In a relatively short book, Cartledge packs in a wealth of information about Sparta and its people. A Professor of Greek History at Cambridge, his passion for and interest in this classic Greek history comes through in this very accessible piece.
The book is split in three parts. The opening section, ‘Go, Tell the Spartans’, discusses the evolution of Sparta from a simple collection of villages to the most powerful fighting force in Ancient Greece.
The expansion commenced with conquering the neighbouring people of Laconia (Helots – captives) and Messenia (Perioeci - outdwellers) and eventually creating by far the largest city-state in the Greek world. This gave Sparta security of position, control of fertile agricultural plains and mineral wealth.
The security of their location contributed to Sparta’s lack of city walls. The Spartans also preferred to rely on their military strength for defence, considering walls to be effeminate. The strength and wealth of their location also helped Sparta to maintain a professional standing army rather than a force of citizens called as required.
Sparta’s military strength was based on superbly trained hoplite infantry. At a young age, boys were removed from their families and inducted into military training barracks. Typical armament included the large wooden shield faced with bronze, helmet beaten from a single sheet of bronze, breast plate, greaves, long spear and a short iron sword. They were trained and drilled with their equipment from a young age, producing ’tight co-ordination, rigid discipline and high morale.’
Their strength as a fighting force was particularly demonstrated during the wars with Persia. Cartledge discusses the general events but focuses on four major engagements – Thermopylae, Artemisium, Plataea and Mycale. It was the defence of the pass at Thermopylae by Leonidas with only a token force that showed the value of Spartans as fighting men.
Part Two considers ‘The Spartan Myth’, principally covering the period of a near-thirty year conflict with Athens. Commonly known as the Peloponnesian Wars Cartledge refers to these as the Athenian Wars, writing as he is from a Spartan point of view. Conflict between Sparta and Athens was in some ways inevitable as the represented two radically different sets of values and societies.
A major earthquake struck Sparta in 464 BC, causing much damage and loss of Spartan citizens, which encouraged revolt among the Helots. Sparta called on allies for aid. They also sought assistance from Athens on the basis of an early anti-Persian treaty. Athens supplied a significant force, despite having interests elsewhere at the time.
Relations between the Spartan and Athenian forces were poor, and Sparta ultimately claimed the Athenian behaviour was also revolution. Athens later gave aid to the Helot survivors, further souring relations with Sparta.
Once the first Athenian War commenced, it lasted over a decade until Athens itself faced internal revolt as had early happed to Sparta. After Sparta had penetrated deep into Athenian territory with an allied force, the two sides negotiated a pace treaty called the Thirty Years Peace, which was how long it was intended to last. However by 432 Sparta was fearful of Athenian power and influence and declared that Athens had broken the treaty, which was therefore ended.
Inappropriate tactics and a lack of siege equipment hampered Sparta’s attempts to force Athens to battle as intended, with Athens retaliating by both naval and land campaigns. Athenian advances eventually included a base within Spartan home territory. In 423 an armistice was agreed to although parties on both sides sought to have fighting resume. The following year another peace treaty was signed along with a fifty-year non-aggression pact.
Increasing unrest among other city-states, with anti-Spartan lines persuading Athens to resume hostilities, lead to the Third War. Over the years of this conflict, Athens did have a number ooof significant victories however a number of revolts and defections among its allies greatly reduced Athenian naval power. The Spartan naval forces, boosted by financial aid from Persia, were finally able to force the issue to an overall Spartan victory in 404, ending the almost-thirty years of war.
Despite ultimate victory against Athens, Spartan power was on the wane as discussed in the final part of Cartledge’s work. A continuing decline in the number of Spartan citizens compared to a growing Athens, and changing social conditions were significant contributors to this wane. Over the next seventy years, Sparta lost much of its former glory.
During the unrest that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Sparta stood aside from much of the conflict. Instead it supplied mercenaries and provided a major recruitment centre for even more. These mercenaries fought on various sides of these conflicts over Alexander’s succession.
A fascinating history of a Greek city-state that enjoyed great power and success at its height, but which was ultimately largely responsible for its own downfall through a social system often largely incapable of or unwilling to accept the changing nature of the world around it.