The Spartan army comprised possibly the most formidable force in the World. Their entire lifestyle was focused on military training and war. A few hundred Spartan men could take out a few thousand of the enemy; such was their amazing battlefield warfare. However, the Spartans had a gruelling heroic code, where by no Spartan was to return home if he lost a battle. This was regarded as the highest shame, and Spartan citizenship was taken away to those who returned. This dishonour was unthinkable.
To be stripped of your citizenship was like having an armed ripped off for a Spartan warrior. I am going to look at two examples where the Spartan code of honour did and didn’t work. The two battles in particular are two very famous ones, the battle of Thermopylae and the battle of Pylos. The Greek Allies were against the Persians at this time due to the Persian’s always attempting to invade parts of the Peloponnese. Before now, the Spartan’s had always had a reason as to why they would not help stop the Persians, but this time they were ready to fight.
King Xerxes marched his 250,000 men from Persia to the mountain paths of Thermopylae, an arduous journey than spanned thousands of miles and took months. They were on their way to meet the Greek force of 7000 men, 300 of which were Spartans, all of whom being led by King Leonidas. With regards to Thermopylae in particular, King Leonidas of Sparta rebuilt the Phocian wall as you can see on the below map, so as to prepare for the battle. He had with him 7000 soldiers of different nationalities from around the Peloponnese. He used the wall as a safe place to advance from and retreat, and had a village nearby to provide supplies.
At Point B on the above map, King Leonidas was told of a mountain path that was believed to provide the only detour to the Greeks’ position (the map is indicated by the dotted line). The Spartan’s had been previously assured there was no such detour, but after Leonidas was informed 1000 Phocian soldiers offered to hold the path as they had superior geographical knowledge of the surroundings of the path. Point C shows the position of the Persians before attacking. They waited their four days for the remainder of their army and then for two days King Xerxes sent his forces against the Greeks unsuccessfully.
Even the Spartan’s had no luck for some time due to the enormous advantage the Greeks held thanks to their position. Ephialtes, a native of the constituency of Attica informed King Xerxes about the mountain path that gave a detour around Greeks’ location at point D. Ephilates guided Hydarnes and the ‘immortals’, the Persian elite force, over the path at night fall. This gave enormous fright to the Phocian’s guarding the path, as they needed to suddenly be prepared to fight, but the Persians moved quickly on.
Greek deserters of Xerxes army informed Leonidas that the plan of the immortals was to encircle the Spartan army. This information was verified by Phocian lookouts the following day. This is shown at point E. Leonidas sent home most of his troops apart from his 300 Spartans and the Thebans who he kept as hostages and the Thespians who volunteered to remain on the battle field. The Spartan force moved out into a more prominent position, shown as point F, and continued to fight with courage, bravery and solidarity. King Leonidas was slain on the battlefield and more fighting ensued as to who kept his body.
Finally, Ephilates and Hydarnes arrived, and the Greeks retired up to point G where they became completely surrounded. They began to defend themselves with anything they could. The Spartans and Thespians also died fighting and the Thebans surrendered. King Xerxes went on to commit the most dishonourable act for Sparta, the mutilation of the body of their King. The importance of the battle was however, the fact that the Spartans remained to die, rather than going home with the rest of their original army knowing they had lost the battle and were a weaker force than their opposition.
When Athens started mistreating its power, Sparta and the rest of the league had to stop them trying to take over Pylos. Soon came the Peloponnesian war, within which the battle of Pylos took place. Thucydidies says this about the Peloponnesian War: “Athens were swift to take action, innovative and creative, daring and impulsive, always abroad, optimistic and confidant. Sparta were slow to take action, lacking in initiative, cautious and conservative, parochial, pessimistic. ” The Spartans therefore planned a decisive land battle of Attica, with an annual land invasion to avoid naval engagement.
This was due to their inadequacies of their navy. Limited financial resources stopped Sparta from installing a mighty naval force. The battle in question is that of Pylos, fought in 425 BC. Also known as the Athenian seizure of Pylos and Sphacteria, the battle saw the Athenians attempt to invade Pylos and Sphacteria, two close together islands. Sparta however intervened. Map A on the left show you the area that Athens needed to travel to arrive at Pylos and the location of the Spartan forces also. The Second map, pictured below, gives more detail into the battle.
The promontory of Pylos was covered by three sides of water and had good fortification from steep cliffs on the harbour and seaward side. Sphacteria, slightly South of the Pylos promontory was heavily wooded and had steep-sided cliffs either side. Up at the north end of the island there was the remains of an old wall. Defensive walls were constructed by the Athenians on the promontory. A smaller force of Spartans then alighted north of the promontory, behind the wall. Slightly south is the point where the Spartans also sent 420 Lacedaemonians so as to preclude any chances the Athenians had of taking Sphacteria as their base.
Next, the Spartans recalled their naval fleet from Corcyra. When the Spartan’s endeavoured to make landings at the south west of Pylos, they encountered some hostile Demosthenes who attempted to resist the ships. Next, the Athenian naval reinforcements arrived from Zacynthus and landed in the Harbour. They landed at the bottom of Sphacteria. Then, approximately 14,000 Athenian soldiers came in from the sea and harbour. As they travelled through the island of Sphacteria, they took out the Spartan Outpost with a surprise attack.
Most of the Spartan hoplite militia advanced against the empowering Athenians, yet were nothing against the lightly armed men on the high ground on their flanks. Also, due to a fire, the dust impaired their vision and most Spartans became very easy targets. The Spartans became unable to retreat without difficulty and so fell back to the fort at the northern end of the island, which was garrisoned. The Athenians achieved no triumph in extricating the Spartans until a small force covered some sheer cliffs and got the Spartans on two sides. This time, after profuse reflection they decided to surrender.