The Legendary Spartan Warriors of the 5th Century

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Spartan warriors known for their professionalism were the best and most feared soldiers of Greece in the fifth century B.C. Their formidable military strength and commitment to guard their land helped Sparta dominate Greece in the fifth century. What historic consequences did this warrior culture have on Sparta and Greece? What made the Spartans so effective in comparison to their counterparts? Read on to learn more on the Spartan warriors and their lifestyle.

Spartan warriors in lines.
Greek soldiers were known to be fearless and fought bravely against their enemies. Their great military strength made them formidable to their opponents. This image shows Spartan warriors with a bronze corselet, helmet, and other accessories. (Image: declarmat/Shutterstock)

Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus memorably states that the Spartans “belonged entirely to their country and not to themselves.” And evidence supports his claim that unlike the Athenians, the Spartan warriors received rigorous training. However, it would be noteworthy that Spartan history was written by non-Spartan philosophers and historians, which means that we know Sparta only from an outsider’s perspective.

Every male citizen in Sparta was required to serve in the military and that dictated the rhythm of everyday life for an average citizen. They considered service in the military as a privilege rather than duty. It was part of their political identity equivalent to their attendance in the Assembly. Interestingly, other than Spartans, none of the Greeks from other city-states were professional soldiers.

Sparta – The Warrior Society

Sparta, known for its military prowess was one of the important city-states in Greece in fifth century B.C. – the period that begins with the Persian Wars and ends with the Peloponnesian War. It was in constant conflict with the city state of Athens and involved in the Peloponnesian War.

In sharp contrast to Athens, which was a center for arts and philosophy, Sparta encouraged a warrior culture. Spartan boys were separated from their parents at the age of six and made to enter an extremely arduous state-sponsored education, known as agôgê. The objective of the system was to instill discipline, a sense of duty, obedience and resourcefulness in the children. By the time these children reached 20 years of age, military service dominated every aspect of their lives. These warriors were dedicated to military service and placed the state above all, including their families.

Learn more about growing up Greek.

The Spartan Army

Spartan hoplites were well-trained and the fiercest of the Greek soldiers. Their constant training made them dexterous in the formation of a phalanx. The highlight of the phalanx formation was that the success in the battle was a team effort and no one man could take credit for the victory.

 A Spartan warrior wore a bronze corselet or breastplate, a bronze helmet, a pair of greaves, a thrusting spear about eight feet long, and a short sword. Spartan soldiers were also known for their distinctive scarlet cloak, long hair, and the letter lambda painted on their shield. While the red cloak apparently helped the warrior disguise their blood if they were wounded, the lambda inscribed shield gave them the status of a Lacedaimonian, the name by which Spartans were generally known. These warriors attained full citizenship at the age of thirty and were called homoios, meaning ‘one who is equal’.

The legendary Spartan warrior  with a bronze corselet, helmet, a pair of greaves, a thrusting spear about eight feet long and a short sword
A Spartan soldier donned a bronze breastplate, a bronze helmet, a pair of greaves, a thrusting spear about eight feet long, and a short sword. This image symbolizes the uniform of the legendary Spartan warriors. (Image: Milagli/Shutterstock)

The Spartans were so committed to the state that they were the only citizens of Greece, who enjoyed war more than the business of preparing for war. The utmost importance given to the state was obvious from the fact that Spartan warriors were permitted to spend only a short time with their bride on the wedding night and were expected to return to the barracks before dawn. So, when these men were finally released from their military obligations at the age of 60, they felt more at home with their companions than with their own family. 

Learn more about being a Greek soldier or sailor.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Fighting Spirit of the Spartan Warrior

The warriors of Sparta had the reputation for being the fiercest of warriors amongst the Greeks. Around three hundred Spartans famously defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae under king, Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae in August 480 B.C. Though the Spartan warriors suffered a tragic defeat at the hands of the Persian king Xerxes, their fighting spirit remained unsurpassed.

Red image of Spartans in battle.
Spartan soldiers were reputed for being the fiercest soldiers in all of Greece. This image depicts the three hundred Spartans who famously defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae under King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae in August 480 B.C. (Image: Vector Illustration rudall30/Shutterstock)

Greek historian Herodotus mentions that a spy sent by the Persian king found the Spartans brushing their long hair before they placed their lives at risk. Another remarkable incident was when Dienekes, one of the three hundred warriors replied that they would fight in the shade in reply to an observation made by a local that the Persians had so many arrows that they would block out the sun. The poet Simonides wrote this wonderful, restrained epigram to commemorate their sacrifice: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by / That here obedient to their law we lie.” The fighting spirit of these three hundred Spartan warriors is commemorated to this day by the American and British soldiers serving in Afghanistan, by wearing tattoos on their bodies that affirm their appreciation.

Nevertheless, this noble sacrifice is a reminder of the lasting negative repercussions caused by inter-racial hatred and the reason for the East-West divide. The origin of this divide lies in the wars fought between the Greeks and Persians. Though there was no deep-rooted animosity between the two groups, the destruction of the temples on the Acropolis and ruining of the grave markers made the Persians quintessentially “The Other” in every way to the Greeks.

Learn more about being a Greek woman.

Common Questions about the Legendary Spartan Warriors of the fifth Century

Q: What is modern day Sparta called?

Modern day Sparta is a big town and capital of the region Lakonia. The city has been built over the ancient city of Sparta. Though it is not as big as Athens, it is one of the important cities in the Peloponnese area.

Q: How was Spartan society divided?

Spartan society was divided into three main groups: the complete citizens, the Helots or slaves, and the Perioeci, who were neither slaves nor citizens but worked as craftsmen, traders, or built weapons for the citizens.

Q: What was the significance of the age 30 in the life of a Spartan warrior?

A Spartan warrior became a full citizen, a homoios, meaning ‘one who is equal’ at the age of 30, meaning he could live in his own home and the helots or slaves would work on his land.

Q: Who was the famous Spartan warrior king?

Leonidas was Sparta’s legendary warrior king, who with his three hundred brave warriors defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae against the mighty Persian king Xerxes.

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