The Spartan Army at its zenith brought to battle six to ten thousand men -- Spartiates, Perioeci, and Helots. Spartiates were the true Spartan citizens who had logged twenty years in the Agoge while Perioeci were Spartan sympathizers from the cities surrounding Sparta, and Helots, of course, were the Messenian serfs who farmed for the Spartan people.
At the Battle of Platea in 479 B.C, the Spartan Army consisted of 5,000 Spartiates and 5,000 Perioeci. After the great earthquake of 464 B.C. wiped out a generation of infantry, the Spartans were forced to brigade the heterogeneous groups together to cover up the shortage of Spartiates. In spite of this loss, Sparta was able to maintain its fighting strength through the end of the Peloponnesean War. For example, at the Battle of Nemea River in 396 B.C, the Spartans fielded 6,000 hoplites.
As I have written in previous posts, the Peloponnesean War was the hollowest of victories for Sparta – perhaps the hollowest of all time. The Spartan oligarchy did not translate well to governing the conquered because the Athenians were used to the democratic style. In addition, the Spartans were heavy-handed, causing Athens to overthrow the puppet government within a year. There is general agreement that the Spartan army was degraded after 400 B.C, because the wealth and high living of Athens corrupted traditional behavior. The spoils of war funded new luxury in Sparta, encouraging class differentiation and a move away from old lifestyle. The resulting effect on the Spartan army was disinterest in the agoge and fewer Spartiates.
The date 371 B.C. marked the end of the Spartan Army as a major fighting force when it was defeated at the Battle of Leuctra. Xenophon’s casualty list shows how far the Spartans had fallen by that time. Only one thousand fifty Spartiates from the ages of 20-54 fought in the battle and four hundred of this number killed. The majority of the defeated army was Perioeci.
Following Leuctra, the Spartan Army faded from view for almost a century. The rise of Macedon under Philip led to the formation of the Corinthian League in 338 B.C, which excluded Sparta. Then, after Alexander’s death, the Macedonian Civil War reached Sparta and it was attacked unsuccessfully in 294 B.C. In 272 B.C, Pyrrhus placed Sparta under siege but had to withdraw. These Spartan armies during this time were in the majority mercenary. Sometimes Helots could buy their freedom by serving; other times Sparta advertized anyone who would fight for pay.
Starting in 236 B.C, there was an effort to return Sparta to its former glory by reintroducing the Lycurgian customs. Cleomenes was successful at dividing property so as to spread the wealth more evenly among the people, but his attempts to reestablish Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnese was cut off at Sellasia in 222 when a Spartan army of 6,000 was wiped out, forcing Cleomenes into exile.
What can we conclude about the Spartan Army during this period?
There is no question that the traditions of the agoge were degraded after Leuctra. It must have disappeared at some point because we know that Cleomenes tried to revive it in 236 B.C. It is likely that the few Spartiates and commanders retained the style of Spartan armor and weapons over time with some exceptions. Torso armor was replaced with a tunic during the fifth century. The Doru (six foot spear) was replaced by the Macedonian sarissa during the time of Cleomenes, as the Macedonian Phalanx became the accepted model for a battle formation. What the auxiliaries and mercenaries wore is unknown. Perhaps they wore whatever they owned because war was their profession and they needed to be prepared for it.
Leuctra proved that the old Spartan style of fighting was obsolete. Archers and cavalry were used effectively against them and the old Spartan adage against “fighting like women” was replaced to adapt to the new style of warfare.
This post recognizes the gamers for their interest in historical accuracy. Getting it right is always important.