We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta

Khalid Elhassan - February 15, 2024

Spartan authorities practiced eugenics as a matter of state policy, in order to raise strong warriors to maintain Sparta’s military dominance. Officials decided if newborns were healthy enough to rear as Spartan citizens. Those with deformities or otherwise deemed unfit, were disposed of. Or at least that was the accepted narrative for centuries, until modern scholarship cast doubt upon that. Below are twenty five things about that, and other Spartan and ancient Greek fascinating facts.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Selection of Children In Sparta, by Jean Pierre Saint Ours, 1785. Wikimedia

The Spartan Authorities Reportedly Practiced Eugenics as a Matter of State Policy

Throughout much of history, life was rough – as in orders of magnitude tougher than what we experience today – for the majority of mankind. Things we find shockingly cruel today, such as infanticide of unwanted children, were seen as routine by many. In ancient Greece, for example, unwanted children were often abandoned in the wilderness. There, they perished from exposure to the elements, thirst or hunger, attacks by wild animals, or, if they were lucky, were saved by a passerby. The Spartan government in particular ramped up infanticide into eugenics as a matter of state policy.

According to Plutarch, in his biography of the ancient Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus: “Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so‑called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state“.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Aristotle was an advocate for eugenics. K Pics

Infant Exposure, From Necessity to Eugenics

Infanticide was widely used throughout history and across many societies to get rid of unwanted children. The ancient Greeks widely practiced infant exposure. It was the preferred method to get rid of unwanted children because, to the ancient Greeks, it was not as morally abhorrent as the outright murder of a baby. The way they saw it, an exposed infant’s fate was in the hand of the gods. They might directly intervene to rescue the child, or a kind-hearted passerby might do so.

Infant exposure often occurred in the context of hardships in difficult times that made an extra mouth to feed problematic. Some, however, took that further, and took infant exposure from cruel necessity to eugenics. The philosopher Aristotle, for example, advocated that deformed infants be exposed. As he put it: “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that not deformed child shall live“. The decision to keep or expose an infant was usually the father’s, except in Sparta, where a group of Spartan elders made that choice. As seen below, however, recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether infant exposure was as common in Sparta as has long been believed.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
An aged and white bearded Agesilaus Ii, center, in the service of Pharaoh Nectanebis, 361 BC. Hutchinson’s History of the Nations

Was Spartan Infanticide a Myth?

Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus popularized the notion of Spartan eugenics, whereby the state decided whether newborns were healthy enough to rear, or not. The goal was to produce strong warriors to maintain Sparta’s military dominance. To that end, the Spartan state involved itself in the selection of parents for their physical and mental traits. The authorities decided which newborns to keep, and the state was involved in the upbringing of children, who were raised in brutally tough boarding schools, to ensure their development in accordance with Spartan ideals. Thousands of years later, a eugenics movement arose, and had its heyday in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Modern eugenicists looked back at history, and filled with admiration for Spartan manliness and hardihood, figured that the ancient Spartans were on to something. However, what if Spartan infanticide as a matter of state policy is just a myth?

The only evidence for widespread Spartan infanticide is a single passage from the Life of Lycurgus. Plutarch wrote hundreds of years after Lycurgus had died. Moreover, he was more concerned with biographical details about his subject’s life, than with details about Sparta as a whole. Additionally, there are many examples of ancient Greeks who were reared despite birth deformities. Their numbers even include a Spartan king, Agesilaus II (444 – 360 BC), who was born lame. Despite that deformity, he was not exposed, and instead grew up to become a formidable warrior. Of course, the absence of (additional) evidence of Spartan infanticide is not evidence of absence. It could well be that Sparta did practice eugenics, as described by Plutarch, but that there were some exceptions to the rule. The debate continues.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Calchas presiding at the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in a peristyle fresco from Pompeii. Wikimedia

Ancient Greece’s Greatest Soothsayer

In ancient Greek mythology, Calchas was a gifted soothsayer. He was blessed by the god Apollo with the ability to predict the future from the flight patterns of birds. He could also soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. Calchas accompanied the Greek armies when they invaded Troy. In the Iliad, Homer extolled his skills, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“. Calchas significantly influenced the events of the Trojan War. Before the Greeks could even reach Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, unable to sail because of contrary winds.

Calchas prophesied that the winds were sent by the god Artemis, who was angry at the Greek High King and army leader, Agamemnon. To appease Artemis, Calchas stated that Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, and the winds shifted, allowing the Greeks to finally sail to Troy. On another occasion, the Greek armies were struck with a horrific plague, and turned to Calchas for advise on how to lift it. He divined that the plague was sent by the god Apollo, who was angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Trojan Horse. Hub Pages

Laughing Too Much Isn’t Good for You

To compensate himself for the loss of Chryseis, Agamemnon seized from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That led to a feud between monarch and hero that drove much of the Iliad. Calchas also endorsed Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, and predicted that it would allow the Greeks to successfully infiltrate the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans glommed on to Calchas’ reputation for their own purposes. They ascribed to him a prophecy that foretold that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the fall of Troy, then go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

Calchas met a tragicomic end in Magna Graecia. He reportedly laughed himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s false prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but his rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited the other soothsayer to the first tasting. As he lifted a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, Calchas began to laugh at his rival’s failed prophecy. He laughed so hard that he choked and perished by asphyxiation before he got to drink of his vines.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Helots were the Spartan state’s slaves. Pinterest

Spartan Slavery

New World chattel slavery made slaves the legal private property of individual masters. Thousands of years earlier, Sparta went a different route and socialized slavery: slaves belonged not to individual Spartan citizens, but to the Spartan state. That set Spartan slavery apart not only from American slavery, but from the slavery practiced by other ancient Greeks. Spartan slavery differed from the rest of Greece’s in another major way: Spartans were the only Greeks who enslaved fellow Greeks. Indeed, Sparta could not have existed in the form it did but-for the mass enslavement of other Greeks.

It began when Sparta fought and conquered her Messenian neighbors in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. After a long war, the victorious Spartan authorities transformed the entire Messenian population into state slaves, known as Helots. Before it subjugated the Helots, Sparta differed little from other Greek polities. After the conquest of Messenia, it morphed into a wholly militarized state and society in order to control the restive Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans ten to one. Thucydides noted that “most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots“. Helots had few rights, could be killed almost at will by their Spartan overlords, and were subjected to sundry humiliations to constantly remind them of their inferiority.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Spartan citizens made Helots get drunk and act the fools as object lessons for Spartan children. The Classical Futurist

Spartan Helots Were Routinely Humiliated

For their system of mass slavery to work, the Spartan authorities kept the conquered Helots constantly cowed, demoralized, and forever fearful of their overlords. The Spartans missed no opportunity to humiliate their state-owned human property. The fear cut both ways, as Spartan citizens were always worried about what their Helots might do to them if given half a chance. Spartans went around armed and armored, were constantly on the lookout for an attack that might come at any moment, and kept their doors securely locked.

As to humiliations inflicted upon the Helots, third century BC historian Myron of Priene wrote: “They assign to the Helots every shameful task leading to disgrace. For they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap and wrap himself in skins and receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves. Moreover, if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave’s condition, they made death the penalty; and they allotted a punishment to those controlling them if they failed“. Unsurprisingly, as seen further below, the Helots were unhappy with their lot.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Spartan Krypteia, or secret police, were used to terrorize and subjugate the Helots. History Skills

Spartan Helotage Transformed Sparta Into a Police State

To maintain its system of mass slavery, Sparta became a police state – history’s first – and established a secret police force known as the Krypteia. It was comprised of Sparta’s brightest young men who showed the most promise. Their key function was to spy on the Helots, and kill any who seemed restive, showed leadership potential, or seemed more prosperous than the rest. To enable them to commit murder without the religious pollution attendant upon such an act, Sparta’s leaders, the ephors, formally declared war on the Helot population every autumn.

Armed with that religious dispensation, the Krypteia fanned out among the Helots, and subjected them to a reign of terror and murder. Millennia later, the Nazis looked to the Spartan treatment of Helots when they concocted their plans for lebensraum. Like the Spartans, the Nazis hoped to conquer their neighbors – in their case, the neighbors in Eastern Europe and Russia. They planned to then exterminate most of the native Slav population, and institute a system of mass state-owned slavery. The Slavs who survived would be reduced to modern Helots, and serve the German ‘Master Race’ like the Messenians had served the Spartans.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Reproduction of a bronze xiphos. Black Beard Projects

The Spartan Army’s Favorite Sword

The primary weapon of ancient Greek warriors as they fought in phalanxes was the dory – the chief spear of hoplites, or heavy infantry. Their secondary weapon – which could quickly become their primary one in an emergency – was the sword, of which the xiphos was the most popular and well-known. Xiphoi were one-handed short swords used by the ancient Greeks use since the Bronze Age, and were mentioned by Homer in his epics. Although used throughout ancient Greece, the xiphos became especially associated with the Spartan military, as it was especially favored by Spartan warriors.

A pointed and double edged short sword, typically with a two foot long lenticular or leaf-shaped blade, the xiphos was used both to cut and thrust. Designed for single-handed use, it was favored by hoplites and was carried by them as standard equipment when they marched off to war. The xiphoi’s leaf shape distributed the blade’s weight more towards the tip. That put more mass behind the point of impact as it cut and hacked. Because added mass means added momentum, it allowed the blade to cut more readily. Additionally, the leaf shape gave the blade a curve on both sides, and such curves were useful in push and draw cuts at close quarters.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Xiphos. Zombie Tools

Why This Short Sword Was Adored by Spartan Warriors

Xiphoi were initially made of bronze. That made their leaf shape blades easy to create because bronze, unlike iron and steel, is cast rather than forged. Thus, to get the leaf shape for a bronze sword, one simply had to pour molten bronze into a leaf-shaped mold. By the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the ancient world had undergone significant advances in metallurgy, and iron supplanted bronze in making xiphoi. They were usually carried in a baldric and hung under the user’s left arm.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Spartan warrior with a xiphos. Dean Stolpmann

As ancient Greek warfare revolved around the phalanx, which was a spear-based formation, the xiphos was the hoplite’s or phalangite’s secondary weapon. It was employed in close combat for situations in which the spear was ineffective or not ideal. The ancient Spartans were noted for their use of the xiphos, and Spartan xiphoi blades were particularly short, measuring only a foot in length. As the Spartans liked to tell anybody who asked, the short blades were intended to instill aggression in Spartan warriors, by forcing them to draw that much closer to their enemies.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Miltiades. Altes Museum, Berlin

The General Who Saved Athens …

When it comes to ingratitude, few can rival ancient Athens, which often screwed over her heroes. Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was one of the earliest examples of that unfortunate tendency. He was a formidable general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, which took place a decade before the events depicted in the movie 300. It was an upset win against a numerically superior force, that saved Athens from Persian conquest. Miltiades was born into a wealthy aristocratic family. So wealthy, that it owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Persia’s King Darius I invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades surrendered and became a Persian vassal. Then, in 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule.

Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and funneled them aid from Athens. That set in a motion a chain of events that led to the Battle of Marathon. Athens sent an expeditionary force to help the Ionian Greeks. The Athenians joined the rebels in a march to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, which was put to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He fled to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals. The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. It numbered at least 25,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and thousands of archers. To face them, the Athenians fielded about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – without cavalry or archers.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Battle of Marathon. Realm of History

… and Died Shortly Thereafter in an Athenian Prison

Faced with Persian numerical superiority, the Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command with each general in charge for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights that overlooked Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Miltiades descended from the heights, assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run in order to minimize the time in which they were exposed to enemy arrows. The heavily armed and armored hoplites rapidly closed the distance to their enemy, and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition. That transformed the Persian line into a bulge, surrounded on three sides by Miltiades’ men.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
‘Helmet of Miltiades’, given by him as an offering to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Snapshots Of History

The Athenians in the reinforced flanks then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center. It panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to their beached ships. It was a major victory: the Athenians and their allies lost about 200 dead, to the Persians’ 6400. Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it did not last. A year later, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg wound. The defeat seemed so absurd to the Athenians, that they figured only deliberate treachery could explain it. His fellow citizens, whom he had so recently saved, tried him on treason charges. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. Miltiades was sent to prison, where he died when his leg wound became infected.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Themistocles. Wikimedia

What to Do With a Massive Windfall?

After the Battle of Marathon, most Athenians thought the danger had passed. Not Themistocles (524 – 459 BC). In the 480s BC, Athens’ state-owned silver mines struck a rich vein. Many Athenians wanted to divide it. Themistocles, convinced that the Persians would return, wanted to invest it on a bigger navy. He faced strong opposition. A strong navy meant higher taxes, borne mostly by the rich. Simultaneously, it would enhance the political clout of the poorer classes who would row the warships. A land strategy based on hoplites, such as those who had won at Marathon, would cost less. It also would secure the power of the middle and upper classes – the only ones who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites – as Athens’ sole armed protectors. Themistocles got rid of the opposition by, literally, getting rid of them.

Athens had a process called ostracism, whereby citizens could vote each year to exile one man for ten years. Themistocles got his chief opponents ostracized, then got his ship-building program enacted into law. When the Persians launched a massive invasion of Greece, Athens had over 200 triremes – as many as the rest of Greece combined. In 480 BC, Persians under King Xerxes overcame a Spartan force at Thermopylae, then advanced on Athens. Many wanted to fight the Persian army, but Themistocles convinced them it would be futile. Supported by a vague prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, whom Themistocles bribed, he argued that Athens should put its faith not in the city walls, but in her “wooden walls”: ships. Thus, when the Persians arrived, they found a nearly-deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. They razed Athens’ walls, and torched the city.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Battle of Salamis. Warfare History Network

A Navy Nominally Commanded by a Spartan, but Actually Led by an Athenian

The Persians assembled about 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from mainland Greece. The Greek navy was nominally commanded by the Spartan Eurybiades, but was actually led by Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wanted to retreat. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight. Aware that the allies’ commitment was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible. So he sent Xerxes a secret message, claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To bag them, Themistocles advised the Persians to send warships to block the strait’s western exit, then attack from the east. The Greeks would then either surrender, or fight poorly.

Xerxes heeded Themistocles’ advise, and the Greeks panicked when they woke the next day to discover that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians sought a battle with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis. That would have allowed them to attack on a broad front, and take advantage of their numerical superiority to overlap their foes. Themistocles had a counterplan that thwarted the Persians, then crushed them. He drew the Persians into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the Strait of Salamis’ narrow width. That negated the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact. It also drew many Persian ships into restricted waters. With their huge navy crammed into a tight space, Themistocles turned his enemy’s numerical advantage into a disadvantage.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Athenians rebuilding their city walls under the direction of Themistocles. Hutchinson’s History of the Nations

Another Savior of Athens, Rewarded With Ingratitude

Persian ships packed in an ever-tighter space fouled each other and couldn’t maneuver well. Simultaneously, more and more Persian captains, eager to impress Xerxes who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam. To make things worse, the waters off Salamis were tricky. The Greeks knew their secrets, but the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided. Many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered when they reached shore. The Battle of Salamis turned the war around and saved Greece from the Persians.

King Xerxes, who until then had personally commanded the campaign, hurriedly returned home. He left behind a formidable army under a relative to continue the campaign. It was defeated and destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea. When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to negotiate with the Spartan authorities, and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt their walls. By the time the Spartan negotiators caught on, the walls had already been restored. Afterwards, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined. He had saved Athens, but the Athenians were not big on gratitude: they ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimbly, he went to Persia, and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia Minor on behalf of the Persian monarch.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Battle of Thermopylae, the most heroic Spartan last stand. Wikimedia

An Infamous Traitor

Ephialtes of Trachis became infamous for the most notorious betrayal of ancient Greece. When the Persians invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks and showed the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae. As seen above, the Persians had invaded after Athens supported a failed rebellion by the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor against their Persian rulers. In response, the Persians launched an abortive punitive expedition against Athens. It was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

The Persians licked their wounds, and prepared for a rematch. In 480 BC, King Xerxes gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue Greece once and for all. Ephialtes was a Malian, from a region at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans. The Malians were among many Greeks in the Persian army’s path who chose discretion over valor and “Medised”. That is, they submitted to and collaborated with the Persians against other Greeks. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or “hot gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north. It became the site of the most famous Spartan feat of arms.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
When Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, Spartan King Leonidas sent his allies away and remained to guard the pass at Thermopylae with his surviving Spartans. Greece High Definition

A Heroic Spartan Stand Undone by Betrayal

A small Spartan led Greek force, under the command of Sparta’s King Leonidas, occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, forced to attack directly up the pass on a narrow front, were unable to use their advantages in numbers and cavalry. They were repeatedly bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartan warriors. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge. The Persians were stuck. Then Ephialtes told Xerxes that he knew a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Battle of Thermopylae. The Best History Encyclopedia

In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. Alerted that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent the rest of the Greeks away. He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong Spartan contingent. They fought to the death, until they were wiped out. Ephialtes’ was reviled, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward. The Persians were defeated at Salamis later that year, at Platea the following year, and their invasion of Greece collapsed. Ephialtes fled, with a reward on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartan authorities rewarded his killer anyhow.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Spartan warriors and a Helot. Quora

The Spartan Authorities Lived in Constant Fear of Their Slaves

Sparta’s mass slavery system was rocked by frequent Helot revolts. They were invariably crushed by the better trained and better equipped Spartan forces. Afterwards, savage revenge was visited upon the subdued rebels. After one such revolt, thousands of Helots were gaily decked out, marched out of town, and never heard from again. The biggest revolt came in 464 BC, after a major earthquake struck Sparta and killed thousands. The Helots took advantage of the turmoil, and made another bid for freedom. They rose up, and established a fortified base in the mountains.

In his Life of Cimon, the historian Plutarch described how a massive Helot revolt erupted in the Eurotas River valley, in the heart of the Spartan home region of Laconia. The rebels figured that their masters, reeling from the disaster, had to be at their weakest, so they struck. However, one of the Sparta’s kings (they always had two monarchs), Archidamus II, rallied the Spartans to crush the revolt. It was a close-run affair, and the Spartan authorities were forced to ask their neighbors for help in accordance with mutual assistance treaties.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Helot Revolt. Poetry In Form

The End of Spartan Helotage

The Athenians were among the Greek city states whom the hard-pressed Spartans asked for help to suppress the Helots. A conservative faction led by Cimon controlled Athens at the time, and so 4000 Athenian soldiers were duly sent to Sparta’s aid. However, once they arrived, the Athenians’ radical democracy ideas alarmed the Spartan authorities. They feared that such notions would spread to their Helots and further fuel the uprising, or that the Athenians might even switch sides. So the Spartans sent the Athenians back home.

Insulted, the Athenians threw out their conservative leaders and repudiated their alliance with Sparta. Left to their own devices, the Spartans eventually managed to crush the Helot revolt after a bitter struggle that lasted for two years, and finally ended in 462 BC. They then subjected their slaves to yet another round of cruel reprisals. The Helots finally gained their freedom a century later, when Sparta was crushed by Epaminondas of Thebes. As seen below, he realized that the Spartan state’s economy depended upon mass slavery. So he kicked the props out from under the Spartans and liberated the Helots. That set Sparta, once the Greek world’s most dominant and feared state, into a downward spiral from which it never recovered.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Spartan krypteia were deployed to terrorize and subjugate the Helots. K Pics

The General Who Ended the Myth of Spartan Invincibility

In 378 BC, war broke out between the ancient Greek city states of Thebes and Sparta. The Thebans had their work cut out for them. Other Greek city states staffed their phalanxes with citizen soldiers – civilians who temporarily took up arms in wartime. By contrast, Sparta’s citizens were professional soldiers. They began to prepare for a lifelong martial career at age seven in a brutal military academy, and spent the rest of their lives training for war. Sparta could afford that because of massive slavery. As seen above, the Spartans had conquered their Messenian neighbors in the eighth century BC, then turned the entire Messenian population into state slaves known as Helots.

To control the Helots, who outnumbered the Spartan citizens ten to one, Sparta became a military state and society. It also became a police state, with a secret security force known as the Krypteia that terrorized the Helots, and killed any who seemed restive or showed leadership potential. It was lebensraum writ small – the Nazis actually drew upon Sparta when they planned their conquest of Eastern Europe: the locals were to be enslaved to toil for the “Master Race”. The deck seemed to be stacked overwhelmingly in favor of the Spartans. Fortunately for the Thebans, they had a great general, Epaminondas (died 362 BC). As seen below, he countered Spartan superiority with the invention of basic battlefield maneuver tactics.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
Battle of Leuctra. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Taking on the Spartan Warrior Elites Head On

The end result of constant Spartan drill and training was an elite Spartan phalanx, unmatched anywhere in the world for discipline and toughness. By the fourth century BC, Sparta was Greece’s preeminent power, and the Spartan phalanx was one that nobody wanted a piece of. That is, until Epaminondas showed up, and broke the spell of Spartan invincibility when he broke the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. There, the Theban general led an army of 7000 hoplites, plus 600 cavalry, against a bigger Spartan army of 10,000 hoplites, plus 1000 cavalry.

The Theban phalanx was spearheaded by an elite unit of 300 warriors known as The Sacred Band, comprised of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers. The Spartan elite was a unit of 1000 full Spartan citizens, who had trained for war since childhood. The Greek norm was to place the best troops at the right side of the their line. As such, it was rare for the best troops of both armies to face each other. Epaminondas changed that when he put his best troops on the left side of his line, directly opposite the Spartan warriors. Then, as seen below, he introduced two innovations that revolutionized warfare.

We Are Still Learning Weird Things About Ancient Sparta
The Spartan phalanx was crushed at the Battle of Leuctra. Igor Dsiz

1. A Military Innovation that Finally Destroyed the Invincible Spartan Phalanx

Epaminondas’ first innovation was to depart from the norm of a formation with lines of a uniform depth – usually 8 to 12 men deep in Greek hoplite warfare back then. Instead, the Theban general stacked the left side of his line 50 deep, by thinning the rest of his formation. That is, he concentrated force at the decisive point. His second innovation was to not follow the usual script and advance in line abreast, in which the entire formation hits the opposite formation simultaneously. Instead, Epaminondas echeloned his army so that his powerful left was the first to reach the enemy, and his weak right was the last.

The Spartan right, stacked twelve deep, shattered when it was struck by Epaminondas’ left, fifty deep. It lost 1000 men, including 400 of the Spartan elite citizenry, plus the Spartan King Cleombrotus I. The myth of Spartan invincibility never recovered. Epaminondas went on to invade Sparta, freed its Helots, and formed them into an independent state. Since its society and economy had depended on the slave labor of the Helots, Sparta was forever after reduced to minor player status. Thebes’ great general died in 362 BC, killed in battle as he dealt Sparta yet another disastrous defeat. His innovations outlived him, and formed the bedrock of King Phillip II of Macedon’s military principles, and those of his son, Alexander the Great.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading


Ancient Origins – The Brutal Draconian Laws of Ancient Greece

Ancient Warfare – The Battle of Salamis

Bulfinch, Thomas – Bulfinch’s Mythology (2010)

Daily Beast – This Myth About the Spartans Just Got Blown Up

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