Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part VII: Spartan Ends

This is the seven (and last!) part of our seven part series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) look at Sparta in popular memory and historical truth. Last time we talked about Sparta’s battlefield record and came away noting that it was profoundly, disappointing average. Longer term readers will know, of course, that we can’t judge military effectiveness by battles – the question is always achieving strategic objectives.

Moreover, our last discussion, on Sparta battlefield performance has actually left us with a bit of a puzzle. The Spartans were actually above average compared to other poleis in terms of some of their fighting capabilities, but this did not translate into a winning record. So we can also ask, why? What other deficiencies impaired their performance?

So today we are going to begin zooming out from the purely tactical layer discussed last time to the operational and finally strategic (even grand strategic) layers. Sparta, after all, has a reputation in the popular imagination for effective statecraft, so we are going to ask what goes did the Spartans set for themselves? To what degree did they achieve those goals and to what degree were those goals desirable?

But first, let’s clarify some terms. Military thinking is like ogres are like onions – they have layers.

I am pretty sure this joke dates me worse than basically anything else I have written here, including the repeated 300 references or the fact that I read dead languages and study ancient civilizations.

We break these layers into tactics, operations and strategy. Put very simply, tactics is the layer of military thinking that concerns how an army fights; we discussed this last time. Operations is the layer of thinking that is concerned with getting the army to the fight – large-scale coordination and logistics live here. Strategy is concerned with bigger picture questions: what wars are worth fighting and for what objectives? Grand strategy extends this thinking to cover not only the military, but also political, cultural and economic institutions.

What we are going to do today is first assess Sparta’s operational capabilities – how well they marshal, move and supply armies. Then we’re going to jump up to the strategic layer and assess how well Sparta coordinates ends (the thing you want to achieve) with means (the methods you use to get it). Finally, we are going to assess, one by one, the various strategic objectives sometimes attributed to Sparta: to what degree did the Spartans achieve them, and were they worth achieving?

Spartan Operations

Put simply, Spartan operational capabilities were extremely limited, even by the already low standards of its peers, meaning very large Greek poleis (like Athens or Syracuse).

Greek logistics in this period in general were very limited compared to either Macedonian or Roman logistical capabilities in subsequent centuries, or contemporary Persian logistics capabilities. Ironically, the most sustained study of classical Greek logistics concerns the campaigns of Xenophon (J.W. Lee, A Greek army on the March (2008)), meaning that it concerns not polis amateurs but an army of mercenary professionals, and yet compared to what the Macedonians will be able to do (see D.W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (1978)) half a century later in the same terrain, even these Greek logistics – probably the gold standard of their time – are astoundingly underdeveloped.

Put very briefly: Greek armies seem to have had relatively little carrying or logistics capacity. They did not seem to have generally moved with sufficient engineering tools or materials for effective field fortification or siege warfare. This is compounded by their inability to mill grain on the move (something Macedonian and Roman armies could do), which compounds problems of using local supply. You can eat unmilled grain (it can be roasted or boiled into porridge, but this is less than ideal. What they do tend to have is a high number of non-combat personal servants (precisely the sort of fellows good Roman or Macedonian generals drive out of the camp as soon as possible), who impose additional logistics burdens without much increasing the operational range or endurance of the army. Consequently, Greek armies struggled to stay out in the field throughout the year, whereas Roman and Macedonian armies were routinely capable of year-round campaigning.

(As a side note, you will often still see written in textbooks or popular treatments that Roman armies of the Republic before the second century didn’t/couldn’t stay in the field year-round or that had to go back for the harvest. This does not appear to be the case for Rome; Roman armies seem to have been year-round affairs from a fairly early point, unlike hoplite armies. On this, see N. Rosenstein, Rome at War (2004))

But let’s focus on Sparta.

Perhaps the most obvious example of poor Spartan logistics is their almost comical inability to sustain operations in Attica during the Peloponnesian War. This is, to be clear, not a huge task, in as much as logistics problems go. The main market in Sparta is 230km (c. 140 miles) from the Athenian agora; about a ten-day march, plus or minus. Sparta’s major ally in the war, Corinth, is even closer, only 90km away. The route consists of known and fairly well-peopled lands, and the armies involved are not so large as to have huge logistics problems simply moving through Greece.

During the first phase of the Peloponnesian War, called the Archidamean war, after the Spartan king who conducted it, Sparta invaded Attica functionally every year in an effort to inflict enough agricultural devastation that the Athenians would be forced to come out and fight (we’ll come back to this). The core problem is that it just isn’t possible to do a meaningful amount of damage in the short campaigning season before the army has to go home.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the theatres of the Peloponnesian War. Note the giant red line from Sparta to Athens, and how it is short and direct, where as the blue Athenian lines are super long and indirect. The Spartans still managed to screw up the big, red line. For years.

And I want to be clear just how long they bang their head against this rock. The Spartans invade in 431, siege a minor town, accomplish nothing and leave (Thuc. 2.18-20), and in 430 (Thuc. 2.47), in 429, because of a plague in Athens, they instead siege tiny Plataea (Thuc. 2.71ff) and then leave, but in 428 they’re back at it in Attica (Thuc. 3.1), and in 427 (Thuc. 3.26), and in 426 but turn back early due to earthquakes (Thuc. 3.89). But they’re back again in 425 (Thuc. 4.2), leaving each time when supplies run out. Sparta mounts no attack in 424 because Athenian naval raiding forces them to keep the army at home (Thuc. 4.57); in 423 they have a yearlong truce with Athens (Thuc. 4.117). They only finally suggest the creation of a permanent base in Attica in 422/1 (Thuc. 5.17) but the war ends first (they’ll actually fortify a small outpost, Decelea, only when the war renews in 413).

Thucydides is in several cases (e.g. Thuc. 3.1.3) explicit that what causes these armies to fail and disperse back home is that they run out of supplies. They are two days – on foot! – from a major friendly trade port (Corinth), and they run out of supplies. Their last invasion was six years after their first and they still had not resolved the logistics problem of long-term operations in what is effectively their own backyard.

To be fair, Brasidas – almost certainly the best commander the spartiates themselves ever produced – is able to operate far more freely in northern Greece and Thrace, but he does so with an army that doesn’t have any other spartiates in it. It’s made up primarily of helots and mercenaries (Thuc. 4.80) and is supported locally by forces (the Macedonians in particular) hostile to Athens. For comparison, Athens at the same time is operating as far north as Thrace, as far west as Sparta itself (and later Sicily) and as far east as Lesbos, just off of the coast of Anatolia.

This is one of the reasons – along with the need to suppress the helots and later oliganthropia – that Spartan deployments outside of the Peloponnese often seem so small. Frank Miller’s made-up excuse for the small size of the Spartan contingent at Thermopylae (that they were observing a religious ritual) has penetrated into the popular imagination, but is inaccurate (he is, in fact, transporting forward the Spartan excuse for not attending the Battle of Marathon (490) a decade earlier). The actual reason was likely a mix of logistics limitations as well as (as we’ll see) congenital Spartan strategic myopia.

Pictured: Spartan logistical incompetence. No mules, no wagons, nothing.

All of this is compounded by Spartan economic weakness. Because Sparta produced so little of value, the Spartan state simply lacked the funds to supplement its operational capabilities. It could not afford foreign siege engineers or experts (an increasingly dire liability in the fourth century as Greek siege craft both improved and became more technical) and crucially it could not afford a fleet. Spartan fleets, in the end, will be financed by Persia (we’ll come back to this).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that while Spartan tactics may have been modestly better than most other Greek states, Spartan operations were dismal, placing severe limits on how effectively the Spartan army could be utilized. You may have the best soldiers – and again, Sparta does not appear to have always had the best soldiers – but they are of no use if you cannot get them to the fight, with the equipment (e.g. siege tools, ships) they need to win the fight. A mediocre soldier on the field beats a super-soldier sitting at home, every time.

Strategy: Ends and Means

Let’s move up one more analytical level and discuss strategy.

At the core of strategy is deciding on strategic ends and then coordinating the right means which will actually achieve those goals. For instance, if the strategic goal is to gain control of a key economic population center (read: a city), you don’t want to try to achieve that by, say, carpet bombing – you’ll destroy the very asset you wish to gain even if you win. In this respect, Sparta’s strategic thinking is straight-jacketed to a very narrow model of warfare. Sparta is the fellow in the aphorism that “when all you have is a hammer” but placed in a world of screws.

The hammer Sparta has, of course, is hoplite battle. Sparta seeks to solve almost all of its issues by applying a hoplite phalanx to the problem, regardless of if the problem can be solved by a hoplite phalanx. Spartan strategic thinking is thus marred by both a failure to consider military solutions that did not consist of traditional hoplite battles, as well as an inability to consider or execute non-military solutions at all.

We can see the former weakness in Spartan planning in the Persian Wars. Spartan planning is both direct and unrealistic: find a choke-point, fortify it and hold it indefinately with a hoplite army. Attempted at Thermopylae this plan fails; the Battle of Thermopylae is often represented in popular culture as an intentional delaying action, but it was nothing of the sort – Herodotus is clear that this was supposed to be the decisive land engagement (Hdt. 7.175; Cf. Diodorus 11.4.1-5). The Spartans then attempt to recreate this plan at the Isthmus of Corinth and have to be rescued from their strategic stupidity by the Athenians, who threaten to leave the alliance if the plan isn’t abandoned (Hdt. 8.49-62). A blockade at the Isthmus would be easy for the Persian army to bypass – assuming it didn’t simply defeat it with generally superior Persian siegecraft – and worse yet was a diplomatic disaster given that it meant essentially writing Athens off as a loss, when the Athenian navy provided the bulk of the ships protecting the Isthmus.

Moving forward historically, we have already noted the years after years Sparta would spend invading Athens with hoplite armies which were singularly incapable of actually achieving the strategic objective of bringing Athens to the negotiating table. The problem here is summed up in the concept of a strategic center of gravity – as Clausewitz says (drink!), it is the source of an enemy’s strength and thus the key element of an enemy’s force which must be targeted to achieve victory. The obvious center of gravity for the Athenians was their maritime empire, which provided the tribute that funded their war effort. The Corinthians saw this before the war even started. So long as the tribute rolled in, Athens could fight forever.

It takes Sparta years of fighting Athens to finally recognize this – an effort in 413/2 to support revolts from Athens is pathetically slow and under-funded (Thuc. 8, basically all of it) and it isn’t until Sparta not only allies with Persia but entrusts its fleet to the mothax Lysander that they seriously set about a strategy of cutting Athens’ naval supply lines. This isn’t a one-time affair: Sparta’s inability to coordinate ends and means shows up again in the Corinthian war (e.g. in Argos, Xen. Hell. 4.7), where they are pulled into a debilitating defensive stalemate because the Corinthians won’t come out and fight and the Spartans have no other answers.

This is compounded by the fact that the Spartans are awful at diplomacy. Sparta could be the lynch-pin of a decent alliance of cities when the outside threat was obvious and severe – as in the case of the Persian wars, or the expansion of Athenian hegemony. But otherwise, Sparta consistently and repeatedly alienates allies to its own peril. Spartan leadership at the end of the Persian wars had been so arrogant and hamfisted that leadership of the anti-Persian alliance passed to Athens (creating what would become the Athenian Empire, so Spartan diplomatic incompetence led directly to the titanic conflict of the late fifth century). And to be clear, Athenian diplomacy does not score high marks either, but it is still a far sight better than the Spartans (Greek diplomacy, in general was awful – rude, arrogant and focused on compulsion rather than suasion – so it is telling that the Spartans are very bad at it, even by Greek standards).

Remember this speech, where Leonidas shames his allies because they have jobs and treats them as inferior and expendable? It isn’t Leonidas but Agesilaus II (r. 398-360) who gives this speech to his allies (Plut. Ages. 26.3-5), in the context of a war which Sparta would lose for lack of allies against Thebes.

In 461, Spartan arrogance towards an Athenian military expedition sent to help Sparta against a helot revolt utterly discredited the pro-Sparta political voices at Athens and in turn set the two states on a collision course. Sparta had ejected the friendly army so roughly that it had created an outrage in Athens.

During the Peloponnesian War, Spartan diplomatic miscalculations repeatedly hurt their cause, as with the destruction of Plataea – the symbol of Greek resistence to Persia. Later on in the war, terrible Spartan diplomacy repeatedly derails efforts to work with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who has the money and resources Sparta needs to defeat Athens; it is the decidedly un-Spartan actions first of Alcibiades (then being a traitor to Athens) and later Lysander who rescue the alliance. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta promptly alienated its key allies, ending up at war first with Corinth (the Corinthian War (394-386) and then with Thebes (378-371), both of which had been stalwarts of Sparta’s anti-Athenian efforts (Corinth was itself a member of the Peloponnesian League). This led directly to the loss of Messenia and the breaking of Spartan power.

In short, whenever Sparta was confronted with a problem – superior enemy forces, maritime enemies, fortified enemy positions, the need to keep alliances together, financial demands – any problem which could not be solved by frontal attack with hoplites, the traditional Spartan leadership alienated friends and flailed uselessly. Often the Spartans attempted – as with Corinth and later Thebes – to compel friendship with hoplite armies, which worked exactly as poorly as you might imagine.

It is hard not to see both the strategic inflexibility of Sparta and the arrogant diplomatic incompetence of the spartiates as a direct consequence of the agoge‘s rigid system of indoctrination. Young spartiates, after all, were taught that anyone with a craft was to be despised and that anyone who had to work was lesser than they – is it any surprise that they disdained the sort of warfare and statecraft that depended on such men? The agoge – as we are told – enforced its rules with copious violence and was designed to create and encourage strict, violent hierarchies to encourage obedience. It can be no surprise that men indoctrinated in such a system – and thus liable to attempt to use its methods abroad – made poor diplomats and strategic thinkers abroad.

Strategic Objectives

These are all fairly serious failings, but the question remains: did Sparta achieve its goals? No state can be good at everything, after all – but one barometer of state success is the degree to which the state achieves the goals it sets out for itself. The problem here is that Sparta espoused or seemed to pursue a variety of different goals at different times, leading different scholars to ascribe a different set of strategic objectives to Sparta. What we’ll do is make a quick inventory of all of the goals Sparta seemed to pursue, from the grandest to the meanest, and consider the degree they achieved them, starting with:

I) Hegemony over Greece. It is hard to say to what degree Sparta ever really pursued this goal. Several Spartan leaders – kings like Cleomenes I, the regent Pausanias, Agesilaus II, along with men like Lysander – once on campaign outside of Sparta seemed to have envisaged a much wider sphere of Spartan control over Greece and worked to achieve it. At the same time, the ever cautious gerousia (along with the ephors) almost always worked to restrain and eventually destroy such men. This should remind us that no state – not even Sparta – is really a unitary entity with one set of goals held by everyone; within the state there is a complex set of competing interests. For the Spartan kings and influential commanders, success outside of Sparta was an alluring way to potentially build power outside of the systems which restricted them within Sparta; for the gerousia and the ephors – who were that system – success abroad was a threat to stability at home.

Given Sparta’s inherent resources, the goal was not unrealistic: Sparta was by land area, if not by population, the largest polis in Greece. But Spartan hegemony lasted less than a decade, primarily because of the ineptness of Spartan diplomacy. While victory over Athens in 404 BC made Sparta the preeminent Greek state, the mistakes started almost immediately: the occupation/collaboration government (the ‘Thirty Tyrants’) in Athens was so cruel and unpopular that Sparta was forced to acquiesce to its removal after just eight months. Meanwhile, Spartan imperiousness – including a refusal to share the spoils of victory, as well as military activity against little Elis and big Persia unsanctioned by the Peloponnesian League – turned Sparta’s allies against them. Sparta’s efforts to restore their alliance militarily led to the Corinthian War in 395, which would prove that while Sparta was still strong, it was not strong enough to enforce its alliances by force of arms. If any of the Spartans ever aimed for hegemony or preeminence among the Greeks, it is safe to say they failed.

II) Prevention of Tyranny. One of the ways that Sparta positioned itself was as the state which championed the freedom of the Greeks. Sparta had fought the Persian tyrant, had helped to oust tyrants in Athens and had later framed Athens itself as a ‘tyrant city.’ Sparta itself had never had a tyrant (until Cleomenes III seized sole power in the 220s). On the flip side, Spartan hegemony was, apparently, little better than Athenian hegemony, given how Sparta’s own allies consistently reacted to it and Sparta would, in the end, do absolutely nothing to stop Philip II of Macedon from consolidating sole rule over Greece. When the call when out to once again resist a foreign invader in 338, Sparta was conspicuous in its absence.

It also matters exactly how tyranny is understood here. For the ancient Greeks, tyranny was a technical term, meaning a specific kind of one-man rule – a lot like how we use the word dictatorship to mean monarchies that are not kingdoms (though in Greece this word didn’t have quite so strong a negative connotation). Sparta was pretty reliable in opposing one-man rule, but that doesn’t mean it supported ‘free’ governments. For instance, after the Peloponnesian War, Sparta foisted a brutal oligarchy – what the Athenians came to call “The Thirty Tyrants” – on Athens; their rule was so bad and harsh that it only lasted eight months (another feat of awful Spartan statecraft). Such a government was tyrannical, but not a tyranny in the technical sense.

But the Spartan reputation for fighting against tyrannies – both in the minds of the Greeks and in the popular consciousness – is predicted on fighting one very specific monarchy: the Achaemenids of Persia.

III) Excluding Persia from Greece. This is the thing for which Sparta is given the most credit in popular culture, but Sparta’s record in this regard is awful. Sparta (along with Athens) leads the Greek coalition in the second Persian war and – as discussed – much of the Spartan reputation was built out of that. But Sparta had largely been a no-show during the first Persian war, and in the subsequent decades, Sparta’s commitment to opposing Persia was opportunistic at best.

During the late stages of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta essentially allied with Persia, taking funding and ships first from the Persian satrap Tissaphernes and later from Cyrus the Younger (a Persian prince and satrap). Sparta, after all, lacked the economic foundation to finance their own navy and the Spartans had – belatedly – realized that they needed a navy to defeat Athens. And of course the Persians – and any Spartan paying attention – knew that the Athenian navy was the one thing keeping Persia out of Greek affairs. So Sparta accepted Persian money to build up the fleets necessary to bring down the Athenian navy, with the consequence that the Ionian Greeks once again became subjects to the Persian Empire.

Normally here is where I would complain about the inaccuracy of this scene, but the basic content, Spartans accepting Persian money in order to screw over other Greeks is broadly accurate – only the date is wrong. This should be happening in 415 (and 387!) not 480.

Subsequent Spartan diplomatic incompetence would lead to the Corinthian War (395-387), which turned into a nasty stalemate – due in part to the limitations of Spartan siege and naval capabilities. Unable to end the conflict on their own, the Spartans turned to Persia – again – to help them out, and the Persians brokered a pro-Spartan peace by threatening the Corinthians with Persian intervention in favor of Sparta. The subequent treaty – the “King’s Peace” (since it was imposed by the Persian Great King, Artaxerxes II) was highly favorable to Persia. All of Ionian, Cyprus, Aeolia and Carnia fell under Persian control and the treaty barred the Greeks from forming defensive leagues – meaning that it prevented the formation of any Greek coalition large enough to resist Persian influence. The treaty essentially made Sparta into Persia’s local enforcer in Greece, a role it would hold until its defeat in 371.

300 has some really stupid looking Persian coins, so here is an actual Persian gold Daric, of the sort that would have been in use under Xerxes.

If Sparta held the objective of excluding Persian influence or tyranny from Greece, it failed completely and abjectly. Sparta opened not only the windows but also the doors to Persian influence in Greece – between 410 and 370, Sparta probably did more than any Greek state had ever or would ever do to push Greece into the Persian sphere of influence. Sparta would also refuse to participate in Alexander’s invasion of Persia – a point Alexander mocked them for by dedicating the spoils of his victories “from all of the Greeks, except the Spartans” (Arr. Anab. 1.16.7); for their part, the Spartans instead tried to use it as an opportunity to seize Crete and petitioned the Persians for aid in their war against Alexander, before being crushed by Alexander’s local commander, Antipater, in what Alexander termed “a clash of mice.”

IV) Maintaining Hegemony over the Peloponnese. This is a smaller question than hegemony over Greece. As we’ve noted, Sparta itself occupied roughly a third of the Peloponnese and so was the dominant state in the region almost by default. And Sparta does seem to have consistently taken concrete steps to achieve this, as Herodotus specifically notes (Hdt. 1.68). And Sparta seems to have actually pulled off this – again, quite modest – objective…for a while.

Sparta initially seems to have attempted (Hdt. 1.66-8) to have extended its treatment of Messenia to other parts of the Peloponnese (namely Tegea) in the mid sixth-century – the failure of this policy led to a more measured effort to subjugate the Peloponnese more loosely into a Spartan-lead military league (the Peloponnesian League). This project was never fully completed: Argos – the next largest power in the Peloponnese proper, but a solidly second-tier power compared to Athens, Corinth, Sparta or Thebes – successfully resisted Spartan efforts to dominate it throughout the period. But on the whole, by the late 6th century, Sparta did exert a (perhaps somewhat loose – the trend in scholarship lately has been to stress the plastic and fairly loose organization of the Peloponnesian League) kind of dominance over the Peloponnese.

The core of this control lasts until 371, when Spartan defeat at the Battle of Leuktra shatters this control. Epaminondas, the Theban commander, used the opportunity to free the helots of Messenia and reform them into a polis to provide a local counter-weight to Sparta, while Arcadia and Elis split off from Sparta’s alliance to form their own defensive league against Sparta and, to top it off, a number of the perioikic communities – including the Spartan’s elite light infantry scouts, the Sciritae – along with various borderlands also formed the new polis of Megalopolis on the northern Spartan border – it promptly joined the Arcadian league (this polis would later give us the historian Polybius; his anti-Spartan stance comes out clearly in how he treats Cleomenes III). Sparta, surrounded now by hostile poleis who had once been allies, would spend the rest of Antiquity as a political non-entity, safe for one brief effort to restore Spartan greatness in the 220s, crushed by the Macedonian Antigonids who were in no mood to entertain Spartan delusions of grandeur.

We might then say that Sparta is successful – though not entirely so (Argos!) – in establishing a hegemony over the Peloponnese, but only maintains it for c. 175 years. That’s not a bad run, but for the record of a larger state dominating its backyard, it is tremendously impressive either.

V) Protecting the Spartan Social and Political Order. The final objective we can be quite certain about is that Sparta aimed to protect the internal social and political order of Sparta, which essentially amounts to a strategic objective to be able to continue mistreating the helots and the periokoi. In practice – given Sparta’s desperate shortness of manpower (and economic resources!) and continued unwillingness to revisit the nature of its oppressive class system, we may say with some confidence that Sparta effectively sacrificed all other objectives on the altar of this one.

And yet Sparta’s failure here was perhaps the most complete of all. The collapse of the spartiate class did not abate after Leuktra; by the 230s, there were hardly any Spartiates left. Meanwhile, the transition of Messenia from a group of subject communities supporting Sparta economically to an active and hostile power on Sparta’s border essentially represented the end of the Spartan social order as established in the seventh century with the reduction of Messenia to helotry in the first place.

So, does Sparta achieve its strategic objectives? By and large, I think the answer here has to be ‘no.’ Sparta – the supposed enemy of tyrants – by mismanaging its own leadership invited one foreign oppressor (Macedon) into Greece after another (Persia). As a state that seems – to me at least – to have considered itself the natural and rightful leader of all of the Greek states, Sparta, routinely and comprehensively proved itself unworthy of the position.

The one thing we may say for Spartan foreign and military policy is that it seems to have made the world safe for helotry – it preserved the brutal system of oppression which was foundational to the Spartan state. But consider just how weak an achievement that is – we might, after all, make the same claim about North Korea: it has managed only to successfully preserve its own internal systems of oppression.

Sparta After the Credits

What becomes of Sparta after its hegemony shatters in 371, after Philip II humiliates it in 338 and after Antipater crushes it in 330? This is a part of Spartan history we don’t much discuss, but it provides a useful coda on the Sparta of the fifth and fourth century. Athens, after all, remained a major and important city in Greece through the Roman period – a center for commerce and culture. Corinth – though burned by the Romans – was rebuilt and remained a crucial and wealthy port under the Romans.

What became of Sparta?

In short, Sparta became a theme-park. A quaint tourist get-away where wealthy Greeks and Romans could come to look and stare at the quaint Spartans and their silly rituals. It developed a tourism industry and the markets even catered to the needs of the elite Roman tourists who went (Plutarch and Cicero both did so, Plut. Lyc. 18.1; Tusc. 5.77).

In term of civic organization, after Cleomenes III’s last gasp effort to make Sparta relevant – an effort that nearly wiped out the entire remaining spartiate class (Plut. Cleom. 28.5) – Sparta increasingly resembled any other Hellenistic Greek polis, albeit a relatively famous and also poor one. Its material and literary culture seem to converge with the rest of the Greeks, with the only distinctively Spartan elements of the society being essentially Potemkin rituals for boys put on for the tourists who seem to be keeping the economy running and keeping what is left of Sparta in the good graces of their Roman overlords.

Thus ended Sparta: not with a brave last stand. Not with mighty deeds of valor. Or any great cultural contribution at all. A tourist trap for rich and bored Romans.

Conclusion: The Indictment Against Sparta

When we started this series, we had two myths, the myth of Spartan equality and the myth of Spartan military excellence. These two myths dominate the image of Sparta in the popular consciousness, permeating game, film and written representations and discussions of Sparta. These myths, more than any real society, is what companies like Spartan Race, games like Halo, and – yes – films like 300 are tapping into.

But Sparta was not equal, in fact it was the least equal Greek polis we know of. It was one of the least equal societies in the ancient Mediterranean, and one which treated its underclasses – who made up to within a rounding error of the entire society by the end – terribly. You will occasionally see pat replies that Sparta was no more dependent on slave labor than the rest of Greece, but even a basic demographic look makes it clear this is not true. Moreover our sources are clear that the helots were the worst treated slaves in Greece. Even among the spartiates, Sparta was not equal and it never was.

And Sparta was not militarily excellent. Its military was profoundly mediocre, depressingly average. Even in battle, the one thing they were supposed to be good at, Sparta lost as much as it won. Judging Sparta as we should – by how well it achieved strategic objects – Sparta’s armies are a comprehensive failure. The Spartan was no super-soldier and Spartan training was not excellent. Indeed, far from making him a super-soldier, the agoge made the Spartans inflexible, arrogant and uncreative, and those flaws led directly to Sparta’s decline in power.

And I want to stress this one last time, because I know there are so many people who would pardon all of Sparta’s ills if it meant that it created superlative soldiers: it did not. Spartan soldiers were average. The horror of the Spartan system, the nastiness of the agoge, the oppression of the helots, the regimentation of daily life, it was all for nothing. Worse yet, it created a Spartan leadership class that seemed incapable of thinking its way around even basic problems. All of that supposedly cool stuff made Sparta weaker, not stronger.

This would be bad enough, but the case for Sparta is worse because it – as a point of pride – provided nothing else. No innovation in law or government came from Sparta (I hope I have shown, if nothing else, that the Spartan social system is unworthy of emulation). After 550, Sparta produced no trade goods or material culture of note. It produced no great art to raise up the human condition, no great literature to inspire. Despite possessing fairly decent farmland, it was economically underdeveloped, underpopulated and unimportant.

Athens produced great literature and innovative political thinking. Corinth was economically essential – a crucial port in the heart of Greece. Thebes gave us Pindar and was in the early fourth century a hotbed of military innovation. All three cities were adorned by magnificent architecture and supplied great art by great artists. But Sparta, Sparta gives us almost nothing.

Sparta was – if you will permit the comparison – an ancient North Korea. An over-militarized, paranoid state which was able only to protect its own systems of internal brutality and which added only oppression to the sum of the human experience. Little more than an extraordinarily effective prison, metastasized to the level of a state. There is nothing of redeeming value here.

Sparta is not something to be emulated. It is a cautionary tale.

Next week: Finally, something different. I don’t know what yet. Probably something related to logistics. See you then!

12 thoughts on “Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part VII: Spartan Ends

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this series, especially the consistent discussion of the helots who are too easily passed over in most depictions. Now that the series is over I’d like to offer a few comments for consideration.

    First a minor point specific to this post. I think your judgment of strategic objectives is a bit unfair. It’s clear from your discussion that Sparta’s strategic objectives changed over time, which we should expect over such a long period. For example, you discuss how Sparta sometimes allied with Persia against other poleis and cite that as evidence of them failing at the objective of excluding Persia from Greece. Wouldn’t that be evidence that at that particular time that was not their objective? It seems harsh to judge them as having failed something they were apparently not trying to do, especially given that another common criticism you have levied is that Sparta suffered from a lack of adaptability.

    On the series as a whole, I think there is a supposition that people admire Sparta itself. I believe that is true to a degree, but more so people admire the ideas that Sparta represents, among them the excellence and equality that you note. For example, I myself am fond of Laconic phrases, and even if all of the purported Lacedaemonian examples are apocryphal, the archetype itself remains. I think with Sparta it is the idea, not the thing itself that resonates. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the thorough historical takedown of Sparta. It’s great to examine the actual history. But inasmuch as this blog is about depictions in popular culture, I think it’s a meaningful distinction that what is being depicted is not a real society but a mock up of one. I mean, you’ve used 300 repeatedly as an example, and I don’t think anyone ever watches 300 and thinks that’s remotely like anything that ever really happened. Basically I guess I think people admire Sparta like they admire Superman – as cool stories exemplifying a certain set of values they like.

    Finally, and maybe this is just me, but when I think “Sparta” certainly Leonidas and Thermopylae come to mind. But they aren’t the first things I imagine. I hear Sparta and think “Helen”, “Menelaus”, and “Castor and Pollux”. So I guess what I’m asking is, what can you tell us about historical Mycenaean Sparta?


  2. Do we know anything about how the Spartans brought Messenia under its rule in the first place? From what you have said here it sounds like it might have actually been one of their more impressive achievements and yet you didn’t really discuss it beginning your assessment of them with it an already accomplished fact. I have always vaguely assumes that it was the conquest of Messenia that produced the Spartan system do you think that is correct?


    1. This relates to something I would like to know:
      To what extent were the helots of a different ethnicity than the Spartiates?
      In India, for what we know (thanks to genetic evidence that trumps the denialists) the caste system developed because of conquest, i.e. the Aryan invasion.
      The winners placed themselves on top of the social hierarchy and ensured they stayed there.

      Did something similar go on in Sparta?


  3. Regarding logistics, how much do we know about logistics of Gondor? Note that some things can be inferred from Byzantine army, as Gondor is based on Byzantine Empire in many way, including political and military organization: its organization is based on Byzantine theme system, *not* on your typical Western European feudal army. I wrote more about it here:


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