|The Spartan City State (Sparta) produced what is probably the most iconic military in ancient history. The ancient Spartan warriors are known for their bravery, professionalism and skill, a reputation well deserved. At their zenith they proved themselves to be the best of the Greek hoplite warriors, the premier fighting force of their time. Spartan political power peaked from the 6th to 4th century BC; however Spartan military power had its roots much earlier.|
The evolution of the Spartan army began during the heroic Mycenaean age (1600 BCE to 1100 BCE), a time in Greek history when tactics were simple and warriors sought individual glory (and fought out of formation). Invading warlike Indo-Europeans attacked from the North in one part of histories most massive invasions, spanning the ancient near east from Egypt to India. Waves of invaders vied for land with the local populations.
The Spartan Military
Spartan soldiers were the
ultimate hoplite warriors,
devoting their lives
to training as heavy infantry.
Leonidas I of Sparta
(c.540 - 580 BC)
Leonidas as depicted in the
Hollywood movie 300.
Leonidas led 300 Spartans in
one of historeis greatest last stands.
Dark Times in Ancient Greece
This was the Bronze Age, the time of Homers epic Iliad and a time when champions on the battlefield were heroes. They fought in full body armor, with figure eight shields for protection. They attacked with spears, swords and bows (which the Spartans considered cowardly) and used basic tactics like the mass charge. Routed armies were often massacred. Classical Greece proved to be a cauldron of military development and infantry tactics. The rugged terrain isolated groups and made the use of chariots and cavalry very difficult. This combined with frequent, massive invasions from the Balkans created an early arms race. In this super heated environment infantry tactics geared up very quickly, driven by the continuous warfare.
Ancient Spartan Warfare
The ancient Greeks found protection in natural citadels, or poleis, where they could defend themselves from raiding neighbors and pirates. Soon leaders of the each polis organized efforts to defend their crops and pastures and formed the political bases of the Greek city states. During the 6th and 7th century the Greeks reached their population limits and in an extraordinary event sent their surplus population abroad. The Greeks soon had colonies stretching from the North of the Black Sea to Spain. Each polis or several working together sponsored independent colonies, which intern became a trading and cultural extension of the original polis. These Greek colonies where generally welcomed by the indigenous populations and the trade in turn created wealth and a new middle class in Greek society back home.
In Peloponnesia excavations at Pylos and Nichoria have revealed for Messenia's late Bronze Age (1300s BC) a bureaucratic, agricultural kingdom ruled by the wanax at Pylos. The Messenians spoke Mycenaean Greek, and worshipped the Greek gods at local shrines. Later, Greeks believed a body of Dorians under Cresphontes invaded the country from the Northern Greece or Macedonia, establishing control over Peloponnesia. However, given that the Arcadian language is a direct and conservative descendent of Mycenaean Greek, it is more likely that the Dorians pushed the native Messenians into Arcadia if the invasion happened at all. The Dorians then merged with the previous inhabitants producing an the Messenian and Spartan tribes, groups that developed a strong national feeling. However, the relative wealth of Messenia in fertile soil and favourable climate attracted the expansionistic neighbouring Spartans. War broke out, it was said, as a result of the murder of the Spartan king Teleclus by the Messenians - which, in spite of the heroism of King Euphaes and his successor Aristodemus ended in the subjection of Messenia to Sparta (c. 720 BC). The numericaly inferior Spartans, realizing that they probably wouldn’t be as lucky the next time they fought the Messenians decided on a very rare course of action in the Greek world and set out to obtain complete military and social supremacy over their defeated neighbors. Two generations later the Messenians revolted and under the leadership of Aristomenes kept the Spartans at bay for some seventeen years (648 BC—631 BC). However, the stronghold of Ira (Eira) fell after a siege of eleven years and the Messenians where placed back under the heal of Sparta.
Bury and Meiggs, "A History of Greece," 4th Ed quotes. "As the object of the Spartans was to increase the number of lots of land for their citizens, many of the conquered Messenians (those who did not manage to leave the area) were reduced to the condition of Helots. Servitude was hard, though their plight might have been harder, for they paid to their lords only one-half of the produce of the lands which they tilled."
The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus describes how the Messenians endured the insolence of the masters:
"As asses worn by loads intolerable,
So Them did stress of cruel force compel,
Of all the fruits the well-tilled land affords,
The moiety to bear to their proud lords."
During the 7th century Lelantine War, a long war between the Greek trading powers Eretria and Chalcis and their allies, distracted the Greeks, Sparta made a power grab. The Spartans vowed to conquer their neighbors, Messenia, no matter how long and how many set backs they suffered. Messenia, a group of eight polis that had never quite united, had rich soil and that attracted the Spartans. The Spartan attack came as a surprise; however it took two more decades to win the war. The numericaly inferior Spartans, realizing that they probably wouldn’t be as lucky the next time they fought the Messenians decided on a very rare course of action in the Greek world and set out to obtain complete military and social supremacy over their defeated neighbors.Two generations later the Messenians revolted, it took the Spartans took 17 years to bring them back under control, including an eleven year siege on the stronghold of Ira.
The next revolt didn’t breakout until 464 BC, but fear of Messenian uprisings would linger in the Spartans national memory for the rest of its existence. The Spartans called those who hadn’t fled helots and forced them into grueling servitude. However, the Spartans realizing that they were outnumbered four to one, and that the Helots would kill them at the first chance they got, fearful of the Messenians uprising the Spartans created a unique society among the Greeks. They used the helots as laborers and farmers to free the Spartan men for professional military service. Spartan life then became more militarized then any other city state, while the other Greeks became citizen/farmers and warriors the Spartan men all became professional warriors. In fact it was the only job available to a Spartan man. This freed them to launch military champions during any season while the other Greeks had to tend to their fields.
The society of the Spartans was considered strange to the other Greeks. They became obsessed with military power, focusing on exercise, discipline and their ability to endure any hardship. Around Greece they gained, and promoted, this reputation as a tough, unyielding and hardened society. When some diplomats visited from Athens they were given a black gruel for their meal, although this wasn’t standard Spartan fair, the Athenians returned home with tales about the Spartan’s disgusting food and obsession with warfare.
After their subjugation of Messenia the Spartans went to war against Argos, where they were taught a lesson. A Spartan army was defeated by a phalanx; this formation of spearmen was a major advancement over the free for all tactics previously used. The Greek world took notice and soon the new middle class formed a warrior class based on phalanx heavy infantry tactics. These hoplites (named after their large shields or hoplons) became both a major political and military force throughout Greece. They employed basically the same tactics as the Argos but Spartan weapons were tweaked for efficiency in close order combat.
In a phalanx formation hoplites formed shieldwalls by overlapping their large shields, the left of each shield protecting the warrior to the left. Only the shins and head of the hoplite wear exposed, and these were well protected by grieves and helmets. The spears of the first three ranks of a phalanx formation could be used offensively. Although the phalanx was not a Spartan innovation they became the best hoplites in Greece through constant drilling. Individual Spartan warriors were highly disciplined and frequently exercised to increase their stamina, an important attribute when phalanxes clashed. (For more details on phalanx formations and tactics see Ancient Weapons: Spears or Greek Warriors - Hoplites and Phalanxes section).
Spartan Military Culture
From this environment was born the Spartan war machine, the era's pinnacle of heavy infantry tactics. The Spartans gained eternal military fame for their stand against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae when 300 Spartan hoplites held off an entire Persian army and inflicted severe damage to it before succumbing to the vast Persian forces and dying to a man.
The Spartan armies dominated Greece after their victory in the exhausting Peloponnesian Wars (460 to 404 BC). Both their individual warriors and group tactics where honed to a perfection never before seen on the battlefield. The lifestyle of these ancient warriors has even become a word in the English language meaning sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere. Spartan also means brave and undaunted.
Spartan Warriors: Birth and Training
The selection of Spartan warriors started before their birth. The Spartans encouraged athletic completion and the victors where held in high esteem. They married the strongest boys with the strongest girls and the fastest boys with the fastest girls in order to bread the best warriors. Infamously, the Spartan elders would inspect new born infants and any found to be imperfect, judged to be puny or deformed, were thrown from a cliff. The cliff was a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as "The Deposits".
The training of Spartan warriors started when they were boys. They were sent to a military boarding school, or agoge, at age seven where they formed a class with other boys their age. Their education emphasized physical, mental and spiritual toughness and could be quite brutal. They where taught to endure hardship and pitted against each other in fights by their instructors. Adolescents were used to terrorize the Helots, and in a particularly nasty tradition called a Krypteia they were sent out at night with the goal of killing any helot precieved to be a threat or unlucky enough to be discovered out alone. Each fall the Spartans would declare war on the Helot making it legal to kill any Helot.
Spartan Military Duty & Hoplites
At age twenty the men of Sparta moved into the barracks and became full time soldiers. Even if they married, which they were expected to due, they lived in the barracks. Military service lasted until the age of forty, duty in the reserves lasted from forty to sixty years of age. In desperate time’s men as old as sixty-five could be called up to protect supplies.
Sparta was known for being the only Greek city without a city wall, a famous saying among Spartans went something like, "Our men are our walls.”
A hoplite typically had a bronze, muscled breastplate, a helmet with cheek plates, as well as greaves and other shin armor. They carried a bowl-shaped wood and bronze shield called an aspis or hoplon, and when worn a dispus. It was very heavy and protected the warrior from chin to knee. In Spartan military culture, throwing away a soldiers hoplon during a retreat like other routed hoplites was not acceptable. "Come home with this shield or upon it" was a there motto. Meanings, if you can’t come home victorious, then come home dead. Most Greek hoplites had family symbols on their shield, as the expensive equipment was often inherited from ones parents. In contrast, the Spartans (starting in 420 BC) had the same uniform instead of customized armor and the Greek letter lambda on their shield, referring to their homeland Lacedaemonia. They also wore a scarlet cape to represent them as Spartans, though the cape was never worn in combat.
Their primary weapon was a spear around 7-9 feet (2.7 meters) in length called a doru. The doru had a leaf shaped spearhead on the business end and a spike on the other. The spike, called a "lizard killer” could be used to stand the spear up by planting it in the ground or it can be used to finish off fallen enemies that the formation is moving over. Additionaly, if the spearhead broke off the spear could then be spun around and the spike used in its place.
Spartan warriors also carried a short sword, the xiphos, to be used as a secondary weapon and in the crush of battle when only a short weapon could be used effectively. The blade of a xiphos was typically about 2 feet (50-60 cm) long. The blade was shaped like a long leaf and could be used for slashing; however they were usually used for stabbing. The Spartans used an even shorter xiphos than the other Greeks, the blade measuring only 1-1½ feet (30-40cm) long making it even easier to use in tight places. The xiphos could be used to stab at the unprotected groin, armpit or throat of an enemy.
Another secondary weapon available was the kopis, a short sword with a heavy curved blade that could be used for hacking away at enemies. Although it had a point that could be used for stabbing the weapon was designed to be used almost like a hatchet. The results of the use of this weapon were gruesome, giving it a reputation as a "bad guys” weapon. In the art of Sparta’s arch rival, Athens, Spartan warriors are often depicted using the kopis. (See Spartan Weapons for more details.)
Spartan Military Decline:
After the Pelopensian War Spartan military dominance was challenged by Thebes, with the Aid of Athens, Corinth and Argos in the Corinthian War (395-387 BC ). Although Sparta was able to achieve a number of land victories but was weekend by raiding on its Coast and provoking the helots to revolt. However after a short truce the war again flared up in an all out battle for supremacy. The Spartans were defeated in the Battle of Lauctra by the great general and strategist Epaminondas of Thebes. His tactic of using and echelon formation with the leading side loaded up with his best troops and in very deep formation allowed him to break the unbreakable, the Spartan hoplite line crumbled.
The Spartans had lost up to 4000 hoplites and the helots revolted, a one two punch they would never recover from as Spartan citizenship was dependant on blood lines and their was no way to quickly regain manpower in their rigid society. The Spartan military had entered its long slow decline, eventualy their once cutting edge ancient weapons and tactics were even eclipsed. Nonetheless, Sparta was able to continue as a regional power for another two centuries. Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to conquer Sparta itself respecting Spartan martial skill and not wanting to risk potentially high losses. It was reported that as late as 378 AD, following the disastrous defeat of the Roman imperial army at the Battle of Adrianople that a Spartan militia organized a phalanx and defeated a force of raiding Goths in battle.
Sparta’s Military Legacy
Spartan warriors have been inspired many throughout history. Admiration for the Spartans even has a name, Laconophilia. Their actions at the Battle of Thermopylae in particular have a place in the modern culture and it is perhaps the most famous last stand in history. The story about how 300 Spartans (and 700 Thespiae, who are often neglected) defended the pass at Thermopylae for 3 days against what against a massive Persian army (2 million according to Herodotus, although probably around 70,000 – 300,000 by modern estimations) has been told countless times. Modern interpretations of the Spartans have typically whitewashed some of their more brutal intuitions and portrayed them as the saviors of Western culture. This honorific, if applied to them along with the other Greek States, is not entirely undeserved though as Greek culture would become the bases for Western culture. A Persian victory over the Greeks would certainly have extinguished this light, along with ideas such as democracy, philosophy and science.