Ancient Sparta – the Real History of the City of Leonidas



Ancient Sparta is a name that everybody knows and recognises. The bravery of Leonidas and the 300 are the heroic basis of myriad Hollywood blockbusters. The betrayal of Menelaos, by beautiful Helen of Troy, is enshrined in glorious Homeric myth and legend. Documentaries and books portray the brutal military regime, and the abhorrent practice of exposing weak infants in the harsh Taygetos Mountains.

As any local in the modern town will tell you, the reality of Spartan society was very different from the modern perceptions. The society of the Ancient Spartans was surprisingly sophisticated, their culture as rich as any other city in Ancient Greece.


Surprisingly to some, the history of the Ancient Spartans does not begin with the Homeric Trojan War. The realm of Menelaos and Helen existed nearly a century before the dawn of historical Ancient Sparta. This was an older civilisation, semi-mythical even to the Dorian Spartans of Leonidas. Some authorities believe that the kingdom of Menelaos, known as Lakedaimon, was based at nearby Ancient Pellanas, not Sparta.

Excavations there are ongoing, but are yet to find concrete evidence of any palace. The historical Sparta of Leonidas begins with the Dorian Greek invasion. Tribes migrating from north-eastern Greece displaced the ‘long-haired’ Achaean Greeks of Homeric legend.

The rise of Ancient Sparta began in about 750 BC, when the emerging Spartan state systematically subdued the populations of the surrounding areas. The nearby village of Amyclae was incorporated into the original four settlements and Messinia was invaded, the population subjugated as helots. These were not quite slaves, but had few rights and were forced to farm the land, giving half of the produce to Sparta.

The lands of Messinia were parcelled out to Spartan warrior-citizens, known as Spartiates. During this period, the Spartan constitution was formulated, and the state elected two kings, ruling alongside a council of elders and demos of male citizens. Helots and inhabitants of outlying areas, the Perioikoi, were denied a vote. This is very similar to the ‘democracy’ of Athens, where only the richest males had the right to vote.


Between 680 and 660 BC, the Spartan army adopted the hoplite method of fighting, which would become the mainstay of their tactics for many centuries. In 669, the army suffered a reverse against the neighbouring Argives, and had to put down a Messinian revolt in the 650’s. Despite this, the reform continued and the revolt was crushed, within ten years. Finally, Messinia was completely conquered and Sparta began to look further afield.

The famous laws of Lycurgus were crafted to stabilise the society and were impressed into the psyche of all Spartans. Military training became compulsory for all citizen males; from the age of seven, their lives were dictated by unbreakable rules. The Messinian Helots provided food, and the Perekoi became the craftsmen and merchants, allowing Ancient Sparta to establish a professional army. The constant training and hardening, by beatings, austere conditions and rigid selection, led to a highly trained and elite fighting force, devoted entirely to the law.

The whole system discouraged the gathering of wealth into a few hands, avoiding material imbalances that could lead to tyranny, coups or revolts. The use of professional troops, against the part-time hoplites of other Greek states, was the major factor in the growing Spartan dominance. By the middle of the 6th century, Ancient Sparta had conquered its near neighbours and was the dominant power in the Peloponnesian league, a major player in Greek politics.


Throughout the sixth century BC, the Persian Empire gradually developed. Starting as a loose confederation of tribes in modern day Iran, it grew and dominated the Middle and Near East. The great cities of Babylon, Memphis and Susa, fell to the well equipped and well drilled army of Cyrus the Great. By 512 the new king, Darius, overran the Greek cities in Asia Minor and began to influence their politics.

After a failed revolt by these cities, in 494, King Xerxes of Persia decided to punish the Greeks, especially the Athenians, key supporters of this Ionian revolt. Xerxes invaded, but the resulting Battle of Marathon saw defeat at the hands of the Athenians and their allies. Ancient Sparta declined to send an army until their religious ceremonies were over, by which time the battle was won.

480 BC saw the pinnacle of Spartan history, the Battle of Thermopylae, a name that has echoed down through history. Despite the subsequent overestimation of Persian numbers and the underestimation of Greek numbers, it was still an act of steadfast bravery. Thermopylae was an awesome display of Spartan prowess, courage and strength.

The Persian king, Xerxes, timed his invasion to coincide with religious festivals, preventing many of the Greek city states from sending armies. Despite this, many states sent small contingents, including the famous 300 Spartans under Leonidas, the overall General. The Greek forces probably numbered about 7000, and the Persian force up to 250 000 men, a vast difference in strength.

After four days of waiting for the Greeks to accept terms and disperse, Xerxes sent in his first wave of troops, demanding annihilation of the Greeks. Here his plan faltered; the terrain funnelled his army onto a narrow front and neutralised the effect of numbers. The superior training and morale of the Ancient Spartan phalanxes held the ‘Hot Gates’, and the initial assault was cut to pieces. The next day saw an assault by the elite 10 000 immortals, but they were also forced back, in shame.

The course of the battle now swung against the Greek forces. The infamous traitor, Ephialtes, led a force of 40 000 Persians along a goat path, bringing them around the rear of the Greeks. The guarding force of 1000 Phocians fled, and the encirclement of the advance force was almost complete. Hearing of this, Leonidas dismissed the Greek allies, leaving only the 300 Spartans, 900 Messinian Helots and 700 Thespian volunteers. They made a last stand on a hill behind the pass, dying to a man and inspiring generals for centuries.

One year later, at Platea, 10 000 Ancient Spartan warriors, part of a force of about 45 000 hoplites, and an uncertain number of light troops, defeated a huge Persian force. This, along with the victory of the Athenian navy in the battle of Salamis, crushed Persian hopes forever. They never again invaded Greece and their focus shifted to using their wealth and prestige to influence Greek politics.


The end of the fifth century BC saw the uneasy alliance between Athens and Ancient Sparta, the two major powers in Greece, break down. At first, there was no outright declaration of war, but the two city states began playing the political game, wrangling and manipulating their allies. Athens exerted pressure on the city of Corinth and its colonies in Sicily, establishing its own outposts on that island. Corinth, alarmed by this, turned to Sparta for help, and threatened to leave the Peloponnesian League.

The Athenians also intrigued against another city, Megara, neighbour of Corinth, by restricting their rights to trade in Athens. Pressure built and war broke out, becoming a battle of attrition. Despite the superior initial strength of the Spartan armies, the strong defensive walls and powerful navy of Athens forced a stalemate.

By 421 BC both cities were feeling the strain upon their treasuries and armies. An uneasy truce was called, lasting until 415, when the Athenians suffered a major defeat whilst attempting to conquer Sicily. Despite this, Ancient Sparta failed to take advantage of this reversal and again offered peace. This was gratefully accepted and lasted until 404 BC. For a while, Sparta was the dominant force in the Eastern Mediterranean, but never fully exploited its position.

Persian gold equipped a new Spartan fleet, which crushed the Athenian navy in the Hellespont. Athens had no option but to surrender, and the Spartan terms were harsh. Athens had to tear down its walls and disband its fleet.

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