The Spartans Were Morons

National Endowment for the Humanities

Editor’s Note: This article by Gabriel Russell originally appeared on Law Enforcement Today, a source of news and views on the profession run by and for law enforcement.

Let’s face it, the Spartans were morons.

If I never have look at another military or police morale patch, challenge coin, T-shirt, or logo with a Spartan helmet on it that would be just fine, thanks.

Propped up by bombastically entertaining fodder such as the movie 300 and the presence of Gates of Fire on professional reading lists, the exploits of the ancient Spartans loom large in the modern warrior's imagination.

The next time you see a middle-aged, bearded, chubby cop or military dude dressed up like Donny Delta Force in morale patches, Velcro and “operator gear” festooned with Spartan helmet insignia, ask yourself: What are they really laying claim to?

The heroic tale of elite warriors fighting to their deaths at Thermopylae to protect an early democracy and stop a massive slave army has four major flaws. People who imagine themselves inheritors of their traditions usually overlook these.

  1. They lost. It’s an incredibly romantic “going out in a blaze of glory” loss, I’ll admit, but they still lost, in part because their obsession with turning out perfect Soldiers impeded their ability to turn out sufficient numbers of fighters who were “good enough.”
  2. Alliances enabled their successes. Do you remember the romantic and heroic tale of the last stand of the 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans? Probably not. They get overlooked in distorted Hollywood version of the story but the battle would have been far different were it not for the contributions of other Greek City States who fought alongside them.
  3. Terrain overcame flaws in their training and tactics. The narrow pass at Thermopylae allowed the Spartans to fight in a Phalanx, standing in rows faced directly against their enemies. Spartans believed this to be, not only tactically, but morally superior. Their blind obedience to this doctrine was their undoing when the circumstances didn’t favor it.
  4. They had no culture other than war. Let’s face it, killing babies who don’t appear to have great potential as warriors is a dramatic statement of cultural values but it doesn’t lead to advances in science, agriculture, or the arts. All of which are also necessary for a culture to reach peak military potential. It also led to Sparta degenerating into tyranny at times.

The word spartan, taken separately from a military context has come to mean utilitarian, basic. In ancient times the word was more pejorative, carrying a connotation of stupidity and coarseness. The word Thespian, has come to mean artistic and sensitive. At Thermopylae the 700 Thespians fought as bravely as any other force. There was a city-state that balanced the need of self-defense and to develop culture.

"Off to war again, babe. Beat the children well for me"Wikimedia Commons

In the years that followed the Battle of Thermopylae, their former allies the Thebans ended Spartan supremacy at the Battle of Leuctra by using superior planning and tactics and exploiting their insistence on standing stupidly in Phalanxes. The Roman Legions, based on combined arms, flexibility and innovation, would also decimate the Spartan formations. Sparta declined to join the army of Alexander the Great because they would not have had a lead role, and did not participate in his historic victory against the Persians. They may have had some great battles but they never came close to mastering the range of skills necessary to establish an empire.

So the next time you see a middle-aged, bearded, chubby, cop or military dude dressed up like Donny Delta Force in morale patches, Velcro and “operator gear” festooned with Spartan helmet insignia, ask yourself this: What are they really laying claim to?

The Greek City States were the world’s earliest democracies. They flourished when they worked together to confront common enemies and fell when they turned against each other. They gave birth to spectacular advances in the sciences, arts, and culture.

Fighters that are tough but stupid have a place. They excel when asked to fight to the death in a situation where there is no possibility of maneuver, only simple weapons are in use, and no long-term strategy is needed.

But we live in an era of evolving, complex, and persistent threat, and we benefit from the design of advanced technology, innovative tactics and forming strategic partnerships.

It’s too bad nobody has come up with a tactical Thespian morale patch.

Gabriel Russell is a Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service. He retired as a Command Sergeant Major from the Army National Guard, and is Founder and Managing Partner Emeritius at Takouba Security, and a volunteer at Code 4 Northwest. He has a Master of Science Degree from Central Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the Evergreen State College. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the Department of Homeland Security, the Army National Guard, or Takouba Security.

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