Q&A: Spartan Military

So how would a “spartan-esqe” military work? If you’ve already answered all of this, can you just link me to the article(s)? Thanks!

The very short answer is, it wouldn’t. Which may sound somewhat strange given the Spartans certainly enjoyed some success with their methods, so why am I saying it doesn’t work?

It’s more accurate to say the Spartans tried a lot of different things, some intentionally, and others accidentally. Some of those factors made them more effective, while others actually undermined their ability to operate and (to varying degrees) lead to their destruction.

The stuff that worked, has been adapted and, in many cases, become the norm. The stuff that doesn’t work gets picked up by people who don’t know what they’re doing and emulated, often with disastrous results.

It’s also worth remembering that it is impossible to separate the Spartan military from their society as a whole. In most societies, you can segregate their military out and examine it as a distinct entity. This isn’t possible with the Spartans.

The biggest advantage the Spartans enjoyed game from the concept of a professional soldier. This is something that should be familiar to any modern reader. You have soldiers who are, primarily, soldiers. You’re not fielding a military of craftsmen and other professions who you pressed into service, or who volunteered to form a militia when called for.

This is true of every modern military. However, for the Greeks it was unusual. The norm was for someone to have a domestic profession, but when called they would set their daily life aside and go to war.

Spartans would train for combat, and their entire culture revolved around preparing for war. When the time came, they were far better prepared to deal with the challenges and foes they faced.

On the whole, their abusive training methods, particularly against their children, were a net negative. They couched it as removing the weak, and strengthening their survivors, but that’s not really true. It did impair their ability to replace lost soldiers.

There’s a kind of sick irony here. Malnourishing kids (which the Spartans did) will permanently impair them. They’ll miss growth milestones, which you never really get back. So, the result will be smaller, weaker adults with cognitive impairment, and diminished immune systems. (This is a partial list, if you want to look it up, childhood malnutrition can result in a horrific list of symptoms.)

Starting at age 7, Spartans would take male children from their mothers and send them to be trained in Agelai (“herds,”) at the Agoge. The individuals in a herd would be overseen by older boys in their mid-teens, who would be responsible for their discipline and training. In turn those older boys would be disciplined by adults. The important takeaway is that there was brutality all around.

Children in the Agoge weren’t provisioned food. They were expected to forage for food from the surrounding farms, stealing what they needed. There were harsh penalties for getting caught, so the goal was to become an effective thief. This is where that malnutrition thing comes in, because no matter how skilled they became, it’s a safe bet these kids weren’t getting enough food.

The intent was to build up toughness. There’s a certain logic there, not logic that applies to reality, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s read a tryhard YA novel which takes Nietzsche’s, “that which does not kill me,” line a little too literally.

Take a similarly aggressive approach to training, but make sure your recruits (or kids) are well fed, and aren’t freezing to death in the night, and you’d see dramatically better results. (This also involves incentivizing the recruits, to get them actually committed to the training, but that’s another issue.)

Training is also one of the easiest, and most useful components to emulate. Ironically, looking at something like the Boy Scouts you get a similar result without damaging the participants. Scouts (who reach Star rank or higher) have a solid background in wilderness survival, orientation, and other skills with direct paramilitary application. I’d say, you don’t teach them combat skills, but then again the Marksmanship and Archery badges exist. It’s also where I got my medical training, some of my hand to hand training, and where I first learned to shoot. It’s also where I first learned the basics of Criminal Investigation. So, kids who come out of the BSA with an upper rank do end up with a surprising skill set, even if I tend to think of it as normal.

I’m singling out their training methods, perhaps unfairly, because it’s not the major reason their forces became irreplaceable.

The military forces we think of as Spartan, were the full citizens, called Homoioi (I’m told this roughly translates to “Equals,” or “Similars.”) A male Spartan Homoioi would be put through the training I’m mentioning above.

Spartans who failed in a wide varieties of ways were permanently removed from the Homoioi, and became Hypomieones (Inferiors). A Hypomieones, and their descendants, could not reascend to the Homoioi. Someone could be demoted for a wide range of transgressions, including insubordination, cowardice, showing fear in combat,  failing to be recruited by a communal mess hall at the conclusion of their training, or failure to pay dues to their mess. (These last two may sound trivial, but the Syssitias were a significant component of the way Spartan society was organized. It was, however, still a very easy way for a prospective Homoioi to be removed from their culture’s elite over a relatively minor social infraction.)

The Spartans also maintained a very strict victory or death outlook. According to Plutarch, their soldiers were told to “come back with your shield; or on it,” when leaving for war. (Worth noting that Plutarch lived four centuries after the Spartan collapse. So the exact phrasing may be apocryphal, though the philosophy was accurate to Spartan philosophy. By Plutarch’s time, Sparta had been reduced to what Josiah Ober has called, “an antiquarian theme-park,” where tourists from the Greek world would come to see recreations of classic Spartan training turned spectacle.) Something really important to understand, if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you need to actually survive those mistakes, and learn. The Spartans disagreed, if you survived a losing battle, and you could be blamed for cowardice, there was a pretty solid bet that anything you saw would be regarded as irrelevant. This kind of, “accept no failure” approach has a long term effect of crippling your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your character is soldier in 550BC, or 2017AD, they need to be able to learn from their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Modern social behavior among cops, soldiers, and even martial arts predisposes you to tell stories about, how someone you knew screwed up and got severely injured or died. You may not think about why, or how, but this does serve a very real purpose. It’s normalized to the point where this is borderline instinctive behavior, but, this is one very solid way that modern combatants learn from mistakes. If your social structure penalizes this severely, that’s not going to happen, and your military force will become insular and inflexible.

By the fifth century BC, the Spartan military did employ auxiliary units that were pulled from the Hypomieones, and other lower castes (including the Helots (serfs/slaves. Worth remembering that the Hypomieones who saw combat may not have undergone Spartan training, as it was entirely possible that their ancestor had been demoted.) This was more an act of necessity, as their military was getting into a place where there were no longer enough Homoioi to reliably field them exclusively.

Because of the way demotion worked, and the artificial attrition the Spartans applied to the children of citizens, battlefield losses were irreplaceable. Specifically, the infants of citizens would be examined at birth for any defect or weakness, and if they failed this they would be left to die of exposure.

There’s an application here that’s a little abstract. Having elite forces can be a major advantage in warfare. However, when the entirety of your forces are, “elite,” you’re going to have a hard time fielding enough people to actually fight. A modern comparison would be trying build an entire fighting force off of Special Forces and eliminating everyone else from the system. You would get some very effective combatants, but you wouldn’t be able to replace standing forces lost to attrition. Which was exactly one of the problems that late Sparta faced. Where battlefield victories with hundreds of Spartan casualties, set the stage for later conflicts where they couldn’t field enough soldiers to fight.

The other major advantage the Spartans had was an illusion. In the Hellenistic world, Spartan soldiers were seen as virtually invincible. Particularly during their early campaigns, the rigorous training applied against inexperienced combatants lead to the belief that Spartan warriors were an indomitable force. There’s plenty of surviving records of enemies routing at the sight of a Spartan advance.

To be clear, this reputation was earned. However, as the other Greek city-states became more familiar with Spartan tactics, they began to learn how to exploit them. In part, Spartan tactics were predictable, but deviated from normal Greek military doctrine, resulting in a decisive advantage against foes who were unfamiliar with their methods, but could be countered by an opponent who’d seen their approach to combat before. The end of the illusion was The Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, when the Spartans were dealt a crushing defeat by Theban forces lead by Epaminondas.

This particular illusion can be very potent psychological advantage for a military force. Particularly when you’re dealing with a small elite cadre that can be selectively deployed. Your foes never know where they may pop up, and will be on edge facing your conventional forces.

It’s also, somewhat apparent (from surviving reports), that the Spartans actually believed this illusion as well. From a military standpoint this is borderline suicidal. You want your enemy to fear your forces and think you’re invincible. You don’t want your own troops, or especially your leaders, to believe the same thing.

Sparta wanted soldiers who were absolutely loyal, with unlimited conviction. In the long run, they created an inflexible, unrelenting system that ultimately cannibalized themselves. There are a lot of lessons that can (and have) been taken from the Spartans, but those are peppered with cautionary examples of what not to do.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *