Images. 1) Leonidas at Thermopylae. 2) Leonidas from monument of Thermopylae. 3)Pass of Thermopylae.
The ancient Spartans
Ancient Sparta is a name that everybody knows and recognises. The bravery of Leonidas and the 300 are the heroic
basis of myriad Hollywood blockbusters. The betrayal of Menelaos, by beautiful Helen of Troy, is enshrined in glorious
Homeric myth and legend. Documentaries and books portray the brutal military regime, and the abhorrent practice of
exposing weak infants in the harsh Taygetos Mountains.
As any local in the modern town will tell you, the reality of Spartan society was very different from the modern percep-
tions. The society of the Ancient Spartans was surprisingly sophisticated, their culture as rich as any other city in
Surprisingly to some, the history of the Ancient Spartans does not begin with the Homeric Trojan War. The realm of
Menelaos and Helen existed nearly a century before the dawn of historical Ancient Sparta. This was an older civilization,
semi-mythical even to the Dorian Spartans of Leonidas. Some authorities believe that the kingdom of Menelaos, known
as Lakedaimon, was based at nearby Ancient Pellanas, not Sparta.
Excavations there are ongoing, but are yet to find concrete evidence of any palace. The historical Sparta of Leonidas
begins with the Dorian Greek invasion. Tribes migrating from north-eastern Greece displaced the 'long-haired' Achaean
Greeks of Homeric legend.
The rise of Ancient Sparta began in about 750 BC, when the emerging Spartan state systematically subdued the popula-
tions of the surrounding areas. The nearby village of Amyclae was incorporated into the original four settlements and
Messinia was invaded, the population subjugated as helots. These were not quite slaves, but had few rights and were
forced to farm the land, giving half of the produce to Sparta.
The lands of Messinia were parceled out to Spartan warrior-citizens, known as Spartiates. During this period, the Spartan
constitution was formulated, and the state elected two kings, ruling alongside a council of elders and demos of male
The rise of ancient Sparta
Between 680 and 660 BC, the Spartan army adopted the hoplite method of fighting, which would become the mainstay
of their tactics for many centuries. In 669, the army suffered a reverse against the neighbouring Argives, and had to put
down a Messinian revolt in the 650's. Despite this, the reform continued and the revolt was crushed, within ten years.
Finally, Messinia was completely conquered and Sparta began to look further afield.
The famous laws of Lycurgus were crafted to stabilise the society and were impressed into the psyche of all Spartans.
Military training became compulsory for all citizen males; from the age of seven, their lives were dictated by unbreakable
rules. The Messinian Helots provided food, and the Perekoi became the craftsmen and merchants, allowing Ancient
Sparta to establish a professional army. The constant training and hardening, by beatings, austere conditions and rigid
selection, led to a highly trained and elite fighting force, devoted entirely to the law.
The whole system discouraged the gathering of wealth into a few hands, avoiding material imbalances that could lead
to tyranny, coups or revolts. The use of professional troops, against the part-time hoplites of other Greek states, was the
major factor in the growing Spartan dominance. By the middle of the 6th century, Ancient Sparta had conquered its near
neighbours and was the dominant power in the Peloponnesian league, a major player in Greek politics.
The Persian expansion
Throughout the sixth century BC, the Persian Empire gradually developed. Starting as a loose confederation of tribes in
modern day Iran, it grew and dominated the Middle and Near East. The great cities of Babylon, Memphis and Susa, fell
to the well equipped and well drilled army of Cyrus the Great. By 512 the new king Darius, overran the Greek cities in
Asia Minor and began to influence their politics.
After a failed revolt by these cities, in 494, King Xerxes of Persia decided to punish the Greeks, especially the Athenians,
key supporters of this Ionian revolt. Xerxes invaded, but the resulting Battle of Marathon saw defeat at the hands of the
Athenians and their allies. Ancient Sparta declined to send an army until their religious ceremonies were over, by which
time the battle was won.
Leonidas and the battle of Thermopylae
480 BC saw the pinnacle of Spartan history, the Battle of Thermopylae, a name that has echoed down through history.
Despite the subsequent overestimation of Persian numbers and the underestimation of Greek numbers, it was still an
act of steadfast bravery. Thermopylae was an awesome display of Spartan courage and strength.
Xerxes had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles
had proposed that the Allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae 'The Hot Gates',
and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.
An Allied force of approximately 7,000 men, thus marched north to block the pass in the summer of 480 BC. The
Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered in the millions, arrived at the pass in late August or early
The Greeks held up the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated
in one of history's most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, the small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta
blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day of battle, a local resident
and infamous traitor named Ephialtes showed a force of 40 000 + Persians an alternative route which enabled them to
take the Greeks in the rear. The guarding force of 1000 Phocians fled. Aware that they were being outflanked, Leonidas
dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans
and perhaps a few hundred others - they made a last stand on a hill behind the pass but were eventually slaughtered
by the Persians.
One year later, at Platea, 10 000 Ancient Spartan warriors, part of a force of about 45 000 hoplites, and an uncertain
number of light troops, defeated a huge Persian force. This, along with the victory of the Athenian navy in the battle of
Salamis, crushed Persian hopes forever. They never again invaded Greece and their focus shifted to using their wealth
and prestige to influence Greek politics.
The Peloponnesian wars
The end of the fifth century BC saw the uneasy alliance between Athens and Ancient Sparta, the two major powers in
Greece, break down. At first, there was no outright declaration of war, but the two city states began playing the political
game, wrangling and manipulating their allies. Athens exerted pressure on the city of Corinth and its colonies in Sicily,
establishing its own outposts on that island. Corinth, alarmed by this, turned to Sparta for help, and threatened to leave
the Peloponnesian League.
The Athenians also intrigued against another city, Megara, neighbour of Corinth, by restricting their rights to trade in
Athens. Pressure built and war broke out, becoming a battle of attrition. Despite the superior initial strength of the
Spartan armies, the strong defensive walls and powerful navy of Athens forced a stalemate.
By 421 BC both cities were feeling the strain upon their treasuries and armies. An uneasy truce was called, lasting until
415, when the Athenians suffered a major defeat whilst attempting to conquer Sicily. Despite this, Ancient Sparta failed
to take advantage of this reversal and again offered peace. This was gratefully accepted and lasted until 404 BC. For a
while, Sparta was the dominant force in the Eastern Mediterranean, but never fully exploited its position.
Persian gold equipped a new Spartan fleet, which crushed the Athenian navy in the Hellespont. Athens had no option but
to surrender, and the Spartan terms were harsh. Athens had to tear down its walls and disband its fleet.
Ancient Sparta - The True History of Leonidas and Thermopylae by Martyn Shuttleworth