The Spartans and Hoplite Warfare

These were some questions I had to answer for uni homework. Thought I’d share them since Sparta is such an interesting polis (city-state).

What features of Spartan education prepared Spartan boys for hoplite warfare?

The Spartans were able to achieve their reputation as ‘technitai ton polemikon’ (professionals of war) through their unique education system, the agoge (‘raising’), which Finley defines as “[a] common, formalized, compulsory upbringing designed to inculcate obedience, valour, discipline and professional military skills” (1981: 27). Similarly, Plutarch states that the agoge “made citizens obedient to the laws and tractable, like horses are broken in while colts” (Life of Agesilaos 1.2). The agoge was broken into ‘age-classes’ where the elder boys (eiren) were responsible for disciplining the younger boys. This taught boys about respect and hierarchy, which translated directly to a warfare setting in which it was imperative they obeyed the commands of their superiors. Likewise, an erastis would be paired with a younger boy as a mentor, encouraging the boy to excel in sport and display courage and endurance. This erastis sought to be the role model of the perfect Spartan. Spartan boys were expected to go barefoot, wear a thin tunic and cloak in winter, not used torches in the dark, eat monotonous food, steal to prevent starvation, practice organized fights, and learn war songs. This behaviour prepared Spartan boys for hoplite warfare.

What connection did religion have with hoplite warfare, for the Spartans?

Religion was a means of encouraging militaristic traits for the Spartans. Xenophon reports that at the festival of Artemis Orthia, as a rites de passage, boys would attempt to steal cheese off the altar and, if caught, were whipped as punishment (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 2.9). The purpose of this religious exercise was to teach boys the traits necessary for a militaristic lifestyle. Martial traits were also honed through marching songs and energetic dances performed at annual religious festivals, such as the festival of Karneia (Cartledge 1977:17). These performances were often in the form of an agon (contest) (Burket 1985: 234). This encouraged athleticism as well as reinforced rhythm. Another aspect of military life, as Plutarch records, was that only men who died in war and women who died as priestesses or in childbirth received an inscription on their tomb (Life of Lykourgos, 27.3). The Spartan poet Tyrtaios writes of this honour, “…He is immortal in the grave, that man whom the furious Ares destroys as he defends his land and his children” (Fr. 12.23-24).

 How serious a weakness was Sparta’s relatively slight experience in siege techniques?

Sparta’s slight experience in siege techniques was a serious weakness albeit not a devastating one until the fall at Leuctra in 371 BC. As Cartledge states, “If there was one chink in the Spartans’ armour, it was their consistent failure (or, rather, refusal) to solve problems of siege-warfare. But this defect only became marked in the fifth century and really seriously only in the fourth” (1977: 17). Cartledge attributes this inflexibility to the hoplite model, as the hoplite model was built upon needing plains to be efficient. Holladay concurs to Cartledge’s statement about the Spartans inflexibility by stating that the Spartan’s avoided sieges as a way of sticking to a “safe formula” (1982: 101). Despite this inflexibility, the Spartans persevered using the hoplite style for centuries, which shows that Sparta’s weakness in siege techniques was not a major issue for a long time.

How tenable is Snodgrass’s theory of gradual adoption of the hoplite style of fighting, in view of Cartledge’s criticism of it (‘Hoplites and heroes’, pp.19 ff.)?

While Cartledge opposes Snodgrass’s theory of gradual adoption of the hoplite style, his arguments are flawed, as can be seen where he suggests that the development of the hoplite army could not be piecemeal, as panoply was too expensive (1977: 19-20). Conversely, if Cartledge’s view is correct then how did the Spartan army acquire panoply so suddenly? Furthermore, if the hoplite army was inferior to other styles, as Cartledge goes on to suggest, then why does the style prevail from the seventh and sixth centuries to 371BC? Since other historians, such as Finley (cf. ‘sixth-century revolution’) also adopt the theory of gradual adoption, it seems that Cartledge’s criticism of it stands alone.

How well does Cartledge’s view of hoplite warfare stand up to Holladay’s criticism of it (‘Hoplites and heresies’, 97ff.)?

Cartledge suggests that both the development and preservation of hoplite warfare is due to political advantage through the restriction of participation since the poor could not afford ownership of hoplite equipment (Holladay, 1982: 97). Cartledge believes that “if such people were allowed to realise their military potential they would demand political advancement” (Holladay, 1982: 97). On the contrary, Holladay believes that the hoplite style is superior. Holladay points out that if the Spartans were attempting to maintain a political gap they would have appointed helots and periokoi as light-armed infantry rather than hoplites (101). Holladay also uses logical sources to rebut Cartledge’s statements. For example, Holladay points out that Eastern dynasts were so impressed by the effectiveness of the hoplite style that they hired hoplites as mercenaries (1982: 100). Furthermore, Holladay integrates the opinions of other historians, such as Gomme, to aid and legitimise his argument. Overall, Cartledge’s view of hoplite warfare seems inconsequential against Holladay’s criticism of it.


Burket, W. (1985), ‘The Rhythm of the Festivals’ in Greek Religion, Massachusetts, 225-245.

Cartledge, P. (1977), “Hoplites and Heroes”, JHS 97, 11-27.

Finley, M.I, (1981), ‘Sparta and Spartan Society’ in M.I. Finley (ed.), Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, London, 24-40 and 253-255.

García, F.J.G & P.L.B de Quiroga (2012), “Neocon Greece: V.D. Hanson’s War on History”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 19, 129-151.

Holladay, A.J. (1982), “Hoplites and Heresies”, JHS 102, 94-103.

Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos in Perrin, B., trans. (1917), The Loeb Classical Library, vol. 5, Cambridge.

Plutarch, Life of Lykourgos in Dillon, M. (2007), “Were Spartan women who died in childbirth honoured with grave inscriptions?”, Hermes 135, 149-165.

Snodgrass, A.M. (1965), “The Hoplite Reform and History”, JHS 85, 110-122.

Tyrtaios, Fragment 12.23-24 in Lattimore, R. trans. (1960), Greek Lyrics, Chicago.

van Wees, H., (2004), ‘The Archaic Phalanx’ in H. van Wees (ed.), Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, London, 166-298.

Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians in Marchant, E.C. trans. (1914), Xenophon: Scripta minora, vol. 7, Cambridge.

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