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The Spartans (2)

Updated on October 20, 2010

Part 2 - The Spartan soldier

In my previous article we discovered the Spartan culture, and how it was based on militaristic values. At the very core of this society was the mighty Spartan heavy infantry.

Popular culture likes to band about the myth that the Spartans were all powerful and never beaten in battle. It likes to show us lines of buffed ninja-esque warriors that fought alone and killed enemies for fun. So lets look at the facts.

As we know Spartan men were taken as boys and trained full time in the art of war until they were ready to join the army at aged 20. These Soldiers were known as Hoplites, and were by far the greatest and most feared soldiers of all the Greek city states.Sparta had a token Navy, but it was poor. They didn't bother too much with Cavalry, and considered Archers to be cowards for not fighting face to face.

The hoplite was simply armed, and was expected to provide his own equipment. Each man carried a large round shield, a long spear, and a short sword. The spear was the main weapon, and at over two metres long it was a formidable one. On his own, despite his physical prowess and absolute refusal to give up, the Spartan hoplite was weak.However the Spartans didn't just send their army into battle as a group of individuals. No, when Sparta went to war they went as a collective.

The men (normally between 500 and 1500 soldiers) were formed into rectangular tightly packed groups up to (and sometimes more than) 15 ranks deep. This formation was known as the Phalanx. The Phalanx was not exclusive to the Spartans, but they really used it to its full potential. The Spartan Phalanx was comprised of the same units of men that lived,ate and slept together. This is crucial as each man would have to consider himself part of a whole in order for the Phalanx to be successful. When in formation, each man would carry his spear in his right hand, and his shield in the left. The shield not only afforded considerable protection to himself, but also to the man directly to his left. If the man on your right doesn't protect you the phalanx could loose its shape and be easily overrun.Trust in your neighbour in battle was essential.

From the enemies perspective all they would see as they drew close to the massed ranks of the Spartans was a wall of shields and spear tips. A frontal attack was must have seemed like suicide. But for all its strength it wasn't perfect. As the men were packed so tight with their shields locked, the phalanx wasn't very mobile and could only move at walking pace. As such the phalanx was vulnerable from being outflanked or attacked from the rear where the soldiers had no protection at all. But Spartan Generals knew this. They picked flat land to stage their battles so the Phalanx could maintain its strong straight lines, and they also put the elite soldiers (if the Spartans were fighting alongside another army they themselves would take this position) at either extreme of the battle line to prevent outflanking.

The actual battles themselves were often nothing more than pushing matches. As two opposing lines of men clashed, the outcome was often decided in one of two ways:

- Either one of the armies would loose morale as they become tired and rout (give up and run away)

- Or the strong far left or right of the battle line (normally comprising of the Spartan uber soldier ) would force the opposing men backwards causing the enemy line to bow into a 'U' shape. The flank would then be able to push the enemy towards its own centre and envelop their line until they are completely surrounded. The enemy would either surrender or be killed.

The ultimate downfall of the Phalanx was due to its relative weakness against missile troops and fast moving mobile cavalry that could outmanouver the slow Spartan formation. Although Sparta initially did well against both the Persian army ,and later the Roman Legions, once the enemy discovered and exploited it's weakness, the phalanx formation was doomed. For most phalanx users this forced a re-think on how their armies should be comprised. Sparta however always thought they were right and refused to adapt. Over time and many battles the mounting losses of their elite hoplites meant that Sparta simply couldn't restock their ranks quickly enough. Sparta simply went from being a military powerhouse to an insignificant city state not worth conquering.

In an upcoming article i'll look at another famous soldier of the ancient world - The Persian Immortal.


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    • jondav profile image

      jondav 7 years ago

      Yes,very little in the way of records were left by the Spartans - they just didn't seem to bother.

      I would say that you are right, that a lot of what was written by neighbouring factions was incorrect - either because the truth has got lost in translation over the years, or simply because it made a better story if they sexed it up a bit.

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 7 years ago from SE MA

      You said they left nothing themselves?

      I would expect that at least some of what was written about them by others was inaccurate - whether the writer admired or hated them.

      Great post. Very interesting.