. Pyrrhus attacked the rebuilt Roman army and after the inconclusive Battle of Beneventum, Pyrrhus returned to Epirus.[1]

The war in Italy had drained Pyrhus' financial and military resources but despite this he declared war on King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedon. He ravaged part of the country before some of the Macedonian army and cities came over to him. He managed to defeat Antigonus at the Battle of the Aous, forcing Antigonus to flee to Thessaloniki. Following Antigonus' flight, Pyrrhus was able to gain control of most of Macedon and Thessaly.


A bust of a man donned in a wreathed helmet.
A bust of Pyrrhus at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Upon his seizure of the Macedonian throne, Pyrrhus was approached by a Spartan Prince, Cleonymus. The Spartan persuaded Pyrrhus to assist him in his plot to capture Sparta. Cleonymus' motives in wanting to attack Sparta were twofold. Firstly, he bore a grudge because his countrymen had overlooked him in favour of his nephew, Areus I when determining the successor of the Agiad throne. Plutarch, the Greek historian, attributed Cleonymus' non-selection as king to his violent disposition and arbitrariness. Moreover, Cleonymus had been slighted because his new wife, Chilonis, had been seduced by Areus' son, Arcotatus. These perceived insults spurred Cleonymus to leave Sparta and scheme to usurp the throne.

Pyrrhus was receptive to Cleonymus' appeals to install him on the Spartan throne and agreed to assist him. In order to achieve this, the Epiriote King assembled an army numbering of 27,000 men. It consisted 25,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and was supplemented by 24 war elephants. The size of Pyrrhus' expedition indicates that he viewed aiding Cleonymus as an opportunity to extend his hegemony into the Peloponnese. After mustering his force, Pyrrhus marched south through central Greece and through to the Peloponnese.

Upon his arrival in the Peloponnese, Pyrrhus marched to Megalopolis where he was met by Spartan ambassadors. In response to the Spartan emissaries' inquiries as to his intentions, the Epiriote King managed to deceive them. Pyrrhus asserted that his aim in invading the Peloponnese was to liberate the cities still held by Antigonus and to send his sons to Sparta to be educated in the agoge. However, after the withdrawal of the ambassadors, the Epiriote army advanced into Laconia and started to ravage Spartan territory. Pyrrhus' deceit prompted outrage in Sparta and ambassador were again dispatched to the Epiriote to upbraid him for his perfidy.

Battle for Sparta[edit]

Initial assaults[edit]

A map of the southern and central Peloponnese, the southernmost area of Greece. Most of the cities mentioned in the article text are shown.
A map of the southern and central Peloponnese (the southernmost area of Greece) showing important cities

At the time of the invading army's entry into Laconia, Sparta was only lightly defended. The majority of the Spartan army had accompanied Areus on campaign in Crete, where the Lacedaimonians were supporting the polis of Gortyn. Arriving outside Sparta in the evening, Cleonymus advised Pyrrhus to attack immediately to take advantage of the dearth of defenders. However, Pyrrhus decided against launching an immediate offensive as he feared the destruction that would be wrought by his soldiers if they were to enter the city at night. Anticipating no resistance, Pyrrhus order his army to make camp and prepared to enter Sparta in the morning.

The appearance of the Epirote army before their city caught the Spartans unprepared. Despite the Lacedaimonian gerousia being in favour of sending the women to Crete for their protection, this was opposed by Arachidamia, the former queen and grandmother of the Eurypontid King Eudamidas II, who ensured that the Spartan women would remain to assist with the protection of the city. After the arrangements for the women were reached, the Spartans began bolstering the settlement's defences. The defenders were aware that the Epiriotes had brought elephants and to counteract them, dug a trench and sunk wagons into it to hinder their advance.


  1. ^ a b Plutarch. Life of Cleomenes, 13.
    * Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Pyrrhus".
    * Green, p. 228.
  2. ^ Plutarch. Life of Cleomenes, 15.
    * Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Pyrrhus".
    * Abbott, p. 120-21.


Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Online sources[edit]

  • Abbott, Jacob (2004-11-12). "Pyrrhus". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2009-08-30. 

In video games[edit]

  • The Siege of Sparta is available to play as one of the historical battles in the award-winning video game, Rome: Total War.