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Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 300 and Sparta's Military Ethos

One of the most common misconceptions about Sparta today is that the Spartan army had a tradition of “do or die,” that is, that it was against Sparta's laws to retreat. This myth has its roots in Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae, and the most important piece of evidence is the memorial that the Spartans themselves erected at Thermopylae after the Persians had been driven out of Greece. This famous monument had a dedication that in one common translation ran: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, in obedience to the laws, we lie.”

This simple epitaph is widely interpreted to mean that the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae had no option of retreating. Allegedly, these men lay buried in the Pass at Thermopylae, so far from home, because Sparta’s “laws” forbade retreat or surrender regardless of the odds or the certainty of death. 

Modern Monument at Thermopylae
But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both retreated and surrendered in a variety of other engagements over the centuries (e.g. Hysiai, Sphakteria). The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, according to Herodotus, in fact three separate monuments erected to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. First, there was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. This clearly referred to the other Peloponnesian allies that fought with the Spartans at Thermopylae on the first two days. (The Thespians appear to have erected their monument only at home, or a separate monument to the Thespians had disappeared by the time Herodotus visited the site of the battle.) Second there was the monument referred to above, and third there was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas.”
No -- unfortunately not the monument to Leonidas which is lost, but possibly inspired by description: the Lion of Lucern commemorating the loss of the Swiss Guard.

In short, there were two Spartan monuments: the one to Leonidas and the one to the other Spartiates. If we separate the two, then we see the glimmer of an answer because it suggests that the “law” that the 300 obeyed may not have applied to Leonidas at all.

Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to fight until death rather than retreat or surrender.

But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s army. This law is documented and was widely respected.  Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not while campaigning abroad. As long as they were commanding the army in a military engagement outside Lacedaemon, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did. 

Sulpture found in Sparta dating from the early 5th century BC. Although spontaneously called "Leonidas" by the Greek workers on the site, the helmet is not the cross-crest of the Spartan kings and so probably depicts an ordinary Spartan hoplite of the period rather than the king himself.
What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.

The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a another day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.” 

Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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  1. You might also want to mention that Sphakteria sent shock waves throughout Greece that Spartans yes Spartans had actually surrendered. It also altered Sparta's foreign policy and brought them to peace talks with Athens. Of course that was made easier with the death of Cleon and Brasidas in Thrace.

  2. That is the subject of my post on March 2, 2013: "Spartan Cowards: Re-Examining Sphakteria." Scroll back or do a search and you'll find it.

  3. Is it fact that the Spartans chosen to defend Thermopylae were had already sired sons? If so it might be concluded they knew before they set out that they would be unlikely to survive.

  4. Leonidas knew he was going to be facing overwhelming odds and that he was going to take casualties -- that's not the same thing as expecting ALL his men to die from the start.

    Expecting heavy casualties but unable to predict which of his men would die, Leonidas didn't want to take any man north who had not sired a son. Again, that's not the same thing as expecting ALL of them to die with him.

  5. I don't know if you are familiar with the fact that the common translations of the epitaph of Simonides are not literal. The ancient text reads "ΤΟΙΣ ΚΟΙΝΩΝ ΡΗΜΑΣΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ" which is translated literally as "being persuaded by their words". The ancient Greek word for 'law' is 'ΝΟΜΟΣ' and the corresponding word for 'obey' is 'ΥΠΑΚΟΥΩ'. So had Simonides wanted to propagate the message that the Spartans had died obeying Spartan law he would have written "ΤΟΙΣ ΚΟΙΝΩΝ ΝΟΜΟΙΣ ΥΠΑΚΟΥΟΝΤΕΣ"
    What Simonides actually meant is unclear and a subject of hot debate. The word 'ΡΗΜΑ' he uses has multiple meanings apart from 'word' in ancient Greek; it also means 'speech', 'phrase', 'maxim' and 'verb'. One possible explanation could be that there had been a debate in the Spartan assembly and the 300 had been persuaded (by a speech from Leonidas?) to fight to the death.
    At any rate I think you are right, the Spartans were trained since childhood to steal, lie, evade and do what was necessary to survive at all costs. I find it highly improbable that to retreat in order to fight another day was against their ethos.
    Much appreciate your work and greetings from a fellow historian from Greece.

  6. Thank you for the translations. They are very enlightening.

  7. An interesting topic. Doesn't Herodotus write of an episode of Demaratus describing the customs of the Spartans to Xerxes? Herodotrus puts words into Demaratus' mouth that suggest the so-called Spartan myth (death before retreat or surrender) was well established by the time of the Persian wars. At least, as this "myth" was understood by other Greeks.

  8. He does, but, with all due respect, he was not Spartan and he was writing after Thermopylae. I think the speech he puts in Demaratus' mouth was written with "the wisdom of hindsight."