SPARTA AND THE HOPLITES
Sparta was one of the most important Greek city-states throughout the Archaic and Classical periods and was famous for its military prowess. The professional and well-trained Spartan hoplites with their distinctive red cloaks, long hair, and lambda-emblazoned shields were probably the best and most feared fighters in Greece, fighting with distinction at such key battles as Thermopylae and Plataea in the early 5th century BCE. The city was also in constant rivalry with the other major Greek cities of Athens and Corinth and became involved in two protracted and hugely damaging conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars of the mid- to late 5th century BCE and the Corinthian Wars of in the early 4th century BCE.
For all Spartan citizens there was a strong emphasis on military training and frugal living in communal mess halls where simple food such as barley meal, cheese, figs and wine were the norm. From the age of seven, males had a militaristic upbringing known as the agōgē where they were separated into age groups and lived in barracks. These youths pursued rigorous athletic and military training which became even more demanding from the age of 20, when they joined common mess halls (syssition) where they often formed homoerotic relations with older, more experienced citizens. This tough training resulted in a professional hoplite army capable of relatively sophisticated battle manoeuvres and made them feared throughout Greece, a fact perhaps evidenced by Sparta’s notable lack of fortifications for most of its history.
A peculiar feature of the Spartans and their military was the great importance given to matters of religion. As Herodotus put it, they ‘considered the things of the gods more weighty than the things of men’. Pre- and post-battle sacrifices were a common feature of Greek warfare in general but the Spartan army took things one step further and sacrificed before crossing rivers, for example, and even withheld from mobilising the army if an important religious festival was ongoing. Famous episodes where the Spartans put religion above warfare and even national crisis were Marathon and Thermopylae during the Persian Wars. In the former battle they arrived too late to participate and in the latter mobilised only a token force as they felt compelled to first celebrate the Karneia festival in honour of Apollo.
The Spartan hoplite army, however, showed the rest of Greece the way forward towards a greater military professionalism and considering the iconic image of fearless and disciplined hoplites with red cloaks and lambda-emblazoned shields, for the Greeks, admiring Romans and even 21st century film-goers, this is Sparta.
Cartwright, M. (2013, May 28). Sparta. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/sparta/