The wars fought by Sparta and Athens in the fifth century bc pitted one city-state with ancient Greece’s greatest army against one boasting her most powerful fleet. Yet the Spartan and Athenian ways of war differed in far more than a simple preference for fighting on land rather than sea. In fact, the distinctive approaches that Sparta and Athens took to combat embraced a wide range of tactics, only a few of which were tied to their traditional divide at the shoreline.
Military historians have tended to focus on the severe boyhood training regimen in Sparta (the agoge) and the potent combination of hardy physique and iron-willed martial philosophy it promoted. But the Spartan way of war was not simply a matter of outstanding individual toughness, strength, or even weaponry skills. Superior tactics played key roles as well—discretion was often the better part of valor for Spartans. They were adept at assessing battle odds and, should these not be to their liking, heading home without a fight.
Despite its fierce image, Sparta had a more extensive record of dodging armed confrontations than any other Greek city-state. It was not unusual for Spartan commanders to turn back before crossing a hostile border if the omens were bad. And even on the brink of combat, they might still choose to avoid action. Spartan King Agis II (427-400 bc) once claimed that “Spartans do not ask how many the enemy are, only where they are,” but on at least four occasions he personally refused engagement with the enemy.
Spartan Advantages in Hoplite Warfare
Classical Greeks fought in a dense linear formation or phalanx as armored spearmen known as hoplites. These hoplites were protected from their ankles up by greaves, cuirass, shield, and helmet as they stood close alongside each other in ranks that could be many hundreds of men wide. This allowed them to present a broad front that was hard to overlap or outflank. But there was a limit to how thin a formation could be without falling into disorder. Thus, most Greeks tried to form a file at least eight men deep to accept battle. Spartans, however, could advance and maneuver effectively in files as slim as four men. Those in the first three ranks struck overhand with their spears at the enemy front, and the fourth rank joined rows two and three in pressing shields into the backs of their fellows in a concerted effort to shove through the opposition, a tactic called othismos. This ability to maneuver when short-handed yielded success several times, most famously against a much larger Arcadian army at Dipaea in 464 bc.
Most Greek armies advanced with men shouting encouragement and issuing distinctive battle cries. They would then rush the last few yards into close action. In contrast, Spartans moved forward slowly in measured steps to the sound of pipes and the rhythmic chanting of battle poetry. This allowed them to keep excellent order all the way into engagement. Moreover, the Spartans saw their opponents’ noisy rush as amateurish, signaling false bravado to suppress fear. Their own deliberate and disciplined pace was meant to set a tone of both overwhelming confidence and deadly menace. So unnerving was this approach that many foes broke and ran before first contact.
Hoplites followed a natural urge when marching into battle to edge closer to the man on their right. They did this to gain better cover from the shield held on his left arm. This tendency caused phalanxes to fade toward the right as they advanced and often resulted in a mutual overlap of formation flanks on opposite ends of the field. The Spartans exploited this by deliberately exaggerating their own rightward movements. They would combine the movement with well-practiced wheeling by elite troops on their far right to curl around a foe’s left flank. Once enveloped, the encircled wing would break and run, causing the enemy phalanx to collapse.
Besides exploiting the common phenomenon of rightward drift, Spartans also used more unique schemes on the battlefield. King Agis once shifted units in his formation during an advance. To attempt this in the very face of the enemy suggests that Spartans considered such risky moves to be well within their capabilities. Athenian general Cleandridas defeated Italian tribesmen in 433 bc by hiding a contingent of hoplites behind his phalanx. This disguised his true strength and, once engaged, let him wheel his men against the enemy flank to trigger a rout.
The most daring Spartan battle maneuver was to break off in the midst of combat and withdraw. All other Greek armies shunned this for fear of inviting disaster. The Spartans, however, could not only pull out of hopeless spots at minimal loss, but could also fake the maneuver and trick foes into breaking formation to give chase. Herodotus cited such false retreats at Thermopylae in 480 bc. The Spartans then wheeled about each time and obliterated the overly eager Persians, who had fallen into premature and disordered pursuits. Plato claimed the Persians also suffered this same Spartan ploy at Plataea one year later.
While Spartans heavily punished those breaking ranks to follow their feigned retreats, they themselves refrained from any sort of pursuit. First, they saw no profit in risking precious lives to chase an already defeated enemy. Furthermore, staying on the battleground allowed them to possess the field at day’s end. This was the universally accepted definition of formal victory in Greek warfare. Finally, by maintaining formation, the Spartans could rapidly reform on a different front, giving them the opportunity of mounting a second attack against any opponents that were still intact.
The Spartans were well aware that success on the battlefield could carry a special danger in the form of friendly fire. Helmets limited vision and the din of battle was deafening, causing hoplites to easily mistake friend for foe in the mixed-up ranks. Thucydides cited just such a tragic incident within the encircling Athenian right wing at Delium in 424 bc. One way the Spartans reduced this hazard was by adopting uniform gear so as to more easily identify each other in the heat of a confused melee. To this purpose, they wore highly visible tunics that were dyed crimson. Their cloaks might have been red as well; however, they rarely, if ever, took these cumbersome garments into combat. The Spartans also painted large devices on their shields for identification, the most famous being the Greek letter lambda. Looking like an inverted “V,” this was the first letter in “Lacedaemon,” which was the ancient Greeks’ name for Sparta.
Sneak attacks were not a staple of the Spartan army, but one did yield a victory at Sepeia in 494 bc. There, Sparta’s famously wily King Cleomenes was facing a slightly larger host from Argos. Arranging a temporary truce and camping opposite the Argives, Cleomenes set up a routine that included signaling meals with a horn. When the enemy stood down at the same time for their own food, he had his men charge and put the unprepared Argives to a horrific rout. Another Spartan commander who used a sneak attack to good effect was Brasidas at Amphipolis in 422 bc, where he was under siege from Cleon of Athens. Cleon had lined up for a return to his base after a scouting expedition when the Spartans surprised him by rushing out of the city in two detachments, cutting the Athenian column in half and defeating each segment in detail. Brasidas brought the opening phase of the Peloponnesian War to an end with the victory, although he himself died in battle.
Even the best armies sometimes find retreat unavoidable. The Spartans, having lost 300 picked men and a king in a rearguard action in 480 bc at Thermopylae, came up with a less costly way to withdraw—the marching box. First used successfully under Brasidas in 423 bc, this formation consisted of forming most of the hoplite infantry into a hollow rectangle, placing the lightly armed soldiers and noncombatants inside the formation, and then deploying the remaining hoplites fore and aft to meet any enemy threats. The marching box could retreat and defend itself from all forms of attack. Xenophon of Athens claimed credit for creating the arrangement during the famed “Retreat of the Ten Thousand” after the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 bc. However, it is more likely that Xenophon simply modestly modified existing Spartan protocol.
Athens as a Military Power
Regard for classical Athenians as fighters in general has lagged behind their fame as creators of democracy and masters of aesthetic culture. From antiquity to the present, the Spartans have had far greater martial repute. Yet Athens in its fifth century bc heyday not only fought more than three times as many battles as Sparta, but actually enjoyed a slightly higher overall rate of combat success. In fact, Athenians developed the largest and most sophisticated war machine in all of Greece and applied tactics as creatively as they pursued the fine arts.
Athens followed adoption of democracy in 510 bc with a period of rapid expansion. The Athenians kept pace with rising territorial commitments by greatly increasing the size of their military. Athens’ army went from a late sixth-century bc count of 3,600 armored spearmen to 13,000 citizen regulars on the rolls by 431 bc. Likewise, the Athenian fleet grew from 60 to 300 ships over the same period. Sparta could answer with only about half as many hoplites of its own and had no navy at all.