Thus the first great federation between the Greeks collapsed on the basis of the hegemony of a city. That federation was followed by another, founded on the same hegemonic principle, apparently all the more solid the larger it was. Sparta, after having undermined the foundations of the Athenian empire with the propaganda for autonomy, now tightened around the great nucleus constituted by the Peloponnesian league and by the new allies of central and northern Greece who had joined them during the war, part of the cities already participating in the Athenian league. The material and ideal bond of the new empire, of which Lysander was the organizer, was the support given everywhere to the possessing classes against the excesses of radical democracy which, allowed and favored by the Athenians, elites intellectuals. But the reaction, which came to power everywhere with the support of the Spartan hoplites, behaved savagely, in such a way as to arouse the horror of the Spartans themselves and the affluent class on which it relied. Typical was the case of Athens, in which an oligarchy of thirty members (thirty tyrants) was established, which, under the leadership of Critias, tried to ensure its dominion by brutal massacres, so much so that it was said that the thirty tyrants had in a few months made more victims than the Peloponnesian war itself. The cry of horror that arose against such cruelties meant that, when the Athenian exile Trasibulus, occupied with 70 companions the stronghold of Philae on the Attic-Beotic border, the war for the freedom of the homeland began, the thirty found only limited support in the Spartans and in the Athenian landowning class itself, while the popular classes rose up in favor of Trasibulus. Thus Trasibulo returned to Athens, restoring democracy which was also subjected to the dominance of Sparta, which, although intervening militarily in Attica under King Pausanias to safeguard the prestige of its arms, had not wanted to weaken, as it could have then, the democratic insurrection.
But, having failed so miserably this attempt to found hegemony by exacerbating the struggle between classes and putting the possessing class in power, it became all the more necessary to give it a new ideal content. And this was provided by the resumption of the national struggle against Persia. In the latter part of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans had been validly aided by Cyrus the Younger, son of King Darius II, who was in command in Sardis. When, shortly after the death of Darius, Cyrus rose up against his elder brother Artaxerxes II, heir to the Persian throne, he had the more or less uncovered help of Sparta. Cyrus’ expedition ended with the battle of Cunassa (401), in which, although his Greek mercenaries, the so-called Ten Thousand, led by the Spartan exile Clearco, if their adversaries overcame on their side and could return intact to the camp, Cyrus’ Persians folded when he himself fell fighting. The memorable retreat in which the ten thousand Greeks, from the vicinity of Babylon, resisting the snares of the barbarians, opened their way to the banks of the Pontus Eusinus, revived the feeling, which the Persian wars had promoted, of the superiority of the Greek over the barbarian and ignited hopes for the resumption of the national struggle, which Athens had ended half a century earlier. Taking occasion from the conflict that broke out in Asia Minor between the Persians, who wanted to solidify their dominion there after the rebellion of Cyrus, and the cities that had helped the rebel prince, Sparta intervened to free the Greek cities from the barbarian. Success could not be missing, especially when the Spartan king Agesilao was placed at the head of the Hellenic forces in Asia, of which a considerable part consisted of the relics of the Ten Thousand. In 395 he advanced into Lydia and won a victory over the Persians near the Pattolo river, then proceeded into ellespontic Phrygia as far as the frontiers of Paphlagonia. From the daring offensive he was preparing for the following year, the greatest successes could be hoped for, perhaps even the detachment of the whole of Asia Minor from Persia. But Sparta itself had set the example of the alliance with the barbarian to break the Athenian empire. And the national enterprise now attempted by the Spartans, having founded their hegemony on the alliance with the barbarian and on the oppression of the proletariat, could not find the consent of the Greeks, tenaciously attached to their local autonomies. In fact, it had been implemented by violating, even more than it had happened in the Athenian Empire, the very principle of autonomy with which Sparta had started the Peloponnesian war. The Persians fomented discontent, who had gathered a sizeable naval army in Caria, entrusting its command to the Athenian exile Conon. The war against Sparta began in Boeotia, where Thebes refused to accept Spartan mediation in his hostilities against Phocis. The attempt made by Sparta to immediately suffocate the rebellion ended with the defeat at Aliarto, in which Lysander, the founder and organizer of the Spartan maritime empire, met his death (395). And yet the rebellion of Thebes could probably have been put down if at Alliance of Thebes had not immediately entered Athens. Argos and Corinth followed, joining closely together in sympathy.