By Maxx Steinmetz
Throughout the ages, there have been civilizations that now stand as the paragons of military might in the annals of history. Legends such as Alexander the Great, The Roman Empire, the Golden Horde of the Mongols, or even the Vikings of Scandinavia. One Greek city-state precedes and outdoes the others in time and bravado. It is Sparta.
Today, most people only know of the Spartans through the movie “300,” based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller, or perhaps through the Spartan Races.
But from 900 to 192 B.C.E., being Spartan was more than comics, history books or even endurance races. Being a military state, training to be in the military began at birth. Historian say that children who were desired were first bathed in wine by their mothers to see if they were strong. (There is also mounting evidence of the disposal of unwanted children.)
If they survived, the father would then bring the infant to a Gerousia, the Gerousia then decided whether or not the child was to be raised at all. The deformed, tiny, or undesirable children would then be cast into the chasm of Mount Taygetos. (Some refer to this practice as an early form of eugenics.)
At age seven, the males of Sparta are entered into a communal system called the Agoge, a period of time where they learned not only martial arts and weaponry, but also how to read, write, dance and make music. Under the tutelage of an older unmarried male, the young Spartan stayed in the Agoge until the age of 20 at which point they would become a true hoplite in the Spartan army, and moved into proper barracks. The only honor a male of Sparta would then have would be to fight — either carrying their shield home, or they would be carried home on it.
Interestingly, the only way a Spartan could attain a gravestone was to die in battle if the Spartan was male, or die in childbirth if female.
For all the military prowess the Spartans attained, however, the fledgling states of Greece were mere children compared to the most powerful empire at the time: The Persians.
The first conflict between Greece and Persia was a result of Miletus, a city in the Persian Empire on the Turkish peninsula, whose people wanted their independence. The Miletians went first to the Spartans asking for aid.
Not willing to incur the wrath of the Persians for the sake of a single city, they refused to help the Miletians. Continuing to ask for support, they then asked the Athenians for aid. The Athenians accepted, and sailed for Miletus to quickly oust the Persian occupiers there. Then the Athenians promptly left to go home.
Just as promptly, Emperor Darius of the Persian Empire had Miletus raised to the ground, and vowed the same for Athens. His first attempt was to send his navy along the coast of modern day Turkey, but as it approached the Thracian sea, a great storm brewed and sunk the navy he sent.
On his second attempt, Darius was thwarted yet again. This time, he met defeat at the hands of the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. Sparta had not been present at the battle because of a six day festival, and there was a standing law of not marching to war during festival times.
This second defeat infuriated Darius, but the financial risk of dealing with the pesky city-states of Greece outweighed his hatred. He did, however, instill this hatred of the Greeks into his heir, Xerxes II.
When Darius died, Xerxes ascended to the throne of Emperor and made an attempt to conquer the Greeks. His army crossed the Hellespont (the span of water connecting the Thracian Sea and the Black Sea) on a pontoon bridge which he had commissioned to be build strong enough so that his estimated 300,000-700,000 army-men could cross.
His navy followed his army by skirting the coast of the Thracian Sea.
News of the approaching Persian horde was sent all throughout the Greek city-states. Knowing that Xerxes’ ultimate goal was to sack Athens and decimate its citizens, councils decided that the mountain pass of Thermopylae was where the first skirmish to defend Greece would be held.
Athens sent her fledgling navy, commanded by the man who created it, the General Themistocles, to keep the Persian navy from bringing troops to the flanks of the forces on land. The armies of Greece were lead by King Leonidas of Sparta, who brought 300 of his well-trained hoplites (after consulting the Oracle at Delphi and deciding to march during a time of festival.)
A common misconception was that these 300 where the only defenders of the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae. In actuality, the Spartans were aided by hoplites from surrounding city-states to form an army approximately 14,000-strong.
Upon arriving at Thermopylae the Greeks used the steep mountain on one side, and the sheer cliffs to the other, and a wall they constructed to bottleneck their enemy. The Persians knew only of the one pass to get to Greece, and were generally unfamiliar with navigating mountainous terrain.
Greek hoplites carried aspis, which were large, round, concave wooden shields covered in brass in their left hand. The aspis, when held, would cover a hoplite from knee to neck, allowing safe use of his doru (an eight-foot spear) as his primary weapon. In the event of the spear being broken or lost, a hoplite carried a short sword, called a xiphos. For protection, a wealthy hoplite would have greaves, a brass chest piece called a linothorax, and a helmet.
The Persians on the other hand, wore cloth armor and had shields made of wicker.
Other than the benefit of terrain and better arms and armor, there was yet another advantage the Greeks had over their Persian adversaries — the phalanx. This tactical formation was made up of a line of hoplites with their shields interlocking, which created a wall. Spartans would use then their doru, wielded in an underhanded grip, which granted them more control. In a full phalanx, a second line of hoplites would form and strike from above with their doru using an overhand grip, which gave them more force. A third line would form behind the second and as the phalanx advanced, they would dispatch wounded enemies using the “sauroter” (the butt of the spear capped with a spike. Sauroter is Greek for “lizard killer”).
Using these three advantages, the Greeks halted the Persian invaders for two days, beating the regular infantry and Xerxes’ elite fighting group, the Immortals. After two days of defeat at the hand of the Greeks by both land and sea, Xerxes was furious. It was at this time that a goat herder came to the Persian Emperor and informed him of a little known goat path which was only being watched by a small Greek force.
Snatching his opportunity, Xerxes sent a portion of his army around on the third day of battle to flank his indomitable adversary. Leonidas had also learned of the goat herder’s treachery, however, and sent all but the 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans away to fight another day.
These remaining 1,400 Greeks then held one of the most famous last stands in history, only matched by the lunacy that lead to General George A. Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn nearly 2,400 years later.
In those years, Leonidas and his 300’s last stand has been heavily romanticized starting with the poet Herodotus quoting one of the hoplites who spoke of a conversation about the amount of arrows that the Persians could let loose on the Greek ranks. That “the amount of arrows flying would blot out the sun,” he wrote. This comment was plainly and matter-of-factly answered: “Than we shall fight in the shade.”
This romanticism goes hand-in-hand with how a small force with a group of well-trained well-lead militaristic culture at the forefront can level the odds in a battle, leading to the legendary air surrounding our image of a historic Spartan.