Bred for Battle—Understanding Ancient Sparta’s Military Machine

Sparta’s entire culture centered on war. A lifelong dedication to military discipline, service, and precision gave this kingdom a strong advantage over other Greek civilizations, allowing Sparta to dominate Greece in the fifth century B.C.

Sparta’s enemies, when facing the intimidating Spartan forces, would see a wall of shields, bristling with lances, inexorably bearing down on them—not to the beat of drums, but as the Greek historian Thucydides explains, “to the music of many ute-players, a standing institution in their army, which has nothing to do with religion, but is meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order.”

Little remains of the ancient city of Sparta, capital of the Laconia region, situated on the Peloponnesus peninsula in modern Greece, but the impact of its unique culture is impossible to ignore. Unlike Athens to the north, Sparta was famed for its austerity—its “spartan” character—was, and is, proverbial. A state run by an inflexible military regime, whose people existed almost entirely to serve the army, the Spartans were legendary for their professionalism, intense physical and mental stamina, and absolute dedication to the defense of their land. No great philosophers would ever arise from Spartan culture the way they did from Athens.

Founded around the ninth century B.C., Sparta’s kings oversaw a society with little interest in intellectual and artistic pursuits beyond patriotic poetry. Religion did occupy a central role in this warrior society. An efficient military machine in almost every other respect, war was only unthinkable during the festivities dedicated to Apollo Carneus. These were celebrated every summer, sometimes in full campaign season, and it was considered impious to interrupt them.

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