Sparta with its combination of Warrior Ethos, cutting edge technology, and iron discipline turned it into the military powerhouse of the age. Spartan Warriors are among the greatest warriors to have ever lived. Renowned for their supreme fitness and discipline, because of this they have often been mislabeled as mindless brutes.
Spartan education stressed love of intellect and knowledge as much as physical exercise. Infact self-discipline, (not the mindless obedience the Spartans were often accused of) as the principal goal of Spartan education was the creation of good citizens. And good citizens had to be able to deliberate wisely in the Assembly, to serve as magistrates and judges, and to conduct negotiations with foreign powers. Thus, despite the harsh discipline, Sparta did not seek to break her youth or make them subservient. Instead, they were taught not only their laws but also the functioning of democracy in function electing their leaders amongst themselves during their schooling at the Agoge.
Spartans are also (falsely) accused of being drones, as discipline and adherence to orders was of extreme importance in Phalanx Combat. Yet being a good soldier (Spartan) required much more than just strength and discipline. In fact a Spartan would have also been trained to track, hunt, provide first aid, and other tasks designed to teach them how to survive on their own behind enemy lines, or on an extended campaign. Beyond even that, a good Spartan was trained think and act independently recognizing opportunities and seizeing initiative. For any naysayers this has been corroborated historically by any number of Sparta’s successful independent commanders (for instance Gylippus, Mindarus, and Lysander).
For those that need further convincing Socrates himself considered the Spartans the greatest philosophers in mainland Greece. And other philosophical greats like Xenophon, and Plato were also hearty admirers of Sparta. It makes little sense that the intellectual powerhouses of the age would so greatly admire a society of illiterate brutes. In fact… Literacy was higher in Sparta than in other Greek city-states, because only in Sparta was there a high degree of literacy among women as well as men because… only in Sparta was public education provided for girls as well as boys.
While the emphasis of Spartan Education was physical fitness, numerous sources testify to the fact that Sparta also placed great emphasis on training the intellect. Anything less would have put Sparta at a disadvantage, and since Spartans were commonly requested to assume positions of leadership in foreign policy… it just goes to show that the Spartan Warriors were far from the mindless brutes their detractors would have you believe.
One of my favorite stories regarding these legendary warriors is not one of prowess or glory but of good conduct and right action. “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.”
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The Spartans were by far the most renowned of Greek city-states when it came to martial prowess. The youth of Lakedaimonia were removed from their mothers at the age of seven to be raised in military barracks and trained to be warriors, their primary duty to the state, circumstances allowed by the slave/feudal system imposed by the Spartan elites on the helots of the region who farmed and supported this warrior society.
At 20, a boy became a man and joined the ranks of the Spartan Army, serving until the age of 60. Bravery was prized above all else, and a man who turned and fled in battle was considered to have committed treason, and faced summary execution. Marching off to war with spear, sword, and shield, the women of Sparta would remark to their sons “With it, or on it."
At the height of their power Sparta controlled most of the Peloponnesian peninsula and most of the city-states were subjugated to them and provided additional hoplites to bolster the Spartan battle lines. Tegea was, during the 5th Century BCE their most important ally and their men were afforded the most important place in the battle plans aside from the Spartans themselves.
A hoplite, carrying a shield with a dog as decoration. Tondo of an Attic red-figure eye-cup, attributed to the painter Oltos; 500-490 BCE. Found at Chiusi; now in the Regional Archaeological Museum “Antonio Salinas”, Palermo. Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Hoplites are perhaps best remembered as the main component of the Spartan army. In fact, it was the only type of warrior in the Spartan army.
They formed in a line, with one shield covering most of one man and part of the one next to them. Keeping in a strict, close formation, these shields protected most of the men. The combination of these large shields with long spears made getting to the Spartans, much less fighting them one-on-one, nearly impossible.