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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Debunking Myths: Spartans Never Retreated

The fate of Spartans found guilty of the “crime” of cowardice has inspired pity in modern readers, and indeed formed the basis of entire novels.   


The latter appear to have been based on Xenophon’s description of the fate of Spartan cowards. Xenophon writes:

…at Sparta everyone would be ashamed to be associated with a coward in is mess or to have him as a wrestling partner. When sides are being picked for a ball game, that sort of man is often left out, with no position assigned, and in dances he is banished to the insulting places. Moreover, in the streets he is required to give way, as well as to give up his seat even to younger men. The girls of his family he has to support at home, and must explain to them why they cannot get husbands. He must endure having a household with no wife, and at the same time has to pay a fine for this. He must not walk around with a cheerful face, nor must he imitate men of impeccable reputation: otherwise he must submit to being beaten by his betters. When disgrace of this kind is imposed on cowards, I am certainly not surprised that death is preferred [in Sparta] to a life of such dishonor and ignominy. (Xenophon, Spartan Society, 9.)
Interestingly, Xenophon’s description of the treatment of cowards is an expanded version of Herodotus’ description of the fate of Aristodemos, the sole Spartiate survivor of Thermopylae.  According to Herodotus, “.. [Aristodemos] was met upon his return with reproach and disgrace; no Spartan would give him a light to kindle his fire, or speak to him, and he was called a Trembler.”(Herodotus, The Histories, Book Seven: 231)
Yet while the ancient sources on Sparta agree on what the treatment of “cowards” was, many modern writers jump to incorrect conclusions about just how Sparta defined “coward.” Not every man, who had the misfortune to fall into enemy hands, was in Spartan eyes a coward. The best evidence of this is the surrender of 120 Spartiates to the Athenians in 425 BC, after being cut off by the Athenian fleet on the island of Sphakteria.

Had Sparta believed that these men ought to have died rather than surrender, then Sparta would have treated the men as dead. In short, Sparta would have written them off and continued to pursue the war, as if they had all died.  Yet quite the reverse happened. Instead of continuing as if the men were dead, Sparta sued for peace again and again. The sole objective of these peace offers was to obtain the release of the captive “cowards.” The increasing desperation with which Sparta sought to have these captive Spartiates returned to Sparta is the most eloquent evidence that these men were not disgraced. 

On the contrary, as Anton Powell underscores in Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (London:1988), although the captive Spartiates were degraded from full-citizenship status to lesser citizenship on their return from Athens, this was not because of a presumption of wrong-doing.  Rather, fear that they might have been infected by Athenian ideas, after three years in Athenian captivity, motivated Spartan sanctions.  Furthermore, they were later completely reinstated, and some were even elected to public office! Such treatment is not consistent with the social ostracism described by Herodotus and Xenophon.
The key to understanding the situation is a verbal exchange, recorded by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book IV, 40), between an Athenian and one of the captured Spartiates. The Athenian mocked the prisoners by saying that the “real Spartans” were the dead. The Spartan answered: “spindles (by which he meant arrows) would be worth a great deal, if they distinguish brave men from cowards.” As Thucydides stressed, “the whole Greek world” was amazed that Spartiates surrendered, precisely because they failed to understand – as do most modern commentators – that Spartans did not admire senseless sacrifice.

There was a world of difference – at least to professional soldiers like the Spartans – between Leonidas’ position at Thermopylae, and the situation faced by the Lacedaemonian troops trapped on Sphakteria in 425 BC. Leonidas learned that he was out-flanked and the Pass at Thermopylae no longer defensible only after daybreak on the morning of the third day of the battle. In that moment, the most important strategic concern became saving the lives of as many Greek hoplites as possible. Leonidas was not interested in glory – much less futile gestures.  He was interested in preserving Spartan independence from Persia, and this in turn depended on ensuring that Sparta and her allies had the means to fight the Persians at another place on another day. Leonidas had a very clear strategic objective when he sacrificed himself and his troops: giving the rest of the Greek forces time to withdraw.  Leonidas and his 300 Spartiates, along with the Thespians and Thebans, remained in the pass not to die, but to delay the advance of the Persians long enough for the rest of the Greek forces to get away.
The Spartiates at Sphakteria, on the other hand, could gain nothing whatsoever by dying where they were trapped. The Spartan high command, the Gerousia, and the kings all recognized that fact. The fact that the Spartan leadership pointedly refused to give orders to the local commander indicates that no higher strategic aims were at stake. The commander on the ground was given instructions (according to Thucydides) to “make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonorable;” he was told to act at his discretion.  (Note: this is evidence that the Sparta's leaders expected junior commanders to be able think and act in accordance with sound military principles about when and what sacrifice was commensurate to the tactical objective.) The fact that the commander at Sphakteria, after consultation with his men, chose to surrender – despite the admonishment not to do anything “dishonorable,” demonstrates that these Spartiates in no way considered their actions “dishonorable” or “cowardly.” They were acting reasonably to prevent unnecessary casualties in a situation, where no military utility could be gained by further sacrifice.

The Spartan attitude can be illustrated by the alleged retort of a Spartiate offered a fighting cock “willing to die.” Reportedly, the Spartan replied that he preferred a cock “willing to kill.” Likewise, the following quote of the Eurypontid king Agesilaus is relevant here. When asked which of the two virtues, courage or justice, was the better, Agesilaus allegedly answered: “Courage has no value, if justice is not in evidence too; but if everyone were to be just, then no one would need courage.”
The Spartans did not expect men to sacrifice themselves senselessly.  The primary purpose of Spartan arms was to inflict damage on the enemy, not to die.  Yes, Sparta expected their men to be willing to die – if it would further Sparta’s interests, but not to die for no purpose, as would have been the case at Sphakteria.  Thus there was no approbation associated with the surrender of the 120 on Sphakteria, and the men who surrendered were not viewed as cowards – particularly since the majority of them were only following orders.

The fate described by Herodotus and Xenophon was reserved for individuals, who failed to follow orders or, like Aristodemus, deserted comrades, who were engaged in a military action. Not the act of surrender was abhorrent to the Spartans, but the rather the failure to stand by one’s comrades and  Sparta's kings.


  1. It seems so obvious now that you highlight the logic: Sparta asks the hoplites to do nothing dishonourable suggesting that the subsequent surrender is acceptable to Sparta instead of senseless slaughter. That is a fantastic piece of deduction and all from the original sources.

    JFLazenby in his "The Spartan Army" suggests that Thermopylae creates the myth that Spartans never surrender. He quotes the "Battle of the Fetters" as an early example.

    There is also the idea that Sparta follows a less "heroic" code by the time of the Peloponnesian War. Thus Sparta refuses to countenance an Argive solution to conflict involving the old "Battle of the Champions" method.

    Once again, a brilliant blog. The mind boggles why certain commentators quote Sphacteria as an example of Spartan weakness. The formidable forces that Athens deploys to capture the hoplites proves otherwise.

    In a sense, Sphacteria should be regarded as a heroic defeat, not a humiliating surrender. Athenian propaganda at work?

  2. I forgot to add, perhaps the battle should be seen as a heroic surrender? Again, superb blog and a counter balance to a stale orthodoxy emanating from certain universities.