The Spartans found themselves dominant in a Greece where polis was suspicious of polis and where, within each polis, faction disputed with faction. From Ionia, the Persians loomed once more as a threat to the Greek world. By midcentury, the new state of Macedonia in the north menaced the Greeks. Perhaps wiser or more vigorous leaders would have been able to create some sort of federation that could have withstood the Persians and the Macedonians. But it seems likely that the polis was no longer thought to be the appropriate way for the Greek world to be organized. Perhaps it was too small, too provincial, too “old-fashioned” to keep the peace and provide scope for economic advancement and intellectual growth.
Sparta proved as unable as Athens to manage Greece. The Spartan government was largely in the hands of the elders, usually too conservative to meet new challenges. Gold and silver had found their way into the simple agricultural economy whose founders had preferred to use bars of iron as exchange. Many Spartans now found themselves disenfranchised for debt. They joined the helots and perioikoi as part of a discontented majority just when Sparta needed more enfranchised, fighting citizens. Away from home Lysander could neither free the cities of the former Athenian Empire nor rule them satisfactorily.
At Athens, for example, at the instigation of the extremist Critias, an oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants instituted a reign of terror not only against democrats associated with past regimes but also against moderate oligarchs. In 403 an invading force of exiled democrats killed Critias and touched off a brief civil war. At Athens they restored democracy, but the Thirty Tyrants and their sympathizers were set up as a Spartan puppet government nearby at Eleusis, and no one was allowed to move between the two separate Athenian states. In 401 the Athenians, by treachery, killed the generals of the Eleusid armies, and the two states were reunited.
The Spartans could not pose as the leaders of Greece and keep their bargain with the Persians to sell Ionia back to them; yet if they went back on this bargain, the Persians would start a new war. So in 401 B.C., when Cyrus the Younger, governor of Asia Minor, rebelled against King Artaxerxes and asked for Spartan aid, Sparta gave it to him. Cyrus was soon killed in battle and his Greek mercenary army was stranded in the heart of Persia. The episode left the Spartans at war with Persia.
The Spartans failed to unite their land and sea commands, giving the Persians time to build a fleet, which they put under an Athenian admiral. The Persians also bribed Thebes, Argos, Corinth, and Athens to stir up so much trouble against Sparta that Spartan troops had to be recalled from Persia to fight a new war in Greece. This Corinthian War lasted eight years (to 387) and ended in stalemate, as the Persians and Spartans finally got together and imposed “The King’s Peace” in 386 B.C., by which the Persians resumed control of all Greek states in Asia and the rest became autonomous.