This isn’t meant to sound like a cop-out, but: it’s complicated. Were the Spartans better at warfare than other Greek city-states? In some ways, yes. Were they better for the reasons that a lot of modern people seem to think? Absolutely not. There’s been some really amazing academic work in recent decades, championed by Stephen Hodkinson at the University of Nottingham, that 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 myth that Sparta was ever really like what old scholarship and pop culture says it was like. To get to a comprehensive answer, I’ll have to go through the topic one step at a time – from the actual history of Spartan military prowess, to the distinctive features of their way of war, and finally to the way this has been (mis)understood in recent times.
Sparta’s military reputation
In the Archaic period (8th-6th century BC), nothing marks out the Spartans as particularly skilled at warfare. Spartan power gradually increased throughout the period, it’s true, 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. In fact, there is an ancient 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 that the best of all were ‘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.’ (Souda s.v. ‘you, Megarians’). Apart from the sick burn, the message to take from this is that Argos was famous for its warriors, while Sparta produced the best women.
We still get some native Spartan writers in this period, and they confirm the sense that Sparta was not really special. The war songs of Tyrtaios speak of bitter conflict with the neighbouring Messenians, but they don’t mention any of the military institutions (unit and officer names, etc.) known from later times. The drinking songs of Alkman, meanwhile, just go on 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 2 of the Argives and only 1 Spartan were left alive. While this may be little more than a legendary tale, it shows that no one assumed the Spartans would be naturally superior in combat.
Then came Thermopylai.
Our main source for the battle of Thermopylai (Herodotos of Halikarnassos) was actually born a few years before the battle, and lived in a time when its story 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, he is unable to show in his description of the battle that this was actually the case. Apart from some 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 defended even when outnumbered. 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.
We could talk a lot more about Thermopylai and the senseless sacrifice of Leonidas and his men, but the main thing to note 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 down on 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 fears them; we’re frequently told of the shaking knees and chattering teeth of those who know they’re 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 at this point the Spartans decided to commit to the name they’d made for themselves. For the entire Classical period, there are no native Spartan writers that we know of; the products 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 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 separate 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, 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.
Were the Spartans actually good at war?
So did the Spartans ever deserve their reputation, or were they just coasting along on the glory of Leonidas and the 300? This is where it gets interesting. As I said, the Spartans indeed seem to have developed some military methods that outstripped those of other city-states – once their reputation had been made at Thermopylai. None of the typical features of Spartan warfare that garnered 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.
First, a couple of caveats. It’s important to stress here that 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 their 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 would have you believe. 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?
Many modern accounts and popular media will speak in emphatic terms about how Spartans were raised from age 7 to be the world’s finest soldiers. This is absolutely wrong in every respect. Everyday Spartan training, as far as we can tell 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. There is evidence that they 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.
It follows that the Spartans were not especially strong or skilled fighters. No source ever suggests that they were individually superior to other Greeks. When Thebes was under Spartan occupation, c. 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, to gain confidence that Spartans could be beaten in battle. Indeed, we’re told that the Spartans actively banned all kinds of combat sport (and perhaps even weapons training), arguing that battle was about group action and courage much more than about strength or skill. It is absolutely certain that the Spartans were nothing like the gung-ho, USMC boot camp tough guys that you’ll find in the pages of Frank Miller or Steven Pressfield.
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). Their 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). 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 enemies, 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 but 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 unique also in inflicting it on 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 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 loudly enough that the men around the general 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 practically undefeated in pitched battle for over 150 years, from the Battle of the Fetters at some point in the 6th century BC right down to the battle of Tegyra in 375 BC. With every victory, their reputation was inflated further. This reputation then caused fear among their enemies, which resulted in further victories. The name the Spartans made for themselves at Thermopylai became a self-fulfilling prophecy:
Hence 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.
-- Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas 17.6
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.
The Spartan mirage
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 and get them’) that takes centre stage in this worship. The modern obsession with Sparta is no exception; some in the American gun lobby now put ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (‘come and get them’) bumper stickers on their cars. 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 stunt in history.
In ancient times, this 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 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. It is a source of endless amusement to have students list things they ‘know’ about Sparta and to point out which of those things (usually all of them) are derived from Plutarch, who wrote his large number of works on Sparta in the 2nd century AD. The wonderful thing that scholars have been doing for the last 30 years or so is nothing more revolutionary than simply 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. This drives 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 very important to note 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 for centuries, while most Greek states made a 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 wise landowners steering their state to its best possible future. Athenian democracy has only really replaced it as an ideal of modern political theory in the 20th century (and in no small 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 Spartan dependency on a large class of enslaved labourers is usually left out.
In American history, a similar process of redefining political parallels is at work. Initially the US was equated with the land-bound, agricultural, conservative, stable power of Sparta, in contrast with Britain, which was more like the seafaring, mercantile, expansionist, acquisitive Athenians. It was only during the Cold War that the association was 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.
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. In more modern times, 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 – something that may be appropriate or disturbing, depending on your point of view.
Nigel Kennell, Spartans: A New History (2010)
S. Hodkinson, ‘Was Classical Sparta a military society?’, in S. Hodkinson & A. Powell (eds.), Sparta & War(2006), 111-162
S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000)
J. Ducat, Spartan Education: Youth and Society in the Classical Period (2006)
S.M. Rusch, Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns, 550-362 BC (2011)
E. Rawson, The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (1969)
S. Hodkinson & I.M. Morris (eds.), Sparta in Modern Thought (2012)