The ancient Spartans enjoy an undeserved reputation as history’s biggest badasses – peerless warriors who never surrendered, never ran from a fight, and never backed down. It’s total nonsense. The Spartans were human beings first and foremost. This doesn’t mean they were any worse than other people, only that they were no better. And it is to this mission – of seeing the ancient Spartans as they actually were – my latest book, The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy is dedicated.
First on my list of lies to deconstruct is the myth of Thermopylae. This famous battle in 480 BC is where Sparta’s legend was forged, sent into pop-culture overdrive by Zack Snyder’s 2006 hit film 300. Thermopylae was a disastrous defeat for Sparta. Every single Spartan was killed, and the Persian army they’d sought to halt went on to burn Athens. Leonidas, the famous king and protagonist of 300 (played by a 36 year old Gerard Butler – the real Leonidas was 60), reportedly told the Persian king Xerxes to “come and take them” when Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their arms. Xerxes did come and take them, sticking Leonidas’ head on a pole along the way.
Most people remember the Spartans for this defeat, ignorant of their real victories. Here’s one:
The First Battle of Mantinea (418 BC)
The First Battle of Mantinea was a watershed in the series of wars between Sparta and Athens that most people call “The Peloponnesian War.” It was a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat by competent command, a disciplined army, and the kind of grit military historians lionize. It came on the heels of an epic defeat – the crushing of Sparta at the linked Battles of Pylos and Sphacteria seven years earlier, which saw 120 of Sparta’s elite surrendering in direct contravention to their bloated myth. Sparta’s military reputation was in bad need of rescue.
Mantinea did the trick.
The battle began as a downward spiral. Ancient Greek warriors fought in a formation where your shield protected the right side of the man beside you – so, each man would instinctively step to his right to shelter behind his comrade’s shield, making the whole battle line slide to the right.
At Mantinea, this slide risked “outflanking” – allowing the enemy to get around and behind the Spartan line.
Seeing this disaster unfolding, the Spartan king Agis ordered two units to shift to the left, which would create a gap in his line. He then ordered another two units to cover that gap. Through either disobedience or error, these new units didn’t move.
The gap remained open.
The enemy ruthlessly exploited it, shattering the Spartan left wing. They went on to plunder the Spartan baggage, which gave Agis a reprieve during which he overwhelmed and broke the enemy center, isolating their left who retreated. Had Agis pursued them, he would have been destroyed. Instead, the vaunted Spartan discipline prevailed, and Agis stopped his entire army, pivoted them, and sent them into the disorganized enemy fresh from looting the Spartan baggage. The enemy, seeing the organized might of the Spartan army bearing down on them, broke and fled.
Once again, Agis stopped his troops from pursuing (a rare feat in the ancient world), leaving him in victorious possession of the field, with most of the enemy fleeing in panic.
Thucydides is clear that this stunning victory redeemed Sparta’s reputation: “… in one battle they wiped away their disgrace with the Greeks … after this, their failures were considered to be bad luck …”
Taking a battle line, rotating it sideways, and then sending it across a battlefield may not seem like a particularly great achievement, but in the ancient world, it absolutely was. Keep in mind that we’re talking about 9,000 people on the Spartan side, not counting the slaves that surely accompanied the nobles and also fought as light infantry. These many thousands would have had to keep in step, maintaining the overlapping of their shields, preserving the critical cohesion on which their safety depended. And all of this had to be accomplished without radios or loudspeakers, all on a battlefield where the choking dust kicked up by thousands of feet may have reduced visibility to mere inches.
Sparta is most famous for a failure, but it won real and glorious victories.
But they’re not the ones they make movies about.
If we would honor the Spartans, we must first see them.
Myke Cole is the author of The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of the Spartan Warrior Supremacy, published by Osprey.