left A modern memorial for king Leonidas I in Layma, Greece by Vasos Falireas, 1955, via Active History
Sparta was an exception in the Greek world: the only polis (“city-state”) without defensive walls and a one-of-a-kind socio-political system. This system was proudly referred to as kosmos (“order”), indicating that this configuration of the polis was the ideal model for all Greece. Sparta became famous for its ability in warfare, and the Spartans were considered invincible warriors. Their ability to fight was only a part of why Spartans were exceptional soldiers. The most important reason was their specific ethics and training instilled in them since childhood. To understand why the 300 Spartans and the Battle of Thermopylae have been celebrated as one of the greatest battles in the history of humanity, an analysis of the social and political configuration of Sparta is necessary.
Court of the Newborns Spartas by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, 1785, via Bavarian State Painting Collections, Munich
Sparta was led by two kings (diarchy), and its society revolved around the caste of soldiers called Spartiates, who permitted Sparta to become the most powerful and important polis in Greek history – alongside Athens.
The territorial expansion that Sparta built since the 8th century BCE required the implementation of political, economic, and social strategies to keep the polis thriving. Sparta promulgated a series of policies that limited the accumulation of wealth by private citizens. Consequently, every person had more or less the same economic power, which created a society “without tyrants,” which means without the supremacy of small elites. On the contrary, Sparta introduced an educational system controlled by the community of citizens (called agoghè) to build a class of people who shared the same values and felt equal. This educational system is key to understanding how Sparta came to be exceptional.
Young Spartans Exercising by Edgar Degas, 1860, via The National Gallery, London
In Sparta, the educational path that every young boy had to go through was divided into specific phases aimed at creating the perfect citizen. Until the age of seven, the children lived in their homes with their parents, and their education was entrusted to Sparta’s women. Then, the children officially entered the male community: they joined a “gang” called aghéle (“herd”), where they were all treated equally. However, this treatment was not pleasant: their hair was shaved, they had to walk barefoot, and they had to stay naked, in whatever climate condition. Furthermore, they had to go through and overcome difficult proves, challenges of skills and strength, and they had to obey the adults unconditionally.
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By the age of 20, the boys have concluded the first phase of their training. To leave the condition of sphaireìs (“those who play with the ball”), they had to overcome a cruel challenge, the so-called krypteìa, which means “something that takes place secretly.” The boys had to wander alone for a whole year, day and night, barefoot, and had to procure food for themselves by stealing. Furthermore, Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3-7) reports that during their wandering, the young Spartans had to attack in secret a Helot and kill him – in this regard, it must be underlined that scholars debate about the truthfulness of this fact. Regardless, the Helots were Sparta’s subject population: they were servants who cultivated the fields for the exclusive gain of the Spartans who did not spend their time in agricultural work.
Frieze of Greek hoplites fighting by unknown artist, ca. 390–380 BCE, from Nereid Monument at Xanthos in Lycia. On display at the British Museum, London, via World History
Once they passed the test of the krypteia, the young Spartans were officially admitted into the army. They were gifted with a red cloak and a shield, and they were allowed to grow their hair back.
Only after they reached the age of 30 could the Spartans frequent the agorà and actively participate in political life, becoming full citizens. Through this educational system, the young Spartans learned how to become proper citizens and exceptional soldiers.
Fifth-century hoplite by unknown artist, ca. 500 BCE-475 BCE, in Royal Museums of Art and History, Belgium, via livius.org
Spartans were trained to become soldiers at a very young age; in this regard, it is interesting to notice that the myth of Spartans as the best warriors of Ancient Greece was invented during the Persian Wars (492-479 BCE). Before it, Sparta did win important battles: for example, the one against the polis of Argos in 546 BCE, which allowed the Spartans to extend their control over the Peloponnese. However, Sparta’s popularity and admiration rose after the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE.
Nonetheless, Spartans had special skills on the battlefield that implemented the efficacy of the hoplite phalanx, the Greek tactical system. First of all, Spartans divided the armies into platoon-sized units, each led by an officer. Other Greek cities did not use this organization; furthermore, the Spartans extended this method to their subject allies, such as the Helots, who had to go to war alongside them. This organization permitted the Spartans’ phalanxes to master basic maneuvers, for instance, counter-marching the enemy’s formation because the commanders could pass orders down the chain of command in the heat of battle without shouting to re-organize the soldiers into lines.
The Spartans won several significant battles because of this tactical superiority. And when confronted with a Spartan army, the other Greek poleis could rarely stand their ground. The Spartans’ ability to create such an organized army came from their educational systems, where following orders was a must.
Greek hoplite besting a Persian by unknown artist, 5th century BCE, the tondo of a kylix drinking cup, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Another improvement made by Spartans during battles was the decision of detaching specialist troops to scout the areas around the marching columns so that enemies could be spotted well in advance. Furthermore, Spartans adopted a special uniform dress for the soldiers, composed of the red cloak and the famous lambda shields. The lambda corresponds to the letter “L” of the Greek alphabet, and it stands for Lacedaemonia, the region in which the city of Sparta was situated. Dressed up in this attire, Sparta’s army would appear on the battlefield as “a single mass of bronze and red” (Xenophon, Agesilaos 2.7), and the lambdas on the shields symbolized that the Spartans were fighting for the defense of the whole region, not only for one polis.
The result of the aforementioned characteristics was that Spartans remained undefeated in battles for over 150 years. Among these series of victories, Sparta’s most famous success is actually one of its losses: the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David, 1814, Musée du Louvre, Paris, via jacqueslouisdavid.net
The encounter between the Spartans and the Persians happened during the Second Persian War (480-479 BCE). The king of Persia, Xerxes I, decided to invade Greece to conquer it after the failure of this same project by his father, Darius I. The response to this attack was evident among the Greek poleis: they had to present a united front to face the threat. In fact, Persia winning the war would mean that Greece would completely lose its freedom. Hence, thirty of the most potent cities, from Sparta to Corinth, came together in the Hellenic League, led by a Spartan representative. This coalition was vital in winning the war because Xerxes could, on his part, count on a massive army with almost 300,000 men and 1,000 ships. The Persian army was led by the king himself, while his trusted general Mardonius led the fleet. On their arrival in central Greece, they found an obstacle: the Thermopylae, a narrow pass on the east coast of central Greece between the Kallídhromon massif and the Gulf of Maliakós.
Map of the Battle of Thermopylae by the History Department of the United States Miltary Academy, 2019, via worldhistory.org
The Thermopylae pass constituted the first defensive line of this war. The Spartan king Leonidas led a vanguard of 4,000 Peloponnesian and 300 Spartiates to defend Attica and Boeotia against the southward advance of Xerxes’ army. Leonidas’ troops held the pass for three days until the Persians learned from a traitor of the existence of a mountain pass that permitted them to encircle the Greeks. Once Leonidas became aware of the gamble, he outflanked the majority of the army, standing against the Persians with his 300 Spartans and a few others. All of them died, and the Persians won the Battle of Thermopylae. However, Xerxes’ army suffered terrible losses as well, and thanks to Leonidas’ and the 300 Spartans’ sacrifice, the majority of the Greek troops and ships were able to escape to the Isthmus of Corinth. Once rejoined the rest of their forces, the Greeks eventually won the war one year later, in 479 BCE.
Leonidas by unknown artist, c.480-470 BCE, Sparta Museum, via the University of Cambridge Classics Department
The Battle of Thermopylae was celebrated already by the contemporaries of the event and even more so in later history and literature. There are several reasons behind it, and they are all connected with the fact that the Battle of Thermopylae is an example of heroic resistance against incredible odds. The Spartiates’ rigorous education and background in following orders could explain this incredible feat of resistance. Furthermore, Spartans were taught to be proud of being warriors and to fight until the end. Surrendering was not an option for a Spartan; such a thing would ruin his and his family’s reputation.
In this regard, the philosopher and historian Plutarch stated the following: when a young Spartan received his shield, his mother told him, “[e]ither this or upon this” (Plutarch, Moralia, 241). With this saying, this mother warned her son to either win the battles or to die fighting, then to be carried back home on the shield. To fight or to die was central for a Spartan because it was the only way to gain the respect of others. The central element in this discourse is the quest for that type of kleos (“glory”) that Homeric heroes were fighting for.
The Spartan Mother by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, 1770, via National Trust UK
The concept of kleos is connected with the one of aretè (excellence), which could be achieved through education. The human ideal in Ancient Greece was an individual who developed his physical, intellectual, and ethical abilities at the service of himself first, for his honor and glory, and then to achieve the best conditions of livelihood for the polis. The concept of glory was not only central in epic poems such as The Iliad but also in how Spartans looked at their lives. The maximum level of aretè that could be reached was winning a battle or dying on the battlefield because these two were the only options that assured fame and, as a consequence, immortality.
It is undeniable that this is the case of the 300 Spartans who fought in the Battle of Thermopylae. Spartans’ courage, determination, honor, and sense of community were all ingrained in the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, as it is possible to see from the historical accounts of the events and the anecdotes reported.
For instance, the famous dialogue between Xerxes and Leonidas before engaging in battle: at the request of the Persian king to surrender his arms, the Spartan king responded “molon labe,” which can be translated as “come and get them.” In doing so, Leonidas knew that he was condemning himself and his 300 Spartans to perish in battle, but he did it anyway because a Spartan never gives up, especially when the freedom of his city is in danger.
Fragment of black-figure pottery showing a hoplite standing beside two horses, ca. 550 – 500 BCE, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
The fact that we are still fascinated by the story of the 300 Spartans who fought in the Battle of Thermopylae is demonstrated by numerous popular cultural products. The reason behind this fascination is that Spartans lived up to standards of ethics and education that we had lost in our contemporary society. For the most part, warrior-like values such as courage and sacrifice are no longer held in such high esteem. Thus, by remembering the story of the 300 Spartans, we can push ourselves to master and excel on our crafts and be determined to meet whatever goals we set for ourselves.