The Spartans

Ancient historian Paul Rahe, whose monumental history of Sparta is just out, analyses the origins of the feared Spartan hoplite phalanx.


Everyone is either an Athenian or a Spartan, it has been said. Athens is associated with art, reason, and democracy; the sort of place where liberals, intellectuals, and bohemians might have felt at home.

Not so Sparta, with its obsessive focus on brutal discipline, preparation for war, and the subjugation of others. Sparta looks more like a model for militarists, empire-builders, even fascists.

What is certainly true is that Sparta fielded the only fully professional army in Classical Greece – because it was the only city-state whose citizen elite were not required to labour, because they had a class of subject helots, effectively state serfs, to work their farms for them. This freed up the adult male citizen-body – around 10,000 strong at peak – for full-time military training. While the rest of Greece was working in the fields, the Spartans were drilling.

We do not know whether the Spartans were the originators of the hoplite phalanx. We do know that they brought it to the highest level of perfection.

Photo: akg-images / De Agostini / G Dagli Orti.

What might be called ‘Homeric warfare’ had been based on the prowess of individual aristocratic warriors mounted on horses or chariots and wielding bows or javelins as primary weapons. Even the most cursory reading of Homer (whose work, in its final form, dates to around 750 BC) reveals a form of warfare very different from the tight-packed, heavily armoured, eight-ranks deep blocks of spearmen that we hear of in the pages of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, writing in the 5th and 4th centuries.

As Paul Rahe explains in the first of two articles forming our special this time, the hoplite shield, the aspis, seems to have driven this ‘military revolution’ – the shift from the individualistic fighting of aristocratic champions to the mass-formation fighting of the essentially middle-class phalanx. What emerged was a shield-wall (when viewed from the front) given great solidity by its depth (viewed from the side).

The weakness is obvious: the phalanx was a ponderous formation, and if it could be taken in flank or rear, it was doomed. In Paul’s second article, he deals with that extraordinary collision between the ‘Western way of war’ represented by the Greeks and the ‘Eastern way of war’ embodied in the armies of the Great King of Persia. A detailed analysis of the Battle of Plataea affords an intimate insight into these two military systems – one based on heavy infantry, the other on archery, cavalry, and more lightly armoured men – and into the ultimate superiority of the former.

Spartan grand stategy

Herodotus once described Sparta as a kosmos, and Plutarch later followed his lead. It was not always such. But, in the course of the Archaic Period (c.750-500 BC), with the establishment of the good order and lawfulness that the ancients from Homer on called eunomia, this is precisely what Sparta (or Lacedaemon) became: a meticulously, more or less coherently ordered whole – apt to elicit admiration.

As a ruling order, the Spartiates constituted a seigneurial class blessed with leisure and devoted to a common way of life centred on the fostering of certain manly virtues.

There was very little that they did alone. Together they sang and they danced, they worked out, they competed in sports, they boxed and wrestled, they hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they took their repose.

Theirs was a rough-and-tumble world, but it was not bereft of refinement and it was not characterised by an ethos of grim austerity, as some have supposed. Theirs was, in fact, a life of great privilege and pleasure, enlivened by a spirit of rivalry as fierce as it was friendly.

The manner in which they mixed music with gymnastics and fellowship with competition caused them to be credited with eudaimonia – the happiness and success that everyone craved – and that made them the envy of Hellas (as the Greeks called their homeland).

This gentlemanly modus vivendi had, however, one precondition: Lacedaemon’s continued dominion over Laconia and Messenia in the southern Peloponnesus and its brutal subjection of the helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus.

The rise of the hoplites

The Spartans first surged forth from Laconia, where Lacedaemon was situated, and gained control of the Pamisos river valley on the western side of the Taygetus massif in the late 8th century BC. Two generations later – so we are told by the Lacedaemonian poet Tyrtaeus – having lost control of the fertile bottom lands of Messenia, they launched a war to recover them.

The struggle that ensued was complicated by the fact that it followed close on the heels of a military revolution.

below Ancient Greece. Sparta controlled the southern Peloponnesian provinces of Laconia and Messenia, and sought hegemony across the rest of the Peloponnese, in order to isolate her main rival, Argos, and to secure the Isthmus of Corinth, the invasion route from the north.
Ancient Greece. Sparta controlled the southern Peloponnesian provinces of Laconia and Messenia, and sought hegemony across the rest of the Peloponnese, in order to isolate her main rival, Argos, and to secure the Isthmus of Corinth, the invasion route from the north. Image: WIPL.

In Greece, prior to this time, the battlefield appears to have been dominated by the well-born, who road to battle on horseback or in chariots, and fought for the most part on foot, hurling javelins and closing in for the kill with shield in one hand and sword in the other.

Not long after the Spartans first subjugated Messenia, however, someone, probably from Argos in the north-eastern Peloponnese, introduced the aspis – which was sometimes, as a consequence, called ‘the Argive shield’. Its appearance signalled a transformation of warfare and inspired a political revolution.

The Argive shield was round and, as the Greeks put it, ‘hollow’ (which is to say, from the perspective of the man bearing it, the aspis was concave). It was also roughly three feet in diameter; and, depending largely on whether its core, usually constructed of poplar or willow, was faced with bronze, it could weigh up to 20lbs.

The aspis, borne henceforth by the heavy infantrymen of Hellas, had a bronze armband in the centre, called a porpax, through which the warrior slipped his left arm, and a leather cord or handle on or near the shield’s right rim, called an antilabe, for him to grab hold of with his left hand.

The hoplite shield

This shield might provide adequate cover for a warrior temporarily stretched out sideways in the manner of a fencer, with his left foot forward as he prepared to hurl a javelin or to put his weight behind a spear thrust. But this pose could not long be sustained, for it left him exceedingly vulnerable to being shoved to the right or left and knocked off his feet.

Moreover, the minute its bearer pulled his left foot back for any reason or brought his right foot forward while actually hurling the javelin or driving the thrusting spear home, he would have turned willy-nilly to face the enemy. When he was in this posture, the aspis left the right half of his body unprotected and exposed, and it extended beyond him to the left in a fashion of no use to him as a solo fighter.

Even if such a warrior ordinarily stood, as one scholar has recently suggested, in an oblique position, braced with his legs wide apart and his left foot a bit in advance of his right so that he could rest his shield on his left shoulder, his right side would still have been in some measure exposed.

As this analysis should suggest, when infantry equipped in this fashion attempted to operate on their own, cavalry, light-armed troops, and enemy heavy infantrymen in formation could make mincemeat of them. The same was apt to happen when agile light-armed troops equipped with javelins caught such warriors in a situation unsuited to seeking a decision by way of a tight formation. Such a warrior was, as Euripides contended, ‘a slave to the military equipment that he bore’.

The origins of the phalanx

When, on the other hand, men equipped with the aspis were deployed in close order in ranks and files on suitable ground, this peculiar shield made each warrior a defender of the comrade to his left – for, as Thucydides explains, it covered that man’s right side.

It is this fact that explains the logic underpinning a statement attributed to the Spartan king Demaratus to the effect that ‘men don helmets and breastplates for their own sake, but the aspis they take up for the sake of the formation which they and their fellows share’.

ABOVE This black-figure vase painting of a foot-race in armour shows hoplites bearing the aspis, the wide, round body-shield whose introduction revolutionised Greek warfare. RIGHT In a sense, the whole of Spartan society was configured around the hoplite. Sparta created a highly militarised culture designed to breed, sustain, train, and field armies of men like the hoplite depicted here.
This black-figure vase painting of a foot-race in armour shows hoplites bearing the aspis, the wide, round body-shield whose introduction revolutionised Greek warfare. Image: MatthiasKabel/CC BY 2.5.

Were it not for the particular advantages that the aspis-equipped with porpax and antilabe afforded an infantryman deployed in close formation, the Greeks would never have adopted it in the first place. Instead, they would have stuck with the round shield equipped with a single grip in the centre that, as the Assyrians had demonstrated, could be used to good effect in almost any circumstance – which, in fact, we know, some of the Greeks in and for a time after the 7th century continued to employ.

Given the relative uselessness of the centre-armband-and-rim-grip shield in the absence of a tight formation, however, the sudden appearance of the aspis on vase paintings in the late 8th and early 7th centuries powerfully suggests – and arguably proves – the presence of the phalanx. This in turn implies the employment, at least in certain circumstances, of the hoplite tactics for which this shield was so obviously designed.

Arrows, javelins, and spears

Initially, having these heavily armed men form up in a phalanx may have been but one tool in the infantry commander’s kit. The old ways seem to have lived on. The vase painters of the 7th century frequently depict soldiers in the hoplite panoply carrying two spears of different length – a javelin for hurling and a thrusting spear.

The Mytilenian poet Alcaeus notes the usefulness of greaves as a protection against such missiles, and his fellow lyricists Callinus of Ephesus and Archilochus the Mercenary allude to the characteristic thud heard when such missiles landed nearby.

The vase painters also depict archers sheltering behind the shields of the more heavily armed, just as bowmen did in Homer’s Iliad. Tellingly, in one battle description, Tyrtaeus describes light-armed troops, armed with javelins and stones, doing the same.

In a sense, the whole of Spartan society was configured around the hoplite. Sparta created a highly militarised culture designed to breed, sustain, train, and field armies of men like the hoplite depicted here. Image: WIPL.

It is also conceivable that, at first, the phalanx consisted of a single rank of hoplites seconded by a host of archers and other light-armed troops. This is, in fact, what one should expect – for human beings are creatures of habit, and in warfare it is rare that new tactics immediately and comprehensively displace the old.

The 8th and 7th centuries constituted a time of transition and experimentation. None of this alters, however, the essential fact: that where the shield wall was employed, battles were no longer decided by Homeric fore- fighters (promachoi) hurling javelins and light-armed troops sheltering behind their shields.

A fence of hollow shields

The military revolution under way late in the 8th and early in the 7th century had profound moral implications. Nowhere are they more starkly visible than in the critique that Tyrtaeus directs at the broad understanding of human excellence evident in Homer and in the mythological tradition.

For in dismissing – as qualities of no great significance – speed, agility, physical strength, comeliness of body, wealth, regal bearing, and persuasiveness in speech, he makes of stamina, grit, endurance, and courage of the sort displayed in hoplite warfare the supreme virtues.

It is with this in mind that he writes, ‘Each man should treat life as something hateful and hold the black ruin of death as dear as the beams of the sun’; and, in this context, with an eye to the soldiers protecting one another by ‘forming’ what he elsewhere calls ‘a fence of hollow shields’, he emphasises the need for Sparta’s infantry ‘to stand by one another and to march into the van where the fighting is hand-to-hand’. When they do so, he tells us, ‘Rather few die, and they safeguard the host behind.’

It is also with the phalanx in mind that he limns the hoplite warrior:
Let him take a wide stance and stand up strongly against them,
digging both heels in the ground, biting his lip with his teeth,
covering thighs and legs beneath, his chest and his shoulders
under the hollowed-out protection of his broad shield,
while in his right hand he brandishes the powerful war-spear,
and shakes terribly the crest high above his helm.
Our man should be disciplined in the work of the heavy fighter,
and not stand out from the missiles when he carries a shield,
but go right up and fight at close quarters and, with his long spear
or short sword, thrust home and strike his enemy down.

‘Placing foot next to foot,’ Tyrtaeus concludes, ‘pressing shield against shield, bringing crest near crest, helm near helm, and chest near chest, let him battle it out with the man [opposite], grasping the handle of his sword or the long spear.’

The rise of the demos

The shift in tactics that produced the species of warfare described here had profound political implications. Fighting in phalanx was not, in principle, an aristocratic endeavour. It privileged not prowess but endurance, and it left little, if any, room for individual distinction. The strength of this formation was determined by the weakest link in the chain of men composing it.

Moreover, success with such an instrument required the recruitment of a great many more men than could be found within the narrow class of exceedingly wealthy warriors who had in the past ridden off to battle each on a chariot or the back of a horse.

The requisite expansion in the size of the warrior class had consequences. It is by no means fortuitous that almost all the tyrants who emerged within early Greece were associated with war, were at odds with the traditional aristocracy, and are said to have shown favour to the demos.

No one understood the political sociology better than Aristotle. When, in passing, he tells us that the introduction of the hoplite phalanx gave rise to a modicum of democratisation in the conduct of war, we should believe him; and we should therefore see the tyrants – populists and war-leaders, he tells us – as champions of the men of middling wealth who formed the hoplite class.

It was in this era that Lacedaemon, while rallying the demos behind the reconquest of Messenia, took a different turn, rejecting tyranny, becoming a kosmos, acquiring its distinctive political regime, embracing its peculiar way of life, and adopting a grand strategy – predicated on the hoplite phalanx – that was suited to the defence of that regime and way of life.

ABOVE & left This frieze of 5th-century Greek hoplites shows the inside of ‘the hollow shield’, and also the manner in which shields overlapped in the phalanx.
This frieze of 5th-century Greek hoplites shows the inside of ‘the hollow shield’, and also the manner in which shields overlapped in the phalanx. Image: Heritage-Images/CMDixon/akg-images.

The Spartan regime

The grand strategy that, in this period, the Lacedaemonians gradually articulated in defence of the way of life they so cherished was all-encompassing, as successful grand strategies generally are. Of necessity, it had major domestic consequences.

Its dictates go a long way towards explaining the Spartans’ aversion to commerce; their practice of infanticide; their provision for every citizen of an equal allotment of land and of servants to work it; the city’s sumptuary laws; their sharing of slaves, horses, and hounds; their intense piety; the subjection of their male offspring to an elaborate system of education and indoctrination; their use of music and poetry to instil a civic spirit; their practice of pederasty; the rigours and discipline to which they habitually subjected themselves; and, of course, their constant preparation for war.

It accounts as well for the articulation over time within Lacedaemon of a mixed regime graced with elaborate balances and checks. To sustain their dominion in Laconia and Messenia and to maintain the helots in bondage, the Spartans had to eschew faction; foster among themselves the same opinions, passions, and interests; and employ – above all, in times of strain – procedures, recognised as fair and just, by which to reach a stable political consensus consistent with the dictates of prudence.

Not surprisingly, this grand strategy had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. The Spartans’ perch was precarious. A Corinthian leader compared their polity with a stream, and he was right. Rivers really do grow in strength as other streams empty into them, and the like could be said of the Lacedaemonians: ‘There, in the place where they emerge, they are alone; but as they continue and gather cities under their control, they become more numerous and harder to fight.’

Warriors and helots

Even when their population was at its height, the Spartans were no more than 10,000 in number. The territory they ruled was considerable. And they had as rivals the Argives, who lived nearby.

Moreover, in 480 BC, when their population had declined to something like 8,000 adult males, the servile population that the Spartans exploited outnumbered them by something like seven to one; and they were apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage; and the geography of the southern Peloponnese, with the Taygetus massif standing as a great obstacle between the two regions, did not favour the haughty men intent on keeping them in that condition.

below The famous Chigi vase (a Greek vase- painting from an Etruscan tomb) shows a hoplite phalanx in motion, advancing to the music of a pipe-player.
The famous Chigi vase (a Greek vase- painting from an Etruscan tomb) shows a hoplite phalanx in motion, advancing to the music of a pipe-player. Photo: Alamy.

The Spartans could seek support from the perioikoi, the subordinate free population that lived in peripheral villages within Laconia and Messenia; and this they did. But the latter were no more numerous than were the Spartans themselves, and it was never entirely certain that they could be relied on. They, too, had to be overawed. In the long run, the Spartans could not sustain their way of life if they did not recruit allies outside their stronghold in the southern Peloponnese.

It took the Lacedaemonians some time to sort out in full the implications of their position. Early on, at least, trial and error governed their approach to the formulation of policy. But by the middle of the 6th century, the ephor Chilon and others had come to recognise that if their compatriots did not find some way to leverage the manpower of their neighbours, they would themselves someday come a cropper.

Spartan grand strategy

So the Spartiates reluctantly abandoned the dream of further expansion, repositioned themselves as defenders of Arcadian autonomy, and presented themselves to the Hellenic world as the scourge of tyranny, the champions of liberty, the friends of oligarchy, and the heirs of Agamemnon. It was under this banner that they rearranged the affairs of their fellow Peloponnesians to their liking, saw to the construction of a system of carriage roads uniting the peninsula, and founded a grand alliance designed to keep the Argives out, the helots down, and the Arcadians, above all others, in.

Taken as a whole, the grand strategy articulated by archaic Lacedaemon was brilliantly designed for the purpose it was intended to serve. It had, however, one potential defect.

It presupposed that, for all practical purposes, under Sparta’s hegemony, the Peloponnese was a world unto itself – which, to be fair, it had been for more than half a millennium prior to the time in which this strategy was first formulated. If, however, there ever came a moment when a power equal to or greater than Lacedaemon appeared in force – or even threatened to appear – at or near the entrance to that great peninsula, the Spartans would have to rethink this strategy and recast it to meet an unanticipated challenge.

This is precisely what the Lacedaemonians did when Achaemenid Persia – an empire greater in its command of the world’s population and resources than any other in human history – presented itself on their doorstep. Their response to the Persian challenge is, however, a tale we must tell in our second article. •

You can find a timeline of the Spartans here.
You can also read Paul Rahe's in-depth analyses of Sparta’s response to the Persian invasions of the early 5th century BC here.