Sparta’s Overblown Reputation

Sparta, the hegemonic city-state that dominated the Peloponnese, threw back the Persians from Greece, and subdued the Athenian Delian League in the Peloponnesian war; Sparta so famed for the quality of her troops; Sparta so remembered for their utterly laconic way of life that included the exposure of allegedly unfit infants, the military training of children, and other shit I can’t think of at the moment–Sparta that was singular in the collective whole of the Hellenic peoples.  She’s overblown, and I’m not saying that I spoke here any lies, but aside from some issues of extent, the way that the truth has been represented is more than a little dishonest.

Now, Sparta is a fairly interesting creature, governed by a counsel of wizened elders and a diarchy of kings.  Perhaps the most notable and most important feature is her culture is a result of her economic strategy.  The Spartans held possession of a huge body of slaves–themselves Greeks–that were collectively called “Helots.”  The Helots were state owned and did all the farming that provided the underpinning of the Spartan economy.  Moreover, the Helots were very numerous, as you might expect; agricultural labor required a much larger percentage of the general population that it does nowadays.  To ensure that this economic arrangement remain, the entire Spartan population was militarized.  All able-bodied men joined the army, and the women were expected to bear more potential soldiers.  The Spartan military, whilst simultaneously intended to fight off external threats, was nevertheless predominantly concerned with putting down Helot rebellions, which were potentially so lethal as to cause the collapse of the Spartan state.  This informed every Spartan military decision from then on.

For example, the very famed fight of the three hundred against the entire Persian military machine along a tiny stretch of coast called Thermopylae, you must have heard about it before?  It’s taken for granted that the Spartans went there knowing they’d never return, but what could they have possibly expected to do with an army of only three hundred when they expected to fight more than a million?  This is a theme of the Spartan contribution to any war effort.  Fearing that they’d be overrun by their own farmers in their fields, the Spartans were for the most part unwilling to contribute troops to collective war efforts, usually mere token forces intended to show solidarity.  But it appears that Leonidas had not gone there with thoughts of suicide in his head, for he brought an army of several thousand more Greeks with him derived from city-states all over the Hellenic world, and in the initial engagements, they were remarkably successful, easily turning back the Persian invaders thanks to the quality of the terrain which restricted the fighting front from the extent of tens or hundreds of thousands of men across to mere hundreds–if that.  In addition to this, they actually had a makeshift wall properly supported to retreat to in case the fighting became too pernicious.

Little known fact is that Leonidas had been promised more troops from Sparta which simply never arrived.  The Spartans were dead set on defending the Corinthian Isthmus; the Spartans seemed to not understand that the Persians could simply sail around.  Leonidas was a sacrifice intended to appease the allies while they made time for their fortifications.  So when the Phocians in the hills failed to resist the immortals moving across the elevated portions, Leonidas was surrounded, and there was little more than could be done.  The Athenian allies on their ships in the waters nearby could do little but watch in horror as the Greeks were gobbled up in spite of the Athenian successes against the significantly larger Persian navy.

I have a hard time respecting Spartan military excellence.  It’s not because they weren’t great soldiers–indeed they were–but they just weren’t very hungry to fight.  There are several Spartan admirals and generals too clever and too lupine to be real Spartans, but the general vulgus were used altogether too cautiously and as a result made little fame for themselves.  What matters the quality of a hundred thousand soldiers if they never see the field?

There’s significantly more to it than merely this, I’m afraid, but I’m not a scholar and neither do I have the time to delineate all the factors.  All I intend to indicate is that Sparta was always slow to fight, altogether too conservative, and abusive with its allies.  Beyond this, their knowledge of fighting was predominantly restricted to the traditional phalanx, and the developing face of warfare left them behind in the end.  But that’s what happens when you let someone else do all your industry for you.  Lazy fucks.