Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Spartan Army after The Peloponnesean War

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.


Helena P. Schrader said...


This is an excellent and thoughtful article. I have linked your blog to my own "Sparta Reconsidered" at: www.spartareconsidered.blogspot.com. In addition, I think you might be interested in my website of the same name at: http://elysiumgates.com/~helena/index.html

Anonymous said...

A refreshing text,with many rarely heard points.
However I have few dissagrements as well as praise.

‘’...maintain its fighting strength during Peloponnesian wars’’ – MAINTAIN or survive.As you said,victories in that war were hollow,political ones if you like..More importantly,system did not survive,no matter how many generations were killed in 465/4,system did not work on principles from before,nor in that level of expectations. Army that was an elite in 550-470,being brought down to counting on Periokoi,Eirenes and Helots in 425 is no longer ‘strong’ and far from maintaining strength..maintain maybe in the sense of being able to prevail even more shattered enemies,but not in a sense of being on the former level.

I would not call Sparta an oligarchy,especially with their Apella, and especially in comparison with absolute Athenian ‘democracy’.

‘’Spartan army was degraded after 400 B.C’’ – I will argue it being 50 yrs earlier at least (wonder if anyone bothered to see who won which events in Olympia..Spartans COMPLETELY ceased to win athletic events which they dominated until early 5th BC, earthquake,system fall, lowering the criteria etc – I think so)

‘’hollowest of victories for Sparta’’ -absolutely true

‘’The date 371 B.C.’’ – If I may I would call it official end,real one being much earlier,during those hollowest of victories in Peloponnesian wars, mentioned so briliantly in the text..Even Peloponnesian wars saw the reform of Spartan army..especially with Neodamodeis being presented,and armor being discarded (and it was not because it was bad,it lasted so well for centuries..but because no one fought gallantly anymore,including Spartans,no one had time or money for them..cheap cut throats became better choice than expensive hoplites,fewer in numbers and harder to equip and bring to the battlefield..10:1 ratio of mercenaries vs heavy hoplites would never work out for the hoplites..And it did not unfortunately.) That is why I think 370 is way low for a date when all went downhill for Sparta and hoplite warriors.

‘’There is no question that the traditions of the agoge were degraded after Leuctra’’ – Again I argue that it happened much before,and proof can be in the clear ‘ survive' rather than ‘excel' politic of Spartan government. By the way, junior Olympic victors from Sparta also ceased to exist completely in the 5th BC,and they were the most numerous ones in Golden age of Sparta,Archaic era – and it sounds like earthquake aka system shatter to me.

Unknown said...

The professional and well-trained Spartan hoplites with their distinctive red cloaks, long hair, and lambda-emblazoned shields were probably the best and most feared fighters in Greece, fighting with distinction at such key battles asThermopylae and Plataea in the early 5th century BCE. The city was also in constant rivalry with the other major Greek cities ofAthens and Corinth and became involved in two protracted and hugely damaging conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars of the mid- to late 5th century BCE and the Corinthian Wars of in the early 4th century BCE. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?