Meet the Actual Spartans
A review of Myke Cole's 'The Bronze Lie'
The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy. Osprey Publishing, 2021. 615 pages.
Above: the Chigi vase, which depicts Spartans that look very unlike our modern filmic ones.
“One on one,” author Myke Cole tells us of the Spartans, “they weren’t particularly tough, but…their ability to fight together as a disciplined unit far exceeded that of the other Greeks.” In the course of his book on the legendary Greek warriors, Cole adds that Spartan discipline was only superior to other armies because most of them lacked any discipline whatsoever during the period when hoplite warbands transformed into the phalanx.
Cole does not explore whether the fabled Spartan agoge training, with all its harsh discipline and deliberate starvation of children, might have produced stunted young men who were easily overpowered, one on one, by beef-fed boys from Thebes. Nevertheless, his book is a tonic to cure the mind-eating disease laconophilia, a western pandemic that began right after Thermopylae, and which animates the zombies of American reactionary culture in the 21st Century.
Cole has done yeoman’s work by examining every scrap of information for every military engagement that Sparta fought from the 7th Century BC, when they struggled against their nearest Messenian neighbors, to the final end of Spartan independence in the 2nd Century BC, and the valley’s transformation into a Roman tourist destination. All of it is problematic, requiring nuance.
After this epic march worthy of Alexander through the textual evidence, Cole presents the final tally of victory and defeat. It is not pretty. But first, before I spoil this for you, I want to note that historian Brad Devereaux did a less-detailed pass through the major land battles of Spartan history a couple of years ago and came up with a .500 winning record.
In that series of posts at his blog, which I also recommend, Devereaux identified key flaws in the foundations of Spartan society that limited their military effectiveness, such as the malnourished agoge students I just mentioned a moment ago. Cole, a successful author first and historian second, has done something different here. Instead of social or economic history, he writes in chronological narration, exhausting the record of sieges, naval engagements, “small war,” and cavalry actions as well as field battles to discover a martial culture that was only very good at fighting just one kind of fight, and only at limited range.
Of 126 combats studied over roughly the same period as Devereaux, Cole finds that the Spartan record is a disappointing 50-71-5, or .417. Spread over eight football seasons, those numbers would probably end the careers of two or three head coaches. Instead, Cole lists all the Spartan kings who shied away from battle, the ones killed in battles, and the ones who got their armies killed through stupidity to puncture the myth of Spartan leadership beyond repair. No one who reads this book will come away with the impression that these were supermen.
Rather, Cole would have us see the Spartans as fully human, with all the flaws and limitations of humans. Unlike their embossed image, Spartans were occasionally corrupt, craven, and hypocritical. Numerous episodes in which religious festivals supposedly excused the absence of the Spartan army from the scene of action may not have been cowardice, however, but very real concern that the helots might cut everybody’s throat back in Sparta while the army was far away from home.
Although Cole does not elaborate on this point, The Bronze Lie notes that slaves and other Spartans of lesser rank were probably more numerous in Sparta’s army than the Peers of the aristocratic class who claimed the hoplite’s heavy infantry role. Thus we can assume that slave logistics were another limiting factor in the size of any Spartan army sent abroad.
For instance, Herodotus tells us that when the Ionian Greeks requested Spartan assistance against Persia, King Cleomenes refused upon learning that Susa, the Persian capitol, was a three-month march away from the sea. Cole reminds the reader of this anecdote without imagining what Cleomenes imagined: the logistical train for such an endeavor would require many tens of thousands of slaves requiring close supervision from thousands of Spartans. It was simply beyond Sparta’s capacity to administer.
This is an underexplored topic in general, so I am not holding it against Mr. Cole that he does not add more depth to this point. Rather, his book is valuable as a reference guide for further analysis of just such a topic.
One Peer and two slaves can carry enough equipment for the Peer and one slave to fight in the phalanx, plus enough food for all three to eat for three to five days. This tells us something about the practical range limits of Spartan power, and with Cole’s book as a guide, enterprising students of ancient warfare can begin to study the data for correlations. Logistical limitations are also particularly acute in sieges, which is one explanation for why the Spartan record at poliorcetic campaigning was so consistently terrible.
Cavalry was also a problem for the Spartans, whose valley did not have much spare pasturage for horses. Although Sparta’s cavalry combat record is unarguably terrible, few Greek city-states maintained substantial cavalry forces because the regional topography did not support large horse herds. In no small part, Macedonia’s rise over the peninsular Greeks was only possible because the Balkan grasslands supported their horses. This is not a point we can hold against the Spartans too much.
On the other hand, Cole notes Sparta’s enduring failure to build commercial ties and the kind of economy that could support their near ambitions, much less project their power over the horizon. The result was a dependence on foreign gold, especially Persian, to pay for what increasingly became a mercenary army, in no small part thanks to the necessity of hiring non-Spartans to row their ships and fill the emerging specialized combat roles of the period. Sparta was too resistant to innovation, and too conservative by habit, to adapt to the changing tactical environment of 5th and 4th Century BC Greece on its own.
Worse, the pyramid shape of Spartan society allowed no upward mobility, with the result that Peers killed in battle went unreplaced. This phenomenon, called the oliganthropia, proved fatal to the Spartan nation, which “remained overly dependent on its heavy infantry capability, didn’t adequately embrace the importance of combined arms, didn’t expand the Peer franchise and didn’t develop strong native capabilities in siege engineering, cavalry, light infantry or naval warfare,” Cole summarizes.
So how did these losers get so famous? Put simply, people want the fantasy that fits their own idealized selves, not the sad reality of their schlubbish lives. Homer became famous because he composed verses that people enjoyed, not dry academic discourse. Even most Americans who idealize Sparta would find the real Spartans repulsive and backwards, whereas hard-bodied British actors strutting about the sound-stage in booty shorts are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Professional historians just can’t compete with that.