How important a part of Spartan society was the hoplite army, in the seventh and sixth centuries BC?

The emergence of the hoplite army in the early seventh century BC was piecemeal rather than en bloc as the ‘Spartan mirage’ portrays. However, once adopted, the hoplite army became an integral aspect of Spartan society through the seventh and sixth centuries BC and remained, as Cartledge describes, the doyenne of developed hoplite warfare.[1] The endurance of Sparta’s hoplite army was due to its success in maintaining eunomia (good order) after the stasis (civil disturbance) caused by their defeat at the Battle of Hysiae during the Second Messenian War in the early seventh century BC.[2] Moreover, this success was arguably fed by a constant state of fear that was not only caused by external threats but also from internal threats such as those posed by the overwhelming population size of the helots (serfs). The consequential popularisation of the phalanx reshaped societal structure by introducing poorer Spartan to a style of fighting previously dominated by aristocrats.[3] This inclusion of the poor resulted in the flattening of the hierarchal structure within Spartan society and the development of the homoioi (equals).[4] Finley’s ideas about the ‘sixth-century revolution’ view the reformation of Sparta in becoming a martial society as fulfilled by the sixth century. This reformation is attributed to the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus and, through the approach of the polis’ (city-state) to features such as child rearing, religion, and economics, the importance of the hoplite army to Spartan society at this time was thus reflected.

Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato all describe the reformed Spartans as ‘technitai ton polemikon’ (professionals of war).[5] This imagery is depicted in an ivory seal excavated from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, which portrays three hoplites, as characterized by their hopla (shields).[6] Hopla were vital to the operation of the phalanx and the word hoplon led to the etymology of the term ‘hoplite’.[7] Hoplite warfare developed through the introduction of heavier armour with hand-to-hand combat developing soon after in the late seventh century.

The Spartans were able to achieve their reputation as ‘professionals of war’ through their approach to rearing offspring. Foremost was the practice of eugenics in order to produce sons who would become fit soldiers.[8] This was achieved through both priming a woman to be fit for childbearing and the practice of infanticide. Another technique the Spartans employed was 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.”[9] Similarly, Plutarch states that the agoge “made citizens obedient to the laws and tractable, like horses are broken in while colts.”[10] The manipulation of citizens from birth, through infanticide and education, truly highlights the depth of militaristic influence on the society during this period.

The integration of martial practices in the religious sphere also reflects the importance of the hoplite army on Spartan society. Xenophon reports that at the festival of Artemis Orthia, as a rite de passage, boys would attempt to steal cheese off the altar and, if caught, were whipped as punishment.[11] 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. [12] These performances were often in the form of an agon (contest).[13] This encouraged athleticism as well as reinforcing 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.[14] For example, inscription IG V.1 714 reading “Agippia [died] in childbirth”.[15] 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.”[16]

The sixth-century revolutionised Spartan polis emphasized homoioi in order to reinforce the equality of Spartans to the effect of encouraging comradeship. At birth, every Spartiate was supposedly assigned an equal kleros (an allotment of land).[17] Upon graduation from the agoge, Spartiates joined a syssitia (mess) and would dine and sleep with their messmates as they would in battle. Spartiates were capable of such a life due to chrematismos, the prohibition of business activity, which was made possible due to all necessities being provided by either the helots or perioikoi (dwellers-around).[18] A sense of fraternity within society correlated with the realism of military life and so was emulated in everyday life.

Finley’s idea of a ‘sixth-century revolution’ saw the full integration of hoplite warfare into Spartan society. While Cartledge opposes a similar view, as posed by Snodgrass, 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. [19] 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? It is only through the importance the hoplite army held in society that it was capable of its legendary successes including: the formation of the Peloponnesian League in 550BC of which Sparta established its hegemony, The Battle of Champions in 546BC, the annual defeat of the Messenians, as well as Sparta’s continued oppression of the helots ensuring there were no revolts. Hence, it is clear from the evidence that the hoplite army was inextricably tied with Spartan society in the seventh and sixth centuries BC.

[1] Cartledge (1977: 11).

[2] Cartledge (1977:27); Holladay (1982: 97).

[3] Snodgrass (1965: 122).

[4] García & de Quiroga (2012: 133); Cartledge (1977: 27).

[5] Xenophon in Cartledge (1977: 16?)

[6] Fig. 1 in Cartledge (1977: 26).

[7] Cartledge (1977:13).

[8] Pomeroy (2002: 34).

[9] Finley (1981: 27).

[10] Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos 1.2.

[11] Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 2.9).

[12] Cartledge (1977:17).

[13] Burket (1985: 234).

[14] Plutarch, Life of Lykourgos, 27.3 in Dillon (2007: 151).

[15] Bradford (1977: 16).

[16] Tyrtaios, Fr. 12.23-24.

[17] Pomeroy (2002: 35).

[18] Finley (1981: 27); Finley (1981: 31).

[19] Cartledge (1977: 19-20).


Bradford, A.S. (1977), A Prosopography of Lacedaemonians from the Death of Alexander the Great, 323 B.C., to the Sack of Sparta by Alaric, A.D. 396, Part 396, vol. 27 of Vestigia, Munich.

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.

Pomeroy, S.B., (2002), ‘Becoming a Wife’ in S.B. Pomeroy Spartan Women, Oxford, 33-49.

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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