The Spartan Mirage and American Militarism

Several years ago I wrote a post for this site claiming that the Spartan mirage is/was rooted in military excellence. As I later pointed out on that post, this characterization is inaccurate. In fact, the Spartan mirage stems from the stability of the Spartan constitution. The state did not suffer from the same internecine stasis that plagued other poleis and thereby allowed the Spartans to have an extended period of military hegemony in classical Greece. But I still had the idea that the mirage was one of military invincibility, ironically calcified by the death of 298 Spartans at Thermopylae, damaged by the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria and shattered by the defeat at Leuctra.

I built the idea from my own readings of translated sources as a college student. I had also heard the term mirage, but I did not know the origin. To me it was self evident that military prowess–the eternal demonstration of Spartan power–was at the crux of the mirage, [1] after all, the other Greeks were aware of the perioikoi with whom they might have traded [2] and they also were aware of the extremely precarious position that the Spartan helot system created.[3] While neither of these situations is the same as stasis, the state of factional violence between citizens, neither was Sparta an entirely stable state.

Even as I write these words in light of what I now know about Greek culture, philosophy and society, they ring false. A citizen body without factional strife was such an ideal situation that if it could be maintained on the brink of a precipice, that could be preferable to stasis.[4] To keep that utopia, any and all means of preservation would be warranted. Sparta might be weird in organization, but whatever weirdness appeared acceptable.[5] The real point here is that this is a first impression that I held on to for far longer than I had any business doing. While my mistaken belief is my own problem, I want to suggest here that it is not one isolated in me.

In 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified conservative, wrote The New American Militarism. He argues that in the past century Americans of all political affiliations have become enthralled with military power. [6] Bacevich tries to warn the readers about the dangers of excessive militarism and how it shapes the consciousness of American citizens. I generally agree with his sentiments, but, for my part, I wonder if this sort of cultural fascination makes it more likely that Americans identify the singularity of Sparta in the military success rather than in the political stability. Instead of seeing political stability as leading to military success, military power could be what ensures political stability. More than simply being a chicken-and-egg problem, this inversion can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions entirely.

[1] I am now aware that this is faulty logic. Invincibility could be a mirage of sorts, but the (unbroken?) string of military victories is a fact. The mirage, then, would be the perceived cause of the success.

[2] Recall that the people who defended Athenian honor in the Spartan war council, according to Thucydides, were Athenian merchants. Presumably they were aware who produced any goods they traded for.

[3] In the mid-fifth century, the Athenians sent a military force to help suppress a helot revolt. During the Peloponnesian Wars, one of the Athenian strategies was to encourage helots to escape from Sparta.

[4] Hyperbole, but not by much.

[5] Emphasis on appearance. I am quite convinced by Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta that Sparta functioned much more normally than assumed. Lysander might still take the rap for unsettling the politics, but not because he introduced money to Sparta.

[6] For a single snapshot of this phenomenon, one could look at the foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential debate.


How often does a military defeat set a standard for excellence? How often does a defeat create an aura of invincibility? Even a defeat like The Alamo just became a rallying cry, and the Roman republican defeats showed both their weaknesses and their resiliency, not their invincibility.

The only defeat with this result was the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 brave Spartans (and several thousand other Greeks) held off the main Persian army for days while the Greek force collected and came out for the main battle, or while Athens evacuated. What a marvelously successful propaganda effort this was. The Spartan force was slaughtered, but for two men, and other losses were heavy. High command was splintered and thus no expeditionary force was forthcoming. Likewise, if the Greeks had truly meant to hold the pass as a delaying action, why was this force sent instead of the massive force sent to Tempe the year before?

An answer may be that this was a rogue action taken by Leonidas in order to drag the Greeks out of complacency and force an engagement. If a Spartan king and hundreds of his peers met with Persia, surely the main Greek army would come out and fight with them, but of course that did not happen–and yes, the army had been basically assembled, albeit without most Athenian aid since they were manning ships at the time. Sparta lost 298 full citizens, including a king (for comparison, Sparta went to the negotiating table for peace in the Peloponnesian War when just over a hundred Spartans were captured), and with a successful propoganda campaign this catastrophe became a heroic sacrifice for the liberty of Greece. Spartans at the forefront of the campaign, suffering losses, but fighting like madmen and never surrendering, never retreating and only losing when impossibly outnumbered. Furthermore the number 300 stands out because this same propoganda campaign that pushed the Spartans as the saviors of Greece likewise de-emphasized any other states involved. The very fact that it was just 300 redoubled the heroism of this ‘sacrifice’.

Granted, the images of Thermopylae, from Frank Miller’s 300 to Stephen Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire to Herodotus to Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders, are visually stunning. When the Persian emissary asks Leonidas for his weapons, the answer is blunt: molon labe . Warned that the Persian archers would cloak the sun with their arrows, Leonidas or another veteran Spartan responded that this is good, they will have their battle in the shade. The original thin red line holding back an onslaught (with other Greeks by their side), and when the Persians found an alternate path, most of the army was sent home while the Spartans and a few others held a hilltop until they were all killed. But looking beyond these images, the battle was a waste. It was a fleeting pause in the Persian advance and nothing more. No decisive land battle happened that year and the deaths were wasted.

The First Reconstruction of Athens: Between Salamis and Plataia

The story goes that between the defeat at Thermopylae and the arrival of the advance Persian troops at Athens, the Athenian leadership managed to remove the entire population of Attike to the island of Salamis. At this point it is commonly accepted that not all of the population went to Salamis, and that a sizable portion went either to Athens’ traditional rival Aigina,1to Salamis, or to the Peloponnese. For this reason, and simply the population of Attike at the time, the evacuation must have begun before Thermopylae. This may have also taken place under the supervision of Kimon, the son of Miltiades, since he was supposed to have led a procession among the first departures, Themistokles was with the fleet at Artemision, and the other two most prominent Athenian politicians of this section, Xanthippos and Aristides, were both Ostracized until almost immediately before Salamis.2

Now Xerxes sacked Athens, destroyed the acropolis, but after Salamis made preparations to withdraw, possibly disguising his intent by preparing to build a mole across to the island. In the fall of 480 Xerxes returned to Asia Minor, leaving Mardonios in Northern Greece with one large army, a second army in Thrace and a third in Northern Asia Minor. To set up these armies and withdraw at least beyond Thermopylae may have take upwards of two months past the Battle of Salamis, which took place in September of 480. Before the Battle of Plataia, Mardonios returned to Athens, first to enlist the Athenians to his side, and second to destroy the city as punishment when the refused. Purportedly he arrived in June of 479.

Assuming my time line laid out above from knowledge of the Persian logistical system, modern scholarship and superimposing the speeds on the way into Greece, this left at least six months between Xerxes’ departure and the return of Mardonios. Somehow between the two, at least some portion of Athenians decided that it was safe to rebuild and re-inhabit their city. Further, the process was well enough under way that it was worth the effort on Mardonios’ part to specifically come back, negotiate and then re-destroy the city, and possibly destroy a second harvest before withdrawing to Boiotia.

A second possibility is that the Persian army only destroyed the Acropolis the first time around. Strictly speaking Herodotus mentions that Thespiae and Plataia were sacked and that the temple complex on the Acropolis was destroyed when Xerxes took the city. That said it is hard to imagine that with such a huge force, and before and/or after losing Salamis, Xerxes did not simply have the city destroyed in its entirety. Further, he purportedly began construction of a mole to Salamis and, as Alexander would later do at Tyre, one convenient source of materials for a mole is a city (Alexander used New Tyre to build his).

While this thought process feels open ended, I have no answers, just a few half-completed thoughts about symbolism and that where the soul of a polis was the citizens, they needed that physical location, too. I just find the conception that rebuilding occurred so quickly after Salamis and before the Persian land army in Greece was defeated curious.

1 One of the reasons for the Athenian acceptance of Spartan hegemony is that it was a compromise Athens, Corinth and Aigina could accept and thereby both employ their fleets towards defense, rather than one or more withdrawing some or all to stop the others.

2 Unless the decree recalling the exiles took place before this time.

Athenian Allies

In the funeral oration venerating the Athenian dead as reported by Thucydides, one of the themes is the inherent differences between Athenians and Spartans. Perikles strikes on government differences, educational differences, personality, et cetera, while praising Athens and downplaying the virtues of their opponents. One of the striking contrasts (according to the Perikles of Thucydides) is between bravery, as Perikles mentions that:

When the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves… (2.39)

He then goes to to describe that Athens never sends out its entire strength, so their enemies should fear that day, since they are already defeated by mere detachments.

In such a speech it stands to reason that he would praise the exploits of Athenians, exhorting and calling upon-as Admiral Nelson would later put it-‘Every man to do his duty’. To say, though, that Athens stood alone where Sparta required contributions from their empire to invade Attike is nothing more than hyperbole, as it overlooks the nature of the Athenian ‘Empire’. Even further, during the first year of the war and increasingly thereafter, Athenian allies did contribute to military expeditions.

The Delian League was set up in such a way that the allies were required to submit either a certain number of troops or a certain amount of tribute. Lesbos, Chios, Zakynthos, Kerkyra and a small handful of other states repeatedly appear providing triremes for the Athenian fleet. Those that did not contribute instead provided Athens with money to build, equip, and man up to 250 triremes on active duty at any given time. These two aspects together make it so that Athens was hardly fighting alone, even on those occasions when it was a purely Athenian fleet raiding the Peloponnesian Shores. Sparta alone could summon an imposing army, but her league did not pay tribute to Sparta, but was geared instead to march at the call of Sparta. Thus the Peloponnesian War truly was between Sparta and her Allies and the Delian League, whether or not the financial contributions, if anything encouraged, were recognized.

Second, even before the Periklean strategy of limited operations was abandoned, Athenian allies contributed forces to the allied efforts, even if they were just tokens. After his death, Athens began to campaign more widely and instead of using their own forces, would often contribute a token force, supplemented with Messenian, Elian, Mantineian, or other allied forces. In particular these were hoplites, and wherever an Athenian fleet would go, they would enlist allies to make up the bulk of the force. Exceptions to this include Demosthenes’ Boiotia strategy where his force enlisted allies, while the main Athenian army bumbled into the Thebans at Delion and lost.

In some ways the vast over-extension of Athenian resources was enabled by the allies they could call upon, whether in Akarnania, Thrace, Sicily or the Peloponnese. In the infamous Sicilian Expedition, less than a third of the hoplites sent were Athenian; while the Athenian loss of life was staggering because of the fleet losses and reinforcements sent, a mitigating factor in it all was that a relatively small porportion were actually Athenians. Not that this helped much, but it should still be noted.

True, the speech is exhorting bravery of Athenians and the courage to abandon land and homes for the city, seeking to belittle the Spartans and simultaneously paying homage to that the vast majority of the fleet was Athenian; this is even without recognizing that the power of the Athenian fleet was magnified by skill to the point that they routinely were willing to engage Peloponnesian forces twice their size. It just manages to omit one of the key factors that enabled Athens to reach and then overreach.

Thermopylae – Problems of Propoganda

Thermopylae was a failure. No really, it was an unmitigated disaster for the Greek defenders, with the only real questions being about what caused this (Leonidas’ generalship, failure of intelligence, sluggishness, indecisiveness, or infighting in the high command such that it existed). Just for a reference point, there were 300 full-blooded Spartans, 298 of whom lost their lives at Thermopylae, while a bit over 50 years later, 175 were captured at Sphacteria and this was enough to precipitate a truce in the Peloponnesian War. 300 was a huge number for Spartans.

Of course the problem with trying to figure out the series of events and why the 300 Spartans and volunteers from other states stayed behind and died is that the truth of the catastrophe is concealed by later propaganda which hails it as a noble sacrifice that helped saved Greece. The saviours who stayed for a suicide mission to hold off the horde as long as they could to allow Athens to evacuate.

The greatest problem with this chain of events is that the force sacrificed thousands of lives for three days, certainly not enough time to evacuate Athens in and of itself. Further, most of the army retreated in advance of the last day, so it seems possible that Leonidas and the volunteers were simply acting as a rear guard action and planned to withdraw themselves; then Leonidas died. Leonidas fell before the flanking force actually cut off the Greeks, but the tradition has a fierce fight over Leonidas’ corpse, and then before the Greeks could possibly disengage or withdraw, the trap was sprung.

Surely the Greeks fought nobly and fiercely, but they died. The survivors and the rest of the coalition remained quite pessimistic after this setback and did so until Salamis or well thereafter, but one effort to encourage them was to spin this disaster as a heroic sacrifice.

As popular media confirms to this day, the story has survived and flourished as a heroic stand of liberty and freedom against oppression, but one must not forget that the overarching message is actually one of complete failure.

The Spartan Myth – Martial Prowess & Invincibility

On the eve of the Persian Wars1 Sparta was undeniably the most powerful military force in Greece. The only true competitor during this period was Argos, but under Kleomenes, Sparta annihilated their army at Sepeia, supposedly killing half of that generation’s military capacity. Athens had a naval component of sorts, but it was not until almost fifteen years later that the first large naval buildup took place after an especially profitable year at the Laurium mines, but I digress.

There is some evidence that suggests that the Ionian rebellion and Croesus of Lydia tried to enlist Spartan aid for their cause, not Athenian, though ultimately it was an Athenian fleet that took part in the sack of Sardis. On land Sparta could call upon more hoplites than could Athens, between 5,000 Spartitiates, 5,000 Periokoi of Lakedaimon, and several thousand (up to 15) from their Peloponnesian allies, as demonstrated by the campaign leading up to Plataia. Now this force was a more or less all out attempt, though some number must have remained behind to prevent uprising and intervention from Argos. There is logic behind these capabilities, the Peloponnesian League and the storied agoge for acquiescing to Spartan hegemony against Persia. Further, in the years leading up to the wars two Spartan kings, Kleomenes and Leonidas, may have spent their energies enlisting a panhellenic effort against Persia.

Yet in the modern mind, and possibly even the ancient (though this is harder to prove, if it was even the case), Spartan prowess in battle devolves to one heroic three-day stand on road through a narrow passage north of Boiotia: Thermopylae. Poems, books, and movies have all been made about this one event, with the epitaphs about it evoking shivers. So prominent is it that it is easy to forget that it accomplished exactly nothing, and was a total defeat which cost Sparta 300 homoioi (equals).2 While the Persian losses were large at Thermopylae, he had troops to spare, so that when he left for Asia following Salamis, he still left behind Mardonios with an army larger than the combined Greek force, plus a second army somewhat smaller to protect the road through Macedonia, and a third in Northern Asia minor. It was costly to take the pass, but not in a significant manner.

There is also one brand of scholarship that argues that Leonidas himself was disobeying orders by remaining at Thermopylae when the situation had become untenable, though he may not have known how quickly the Persian flanking force would arrive and therefore thought that he could beat a fighting retreat. The suggestion from this derives from the boat that was to inform the Greek fleet of the defeat which did not leave until relatively late on the third day, suggesting that it was not a suicidal last stand, in which case the boat would have departed immediately.

The argument that he was buying time begs the question: time for what? The “final stand” he was buying time for their retreat, but as suggested he was only a rear-guard, not a suicidal mission and expected to beat a retreat later. Yet the initial deployment to Thermopylae is often seen as a delaying mission, so the question again arises. It was not to raise an army, since three days matters not at all when the actual land battle was not fought for another year. It was not to evacuate Athens, though three days would matter more there, since they must have already been evacuating, and it would take the Persians another week or more to reach the city from Thermopylae. No, sacrificing four or more thousand Greeks for three days is a ludicrous possibility.

I agree with the line of thinking that says that Leonidas did not intend a suicidal stand, but a fighting retreat; he held Thermopylae as long as he could, expecting reinforcements–for example, one of the two surviving Spartans missed the battle because he was off as an envoy gathering reinforcements. Thus Leonidas expected more troops and fully expected to be able to stave off the Persians, effectively stemming their invasion, while the fleet at Artemesion held off or defeated the Persian fleet.

This logic, and the subsequent sacrifice leads to a logical conclusion of a legend about Sparta putting it all out for Greece. This aspect is not lost, but this sort of responsibility already existed and the other states seemingly expected that Sparta would do it, so Thermopylae was their duty, not the foundation of a new legend. Instead it is usually cited as the rigidity, discipline and martial prowess of Spartans and while their standing firm is impressive, they all died. Leonidas miscalculated his capacity to retreat and died early on the third day before they had reached the point of retreat. Disciplined to the point of stupidity, led bravely in a failed effort (though it should be noted that Leonidas led as he was supposed to and if he was given 40,000 hoplites, not all of whom would have fit in the pass anyway, he would have done just fine), the rise of the legend is perplexing. It does make a great story, but it was a heroic failure. Sparta was largely interested in defending the Peloponnese and if Leonidas was breaking with policy by standing and dying, then it shows a weakness on the part of the Greek alliance.

The Spartan Myth also has a great deal to do with the supposed absence of strife in Sparta during the classical period.

1 I will not go into a detailed discussion about the events leading up to the Persian Wars, though that topic may be forthcoming over this week. Note that at least some of my topical choices will be based in my course work this semester–Problems in Greek History and The Roman Empire.

2 Two issues about this number: 1) Actually it was 298, but one of the survivors committed suicide and the other died fighting in a frenzy at Plataia. 2) 300 was the traditional Spartan number for dangerous missions, though it is unlikely they were intended to be a suicide force, but moreover, during the Peloponnesian War around 175 homoioi were captured by Athens on Sphacteria and this was sufficient cause to offer a truce until they were returned. For a state with such a small population of full citizens, 300 was a large force, and too large of one for a suicide mission.

Leuctra and Waterloo; The transience of invincibility

Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon by the joint Prussian and British forces was an incredibly well-orchestrated defense by the Duke of Wellington, who bore the brunt of the French assaults until the Prussian army arrived and finalized the defeat. But before the Prussians arrived Wellington drove off multiple charges of the French cavalry, defended Hougoumont all day, and held La Haye Sainte for most of the battle.

Mistakes were made on both sides, and at several points Napoleon probably could have routed the British Army and then turned to deal with the Prussian Army. Most importantly for Napoleon, his second in command was Marshal Ney, not nearly the same calibre officer as Marshal Davout, who was left in charge of Paris during this fateful campaign. Napoleon’s final move at Waterloo was to dispatch the Middle Guard, not the Old Guard, but a terrifying unit nonetheless, and one of his elite. The British Foot Guards broke this charge, prompting the disintegration of the French Army and end of Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

Spartan training was the stuff of legends in Ancient Hellas and from the days of Thermopylae and Plataea an aura of invincibility arose, not unlike that which Napoleon would enjoy. Before Thermopylae Spartans were feared, but not considered invincible (ironic that a defeat would do so much to further an aura of invincibility). Throughout the next hundred years or more Spartans were nigh undefeated on land, the major exception being on the island of Sphacteria off of Pylos, where a group of Spartans ignominiously surrendered. Then came Leuctra.

Thebes waxed while Sparta waned, became softer, more materialistic and lazy. In 371 the Spartan king Cleombrotus led the army up into Boeotia where a smaller force under Epaminondas caught it at a disadvantage and crushed it. In one fell swoop the Spartan predominance and invincibility disappeared.

In both situations armies were mismanaged and the loser could easily have emerged victorious; but in neither did they. Spartan hoplites could have held and the Imperial Guard could have kept advancing, but they didn’t. Both groups broke, both groups ran, auras of invincibility irreparably shattered. It took just one instance, one flight, one complete defeat.

The Oblique-Heavy Left

In the field of Greek military history and tactics, there is one formation that astounds with its simplicity and also with its effectiveness: the Oblique-Heavy Left.

In traditional phalanx warfare (a great source-book for which is The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson), the king or general and his bodyguard anchored the right wing. Both forces lined up parallel to each other, the strongest troops on the right, weakest on the left. This was because the hoplon (shield) protected the left half of the body and the right half of the person next in line. The person on the far right was only half covered, while the left was protected. Thus the tendency was to duck to the right to stay under the shield of the neighbor and would result in the line of battle drifting in that direction. The left flank would then be turned as the right of the enemy also drifted and so on. By placing the best troops on the right, it could counteract the drift as it anchored the line.

Since the enemy commander held that side, Epaminondas took an earlier innovation of a deep phalanx (traditional was 8 ranks, Pagondas used 25 at Delium) and further weighted his left flank, spearheaded by his best troops. 50 ranks deep at Leuctra, his left flank started closer than his right flank, while his lighter right was instructed to close with the enemy slower, allowing the left to hammer the enemy’s best troops first. Since hoplite warfare devolved into a shoving match, having the weight of 50 men, instead of the weight of 8 made a difference. Once the commander went down, the army ceased to fight.

Epaminondas saw a means to apply force more efficiently and in doing so changed the power structure of Greece. Simple as it was, the Oblique-Heavy left (and the surety that the Spartans were not invincible) was a revolutionary development.

Of course this did not stop the innovator from dying in battle at Mantinea nine years later, which in part allowed a power vacuum to develop, into which Philip II’s Macedonia stepped.

Alexander Essay no. 1

The series of Alexander Essays is taken courtesy of a course taught by Professor Waldemar Heckel at the University of Calgary. The list of topics may be found here

Evaluate Darius III as a political and military leader. Is he rightly depicted as cowardly and incompetent?

I feel obliged to preface this essay with a warning about expertise; I am not an expert on Ancient Persia. I do not know the customs well, nor am I as familiar with the political system as I should be. I am somewhat of a Greek history buff, although I stop short of expert, and am intimately familiar with the reign of Darios III through the Greek and Macedonian point of view, with the image of an incompetent, cowardly leader who tries to surrender half of his empire and twice allows his forces to be slaughtered as he flees to protect his royal hide. Then again, in battle the defeated had two options: give in and die in battle or flee and attempt to salvage a semblance of victory from the ruins o. The following is entirely generated from this knowledge, only afterward corroborated and edited with a review of Wikipedia.

Darios himself was only tenuously related to Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty; one of hte reasons for the Persian weakness when Alexander invaded was that Darios had just securted the throne from the usurper Bagoas, and re-centralized the state after a series of local rebellions, including one in Egypt. Just when stability seemed neigh, the Macedonian invasion began.

In the histories and biographies Darios appears as a character four times: the Battle of Issus, in a letter to sue for peace, at the Battle of Gaugamela and in a death scene after Bessos stabbed him. In each of these appearances he appears a failure, especially in contrast to the daring of Alexander.

Greek kings and generals fought with their soldiers, often on the front lines and when the troops broke and ran, it was often a given that the commander had fallen. This was the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes at Thermopylae as much as it was between Alexander and Darios. Persian aristocracy and the royal family risked themselves, but the Great King was something entirely; instead of fighting on the front, he was to lead the entire heterogenous force. Thus at both Issos and Gaugamela, Darios did not fight. Further, Darios did not stay to rally (i.e. die with) his troops. On one hand this is the mark of a coward, but on the other he had responsibilities to more than ust those soldiers on the field.

Upon close inspection, life would have been simpler for Darios to die or flee into ignomity, but he did not. The reason for flight became apparent ad Darios raised a second force; no doubt he would have done so, or attempted to do so again after Gaugamela if given the chance. This is the mark of a fighter.

In the letter sent to Alexander, Darios played a shrewd card in that many of Alexander’s men prefered to stop, too, so Darios sought to “grant” Alexander those territories he had already won, which also happened to be those most unruly provinces. While this would be an enormous hit to the Persian prestige, the empire and all of the Capitols would remain intact.

Lastly we have an account of Darios’ death. This often is used to portray a failed and defeated King, which it does, but also implies incompetence. Darios had been defeated, but this does not imply that he had made huge mistakes or that the betrayal of Bessos was anything more than a play to curry favor from the new victor–or a power play of his own. Behind the scenes Darios had funded a Spartan insurrection and launched his own counter in Memnon of Rhodes, an officer who had out-maneuvered Parmenion in the last years of Philip’s reign. The persistence of Alexander, the death of Memnon and the betrayal of Bessos were all beyond the control of Darios. That he played the game and lost does not preclude his incompetence, merely his unluck and that Alexander outdid him.