Make your own free website on

The Spartan army. 

Xenophon in his 'Constitution of the Lacedaemonians' describes the organization of the army (probably around 390 BC) thus 

XI.[1] The blessings that I have enumerated so far were shared by all alike in peace and in war. But if anyone wishes to discover in what respect Lycurgus' organization of the army on active service was better than other systems, here is the information that he seeks.

[2] The Ephors issue a proclamation stating the age-limit fixed for the levy, first for the cavalry and infantry, and then for the handicraftsmen. Thus the Lacedaemonians are well supplied in the field with all things that are found useful in civil life. All the implements that an army may require in common are ordered to be assembled, some in carts, some on baggage animals; thus anything missing is not at all likely to be overlooked.

[3] In the equipment that he devised for the troops in battle he included a red cloak, because he believed this garment to have least resemblance to women's clothing and to be most suitable for war, and a brass shield, because it is very soon polished and tarnishes very slowly. He also permitted men who were past their first youth to wear long hair, believing that it would make them look taller, more dignified and more terrifying.

[4] The men so equipped were divided into six regiments of cavalry and infantry. The officers of each citizen regiment (mora) comprise one polemarch, four lochagoi, eight pentekosteres and sixteen enomotarchs. These regiments at the word of command form sections sometimes (two), sometimes three, and sometimes six abreast.

[5] The prevalent opinion that the Laconian infantry formation is very complicated is the very reverse of the truth. In the Laconian formation the front rank men are all officers, and each file has all that it requires to make it efficient. [6]  The formation is so easy to understand that no one who knows man from man can possibly go wrong. For some have the privilege of leading; and the rest are under orders to follow. Orders to wheel from column into line of battle are given verbally by the enomotarch acting as a herald, and the line is formed either thin or deep, by wheeling. Nothing whatever in these movements is difficult to understand. [7]  To be sure, the secret of carrying on in a battle with any troops at hand when the line gets into confusion is not so easy to grasp, except for soldiers trained under the laws of Lycurgus.

[8] The Lacedaemonians also carry out with perfect ease manoeuvres that instructors in tactics think very difficult. Thus, when they march in column, every section of course follows in the rear of the section in front of it. Suppose that at such a time an enemy in order of battle suddenly makes his appearance in front: the word is passed to the enomotarch to deploy into line to the left, and so throughout the column until the battle-line stands facing the enemy. Or again, if the enemy appears in the rear while they are in this formation, each file counter-marches, in order that the best men may always be face to face with the enemy. [9]  True, the leader is then on the left, but instead of thinking this a disadvantage, they regard it as a positive advantage at times. For should the enemy attempt a flanking movement he would try to encircle them, not on the exposed but on the protected side. If, however, it seems better for any reason that the leader should be on the right wing, the left wing wheels, and the army counter-marches by ranks until the leader is on the right, and the rear of the column on the left. [10]  If, on the other hand, an enemy force appears on the right when they are marching in column, all that they have to do is to order each company to wheel to the right so as to front the enemy like a man-of-war, and thus again the company at the rear of the column is on the right. If again an enemy approaches on the left, they do not allow that either, but either push him back or wheel their companies to the left to face him, and thus the rear of the column finds itself on the left.

Here Xenophon is talking about a purely Spartan army undiluted by perioeci.

The organization of the Spartan army.

The Lacedaemonians kept their military strength and organization as secret as possible. Little was understood of these things by contemporary historians and more so of modern historians. Nevertheless it has been possible to construct a somewhat sensible picture from the ancient descriptions available to us. Originally the Spartan army was divided on the old Dorian tribal lines. About the time of Lycurgus the population was split up into five villages (Limnai, Mesoa, Pitane, Konosura and Dyme) which formed the administrative division of the oba. The army also was divided into five regiments called locos, one per oba. Herodotus in his description of the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C tells us that the Lacedaemonians sent out an army of 5000 Spartans from the 8000 available of which one was the Pitanate lochos. As well as Spartans 5000 perioeci equipped as hoplites were also sent. Herodotus gives no clue as to the sub divisions of the lochos.

 Thucydides, an Athenian historian and soldier, gives us a detailed overview of the structure of the Spartan army around 418 BC at Mantinea. He says that the organization was based on an average row of 8 man deep. Four of these rows formed an enomotia or platoon; four enomotiai formed on their turn a pentekostis or company which was commanded by a pentekonter; four pentekosteis formed a lochos or battalion under the leadership of a lochagos. Thucydides mentions that at Mantinea seven lochoi were present, 5 citizen lochoi on a 35 year call-up and two of neodamodeis and that the men of Sciritis were armed as hoplites in a separate unit. During the Theban wars these seem to have been converted to light infantry to support cavalry. After Leuctra the Sciritis was lost and Sparta increasingly used mercenary light infantry. Thucydides organizational structure seems inaccurate as he seems to leave out one whole level of organization. The reorganization of the Spartan army after the great earthquake of 464 was possibly the time when the mora was introduced, and has he forgot to mention the perioecic hoplites. Either way 2560 Lacedaemonian hoplites seems too few to make sense of the battle.

 Xenophon, who had also been an officer, tells us about a different structure. Now the average row was 12 man deep, while only two of these rows were needed to form an enomotia. Two enomotiai formed a pentekostis, two pentekosteis formed a lochos, while four lochos formed a mora, or regiment, under the command of a polemarch. The army consisted of 6 mora The reduction of the Spartan population did decrease the total strength of the Spartan army, but not the strength of a mora (at a 40 year call up the nominal strength would have been 1280) as this depended on the age of the hoplites who were used. Whereas in 479 BC at Plataea Spartans and Perioeci fought in separate units by Mantinea in 418 BC and certainly by Laecheum in 390 BC Spartiates could not have made up the full strength of the 6 mora and we must look elsewhere. W.G Forrest speculates that perioeci fought in the same units as full Spartans but surely by diluting the units with 'amateurs' would detract from its capabilities. I therefore suggest that the perioeci fought in the same mora but not in the same enomotia and that there was a Spartan enomotia and a Perioecic enomotia and that Thucydides fails to mention the Perioecic enomotia at Mantinea and that when he says Spartan he means Equals and Un-equals. Also this explains the reason for Xenophon saying there were only 16 enomotia in the mora and not 32, he was thinking only of the Spartan ones. This theme will be developed further in 'Spartan population decline and army organization'

After the Persian Wars some reorganisation might have begun to take place but if so, only slight. The appearance of the lambda device is probably some time after the earthquake of 464 BC and the subsequent Messenian revolt which follows. At this time Greek began to fight Greek on a much more regular basis, and the perennial Spartan problem of declining homoioi numbers meant that the following happened. Firstly Spartiates (i.e. full homoioi 'peers'), other Spartans (i.e. the increasing number of inferior lower grade Spartans known as 'hypomeiones'), and the Laconian (probably Dorian) Perioeci began to be brigaded together into the new Moral army (excuse the pun). However, the three groups would, I am quite sure, have still been in separate enomotia (sword bands or platoons) within the mixed lochoi of the phalanx morai. The hypomeinones and perioeci would probably have had full Spartiate officers. This new mixed unit put more of an emphasis upon its Lakedaimonian make-up - something that all these grades of Laconian Dorians had in common whether full Spartiate, lesser Spartan, or non-Spartan Perioeci. Therefore the appearance of the lambda symbol was highly appropriate.

The enomotiai marched en echelon. Before the battle the last troops of each enomotia positioned themselves left behind their leader to form a phalanx of four columns, in total 16 rows wide, and 8 rows deep. A space of two metres was maintained between the columns, but on the order 'close the rows' the last troops walked to the left front to close gaps in the front row. Now the phalanx was in a closed formation and ready for the battle.

Whatever structure the Spartans might have used, it did not decrease their effective communication system. The king gave his orders directly to the polemarchs who passed it on through the troops via the lower officers. The biggest problem was that each soldier was trained so well that the Spartan army practically only consisted of men who were officially no officer, but who knew so much about warfare that they were almost equal to an officer. Such an organization does not always give the best results on the battlefield. An example of this is the battle of Plataea where the Spartan commander refused to follow the order of the Spartan king Pausanias to retreat. At Mantinea the polemarchs at the right wing ignored the orders of the king as they wanted to win the battle in their own way.  Orders where hard to understand in the uproar of a battle, and the Corinthian helmet also reduced the hearing of the soldiers. That is why horn signals and hand signals were often used. However, sometimes they were misunderstood and during an incident at Amphipolis the unprotected right side of the phalanx was exposed to an Athenian attack with dramatic results.

After Leuctra in 371 B.C it seems that the mora was abandoned and the army reorganized into 12 lochoi, Xenophon mentions 3 serving at Mantinea in 362 B.C. Until 223 when Cleomenes III reorganized the army along Macedonian lines little is known of the organization.

The equipment of the Spartan hoplite.

At the time of Thermopylae 480 BC and the Persian Wars - I would suggest that the Spartiate warriors would have been dressed as follows : mainly variations of Corinthian, but possibly other helmets popular at the time with a red horsehair crest from front to back (sideways for general officers); the famous short crimson cloak which was discarded before battle; either a bell or other bronze cuirass - but also a mixture of linen or leather cuirasses with or without applied metal scales; linen or leather pteruges; a short-sleeved crimson chiton beneath all the gear; bronze greaves and sandals. Spartan units would have been at least regularly and uniformly dressed in red/crimson. A mixture of designs on the shield is likely - gorgon heads were popular, and personal symbols (one had a life size fly). He would have carried his short stabbing sword and his 8-10 ft. spear with his aspis shield. It is worth pointing out the Perioeci units would probably have dressed in a similar fashion although possibly not uniformly in red. The distinction between full citizens i.e. Spartiate, and non-citizen Perioeci units, would have been noticeable by the warriors' hair length as Spartiates would allow their hair and beard to grow in length. Helots were not armed as hoplites at this time only as psiloi. The Sciritai are not mentioned by Herodotus and therefore I believe were absorbed into the Spartan community some time after the Persian wars, they were Arcadian perioeci  not Laconians.

By the time of First Mantinea 418 BC and the last stages of the Peloponnesian Wars - the situation had changed remarkably. The distinction between grades of warrior would have sharpened, although perversely the differences in appearance of them would probably have lessened. By this time the Pilos helmet had been introduced, if not entirely, then certainly substantially across the ranks. Some units such as the Sciritai themselves may well have worn the leather or linen variations instead - especially after they became a hammipoi type of unit (probably after the Peloponnesian Wars). The hoplite would still have been clad in a red chiton or exomis, but would have more than likely have been wearing lighter armour - probably the linen cuirass or leather spolas.  By this time, however, the lambda insignia had appeared on the shields, possibly at first used only by helots sent out on foreign expeditions as with Brasidas to Amphipolis but later employed by the Spartan army in general. The Spartan's shield was always polished bronze and his symbol seemingly appeared in red/crimson. It was probably painted on - or possibly a riveted plate. He may or may not have still been wearing greaves, but would still have had the sandals.


The Lakedaimonian army also began to make use of volunteer Laconian Helots. Brasidas in 424, led a unit of 700  helots armed as light hoplites into Thrace, these were freed on return from Thrace and fought at Mantinea in a separate lochos as the Brasideioi. . These troops performed so well that other helots were freed and armed as hoplites (Neodamodeis, new citizens), a group were sent to Sicily in 413, 2000 were raised to fight with Lysander and a 1000 sent to Asia with Thibron in 399.

Spartan training for war

  Each boy of a Spartan family was taken away at the age of seven and placed under the supervision of an adult Spartan till the age of 18. An extensive training till the age of thirty followed when the Spartan became a full citizen. He did not live together with his family any more while he was in training, but became part of a mess. These messes were clubs of Spartans who were together in Sparta as well as on the battlefield. The family was not seen as important, it was only an unfortunately necessary tool to preserve the number of full Spartans.


The 300 Hippeis or Royal Bodyguard who famously fought at Thermopylae, were a regular unit and always existed until Hellenistic times. They were wiped out in their entirety in 371 BC at Leuctra fighting with Cleombrotos I. Generally they were composed of youths in the 20-29 age groups (30 from each) and so each year a new group of 30 would have been admitted of the 20 year olds as a group of older hippeis were being retired at 30. They were selected as the best and most outstanding of each age group and deemed worthy to guard the king in battle. They also included Olympic victors. They were chosen by three sub-commanders known as the Hippagretai who in turn had been chosen by the Ephors. The unit fought separately from the other Spartan morai and always with the king who commanded them. In reality they would have numbered 304 - the king, three sub-commanders, and the 300 hoplites themselves. Unusually before setting off for Thermopylae, and possibly mindful of the fact that they might not return - king Leonidas I dismissed the hippeis who had not yet married and sired sons, and replaced them with older men who already had sons. Therefore the age-group at the pass might have been much older than the usual 300 would have.