To give meaning to its victory at the end of the Great Peloponnesian War, Sparta assumed the role of policeman among the Greeks. It supported local aristocratic oligarchies against populous threats, and it collected tribute with brutal methods. Sparta had presented itself as the champion of liberty, but it was the liberty of aristocratic warrior slave masters.
Sparta placed hope in an anti-democratic oligarchy in Athens, to be known as the Thirty Tyrants, led by Critlus, a former student of Socrates. The oligarchy executed some 1500 fellow Athenians whom they considered dangerous. The oligarchy also executed resident aliens whose wealth they wished to confiscate. And about five hundred democrats fled Athens and became the nucleus of a resistance group based in Thebes. (A rebellion overthrew the Thirty Tyrants in 403, and in seeking security for their regime they tried and executed Socrates in 399.)
Trying to dominate, between 395 and 386 Sparta fought numerous little wars. It fought against a coalition that included Boeotia, Corinth, Argos and Athens. Then Greeks under Persian rule in Asia Minor rebelled again against Persian rule, and they asked Sparta to act on its claim as the defender of liberty for Greeks. The Spartans had promised Persia that they would recognize Persia's power over the Greeks in Asia Minor, but now Sparta tried to redeem itself as the defender of all Greeks, and it went to war against Persia. As usual, wars were debilitating rather than giving strength to a power., Military operations weakened Sparta. This encouraged Greek cities to form a coalition against Sparta. In response, Sparta made peace again with Persia, which offended many Greeks. Athens was able to create a maritime confederacy that included most of its former allies, and Thebes and Athens fought skirmishes against Sparta. In 371, believing that it was defending its dominant position in Greece, Sparta moved against Thebes. The Thebans defeated Sparta's army at the Battle of Leuctra, destroying the myth that Sparta's army was invincible. Only a little more than half of a century after its glorious victory, Greeks far and wide recognized that Sparta's domination of Greece had ended. New coalitions were formed. Thebes was the strongest military power, and, to check Theban power, Athens joined a coalition with the humbled Sparta and the city-states of Elis, Achaea, and Mantinea.
Sparta had changed. It had lost much of its manpower, and Spartan values and way of life had been changing. There was a loss of enthusiasm for war. Sparta's aristocratic slavemaster warriors had held their land in common (and had managed their slaves – the Helots – collectively). Their communism was coming to an end, as what had been their indifference to comfort and luxury. The word "Spartan" in modern times would mean an indifference to comfort or luxury, but with all the travel outside their city, on military or diplomatic missions, some Spartans had been acquiring an appetite for possessions. Land in Sparta was beginning to be bought and sold – two-fifths of the landowners being women, the survivors of war. With the new inequalities among the Spartans, some were declining into poverty and becoming malcontents. And those Spartans with land and slaves feared that malcontents among them might make common cause with the Helots.
To the north of Greece were the Macedonians, descendants of the Dorian Greeks. They worshiped Greek gods and spoke a dialect of Greek that the Greeks south of them found difficult to understand. Greeks to the south of them thought of them as uncouth barbarians. But as a nation, the Macedonians were on their way to acquiring superior political power. Macedonia was united under King Philip – who would have a son in 336 BCE to be known a couple of decades later as Alexander the Great.
Macedonia had timber, great mines, sheep, cattle and pastures for raising horses. Macedonia was developing agriculturally. Macedonians were hardy, unaccustomed to soft living and luxuries and many men who lived for war. Philip encourage trade, which provided him with more revenue. He had an army that was highly disciplined, with a cavalry better at horsemanship than were the Greeks. It had siege weapons, and it had a new formation called the phalanx: rows of soldiers packed closely together, unweighted by body armor and carrying pikes fifteen feet long, longer that those carried by the Greeks to the south.
Macedonia (Macedon) was more than a city-state and more than a small empire. (map) It had become a powerful and united country. (It's capital city, Pella). It expanded against powers on its southern border. In 357 Philip took back Amphipolis, a gateway to Thrace. Athens, with its powerful navy, failed to win back Amphipolis or to prevent further expansion by Philip. In 356, Philip took the Thracian city of Crenides and renamed it Philippi, a city from which he began controlling neighboring gold mines. He now had more land to award nobles for their loyalty, and his military successes lifted the optimism and morale of common Macedonians.
In 339, Philip moved his army into central Greece. Thebes and Athens put aside their warring and joined forces against him. Philip defeated them both. Philip garrisoned Macedonian soldiers in Thebes and stripped the city of its power in Boeotia. And he offered Athens an alliance with favorable terms that Athens was glad to accept.
Philip created a federal constitution for a new league of Greeks (without the Spartans). Their representatives were to meet and settle differences among them at the city of Corinth. They were to be collectively responsible for defense against brigandage, against piracy and against trouble from those seeking a redistribution of wealth or abolition of debts. The league's politics were to be conservative, bringing an end to the trend toward reform and democracy that had begun with Solon more than two hundred years before.
In the year 336, following a conflict between Philip II and one of his many wives, Alexander's mother, Olympias. Doubt arose concerning Alexander's legitimacy. Philip was assassinated. Alexander held an inquiry that concluded that the assassination was the work of Persian agents. Historians don't know. Alexander was recognized as Philip's successor, and he took over Philip's plan to expand against Persian rule of Greeks in Asia Minor. A great expansion and a new era, the Hellenistic Era, was about to unfold.