Stoic, battle-hardened killing machines who never surrendered and always won – over millennia, Spartans have acquired near-mythic status as history’s hardest men.
But a new book aims to debunk that myth, showing up the legendary warriors as a ‘completely average’ military force who actually lost more battles than they won.
Myke Cole, himself a veteran who served three tours in Iraq, argues that Spartans were all-too human – as likely to surrender as fight to the death, as likely to engage in diplomacy as pick up arms, as likely to blunder on the battlefield as to win glory.
Even their most-famous battle – Thermopylae in 480BC, which was depicted in the film 300 – ended with a crushing defeat that saw King Leonidas’s head put on a pike, Cole points out.
King Leonidas I of Sparta led a group of 300 warriors who held off thousands of Persian invaders in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Pictured: Spartan warriors in movie 300
Although the Persians won the battle with just one Spartan surviving, Thermopylae helped the Greeks drive the Persians away the next year. Their courage has been immortalised in art and in 2006 movie 300, where Gerard Butler played the brave King Leonidas (right)
‘The myth is that Spartans were… the biggest badasses in military history,’ Cole said.
‘And this is just not true at all, in any way, and the only way that a person could think that it is true is if that person had not read any sources on the Spartans.’
Cole admits that there are very few first-hand Spartan sources, and that almost all of what we know about them comes from outsiders who wrote about them.
But this, he argues, was part of ancient Sparta’s PR tactics – leaving themselves a mystery and allowing others to fill in the blanks by creating myths.
Those include that Spartans never surrendered, shunned wealth and luxury, did not seek fame or glory, and could not be corrupted or bribed.
Cole argues that all of those myths can be busted by looking at what sources do exist, including a tally of all of Sparta’s battles and whether they won or lost.
‘What emerges is an utterly average military record,’ he told the Casting Through Ancient Greece podcast.
‘They were no better than anyone else, they were no worse than anyone else. They have some truly amazing victories and they have some truly ignominious defeats.’
As an example, he points to the Battle of Sphacteria which was fought in 425BC between the Spartans and Athenians during the Peloponnesian War.
During a naval battle in nearby waters, Sparta had positioned some 480 hoplites – their elite heavy infantry – on the island of Sphacteria to kill any Athenians who happened to come ashore.
But the Spartan navy was captured, leaving them stranded. For 70 days they were left on the island with barely any food or water before the Athenians finally attacked.
Despite being cut off for more than a month, the Spartans ‘fought their guts out’, Cole said – occupying high ground at one end of the island that backed on to a sheer cliff, which they believed would defend them from being outflanked.
But, to their surprise, the Athenians managed to scale the cliff and surrounded the Spartans. Rather than fight to the death, they surrendered.
And, once the Spartans had surrendered, their countrymen didn’t disown them but fought to get them returned home safely.
But military historian Myke Cole has claimed the famous battle, which took place 2,500 years ago, is all a ‘myth. Pictured: Gerard Butler starring in 300
Mr Cole has claimed that the fighters’ reputation as ‘history’s toughest warriors’ was a lie made up by the Spartans to ‘incite fear into their enemies’
He claimed that at the battle of Thermopylae, the 300 Spartans had help fighting the Persian invasion forces by around 7,000 Greeks and up to 900 Spartan servants
Mr Cole continued: ‘Leonidas had every expectation of winning, and expected to be reinforced by a larger army, they didn’t expect to die.’
But he claimed 1,000 Phocian fighters were unable to hold the Anopaia Path and allowed the Persians to cut off the Spartans to their rear, which saw their Greek allies flee from the battle, leading to the bloody defeat.
He claimed the Spartans are, in reality, famous for an ’embarrassing’ and ‘disastrous defeat’, describing the battle as a ‘military disaster’ which was spun into the legend of self-sacrifice.
Mr Cole said: ‘The truth is the Spartans were flawed and human, not superheroes.’
The historian claimed the Spartans were self-serving and cowardly and often took bribes, urging people to remember that they are famous for a battle which they lost.
Further dissolving the Spartan legend, he claimed the warriors often lost against amateur armies and retreated and surrendered at the battle of Sphacteria, saying their talents lay in their incredible PR.
Speaking about the Zack Snyder film 300, which retells the battle of Thermopylae with a chiseled Gerard Butler playing King Leonidas, Mr Cole said the movie is ‘racist, xenophobic’ and perpetuates the Spartan myth.
Mr Cole claimed he is speaking about the truth surrounding the Spartan myth to show their flaws and humanity, as well as their well-recognised bravery.
According to the legend of Thermopylae, the Persian invasion force under Great King Xerxes swept down from the north to the narrow, rocky pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, where a makeshift army awaited them.
The Greek defenders had accepted that they would fight bravely before retreating in good order, but the Spartans’ apparent courage saw the battle go down in history as one of the most influential battles of the ancient world.
Speaking about the Zack Snyder film 300 (pictured Gerard Butler in the film), Mr Cole said the movie is ‘racist, xenophobic’ and perpetuates the Spartan myth
He claimed the Spartans are, in reality, famous for an ’embarrassing’ and ‘disastrous defeat’, describing the battle as a ‘military disaster’ which was spun into the legend of self-sacrifice
Mr Cole claimed he is speaking about the truth surrounding the Spartan myth to show their flaws and humanity, as well as their bravery. Pictured: Gerard Butler and Lena Headey in 300
The 300 Spartan warriors, young men who had been trained for a single purpose in life – to fight and kill their many enemies – were selected for the battle because they all had sons, so their family line would not die out if they were slaughtered.
Only the Spartans who had excelled in their boyhood training and were chosen to serve as knights in the king’s bodyguard were said to be selected for the battle of Thermopylae.
The famous story says the 300 Spartans fended off the Persians for the first two days of the three-day battle at the pass of Thermopylae, but on the third day a Greek traitor showed the Persians another path, allowing them to encircle the Spartans.
King Leonidas was killed while his troops fought on to defend their King, with historian and Greek writer Herodotus claiming the Spartans slaughtered the Persians in droves.
‘The Spartans, reckless with their own safety and desperate, since they knew their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians,’ wrote Herodotus.
After the three-day long bloody battle, just one of the 300 Spartans survived and the warriors were defeated in an act of fearless self-sacrifice.
But Thermopylae boosted Greek morale and allowing the warriors to drive the Persians out of Greece the following year.
The Romans were said to have admired the Spartans and what became the first all-Greek Olympic Games was first established in Sparta in 776 BC.
Sparta’s apparent astonishing military success, which has now been rebuked by Mr Cole, depended on tactics which aroused terror in its enemies.