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The Spartan army stood at the center of the Spartan state, citizens trained in the disciplines and honor of a warrior society. Subjected to military drills since early manhood, the Spartans became one of the most feared and formidable military forces in the Greek world, attaining legendary status in their wars against Persia. At the height of Sparta's power – between the 6th and 4th centuries BC – other Greeks commonly accepted that "one Spartan was worth several men of any other state."
Tradition states that the semi-mythical Spartan legislator Lycurgus first founded the iconic army. Referring to Sparta as having a "wall of men, instead of bricks," he proposed reforming the Spartan society to develop a military-focused lifestyle following "proper virtues" such as equality for the male citizens, austerity, strength, and fitness. A Spartan male's involvement with the army began in infancy when the Gerousia first inspected him. Any baby judged weak or deformed was left at Mount Taygetus to die since the Spartan society was no place for those who could not fend for themselves. (The practice of discarding children at birth took place in Athens as well.) Those deemed strong enough entered the agoge regime at the age of seven, which would require the young boys to undergo intense and rigorous military training. Their education focused primarily on fostering cunningness, practicing sports and war tactics, and also included learning about poetry, music, academics, and sometimes politics. Those who passed the agoge by the age of 30 achieved full Spartan citizenship.
The term "Spartan" became in modern times synonymous with simplicity by design. During classical times, "Lacedaemonian" or "Laconian" was used for attribution, referring to the region of the polis instead of one of the decentralized settlements called Sparta. From this derives the already ancient term "laconic," and is related to expressions such as "laconic phrase" or "laconophilia."
The first reference to the Spartans at war is in the Iliad, in which they featured among the other Greek contingents. Like the rest of the Mycenaean-era armies, it was depicted as composed mainly of infantry, equipped with short swords, spears, and Dipylon-type shields ("8"-shaped simple round bronze shields). This period was the Golden Age of Warfare.
In a battle, each opposing army would try to fight through the other line on the right (strong or deep) side and then turn left; wherefore they would be able to attack the vulnerable flank. When this happened, as a rule, it would cause the army to be routed. The fleeing enemy was put to the sword only as far as the field of the battle extended. The outcome of this one battle would determine the outcome of a particular issue. In the Golden Age of War, defeated armies were not massacred; they fled back to their city and conceded the victors' superiority. It wasn't until after the Peloponnesus War that battles countenanced indiscriminate slaughter, enslavement and depredations among the Greeks.
War chariots were used by the elite, but unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, they appear to have been used for transport, with the warrior dismounting to fight on foot and then remounting to withdraw from combat. However, some accounts show warriors throwing their spear from the chariot before dismounting.
Like much of Greece, Mycenaean Sparta was engulfed in the Dorian invasions, which ended the Mycenaean civilization and ushered in the so-called "Greek Dark Ages." During this time, Sparta (or Lacedaemon) was merely a Doric village on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia. However, in the early 8th century BC, Spartan society transformed. Later traditions ascribed the reforms to the possibly mythical figure of Lycurgus, who created new institutions and established the Spartan state's military nature. This Spartan Constitution remained virtually unchanged for five centuries. From c. 750 BC, Sparta embarked on a steady expansion, first by subduing Amyclae and the other Laconian settlements. Later, during the First Messenian War, they conquered the fertile country of Messenia. By the beginning of the 7th century BC, Sparta was, along with Argos, the Peloponnese's dominant power.
Inevitably, these two powers collided. Initial Argive successes, such as the victory at the Battle of Hysiae in 669 BC, led to the Messenians' uprising. This internal conflict tied down the Spartan army for almost 20 years. However, over the course of the 6th century, Sparta secured her control of the Peloponnese peninsula. The Spartans forced Arcadia into recognizing their power; Argos lost Cynuria (the SE coast of the Peloponnese) in about 546 and suffered a further crippling blow from Cleomenes I at the Battle of Sepeia in 494. Repeated expeditions against tyrannical regimes during this period throughout Greece also considerably raised the Spartans' prestige. By the early 5th century, Sparta was the unchallenged master in southern Greece, as the leading power (hegemon) of the newly established Peloponnesian League (which was more characteristically known to its contemporaries as "the Lacedaemonians and their allies").
By the late 6th century BC, Sparta was recognized as the preeminent Greek polis. King Croesus of Lydia established an alliance with the Spartans, and later, the Greek cities of Asia Minor appealed to them for help during the Ionian Revolt. During the second Persian invasion of Greece, under Xerxes, Sparta was assigned the overall leadership of Greek forces on both land and sea. The Spartans played a crucial role in the repulsion of the invasion, notably at the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea. However, during the aftermath, because of the plotting of Pausanias with the Persians and their unwillingness to campaign too far from home, the Spartans withdrew into relative isolation. The power vacuum resulted in Athens' rise to power, who became the lead in the continued effort against the Persians. This isolationist tendency was further reinforced by some of her allies' revolts and a great earthquake in 464, which was followed by a large scale revolt of the Messenian helots.
Athens's parallel rise as a significant power in Greece led to friction between herself with Sparta and two large-scale conflicts (the First and Second Peloponnesian Wars), which devastated Greece. Sparta suffered several defeats during these wars, including, for the first time, the surrender of an entire Spartan unit at Sphacteria in 425 BC. Still, it ultimately emerged victorious, primarily through the aid it received from the Persians. Under its admiral Lysander, the Persian-funded Peloponnesian fleet captured the Athenian alliance cities, and a decisive naval victory at Aegospotami forced Athens to capitulate. The Athenian defeat established Sparta and its military forces in a dominant position in Greece.
Spartan ascendancy did not last long. By the end of the 5th century BC, Sparta had suffered severe casualties in the Peloponnesian Wars, and its conservative and narrow mentality alienated many of its former allies. At the same time, its military class – the Spartiate caste – was in decline for several reasons:
As Sparta's military power waned, Thebes also repeatedly challenged its authority. The ensuing Corinthian War led to the humiliating Peace of Antalcidas that destroyed Sparta's reputation as the protector of Greek city-states' independence. At the same time, Spartan military prestige suffered a severe blow when a mora of 600 men was defeated by peltasts (light infantry) under the command of the Athenian general Iphicrates. Spartan authority finally collapsed after their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Leuctra by the Thebans under the leadership of Epaminondas in 371 BC. The battle killed a large number of Spartiates, and resulted in the loss of the fertile Messenia region.
|"... the allies of the Lacedaemonians were offended at Agesilaus, because ... they themselves [provided] so many [soldiers], and the Lacedaemonians, whom they followed, so few. ... Agesilaus, wishing to refute their argument with numbers ... ordered all the allies to sit down by themselves promiscuously, the Lacedaemonians apart by themselves. Then his herald called upon the potters to stand up first, and after them the smiths, next, the carpenters in their turn, and the builders, and so on through all the handicrafts. In response, almost all the allies rose up, but not a man of the Lacedaemonians; for they were forbidden to learn or practice a manual art. Then Agesilaus said with a laugh: 'You see, O men, how many more soldiers than you we are sending out.'"|
|Plutarch, The Life of Agesilaus, 26|
The Spartans (the "Lacedaemonians") divided themselves into three classes:
The Spartiates were the Spartan army's core: they participated in the Assembly (Apella) and provided the hoplites in the army. Indeed, they were supposed to be soldiers and nothing else, being forbidden to learn and exercise any other trade. To a large degree, in order to keep the vastly more numerous helots subdued, it would require the constant war footing of the Spartan society. One of the major problems of the later Spartan society was the steady decline in its fully enfranchised citizens, which also meant a decline in available military manpower: the number of Spartiates decreased from 6,000 in 640 BC to 1,000 in 330 BC. The Spartans therefore had to use helots as hoplites, and occasionally they freed some of the Laconian helots, the neodamōdeis (the "newly enfranchised"), and gave them land to settle, in exchange for military service.
The Spartiate population was subdivided into age groups. They considered the youngest, those who were 20 years old, as weaker due to their lack of experience. They would only call the oldest, men who were up to 60 years old; or during a crisis, those who were 65 years old, to defend the baggage train in an emergency.
The principal source on the Spartan Army's organization is Xenophon, an admirer of the Spartans himself. His Constitution of Sparta offers a detailed overview of the Spartan state and society at the beginning of the 4th century BC. Other authors, notably Thucydides, also provide information, but they are not always as reliable as Xenophon's first-hand accounts.
Little is known of the earlier organization, and much is left open to speculation. The earliest form of social and military organization (during the 7th century BC) seems to have been set in accordance with the three tribes (phylai: the Pamphyloi, Hylleis and Dymanes), who appeared in the Second Messenian War (685–668 BC). A further subdivision was the "fraternity" (phratra), of which 27, or nine per tribe, are recorded. Eventually, this system was replaced by five territorial divisions, the obai ("villages"), which supplied a lochos of about 1,000 men each. This system was still used during the Persian Wars, as Herodotus had made references to the "lochoi" in his Histories.
The changes that occurred between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars were not documented. Still, according to Thucydides, at Mantinea in 418 BC, there were seven lochoi present, each subdivided into four pentekostyes of 128 men, which were further subdivided into four enōmotiai of 32 men, giving a total of 3,584 men for the main Spartan army. By the end of the Peloponnesian War, the structure of the army had evolved further, to address the shortages in manpower and create a more flexible system which allowed the Spartans to send smaller detachments on campaigns or garrisons outside their homeland. According to Xenophon, the basic Spartan unit remained the enōmotia, with 36 men in three files of twelve under an enōmotarches. Two enōmotiai formed a pentēkostys of 72 men under a pentēkontēr, and two pentēkostyai were grouped into a lochos of 144 men under a lochagos. Four lochoi formed a mora of 576 men under a polemarchos, the Spartan army's largest single tactical unit. Six morai composed the Spartan army on campaign, to which were added the Skiritai and the contingents of allied states.
The two kings would typically lead the full army in battles. Initially, both would go on campaign at the same time, but after the 6th century BC, only one would do so, with the other remaining in Sparta. Unlike other polis, their authority was severely circumscribed; actual power rested with the five elected ephoroi. A select group of 300 men as royal guards, termed hippeis ("cavalrymen"), accompanied the kings. Despite their title, they were infantry hoplites like all Spartiatai. Indeed, the Spartans did not utilize a cavalry of their own until late into the Peloponnesian War. By then, small units of 60 cavalrymen were attached to each mora. The hippeis belonged to the first mora and were the Spartan army's elite, being deployed on the honorary right side of the battle line. They were selected every year by specially commissioned officials, the hippagretai, drafted from experienced men who already had sons as heirs. This was to ensure that their line would be able to continue.
|"Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε|
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι."
"Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by, that here,
obedient to their laws, we lie."
|Simonides of Ceos, Epitaph on the burial mound of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae|
At first, in the archaic period of 700–600 BC, education for both sexes was, as in most Greek states, centred on the arts, with the male citizen population later receiving military education. However, from the 6th century onwards, the military character of the state became more pronounced, and education was totally subordinated to the needs of the military.
Both boys and girls were brought up by the city women until the age of seven, when boys (paidia) were taken from their mothers and grouped together in "packs" (agelai) and were sent to what is almost equivalent to present-day military boot camp. This military camp was known as the Agoge. They became inured to hardship, being provided with scant food and clothing; this also encouraged them to steal, and if they were caught, they were punished – not for stealing, but for being caught. There is a characteristic story, told by Plutarch: "The boys make such a serious matter of their stealing, that one of them, as the story goes, who was carrying concealed under his cloak a young fox which he had stolen, suffered the animal to tear out his bowels with its teeth and claws, and died rather than have his theft detected." The boys were encouraged to compete against one another in games and mock fights and to foster an esprit de corps. In addition, they were taught to read and write and learned the songs of Tyrtaios, that celebrated Spartan exploits in the Second Messenian War. They learned to read and write not for cultural reasons, but so they could be able to read military maps. At the age of twelve, a boy was classed as a "youth" (meirakion). His physical education was intensified, discipline became much harsher, and the boys were loaded with extra tasks. The youths had to go barefoot, and were dressed only in a tunic both in summer and in winter.
Adulthood was reached at the age of 18, and the young adult (eiren) initially served as a trainer for the boys. At the same time, the most promising youths were included in the Krypteia. If they survived the two years in the countryside they would become full blown soldiers. At 20, Spartans became eligible for military service and joined one of the messes (syssitia), which included 15 men of various ages. Those who were rejected retained a lesser form of citizenship, as only the soldiers were ranked among the homoioi. However, even after that, and even during marriage and until about the age of 30, they would spend most of their day in the barracks with their unit. Military duty lasted until the 60th year, but there are recorded cases of older people participating in campaigns in times of crisis.
Throughout their adult lives, the Spartiates continued to be subject to a training regime so strict that, as Plutarch says, "... they were the only men in the world with whom war brought a respite in the training for war." Bravery was the ultimate virtue for the Spartans: Spartan mothers would give their sons the shield with the words "[Return] With it or [carried] on it!" (Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς), that is to say, either victorious or dead, since in battle, the heavy hoplite shield would be the first thing a fleeing soldier would be tempted to abandon –- rhipsaspia, "dropping the shield", was a synonym for desertion in the field.
Like the other Greek city-states' armies, the Spartan army was an infantry-based army that fought using the phalanx formation. The Spartans themselves did not introduce any significant changes or tactical innovations in hoplite warfare, but their constant drill and superb discipline made their phalanx much more cohesive and effective. The Spartans employed the phalanx in the classical style in a single line, uniformly deep in files of 8 to 12 men. When fighting alongside their allies, the Spartans would normally occupy the honorary right flank. If, as usually happened, the Spartans achieved victory on their side, they would then wheel left and roll up the enemy formation.
During the Peloponnesian War, battle engagements became more fluid, light troops became increasingly used, and tactics evolved to meet them. However, in direct confrontations between the two opposing phalanxes, stamina and "pushing ability" were what counted. It was only when the Thebans, under Epaminondas, increased the depth of a part of their formation at the Battle of Leuctra that caused the Spartan phalanx formation to break.
According to Xenophon, the ephors would first mobilize the army. After a series of religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the army assembled and set out. The army proceeding was led by the king, with the skiritai and cavalry detachments acting as an advance guard and scouting parties. The necessary provisions (barley, cheese, onions and salted meat) were carried along with the army, and a helot manservant accompanied each Spartan. Each mora marched and camped separately, with its baggage train. The army gave sacrifice every morning as well as before battle by the king and the officers; if the omens were not favourable, a pious leader might refuse to march or engage with the enemy.
The Spartans used the same typical hoplite equipment as their other Greek neighbors; the only distinctive Spartan features were the crimson tunic (chitōn) and cloak (himation), as well as long hair, which the Spartans retained to a far later date than most Greeks. To the Spartans, long hair kept its older Archaic meaning as the symbol of a free man; to the other Greeks, by the 5th century, the hairstyle's peculiar association with the Spartans had come to signify pro-Spartan sympathies.
The letter lambda (Λ), standing for Laconia or Lacedaemon, which was painted on the Spartans' shields, was first adopted in 420s BC and quickly became a widely known Spartan symbol. Military families passed on their shields to each generation as family heirlooms. The Spartan shields' technical evolution and design evolved from bashing and shield wall tactics. They were of such great importance in the Spartan army that while losing a sword and a spear was an exception, to lose a shield was a sign of disgrace. Not only did a shield protect the user, but it also protected the whole phalanx formation. To come home without the shield was the mark of a deserter; rhipsaspia, or "dropping the shield," was a synonym for desertion in the field. Mothers bidding farewell to their sons would encourage them to come back with their shields, often saying goodbyes such as "Son, either with this or on this" (Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς). This saying implied that they should return only in victory, a controlled retreat, or dead, with their body carried on the shield.
Spartan hoplites were often depicted bearing a transverse horsehair crest on their helmet, which was possibly used to identify officers. During the Archaic period, Spartans were armored with flanged bronze cuirasses, leg greaves, and a helmet, often of the Corinthian type. It is often disputed which torso armor the Spartans wore during the Persian Wars. However, it seems likely they either continued to wear bronze cuirasses of a more sculptured type or instead had adopted the linothōrax. During the later 5th century BC, when warfare had become more flexible, and full-scale phalanx confrontations became rarer, the Greeks abandoned most forms of body armor. The Lacedaemonians also adopted a new tunic, the exōmis, which could be arranged to leave the right arm and shoulder uncovered and free for action in combats.
The Spartan's main weapon was the dory spear. For long-range attacks, they carried a javelin. The Spartiates were also always armed with a xiphos as a secondary weapon. Among most Greek warriors, this weapon had an iron blade of about 60 centimetres; however, the Spartan version was typically only 30–45 centimetres. The Spartans' shorter weapon proved deadly in the crush caused by colliding phalanxes formations – it was capable of being thrust through gaps in the enemy's shield wall and armor, where there was no room for longer weapons. The groin and throat were among the favorite targets. In one account, an Athenian asked a Spartan why his sword was so short, and after a brief pause, he replied, "It's long enough to reach your heart." In another, a Spartan complained to his mother that the sword was short, to which she simply told him to step closer to the enemy. As an alternative to the xiphos, some Spartans selected the kopis as their secondary weapon. Unlike the xiphos, which is a thrusting weapon, the kopis was a hacking weapon in the form of a thick, curved iron sword. In Athenian art, Spartan hoplites were often depicted using a kopis instead of the xiphos, as the kopis was seen as a quintessential "bad guys" weapon in the Greeks' eyes. The Spartans retained the traditional hoplite phalanx until the reforms of Cleomenes III when they were re-equipped with the Macedonian sarissa and trained in the phalanx style.
Spartans trained in pankration, a famous martial art in Ancient Greece that consisted of boxing and grappling. Spartans were so adept in pankration that they were mostly forbidden to compete when it was inducted in the Olympic Games.
During the Hellenistic period, Spartan equipment evolved drastically. Since the early 3rd century BC, the pilos helmet had become almost standard within the Spartan army, being in use by the Spartans until the end of the Classical era. Also, after the "Iphicratean reforms," peltasts became a much more common sight on the Greek battlefield, and themselves became more heavily armed. In response to Iphicrates' victory over Sparta in 392 BC, Spartan hoplites started abandoning body armour. Eventually, they wore almost no armour apart from a shield, leg greaves, bracelets, helmet and a robe. Spartans did start to readopt armour in later periods, but on a much lesser scale than during the Archaic period. Finally, during 227 BC, Cleomenes' reforms introduced updated equipment to Sparta, including the Macedonian sarissa (pike). However, pike-men armed with the sarissa never outnumbered troops equipped in the hoplite style. It was also at that time Sparta adopted its own cavalry and archers.
Contrary to popular belief, Spartans valued knowledge and education more than the Athenians did. Spartan philosophers include Lycurgus and Chilon of Sparta. Although Athens has been praised as the "inventor" of democracy and philosophy, Sparta often has been viewed in popular culture as a society characterized by brutal, mindless discipline and merciless emphasis on physical fitness. Sparta, however, had its own democratic government. In the Appella or Demos, as early as 700 BC, Spartans elected leaders and voted by range voting and shouting. Every male aged 30 and above could participate. Aristotle called the Spartan electoral process "childish" in contrast to the stone ballots cast by the Athenians. Sparta adopted its procedure for simplicity and prevented any biased voting, bribing, or cheating that was predominant in the early democratic elections.
The Spartan public education system, the agoge, trained the mind as well as the body. Spartans were not only literate but admired for their intellectual culture and poetry. Socrates said the "most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are found more sophists than anywhere on earth." The state provided public education for girls and boys, and consequently, the literacy rate was higher in Sparta than in other Greek city-states. In education, the Spartans gave sports the most emphasis.
Self-discipline, not kadavergehorsam (mindless obedience), was the goal of Spartan education. Sparta placed the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity at the center of their ethical system. These values applied to every full Spartan citizen, immigrant, merchant, and even to the helots, but not the dishonored. Helots are unique in the history of slavery in that, unlike traditional slaves, they were allowed to keep and gain wealth. For example, they could keep half of their agricultural produce and presumably could also accumulate wealth by selling them. There are known to have been occasions that a helot with enough money could purchase their freedom from the state.
The Spartan hoplite followed a strict laconic code of honor. No soldier was considered superior to another. Suicidal recklessness, misbehavior, and rage were prohibited in the Spartan army, as those behaviours endangered the phalanx. Recklessness could also lead to dishonor, as in the case of Aristodemus. Spartans regarded those who fight, while still wishing to live, as more valorous than those who don't care if they die. They believed that a warrior must not fight with raging anger but with calm determination. Spartans must walk without any noise and speak only with few words by the laconic way of life. Other ways for Spartans to be dishonored include dropping the shield (rhipsaspia), failing to complete the training, and deserting in battles. Dishonored Spartans were labelled as outcasts and would be forced to wear different clothing for public humiliation. In battles, the Spartans told stories of valor to inspire the troops and, before a major confrontation, they sang soft songs to calm the nerves.
Throughout their history, the Spartans were a land-based force par excellence. During the Persian Wars, they contributed a small navy of 20 triremes and provided the overall fleet commander. Nevertheless, they largely relied on their allies, primarily the Corinthians, for naval power. This fact meant that, when the Peloponnesian War broke out, the Spartans were supreme on land, but the Athenians excelled at sea. The Spartans repeatedly ravaged Attica, but the Athenians who were kept supplied by sea, were able to stage raids of their own around the Peloponnese with their navy. Eventually, it was the creation of a navy that enabled Sparta to overcome Athens. With Persian gold, Lysander, appointed navarch in 407 BC, was able to master a strong navy and successfully challenged and destroyed Athenian predominance in the Aegean Sea. However, the Spartan engagement with the sea would be short-lived, and did not survive the turmoils of the Corinthian War. In the Battle of Cnidus of 394 BC, the Spartan navy was decisively defeated by a joint Athenian-Persian fleet, marking the end of Sparta's brief naval supremacy. The final blow would be given 20 years later, at the Battle of Naxos in 376 BC. The Spartans periodically maintained a small fleet after that, but its effectiveness was limited. The last revival of the Spartan naval power was under Nabis, who created a fleet to control the Laconian coastline with aid from his Cretan allies.
The fleet was commanded by navarchs, who were appointed for a strictly one-year term, and apparently could not be reappointed. The admirals were subordinated to the vice-admiral, called epistoleus. This position was seemingly independent of the one-year term clause because it was used in 405 BC to give Lysander command of the fleet after he was already an admiral for a year.
|743 BC – 724 BC||First Messenian War||Sparta||Messenia||Spartan Victory|
|685 BC – 668 BC||Second Messenian War||Sparta||Messenia||Spartan Victory|
|669 BC – 668 BC||First Battle of Hysiae||Sparta||Argos||Spartan Defeat|
|494 BC||Battle of Sepeia||Sparta||Argos||Spartan Victory|
|395 BC||Battle of Haliartus||Sparta||Thebes||Spartan Defeat|
|394 BC||Battle of Nemea||Sparta||Argos
|394 BC||Battle of Cnidus||Sparta||Athens
|394 BC||Battle of Coronea||Sparta
|390 BC||Battle of Lechaeum||Sparta||Athens||Spartan Defeat|
|376 BC||Battle of Naxos||Sparta||Athens||Spartan Defeat|
|July 6, 371 BC||Battle of Leuctra||Sparta||Boeotian League (Thebes)||Spartan Defeat|
|July 4, 362 BC||Second Battle of Mantinea||Sparta
|227 BC||Battle of Mount Lycaeum||Sparta||Achaean League||Spartan Victory|
|227 BC||Battle of Ladoceia||Sparta||Achaean League||Spartan Victory|
|226 BC||Battle of Dyme||Sparta||Achaean League||Spartan Victory|
|222 BC||Battle of Sellasia||Sparta||Achaean League
|195 BC||Battle of Gythium||Sparta||Achaean League