Tag Archives: spartan

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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What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)


What would you say is the most effective way to kidnap a character? it’s spur of the moment. the kidnapper is a strong man with training (but no weapon) and his victim, who does get captured, is a much physically weaker man. there are two witnesses who try to intervene: one with military training (though not as much as the kidnapper) and the other is the kidnapper’s lover, who attempts to stop him. how could the kidnapper incapacitate them all before the police arrives? thanks so much!

Okay, there’s actually an issue in here, so let’s step back and talk about professional criminals for a second. Criminal activity is their job, and they need to approach their life with a risk vs. reward analysis for nearly everything they do. They’ll work together and network with other professionals. This isn’t altruistic, just an understanding that they need to work with other people to achieve their goals. They don’t need to like the people they’re working with, but, if they all still have a shared goal, they will. Most understand how planning and advance setup can help reduce the risks involved in their profession.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the crime. A kidnapping is not something you do spur of the moment. It’s a difficult criminal operation, involving a lot of moving pieces, any one of which can scuttle the whole operation after the team is committed.

Your criminal will need a team backing them up. They’ll need to have a way to grab and extract the victim, a place to hold them, a way to keep them alive and under guard while negotiating, a communications method that can’t be traced back to them, and a method to retrieve the ransom. Some of that can be dispensed, if they have no intention of returning the victim alive, or ransoming them at all.

Grabbing the victim is a little situational, but the difference between a successful extraction and a botched bloodbath is advance planning. Ideally your team needs to be able to grab the victim without leaving any witnesses behind. This is trickier than it sounds, because they can’t actually kill the person they’re intending to ransom the victim back to. Ideally this means picking a time when the victim and the victim’s relative/friend/whatever are at separate locations. If that’s not possible, the team will need a very delicate touch.

If the person paying the ransom dies, then the operation’s over, and the criminals have a corpse and nothing else to show for a lot of wasted effort. In some situations, they might be able to salvage the situation, by ransoming the victim to a new buyer, but that is an extreme long shot.

In a well run kidnapping, once the victim has been taken, they’re fairly unimportant to the criminals. They need to be kept alive, and they can’t be allowed to escape. But, they’re not the kidnappers’ focus. At this point, they’re going to be more interested in getting person paying the ransom to do what they’re told.

The other side of it is, with the extraction itself, your criminal will not want to leave witnesses. If they’re not the ones the kidnappers are planning ransom the victim back to, they’ll have no incentive to leave the witnesses breathing. Killing them sends a clear message that the victim is in serious peril, and it discourages the person paying the ransom from screwing around.

What this means is, your kidnapper isn’t going to grab someone “spur of the moment”. If he decides “now’s the time”, it’s because he was already planning to grab them. Also, there’s a very real risk he’ll simply kill your other characters. Best case the police don’t even realize there’s been a kidnapping, and worst case, they’re no closer to identifying the kidnappers. As opposed to the police now having at least a physical description of one member of the crew. So, I guess the real answer to your question is: two shots to the chest, one to the head.

As a quick aside, if his plan is to force one of the characters to do his bidding, he might just grab them all, and release the one he intends to use as a pawn later, and keep the others as hostages.

Once they’ve got their victim, there’s the question of what they want. If the goal is money, then we’re talking about a ransom, and there’s a lot of literature on the subject. If they’re wanting to force someone else to do what they want, they’ll need the ability to micromanage that person’s actions. Usually we’re talking some kind of communications setup with the pawn, but surveillance isn’t out of the question. If the objective is information, then everything gets a little messed up. I’ll stick a pin in that for later, partially because a discussion on interrogation and torture will rate a trigger warning.

Spartan, the first season of 24, Man on Fire (2004), and Taken should all give you some insight into the kinds of people you’re dealing with. 24 opens with using captives to force the protagonist to do their bidding, and the first 12 hours are really good. Man on Fire (2004), is a kidnapping for money. Taken and Spartan both deal with selling captives into sex slavery, which is something I just glazed right over. Both films illustrate how this particular form of kidnapping operates in a more opportunistic assembly line nature, because of how they’re generating income.

For some additional insight on professional criminals, I’ll keep recommending Heat until you watch it. Ronin and Reservoir Dogs are also worth watching. Technically Ronin is dealing with former spies who’ve become mercenaries, but the same principles apply. Ronin also has the benefit of actually being a smash and grab operation, even though the target is an attaché case, and not a person.


Got any tips for a character whose an assassin and uses underhanded tactics when fighting hand to hand?

I’d start by going through The Only Unfair Fight is the One you Lose posts:

Here, http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52349151535/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose and here: http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52428049557/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose

Beyond that, keep in mind, that for an assassin, they’re probably going to be killing any opponents as quickly as possible. Frequently, this means dispatching their foes before an actual fight can start.

If they do end up in combat, your character’s probably going to be looking for weapons to end a fight. If that’s a chair, lamp, toaster, or a handgun, then so be it.

I’m going to throw this one out there, since I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before: the head twist and break isn’t really a thing. Theoretically you can kill someone that way, but it takes a lot of force. And, from that position, it’s a lot easier (and quieter) to execute a choke hold and strangle someone to death that way.

Also, strangling someone takes a while. (And, no, this isn’t from personal experience.) Even after the victim goes limp, the character needs to keep choking them until the brain actually shuts down. Otherwise, they’ll just start breathing again, and recover.

I’d say look at Val Kilmer in Spartan and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Cruise is actually playing an assassin, while Kilmer is playing a government operative. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but the Thomas Jane Punisher film might also give you some ideas, there isn’t a lot of hand to hand, but that’s kind of the point.

If you have a lot of spare time, I’d recommend looking at 24. Kieffer Sutherland looks like he’s using a mix of Krav Maga and some miscellaneous CQB training. The problem is, there’s a lot of show (about 18 hours per season), and only a tiny fraction of that is combat.

There’s some good stuff in Burn Notice, so long as you remember that the only real difference between Michael and an assassin is that the latter is getting paid to kill someone. On the whole, the show is a good primer for tradecraft, which is useful for writing an assassin. Also, it’s entirely plausible to have an assassin that’s unwilling to kill people (outside of a contract), simply because it would draw more attention onto them, in which case, Michael is a very good character to look at.

Anyway, hope that helps.


Michi wants to add Karl Urban’s character from Red, and Bruce Willis’ character from Lucky # Sleven. Fact is, we have a wall of DVDs featuring hitmen and assassins of all stripes, so this is by no means a comprehensive viewing list.