The Spartan Army was the military force of Sparta, one of the leading city-states of ancient Greece. The army stood at the centre of the Spartan state, whose citizens' primary obligation was to be good soldiers. Subject to military drill from infancy, the Spartans were one of the most disciplined, well-trained and feared military forces in world history. At Sparta's heyday in the 6th to 4th centuries BC, it was commonly accepted that "one Spartan was worth several men of any other state".
War chariots were used by the elite, but unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, they appear to have been used mostly for transport, with the warrior dismounting to fight on foot and then remounting it to withdraw from combat, although some accounts show warriors throwing their spear from the chariot before dismounting.
By the late 6th century BC, Sparta was recognized as the preeminent Greek city-state. King Croesus of Lydia established an alliance with them, and later, the Greek cities of Asia Minor appealed to her for help in the Ionian Revolt. In the second Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes, Sparta was assigned the overall leadership of Greek forces on land and at sea. Because of this, the Spartans played a crucial role in the repulsion of the invasion, notably at the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea. In the aftermath however, the plottings of Pausanias with the Persians and the unwillingness of the Spartans to campaign too far from home, meant that they withdrew into a relative isolation, leaving the rising power of Athens to assume the reins of the continued effort against the Persians. This isolationist tendency was further reinforced by the revolts of some of her allies and a great earthquake in 464, which was followed by a large scale revolt of the Messenian helots. The parallel rise of Athens to a major power in Greece led inevitably to friction with Sparta, and to two large-scale conflicts (the First and Second Peloponnesian Wars) which devastated Greece. Sparta suffered several reverses during these wars, including, for the first time, the surrender of an entire Spartan unit at Sphacteria in 425 BC, but ultimately emerged victorious, primarily through the aid it received from the Persians. Under its admiral Lysander, the Persian-funded Peloponnesian fleet captured the cities of the Athenian alliance, and a decisive naval victory at Aegospotami forced Athens to capitulate. The Athenian defeat left Sparta in a dominant position in Greece.
During the absence of Alexander in the East Agis III revolted, but was defeated. After Alexander's death, Sparta again became involved, as an independent state, in the many wars of the 3rd century. Under the reformist kings Agis IV and Cleomenes III, it enjoyed a short-lived revival, scoring successes against the Achaean League, before the final defeat in the Battle of Sellasia. The last Spartan resurgence occurred under Nabis, but following Sparta's defeat in the War against Nabis, the city was incorporated into the Achaean League in 189 BC. This marked the end of Sparta as an independent power, thereafter coming under Roman rule, although retaining the status of an autonomous city.
|"...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 Spartiate population was subdivided into age groups. The youngest at 20 were counted as weaker due to lack of experience, and the oldest, up to 60 or in a crisis 65, were only called up in an emergency, to defend the baggage train.
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 the three tribes (phylai: the Pamphyloi, Hylleis and Dymanes) who appear 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 ca. 1,000 men each. This system was still used during the Persian Wars, as implied by references to the lochoi made by Herodotus in his history.
The changes that occurred between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars are not documented, but according to Thucydides, at Mantinea in 418 BC there were 7 lochoi present, each subdivided into four pentekostyes of 128 and 16 enōmotiai of 32 men, giving a total of 3584 men for the main Spartan army. By the end of the Peloponnesian War, the structure had evolved further, both to address the shortages in manpower and to create a more flexible system that allowed the Spartans to send smaller detachments on campaign or to 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 largest single tactical unit of the Spartan army. Six morai composed the Spartan army on campaign, to which were added the Skiritai and the contingents of allied states.
| "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|
Male and female children 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). They became inured in 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. 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. 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 "With it or on it!", meaning "return with it" or "carried upon it". In battle, the heavy hoplite shield would be the first thing a fleeing soldier would abandon.
Like the other Greek states, the Spartan army was an infantry-based army fighting in 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, engagements became more fluid, light troops became increasingly used and tactics evolved to meet them, but in direct confrontations between 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 the Spartan phalanx broke.
The Spartans used the same typical hoplite equipment as the other Greek neighbors; the only distinctive Spartan features were the crimson tunic (chitōn) and cloak (himation), and the long hair, which the Spartans retained to a far later date than most Greeks. To the Spartans, the long hair retained its older Archaic meaning as the symbol of a free man; to the other Greeks by the 5th century, its peculiar association with the Spartans had come to signify pro-Spartan sympathies. Another widely known Spartan symbol, adopted in the mid-5th century BC, was the letter lambda (Λ), standing for Laconia or Lacedaemon, which was painted on the Spartans' shields. Spartan hoplites were often depicted bearing a transverse horsehair crest on their helmet, which was possibly used to identify officers.
In the Archaic period, Spartans were armored with flanged bronze cuirasses, leg greaves, and a helmet, most usually of the Corinthian type. It is often disputed which torso armor the Spartans wore during the Persian Wars, if any, though 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 so that it left the right arm and shoulder uncovered and free for action in combat. Along with the spear, the Spartiatēs was always armed with a xiphos as a secondary weapon. 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 style of the Macedonian phalanx.
Throughout their history, the Spartans were a land-based force par excellence. During the Persian Wars, they did contribute a small navy of 20 triremes, and provided the overall fleet commander, but 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 supreme at sea. The Spartans repeatedly ravaged Attica, but the Athenians kept being supplied by sea, and 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 muster a strong navy, and successfully challenge and destroy Athenian predominance in the Aegean Sea. The Spartan engagement with the sea would be short-lived however, 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 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. A small fleet was periodically maintained thereafter, but its effectiveness was limited; the last revival of Spartan naval power was under Nabis, who with aid from his Cretan allies created a fleet to control the Laconian coastline.