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Sparta - The Spartan Spirit

To die in battle...

Despite their battlefield heroics, the Spartans did not gain their reputation for valor by offering battle at every opportunity, by taking risks, or by sacrificing themselves. They were respected, more than anything else, for the ability to win battles, (or at least avoid losses). Though well prepared for war, they were not easily provoked into a fight. Once engaged however, they were determined combatants who rarely gave up.

The realm of battle, for most Greeks, was part myth, part reality. The Spartans may have derived some satisfaction from the adulation of other Greeks. Spartan hoplites, in the popular mind, seemed to embody the epic myth. Their actions were portrayed in heroic terms - self-sacrifice, honor, and courage. Heroic admiration however, counted for very little in combat situations. The Spartans found terror to be a more potent weapon when it came to intimidating opponents. It was Spartan custom to groom themselves in the nude before every battle, in order to reinforce an image of confidence and nonchalance - an inhuman indifference to death - their own or that of any enemy who challenged them. Self-sacrifice and heroism were worthy goals, but secondary to their goal of winning. The Spartans, more than most, were aware of the actual costs of battle. If the massed assault of the hoplite phalanx suggested the glories of combat, Spartan training focused as much on the mechanics of individual combat - and the art of killing at close quarters. Any engagement with Spartan troops meant a high level of fatalities.

Sparta and Thebes

With the surrender of Athens in 404, Sparta was able to translate its battlefield victories into political control of Greece. In contrast to the heroic reputation of its armies, the administrative methods used by Spartan occupying forces were crude and brutal. If there was a "code of chivalry," which the army could be said to follow in combat, it either did not apply or was simply ignored, when dealing with civilians. Spartan harmosts, or administrators, were backed up by a garrison of troops. Their first order of duty was to eliminate potential sources of trouble. People who might oppose them were either executed, imprisoned, or exiled. In 507 B.C., the Spartan king Cleomenes had expelled 700 families from Athens.

Sparta had followed a similar pattern in its dealings with Thebes. In 382 Sparta had seized the citadel at Thebes and stationed a garrison of 1500 there. In the winter of 379-8 however, the Thebans managed to retake the city and expel the garrison. The experience left the Thebans with a strong hatred of Sparta, but it also made them fearful of her.

If Thebes had reason to fear Sparta, Sparta was alarmed at the growing strength of Thebes. Sparta, in 371 B.C., had been the leading state in Greece for some 30 years. Yet Sparta was facing a different world now than in 404, when she had humiliated Athens. Athens had recovered some of her strength, a source of annoyance for Sparta, while Thebes was more and more willing to openly oppose Spartan plans. Between 378 and 371, Thebes had been able to turn back a series of Spartan invasions. In 373 the Thebans had successfully attacked Spartan-held cities in Boeotia and driven out the garrisons.

Thebes was not the only thing Sparta had to worry about. North of Thebes the city of Pherae, under its ambitious ruler Jason, had emerged as the head of a small empire of cities in Thessaly. Thebes itself had reason to fear its northern neighbor. Yet Thebes viewed Sparta as the greater threat and was desperate to gain Pherae as a military ally. Perhaps the Thebans saw themselves as the future power in Greece, easily able to subjugate Pherae, if the need arose. When Jason offered Thebes an alliance, it was immediately accepted.

Sparta decided to act. A decision to attack Thebes at this time was not foolhardy, in itself. In fact, if a clash with Thebes was all but inevitable, the sooner Sparta struck, the better. Given time, Thebes was likely to grow even stronger, especially if her alliance with Pherae took hold. Yet, there was an element of foolishness in the implementation of the attack. For the most part the Spartans were relying on size, battle experience, and a reputation for winning. A long string of victories had inspired confidence in the abilities of the Spartan hoplites. While a high level of confidence is necessary to win battles, overconfidence, the line between confidence and overconfidence, even foolhardiness, is sometimes quite thin. So accustomed were the Spartans to winning that victories had become predictable and battles began to fall into a pattern. Their battle plans evolved into one simple plan - to show up with a large enough force, to begin fighting, and to wait. Inevitably, enemy soldiers lost heart, their lines broke, and they ran. The Spartans expected to take casualties at the start of a battle, but early losses were not enough to shake the confidence which came from repeated victories. Superior training, strong morale, and an intimidating reputation would eventually break the fighting spirit of their enemies.

The battle of Leuctra (Leuktra)

Early in the summer of 371, the Spartans sent an army, under king Cleombrotus, into Phocis, a region to the west of Thebes. Its original mission was somewhat unclear. Before it could move against Thebes however, the Spartans received a diplomatic check. Athens and Sparta negotiated the Peace of Callias, which required Sparta to disband her army. The Spartan government decided to disregard the treaty and Cleombrotus was ordered to march on Thebes. He was to demand Thebes' withdrawal from the Boeotian cities which Sparta had recently controlled.

Nothing in the numbers suggested that Sparta had miscalculated in ordering an attack. Her force is believed to have numbered around 11,000. Against this, the Thebans could field only around 6,000. Nothing in the planning suggested that the Spartan army was unprepared. There was no let-up in training. Any army sent on any military expedition by Sparta was fully prepared for battle. Yet Sparta probably would have done well to disband this army and re-organize an expedition specifically designed for Thebes. Thebes was no ordinary enemy. If she was willing to stand up to Sparta, she was not relying on the same military tactics Sparta had come to expect from her other opponents.

With the Spartans finally on the move, the Thebans must have had second thoughts about their recent actions. Perhaps Sparta was not as weak as she appeared and the Theban assessment was just wishful thinking - and a fatal misreading of the situation. Was a policy of confrontation wise - or just suicidal? Whatever doubts they had, Thebes was not paralyzed into inaction. Many of her plans had been in place long before the Spartan invasion. Following the expulsion of the Spartan garrison, in 379-8, Thebes had reorganized its governmental structure, including the army administration. It had even created a special unit of "shock troops" called the Sacred Band. Numbering 300, (in paired units of 150), it was made up of sons of the aristocracy, chosen for their physical toughness. In addition, it had made changes in the military formation of the hoplite phalanx. Conventionally set at 12 rows deep, the Thebans made their lines 50 rows in depth. Perhaps as important, it mastered the psychological weapons which had often favored Sparta. If Epaminandos, the Theban political leader, felt that Thebes' situation had become desperate, he conveyed an image of calm and confidence to the Theban hoplites. Whether he inspired them with an all-consuming hatred of Sparta, or simply encouraged them, he convinced his forces that the Spartans could be beaten.

The road to Thebes ran through a place called Leuctra and it was at Leuctra that the Theban army chose to make its stand. The Spartans began the battle by trying to encircle the Theban lines. An immediate tactical problem for the Spartans was the superiority of the Theban cavalry. Before the Spartans could organize their attack, the Thebans had driven the Spartan cavalry into its own lines. Horses and riders came crashing down among the Spartan ranks. Observing this confusion the Thebans ordered the Sacred Band to advance. Whether the Spartans were immediately aware that an attack was under way, they remained distracted by the cavalry. In the confusion their officers were uncertain how to respond. Did the advance of the Sacred Band represent the main attack or was it just a feint? Should they continue the encirclement, form a defensive line, or mount their own offensive?

The savagery of the attack took the Spartans by surprise. Alarmingly, the Spartan counter-attacks had done little to stop or even slow the advance - and they were falling in numbers greater than any could remember. It may not have been the physical losses which were key to the outcome but the battle for the minds of the soldiers. The Spartans needed to regain control of the battle quickly. The Thebans, on the other hand, could win the battle simply by holding their ground against the Spartans. The Thebans benefited from one other occurrence that day. By chance, the place where the Theban advance had broken through was close to where the Spartan king Cleombrotus had set up his command. The Sacred Band had a very specific goal to focus on. If they had any fears or doubts about their abilities, the sight of the Spartan king must have enraged them. Yet, he was not an easy target. He was protected by an elite bodyguard of 300 men. The ferocity of the Theban attack was such that this unit was completely wiped out. The Thebans themselves were suffering heavy losses. However the Spartan attacks were proving ineffective against the Theban forces.

The realization finally came that to continue, with the same battle plan, was to risk even more of their army. The Spartans felt compelled to ask for a truce to bury their dead. Some 400 Spartans (Spartan citizens), and 600 allied soldiers had been killed.

The aftermath of battle

The Spartans, in asking for a truce, had publicly acknowledged a battlefield reversal. Instead of abandoning the field and going home, they sent a messenger to Sparta asking for additional troops. Leuctra, they signaled, would prove to be a minor setback in a campaign to conquer Thebes. The Spartan government, knowing any hesitancy would be seen as a sign of weakness, voted to organize a new force. If these decisions suggested a newfound determination, there were signs that the army had lost confidence in itself. It would not renew the march against Thebes until help arrived, nor would it challenge the Theban army to a second engagement.

The Theban army, for its part, seemed in no hurry to finish off the Spartans. The confidence which had carried it to victory at Leuctra, seemed to have vanished. Perhaps the casualty rate had been greater than anything anticipated. The Spartan army, like a wounded animal, was as dangerous in defeat as it was in victory. Instead of bolstering the Theban's self-confidence, Leuctra had left them shaken. Like the Spartans, they were hoping to be rescued by outside help. They had appealed to Jason for help. When he and his army arrived, they would deal with the Spartans. His response was to immediately lead an army to Leuctra. The Spartan field commanders had run out of time. The relief expedition had not arrived and they were no match for two armies. They requested a truce for a second time. This time they wanted to withdraw and Jason persuaded the Thebans to allow the Spartan army to leave.

Whatever interpretation the Spartans placed on Leuctra, the defeat served as a signal to her enemies that she was weak. In 479 the Persians had learned that military defeat stirred feelings of rebellion. In 370 the Spartans learned the same lesson. States which had submitted to Sparta felt strong enough to challenge her. Her administrators were thrown out. She was even threatened close to home when the Mantineans resurrected a city which had been subjugated by Sparta. If Thebes had been reluctant to immediately follow up its victory at Leuctra by fighting the Spartan army in 371, it now found the confidence to invade the Spartan homeland. Thebes in 370-369 faced the same dilemma Sparta had faced in 371. Should she risk an all out confrontation with a weakened, but still dangerous, rival? She was now alone. Jason had been assassinated in 370. Thebes did have an ally in the Mantineans and, with their army, Epaminondas proceeded to invade Laconia, the heart of Sparta. Both the Thebans and the Spartans avoided a battle. The Thebans did not have the satisfaction of another decisive battlefield victory, but they nevertheless militarily humiliated the Spartans by marching their forces to the very outskirts of the Spartan capital without significant Spartan opposition. In addition, they were able to carve out an independent state from the Messenian district, within Spartan territory. With an enemy state so close to home the Spartans would have to think twice about military expeditions against other Greek cities.