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Spartan Military and the Battle in Thermopylae

Sparta is a city of ancient Greece. It is the capital of Laconia on the Eurotas River in the Peloponnesus. The Spartan city-state (polis) is located in a fertile, mountain-walled valley, created by invading Dorian Greeks. It is known to have cradled the strongest militia who claimed to have built monuments in flesh – their greatest monuments were their citizens. As a manifestation of this strength, for a long time Spartans had no city walls and depended only for protection on the strength of their army against invaders and against their subjects, the Laconian and Messenian. (Cartledge 2004)

Although residing in a fertile soil, the increase in population in Sparta in the 8th century B. C demanded more fertile lands. They decided to take the neighboring lands which happened to be fertile but owned by the Messenians who weren’t eager to give up their land. For 10 years, the Sparta and the Messenians fought over the property which ended with the victorious Sparta. Sparta turned the Messenians as subjects to comprise their agricultural labor force so the latter were known as “Helots”. After some time, the Helots rebelled at the time the Spartan population was in decline.

Although outnumbered by the Messenians in a ratio of 10 to 1, Sparta still won the Second Messenian War perhaps in 640 B. C. The Helots remained as Spartans labor force and to ensure their submission, Sparta had to devise a Military State. (Gill 2000) The inhabitants of the territory belonging to the Spartan state and other conquered territory like the Messenia were called the `Lacedaemonians’ in ancient Greece. Lacedaemonians were often defined as Spartiates or `real’ and only full citizens of Sparta. They were the only sharers in the allotment of lands.

The second class who was somewhat less stringent subjection was the perioeci. They were freemen or those dwelling round about, also natives of Lacedaemonia who did not have full citizen rights and were permitted to carry on commerce and handicrafts. Some perioeci prospered but nevertheless, they were still subordinate to the Spartiates. The lowest class was called the Helots who are also considered properties and could not be sold. They were denied of legal or civil rights and often guarded by Spartiate secret police for fear of insurrection.

(Cartledge 2004) The Spartiates were the ruling class who gave themselves wholly to war and referred to as the chosen soldiers. Spartans were best described as formidable soldiers as Herodotus explained in one of his dialogues: One-against-one, they the Spartans are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do.

And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm — to conquer or die. (Herodotus’ dialogue between Demaratos and Xerxes Book 7) Army Training and Equipment The Spartiates form the heart of the Spartan army. They were trained to be soldiers and nothing else, being forbidden to learn and exercise any other trade. A Spartiate was prepared for military service by the time of his birth when elders confirm his future capacity as stated in Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians.

A fit and healthy boy was taken away from his mother at the age of seven and taken into military boot-camps known as Agoge. This was the start of his rigorous military discipline and training where he actually spent his entire life. They were provided with little food and clothing although this encouraged theft, they were punished not because they steal but because they were caught. The songs of the poet Tyrtaios were part of compulsory learning. They read and write to be able to read military maps, not for cultural purposes.

At the age of twelve, a boy was classed as a meirakion or youth. He was given a more intensified physical education, harsher discipline, and was loaded with extra tasks. Whether it is winter or summer, youths had to dress only in tunics and had to go barefoot. At 20, he became a soldier, at 30 a citizen, and remained a soldier until his 60s. If a boy appeared too weak, he was taken into the mountains and abandoned. Women were not secluded in the Spartan military only that Spartiate women went through less severe discipline. (Cartledge 2004)

Like its Greek neighbors, the Spartans used typical hoplite equipment with only the crimson tunic (chiton) and cloak (himation) were distinctive of Spartans. Spartans maintained their long hair as the symbol of a free man. But by the 5th century, long hair to the Greeks means a peculiar association with the Spartans and signified pro-Spartan sympathies. The Greek letter lambda (? ) is another widely known Spartan symbol which stands for Laconia or Lacedaemon. This was also painted on the Spartans’ shields. A specific identity to Spartan officers was the transverse horsehair crest on the helmet, usually a Corinthian type.

Along with this, Spartans were armored with flanged bronze cuirasses and leg greaves. The Doru was the Spartan’s main weapon and for long range, they carried a javelin. The Spartiates was always armed with a xiphos. The Spartans were a land-based force par excellence. (Gill 2000) Tactic and Battle of Thermopylae Sparta is remembered for its military accomplishments notable of which is the heroic defense led by King Leonidas of the Pass at the Battle in Thermopylae against Persia in 480 BC and its victory by destruction of Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

In the Battle in Thermopylae, Greek force was composed only of approximately 4,000 soldiers against the advancing Persians under Xerxes. This combined force included 300 Spartans, a number of Greek slaves, and allies from Arcadia, Corinth, Thespiae and Thebes. Though Persians outnumbered the Greeks, their actual strength measured only from an army of 2 million to only 200, 000. This victory over Persia has been used to reference heroic resistance against a more powerful enemy. It was the Phalanx formation that led Spartan to victory during the battle. This is a formation very common in ancient Greek warfare.

It is a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar weapons. These phalanxes were made more cohesive and effective by the Spartans’ constant drill and superb discipline. These phalanx was a classical style formation usually a single line, uniformly deep in files of 8 to 12 men. In time of battle, normally the Spartans occupy the honorary right flank when fighting alongside their allies. After achieving victory on their side, the Spartans would then wheel left and roll up the enemy formation.

But since direct confrontations between opposing phalanxes needed stamina and pushing ability, engagements became fluid during the Peloponnesian War. (Gill 2000) During the Battle of Leuctra when the Thebans, under Epaminondas increased the depth of a part of their formation, the Spartan phalanx broke and Sparta fell an easy prey and declined. Attempts to regain strength in the 3rd century B. C. were initiated by determined kings Agis IV and Cleomenes III and by Nabis through vigorous reforms. It was only under the Romans that Sparta prospered again. In A. D.

395, it was devastated by the Goths. Near the modern city of Sparta nowadays lie the ruins of old Sparta, including sanctuaries and a theater. The Spartans has projected an image of unique but harsh discipline and merciless courage. For this reason, they are believed to have lived a society lacking of art, literature and culture. But contrary to this interpretation, ancient Sparta was actually a multifaceted community and widely admired in the intellectual world. Democracy was already a system in Sparta and the first in history about 200 years before the Athenian democracy.

Sparta was known as the only Greek city-state to define citizenship as equality in wealth by land reform. Among the Greek city – states, it was only Sparta which developed first a complex system of mutual defense treaties and an advocate of democracy against tyranny. Women in Sparta enjoyed elementary rights such as the right to inheritance, property ownership and public education. The agoge or the Spartan public educational system, was admired almost universally from historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Spartans also did not lack in architectural and artistic achievements. Greek scholars were able to collect “Spartan sayings” as fruits of Spartan wit and rhetoric. The “Laconic” style of rhetoric characterized by a concise expression or limited use of words in speech was actually studied and imitated. Its citizens were actually its pride. The most widely admired Spartans were Lycurgus, the lawgiver; Chilon, the statesman and philosopher; and Tyrtaios, the poet. Thus, Plutarch was certain that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Sparta than love of physical exercise.

” (Gill References Cartledge, P. (2004) The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece [Paperback] ISBN-10: 1400078857 ISBN-13: 978-1400078851 Gill, N. S. (2000) Sparta – A Military State Spartans and Messenians. About. com Guide Retrieved 08 May 2010 from <http://ancienthistory. about. com/od/governmen1/a/aa070699_govt. htm Jones, A. H. M. Sparta (1967); Lazenby, J. The Spartan Army (1985); Cartledge, P. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (1987) The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2004. NV:Columbia University Press.

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