This week, the part you have all been waiting for – we’re going to look at how the Spartans fought. This is part six of our series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, Gloss., Retrospective) looking at Sparta and its place in cultural memory. As we discussed briefly before, there are two core myths in the Spartan mystique, the myth of Spartan equality, and the myth of Spartan military excellence. We have spent the last four weeks examining the former and found it badly wanting.
Of course, the myth of Spartan equality isn’t what guarantees Sparta’s place in popular culture. Sure, academics and op-ed writers might discuss Spartan society, but we don’t make movies and video games about Spartan society (perhaps we should – they’d be distressing dystopias, but there’s a market for that these days). We make movies and video games about Spartan warriors. And to a lot of folks, that’s all that matters – the child abuse, brutality, slavery, demographic collapse and all the rest becomes somehow ‘worth it‘ if that results in Sparta producing the ‘best’ warriors.
Now, clearly, I object to this position strenuously. What honor is gained by a mighty defense of a horrific, inhuman system? But so much of the Spartans’ fame – whatever the condition of life they protected – is wrapped up in their reputation as warriors.
Spartans are supposed to be warriors, maybe the ultimate warriors. Or perhaps total warriors, whatever that means (as best I can tell, it means ‘mediocre hack-and-slash,’ which, as we’ll see, is oddly appropriate). What to call your one-man army super-soldier? Obvious you call him a Spartan. Or John Spartan.
And all of that is before we get here:
The image of Sparta and the Spartans that is being presented here has a few interlocking parts. We’re going to take those parts and break them up separately so that we can test them one by one against the ancient evidence. In particular, we want to test the ideas:
- That the Spartan phalanx was qualitatively different and better – in organization, discipline, or combat capabilities – than the phalanxes of other Greek poleis or even other ancient states.
- That the individual Spartan – or just spartiate – was some sort of ideal or ultimate warrior individually.
- That – as a consequence of the previous two – the Spartans had the best army in Greece and a very high quality army by the standards of the ancient world.
So now it’s the myth of Spartan military excellence’s turn to be put to the test. I want to be clear that this week’s analysis is a pound-for-pound battle-analysis – we’ll look at strategy, logistics and scale next week when we close out the series. Today is all about winning battles, which, as we’ll see next week, is a far cry from winning wars or achieving grand strategic objectives.
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So grab your shields, pick up your spears, put on your helmets, because it’s time to have some hoplite battles.
All Together Now
In 300, when the Spartans arrive at Thermopylae, Leonidas gives a speech to Ephialtes (changed from a local shepherd into a Lacedaemonian hypomeiones for some reason) about the strength of the Spartan phalanx. Each hoplite in the formation – hoplite being the term for the Greek heavy infantryman who carried the aspis shield (the term hoplite coming from hopla, ‘equipment’ and meaning something like ‘fully equipped man’) – covered not only himself, but the man to his left with his shield. 300 presents this as somehow uniquely Spartan – when the Arcadians finally fight they are “more brawlers than warriors; they make a wondrous mess of things” compared to the Spartans.
(Pedantry note: I am, of course, aware of the debate among Greek historians about the nature of the phalanx. I hold – with some modifications – the ‘orthodox’ view on the hoplite phalanx (more Western Way of War and less Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities) and so that’s what you’ll get here. Don’t worry if that means nothing to you – it’s just there to inform the handful of people who care. This argument is unchanged in either case.)
This impression – that the hoplite somehow belongs to Sparta – is reinforced by the way that objects, like the Corinthian helmet, the round Greek aspis shield (those Spartan obstacle course races use both!), sometimes even the complete hoplite panoply (note: panoply means “all the gear” and refers to the complete set of equipment, in this case, of a hoplite), have been assimilated not as Greek imagery but as Spartan imagery in popular culture. I’ve seen more bad web-articles than I can count where this stuff is describes as ‘Spartan’ equipment, as if the rest of the Greeks carried something different.
This…is nonsense. The hoplite phalanx was the common fighting style of essentially all Greek poleis. It was not unique to Sparta.
That comes with all sorts of implications. The Spartans used the same military equipment as all of the other Greeks: a thrusting spear (the dory), a backup sword (a xiphos or kopis; pop-culture tends to give Spartans the kopis because it looks cool, but there is no reason to suppose they preferred it), body armor (either textile or a bronze breastplate), one of an array of common Greek helmet styles, and possibly greaves. We might expect the spartiates – being essentially very wealthy Greeks – to have equipment on the high end of the quality scale, but the perioikoi, and other underclasses who fought with (and generally outnumbered) the spartiates will have made up the normal contingent of ‘poor hoplites’ probably common for any polis army.
Xenophon somewhat oddly stops to note that the spartiates were to carry a bronze shield (kalken aspida; Xen. Lac. 11.3 – this is sometimes translated ‘brass’ – it is the same word in Greek – but all Greek shield covers I know of are bronze). This is not the entire shield, as in 300 – that would be far too heavy – but merely a thin (c. 0.25mm) facing on the shield. It’s odd that Xenophon feels the need to tell us this, because this was standard for Greek shields. Perhaps poorer hoplites couldn’t afford the bronze facing and used a cheaper material (very thin leather, essentially parchment, is common in many other shield traditions) and Xenophon is merely noting that all of the spartiates were wealthy enough to afford the fancy and expensive sort of shield (it has also been supposed that elements of this passage have dropped out and it would have originally included a complete panoply, in which case Xenophon is just uncharacteristically belaboring the obvious).
The basics of the formation – spacing, depth and so on – also seem to have been essentially the same. The standard depth for a hoplite phalanx seems to have been eight (-ish; there’s a lot of variation). The Spartans seemed to have followed similar divisions with a fairly wide range of depths, perhaps trending towards thinner lines in the fourth century than in the fifth, though certainty here is difficult. The drop in depth may be a consequence of manpower depletion, but it may also indicate a greater faith held by Spartan commanders of their line’s ability to hold. Depth in a formation is often about morale – the deeper formation feels safer, which improves cohesion.
It’s hard to say if the Spartan phalanx was more cohesive. It might have been, at least for the spartiates. The lifestyle of the spartiates likely created close bonds which might have aided in holding together in the stress of combat – but then, this was true of essentially every Greek polis to one degree or another. The best I can say on this point is that the Spartan battle record – discussed at length below – argues against any large advantage in cohesion.
That said, the Spartan battle order does seem to have been notably different in two respects:
First: it had a much higher ratio of officers to regular soldiers. This was clearly unusual and more than one ancient source remarks on the fact (Thuc. 5.68; Xen. Lac. 11.4-5, describing what may be slightly different command systems). Each file was under the command of the man in front of it (Xen. Lac. 11.5). Six files made an enomotia (commanded by an enomotarchos); two of these put together were commanded by a pentekonter (lit: commander of fifty, although he actually had 72 men under his command); two of those form a lochos (commanded by a lochagos) and four lochoi made a mora, commanded by a polemarchos (lit: war-leader) – there were six of these in Xenophon’s time. Compared to most Greek armies of the time, that’s a lot of officer, which leads to:
Second: it seems to have been able to maneuver somewhat more readily than a normal phalanx. This follows from the first. Smaller tactical subdivisions with more command personnel made the formation more agile. Xenophon clearly presents this ability as exceptional, and it does seem to have been (Xen. Lac. 11.4). Hoplite armies victorious on one flank often had real trouble reorganizing those victorious troops and wheeling them to flank and roll up the rest of the line (e.g. the Athenians at Delium, Thuc. 4.96.3-4). The Spartans were rather better at this (e.g. at Mantinea, Thuc. 5.73.1-4). They also seem to have been better at marching and moving in time.
Now, I do not want to over-sell this point. We’re comparing the Spartans to other hoplite forces which – in the fifth century especially – were essentially dumbfire missiles. The general (or generals) point the phalanx at the enemy, hit ‘go’ and then hope for the best. Really effective command – what Everett Wheeler refers to as the general as ‘battle manager’ – really emerges in the fourth century, mostly after Spartan power was already broken (E. Wheeler, “The General as Hoplite” in Armies of classical Greece, ed. Wheeler (2007)). While ‘right wing, left wheel’ is hardly the most complicated of maneuvers (especially given that the predictable rightward drift of hoplite armies in battle meant that it could be planned for), compared to the limitations of most hoplite forces, it marked the Spartans out as unusually adept.
More complicated Spartan maneuvers often went badly. Spartan forces at Plataea (479 – Hdt. 9.53) failed to effectively redeploy under orders, precipitating an unintended engagement. Plugging a gap in the line once the advance was already underway, but before battle was joined (something Roman armies do routinely) was also apparently beyond the capabilities of a Spartan army (Thuc. 5.72). While the Spartans are often shown in popular culture with innovative tactical formations – like the anti-cavalry wedge or anti-missile shield-ball (both of which, to be clear, are nonsense) formations in 300 – in practice the Spartan army was tactically uncreative. Like every other hoplite army, the Spartans formed a big rectangle of men and smashed it into the front of the enemy’s big rectangle of men. Notably, as we’ll see, the Spartans made limited and quite poor use of other arms, like light infantry or cavalry, even compared to other Greek poleis (and the bar here is very low, Greek combined arms, compared to say, Roman or Macedonian or Persian combined arms, was dismal). If anything, the Spartans were less adaptable than other hoplites.
So, on the one hand, compared to other Greek hoplite phalanxes of the fourth and early third centuries, the Spartans were, perhaps, half a step above the rest. On the other hand, compared to say, a Hellenistic Macedonian phalanx – which might, say, open ranks, admit light infantry, close ranks and then form square all while under attack (Magnesia, App. Syr. 35) – Spartan tactical flexibility and maneuver was hardly impressive (and, the Roman specialist in me must note, compared to the Roman legion, even the Macedonian sarissa-phalanx was itself rigid and unresponsive, Plb. 18.31-32).
Part of this, to be fair, is about time – tactical sophistication increases quite a bit from 500 to 50 B.C. But that’s the thing about judging the Spartans – the claim is often not “they were a couple of strokes better than par for their day” but rather “they were the best ever.” As we’ll see, this second statement is pretty clearly nonsense – the Spartans manage a profoundly disappointing 0-and-2 record against the Macedonian phalanx (plus one ‘no contest’ where they let Philip II just walk all over them without a fight). They were thus quite clearly second best at most even in the limited pool of “Greek speaking armies in Classical antiquity.”
Instead, what we might say is that the Spartans phalanx was, in most respects, just like every other Greek hoplite phalanx, with the addition that Spartan command and coordination was somewhat better, but hardly excellent by the broader standards of antiquity.
Well, if the Spartan phalanx is only moderately more flexible than any other polis, perhaps the Spartans are just amazing individually. The ‘one man army’ Spartan shows up in popular culture a fair bit – especially in video-games (like Spartan: Total Warrior, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or even God of War, all of which feature a lone Spartan warrior taking on armies). 300 indulges in this too – after just a few moments of actually fighting in the formation for which they are known, the Spartans break out of the phalanx into cool slow-motion fight sequences.
The Spartans did not fight like this.
The first problem is that the equipment of the Spartans – or indeed any hoplite – was simply not conducive to this fighting style. Now there is some debate about how limiting the weight of hoplite arms are, but they definitely were limiting, the question is how much.
The biggest culprit is the hoplite shield itself, the aspis. The grip system of the aspis is based on two straps, one down the center of the shield, which rests on the elbow, and another at the edge of the shield, gripped by the hand. That means that, when held out in front, the shield is ‘off center’ to the hoplite (who is not standing straight-on, but turned with his side towards the enemy). Compare center-grip shields like the Roman scutum or the Anglo-Saxon/Viking round shield, which are much easier to handle. Even later double-strap grip medieval shields shift the point of balance of the shield away from the elbow and towards the forearm. The result of this is that the aspis is just not a great shield in an individual fight; it isn’t worthless, but if you wanted a solo-shield, you could surely design something better (and the Greeks did, with the pelte and later the thureos used for light troops expected to fight individually). What it is amazing at is, of course, fighting in groups with mutually overlapping shields.
That grip system means that – unlike a center-grip shield – the aspis cannot easily be brought around to protect the right-hand side of the body. This is made worse because Greek forms of body armor, either the linothorax or bronze breastplates, somewhat limit the ability to twist the upper body. This system also limit the ability to use the shield itself as a weapon – the best a hoplite can do is a ‘door open’ slam, swinging their arm out, which exposes their entire body and isn’t that strong of a strike either. In contrast, a Roman with a scutum – a shield well suited to individual combat – can strike with the boss of the shield (essentially punching with 20lbs of iron-knuckles) or with the (metal) rim…all without opening up his body to new lines of attack.
The weight of high-end hoplite equipment – the sort that an elite like the spartiates might use – makes this problem worse. There has been some debate on this point – how restricting was the weight of hoplite armor and the related question of if there was a lighter form of the panoply, but I think Adam Schwartz (Reinstating the Hoplite (2009), 25-101) is largely correct: heavy hoplite armor was largely unsuited for mobile, individual fighting, but extremely well suited for fighting in formation. Subsequent reduction in the weight and vision/hearing restriction of that kit ameliorated this difficulty somewhat, but never removed it completely.
So the Spartans, like all hoplites, were oriented very strongly towards group combat. The one-man-army is simply not how they fight, nor how they ever intended to fight.
Well, ok, perhaps they fight in groups, but are individually better at it. There is something to this. Multiple sources – most notably Xenophon stresses the greater degree of physical fitness that the spartiates display (Xen. Lac. 4.5, 5.9). The spartiates were rich after all, so they were well fed and able to build muscle accordingly; they also had a pretty active life-style (mostly things like sport-hunting) and kept athletically active. Chances are the average spartiate was thus larger and fitter than the average hoplite – although again, the other Lakedaemonians in the phalanx (perioikoi, hypomeiones, mothakes, neodamodes, even helots fighting as hoplites) would probably balance out this effect to at least some degree (more strongly as time went on and the number of spartiates shrunk!)
But what about martial skills and combat expertise? The fact is, there isn’t much evidence for a Spartan military training regime – certainly nothing like what the Romans had, or even what later Hellenistic Greek poleis set up. We’ve already discussed the agoge and you will note that at no point did swordsmanship, spear-use, shield use, or anything of the like come up. There is, to be fair, some mock battles with fennel stalks in place of spears and some war-dances which may have served to mimic combat, but the agoge isn’t a training program, it’s an indoctrination program. Plutarch and Xenophon – who describe it – are quite clear on this: the point is to produce men who are obedient to the laws and subservient to the community (Xen. Lac. 2.10-11; Plut. Lyc. 25.3). Any advantages to military quality are evidently secondary (e.g. Xen. Lac. 2.7).
Xenophon himself notes – in the words of Cyrus (who he presents as an ideal ruler) – that hoplite-style warfare in close-combat required little practice (Xen. Cyrop. 2.1.9-16). And I want to stress two things about this statement: first that Xenophon had seen a lot of hoplite battle when he knew this and was in a position to know and second that he had also seen a lot of Sparta. It is hard to imagine Xenophon – with his Laconophilia – saying that practice for hoplites was unimportant if the Spartans had relied on it heavily. Nevertheless, there he is, saying that all of the movements a hoplite actually needed to perform – blocking with the shield, striking with spear or sword – were instinctive and did not need to be taught or practiced.
Plato provides our first solid evidence for the hoplomachia – practice drills in hoplite warfare – but immediately suggests through the person of Laches that the Spartans, specifically do not practice it (Plat. Lach. 182d-183a), because they think it doesn’t work. There is clearly some practicing with arms in Sparta as elsewhere in Greece (see J. K. Anderson, Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon (1970), 84-93 for the best discussion of the evidence; note also Wheeler, “Hoplomachia and Greek Dances in Arms” (1982)), but it never approaches the formal weapons drills we see from the Romans, or the complex fighting systems of the late Middle Ages. Nor does Sparta appear to be meaningfully exceptional in this regard; they seem to be exactly as tutored – or untutored – as all the other Greeks.
Nor may we rely on the assumption that the Spartan has more battle experience than his foes. The fact is that Greek poleis went to war fairly regularly and that they tended to bring most of their hoplite class out to battle when they did and as such most Greeks of the hoplite class from anywhere will have likely experienced combat. The Spartans are not unique in this and it is not clear that Sparta fights more often – they murder helots more often, sure, but this is hardly effective preparation for open battle.
(The contrast with Rome is again instructive. Sparta is intermittently at war, but the Roman Republic is continuously at war for all but six years out of five centuries, with the average Roman citizen probably spending upwards of seven years under arms – and this is before the professionalization of the legion. The average Roman free-holding farmer (the technical term is assidui) of the Middle Republic might truthfully have considered Leonidas and his 300 as amateurish by comparison.)
So what can we conclude? Well, the Spartiates are probably, on the whole, better nourished and fitter than their average opponent. If they have an edge in weapons training, it is fairly small – some sort of martial arts experts or superlative weapon-masters they are not. Which, of course they aren’t; the way they fight doesn’t require them to be. Hoplite fighting was never about individual martial excellence or skill, but about holding a position in the formation, supporting and being supported in turn by the shields of the men around you. The hoplite didn’t need to be a spear-master and evidently – we must agree with Xenophon – gained little from becoming so.
Spartan Season Batting Average
So what we’ve seen is that the Spartans had a significant, but not overwhelming, advantage in organization and perhaps a slight advantage in individual quality. But in most respects, the Spartan phalanx was a phalanx like any other. So how good were they? Put another way: how impactful were these advantages?
Surely, if the Spartans were as good at fighting as our popular media and popular opinion make them out to be, they must at least win almost all of their battles, right? Let’s test that, shall we? Below, I have listed roughly forty battles involving the Spartans – some large, some small – in the period between 500 B.C. and 323 B.C. I haven’t chosen this period by accident – it represents the best and most sustained period for our evidence, reducing the chance of major battles being ‘missed’ because our sources don’t know about them. It also represents a big chunk of the run of the Spartan state. It is not an exhaustive list, but I think I’ve managed to catch all of the major battles and many of the significant minor battles (and even some insignificant ones!).
The goal here in particular is to test how the Spartans fight against peer competitors, meaning primarily other poleis or at least other states (I’ve included battles against Persia and Macedon as well). Because we want to know how Sparta stacks up against other states, I am excluding battles against the helots – Sparta gains no advantage by having frequent (but easily suppressed) slave revolts.
(The format here is Date – [Battle Name] – Result; I’ve included indications where the Spartans were in a pan-Greek coalition and where the battle was at sea. For some of the more obscure battles, I’ve included text references.)
- 494 – Battle of Sepeia – Victory over the Argives
- 480 – Battle of Thermopylae – Defeat against the Persians (Coalition)
- 480 – Battle of Artemesium – Draw/Defeat against the Persians (Coalition), Naval Battle
- 480 – Battle of Salamis – Victory over the Persians (Coalition; Minimal Spartan involvement), Naval Battle
- 479 – Battle of Plataea – Victory over the Persians (Coalition)
- 479 – Battle of Mycale – Victory of the Persians (Coalition)
- 4?? (early) – Battle of Tegea – Victory over Tegea (Hdt. 9.35.2)
- 4?? (early) – Battle of Dipaea – Victory over Tegea and Arcadia (Hdt. 9.35.2)
- 457 – Battle of Tanagra – Victory/Draw over Athens and Argos (note: effects undone within the year due to heavy Spartan losses which result in Spartan withdrawal. With the sack of Gythion, Thuc. 1.108.3-4, war ends in a draw)
- 427 – Siege of Plataea – Victory over Plataea
- 426 – Battle of Olpae – Defeat against Athens (Thuc. 3.108)
- 425 – Battle of Pylos/Sphacteria – Defeat against Athens
- 422 – Battle of Amphipolis – Victory over Athens
- 418 – Battle of Mantinea – Victory over Athenian/Argive Coalition
- 418/7 – Battle of Hysiae – Victory over Argos
- 417 – Battle of Ornaea – Defeat against Athenian/Argive Coalition
- 411 – Battle of Syme – Victory over Athens, Naval Battle
- 411 – Battle of Eretria – Victory over Athens, Naval Battle
- 411 – Battle of Cynossema – Defeat against Athens, Naval Battle
- 411 – Battle of Abydos – Defeat against Athens, Naval Battle
- 410 – Battle of Cyzicus – Defeat against Athens, Naval Battle
- 406 – Battle of Notium – Victory over Athens, Naval Battle
- 406 – Battle of Mytilene – Victory over Athens, Naval Battle
- 406 – Battle of Arginusae – Defeat against Athens, Naval Battle
- 405 – Battle of Aegospotami – Victory over Athens, Naval Battle (wins the Peloponnesian War)
- 395 – Battle of Haliartus – Defeat against Thebes
- 394 – Battle of Nemea – Victory over Theban/Argive/Athenian/Corinthian Coalition
- 394 – Battle of Coronea – Victory over Theban/Argive Coalition
- 394 – Battle of Cnidus – Defeat against Persia, Naval Battle
- 391 – Battle of Lechaeum – Defeat against Athens
- 382 – Battle of Olynthus I – Draw/Defeat against Olynthus (Xen. Hell. 5.2.35-43; The Spartans attempt to siege Olynthus, are engaged by the Olynthian cavalry, chase it off, but are too damaged to maintain the siege and withdraw – I count this as a draw/defeat, even though the Spartans erected a victory trophy, because they did not achieve their operational objective)
- 381 – Battle of Olynthus II – Defeat against Olynthus (Xen. Hell. 5.3.3-7; the Spartan army from Olynthus I tries again and is annihilated in the effort)
- 376 – Battle of Naxos – Defeat against Athens, Naval Battle
- 375 – Battle of Tegyrae – Defeat against Thebes
- 371 – Battle of Leuctra – Defeat against Thebes (Messenian helots freed)
- 368 – Tearless Battle – Victory over Arcadian/Argive/Messenian Coalition
- 362 – Battle of 2nd Mantinea – Defeat against Thebes
- 338/7 – Philip II of Macedon marches on Sparta and seizes territory, no battle takes place because no serious Spartan resistance is offered.
- 331 – Battle of Megalopolis – Defeat against Macedon
Phew, ok. That list is big and intimidating. Let’s give some basic figures. First off, the total batting average (counting victory/draw as .5 of a victory and draw/defeat as .5 of a defeat, with each also being .5 of a draw):
Spartan Victories: 18.5
Spartan Defeats: 18
Spartan Batting Average (victories/battles): 0.486
Sparta wins slightly more battles than it loses, but the borderline cases are enough to push Sparta below coin-flip odds. Breaking it down as percentages win/lose/draw, it runs 48.7%/47.4%/3.9% (figures rounded; please note that Philip’s invasion in 338 is not counted in this math, since no battle took place, meaning the above list has 38 battles, not 39. Counting it as a defeat (no contest) would put the Spartans properly underwater, with more defeats than victories. The Spartan record against Macedon is worse: Sellasia (222) falls outside of my date brackets, but is a crushing Macedonian victory. Sparta never actually defeats a Macedonian field army, the Spartans lose every time).
Maybe the problem is naval battles? After all, the Spartans never had a reputation for naval excellence – what happens if we remove those? We get 12 victories, 11.5 defeats and 0.5 draws, the balance functionally unchanged. Removing battles where Sparta was in a pan-Greek coalition actually hurts their average, since it removes 3 victories, but only 1.5 defeats and 0.5 draws. It didn’t take Spartans to defeat Persian armies, after all, the Athenians did just fine on their own at Marathon.
In short: Sparta’s overall military performance is profoundly average over the Classical period. They don’t even manage a winning record!
But wait, I hear the cry, the Spartans are supposed to be better! But their record is within a rounding error of a coin-flip!? How is that possible when everything we are told about the Spartans is about how they are superlative warriors?
Herodotus and his Mirror
The answer is actually – for once – neatly summed up by a line from 300: “And of course, Spartans have their reputation to consider.” The greatest military asset the Spartans had was not actual military excellence – although, again, Spartan capabilities seem to have been somewhat better than average – but the perception of military excellence.
Herodotus seems to be at the start of it, at least in our sources – he relates a story where, after an embarrassing failure in an effort to reduce tiny Tegea to helotage (the Tegeans kicked the Spartan’s asses) in the mid-sixth century, the Spartans supposedly stole the bones of the hero Orestes. Consequently, Herodotus notes, the Spartans were from that point on able to always beat Tegea and subdued the Peloponnese (Hdt. 1.68), resulting in the creation of the Spartan led Peloponnesian League. The unbeatable Spartans thus appear. It’s possible the Spartan reputation predated this, but – as we’ll see – Herodotus will be the one who codifies that reputation and cements it.
Except, hold on a minute – how hard was it to subdue the Peloponnese? It seems to have been done with a fairly adept mix of diplomacy and military force (champion one side in a local dispute, beat the other, force both into your alliance, repeat, see Kennell (2010), 51-3 for details). But it is little surprise that Sparta would be dominant in the Peloponnese. Messenia and Laconia together was around 2,600 square miles or so. This is – if you’ll pardon the expression – flippin’ massive by the standards of Greek poleis. More than twice as large as the next largest polis in all of Greece (Athens). Sparta is fully one-third of the Peloponnese (the peninsula Sparta is located on). The remaining two-thirds is home to many other poleis – Corinth, Argos, Elis, Tegea, Mantinea, Troezen, Sicyon, Lepreum, Aigeira and on and on. Needless to say, Sparta was several times larger than all of them – only Corinth and Argos came even remotely close in size. The population differences seem to have roughly followed land area. Sparta was just much, MUCH larger and more powerful than any nearby state by the start of the fifth century.
Sparta thus spends the back half of the 500s as the teenager beating up all of the little kids in the sandbox and making himself leader. When you are upwards of three times larger (and in some cases, upwards of ten times larger) than your rivals, a reputation for victory should not be hard to achieve. And, in the event, it turns out it wasn’t.
Which brings us back to Herodotus (remember, way back in the first of these, I said we’d talk about Herodotus?) because he isn’t just observing the Spartan reputation, Herodotus is manufacturing the Spartan reputation. Herodotus is our main source for early Greek history (read: pre-480) and for the two Persian invasions of Greece. Herodotus’ Histories cover a range of places and topics – Persia, Greece, Scythia, Egypt – and contain a mixture of history, ethnography, mythology and straight up falsehoods. But – as François Hartog famously pointed out in his The Mirror of Herodotus (originally in French as Le Miroir d’Hérodote), Herodotus is writing about Greece, even when he is writing about Persia – those other cultures and places exist to provide contrasts to the things that Herodotus thinks bind all of the fractious and fiercely independent Greek poleis. And he is perfectly willing to manufacture the past to make it fit that vision.
Sparta has a role to play in that narrative: the well-governed polis, a bastion of freedom, ever opposed to tyranny, be it Greek or Persian. We’ll come back to Sparta’s… let’s say relationship… with Persian ‘tyranny’ next week. But for Herodotus, Sparta is the expression of an ideal form of ‘Greekness’ and in Herodotus’ logic, being well-governed (eunomia is the Greek term) results primarily in military excellence. For the story Herodotus is telling to work, Sparta – as one of the leading states resisting Persia – must be well governed and it must be military excellent. That’s what will make a good story – and Herodotus never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.
(Sidenote: Athens – at least post-Cleisthenic Athens – gets this treatment too. Athens ends up embodying a different set of ‘Greek’ virtues and where Sparta shows its prowess on land, the Athenians do so at sea.)
And so, Herodotus – the myth-maker – talks up the Spartiates at Thermopylae (you know, the brave 300) and quietly leaves out the other Laconians (who, if you scrutinize his numbers, he knows must be there, to the tune of c. 900 men), downplaying the other Greeks. Spartan leadership is lionized, even when it makes stupid mistakes (Thermopylae, to be clear, was a military disaster and Spartan intransigence nearly loses the battle of Plataea, but Herodotus represents this as boldness in the face of the enemy; even more fantastically inept was the initial Spartan plan to hold on the Isthmus of Corinth as if no one had ever seen a boat before).
These Shields Will Deceive You
The spin worked. Herodotus’ work was well known, even in antiquity, and he set the tone for all subsequent retellings of the Persian wars (despite the frequent complaints by later ancient authors that Herodotus’ reliability was – let’s say, complicated. I don’t want to give the wrong impression: Herodotus is a valuable source, just one that – like all sources – has his own agenda at play). The Spartan reputation thus seems to be the product of half a century spent fighting far, far weaker opponents, combined with one very skilled propagandist with an agenda.
That reputation was already deeply held even by the early stages of the Peloponnesian War, such that Thucydides notes that “Nothing that happened in the war so shocked the Greeks so much as” the surrender of 120 Spartiates at Pylos/Sphacteria, instead of dying with their weapons in their hands (Thuc. 4.40.1). The Athenians had, in the event, managed to trap a force of Spartans – spartiates and other Laconians – on an island and harassed them with arrow fire from a distance, never closing with them, until the Spartans surrendered. This is, I must stress, in the context of a war that obliterated entire poleis, shredded the diplomatic fabric of Greece and was by far the largest war between Greeks that any of them knew of. But this, the shattering – if just for a moment – of the Spartan reputation, that was what shocked people. The image of Sparta – whatever the reality – was that deeply set.
Thucydides, amusingly, relates that some Greeks were so shocked that they couldn’t believe it, and one ally of Athens inquired to the spartiates – then held as captives in Athens – if perhaps what had happened was that all of the brave men (you know, the real spartiates) had been felled by the arrows, to which the Spartans responded, “an arrow would be worth a great deal if it could pick out noble and good men from the rest, in allusion to the fact that the killed were those whom the stones and the arrows happened to hit” (Thuc. 4.40.2).
To be fair, the Spartans seemed to have leaned into Herodotus’ image of them as the best warriors in all of Greece and the eternal opponents of all kinds of tyranny. Spartan ‘messaging’ in the war against Athens portrayed Athens itself as a ‘tyrant city’ ruling over the rest of Greece (which was, to be fair, pretty accurate at the time). Likewise, the image of military excellence the Spartans put forward is picked up and represented clearly in the writings of Xenophon, Plato, Aristophanes and Thucydides (though he is, at least, more skeptical that the Spartans are supermen) and in turn picked up and magnified by later writers (Diodorus, Plutarch, etc) who rely on them. Other states sought out Spartan military advisors, famously Syracuse (advised by the mothax Gylippus) and Carthage (by Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary).
That reputation could be a real military advantage. Greek hoplite armies arranged themselves right-to-left according to the status of each polis’ army (poleis almost always fight in alliances). Since Sparta was always the leader of its alliance, the Spartan king and his force always took the right – opposite the weakest part of the enemy army. You may easily imagine the men facing the Spartans – they know the Spartan reputation for skill (and do not have the advantage of me telling them it is mostly hogwash) and by virtue of where they are standing know that they do not have the same reputation. Frequently, such match-ups resulted in the other side running away before the Spartans even got into spear’s reach (e.g. Thuc 5.72.4).
There’s a story in Xenophon, embedded in the larger Battle of Lechaeum, which I think illustrates the point well. Early on, the Argives (the men of Argos, always the enemy of Sparta) meet and rout a group of Sicyonians (who are allies of Sparta). A passing Spartan cavalry company under a Pasimachus sees this and rushes in; getting off of their horses, they grab the Sicyon shields (marked with the city’s sigma) and advance against the Argives. But whereas later in the battle the arrival of the Spartans will trigger panic and retreat, here the Argives do not know they are fighting Spartans (because of the shields) – and so they advance with confidence; Pausimachus with his small force is crushed. As he attacks Pausimachus declared (according to Xenophon), “By the two gods, Argives, these Sigmas will deceive you” (Xen. Hell. 4.4.10; the ‘two gods’ or ‘twin gods’ here are Castor and Pollux).
I rather think that Pausimachus was deceived by the lambda his own shield may have carried (there is debate about if Spartan shields always had the lambda device, I tend to think they did not). Pausimachus expected to surprise the Argives with his Spartan skill. Instead, he found out – fatally – that the magic was never in the Spartan, it was in the image of Sparta that lived in the mind of his opponent.
The Myth of Spartan Military Excellence
So what have we found?
Sparta had a formidable military reputation, but their actual battlefield performance hardly backed it up. During the fifth and fourth centuries, Sparta lost as often as it won. Spartan battlefield tactics were a bit better than other Greek poleis, but this is damning with faint praise. The spartiates themselves were mostly like every other group of wealthy Greek hoplites. But the Spartan military reputation was extremely valuable – the loss of that reputation during the Peloponnesian War does much to explain the rough decades Sparta would experience following its end.
That is one of the core things we can learn from Sparta: a reputation for military excellence can often be more valuable than the excellence itself – real or imagined. A powerful army can only fight one battle at a time, but the idea of a powerful army can intimidate any number of enemies all at once. As we’ll see next week, when Sparta was forced to turn from intimidation to force, it ran out of force with frightening speed.
Those who have been here for a while may already be wondering, “Wait, though – this is the guy who is always telling us that winning battles isn’t as important as achieving strategic objectives and who is always on about logistics and operations! What about that?” I think that actually goes a long way to explaining how an army with a modest advantage in tactics and organization ends up without a winning record. We’ll get into the limitations of Spartan strategy, operations and logistics next week.
But before we go there, I want to stress something here: the horrors of Spartan society cannot be justified on the grounds they produced superior soldiers, because they quite evidently did not. Sparta’s actual military record was, in fact, depressingly average. Only the reputation was special; the men were just men.
Next week, for the last post in this series, we’re going to zoom out a bit and look at the operational and strategic layers – because there is more to war than just battles. How well did Sparta coordinate operations, handle logistics, deal with sieges, finance and the other challenges of maintaining military activity? And how well did all of this military activity and diplomacy actually achieve the objectives of the Spartan state? And what might we take from all of this?