Evalute the importance, strengths and weaknesses of the Spartan Army

The Spartan army preceding 371 BC, marked a time in ancient Greek history in which Sparta was recognized as “the most formidable power in the Greek world”[1] due to their overt strength and power in the front of military pursuits. Due to the exposed nature of Sparta, having no city walls, the protection of the city relied solely on the military capabilities of the Lacedaemonians, expressing the significant importance placed on the hoplite warriors. The rise and fall of Sparta’s combatant supremacy lies in their rigid and strict educational practices and the sequential formation of strategic battle formations that both aided and hindered the strength of their army.

The education system of Spartan males began from the age of seven and “was directed toward prompt obedience to authority, stout endurance of hardship, and victory or death in battle”[2]. Many historians attribute the success of Sparta to the Agoge, as it provided Sparta’s male youth with great physical strength on the battle field. The rigorous training process built agility, through the removal of footwear as one would “run more quickly than one in sandals”[3] and a greater tolerance to battle conditions was provided by food rationing and limited clothing. This developed an extremely capable war force in which one Spartan warrior had the ability “to take on three Greeks” [4]alone, showing that one of the most predominant Spartan strengths was the well trained nature of all Spartiates.

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However in having a training system so far advanced that the skills and warfare knowledge of the average soldier mirrored those of an official, contradictions arose as lower ranked captain’s disobeyed orders based on their own interpretations of the field. This is shown through the battle of Mantinea as the Spartan King commanded a change in battle formation “but he was not allowed to carry out his original intention”[5] as his orders were ignored by his captains who thought their original formations to be better[6]. The Agoge also created rigidity in Spartan forces, whose regeneration of traditional battle tactics led to the enemy’s ability to identify key strategies and formations. The defeat of Sparta in the battle of Leuctra was largely due to the predictability of the Spartan Phalanx as “the enemies perceived the design, and began to change their order”[7]with such strength that as “the left wing saw the right wing being pushed back, they too gave way”[8]. This depicts how the strict and un-changing nature of Spartan education led to an inability to adapt to strategic change and a quick downfall when flaws of phalanx were attacked.

The Spartan way of life also instilled in its warriors a powerful mentality of “fighting to the limit of their capability”[9] that contributed greatly to the success of the Spartan army. They were taught “never to retreat in battle, however great the odds”[10] and many fought with the belief that a “noble death was preferable to a dishonorable life”.[11]This encouraged a fearless approach to the battle field as warriors fought “close against their enemy and with their hands”[12]”for a Spartan foot-soldier does not even know what flight means”[13]. The fact that Spartans did “not think of lengthening [their] own [lives]”[14] but placed Sparta before themselves contributed greatly to the success of their city as their commitment to the battle created an image of fear that fueled the Spartan supremacy for many years.

Though this belief in “to conquer or die” [15] created a fearful image of Spartans it also led to imminent defeat as they entered battle with few well-trained Spartiates and consequently suffered heavy causalities and loss. The Spartan battle ethos of never retreat became a great weakness as Spartiate numbers depleted to the point that in the battle of Leuctra, Spartans formed only one fifth of the army.[16] Sparta “was destroyed because of the shortage of men”[17] as lack of training and battle skills leaked into army lines in the form of fighting allies and helots. Entering this battle with the traditional Spartan mentality to “always stand firm”[18] was detrimental and a clear signifier of Sparta’s fall “for the city could not withstand a single blow”[19]. Due to the fact that Sparta entered the battle of Leuctra with knowledge of their inability to recover from defeat the Spartan mentality of fighting to the death[20] weakened the army and contributed not only to Sparta’s loss of the battle, but to the general downfall of Spartan supremacy.

The Spartan army acted as the only protection for Sparta as they became “a wall of men, instead of bricks”[21], acting as the replacement of fortified walls to surround the city. The army was built upon a foundation of rigorous education schemes that instilled in its students infallible courage and knowledge as well as a mindset of dedication and commitment in the battle field. Hoplites were undoubtedly strong and titled “the best fighters in the world”[22] and although their flaws were few, when discovered and attacked they were detrimental. The traditional nature of their strategic battle plans led to predictability and an inability to adapt to tactical changes and their conviction to war led to heavy causalities that left Sparta unable to recover and defeated. The regimented education system also equipped all participants with warfare knowledge equal to that of an official, although this meant a united and comprehensive front line, it also created contention as lower ranked men challenged official rulings. It is un-denied that the Spartan army was extremely strong and well trained and though they had many successes they also had deleterious defeats that came about through the exploitation and attack of Spartan weaknesses.