Sparta is one of the best known of the classical Greek city states, although most people’s perception of the city probably owes more to cinema than to actual history. The city and its military has been the subject of extensive study over the years, especially focusing on Sparta’s military heyday, during the Persian and Great Peloponnesian Wars. This book takes a different approach, focusing on the earlier history of the city, and ending with the battle of Plataea, the point at which Sparta’s reputation was probably at its peak.
The author has taken a fast pace readable approach to the topic, aimed at the general reader. We begin with a look at the earliest archaeological evidence for settlement in the vicinity of Sparta, which included a sizable settlement of the Mycenaean era. The probable early history of Sparta is followed with a look at what the Spartan’s actually believed about their own history, which did after all have a big impact on how they acted in the historical era.
I was pleased to find good sized chapters on the two Messenian Wars, the obscure conflicts that established tiny Sparta as a military power of the first rank. These are often skipped over because the evidence is limited and comes from a later period, but they are key to understanding Sparta’s later history. One interesting theme is the nature of Spartan society, and how it evolved rather dramatically in this early period, before becoming locked into the familiar system surprisingly late in this period. This is a second and rather surprising theme - early Sparta was actually a radical reforming society, which adopted many ideas before the rest of Greece, and was one of the first cities to adopt hoplite warfare. Finally, Sparta’s military record before the Persian Wars turns out to be less impressive than one might expect - the Messenian Wars were lengthy and involved nearly as many defeats as victories, and the long term rivalry with Argos was fairly well balanced.
This is a good readable examination of the rise of Sparta from an obscure minor city trapped in a narrow valley in the far south of Greece into a military power of the first rank, with an enviable reputation as one of the saviours of Greece from Persian invasion.
1 - This is Sparta
2 - Becoming Sparta
3 - The First Messenian War
4 - Lycurgus
5 - The Second Messenian War
6 - The Making of a Spartan Warrior
7 - Domination of the Peloponnese
8 - Cleomenes I - Sparta's 'Mad' King
9 - The Spartan Army
10 - The Road to Marathon
11 - Thermopylae: Their Finest Hour
12 - Apogee
Author: Philip Matyszak
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military