Tag Archives: history

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.


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I suggest you read The Templars and the Assassins: Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Very interesting read. A lot of what we know about the historical Assassins is slandar by their enemies. Also the characters of Assassin’s Creed are just as interesting as their historical counterparts. How Ubisoft took the legends of both orders and expanded them is amazing and a stroke of sheer brilliance.

When you’re conducting research: One of the first steps is to
vet the author. Who are they? What’s their background? Once you understand
that, you can make an intelligent assessment of what you’re reading.

For example, Wasserman is not a trained historian. In fact,
as far as I can tell he doesn’t hold any formal degree. His area of expertise
is mysticism and the occult. His own bio describes him as, “an admirer of the
teachings of Aleister Crowley.” So, if you were researching modern American mysticism,
he might be a decent point or reference. Detailed historical analysis? Not so

Another thing to consider, when writing non-fiction is that
bold claims require strong evidence. In very general terms, claims don’t get
much bolder than, “everything you know about this thing is wrong.”

Wasserman… doesn’t really do that. He collected a lot of
interesting tidbits of trivia, though given the errors I found from skimming
through the first few chapters, I wouldn’t trust any of it without first
verifying in more credible sources.

Wasserman also appears to lack the ability to evaluate the
quality of his evidence. This is a very important skill in academic literature,
particularly when evaluating historical events. Not everything said or written
is true, and as an academic, it falls on the author to evaluate the available evidence.
This often involves looking at the larger context of contemporary events, the
agendas of people involved, and the amount of surviving primary sources.

For example, confessions obtained under torture usually aren’t viewed as particularly
credible. As we’ve said before, turns out when you apply enough force to
someone, they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear, rather than actually coughing up the truth.
Torture is a crude tool used to confirm your version of reality, and is not a
functional investigative tool. And then Wasserman takes these confessions at
face value, and tries to find some way to square them away with reality.

Yes, I am frustrated by Wasserman. He takes a fascinating
part of history and injects it with confirmation bias so severe it would make a
YouTube commenter blush. As a writer, there’s a real reason you should study
history. Looking at why people, real people, took the actions they did can
really help you understand how individuals think, and the options your
characters have.

What Wasserman does very well is demonstrate how you can take
real people and events, and distort them to fit your setting. (To be fair, it’s
not an intentional demonstration.)
This can be useful when you’re working off some “secret history of the world,”
story, or when you’re writing an alt-history setting. If you want to write a
story where the Assassins were secret defenders of an alien civilization that
secretly founded western civilization, then Wasserman and Erich von Däniken are
probably authors you should investigate closely. Also Assassin’s Creed, for the Dan Brown on mescaline vibe, and because that  is the plot for Assassin’s Creed. (Though, von
Däniken is pretty good for that flavor of weirdness in general.)

But, hey, at least Wasserman managed to secure an endorsement
from a Golden Dawn magus for the back cover. So, you know, he’s got that going
for him.


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Which is more unbelievable masamune or the buster sword?

Well, given that Gorō Masamune was a 13th century Japanese sword smith, who’s name has become semi-synonymous with superlatively crafted blades?

I’m going with the historical figure. There’s some elements about his life that are, probably, hyperbolic, but I’m inclined to believe he did exist, and was an excellent smith. Otherwise his name wouldn’t have kept coming up among the best sword smiths Japan ever produced.

I don’t often say this, but he is literally legendary, as in actual legends have been written, and probably embellished, about him.

Incidentally, the swords he created carry his name, which creates a situation where there are (or were) real Masamune katanas. They have no direct relation to any of the fictional blades that also carry his name. But, it’s not a single weapon. It’s also probably worth stressing, the real blades were simply very well forged Katanas. The only unusual trait I’ve heard attributed to them is they had a singular reflective pattern.

In contrast the Buster Sword, and other comically oversized swords you’ll see in media would be basically unusable. I know Man-At-Arms Reforged made the Berserk Dragon-Slayer Greatsword recently. I want to say they also made a Buster Sword at one point, but I can’t find the video at the moment.


EDIT: I couldn’t find it, because it was before they added the Reforged to their name. The Buster Sword is here.

Also, if you’re curious, they did do Sepheroth’s Masamune, around the same time.

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can people reasonably fight in long skirts/dresses? in the story i’m creating everyone regardless of gender wears skirts/dresses/togas pretty exclusively, so I’m wondering about the history of fighting in that type of garment. would their thighs chafe? is long skirts or short skirts better? is there a history of fighting in that type of garment?

Yes. The Scottish with their kilts. The Greeks. The Romans.

You can fight in a skirt so long as it doesn’t restrict your movement. Mini-skirts, tight skirts, leather skirts, jeans skirts, any sort of stiff, heavy skirt that restricts full extension of the leg is a no-go. You don’t want to wear anything tight, be it on the upper or lower body. (Well, okay, you want a sports bra.) The same is true of dresses, you can fight in a dress so long as the dress doesn’t restrict freedom of movement. Sun dresses over spandex and club wear.

An example of a working leather skirt in fiction would be from Xena: Warrior Princess, which is based on historical designs (Roman, I think). You’ll notice the skirt is made out of loose leather straps hanging over the cloth portion. This allows greater freedom of movement and protects the important arteries in the thighs without restricting the legs.

You don’t want to fight in anything that really goes above the thigh or below the shins, because above the thigh can get too restrictive and below the shin is a tripping hazard. A full toga, one that goes all the way down to the feet is too much cloth. It’ll trip you. This is why you don’t see the full toga worn in Greece and Rome as combat wear. Instead, if you look up images, you’ll see a much shorter variation of a skirt.

Basically, go back through military history and go through the different kinds of armor styles. If you do pick an armor type, make sure you research the military history of the group in question. Many different kinds of dress wear have cultural implications along with simply being armor. Don’t take random bits, do a full overview of the culture in question.


Do you have any recommendations for where to look up how the military/armies work, (I don’t know of any difference aside from the name, so at this point I’m assuming they’re the same thing) or worked? I haven’t got a time period pinned down yet.

Well, an army would be ground/land forces, as opposed to a navy, while military is usually a catch all term for both. But, “when” is critically important here. The history of armed conflict in human history is so varied and scattered that without knowing when or where, you’re really not asking a question that can be answered. I’m sorry.

You can start with a world history text, or Wikipedia if you want a time frame to start with. For that matter, Wikipedia is a pretty decent research primer these days. Just, remember to actually check other sources before you accept something as fact.

If it’s a fantasy setting, then asking yourself what setting (or settings) inspired you, and researching what pieces of history they used could be helpful. Also, role playing games with well fleshed out settings, like D&D’s Forgotten Realms (or Dragonlance, or Dark Sun, or Planescape, or…) and White Wolf’s Exalted can provide an absolute ton of world building to work with. Even just trolling a wiki for games like The Elder Scrolls or Kingdoms of Amalur can offer you some insights into world building. And of course, if you’re writing fantasy, read some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, no, seriously, read them.

Also, once you’ve got a time frame in mind, the military history section of any convenient bookstore should have some good resources to work with, even if it’s not 100% applicable, you’ll learn a lot from there.



European Parrying Daggers

Photo #1

  • Dated: mid 16th century
  • Culture: German
  • Medium: steel; elk horn grip
  • Measurements: overall – l:37.80 cm (l:14 7/8 inches) Wt: .22 kg. Blade – l:27.70 cm (l:10 7/8 inches). Quillions – w:6.50 cm (w:2 1/2 inches)

Photo #2

  • Dated: 16th century
  • Culture: Italian
  • Medium: steel; russetted and damascened guard and pommel; wood and wire grip
  • Measurements: overall – l:50.70 cm (l:19 15/16 inches) Wt: .60 kg. Blade – l:36.50 cm (l:14 5/16 inches). Quillions – w:16.50 cm (w:6 7/16 inches). Grip – l:13.30 cm (l:5 3/16 inches)

Photo #3

  • Dated: 17th century
  • Culture: Dutch
  • Medium: steel, wire grip, perforated blade
  • Measurements: overall – l:46.00 cm (l:18 1/16 inches) Wt: .44. Blade – l:30.90 cm (l:12 1/8 inches). Quillions – w:9.80 cm (w:3 13/16 inches). Grip – l:12.00 cm (l:4 11/16 inches)

Photo #4

  • Dated: early 17th century
  • Culture: Italian
  • Medium: steel, perforated blade; openwork grip
  • Measurements: overall – l:46.00 cm (l:18 1/16 inches) Wt: .34 kg. Blade – l:32.10 cm (l:12 5/8 inches). Quillions – w:8.80 cm (w:3 7/16 inches). Grip – l:11.00 cm (l:4 5/16 inches)

Source: Copyright © 2013 Cleveland Museum of Art

This is an awesome website that’s totally worth following for you sword oriented, weapon minded people. It’ll give you some useful ideas for the artistic component of historical swords and describing it in your own writing.

Also, history is neat.