The Spartans at war

Myth vs reality

Were the Spartans really so great in war? What are the roots of their image as invincible super-soldiers? A deep dive into their history and institutions shows that there is some truth, but also a great deal of distortion.

Roel Konijnendijk

For the last few years, I have been a regular member of the panel of experts on AskHistorians, one of the largest public history platforms on the Internet. People ask questions about my area of expertise, and I answer them.

Some time ago, I was asked a question that may come to many people’s minds after watching a movie like 300 (2006) or playing a game like Total War: Rome 2 (2013) or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018): “Is our worship of Spartan warriors really justified?

It is impossible to answer in a few words. Were the Spartans better warriors than the other Greeks? In some ways, yes. Were they better for the reasons that a lot of modern people seem to think? Certainly not.

In the last few decades, ground-breaking work from a group of ancient historians spearheaded and fostered by Stephen Hodkinson at the University of Nottingham has completely changed the way we see Classical Sparta. Hodkinson refers to the stereotypical image of Sparta as the “theme park version” and has completely debunked the myths that we find in old scholarship and modern pop culture.

The works of the “Nottingham school” allows us to peel back the myth of Spartan military excellence one layer at a time – from the actual history of Spartan martial prowess, to the distinctive features of their way of war, to the way this has been (mis)understood and used in recent times.

Sparta’s military reputation

In the Archaic period (ca. 800–500 BC), nothing marks out the Spartans as particularly skilled in war. Sure, Spartan power gradually increased throughout the period, but this seems to have been largely because there were just so many Spartans: with about 8,000 adult male citizens around 500 BC, Sparta was one of the largest political communities of the Greek world. Small wonder then that they were able to subject their neighbours until they effectively controlled the entire Peloponnese.

But no source from this period says anything about the Spartans being particularly warlike, having unique military institutions or abilities, or being a daunting opponent in war. We even have some tentative evidence to suggest the opposite. A Byzantine lexicon preserves an Archaic story that the people from Aigiai, a very small state that had just won a victory against its neighbours, arrogantly went to ask the Oracle at Delphi who were the best of all the Greeks, expecting to be told that it was them, the Aigians. The Oracle replied who were really the best (Souda s.v. “you, Megarians”):

a Thessalian horse, a Spartan woman, and men who drink the water of fine Arethoussa [i.e. from Syracuse]; but there are better still than them – those who dwell between Tiryns and Arcadia rich in flocks: the linen-cuirassed Argives, spurs of war. But you, Aigians, are neither third nor fourth, nor even twelfth.

It is an excellent putdown, but also a telling list. It suggests that not Sparta but Argos was famous for its warriors; Sparta was known to have the best women.

Some native Spartan writers survive from this period, and they confirm the sense that Sparta was not really special among the Greek states. The war songs of Tyrtaios speak of bitter conflict with the neighbouring Messenians, but they don’t mention any of the military institutions, practices or ranks known from later times. The choral songs of Alkman, meanwhile, are full of happy verses about pretty girls and flowers and bees.

At the so-called Battle of the Champions, around 550 BC, a picked force of 300 Spartans fought a group of 300 Argives for control over a patch of borderland. The end result, according to Herodotos (1.82), was that two of the Argives and only one Spartan were left alive. While this may be little more than a legendary tale, it does not suggest the Spartans were in any sense superior in combat; apparently the Argives could give as good as they got in a mass duel, where they had nothing to rely on but their own skill and strength.

Then came the Battle of Thermopylai (480 BC).

Our main source for this battle (the historian Herodotos) was born only a few years before it took place, and lived his adult life in a time when the story of Leonidas’ last stand was widely known. This is unfortunate, because that means the legend it spawned already contaminates our earliest source. Herodotos already gushes about how the Spartans are indifferent to death, will never retreat or surrender, and are basically the best warriors in the world.

However, Herodotos is unable to show in his description of the battle that this was actually the case. Apart from some peculiar feigned retreats, the Spartans seem to fight just like everybody else, taking their turns to guard a strong point that countless armies throughout history have successfully blocked even against overwhelming enemy numbers. Their advantage was the terrain, and any Greek force could have done just as well as the Spartans in holding the pass. But the Spartan decision to stand their ground, even after the pass had been turned, made them into legends.

A great deal can be said about Thermopylai and the senseless sacrifice of Leonidas and his men; the Reddit podcast I did on the topic provides an overview of the latest scholarship on the battle. The main thing to note here is that the Spartans seem to have taken complete control of the way the battle was remembered. Even though Thebans and Thespians also stayed and fought to the last man, the story was always how the Spartans had done so. Even though the Persians triumphed, and the Greek defeat brought untold suffering upon the Phokians, Boiotians and Athenians, the story was always that the Spartans’ defiance made the battle a moral victory. They had sacrificed themselves for Greece. They had lived up to their harsh laws and died where they stood.

At Thermopylai, Sparta made its name as a society of warriors. Afterwards, everyone feared them; we are frequently told of the shaking knees and chattering teeth of those who know they are going up against Spartans. However, from the sources of the Classical period, it becomes clear that Sparta is feared and respected in warfare only because of Thermopylai. No one can name any other example of Spartans fighting to the death against insurmountable odds. When the Spartans surrendered at the Battle of Sphakteria (425 BC), comparisons were immediately drawn with the men of Leonidas, whose reputation the warriors at Sphakteria had failed to live up to. There was apparently no other go-to example of Spartan prowess.

It seems that the success of their propaganda coup prompted the Spartans to commit to the name they had made for themselves. There are no more native Spartan writers after the Archaic period; the art and luxury items of Spartan leisure-class culture dry up. Instead, what we find in other sources, people talking about Sparta, is increasing awe at their well-ordered society, their political stability, and their military skill. This keeps building right the way through the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and the most incredible tales of Spartan ruthlessness and single-minded obsession with warfare were actually written in the days of the Roman Empire – centuries after Sparta was beaten in war by the city-state of Thebes and reduced to the status of second-rate power.

It would seem that the Spartans of the Classical period doubled down on their reputation as a specifically military power, and gradually started building up the system of customs and institutions that would convince later observers that they must always have been a force to be reckoned with. This only seems to have happened in response to their reputation – but in hindsight, it must have been hard for Greek and Roman authors to identify cause and effect.

In other words, the Spartan reputation for military skill and their actual military record appear to be largely unrelated. During their rise to prominence, nobody thought they stood out. In the period of their slow but irrevocable decline, from the fourth century BC onwards, admiration for their methods steadily rose to a fever pitch. This is important; apparently the degree of respect they commanded in ancient times seems to have had little to do with the power they actually had. So it goes, too, in modern times.

Did the Spartans deserve their reputation?

Was there ever any substance to the renown of the Spartan war machine, or were they just coasting along on the glory of Leonidas and the 300? This is where it gets interesting. As noted above, the Spartans indeed seem to have developed some military methods that outstripped those of other city-states, if only after their reputation had been made at Thermopylai. None of the typical features of Spartan warfare that fuelled the admiration of later authors is attested before the time of the Persian Wars. But as time went on, the Spartans began to live up to their name, and made themselves into the kind of military power that amazed and terrified others.

Any description of their military methods should come with a couple of caveats. Firstly, we should never overestimate the degree to which Sparta was a “militaristic” society. It was not. Their entire social hierarchy and political system was that of a more or less typical Greek oligarchy, designed to keep power in the hands of the leisured elite, who devoted themselves to the defence and administration of the community (besides the running of their estates, of course). All of Sparta’s institutions – a slave underclass, elite dining groups, state-sanctioned education for citizen boys – are also attested elsewhere. They were not nearly as geared to war as many modern authors have usually argued. If they were, how could Spartiates have time for dancing, singing, seducing boys, hunting hares, hanging around in the marketplace, playing ball games, and raising horses, as the sources said they did?

Secondly, modern accounts of Spartan life will often speak in emphatic terms about how Spartans were raised from boyhood to be the world’s finest soldiers. This is not really true. Everyday Spartan training, as we know from several surviving detailed accounts, amounted to nothing more than athletic exercise under the supervision of older citizens. Boys were underfed and harshly treated, encouraged to sneak and steal, and taught to endure all hardship in strict obedience to their superiors – but they were not, at any point, taught to fight. There is zero evidence for Spartan weapon proficiency training. There is also zero evidence that boys, who were not yet of age to be liable for military service, were taught formation drill.

What we do have is evidence that citizen boys would be taught to read, write, dance, and recite poetry. Even when they grew up, they would not be soldiers; Sparta had no military, and fighting was a civic duty, not a profession. Spartan citizens were landed gentry, living off the labour of their helot underclass, and living the rich man’s life that all Greeks aspired to. The boys were taught all the things they would need to know in order to live like a proper Greek leisure-class citizen.

Thirdly, the result of their broad and varied education was that the Spartans were not notably strong or skilled fighters. No source ever suggests that they were individually superior to other Greeks. When Thebes was under Spartan occupation, ca. 383-378 BC, one of the leaders of the Thebans is said to have encouraged young Theban men to take on the Spartan garrison in the wrestling ring; if they could beat them in unarmed combat, they might gain confidence that they could also beat them in battle. One late source even claims that the Spartans actively banned combat sports (and perhaps even weapons training), arguing that battle was about group action and courage much more than about strength or skill.

Finally, what special skill the Spartans developed was mostly within one branch of the Greek tactical system: the hoplite phalanx. This was rarely sufficient to win battles and successfully complete campaigns. The Spartans never really developed an effective light infantry, and were repeatedly trashed in ambushes and running battles by lightly-armed enemies. Meanwhile, Xenophon tells us that for much of the Classical period, Spartan cavalry was worthless (Hellenika 6.4.10-11). It only got better once the Spartans started employing mercenary horsemen (Cavalry Commander 9.4).

The Spartan inability to create a more rounded army was a result of the fact that their military methods grew out of their social organisation, rather than the other way around. In Sparta, all citizens were theoretically equal. Therefore, it was ideologically impossible to make some of them into a mounted elite. The only sufficiently prestigious form of fighting that all citizens could share in was the hoplite phalanx – and this stifled tactical development and made the Spartans dependent on horsey allies to make up the shortfall.

However, there were certainly ways in which the Spartans developed their military methods that other Greeks could only gaze upon with fear and envy. At some point in the half-century after Thermopylai, the Spartans adopted uniform dress for their hoplites (including the famous lambda shields), so that their army would appear on the battlefield as “a single mass of bronze and red” (Xenophon, Agesilaos 2.7).

Also unlike other Greeks, they had specific officers to take care of supply and the sale of spoils. They detached specialist troops for the task of guarding the camp and scouting ahead of the marching column. The relative fitness of their younger warriors meant that they were the only hoplites in the Greek world who could sometimes catch up with light missile troops in pursuit. The strict obedience of the Spartiates, inculcated by their education, made them more reliable in battle than their untrained counterparts in enemy armies, and filled their opponents with a lingering fear that these men, like their ancestors at Thermopylai, would never surrender, and fight on to the bitter end.

By far the most important feature of the Spartan way of war, however, was basic formation drill. It may not seem very noteworthy to us that the Spartans subdivided their armies into platoon-sized units led by their own officers, and that the men were trained to march in step to the sound of flutes; surely this is basic stuff? But none of the other Greeks did it. There is no evidence of any Greek state except Sparta having officers below the level that would command a unit of several hundred men. There is no evidence of any Greek state drilling its troops to march in formation. The Spartans were unique in this; they were also unique in inflicting it upon their subject allies, who had to fight with them in the battle line.

Even if they only started this kind of training when the army was already on the march (which seems likely, given that it must have involved the many non-Spartiates who were part of the Spartan phalanx), it was more than any other Greek army could boast. Their very simple tactical drill – “follow the man in front of you” (Xenophon, Constitution of the Spartans 11.4-6) – gave them a greatly superior degree of control over their hoplites on the battlefield, and made their phalanx a doubly dreadful sight for advancing slowly. Other Greeks had neither the training nor the nerve for this; they charged into battle, running and screaming to overcome their fear.

Thanks to their training, only the Spartans mastered basic manoeuvres, like wheeling or countermarching a hoplite formation. Only the Spartans could pass orders down the chain of command in the heat of battle, allowing them to carry out manoeuvres with large parts of the line, instead of having to rely on shouting their commands loudly enough that at least some of the troops could hear them. The Spartans won several major battles because of this tactical superiority. Other Greeks, when confronted with a Spartan army that had changed its facing or countermarched in good order, rarely stood their ground.

The result was that the Spartans remained undefeated in pitched battle for over 150 years, between their humiliation by the Tegeans at the Battle of the Fetters in the mid-sixth century BC and the unexpected outcome of the Battle of Tegyra, in 375 BC. They may have lost a number of irregular engagements, but in open battle the Spartans appeared invincible – and with every triumph, their reputation was inflated further. This reputation, in turn, caused fear among their enemies, which resulted in further victories. The name the Spartans made for themselves at Thermopylai eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy (Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas 17.6):

The Spartans were of an irresistible courage, and when they came to close quarters their very reputation sufficed to terrify their opponents, who also, on their part, thought themselves no match for Spartans with an equal force.

In this sense, the Spartans didn’t really even need to be good warriors in order to have a reputation for being good warriors. As long as they didn’t lose, their enemies would fill in the blanks with the legend of Thermopylai and other Spartan propaganda, and more victories would follow. When the Thebans broke this cycle with their victories in pitched battle at Tegyra, Leuktra and Second Mantineia, the Greek world largely stopped thinking of the Spartans as particularly fearsome opponents – but by this time there was already enough in the historical record to sustain later authors who idolised Spartan ways and the Spartan state.

Worship of Sparta as a military power

Worship of Sparta as a military power has a long and complicated history, which starts right after the battle of Thermopylai. In fact, it is always Thermopylai and a handful of related anecdotes and sayings (“fight in the shade”, “come back with your shield or on it”) that takes centre stage. The modern obsession with Sparta is no exception; elements of the American right have embraced ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (“come and get them”) as a defiant creed.

This fixation on Thermopylai may be a little puzzling, since the battle was a total defeat with terrible consequences for the peoples of Central Greece. The reason, as noted above, is that Sparta’s entire military reputation was always based on Thermopylai, and modern enthusiasts are simply echoing the several-thousand-year-old stories that amount to the most successful propaganda coup in history.

In ancient times, the story already picked up countless embellishments, and many of the things we take for granted as “known” about Sparta actually derive from sources of the Roman period whose own source of knowledge is lost. Modern products of pop culture, like the movie 300 (2006), present a bizarre mishmash of evidence from 700 years of ancient literary sources and a further 1800 years of later idealisation. The result is the “theme park version” of Sparta – what one scholar nearly a hundred years ago referred to as “the Spartan mirage”.

This is a picture of Sparta as the later ancient admirers of Sparta wanted it to be. It is not, as far as we can tell, what Sparta ever really was. A shockingly large share of the nuggets of “common knowledge” circulating about Sparta are derived from the moral philosopher Plutarch, who wrote his large number of works on Sparta in the second century AD – a time of Roman emperors, not Spartan hoplites. The wonderful thing that scholars have been doing for the last 30 years or so is nothing more revolutionary than trying to disentangle early traditions from late ones, and to get a picture of Classical Sparta from the contemporary sources alone.

For those working outside academia, or in different fields than Spartan studies, it is still difficult to get hold of anything but regurgitations of the Spartan mirage. It is the mirage that inspires military thinkers and political theorists and historians alike. And these people are not always interested in corrections to the military part of the story.

It’s useful to be aware, though, that for much of history, Sparta was not admired for its military achievements, but for its political ones – it represented a stable oligarchy that went without coups or civil wars or tyrants for centuries, while most Greek states had a bad habit of tearing themselves to shreds on a regular basis.

Early Modern European political thinkers saw Sparta as the paragon of responsible government, and Athens as the dire example of what could go wrong if the people were given too much power. This archetypal opposition was originally brought out by Thucydides in his account of the war between these two states, and has been a fixture of international relations theory and political philosophy ever since.

The Spartans here are not big tough militarists, but unpretentious, down-to-earth, committed citizens steering their state to its best possible future. Athenian democracy has only really replaced it as an ideal of modern political theory in the late nineteenth and twentieth century (in part because Marxists were beginning to claim Sparta as a proto-communist society). Needless to say, in the Early Modern narrative of political ideals, the dependency of Sparta on a large class of enslaved labourers is usually left out. The focus is on a society of apparent “equals” whose high status was thought to guarantee their good sense.

In American history, a similar process of redefining political parallels is at work. Initially the US was more inclined towards the land-bound, agricultural, conservative, stable power of Sparta; the villainous British were far more like the seafaring, mercantile, expansionist, acquisitive Athenians. Americans only began to call their state a democracy two generations after it was founded. It was not until the Cold War that the association was fully reversed, since the global naval democratic superpower America suddenly found itself locked in conflict with a dangerously authoritarian land power, the USSR. American thinkers now often like to see the US as an inheritor of the great Athenian democratic ideal, but this is a much more recent way of thinking than they may be aware.

Closing thoughts

The story of Thermopylai was just one part of the idealisation of Sparta – how the stable oligarchy was defended by its committed members. Of course, many militaries have liked to think that they, too, had the stuff that made Leonidas decide to stay in the pass; that they, too, would give their lives for their country.

Those who idolise the Spartans for their defeat at Thermopylai are in the company of the Prussian officer class and the Nazis, to name just a few. Some of this idolisation is generic; can you name a more famous defiant last stand? Of course modern militaries would like to mirror themselves on the self-sacrifice and courage of the Spartans at Thermopylai, and of course, given that they have little more than the “theme park version” to go on, they will connect this to all sorts of unrelated and doubtful detail about supposed Spartan institutions and ways.

But some of the idolisation is deeply and dubiously political. As I just said, Sparta has been regarded since ancient times as a superior alternative to democracy and mob rule; this often motivated conservative forces to think of themselves as modern Spartans. Conversely, thanks to the efforts of V.D. Hanson and others to enshrine the Greeks as the ancestors of a “Western way of war”, the stand against the Persians at Thermopylai has also come to be regarded as an example of “Western”, supposedly freedom-loving and enlightened, defiance of “Eastern” tyranny and oppression.

In this view, again, the Spartans’ brutal oppression and exploitation of a significant part of their own population as though they were little more than animals is conveniently ignored. Aspects of Spartan life such as endemic pederasty or painstaking adherence to religious ritual and omens are also left out. Where the modern American military identifies itself with symbols and terms derived from the legend of the Spartans at Thermopylai, and all that has come to be attached to it, it may be because it believes the Spartans acted as defenders of the free and rational West – an unhistorical and dangerous perspective without critical reflection about who the Spartans really were, and whether they were anything like us.

A video by Invicta

There’s also a video about the Spartan myth produced by Invicta. Research by the author, with artwork by Milek Jakubiec. You can watch it below.