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What gave Sparta an advantage over other Greek States between 500-390BC and Persia during the Persian Wars?

.........Between 736 to 545.BC, Spartan influence in the Peloponnese was established and fortified; a series of battles took place with their neighbours, namely the Messenians who became an irreplaceable element to their economy as serfs or Helots. The helots (hel meaning seized in Greek) were the key to the future military might of Sparta, the whole Spartan social and economic system was based on their subservience, and they could never have become professional soldiers without them. The Second Messenian war (668-657.BC) further hardened their need for vigilance and a strong force to keep the population under control. Throwing the control of Sparta off them, they rose up and were quashed over a 10-year period that created paranoid, aggressive and far more vigilant Spartans.A series of defeats with Tegea and Argos, their neighbours in the Peloponnese, pushed Sparta to developing a system of training Hoplites so they could defeat these defiant neighbours. Lycurgus, the law giver, began his Great Rhetra during this period, a system that the Spartans craved for according to ancient source but already had in working practise, laws to refine their citizen-soldiers into effective fighting men and moulding every other aspect of Spartan life around the hoplite.

Chigi Vase 650.BC. First piece of archaeological evidence showing a hoplite phalanx formation.


.......The Spartan military was Sparta, Spartan citizens where either soldiers, children training to be soldiers or women; nothing like this was ever seen through Greece at this time. They had no love of democracy, art or other pleasures as simple as an exotic meal. In Plutarch’s ‘Sayings of Spartans’ King Agesilaus is asked what Lycurgus’ best gift was to Sparta, the reply ‘contempt of pleasure.’ This was the whole ethos of Sparta, not even newborn babies were safe from this system that served to better Sparta’s military power. The Tayegetus Gorge was sited as the place where the Ephors rid Sparta of ‘imperfections,’ archaeology in this area has found many skeletons confirming this myth. After the weeding out of ‘defects’ and a time at home being left in the dark to promote excellent vision for night, the young Spartan at 5 years old would enter the Agoge and pass out at 30 year old a full homoio, a spartiate citizen and liable for duty. The Paidion (Boy) would go through training that covered military dances, evasive manoeuvres that were used in battle, Tyrtaios’ songs and poems to harden their spirit and make them patriotic, pack rivalry to make them more competitive and even reading and writing which would be accompanied with Laconic Rhetoric enabling the Spartiates to not only defend themselves in battle but defend themselves in debate. At 12 years old (Meirakion stage) they went barefooted, feed a minimal diet of black broth, Plutarch claiming it was basically an acquired taste as the old men only ate it, and put them under the guidance of an older spartiate who trained them in more battlefield orientated practises. At 18 years old if successful they entered the mess system and became a hardened team member, this taught loyalty and companionship to one another as soldiers. ‘With it or on it’ [Hoplon shield] as Plutarch puts it was the motto of the Spartan hoplite that needed the man to the right at all times. At 28yrs, they entered the Kryptaea, secret police with parallels to that of Soviet Russia’s KGB, policing the helot population with no concerns about killing them as an act of terror and discouraging any unrest or attempts at rebellion.

Neried Frieze showing the Hoplon shield's importance to a Holpite


540.BC Vase showing Hoplitodromos.



........At 30 years old the Spartiate warrior had the advantages of training, a hardened, physically strong body and an education that only few in Athens had. Athens, one of Sparta’s main rivals, had a very basic training system for Hoplites that started at 18 years old and lasted two years. One such training method was employed as an Olympic event but used at Marathon by the Athenians, the Hoplitodromos or Hoplite Run which was developed especially for attacking Persians through an missile (arrow) shower and was mentioned by Herodotus as double paced marched to the Persian line at Marathon. The Spartans certainly knew of this, they seem to have had an employed a moving defence at Thermopylae to avoid Persian archery. There is a far more effective weapon in war than a shield and spear as The Battle Of Sepea proved in 494.BC. The Psychological affect of Sparta’s military reputation led the Argives to blunder over concerns they would be ‘caught out by some trick’ [Herodotus]. This lead to the Argives mimicking every order they heard that was issued to the Spartan hoplites, the Spartans obviously figuring this out called for breakfast and attacked, catching the Argives with absolute surprise. Sparta’s reputation alone had almost won The Battle Of Sepea, ending the threat to Sparta.



.......Another, smaller advantage it had as a city-state was its early dominance of the Peloponnese through a unilateral alliance know as the Peloponnesian League. Their allies, such as the Tegeans and Corinthians joined early and saved the Spartans from warring on and having to add more subjugated people to its helot list, a list which out numbers them heavily and did not need adding to. So, Sparta gained its reputation by fighting neighbours and other states through out the Peloponnese, something that moulded their foreign policy and made them reluctant to face the Persian as they advanced through Attica. When actually forced to leave the Peloponnese they had the advantage of being able to command other Peloponnesian allies to join them such as Corinth and most especially Tegea who always fought beside them in the Phalanx. The Peroiki, a trade and crafts tier to their society, always provided Hoplites and helots, brought mainly through paranoia, formed the light infantry which could be very useful as they were “armed for war” [Herodotus]. King Agesilaus also explained why Sparta had no walls unlike most Greek city state, his explanation was that ‘The walls of Sparta were it’s young men, and it’s borders the points of their spears’ [Plutarch], archaeological finds at Sparta found the original palisade wall around the inner 5 towns that made up the city but no fortified stone walls have ever been found. This is a good explanation of why Sparta was reluctant to fight out side the Peloponnese with it’s shy foreign policy, it was effectively a defensive army keeping a nervous eye on the helots and defending it’s self aggressively from neighbours like the Argives, giving the army a psychological advantage over other defenders like the Athenians in the Peloponnesian war who were frightened to come out from the walls to engage the Spartans. Again using Thermopylae as an example, instead of defending the wall the Spartan stood infront of it, King Leonidas opted to form a phalanx to oppose the Persians, and this seems to indicate an aggressive form of defence. This does make sense when linked with the fact that a static target was far easier for the Persian archers to bombard, the logic of this move seen when the Spartans took up a static position on a hillock for their final stand, an array of Persian arrows ending the Spartan stand at Thermopylae.
An Approximation of Thermopylae


.......By the time of the Second Persian War in 480, the Spartans had built up a formidable reputation for being professional soldiers and had army organisation down to an art form. Most states employed the Lochoi and enomotiai system but the Spartans had a more flexible and refined system, similar to that of the Persians. Herodotus detailed much about the Spartan army with a very important later edition of the Mora coming from Xenophon, it is believed that it existed early on though as it would have made tactical sense to split the whole army into large division rather than have the King as supreme commander of 6500 to 9000 Spartiates and then the nearest available sized unit to be around 500 to 600 men.
Commanded By
N.o in Superior unit
N.o of Men
6/7 made whole Army

After the Othismos (Shoving) stage of the battle, when the Phalanxes meet with the collision of the two shield walls, the strategies of the commanders were in full motion and could not be changed. However, the Spartan army with its complex chain of command and internal groupings, could play out set manoeuvres after the shield walls meet, giving them a great deal of adaptability if any unforeseen enemy action took place. This advantage was the most precious to the Spartans, they had to fight together and trust the judgement of their superiors because they would fall in battle on there own as their enemies often did in disarray. Exiled King Demaratus, when asked to fight 10 Immortals on his own to prove Spartan superiority over the Persian, he replied to Xerxes ‘fighting singly the Spartans are no worse than other men, but together are the best of all mankind’ [Herodotus]. An excellent example of their ability to change strategy mid-battle was displayed at the First Mantinea 418BC. According to Thucydides, when the Spartan left collapsed and fled letting the enemy right flank in to loot the Spartan baggage train, the Spartan king managed to use his right-flank to chase the enemy left and pivoted around to his own left to catch the returning enemy right wing totally by surprise and wining the battle. This just showed the organisational skills of the Spartans through even the most confusing battles, turning a disadvantage around quickly to become an advantage that won the battle.


.......Spartan society also added itself as an advantage as everyone followed the Great Rhetra instructions. Women gained equal rights to men in many respects, mothers being the most respected in all of Sparta for bringing a new generation of male warrior into Sparta. Women had a psychological effect on many Spartans, their mothers giving them the rhetoric they needed to hear, “with it or on it” being one such comment. Women could even publicly mock men, who had no children or were proven to have shown cowardice in battle, with no fears about the men answering back as many were sharp tongued, they too trained in Laconic Rhetoric. Some scholar’s blame the low Spartiate population on the freedom the system give women and the late age in which they were allowed to marry, but homosexuality was one of the other elements that kept population levels down. Xenophon being a Lacaedominophile (Spartan Fan) claims homosexuality was thrown upon as many in the Greek world knew it existed but thought of it as a Taboo, this simply wasn’t true as it was a common practise of the Agoge. The position of ???????, who looked after a paidion in the Agoge, actually meant ‘Lover,’ King Agesilaus and Lysander being the biggest example of this form of relationship. While homosexuality was more or less forced on the Agoge trainees, it was made clear that they had to produced children or face losing their rights, this produced mainly bisexual Spartans that had both a military advantage and a social advantage. Women were married and children born through fear of humiliation, but at the same time a Spartan was not just fighting for himself, his country and a host of other soldier next to him, his was fitting for a lover or a friend from the mess system creating a very strong bond and a person to defend on the actual battle so they would not run off and think later upon what they had done.  


.......The Persian use of levy troops also helped to boost the numbers they had in the field but quite realistically they were not a strong skilled team like the Spartans were. Herodotus’ ‘Catalogue of Nationalities,’ which comments on all the levy troops Xerxes brought, gives a rough idea on how the nationalities were so ill-equipped that they would have been slaughtered fighting a phalanx. The vase below helps confirm Herodotus’ claim that Aethiopian marines joined the land army at Plataea when the Athenian navy sank their ships at Salamis. Some levy troops like Arab Camel archers, Indian footmen and war elephants certainly had a psychological effect on some Greek contingents but the Spartans were not impressed as it was a show by Xerxes, many either didn’t want to be their or were ill-equipped making them easy prey for the Spartans. The Persians themselves, a mix of Mede and Persian citizens were well trained in archery and javelin use from their early days as herdsmen trying to protect there cattle from wolves and other predators. Persian cavalry however was seen as one of the worlds finest, skilled enough to fire a bow while riding the horse at full pace, ‘being horse-archers, they were very difficult to get at.’ [Herodotus].
Part of an Athenian Vase Collection, "Negro Alabastra


.......The Battle of Plataea in 479BC was the last of the Persian invaders, a strong hold that needed to be taken. Many have questioned what actually went on at Plataea during the night when every Greek contingent moved. The Greek units were prompted to move because of Persian cavalry attacks, the Megarians nearly had there whole force annihilated but were reinforced by Athenian hoplites and archers who saved them and hit Masistius (Persian Cavalry leader) which brought him to the ground and subsequently his death. Greek cavalry was almost none existent so hoplites always feared a cavalry unit could quickly flank them and attack there exposed lines. As the picture to the right shows, Persian cavalry was not refined enough to take on a prepared hoplite who had a far longer spear unlike the cavalry man who had an exhaustible weapon in the form of a javelin and no stirrups to hang on to the horse, meaning charges were impossible. This fact, coupled with the fact the Myriad (10,000 strong cavalry – Herodotus) had lost their beloved leader, Masistius, did not play any further role at Plataea except to cover the retreat of the Persian infantry. The nighttime blunder was an incident with Pausanius (Spartan General) who did not want to move his unit, against the wishes of the present Ephors (Spartan overseers), delaying many attached Greek units and causing disorganisation. When morning came the Greek contingents were scattered all over the area, some were near to the mountain range and some well a head on the plains. Many scholars have debate whether this was a cunning strategy the Spartans had planned for, just like the Battle Of Sepea. Herodotus claims it was a blunder averted only by luck but he may not have understood the depth of planning. This drew out the Persian commander, Mardonius who ordered a missile bombardment of the upcoming Greeks. The Spartans and Tegeans made the first surge forward and brought the Spara down, ripping into the Persians and into the camp, winning the battle.
Italian Red Figure Calyx Crater 440 B.C. A Spartan against an Eastern Cavalry Man


.......The Spara was Persia’s answer to a shield wall, sometimes literally acting as a wall. The Spara was a full-length shield, leather reinforced with osiers (similar to wicker), its modern equivalent being something like a police riot shield. Herodotus and especially Xenophon commented on Persian organisation in which they describe the role of the Dathapatis, commander of himself and nine behind him in a line (Dathabam), and ten lines to make sataba that consisted of one hundred. The Dathapatis would hold the Spara and use the 1.8m length spear to keep back any attacker who got close enough while the nine in his formed line used their bows and rained arrows down, hitting any incoming forces. The development of aggressive tactics by the Greeks such as the Hoplitodromos, the aggression of the Spartans and Tegeans at Plataea and the fact the Greek hoplite carried a 2.4m spear, gave the Spartans a huge advantage over the Persians who simple didn’t have the weaponry to combat the hoplite.
An Achaemenid Persian Spara on an Attica Vase fighting a Hoplite



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