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"Bred for Battle—Understanding Ancient Sparta’s Military " Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP18 May 2018 3:51 p.m. PST


"Sparta's enemies, when facing the intimidating Spartan forces, would see a wall of shields, bristling with lances, inexorably bearing down on them—not to the beat of drums, but as the Greek historian Thucydides explains, "to the music of many ute-players, a standing institution in their army, which has nothing to do with religion, but is meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order."

Little remains of the ancient city of Sparta, capital of the Laconia region, situated on the Peloponnesus peninsula in modern Greece, but the impact of its unique culture is impossible to ignore. Unlike Athens to the north, Sparta was famed for its austerity—its "spartan" character—was, and is, proverbial. A state run by an inflexible military regime, whose people existed almost entirely to serve the army, the Spartans were legendary for their professionalism, intense physical and mental stamina, and absolute dedication to the defense of their land. No great philosophers would ever arise from Spartan culture the way they did from Athens…."
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Mars Ultor18 May 2018 8:40 p.m. PST

Sparta, before the enslavement of the neigboring Greek Messenians, in the 8th and 7th is said to have produced great works of art and poetry. But after enslaving their neighborsthey chose total isolation and to subordinate the individual to the state; no art, no economy (literally refused coinage in an age when Athenian coinage was becoming the Greek currency), no individuality, no free thought, and frequent expulsion of foreigners or foreign ideas. It got them a powerful military for 200 years or so, until a bigger army crushed them at Leuctra. Then they had nothing to fall back on. A completely bankrupt society that had relied on fear and intimidation – a one-trick pony – which had failed to develop in any other meaningful way. And so such a once proud city state, the kingdom of Menelaos, sunk into obscurity.

So, yeah, they can be admired for the lengths to which they went to achieve military superiority. But it came at a high cost, and in the end it was very short-sighted.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP19 May 2018 2:17 a.m. PST

…not so much a bigger enemy army at Leuctra (IIRC they outnumbered the Thebans) but more imaginative tactics. Go Epaminondas! I do agree about the Spartans, though, a nasty bunch.

Huscarle19 May 2018 6:22 a.m. PST

I have to disagree with BigRedBat & Mars Ultor.
I remember this story:-
An old man wandering around the Olympic Games looking for a seat was jeered at by the crowd until he reached the seats of the Spartans, whereupon every Spartan younger than him, and some that were older, stood up and offered him their seat. The crowd applauded and the old man turned to them with a sigh, saying "All Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it."

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP19 May 2018 11:19 a.m. PST



Mars Ultor19 May 2018 7:49 p.m. PST

Huscarle, I guess it depends on what Greeks you ask. Obviously that Greek was not a Messianian Greek. Doing what is right in Greek eyes would probably NOT be enslaving of other Greeks.

Dn Jackson19 May 2018 11:56 p.m. PST

Slavery was common and no one had a problem with it.

Mars Ultor20 May 2018 12:14 p.m. PST

Dn Jackson, sure, slavery was common, that's just a given. What was not commonplace was taking the entire populace into slavery. It happened only occasionally and was not the norm.

But that's not even the point I was making above, which is that Sparta's inverted society, focused solely warfare and on keeping the Messenian population terrorized and enslaved, limited their prospects. As outlined above, it prevented them from having and advanced economy, killed their artistic traditions, and stunted any kind of cultural or intellectual growth they might have had. Athens had no competitor here.

There's a very good reason that Athens is the capital of Greece today and has become a symbol for culture in the west. No one speaks of Sparta except to admire their totalitarian austerity and military hierarchy. Where are the great structures of Sparta? What influential philosophical ideas did they share with the world that improved science or intellectual thinking? Their contributions are not spoken of because there weren't any. Their decision to enslave some fellow Greeks (and decisions resulting from that) led to their culture being a dead end.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP20 May 2018 3:22 p.m. PST



Dn Jackson21 May 2018 12:05 a.m. PST

Mars Ultor, I was referring to your comment – "Doing what is right in Greek eyes would probably NOT be enslaving of other Greeks."

I would disagree with that comment as Greeks enslaved each other on a regular basis and had no problem with it.

As to this, "Their contributions are not spoken of because there weren't any. Their decision to enslave some fellow Greeks (and decisions resulting from that) led to their culture being a dead end."

I think I could make a strong argument that their decision to create and maintain their military lifestyle saved Greek culture and the very idea of democracy from being stillborn due to conquest by the Persians. Had the Spartans not decided to enslave the Messienians and developed a deep and abiding love for their own freedom, they may not have had the strength to lead the rest of Greece in their fight to defend themselves from Persian enslavement.

Just my thoughts.

Mars Ultor22 May 2018 5:27 p.m. PST

Dn, Very well-reasoned. On the matter of Greeks enslaving Greeks, you are indeed correct. More of my focus was on an entire Greeks people, but maybe this didn't really phaze the Greeks either, though I expect it would have been highly unusual, bordering on shocking. There's probably not an good concensus on what "the Greeks" thought of it.

The Spartans certainly contributed to keeping Greece free, though it might be debated whether or not it would have happened without them. My Greek history is not good enough to know that. In the same vein, human experimentation has yielded great medical knowledge, but few advocate it.

xanthippus24 May 2018 9:14 a.m. PST

Spartans were not Bred for battle. They were trained for battle

xanthippus25 May 2018 8:24 a.m. PST

Socrates and PLato greatly admiredthe partans for their piety and virtue and prefered their form of governmentto democracy

xanthippus25 May 2018 8:44 a.m. PST

If not for the Spaertans(and otherLacaedemonians) at Thermopylae and Plataea There would have been no Athens

xanthippus25 May 2018 8:52 a.m. PST

I find it ironic that people who spend all their spare timetudying warfare fail to see the importance of the Spartan legacy

Mars Ultor25 May 2018 4:16 p.m. PST


"If not for the Spaertans(and otherLacaedemonians) at Thermopylae and Plataea There would have been no Athens"

You mean that, absent the 10,000 Spartans, none of the other 30,000 Greek hoplites at Platea stood a chance? Ever hear of Xenophon's 10,000 and what they achieved?

That statement is impossible to prove and the evidence as I see it doesn't bear it out. First of all, Thermopylae is a terrible example to employ and the opposite of your argument. It was a heroic stand, no doubt, but did not save Athens, which was subsequently destroyed twice by the Persians (and yet they rebuilt). Platea is a better argument, but if you take out the Spartans there's too many "what ifs" you'd have to prove to say that the Greeks had no chance. Yes, it's true that the Spartans were successful that day, as were the Athenians on their side. But to prove that the Greeks would have failed without Sparta requires proving either that the Greeks had no intention of fighting without Sparta and would have surrendered (a threat they made to the SPartans, but it may have very well been just that); or you'd have to prove that none of the Greek hoplites could have done what the Spartans did, which is to fight successfully against the Persians infantry. Greek hoplites of many origins seem to have done quite well against Persian infantry (again, Xenophon's 10,000). Seems like whoever was on the other side (where Sparta actually was) could have done the same with similar results. Persians seem to have had trouble standing up to any kind of hoplites in battle, not just Spartans. Alternatively, you could try to prove that 30,000 hoplites (generally accepted number after Spartans are subtracted) would not have been enough, but you'd have to be omniscient to know that. Yes, it was Spartans who did the job – so, yes, thank you Sparta, great job. But there's every chance the Greeks could have carried it off without them.

"I find it ironic that people who spend all their spare timetudying warfare fail to see the importance of the Spartan legacy"

I find it ironic that people who can so obviously read can come up with such a misguided conclusion. I don't see one place up above that I denied that the Spartans _helped_ in keeping Greece free (though you might find some further irony in that they maintained their later hegemony with Persian gold and kept the Persians safe from Greeks by keeping the Greeks contained). But if you're going to state that Greek independence was entirely dependent on Sparta's military and that no other could have done it, then you'd better come up with some better examples than Thermopylae and Platea. Perhaps you can. In the meanwhile don't forget who was the leader of the Salamis victory, afterwhich Xerxes retreated back to Asia with a good chunk of forces: Themistocles, an Athenian, designed the strategy when the Peloponnesians wanted to retreat to the isthmus.

xanthippus26 May 2018 2:02 p.m. PST


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