The Spartans have a legendary name in military history, only partly earned. I discuss that legend and the time when a motley group of lightly-armed patriots, led by an unlikely general, popped that legend’s over-inflated bubble.
Hoplite: Heavy infantryman in the ancient Greek style. He was expected to furnish his own weapons and armor, which would be of varying amount and quality. Essential equipment included a long wooden shield with embossed metal, a helmet, a spear, sword, and sometimes a dagger. The sword and dagger were basically side-arms, because the spear was the star of the show: anywhere from 6 to 9 feet long, it was the prime mover in the “phalanx” warfare of the day, where hoplites marched in tight order, shields partially covering themselves and the guy next to them, the spear (almost certainly) stabbed in an over-arm motion. Phalanx combat being straightforward, each line of hoplites would push forward, attempting to disrupt the enemy line and push it backwards. Downed opponents could be finished off by a spike mounted on the bottom of the spear as the line moved forward.
Sparta: Prominent Greek city state. Greece at the time consisted of many independent city-states, each with distinct governments and often at odds with the others. Greeks had a natural affinity for each other over “foreigners,” but this affinity did nothing to diminish their fierce rivalries. Sparta was famous for the quality of its warriors and for creating a system specifically to make them professional. Moat other Greek hoplites had other occupations and only trained and fought when their city was at war; Spartans had a state system to support their full-time training. This was in part supported by their enslavement of the Messenian people, creating a class known as ‘helots’ that did the work otherwise neglected by the Spartan professional warriors.
Athens: Prominent Greek city state. The Athenians pioneered a form of limited direct democracy, building a successful empire around it in the fifth century BC. While fielding classic hoplite armies (and using them to famously defeat much larger Persian ones), Athens became known for her trade network, supported by her innovative, high-quality navy. Athenian sailors were easily the best in the region, being as they were professional free men, as opposed to the slaves who frequently worked the boats of other city-states. This in turn allowed for tactically superior assault boats, used to great effect against her enemies. By the time of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was easily the wealthiest and most powerful Greek city state.
Thespiae and Plateaea: small Greek city states. Thespiae bears mentioning in the context of this episode chiefly because the Spartans historically get all the credit for the heroic “last stand,” at Thermopylae, but 700 hoplites fell alongside them after the final Persian encirclement, when it was known to be suicide to continue fighting. Plataea was a staunch ally of Athens for generations, defying both massive Persian armies and threatening Spartans.
Peloponnesian War: Three-part conflict between Athens and Sparta for domination of the Aegean Sea (and, by extension, ancient Europe), that occurred from about 431 BC to 404 BC. Despite vast wealth, and an innovative mindset fostered by its proto-democratic society, Athens bungled its way to total defeat. Much of Greek dominance of the ancient world evaporated with the widespread destruction and impoverishment that resulted from the conflict. While Sparta was the “winner,” her prosperity did not last long.
Persian Empire: Massive domain covering most of the Middle and Near East, ruled by the “King of Kings” seated in modern-day Iran. They had displaced the Babylonians and were famously wealthy and powerful, even by ancient imperial standards. They were capable of fielding gargantuan (for the time) armies of over 100,000 men from all over their dominion. Their numerous defeats and struggles at the hands of much smaller Greek armies in the early fifth century BC (Marathon in 490 BC, Salamis in 480 BC, Plataea in 480 BC, and Eurymedon 469 BC) form the basis of many ‘David and Goliath’ stories that have captured the popular imagination of Western Civilization for thousands of years.
Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC): the foundation of the Spartan legend. Faced with a massive Persian invasion, King Leonidas of Sparta quickly moved with a small force of Spartans, Plataeans, and Thespians to block their advance in the mountain pass of Thermopylae. The naturally defensible position and the far superior quality and bravery of the Greek hoplites enabled them to hold off the Persian army for a few days, despite being outnumbered by (debatable) figures of 30+ to 1. Betrayed in the end by a traitor who showed the Persians a path around the Greeks, who were then encircled, the Spartan-led hoplites were killed to the last man. Their actions, however, bought the rival Athenians time to prepare their fleet: a development that would save Greece from Persian domination.
Battle of Marathon (490 BC): the first great victory of Greek hoplites against a much larger Persian invading force. Through a quick strike, the better-trained, better-equipped, and much more highly-motivated Athenian soldiers decisively defeated the Persians in an “upset” victory. The battle passed into legend, not only for its identity-saving quality (protecting Greece from foreign influence, a mark of great pride among Greeks everywhere), but for the invention of the Marathon—the imagined distance sprinted by an Athenian runner to give news of the victory before the city of Athens could submit to the blockading Persian fleet.
Prominent episode characters
Athenians: Pericles, Cleon, Demosthenes
Spartans: Leonidas, Agis
Thucydides: primary historian of the Peloponnesian War. He lived through the events, first serving as a soldier and general in the Athenian army before being wrongly exiled on trumped-up charges.
For Further Awesome Reading…
Thucydides is, quite simply, the man. It’s so hard to find anything close to what we call ‘objectivity’ in ancient historians. It was taken for granted that telling a good story, imparting a moral, or showing your people in the best possible light was as much a part of history as the facts. Thucydides stood out for his stated attempt to focus on facts when we wrote about the Peloponnesian War. What also helps us in reading him were the circumstances of his life: as an important Athenian who was essentially screwed by the system he was trying to defend, he makes for an ideal witness, as what we can assume would have been his natural Athenian bias was balanced by his experience.
Donald Kagan’s work: Kagan wrote THE definitive history of the Peloponnesian War in four parts, called by one critic the foremost work of history by an American in the 20th century—pretty mind-boggling praise. Aside from this, Kagan was a highly-acclaimed professor at Cornell and Yale and brilliant mind. The four parts of his history are:
He’s also got a condensed version called “The Peloponnesian War” for those desiring a less comprehensive look at the conflict.
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