Military History: Sparta v Athens

Around 2,500 years ago, the massive Persian Army came from the East to enslave the independent cities of Greece and threaten the very existence of Western civilisation. Forced with overwhelming odds, Sparta and Athens would lead a fierce resistence and in the narrow pass at Thermopylae, known as the gates of fire, 300 Hoplite warriors from Sparta made one of history's heroic last stands.

The 300 Spartans last stand at Thermopylae
The 300 Spartans last stand at Thermopylae
Athenian Warrior
Athenian Warrior
Anceint Persian warriors
Anceint Persian warriors

An Initial Alliance

Sacrificing themselves to delay the enemy and set an example to the rest of Greece, this act of heroic resistence strengthened the resolve of the Athenian Navy to take on the might of the Persians, to deliver a crushing blow to the Persian fleet, just a few miles from the heart of Athens.

In the war against the Persians, Sparta and Athens had battled side by side as Allies, but these were two very different societies. Athens was a rising democracy and could boast at being the cultural and commercial centre of Greece. A visionary society, educated and refined, where the power presumably lay with it's people.

Sparta however, was a very different society, steeped in militarism, ruled over by a warrior elite and served by a population of slaves. The nation's young boys, if they survived a cultural programme of infanticide and natural selection, were taken from their mothers at the tender age of just 7, to be initiated into the Spartan code of death or glory.

These warrior elite lived mainly apart from their women, who were indeed prodigious beings in their own right. They were intelligent, independent and both physically and politically powerful.

These two fundamentally opposing societies then, were so unsuited to one another, that with no common enemy to distract them, cooperation between these two most powerful city states of Greece, would eventually give way to fear and paranoia.

And these one-time allies would be forced into taking up arms once again, this time against each other and the result of this fight would decide the fait of Greece.

King Leonidas of Sparta
King Leonidas of Sparta
Anceint Athenian society
Anceint Athenian society

Opposing Societies

For Sparta and Athens, the conflict against the Persians had been very different, hundreds of miles away from the frontline, the idyllic home of the Spartans was untouched by the war, but for the Athenians, they had endured invasion and their Acropolis had been destroyed.

The Spartans quickly returned to their daily routines once the war had been resolved. Their society was disciplined, obedient and willing to sacrifice the needs of both the individual and his family for the good of the society, and if necessary they would be prepared to die for the cause.

Meanwhile in Athens, things were rapidly changing, as the trauma of occupation, followed by the elation of victory was transforming the city. Prior to the war with Persia, democracy had been established, but in reality, this was democracy in name only. The truth was that it was those with money who really ran the show. Now, a massive power shift was taking place.

Pericles, expansion and the building of an empire

Pericles was the spokesperson for Athenian oarsmen who had battled the Persian fleet at Salamis. He was a wealthy aristocrat and exactly the kind of man who could run the so-called democracy in Athens for generations. He was also very shrewd and sensed that things were changing, and he was astute enough to put himself at the forefront of that change.

He realised that he needed to distance himself from the nobles if he wanted to secure power and in order to do this he needed the favour of the people. His aptitude as a great orator won them over, but It wasn't just his words that impressed the people, he also designed an expansive civil construction programme that would mean an abundance of building jobs for the city's poor.

True to his word, Pericles opened up the coffers of Athens to the people, to pay for public festivals and grand monuments, but most significantly of all, he introduced state salaries for war service and juries.

Now his fellow oarsmen could trade in their rowing benches for seats of power in the city and for the first time, democracy really was beginning to mean a state governed by the people.

Artisans, lawyers, shopkeepers and philosophers lived side by side creating a bustling society of the most democratic city in Greece. Official positions were open to everyone, irrespective of their wealth or status. Unlike Sparta that was happily landlocked, Athens was a port city and their love of the sea was strengthened by their victory over the Persians.

This also meant that their trading potential was vast, movement of people was greater and their ability to build empires was energised. Athenians also became the police of the Eastern Mediterranean. it's allies were expected to toe the line otherwise they would find themselves with an Athenian fleet in their harbour, this was assertive diplomacy.

Spartan concerns

This shift in power wasn't overlooked by Sparta however, the growing Athenian fleet was evidence enough, but when Sparta learnt that Athens had been building huge fortified walls, they became even more concerned.

The Spartans beleif was that walls defined cities, and cities encouraged things like democracy, the one thing Spartans distrusted more than anything else. Sparta was famous for having no walls and that it's young men were it's walls and the tips of their spears were it's boundaries.

For the Spartans, it wasn't laws, walls or grand civic buildings that made a city, it was their own beliefs and ideals. Sparta was a city of the head and the heart and it existed in it's purity in the Hoplite march to war.

Spartan and Athenian women

Athens though could also be imperialistic, arrogant and aggressive and it's "democracy" excluded women, slaves and foreigners. The Greeks' main issue with Athenian politics was it's volatility and the threat that posed to it's cherished values of "good order".

But for other Greeks, Sparta's attitude to sexual politics as they saw it, compromised this "good order". When it came to women, conservative Sparta was substantially radical.

Life wasn't much fun for 5th century Athenian women, the city was certainly at the forefront of art, architecture and democracy, but these were meant for the benefit of men. For women it was to be a dutiful wife, for most of Greece believed that women should be neither seen or heard.

An Athenian girl could be married off at the age of just 12 in an arranged marriage. A woman's role was to manage the family and do the chores which included washing, cleaning, baking bread and the grinding of corn.

Rich women who had slaves to do these chores, would merely spin yarn and sew, but still only venturing outdoors for religious ceremonies or domestic matters, otherwise they too would be confined to four walls.

In contrast, women in Sparta were everywhere, there were of course more girls than boys as they were not victims of the society's programme of infanticide. If the men were not away fighting, they would be relaxing and socialising with their male colleagues and as a result, women would have dominated the day to day life within the city.

Helen of Troy, formerly Helen of Sparta
Helen of Troy, formerly Helen of Sparta
A Spartan boy is taken from his mother to the Agoge
A Spartan boy is taken from his mother to the Agoge

A Spartan Woman's Life

The simple visibility of the women of Sparta made them objects of desire and facination to non-Spartan men. Sparta was known as the "Land of beautiful women", the beauty of Helen of Troy, originally Helen of Sparta, was legendary.

They were also uniquely fit, Spartan girls had an unequalled upbringing of dancing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, receiving the same rations as the boys and were expected to be as competitive as their male counterparts.

Girls and boys would exercise naked, nudity was the norm as it was thought to encourage fitness and banish prudish behavour. It paid off, as they were outstanding physical specimens. Women and men were used to living separate lives in Sparta and at the age of 7, boys would be sent to the Agoge, the tough, rigorous system where they would learn the art of war. Male bonding wasn't just encouraged, it was compulsory.

When he turned 12, a boy would be paired up with an older man, usually a 20-30 year old unmarried man. This man would be responsible for his care, conduct and everyday needs, effectively becoming a surrogate mother, father, teacher and mentor. But he would also be a lover, as institutionalised paedorasty was part of life for the Spartan warriors.

They also practiced a tradition called "marriage by capture", on her wedding night, a bride would have her head shaved like a boy in the Agoge, dressed in a man's robes and left alone in a darkened room. The husband would then come to her, lay her down, have intercourse with her and then slip back to sleep with his comrades as normal, this might continue for weeks, months or even years. This was done to acclimatise men to the presence of women, when unti lthen, their only sexual knowledge would have been with men.

The obsession with competitiveness and physical fitness was the same for the women, as it was believed healthy women bore healthy babies. It was an overwhelming priority for Spartan men to keep the numbers of their warrior elite high. There was never that many of them however, 10,000 at most and these numbers steadily declined throughout the 5th century. This was mainly because Spartan girls didn't get married until they were at least 18 and the men were around 28, relatively late by Greek standards.

It wasn't merely the physicality of Spartan women that astounded the outside world, but also their freedom was of equal notoriety. Aristotle described Sparta as a " state run by women" and he didn't mean it as a compliment.

Athenian women socialise alone amongst each other
Athenian women socialise alone amongst each other

An Athenian Womans' Life

In Athens and other Greek cities, women were forbidden to own any land or to control large amounts of wealth. Heiresses and widows were married according to the wishes of their fathers or brothers, usually to uncles or cousins in order to keep the wealth within the family.

In Sparta, women had the keys to the coffers and would be land and property owners in their own right. They could choose who or even wether they wanted to marry and they could also inherit estates. They also played a role in the political life of the city, they were trained as public speakers and made sure their opinions were heard in any decision making processes.

In Athens, silence was a mark of breeding, but Spartan girls could be partcularly vociferous, masters in the art of laconic speaking. However, although they enjoyed freedom of speech and financial independance, Sparta was no feminist eutopia and maternal instincts were a poor second to the state.

When a son left for battle, his mother would give this traditional farewell, "With your sheild or on it", in other words, come back victorious or come back dead. Following the defeat of Persia, there had been few opportunities for Spartan men to make their mothers proud, but all that was about to change.

Descent into war

Since the war with the Persians, Sparta and Athens had coexisted peacefully and their alliance had held firm. But given their overwhelming social differences, it was probably inevitable that this mutual mistrust would eventually spill over into conflict.

It would ultimately take one great disastrous event to destabilise the alliance to the point of war. In 465BC, a series of huge earthquakes hit Sparta, the consequences were devastating and the loss of life was immense. This however, did give the opportunity for Sparta's enemy within, the huge slave population of Helots who propped up the Spartan society, to rise up against their crisis hit masters.

They seized their opportunity and revolted, the rebel slaves returned to the territory they once owned at Messinia, fortified their positions and waited for the Spartans to make their move. The Spartans came, but could not overpower the Helots. They appealed to Athens for help, but after the Athenians duelly arrived, the Spartans sent them home again, afraid that the Athenians might side with the slaves.

The Athenians took serious offence at this dismissal however, they tore up the treaty of allegiance and started to conspire with the Spartan's enemies. This was the start of the hostilities and Sparta and Athens would soon be at war, this time with each other.

The long and drawn out war

When the war began in 431BC, the Spartans sent troops to invade Athenian territory, forcing their way to within 7 miles of Athens itself. These one-time allies were now mortal enemies. But the conflict waged back and forth over large distances for more than 20 years. Neither side was able to land the killer blow required to end the war as Spartans dominated the land battles and Athenians dominated at sea.

The Spartans burned Athenian villages and crops every year for five years, until the Athenians were virtually encamped in their own city. Within a year, the under seige citadel was ravaged with plague caused by the overcrowded population. Corpses were piled high in the streets and almost a third of the population had been wiped out.

For Sparta, this decimation of Athens was proof that the Gods were on their side, but things were about to change once more. The island of Pylos was a port and a major strategic location for the Spartans. In 425BC, it was seized by the Athenian Army assisted by the Helots, the former slaves of the Spartans. This provocation outraged the Spartans and they sent their army to retake the port.

After laying seige to the Athenians in the town, the Spartans set up another smaller division of men along a mile and a half long rocky island that overlooked Pylos Bay. Their plan was to blockade the Athenians by land and sea, but they had forgotten who they were dealing with.

The Athenians felt totally at home on the sea and within a few days they had sent a large fleet into Pylos Bay and seized control of the surrounding waters. The tables had been turned and the Spartans were forced to withdraw, leaving behind around 400 troops on the island near Pylos Bay, leaving them trapped.

For 72 days there was a stand-off, which was finally broken when the Spartans committed an unthinkable error. A group of Spartan soldiers inconceivably let a campfire get out of control and it raged across the island, burning off all the protective cover. The Spartans had nowhere to hide and the Athenians could now see the extent of the numbers of troops they were to face in battle.

The Athenians decided to mount an attack with 800 archers and 800 lightly armed troops. Once they had landed on the island, the Athenians refused to fight the Spartans at close quarters, instead choosing to pick them off one by one with javelins, arrows and rocks. Whenever the Spartans advanced, the Athenians retreated and soon it would be the Spartans who were retreating, leaving behind 300 dead, as the survivors headed for a defensive position at the northern end of the island.

But an Athenian commander ordered forward a detail of archers to cut them off from behind, the Spartans were surrounded. It appeared as if this was going to be a mini Thermopylae in the making.

Over 50 years earlier, King Leonidas and his 300 personally selected elite warriors had sacrificed themselves for the glory of Sparta at the battle of Thermopylae. Now, these surrounded troops on the small island in Pylos Bay, had no better role models to aspire to.

Hopelessly outnumbered by the Athenians, this was their chance to emulate the heroism of their forefathers and bring honour and glory to Sparta once again. They knew exactly what was expected of them in this final test, but the Athenians were very smart and hadn't read the script.

They held back for a while and then politely sent forward a messenger who asked if the Spartans would like to surrender. Incredibly, they did just that. Surrender by anyone in this position wouldn't have been a great surprise, but these were Spartans who had spent their whole lives preparing to die fighting and surrender should not have been an option.

So maybe Pericles had been right after all when he mocked the Spartan's state induced courage in his famous speeches. On this particular occasion, that manufactured bravery had been undermined by the tactcal knowhow and mind games of the Athenians. They had firstly refused to give the Spartans what they wanted, a stand-up fight, then they gave them exactly what they did not expect, a chance to surrender and escape from their death or glory principles.

The myth of Spartan invincibility had been overwhelmingly extinguished and for Athens, it was a victory to savour. There was 120 Spartan hostages brought to the city and should Sparta make just one move on Athenian soil, the hostages were to be executed.

The hostages became objects of fascination in Athens, where they were displayed in public like some kind of exotic animals. They were gawped at, spat at and jeered by the Athenians, who berated them constantly. Sparta itself was so rattled by the events that it immediately requested a peace treaty.

But Athens was in no mood for generosity, it capitalised on it's advantage and held out for better terms. It would be 5 years before the Spartan hostages would be returned to their homeland and surprisingly, on their return, they were not subjected to the usual punishments dished out to cowards and capitulators, Spartan society had ben far too badly shaken for any of all that .

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Comments 9 comments

Greek One profile image

Greek One 6 years ago

damn I miss Pericles


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Great article. I've been meaning to get off my ass and do a really really good article about Gaius Julius Caesar.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thanks Wesman, glad you enjoyed it, plenty more to come!


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

I'm submitting your work to reddit, Dave, let me know if you see decent traffic from there, or if you would rather that I not.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Okay Wesman, no problem, thanks.


Loenidas 6 years ago

This is Sparta


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

It seems that sparta and athens both had there strenghts and weaknesses. It is a shame they couldn't get along because of differences in culture, They were all greeks.


Ronin2012 4 years ago

A great informative Hub.But I have a question-As far as I knew the Spartans didn't encourage slavery,then how did they keep slaves?Who were these slaves?


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 4 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Hi ruffridyer, thankyou for stopping by and commenting!

Hi Ronin2012, thanks for your comments and i am pleased you liked the hub and found it of interest.

The Helots were once Laconians that Sparta had defeated and conquered. They were fellow Greeks and this was not considered in a favourable light by other Greek city-states. The enslaved Messenians formed the majority of the Helots.

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