Welcome back to our series on The Spartan Way, which seeks to illuminate the lessons the ancient Spartans can teach modern men – not in their details, but in the general principles that lie beneath, and can still be extracted and applied today.
At its peak, the Spartan army was the most dominant, and feared, military force in ancient Greece, and its prowess was built on the singular mentality and strategy it brought to the art of war.
In this final installment of the Spartan Way series, we’ll take an expansive, inspiring, and thoroughly fascinating tour of the essential mindset and tactics that allowed these warriors to battle fiercely and come out the victor.
There Is Power in Appearance
Spartan men not only had the skills and training to back up their reputation as formidable warriors, they enhanced that reputation — and their efficacy on the battlefield — by cultivating an external appearance that matched their internal prowess.
The Spartans terrorized their enemy before they even got within spears’ length of them. As they awaited the command to advance, they stood straight and steady in formation, and everything from their clothes to their equipment bespoke strength, discipline, and ferocity.
Spartan warriors were clothed in a scarlet tunic and cape (discarded prior to battle), for, Xenophon tells us, the color was thought to have “the least resemblance to women’s clothing and to be most suitable for war.” The latter statement gave rise to the apocryphal idea that red was also chosen because it hid blood better — concealing a wound, and a weakness, from the enemy.
Over his tunic and hung from his arm the Spartan hoplite carried armor and a shield which had been buffed to a brilliant shine and glinted in the sun.
Spartan men wore their hair long — a style which had once been common all over Greece, but which Lacedaemonians held onto after other city-states had shifted to shorter cuts. For the Spartans, long hair symbolized being a free man, and they believed, Plutarch says, “that it made the handsome more comely and the ugly more frightful.” The Spartans kept themselves well-groomed, often braiding these long locks, and keeping their beards neatly trimmed as well.
Atop their heads was placed a crowning piece of equipment which the narrator of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire (a work of historical fiction accurate in many details) describes as the “most frightful of all”:
“Adding further to the theater of terror presented by the Hellenic phalanx . . . were the blank, expressionless facings of the Greek helmets, with their bronze nasals thick as a man’s thumb, their flaring cheekpieces and the unholy hollows of their eye slits, covering the entire face and projecting to the enemy the sensation that he was facing not creatures of flesh like himself, but some ghastly invulnerable machine, pitiless and unquenchable.”
The formidable appearance of the Spartan helmet was further enhanced by the fact it was “overtopped with a lofty horsehair crest which as it trembled and quavered in the breeze not only created the impression of daunting height and stature but lent an aspect of dread which cannot be communicated in words but must be beheld to be understood.”
The clothing and equipment of the Spartan warrior worked to his advantage in two ways: 1) it made the soldier himself feel more ferocious, more invincible, more confident, and 2) it intimidated the living daylights out of his foe.
The power of the Spartans’ appearance softened up the enemy line before they even hit it, and added to a reputation for strength that sometimes deterred enemies from even going to battle against them at all.
Always Perform a Pre-Battle Ritual
“Keep your men busy. If there is no work, make it up, for when soldiers have time to talk, their talk turns to fear. Action, on the other hand, produces the appetite for more action.” —Gates of Fire
In Herodotus’ Histories, he writes that during the lead up to the battle of Thermopylae, King Xerxes, ruler of the Persian empire, “sent a mounted scout to see how many [Spartans] there were and what they were doing.” What did the scout observe? “He saw some of the men exercising naked and others combing their hair.”
Before battle, Spartan warriors kept their nerves at bay by staying busy with various tasks and physical rituals. In their youth, they had memorized verses of the poet Tyrtaeus, which they recited to themselves and sang and chanted as they marched on campaign. In the days prior to battle, they exercised before breakfast, had further military instruction and training after eating, and engaged in exercise and athletic competitions in the afternoon. During moments of repose, the men dressed and groomed their hair, and polished the brass exteriors of their shields.
When the time came to march on the enemy, the playing of a flute allowed the Spartans to perfectly keep time, and as a result of this music, as well as their other tension-reducing, courage-buoying rituals, they advanced upon the enemy in a slow, steady procession, which only added to the intimidation factor just described above.
A Warrior Can Be Both Fierce and Reverent
We’re apt to think of the Spartans as ferocious, cocksure warriors. But while no fighting force could be more easily excused for relying entirely on their own strength and abilities, the Spartans were in fact acutely cognizant of, and humbled by, the existence of forces greater than themselves.
The Spartans were an extremely reverent people. “From an early age,” Paul Rahe writes, they were “imbued with a fear of the gods so powerful that it distinguished them from their fellow Greeks.” Indeed, piety served as “the foundation of Spartan morale.”
Before embarking on a campaign, every morning while on it, and immediately preceding battle, oracles were consulted, sacrifices were made, and omens were examined. The sanction, or censure, of the gods was sought for every decision.
So too, religious obligation came even before martial duty. The Spartans delayed sending a deployment to the Battle of Marathon because the call came in the middle of a religious festival. For the same reason, Leonidas sent only a small advance guard to Thermopylae instead of Lacedaemon’s main force.
The reverence of the Spartans could be called superstition, but it could also be called humility — an awareness of, and respect for, the forces of fate that ultimately, no matter one’s skill and preparation, can influence the outcome of an endeavor and cannot be wholly controlled.
Endurance Is the Foundation of Strength
In phalanx warfare, agility, cleverness, and speed were not as important as grit, fortitude, and stamina — sheer endurance. The lines of hoplite soldiers pressed forward with their shields, seeking to push back the enemy line, breach its ranks, and trigger a retreat. The virtues most needed by a Spartan warrior then were commitment, discipline, and the fortitude required to stand one’s ground and grind it out. Courage was certainly needed, but not the courage of intrepid boldness, but that which modern general George S. Patton called “fear holding on a minute longer.”
Once this is grasped, one can begin to better understand the rationale behind the agoge’s famous hardships: meager rations, limited bathing, a single cloak to wear year-round in all temperatures, beds made of reeds. And of course the endless rounds of vigorous exercise and sports. As Plato noted, Spartan training really amounted to a relentless series of endurance tests.
The end sought in such training was not hardship for hardship’s sake, but an adaptability, a tolerance for pain and for changing, challenging conditions — a mental toughness that bolstered physical toughness, and vice versa. The aim was to inculcate the kind of strength most needed by a Spartan warrior: that of being able to hold the line under pressure. As Patton put it: “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”
Speak (and Think) Laconically
The Spartan philosopher Chilon — one of the Seven Sages of Greece — famously said that “less is more,” and this was a maxim that guided the whole ethos of Lacedaemon — from its buildings to its citizens’ clothing and diet. Indeed, “Spartan” today remains a descriptor synonymous with simplicity, austerity, and frugality — a comfort with discomfort and a disdain for luxury.
The “less is more” principle also governed the language of the Spartans, who took a minimalist approach to speech which today we still refer to as “Laconic.” The ideal was to speak only when one had something important to say, and then only in short, terse bursts, pithy sayings, and the sharp, clever replies that characterized Laconic wit. The Spartans honed their words until they were as sharp as their spears — and just as sure to find their mark.
For example, legend has it that when Philip II sent a message saying, “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta,” the Spartans sent but a one-word reply: “If.” And of course there is the famous story of the soldier at Thermopylae who lamented to Leonidas that the Persians shot so many arrows that they darkened the sun. The warrior king’s reply? “Then we will fight in the shade.”
Socrates thought that the Spartans’ singular style of speech was a way of strategically getting others to underestimate them:
“they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle . . . This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
It was also a field expedient way of speaking — you want to get straight to the point when yelling commands in the chaos of combat.
But the Laconic tactic of conserving speech may have also been a deliberate philosophical choice; as historian Karl Otfried Müller speculated, “A habit of mind which might fit its possessor for such a mode of speaking, would best be generated by long and unbroken silence.” That is, if one wishes to make what he says count, he is forced to be more reflective before opening his mouth.
Achieve Mastery in Your Domain
“these men neither tilled the soil nor toiled at the crafts—but freed from labor and sleek with the palaestra’s oil, they exercised their bodies for beauty’s sake and passed their time in the polis . . . they were ready to do all and suffer all for this one accomplishment — noble and dear to human kind — that they might prevail over all against whom they marched.” –Josephus
The Spartans were more multi-dimensional than often imagined: the polis was almost universally literate, excelled in music and dance, produced sculptors, philosophers, and poets, and of course engaged in an array of sports and athletics.
Nonetheless, they did undoubtedly give intense, relentless focus to one area above all others: the development of martial skill and virtue. This was the highest form of excellence — the domain in which every warrior strove to achieve absolute mastery.
The Spartans did not dabble in warfare; it was the pursuit around which all culture — education, relationships, politics — was structured and disciplined. Citizens were barred from farming or practicing a trade, and even from possessing gold or silver coins; without the distractions of commerce and material acquisition, they could concentrate wholly on mastering the way of the warrior. Rahe writes:
“The Spartans were, as Plutarch remarks, ‘the servants of Ares,’ not Mammon. They were ‘the craftsmen of war,’ not the makers of pots. They had but one purpose in life: to gain a reputation for valor.”
While the militiamen of other cities spent the months outside the fighting season as farmers or craftsmen or merchants, the Spartans were full-time soldiers. As Plutarch observed, “they were the only men in the world for whom war brought a respite in the training for war.”
Dedicating themselves wholly to their vocation, they became the best at what they did, with an advantage over those who were mere dilettantes in the martial arts; in an episode recounted by Plutarch, the Spartan king Agesilaus sought to convince Lacedaemon’s allies to join the polis in a war against Thebes, by essentially arguing that a single Spartan warrior was worth more than several men from other city-states:
“The allies said they had no wish to be dragged this way and that to destruction every year, they themselves so many, and the Lacedaemonians, whom they followed, so few. It was at this time, we are told, that Agesilaus, wishing to refute their argument from numbers, devised the following scheme. He ordered all the allies to sit down by themselves, and the Lacedaemonians apart by themselves. Then his herald called upon the potters to stand up first, and after them the smiths, next, the carpenters, and the builders, and so on through all the handicrafts. In response, almost all the allies rose up, but not a man of the Lacedaemonians; for they were forbidden to learn or practice a manual art. Then Agesilaus said with a laugh: ‘You see, men, how many more soldiers than you we are sending out.’”
Fight From Habit, Not Feeling
As a result of this extraordinary focus on mastering a single domain — thirteen years of dedicated training, ten years of practice and real-life execution as a full-time soldier, and decades more of martial maintenance in the reserves — the ways of war become ingrained in the sinews of a Spartan soldier. Pressfield compares the preparation of this force with that of the militiamen mustered by other city-states:
“This process of arming for battle, which the citizen-soldiers of other poleis had practiced no more than a dozen times a year in the spring and summer training, the Spartans had rehearsed and re-rehearsed, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred times each campaigning season. Men in their fifties had done this ten thousand times. It was as second-nature to them.”
The summer soldier was not accustomed to the sights, sounds, and hardships of war; their hands had not been calloused around the shaft of a spear; their backs had not gotten used to the weight of their armor; their eyes had not become inured to the sight of an advancing foe. Courage in these unfamiliar circumstances was a matter of trying to gin up a feeling — an emotion rallied in the supportive, rah-rah safety of one’s own line, and then utterly vaporized by contact with the enemy’s.
For the Spartans, courage was not a vulnerable and transitory state of mind, but the product of preparation and practice. In fact, they did not respect the solider who fought in an impassioned rage, believing such loud and belligerent posturing was used to hide one’s fear and lack of self-composure. Instead, they sought to embody the ethos of “the quiet professional” who simply sets out to do his job, and lives the classic motto voiced by coaches like Vince Lombardi: “Act like you’ve been there before.”
The courage of the Spartans was not born of feeling, but discipline.
It was not an emotion, but a habit.
Or as Pressfield observes in Gates of Fire, “War is work, not mystery.”
Conquer or Die
“And he who falls in the front ranks and gives up his spirit
So bringing glory to the town, the host, and his father
With many a wound in his chest where the spear from in front
Has been thrust through the bossy shield and breastplate
This man they will lament with a grievous sense of loss.”
“And disgraceful is the corpse laid out in the dust,
Thrust through from behind by the point of a spear.”
After the Battle of Thermopylae, a monument was placed atop the burial mound, where the last of the 300 Spartans died defending the pass, which reads:
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”
The epigraph is famous, but what was the “law” exactly to which these warriors stayed true?
According to Herodotus, the exiled Spartan king Demaratus gave an answer to Xerxes on the eve of the battle, when the Persian “King of Kings” inquired as to how much resistance to expect from the Greeks:
“As for the Spartans, fighting each alone, they are as good as any, but fighting as a unit, they are the best of all men. They are free, but not completely free—for the law is placed over them as a master, and they fear that law far more than your subjects fear you. And they do whatever it orders—and it orders the same thing always: never to flee in battle, however many the enemy may be, but to remain in the ranks and to conquer or die.”
The Spartan heading into battle didn’t save anything for the way back; he faced the enemy head on without thought of retreat. He lived the ethos embodied in the charge given him by his mother and wife as he left for battle: “Come back with your shield or on it.”
This, ultimately, was the Spartan way.
With it or on it.