Reading for the Weekend – Sparta at War

Sparta at War

As a continuation of Hoplite affairs I found a title that bears some generic interest – albeit I have no Spartans for Impetus. Sparta at War, Strategy, Tactics, and Campaigns 550-362BC (ISBN# 9781783830480) by Scott M. Rusch appears interesting take on the topic that stirs so much of imagination – Sparta.

While I have some interest in the Hoplites – mostly because of Syracuse and because Hoplites are genuinely interesting in Impetus, I have however never really been great fan of Lacedaemonians or the internal strifes of hellenistic world – or even their wars against Persians. That said, perhaps I should be more interested in the classical period and build army of Spartans – just for the fun of it. Certainly, painting Spartan army for Basic Impetus would be a spartan affair.

What about the book then? After reading A Storm of Spears, certain baseline was set up, against which most other works are compared as far as hoplite military organization is concerned. Willing or not, there appears to be nagging voice at the back of my head every time any author refers to something that is in conflict with a Storm of Spears.

Sparta at War is a book that covers as much of the topic as possible, starting from the origins of the Hellenistic powerhouse  long before it attained it’s fame and fortune amongst the city states. Author points out that while Spartans were good, they may have not actually been all that godlike as legends would like to suggest. More than superhuman strength and endurance, it was relative weakness of the opposition that elevated Spartan training and dedication to their laws. Once other city states followed suite, Spartans started to lose battles.

Sparta was effectually land power – it had a navy, but instead of matching the ship building capacity of Athens in early years, Spartans did offer genuinely good commanders both for land and sea. Much like other city states, Sparta relied on local levy for armies – which in turn limited the extend that campaigns could be fought. Spartan position was always politically and militarily precarious – even allies were suspect to revolt, and any such move could cause a landfall. To counter the threat that always existed, Sparta needed to be stronger – capable to overawe the rest. For this end Spartans used as much military prowess as devious policies. One could argue that Spartans were early masters of media warfare, where even tactical defeats turned into heroic victories.

At the withdrawal of Xerexes from Greece, Sparta was the undisputed master of Peloponnesos. (Author covers – albeit briefly, all conflicts and shifting politics Sparta was involved with. Local politics did not only include Greece city states but Persia as well. Describing all is not a small feat and I appreciate the attempt). Eventually imperial aspirations rooted to Spartan society, however conquering and holding an empire that stretched both land and sea was to be too much. Fighting in multiple fronts against coalition of long term enemies wore down Spartan resources and land power causing eventual downfall.

Unfortunately Author of Sparta at War loses the guiding thread at times, and writing breaks apart into fast paced list of events, only to pick up the story again later. Narrative is a bit dry at times and when there are substantial events, locations and people to handle simultaneously it breaks down. Book does function as introduction however, but the main topic would have required better narrative, and perhaps a bit more pages to give comprehensive treatment it serves. Holding concentration when digging through Sparta at War may be a challenge.

That said, it is one of the few researches that drop the myths and elaborate heroic creations from what became infallible and superhuman Sparta, and put it in it’s proper place as yet another city state that developed and evolved in difficult situation and made most of it – through mistakes, losses, hard labor and training.

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