Photo Credit: The destruction of the Athenian army by the Syracusans in 413 bc resulted in the deaths of Athenian generals Nicias and Demosthenes.
By Fred Eugene Ray The wars fought by Sparta and Athens in the fifth century bc pitted one city-state with ancient Greece’s greatest army against one boasting her most powerful fleet. Yet the Spartan and Athenian soldier followed ways of war that differed in far more than a simple preference for fighting on land rather than sea. In fact, the distinctive approaches that a Spartan hoplite and Athenian soldier took to combat embraced a wide range of tactics, only a few of which were tied to their traditional divide at the shoreline. Military historians have tended to focus on the severe boyhood training regimen in Sparta (the agoge) and the potent combination of hardy physique and iron-willed martial philosophy it promoted. But the Spartan way of war was not simply a matter of outstanding individual toughness, strength, or even weaponry skills. Superior tactics played key roles as well—discretion was often the better part of valor for Spartans. They were adept at assessing battle odds and, should these not be to their liking, heading home without a fight. Despite its fierce image, Sparta had a more extensive record of dodging armed confrontations than any other Greek city-state. It was not unusual for Spartan commanders to turn back before crossing a hostile border if the omens were bad. And even on the brink of combat, they might still choose to avoid action. Spartan King Agis II (427-400 bc) once claimed that “Spartans do not ask how many the enemy are, only where the
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