In the last few posts, we have been discussing the Lycurgan reforms and their impact on the Spartan society – both from the standpoint of the army and changes in the social structure. We have talked about the pressure generated by the peculiar form of government that was forced on the Spartan people. Like any new political innovation, the Lycurgan reforms went through a cycle from introduction. to maturity, and then degradation until they were no longer effective.
I thought it would be interesting to examine how the army degraded over time, using information we have about its composition and performance in battle as data points.
Our time span will be 108 years, starting with the Battle of Platea in 479 B.C. and ending with the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. I chose Platea because it is a milestone victory for the Spartans – one where they were fully deployed, engaged, and victorious. The Spartans fielded 10,000 hoplites (5,000 Spartiates and 5,000 Periokoi) out of the allied total of 38,000. At Platea, the Spartans unquestionably showed their superior military skill.
Leuctra stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Here the Spartans could only field 700 Spartiates, losing 400 of them during the battle. Leuctra was the end of the Spartan army as an effective fighting force.
We are going to look at the ways the Spartan army changed between these two dates – we know that the number of Spartiates decreased and the number of Periokoi increased, but how did these changes occur over time? The desperately small group of Spartiates at Leuctra stands as a negation of the philosophy of the agoge and the ideals of the Lycurgan system.
In reviewing the battles between these two dates, I was struck by a couple of things: there weren’t that many battles that really mattered – that is battles that changed the course of a war or are celebrated in history like Themopylae and Platea. More amazingly, when you look at the chronology of the Peloponnesean War, its military rhythm is a mess. There were a few important battles (e.g. Mantinea), but the rest of the war featured avoidance, internal dissention, obfuscation, signing of treaties, and burning of crops. The Athenians wasted their time in Syracuse and the peace of Nicias spanned six of the twenty-seven years.
I have identified four battles during our span that are significant: Tanagra in 457 B.C, Mantinea in 418 B.C, Nemea River in 394 B.C, and Coronea that same year. Tanagra was part of a war between Sparta and Athens, Mantinea, the Peloponnesean War, and the other two took place during the Corinthian War. Let’s look at these four and see what they tell us.
Tanagra came about when the Phocians made war on the city of Doris--the traditional homeland of Doric Greeks. Sparta sent a relief force under the command of Nicomedes, son of Cleombrotus, acting as regent for his under-age nephew, King Pleistoanax. An army of 1,500 Spartan hoplites (half Periokoi?) with 10,000 of their allies entered Boeotia to compel the submission of Phocis. Their opponents had a combined force of 14,000. The battle ended up a draw and the Spartans went home. We can see the effect of the earthquake on the number of available Spartiates by comparing the numbers with Platea. I am surprised that the Spartans ventured out at a time so close to the earthquake (8 years before). They must have been comforted by the large number of allies willing to go to war with them. We know that the Spartiate contingent consisted of men up to age 45 at Platea, so one may assume the same here (the facts are unknown). The Periokoi would probably have used the same age group.
At Mantinea, the Spartan hoplites numbered 4,632 (28xPentecostys@144 men + 600 Skiratai) according to Thucydides. These were 60% Periokoi and 40% Spartiate. In addition, the Spartiates included those up to age 55. The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Lacedaemonians, with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. The result was a complete victory for the Spartans, who rescued their city from the brink of strategic defeat.
Nemea was a battle in the Corinthian War, between Sparta and the allied cities of Argos, Athens, Corinth, and Thebes. The battle was fought in Corinthian territory, at the dry bed of the Nemea River. The battle was a decisive Spartan victory, which, coupled with the Battle of Coronea later in the same year, gave Sparta the advantage in the early fighting on the Greek mainland. At Nemea, there were about 6,000 hoplites at 60% Periokoi strength. Still 2,400 Spartiates versus 1,600 at Mantinea. One assumes the hoplite disposition at Coronea was the same as Nemea.
Thirteen years after Coronea came the Battle of Leuctra. There were 700 Spartiates participating, including 300 in the king’s guard. The entire guard was wiped out along with 100 other Spartiates. At Leuctra, the ratio of Spartiates to non-Spartiates was one to five. Hardly a demonstration of the power of the agoge.
One might ask why more Periokoi were not used to bring up the strength of the Spartan army at various points There are two answers to that question. In the first place the Periokoi were the citizens of a hundred small towns in the Spartan territory and did not have a large supply of men over the whole time period. Secondly, the Spartans had to include a minimum number of their own hoplites to insure the they were fielding a “Spartan” army that would make the best trained hoplites available.
One sees how the Spartan army was always dependent on its neighbors for fighting strength (Periokoi and allies). It’s easy to forget that Spartiates came from the combined town of Sparta which was not very large. When you factor in the use of Spartiates for other purposes, like occupation and administration of conquered territories, and the necessity to keep some of the fighting strength in reserve, the final number eligible for battle at any one time was quite small.
This review shows us a shortage of Spartiates after the earthquake, growing to a larger number by Mantinea, and then back down by Leuctra. It is surprising to me that Sparta was willing to take on so many in the Peloponnesean War. Maybe mistrust of Athens was the motivator that overcame Sparta’s concerns about the size of its army. Of course, the trump card was the Peloponnesean League, which extended the military strength of the Spartan nation.