If this solution is correct, then Spartans reorganized their army at some point after the battle of Plataea and before 418. A solid if not absolutely conclusive argument can be made that this reform took place before 425 B.C.E. because of certain features in Thucydides’ account of the Spartans’ reaction to the threat posed by Demosthenes’ capture of Pylos. Thucydides tells us that the Spartans sent contingents of 420 hoplites in rotation onto the island of Sphacteria drawn by lot from all the lochoi (4.8.9), by which he is understood to mean that the lots were drawn among each enômotia in the lochoi rather than among individual soldiers. If, as is very probable, the Spartans at this time mobilized 35 out of the 40 available age classes from 20 to 59 years of age, the number 420 is best explained as the result of one enômotia of 35 men being drawn from each of 12 lochoi, implying an army of 6 morai, each made up of 2 lochoi. That perioeci were already brigaded with Spartiates in the same morai can be deduced from Thucydides’ statement that of the 292 survivors from the last detatchment only 120 were full Spartan citizens (4.38.5).
After Thucydides, various references in Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, Anabasis, and Hellenica give us a relatively detailed idea of the shape of the army. Despite some difficulties, the picture that emerges is sufficiently clear. The largest unit was the mora, of which there were six (Hell. 6.1.1), each commanded by a pole-marchos (Hell. 4.4.7). Each mora contained two lochoi (Hell. 7.4.20), each under a lochagos (Lac. 11.4, see above), which in turn comprised four pentekostyes (Anab. 3.4.22), whose officers were called either pentekostêres (Hell. 3.5.22, 4.5.7) or pentekonterês (Anab. 3.4.21). In each pentakostys were four enômotiai (Hell. 6.4.12) under the direction of four enômotiarchai (Anab. 3.4.21). This last calculation involves preferring Thucydides’ clear statement that there were four enômotiai in each pentekostys (5.68.3) over Xenophon’s equally bald assertion that there were sixteen enômotiai in each mora, implying only two per pentekostys (Lac. 11.4).
The Spartans had acquired military capabilities of other kinds as well. Their first true cavalry force came into being in 425 as a response to the threat posed by Athenian raiding after their capture of Cythera and the promontory near Pylos (Thuc. 4.55.2). Apparently organized in parallel with the hoplites into six morai (Xen. Lac. 11.4) under hip-parmostai (Xen. Hell. 4.5.12), the total number of cavalry troopers is unknown but was probably somewhat more than 600, the approximate number present in five cavalry morai at the Nemea River in 394 (Xen. Hell. 4.2.16). The cavalry was the junior service, as the commander of a cavalry mora was subordinate to his infantry equivalent, the polemarch (Xen. Hell. 6.5.12). Surprisingly, the pro-Spartan Xenophon, though a horseman himself, had little time for the Spartan cavalry (Hell. 6.4.11).
The Spartan navy that is attested as early as the sixth century (Hdt. 3.54.1) and essentially won the long war against Athens was just barely part of the military establishment. The city’s concentration on infantry, with all the social and institutional biases attending that choice, meant that the maritime service was undervalued. Moreover, apart from captains and marines, the crews were all helots or mercenaries and thus unlikely to have gained much credit in the eyes of Spartiates, despite their evident success (Xen. Hell. 7.1.12). We know of only two Spartan naval ranks, and those only because Lysander held them – nauarchos or navarch, the supreme naval commander, and epistoleus or secretary (Xen. Hell. 2.1.7; Plut. Lys. 7.2–3). The annual post of navarch could only be held once in a lifetime, which may have been intended to thwart the overly ambitious but, as we have seen, potentially deprived Sparta of much-needed military expertise. That only a small handful of Spartan royals ever deigned to command the fleet is a sign of the low esteem in which naval operations were held.
Sparta’s reputation depended upon the hoplites, renowned for their discipline in formation combined with the ability to execute flawlessly what seemed to other Greeks to be complicated maneuvers. The orderliness of the Spartan ranks was result of two factors – the inculcation of obedience that began with entry into the system of citizen training and never really ended, and the depth of rank in the army itself. The Spartan army hierarchy was quite remarkable. The Athenian army, for instance, after the reforms following Marathon, had only three officer ranks: the generals, taxiarchs, and the commanders of lochoi within each taxis. An Athenian lochos may have consisted of 100 men, it has been estimated, over double the size of the enômotia at its maximum capacity. And the Spartan enomotarch was not actually the most junior officer, for under him the file leaders themselves were in charge of the men lined up behind them (Xen. Lac. 11.5), numbering from five to fourteen. Thucydides had a point when he wrote that almost all the Spartan army consisted of officers commanding officers (5.66.4). Orders passed swiftly down this chain of command, enabling the army to shift from marching to battle formation with impressive speed – a maneuver Xenophon assures us the professional arms trainers claimed was extremely difficult – and to face attacks from the sides and rear (Lac. 11.8–10).
Marching in step, while perhaps known to other Greeks, was particularly associated with the Spartan army. Famously, their troops at Mantinea advanced towards the Argive army with a slow rhythmic pace to the sound of many flutes, not for a religious reason, as Thucydides explains to his readers, but in order to maintain a steady pace and to prevent the ranks from breaking up, which tended to occur in large armies (5.70). Plutarch also referred to the awe inspired by a Spartan advance (Lyc. 22.4–5). Greeks had long regarded dancing, either solo or in a choral group, as an eminently effective way of learning both evasive movements to escape from harm on the battlefield and coordinated motion as a unit (Pl. Leg. 796c, 803e, 813e; Athen. 14.25 [628F]). Spartan dances, such as the Pyrrhiche – a lively dance with shield and spear – and the choruses of the Gymnopaediae, Hyacinthia, and others were widely known.
Xenophon thought the choruses and gymnastic competitions of the young men at Sparta worth hearing and seeing (Lac. 4.1–7); they were manifestly an important part of the city’s training of its future citizens. The military advantages gained from a practical knowledge of music and dance are apparent in incidents such as at Amphipolis in 422, when Brasidas’ practiced eye noticed, from the uncoordinated movement of their heads and spears, that the Athenians outside the walls could not withstand a direct assault (Thuc. 5.10.5).
During the fifth century, the Spartan army appears to have become more and more standardized in dress and armament. Like all other Greek armies of the time, Spartan weaponry would have included at a minimum a sword and a short thrusting spear. From early on, all Spartan warriors were famous for growing their hair long – the mark of a free man, as Aristotle (Rhet. 1367a) would have it. But evidence for the other elements in the ancient, and modern, image of the Spartan soldier as an almost faceless unit in a massive killing machine comes from later in the century. The large circular shield that gave the hoplite his name was the characteristic armament of the Greek heavy infantry in the Classical period. Like their counterparts in other cities, Spartans in the later sixth and early fifth centuries most likely carried individual emblems on their shields as a means of personal display. The famous lambda insignia is first mentioned only at the time of the Peloponnesian War (Eupolis Fr. 359 Kock). Spartans were not alone in branding their army in this way; they lulled the Argives into complacency before the Long Walls of Corinth in 392 by carrying shields emblazoned with sigmas taken from a Sicyonian unit they had just defeated (Xen. Hell. 4.4.10).
The earliest mention of the phoinikis, the crimson garment that served as the Spartan military uniform, is in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1136–40), produced in 411, though referring to the aftermath of the earthquake of 465/4 B.C.E. That it was actually a cloak, as some ancient and most modern authors have thought is confirmed by archaeological evidence, namely the remains of prominent Spartiates buried in the Kerameikos after the clash between King Pausanias and the democratic insurgents in 403 B.C.E. (Xen. Hell. 2.4.33).
The skeletons show signs of having been wrapped tightly from head to toe in a long garment which was fastened by pins at the shoulders. This, combined with the near-total absence of grave goods (one body was buried with a single alabastron), fits so nicely with Plutarch’s statement (Lyc. 27.2) that Spartan war dead were customarily buried without any grave goods, crowned with olive, and wrapped in the phoinikis that it seems almost certain that a cloak formed at least part of the military dress known as “the crimson.”
Head coverings were also standardized. Artifacts from the early fifth century, small lead figurines found in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, and the so-called “Bust of Leonidas” depict hoplites wearing helmets of different shapes and designs. By the end of the century, these had been replaced by conical felt hats (piloi) that were indistinguishably uniform. In addition, Spartan hoplites wore light chest protection of quilted linen or leather instead of bronze cuirasses. The evidence for standardization raises the question of procurement. How did individual Spartans acquire their weapons and armor? Historians incline towards a central distribution agency, especially since we know that the state replaced and repaired the equipment of soldiers on campaign (Xen. Lac. 11.2). In such a system, the perioeci would logically have provided the craftsmen to manufacture the articles to Spartan specifications.
Spartan military efficiency was also evident in the swift mobiliztion of troops. The overnight call-up of 5,000 Spartiates along with 35,000 helots before Plataea may strain credulity (Hdt. 9.10.1), but the Spartans clearly had a streamlined system of conscription that made the Athenian practice of the general and taxiarchs selecting troops individually for each campaign look very clumsy indeed. Rather, the Spartans called up hoplites by age in eight blocks of five years each from twenty to fifty-nine. When the ephors “showed the guard,” they designated which units were to be sent out and which age groups would man them (Xen. Lac. 11.2; Hell. 6.4.17). Each Spartiate would have been permanently assigned to a lochos, making mustering simple. Theoretically, each Spartan hoplite would have been the only representative of his year class in every enômotia, so that the number of men in each would have corresponded exactly to the number of year classes mobilized. Such a system would have been unworkably rigid, however, so historians have concluded that each group of five men did not necessarily contain one man from each of the block’s five year classes. Only in the first two blocks, representing the year classes from twenty to twenty-nine, can there have been a realistic chance of filling the one-man, one-year-class requirement, because of the high mortality rate among Spartiate warriors. And, as the first ten year classes (ta deka aph’ hêbês) were commonly sent out as shock troops at the beginning of a battle (Xen. Hell. 2.4.32, 3.4.23, 4.5.14, 5.4.40; Ages. 1.31.6), they were not immune from heavy losses themselves.
These young men were also eligible for distinction as members of the 300-strong crack unit called the hippeis or “knights,” who actually fought as hoplites, not on horseback. Their most prestigious duty was to act as bodyguards for each king while he was on campaign, with the task usually assigned to one-third of their number (Hdt. 6.56). While the rest of the hêbontes were brigaded throughout the lochoi, the hippeis had the extraordinary privilege of forming a separate corps outside the military chain of command. At Mantinea, Leuctra, and other occasions when the Spartan state ordered full mobilization, the entire corps would have been present, with catastrophic results at Leuctra (Xen. Hell. 6.4.15). The hippeis also acted as the domestic security service, as in the Cinadon crisis (Xen. Hell. 3.3.9). The hippeis’ loyalty and discretion in carrying out such sensitive assignments was due to their special status in the Spartan military hierarchy. On campaign the hippeis and hippagretai answered directly to the kings, at home to the ephors. The ephors chose their three commanders, called hippagretai, directly every year from among men over thirty. Each hippagretes then chose one hundred of the best hêbontes to form a contingent of hippeis, publicly announcing his reasons for accepting some and rejecting most (Xen. Lac. 4.3–4). Sparta’s culture of praise and blame would have been on full display on these occasions. The story of Pedaritus (Plut. Lyc. 25.4), who went away smiling after being rejected for the hippeis because, as he said, it meant that the city had three hundred men better than he, is the exception proving the rule. The rejected were encouraged to keep a close watch over the behavior of the chosen in hopes of catching them acting improperly, and the two sets of hêbontes frequently came to blows whenever they happened to meet (Xen. Lac. 4.6).
The army was the Spartans’ pride and joy. Unsurprisingly, they credited Lycurgus with its foundation. Herodotus (1.65.5) reports that Lycurgus was responsible for the military institutions of his own time, in particular, the enômotiai, the sussitia (the common messes, which had some as yet unclear connection with the army), and the mysterious triakades (“thirds”). Curiously, over a hundred years later and after at least one major structural reform, Xenophon also considers Lycurgus the founder of the military institutions of his day (Lac. 11.1–4), including the morai, which most historians regard as the cornerstone of the later fifth century new-style army.
Unlike the Athenians, Spartans buried their warrior dead in the lands where they fell. It was a matter of pride, for Spartiate graves served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project its power. At Sparta, families commemorated their dead relatives with simple memorials bearing their names followed by the famous, suitably laconic, inscription “in war.” As a consequence, one of the most familiar apophthegms, that attributed to a Spartan mother saying, as she bids her warrior son farewell, “(Come back) with it or on it,” meaning his hoplite shield, cannot have been from a Spartan source, since dead warriors were not brought home (Plut. Mor. 241f).
Throwing away one’s shield was an offense commonly punished throughout Greece, but Sparta has always been notorious for severely penalizing soldiers considered to be cowards, or “tremblers” (tresantes). Writers ancient and modern have catalogued the punishments inflicted upon any Spartiate falling short of the city’s demanding code of honor. However, many of the penalties listed in our earliest source, Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (Lac. 9.4–6), were socially, not legally rooted. For example, people were ashamed to eat or exercise in the company of a coward; cowards were left out of the ball teams and assigned the most demeaning positions in dances; young men did not give way to them in the streets nor accord them seats at public events. Moreover, the term “trembler” itself was applied only to one man, Aristodemus, the sole survivor of Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.231–2), who redeemed himself by dying bravely at Plataea (Hdt. 9.71.2). The legal penalty imposed was evidently a form of atimia (loss of citizen rights) that varied according to circumstances and was of a specific duration, as in the case of the 120 ex-POWs from Sphacteria, who were stripped of the right to hold office and carry out financial transactions for a period of time until being restored to full Spartiate status (Thuc. 5.34.2). In the other notable instance of Spartan atimia, Plutarch reports that king Agesilaus called for the laws to sleep for a day during the crisis over how to treat the survivors of the Leuctra disaster (Plut. Ages. 30.5–6). Taking all the evidence together, the harsh treatment of “tremblers” could well have been more notorious to outsiders as a concept than to Spartans as a commonly inflicted punishment.