A while ago I stumbled on the blog Acoup, which is mostly military history written by an Assistant Professor of history at NCSU. As a binged through the blog's backlog, I stumbled on a series about Sparta that totally surprised me. Here's a post I made about it on Facebook.
"When I read about real Spartan history recently, I was pretty surprised that they were only mediocre as individual warriors, they were terrible at warfare in general, and were incredibly brutal to their absolutely huge numbers of slaves."
This started a fascinating argument about Greek history. It seems like everyone pretty much agrees that Sparta was pretty brutal to their lower classes (though I had had no idea about that until I read the blog posts). What people disagree about is whether they were good at war. This makes sense, given that it's such a staple of popular culture. Some of the people in that FB discussion know way more history than I do, so I ended up unsure how to weight their statements against those of Acoup.
A friend recently posted a fact-check of some of Acoup's Sparta claims. That gave me more trust in Acoup's other claims.
In the end, I remain pretty convinced by Acoup's claims about Sparta's (lack of ) prowess at naval and siege warfare, as well as logistics. Where I was left most confused was in the claims about hoplite warfare. As one of my friends mentioned in that FB argument:
"[W]e're talking about putting down a lot of skilled contemporary analysis. The idea that [historical sources like Xenophon] were just suckered and there's nothing to it is almost shockingly arrogant, given the scope of their capabilities and accomplishments. As far as I can tell essentially no contemporary sources are like 'actually, the Spartans are bad and unimpressive'."
The crux of the argument
everybody: Spartans were the best warriors in the world
Acoup: Spartans society was horrible to live in and highly immoral by modern standards. Also they didn't win very many wars.
Me (on FB): Seems like Spartans were terrible at warfare
FB friends: they were actually great warriors, and everybody in antiquity knew it
It's easy to get side-tracked by these types of arguments. The overall idea of Spartans in pop culture is definitely that they're peak warriors. When I argued with people who defend Spartan military acumen, I found that they fell back on hoplite battle as what they meant by that.
This feels a bit like a motte and bailey argument to me, where a push back on overall military competence gets rebutted with a much smaller claim. Maybe the people who defend the bailey (Spartans were awesome at war) are separate from those that defend the motte (Spartans were good at hoplite battles), but it's hard to say.
In any case, I want to be clear about what question I'm trying to answer. I just want to know if Spartans won more battles than they lost.
If Spartans won most of the battles they fought, then I have to admit that they were better than their contemporaries. If they lost most of their battles, then they weren't. If it was about 50/50, then maybe they were only average.
There's a lot of minutiae that goes into this, because battles are never clean competitions between comparable forces. The Spartans that are most renowned were those who went through the agoge schooling (called Spartiates), but many in Spartan forces were helots who hadn't had that training. How do we gauge those differences?
Similarly, Sparta often went to war alongside allies. Depending on time period, they allied with the Thebans, the Athenians, the Persians, etc. If we want to know how good the Spartiates were, we should discount battles where most of the soldiers on the Spartan side were from allied forces.
We should also look at how the Spartans actually won their battles. If they won pitched battles against a numerically superior opponent, then that's good evidence that they were strong warriors. If they won against a surprised force that was much smaller than them, I'd take that as not arguing for their skill at arms.
Spartan military might waxed and waned over time. To do this right, we should give the most weight to the battles when they were strongest.
But all of that sounds like a lot of work. So I'm going to take a list of Spartan battles (this one from wikipedia), and just look at win/loss record. I think that'll give a good first order approximation to their abilities. I'll look at a few individual battles after that to get a sense for the more specific questions.
Overall Battle Performance
I made a table from Wikipedia's list of Spartan battles, and you can find it at the end of this post.
I'm not a historian, and I don't have the decade+ to become one to answer a question that is pure curiosity on my part. It seems pretty likely that the Wikipedia list isn't comprehensive, but my naive estimation is that it probably contains the more well known and impactful of Sparta's battles. If you know of a better list, let me know and I might update my analysis later (time permitting).
There were 35 battles on that list. Of those, they had 16 wins, 16 losses, and 3 ties. To me, that seems to indicate that they were mostly fighting people who were about as good at war as they were. By this measure, they certainly weren't terrible at war (as I maybe mis-interpreted Acoup as saying). On the other hand, they aren't the gods of war that pop-culture makes them out to me.
Having looked at how the Spartans did overall, it will also be instructive to look at a few individual battles and see why the Spartans won or lost. Here are a few important ones:
Battle of the 300 Champions
I find the battle of the 300 champions very useful for this argument. Sparta and Argos were going to war, but they didn't want to waste all their armies. They decided they'd have 300 men of each side fight, and that would determine who won the battle. The rest of the militaries withdrew to prevent interference, so it was really just these two groups of 300 people each.
I'm not sure who was chosen to be in the Spartan group of 300, but it seems a safe assumption that it was primarily Spartiates. Those Spartans who had been through the Agoge and were the best warriors Sparta had to offer.
This gives one of the most pure comparison points available for Sparta's military prowess (at least as of 546BC). It's a pitched battle between equal numbers of people, so obviously whoever wins is better at battle.
But it infamously came down to a tie. Technically two Argos soldiers survived and one Spartan soldier survived. This argues pretty strongly against the Spartan exceptionalism theory.
On the other hand, since the outcome of the battle of 300 was so in doubt, Sparta and Argos went ahead with the full battle that they'd tried to avoid earlier. Spartans defeated the Argos in this larger battle.
Another interesting tidbit is that Argos challenged Sparta to a rematch 100 years later, which Sparta declined.
Battle of Sepeia
The battle of Sepeia, also between Spartans and Argives, was a total victory for the Spartans. The Spartans completely devastated the Argive military.
Did the Spartans win through superior skill at arms? No, the Spartans ambushed the Argives while they were all eating lunch.
I don't want to knock this tactic. All's fair in war, as they say. But it doesn't seem to be strong evidence that the Spartans were great hoplite soldiers, as it's much easier to destroy an opposing force when their hands are full of food instead of weapons.
The Athenian Sicilian Expedition
During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians invaded Sicily. Over the course of the expedition (which involved many battles), the Spartans and their allies completely destroyed the Athenians' expedition.
Athens lost 10000 hoplites and 30000 oarsmen. That was a huge blow to their military. As Wikipedia says, " the defeat of the Sicilian expedition was essentially the beginning of the end for Athens". After this defeat, many previously neutral parties allied with Sparta.
In a counterfactual world where Athens hadn't invaded Sicily, they may have won the Peloponnesian War. Even if they had invaded, if they'd withdrawn when they realized they were losing they could have saved some of their soldiers to fight in later battles. My (naive) reading of this battle is that Sparta would have had a much tougher time winning the war if Athens hadn't been defeated here.
Should we give Sparta the credit for this? There were definitely Spartans involved in the Sicilian fight against Athens. It's hard to get a sense for numbers here, but my take on the Wikipedia article is that it was mainly Syracusans who fought off the Athenians, and they were just assisted by the Spartans. In other words, the Syracusans may have been one of the main reasons that the Spartans won the war.
The Spartan Mythos
Based on that list of battles, I have to revise my original assumptions. Spartans weren't terrible at war. They also weren't obviously superior at it. If I had to summon a warrior through time to organize my assault against a great evil, it's not clear I should choose a Spartan over an Argive (I would obviously choose Alexander the Great, a Macedonian).
Why then is Sparta held up as a core of military mastery? I honestly think it's because they liked war so much. They had a whole school devoted to teaching their kids to be warriors. It might not have helped them to conquer and hold their neighbors (which they obviously wanted to do). It did impress all of their neighbors though, and it made it clear what Sparta valued.
People in middle class America don't fight hoplite battles. When we go to war, we have the best equipment and the most people. Our soldiers don't necessarily need to emulate great generals or ancient soldiers, they just need to have values that work well with military discipline. Our civilians don't even need that much, they mostly just want to feel connected to a sense of physical pride and motivation. The Spartan mythos provides these things, even if it doesn't have much to do with Sparta itself.
I also think the Spartan mythos was pretty useful to Sparta itself. It seems pretty clear that Sparta was drinking it's own koolaid. A friend asks the very reasonable question:
"The Spartans were, by all accounts, backwards, agrarian and few in number. But they seem to have had an outsized influence in the geopolitics of the day."
I think recent American politics have shown that you don't necessarily have to be skilled and exceptional to have a big impact on something. What really worked for Trump was just a willingness to push for what he wanted, and keep pushing regardless of what other people said or who might have been a better fit. It seems pretty clear the Spartans would have supported that mindset.
Table of Battles
|Battle||Year||Opposition||Num Spartiates||Num Spartan Allies||Num Opposition||Result (win/tie/lose)|
|Sicilian Expedition||415||Delian League||1000||1200cavalry+100ships+??||12000+ships||win|