The Spartan Anomaly

By MSW Add a Comment 10 Min Read


Sparta was the one city-state in Greece that deviated from the pattern of warfare described above. By the sixth century BCE, the Spartans had established the only real standing army in Greece, training hoplites who can be classified as professionals. Sparta’s deviation from the norm stemmed from a war fought in the eighth century in which Sparta had defeated neighboring Messenia. Sparta had then reduced many of the citizens of that region to the status of serfs, called helots. The helots, who lived quite a distance from Sparta, had to turn over half of their produce to their Spartan masters. In the middle of the seventh century, the helots, emboldened by a Spartan defeat at the hands of rival Argos, rebelled against Spartan control. The uprising by the Messenians nearly ended in defeat for the Spartans, but they were able to put down the rebellion. Afterward, Spartan attitudes hardened, and the Spartan system of the classical period developed.

The Spartans reduced the helots to the status of slaves of the state and allotted land and helots to work it to each Spartan. As a result, rather than serving part-time as citizen-farmers, the Spartans could spend their time training for war, preempting the threat of another war with Messenia or Argos. The Spartans also made use of terror to control the helot population and make them more docile servants of the state. For example, the Spartans annually declared war on the helots so that Spartans could kill helots with impunity. Even more frightening was the work of the Krypteia, the Spartan secret police. All men under age 30 served for two years in the Krypteia. Under certain circumstances, most likely when a helot revolt threatened, these young men were sent out armed only with a dagger and a supply of rations. They were to kill every helot they met, and they sometimes sought out particularly strong helots to slay.

In order to create the army necessary to enforce this system, the Spartans began preparing young men for war virtually at birth. All male Spartan newborns were inspected by the elders of their tribes; those deemed unfit were thrown into the gorge of Mount Taygetus. Those deemed fit lived at home until age 7 and then entered the agoge, the Spartan way of life. They were taught to live on modest rations and to endure being left alone, and they learned dances that involved the weapons of a hoplite to accustom them to moving to the sound of the flute (phalanxes marched in time to flute playing). At age 12, training became more intense-boys were deprived of food and encouraged to steal rations, since this would prepare them to live off the land (stealing was fine-but those who were discovered were whipped for having been caught). To prepare for the rigors of campaigning, the boys received but a single thin cloak to be used year-round and slept on a bed of reeds. At age 18 or 20, the young men joined a mess of about fifteen men. They would live in the barracks with their messmates until age 30, at which time they could start their own households (they could marry at 20 but still lived in the barracks).

This harsh system allowed the Spartans to create a superlative hoplite force. The Spartans organized their phalanx into companies and regiments unknown to other phalanxes and had a more formal command structure than anything seen elsewhere in Greece. They drilled in special maneuvers that made the Spartan phalanx much more effective and flexible on the battlefield. And the harsh training gave the Spartans a fearsome reputation as doughty soldiers capable of enduring hardship in silence.

There was, however, a price for this system: a perennial shortage of manpower. Some of this was made up for by the inclusion in the Spartan army of perioikoi (literally, “those who dwell around”), members of nearby towns who had surrendered control of their foreign policy to the Spartans in return for protection. They governed themselves but followed Sparta’s lead in foreign affairs. Sparta also had allies organized into a confederation known as the Peloponnesian League, although Spartan control of the league varied greatly. The nature and extent of Sparta’s manpower problems have been debated-there was probably no shortage of actual Spartans, just of ones well off enough to contribute to the mess and thus serve in the phalanx-but it was severe enough that at times the Spartans promised helots freedom and rights in exchange for military service, often far from home.

The Peloponnesian War, 431–404 BCE

The growth of Athenian power troubled the Spartans. Sparta was the status quo power in Greece. It had led, at least in name, the allies in the war against Persia in 480-79 BCE, and it was the dominant power for at least twenty years thereafter. But as Athens’ power grew, the Spartans’ position was jeopardized. Tensions were heightened by the obvious political difference between democratic Athens and monarchical Sparta, a difference central to the internal politics of many of both cities’ allies. Thucydides explicitly states that Sparta was motivated by fear when it began the great Peloponnesian War in 431. When Corcyra, an Athenian ally, and Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League, went to war in 431, mediation failed, both leagues lined up behind their allies, and the war began. Some still opposed war: The astute Spartan king Archidamus noted that Sparta might need to go to war with Athens, but not at this time-if it did, it would be a war Spartans would leave to their children. He was proved right, as the changes in Greek warfare latent since the end of the Persian Wars transformed the limited engagements of the sixth century into a long and bitter conflict in which the customs of earlier Greek combat went by the boards.

Winning Strategy

The Peloponnesian War saw numerous actions both on land and at sea, and in these actions, the impact of the Persian Wars can be seen. Strategically, the Greeks had learned much from the war with Persia, and both alliances planned and executed complex strategies. The war’s complicated alliances dictated operations on several fronts at once. The Athenian strategy formulated by Pericles at the beginning of the war would have been impossible sixty years earlier: He succeeded in convincing the Athenians to abandon Attica and remain within the walls of Athens, her fortified naval arsenal at Piraeus, and the famous Long Walls that connected them, relying on the fleet for supplies. He hoped that after two or three years the Spartans would give up when they could not draw the Athenians into a hoplite battle. Unfortunately, Spartan resolve lasted longer than Pericles anticipated, and something of a strategic stalemate developed between Spartan land power and Athenian naval power.

Subversion of allies and conversion of neutrals became important tools in the conflict; the correspondingly increased need to securely hold allies in place led both sides, especially Athens, into increasingly brutal measures against revolts and resistance. Both sides also looked farther afield for ways to break the stalemate. This proved disastrous for Athens when its expedition against Syracuse in 415-13 resulted in a major defeat for both its fleet and its army. Still, Athenian forces recovered in the years after Syracuse and remained more than a match for Peloponnesian forces at sea. But Sparta brought Persian naval forces and money into its war effort in 408, and a series of naval victories combined with a near-constant land siege of Athens brought the war to an end in 404.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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