Thursday, 7 May 2020

SPARTA, Rise of a Warrior Nation - Philip Matyszak

Book one of a two part set, this one as the title says covers the rise of Sparta from its earliest times and ends at the conclusion of the Persian wars. The first thing you notice upon opening the book is the font size, it appears to be the next size up from the norm and is definitely larger than in book two, admittedly whilst very welcoming for the elderly eyes it is a little odd.

Chapters one and two set the scene and clearly has to be based on whatever information can be gleaned from the ancient texts or later study so there isn’t a lot to go on. Generally speaking the origin stories of most ancient cities are usually based on myth and then enhanced by their citizens later to make things sound a bit more impressive, Matyszak does a reasonable job of sifting out what you can from what is passed down to us from the past.

Map of the Peloponnese

Sparta is sited in the ‘Hand’ of Greece, there are three ‘fingers’ hanging down into the Mediterranean and Sparta is in-between fingers two and three, The whole of the Peloponnese peninsula is very mountainous and fertile land is at a premium so Sparta is squeezed alongside the river Eurotas which runs north to south and originally consisted of two villages either side of the river and surrounded by mountains. This is possibly the origin of the two king system, more of which later. There was no access to a port at this time and the coast was notorious for shipwrecks so trading wasn’t a priority unlike in many other cities. Sparta didn’t even bother to develop proper coinage until near the end.

River Eurotas, Sparta originated either side of this river. wikipedia

At some time in the Bronze Age something really momentous happened in both Greece and the surrounding area of the Mediterranean causing the collapse of whole empires not just little villages and it is estimated that up to 90% of the Peloponnese was abandoned, for what little its worth my vote is on big volcano, tidal wave and the resulting change in atmospheric conditions seriously affecting farming but that isn’t relevant to this review. Enter the Dorians, who are relevant to the story as Sparta clearly identifies itself as being Doric when it suited them, who the Dorians were or where they came from is still being debated but they settled across the eastern Mediterranean in large numbers especially in the Peloponnese.

Anyway these two chapters also included fun stories of gods and double dealing and people born in eggs etc but as far as the Spartans were concerned, they were the descendants of Zeus and Taygete (daughter of Atlas), later the great-grandsons of Hercules just happen to return to reclaim their inheritance thus making the Spartans really Achaeans all along and so native to the area, which was convenient.

Map showing Sparta and Messenia : wikipedia

Chapters three and five get to the really important bit and is critical to understanding Sparta and its whole ethos. To the west over the mountains lies Messenia, this actually had some flat land and once all the pointy bits had been discounted it was still over 20 times larger than Sparta. Of course everyone knew that Messenia really belonged to Sparta because when the land was originally divided up via the choosing of lots by the great-grandsons of Hercules, the one who got Messenia cheated. Not sure I follow the Spartans reasoning here.

All ancient wars apparently took a very long time and all of them always ended in nice round numbers so it was twenty years before Sparta eventually conquered Messenia after many battles and doing some very un-Spartan things to achieve it. The Spartans were not yet the all conquering killing machines they later became; they were outnumbered by the Messenians and had the additional problem of the hostile city of Argos to the North East constantly causing trouble behind their backs.

Hence the need to do sneak attacks, bribery and suffer numerous defeats but eventually they won. Now the important bit so pay attention.

Messenia was declared public land and then sub-divided into equal lots called kleroi, each kleroi was sufficient to maintain one Spartan and his family. This Spartan wouldn’t do any actual farming of course, this was done by the conquered Messenains now known as helots (hel- means conquered /subjugated). This allowed the Spartan to concentrate full time on being a warrior, after successfully passing though the Agoge (see below) he would apply to join a soldier’s mess where he would be spending most of his time and once accepted he could then get married and if he didn’t already have one, be allocated a kleroi. Everyone in Sparta was therefore equal even the ones who were more equal than the others, when the Spartan died the land would revert to the state and be reallocated, usually to the son if there was one and if they didn’t already own a kleroi.

Ancient Sparta, note the mountains that surrounded the city

The helots hated the Spartans more than I hate playing AWI, and Spartan policy essentially revolved around maintaining control of Messenia and preventing a helot uprising, their armies when away on campaign were always looking over their shoulder and never liked to be too far away from home. The control of Messenia was critical in allowing Sparta to exist as a major city and is the actual source of their power. Once Messenia is lost it all falls to pieces.

There is much more that can be said about the Helots, they could own land, they did have money and they did fight in the army but you can look that up yourselves if interested.

The huge effort needed to keep Messenia under control should have made it blindingly obvious that Sparta would be unable to do the same elsewhere but they did try to absorb the next city along which was called Tegea, even going so far as take along the chains that would allow them to measure out new kleroi. After a dreadful beating the Spartans had first hand experience of the chains as they got to wear them whilst working the Tegean’s fields, eventually the prisoners were released but the Tegeans kept the chains.

After that Sparta changed tack, their new policy was to approach each small city in turn threatening them with war unless they joined the new Peloponnesian League (controlled by Sparta of course); as the league got bigger then the request was accepted that much quicker. But I have now strayed into chapter seven.


Chapter four is all about Lycurgus

Apparently everything that you know about the Spartan way of life is entirely down to Lycurgus, exactly who he was and when he was around is of course unclear but the Spartans say that it was he  who set down the laws called rhetras which covered the minutest detail of everyday life and that every Spartan would strictly follow. Conveniently for all future Spartan law implementers Lycurgus only gave these rhetra verbally and even went so far as to proclaim the Great Rhetra which forbade them from ever being written down, handy that.

According to Plutarch:

“Nothing can be said about Lycurgus without someone else disputing it. There are different accounts about when he was born, where he travelled, how he died and above all, about what he did as a law giver, No one can even agree in what times he lived”

But all the loopy things that you have ever heard about the Spartan way of life can be placed at his doorstep.

I will now briefly outline the Spartan ruling set up. There were as previously mentioned two kings, probably from the two most powerful families from the original two villages but far more likely it was someone who later claimed they were descended in that way and no one fortunately asked any embarrassing questions. The titles were hereditary within the family.

Ephors by Richard Hook

However the kings were overseen by an elected body of five Ephors, these were chosen from the Spartiates (those who held a kleroi) and they served for a year and could not be re-elected. In reality they had a lot more power than the kings as they formed state policy and upheld the laws. Underneath them was another body of twenty-eight men (plus the kings) called the Gerousia, naturally you had to be a Spartiate and be over 60 years old! You would have thought that the choice of potential candidates would be quite limited. Election was by acclamation and was for life, this body was a sort of jury who considered important law decisions and whether to veto anything that wasn’t in the public good. The kings would always lead the army regardless of whether they knew what they were doing or not and later on, after a few conflicts of interest out in the field, the Ephors decreed that from now on one of the kings must always remain behind in Sparta.

The Gerousia and the two kings debate

Chapter six is titled the making of a Spartan warrior, all well known stuff so I will skip this, if you don’t know then click the link below which outlines their education system which was called the Agoge. Failing the Agoge meant that you were not a full Spartiate and joined the next class down which was the Periokoi, free non-citizens who did actual work and therefore very un-Spartan but would of course still fight in the army when required.

Chapter seven I have already briefly outlined above and covers the formation of the Peloponnesian league with most of the peninsula signed up, Sparta then turned again to deal with the much trickier problem of Argos. This was done by lining up in battle formation outside the city the same as they had done with all the others however unlike the smaller cities Argos wasn’t playing ball and they came outside to talk things over dressed in their best armour. Both sides then had a serious think about things and agreed that maybe it would be better if only a few from each side fought it out on a last man standing agreement. Queue the famous “Battle of the Champions“ yes really.

Battle of the Champions

Dated to around 546 BC each side picked 300 of their best warriors and everyone else went home to let them get on with it undisturbed. I am sure you not be surprised to know that 597 were killed, two Argives were left and believing themselves to be the only survivors they staggered back home with the good news that they had won, later however one Spartan who was not quite dead woke up and seeing no one else alive he too staggered back home with the good news after erecting a trophy on the field.

Typical Greek Battle Trophy

When both armies returned to claim victory an argument then ensued about who had actually won, this led to blows and a pitched battle which they had all been trying to avoid in the first place, the Spartans won and so imposed their control over some more small towns. What happened to the Spartan survivor? So ashamed that he lived whilst his comrades died he returned to the battlefield where they fell and killed himself.

Chapter eight is about one of the more interesting characters, Cleomenes the mad king. Although the Ephors were very powerful a king could still do more or less what he wanted as long as he had enough backing, Cleomenes wasn’t one to sit around eating black porridge, instead he got involved in trying to overthrow many of the other cities rulers especially any democratic ones, he managed to install new leaders in Athens but needed several attempts to do so as they kept getting thrown out along with himself on one occasion, despite his many martial successes his project completion record in Attica really wasn’t very good and the Ephors were not happy, it was now that they passed the law that one king should stay behind as the shambles in overall strategy was down to the two kings disagreeing on what to do.

King Cleomenes 1st

Next he decided to attack Argos, winning the battle of Sepeia and driving the remnants into a sacred wood. Burning it down was not a wise thing to do and oddly he then didn’t attack the undefended city. Plutarch claims the city was defended by women and drove the Spartans back with heavy losses, recalled by the Ephors whose patience had now run out he was charged with bribery over Argos, he was acquitted when he claimed that the Delphic Oracle had told him to take Argos, which coincidentally was the name of the sacred wood. He did more interesting stuff including bribing the Oracle at Delphi, tried to depose the other king, fled Sparta, gathered an army to attack the city but returned under a promise of forgiveness, was arrested and then mysteriously died by slicing himself into strips.

Chapter nine, The Spartan army I will also skip over, shields, spears, armour, formations, training etc. The usual stuff.

The final chapters ten, eleven and twelve cover the Persian wars, chapter ten is on the Battle of Marathon so not much Spartan interest in that chapter as they deliberately didn’t turn up until the next day.

Thermopylae, probably a bit more realistic than the film 300

Chapter eleven covers Thermopylae, again well known stuff and rightly deserves a chapter by itself, the author quite correctly points out the importance of the simultaneous nearby sea battle of Artemesium, The battle content is very thin but I don’t think there is much more to say on it anyway.

The final chapter is on the Battle of Plataea and the defeat of the second Persian invasion, here the Spartans did play a major role but with King Leonidas dead at Thermopylae the allied army was led by king Number Two, Pausanias who wasn’t really that good at the soldier stuff, fortunately for him his soldiers were. After ten days sitting in the hills Pausanias decides on a night march to be nearer fresh food and water supplies, it was of course a total cock up with the Spartans who were forming the rearguard not even having begun their march when day started to break. The Persians attacked the disorganised shambles but fortunately by this time the Spartans were now the all conquering killing machine and sliced the Persians up a treat, the other allies led by the Athenians returned and joined the battle with only the Thebans, who were fighting for the Persians, putting up much resistance.

Battle of Plataea

Matysazak ends this book by saying that this victory at Plataea marked the end of the rise of Sparta and from now on it was the start of the decline, I don’t fully agree with him and after all I have played several wargames with Greeks and watched some stuff on the history channel so I should know.

I agree there are signs in the upcoming Peloponnesian war that Sparta is being left behind both militarily and commercially, you see the first signs that there is a limit to the number of Spartans available and the decline in numbers becomes very noticeable. Also their vaunted principles are broken more frequently especially when it comes to obtaining Persian funding plus the increase in corruption every time their leaders are away from the city and even starting to affect the Ephors.

But they do win a long protracted war, maintaining both their dominance over the Peloponnese and now extending it to the rest of Greece and to the Greek cities in Ionia, their power and influence has never been greater so I slightly disagree. Indeed I suggest that it is at this stage when they have over reached themselves and setbacks start to become more regular that sees the start of the decline in Sparta.

With book two ‘The Fall of a Warrior Nation’ commencing with the start of the Peloponnesian war I suppose it makes a convenient place to split the books but it does look a little like trying to avoid having a very short second book. More on this when I review it.

Overall an easy read and covers the subject well, could some of the battles have been fleshed out more? Possibly but we don’t get a lot of usable information passed down by the original sources. The book is about Sparta so no non-Spartan events get covered and then there are the maps. The map showing Sparta’s location has only three other towns named and the one set around the Ionian Sea is the only one that shows Argos, Athens Thebes but not Sparta. The other two maps are of  Thermopylae and ancient Sparta and they look like they have been drawn by a five year old on his first day of free expression, it might have been more useful if the four pages had been left blank for this very purpose. I used my Atlas of Classical History and I suggest you do something similar.

Click the link below to see if you agree with me as you are able to peek inside and see the actual maps.

I realise this review is extra long but its not as if you have anything else to do with your time right now and I also thought that I should try to follow the apparent editorial direction of late.

I have almost finished reading book two so more anon.

Pen and Sword Publications £19.99

It’s a book that has held its price and even after three years it took me some time to find it at £15, today I see it is available on ABE Books for £13.85 which is annoying.
ABE Books

Hardback only
Readable pages 183
More on the price, book length and maps in the book two review (there aren’t any maps)

This has been a Mr Steve presentation.


  1. Helpful review, thanks for posting. You are also correct, I for one have more time available to read longer posts.

    1. Thanks Adam glad you found the review useful, Mr Steve does come up with some interesting reads, and as far as post length is concerned, I'm happy if a post is as long as it needs to be.