The Legend of Sparta?

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Alongside its rival Athens, Sparta is one of the best-remembered Greek city states today. Yet while its Attic nemesis’ reputation rests on its contributions to literature, politics and drama, Sparta’s legend centres around the supposed skill and (semi-suicidal) bravery of its soldiers. The sacrifice at Thermopylae is perhaps the most famous last stand in history, and is often pointed to as proof of the superhuman nature of Spartan warriors, who earned for their city the title ‘Champion of Greece’. Yet a closer examination of the history of Sparta reveals that Thermopylae was a glorious exception, and that the city’s martial reputation far exceeded its actual ability.

Sparta was one of the oldest Greek settlements. Homer claims that Helen of Troy was once a Spartan princess, revealing that the city was already an established kingdom by the 9th Century B.C. In the years between the semi-mythical Trojan War and the dawn of the Classical Age, Sparta managed to conquer a substantial portion of Southern Greece and become the leader of the Peloponnese, the landmass south of the Gulf of Corinth. Defeated rivals had their lands stripped and their populaces enslaved, while Sparta grew steadily more powerful. Most Greek polities consisted of a city ruling the agricultural lands that bordered it, whereas Sparta ruled the entire region of Messenia. These lands were incredibly fertile, and so the Spartans forced their enslaved enemies (known as helots) onto plantations. Soon, all Spartans could support themselves entirely off the income their slaves generated, and no longer needed to work. Most societies would have grown decadent. Instead, the Spartans grew paranoid. They noticed that they were outnumbered seven times over by the helots, who could easily have massacred their oppressors had they banded together, and grew terrified of such an event. 

To avoid a mass uprising, Spartan society took up permanent arms. The semi-mythical King Lycurgus forced Spartans into a perpetual programme of military preparation. Coined money was abandoned, and the Spartans adopted iron bars as currency to reduce the importance of commerce. Children born with physical defects were abandoned to die, so they could not weaken the body collective. All Spartans ate nothing but communal meals, and the men were expected to live in barracks even after they married. Every man had to serve in the army until he turned sixty. All male citizens also had to endure the agoge, a rigorous training regime. Though the agoge did not include actual military training, it fostered athleticism, endurance and obedience – all qualities which would prove useful in battle. Around the age of twenty, many Spartans were appointed kryptai, and ordered to indiscriminately murder any helots they encountered for a set period of time. So the Spartans suppressed their slaves and simultaneously taught their young men how to kill.

Despite these reforms, the Spartan army of the Archaic period (8th – 6th Centuries B.C.) does not seem to have impressed its contemporaries. On one occasion, the people of Aegae, having just defeated a rival city-state, arrogantly asked the Oracle of Delphi who the best of all the Greeks were. The Oracle did not name the Aegaeans, but “a Spartan woman” and “the linen cuirassed Argives, spurs of war”, revealing that the Spartans were more renowned for their women’s beauty than their skill as warriors. In 550 B.C., a dispute between the Argives and Spartans over the land of Tyrea led both to mobilise their armies. However, since neither Argives nor the Spartans wished to risk so many men, both agreed that the war would be decided by a duel between each city’s three-hundred finest warriors. Only three men survived the ensuing Battle of the Champions – two Argives and a single Spartan, who only lived because he had been so terribly wounded that his foes assumed he was dead.

These two incidents reveal that the average Spartan was not, at this time, renowned for his skill in battle. Spartan successes in these years seems to have relied more on the quantity of their men than their quality; Sparta was one of the most populous city-states in Greece, with around 8,000 men able to bear arms at the turn of the 6th Century B.C. Yet as the Classical Age approached, Sparta began to enjoy increasing success in battle.

Warfare at this time was dominated by the phalanx – a rectangular formation of tightly packed hoplites. These hoplites were citizen soldiers, equipped with bronze armour, a large shield (roughly as wide as a man) and a spear. In the phalanx, each hoplite would position his shield so it covered his left half and the right half of the man standing next to him. Since the man to his right would do the same, each hoplite was protected by a row of overlapping shields. The hoplites would then lower their spears, presenting enemies opposite a phalanx with a forest of spears. In battle, two phalanxes would push against one another until one side panicked, turned and fled, at which point the fleeing would be hunted down by their foes. Since most troops were heavily protected by the phalanx, the vast majority of casualties were inflicted at this stage. 

Phalanx warfare was relatively predictable, and relied less on tactical cunning and rapid manoeuvre than on a hoplite’s ability to hold formation for a long period without growing tired or fleeing in terror. Spartan martial culture, which stressed obedience, stamina and courage, helped produce warriors uniquely skilled in the art of hoplite combat. Before they left on campaign, Spartan soldiers were told to return home alive with their shield or dead on their shield; the most shameful act a Spartan could commit was to throw away his shield in battle to flee for his life. Death was preferable to cowardice. 

At the same time, the Spartans developed a sophisticated chain of command. The most basic tactical unit consisted of around thirty men, far fewer than even the smallest units of other Greek armies. This gave the Spartan army greater flexibility, and made it easier to divide forces or rapidly arrange many thousands of men in the heat of battle. These psychological and organisational advantages allowed the Spartans to remain undefeated in pitched battle for over a hundred and fifty years, winning every engagement between the Battle of Fetters (560 B.C.) and the Battle of Tegyra (375 B.C.). 

In 480 B.C., an incident occurred that would earn Sparta its place in history. Persia, the ancient superpower which ruled Turkey, Pakistan and all in between, launched an invasion of Greece. According to the historian Herodotus, the Persian King Xerxes mustered an army two and a half million strong with which he planned to conquer all Europe. Most historians today estimate that the Persian army numbered around 200,000, yet this was still an apocalyptically enormous army by the standards of the Greek city-states, which usually fielded armies smaller than 10,000 men. The cities which did not yield to Xerxes banded together, and planned to exploit Greece’s mountainous terrain by blocking the Persian army at a narrow pass. The location they chose was known as Thermopylae.

This choke point was so thin that it could only fit a few hundred men at a time, meaning that the vast Persian army would be unable to use its numbers to surround the Greeks. 7,000 Greek soldiers went to Thermopylae, and for three days they endured wave after wave of Persian attacks. Eventually, a local shepherd called Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by telling Xerxes of a small goat path that led its way directly behind the Thermopylae Pass. Xerxes split his army in two and had half his men march through the goat path under the cover of darkness. The Greeks realised that, by morning, they would be encircled. It was possible to stage a rapid withdrawal, but doing so would leave the crucial city of Athens at the mercy of the advancing Persian army.

The Spartan King, Leonidas, made a decision. He and the three-hundred Spartan hoplites he had brought with him would fight until the end, allowing the Athenians time to embark on ships and flee their city. The rest of the Greeks were ordered to live to fight another day. All except the Spartans, and a seven-hundred strong contingent from the city of Thespiae which also elected to stand and fight, departed. The next day, the Persians killed all the remaining defenders. Yet their sacrifice was a success; the Athenians escaped the advancing Persian army and the last stand of the Spartans reinvigorated the war effort. A year later, in 479 B.C., the Spartan led alliance defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, effectively ending the Persian invasion of mainland Greece. Although many cities contributed to the eventual victory, credit was primarily given to Sparta, the de facto leader of the alliance. When it came time to erect a victory monument, there was no question which city-state should be appear at the top of the list of allies.

Victory in the Persian Wars gave the Spartans an aura of invincibility. All surviving records of ancient Sparta were written decades after Thermopylae, and it is difficult to argue that this event coloured the view of later historians, and led to them retrospectively assigning Sparta a reputation that, in reality, the city did not possess before the Persian Wars. Nor is it entirely clear that Sparta lived up to its legend after Plataea. Soon, Sparta and Athens, former allies, began to quarrel with one another. From 460 to 404 B.C., the two fought a series of conflicts known as the Peloponnesian Wars, in which both jostled to become Greece’s premier power. The Athenians were certainly wary of Spartan prowess; the famed statesman Pericles was convinced that if his city ever attempted to face the Spartan army directly, it would lose the war. Accordingly, he devised a strategy based on harrying the Spartan coast and hiding the Athenian army behind strong city walls.

After the death of Pericles, however, Athens went on the offensive and enjoyed spectacular successes. In 425 B.C., around four-hundred Spartans were trapped on the island of Sphacteria. Most assumed that, like Leonidas and his men, they would fight to the last. Instead, they surrendered. Greece was amazed, and the historian Thucydides wrote that “this event caused much more surprise among the Greeks than anything else that had happened in the war”, since “the general impression had been that Spartans would never surrender their arms”. The captured Spartans were then used as hostages, and Athens was able to force concessions from its rival.

Sparta eventually defeated Athens – not through the skill of its mighty hoplites, but rather by allying with the Persians and having them fund the construction of an armada. With this new fleet, the Spartans besieged the Athenians by land and by sea. The starved Athenians surrendered and, after decades of destruction, Sparta emerged hegemon of the Greek world. Yet it was not to last. Sparta began a war with the city state of Thebes, assuming they would defeat their rival with relative ease. At Leuctra, a Spartan army encountered a smaller Theban force and engaged them. All predicted that the Spartans, known for fighting even when hopelessly outnumbered, would crush the Thebans, who had no great reputation for military skill.

Yet the Thebans had other plans. Custom dictated that the strongest and most skilled hoplites were placed on the far right end of their formation, which meant that when two phalanxes engaged one another, each army would rout the other’s left. Then, the two right flanks wheeled to face one another. At Leuctra, Spartans, as was tradition, took up position on the right end of their phalanx, placing their weaker allies on the left.

The Theban leader, Epaminondas, however, devised a new stratagem. He gathered his best soldiers on his left, and made that flank several ranks deeper than was usual. The weaker Theban right was told to advance slowly, so they would not come into direct contact with the Spartan allies. The Spartans were expecting the first stage of the battle to be a relatively simple affair, assuming they were facing the weakest Theban hoplites. They could not understand, therefore, the ferocity with which their enemy fought, or how there could be so many of them. Confused, the Spartans fled. When their allies saw the legendary Spartans throwing down their shields, they panicked and fled the field as well. The era of Spartan hegemony ended that day.

Theban tactics at Leuctra were later refined by Philip II of Macedon, who then established his northern kingdom as the master of Greece. One by one, the Macedonians picked off the Greek city states, forcing them to submit. Philip sent emissaries to his humbled foe, forcing them to join the League of Corinth, which put their soldiers at his disposal and established Macedonia hegemony. Only Sparta refused to join. An enraged Philip sent messengers to Sparta, threatening that unless Sparta did not prostrate itself before Macedon, he would march his army on the city, and if he conquered it he would butcher every man, woman and child he found. The Spartans responded with one word: if. Spartan courage clearly remained, but by then the losses suffered at Leuctra and the Peloponnesian Wars had combined with a declining birth rate to mean the Spartans no longer had the manpower to properly challenge their rivals. The Macedonians simply ignored the Spartans from then on.

The Spartans had one final moment of the glory. When Pyrrhus of Epirus advanced on Sparta in 272 B.C., the city mustered itself for one final struggle. Apparently, the women of the city, seeing their husbands digging trenches and constructing defences, told the men that they would prepare the fortifications, as it would be wiser for the men to be rested before battle. The Spartans repulsed Pyrrhus, but only with Macedonian aid. The Spartan reputation for discipline and martial prowess endured, and Plutarch, writing in the early 2nd Century A.D., commented on how a variation of the agoge still existed in his day. Yet by then, the glory days of Thermopylae had long since passed, and Sparta was little more than a nostalgic relic of a bygone era.

The legend of Sparta has endured to modern times, to the extent that the adjective Spartan refers to great discipline, courage and harsh living. Yet like all legends, the story of Sparta was greatly exaggerated in the telling. The city certainly covered itself in glory in the years 480 and 479 B.C., to such an extent that it earned the respect of the rest of the Greek world. Greek historians immortalised these years, and retrospectively assigned Sparta a reputation for military brilliance that the city does not actually appear to have possessed before the Persian Wars.

After Thermopylae, other Greeks were wary of facing the Spartans in pitched battle. In a way, this meant that the Spartan reputation for invincibility was self-reinforcing; few armies were willing to battle the Spartan hoplites, ensuring the Spartans faced few opportunities to have their reputation tested and be found wanting. This may be a large part of the reason the Spartans were not bested for more than a hundred and fifty years. An examination of the battles that Sparta did fight reveals that its military record was not especially impressive – much to the surprise of the other Greek cities, who were frequently astonished when they defeated their supposedly undefeatable foes.

In some ways, this shouldn’t be a shock. The Spartans never intended to build a perfect army, their austere social order was designed instead to prevent internal rebellion. They were often somewhat reluctant warriors; the Spartans frequently refused to send armies to help when their allies were being threatened. This was, again, a consequence of the fear the helots engendered in Sparta, since many in the city were concerned of a mass uprising if the army was ever absent for a long period. Far from being a militaristic superstate, Sparta was a city of crippling paranoia that relied more on the ghost of Leonidas than the soldiers it sent to war. 

Herodotus., The Histories

Lazenby, J., 1985. The Spartan Army. Aris and Philipps

Plutarch., Moralia

Plutarch., Life of Pelopidas

Soudas., The Suda

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

Tyrtaeus., The Spartan Creed