A Brief History
Despite being known for their formidable military, Sparta has actually suffered as many if not more famous defeats as they have won victories in battle. Therefore, we ask, “Is Sparta’s much celebrated military actually overrated?” Please examine the list of their battle record below and let us know your thoughts in the comments using Disqus!
Digging Deeper: 22 Spartan Defeats
In 669/8 BC, the Argives defeated Sparta in the First Battle of Hysiae.
In c. 550 BC, the Arcadians defeated Sparta in the Battle of the Fetters.
On either August 20 or September 8-10, 480 BC, the Persians defeated the Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae. Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) claimed the Greek city-states had a total strength of 5,200+ versus 2,500,000 Persians in the battle, with the Greeks suffering 4,000 casualties and losses, including the death of Spartan king Leonidas I (r. 489–480 BC), versus ~20,000 Persian casualties and losses. Nevertheless, the Greek city-states (including Sparta) ultimately won the war against Persia.
In 429 BC, Athens with 20 triremes defeated Sparta, Corinth, and other members of the Peloponnesian League with 47 triremes in the Battle of Rhium. While Athens suffered no casualties or losses, 12 ships, with most of their crews, on the other side were captured.
Also in 429 BC., Athens again defeated the Peloponnesians (League of Corinth and Sparta) in the Battle of Naupactus. This time, Athens had 40 ships against 77 ships. Athens lost 8 ships captured versus at least one ship sunk and 6 ships captured on the Peloponnesian side.
In 425 BC, Athens defeated Sparta in the Battle of Pylos. Athens had 50 ships, 90 hoplites, and ~540 light troops. Sparta had 60 ships and an unknown number of troops. Athens lost 8 ships; Sparta lost 18 ships.
In 411 BC, Athens with 76 ships defeated Sparta with 86 ships in the Battle of Cynossema. Athens lost 15 ships; Sparta lost 21 ships.
In 410 BC, Athens defeated Sparta and allies in the Battle of Abydos. Athens had 74 ships plus 18 ships as reinforcements against Sparta and allies’ 97 ships. Athenian losses were minimal, but Sparta and allies lost 30 ships.
In 410 BC, Athens defeated Sparta and Persia in the Battle of Cyzicus. Athens’s 86 triremes triumphed over 80 triremes with Athens sustaining minimal losses, whereas Athens’s enemies lost the entire fleet!
In 406 BC, Athens, despite losing 25 of 155 ships, defeated Sparta, which lost 70 of 120 ships, in the Battle of Arginusae. Nevertheless, despite the defeats listed above that occurred from 429 BC to 406 BC, The Pelopponesian League led by Sparta did ultimately win the Peloponessian War over The Delian League led by Athens. Yet, Athens would fight against Sparta again soon enough…
In 403 or 404 BC, Athenian exiles consisting of 700 infantry defeated the Spartan garrison of Athens consisting of 700 infantry and two divisions of cavalry. Athenian exile casualties and losses were light, but 123 Spartans were killed.
In 403 or 404 BC, the Battle of Munichia was fought between 1,000 Athenians exiled by the oligarchic government of the Thirty Tyrants and the several thousand forces of that government, supported by a Spartan garrison. In the battle, a substantially superior force composed of the Spartan garrison of Athens and the army of the oligarchic government attacked a hill in Piraeus (the Munychia) which had been seized by 1,000 exiles, but was defeated. The Athenian exiles’ casualties and losses were light; their opponents, however, lost 70 men killed.
In 395 BC, Thebes defeated Sparta in the Battle of Haliartus. The Spartan leader Lysander, the triumphant hero of the Peloponnesian War, died in this battle.
In 394 BC, Athens and Persia’s 90 triremes defeated Sparta’s 85 triremes in the Battle of Cnidus. Athens and Persia’s losses were minimal, but Sparta lost an entire fleet! The war ended inconclusively with Persia dictating peace.
In 391 BC, Athens with a force composed almost entirely of peltasts (light infantry) defeated 600 Spartan hoplites (heavy infantry) in the Battle of Lechaeum. Athenian casualties and losses were minimal, but 250 Spartans were killed. The historical significance of this battle is that it marked the first occasion in Greek history where a force composed primarily of light troops defeated a hoplite force.
In 376 BC, Classical Athens defeated Sparta in the Battles of Naxos.
In 375 BC, 300 from Thebes defeated 1,000-1,800 Spartans in the Battle of Tegyra.
In 371 BC, the Boeotian League led by Thebes, consisting of 6,000–7,000 hoplites and 1,500 cavalry, defeated 10,000–11,000 Spartan hoplites and another 1,000 Spartan cavalry in the Battle of Leuctra. According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, the victors lost only 300 versus 4,000+ casualties and losses on the loser’s side.
In 331 BC, 40,000 Macedonians defeated 22,000 Spartans (20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry) in the Battle of Megalopolis. Macedonian casualties and losses numbered 3,500, whereas Spartan casualties and losses numbered 5,300 and included Spartan King Agis III.
In 222 BC, Macedon and the Achaean League with 28,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry defeated Sparta’s about 20,000 infantry and 650 cavalry in the Battle of Sellasia. Although Macedonian and Achaean casualties and losses were substantial, Sparta’s casualties and losses were heavy with 5,800 Spartans having died.
In 207 BC, the Achaean League defeated Sparta in the Battle of Mantinea.
In 195 BC, about 50,000 men fought for an alliance of Rome, the Achaean League, Rhodes, Pergamum, and and Macedon against Sparta in the Battle of Gythium. The allies won.
Digging Deeper: 15 Spartan Victories
Sparta has however won a number of victories, although you might notice this list is actually shorter than the list of Spartan defeats. These include the following battles:
In c. 682 BC, Sparta won a decisive victory over Messenia and Arcadia in the Battle of the Great Foss.
In 457 BC, 11,500 Spartans defeated 14,000 Athenians in the Battle of Tanagra. Casualties and losses for the battle are unknown.
In 494 BC, Sparta defeated Argos in the Battle of Sepeia. Argos’s casualties and losses numbered 6,000.
In 417 BC, in the Second Battle of Hysiae, the Spartans captured the Argive town of Hysiae, taking all the male citizens as hostages before subsequently killing the hostages.
In 411 BC, 9,000 Spartans defeated 8,000 Athenians in the Battle of Syme. Spartan casualties and losses numbered 900, whereas Athens’s casualties and losses numbered 2,900!
In September 411 BC, 8,000 Spartans defeated 11,000 Athenians in the Battle of Eretria. Sparta’s casualties and losses numbered 1,100; Athens’s casualties and losses numbered 4,000+.
In 406 BC, Sparta with 90 ships managed to defeat Athens with 80 ships at the Battle of Notium. Sparta suffered no casualties, but Athens lost 15-22 ships.
Also in 406 BC, Sparta’s 170 ships defeated Athens’s 70 ships in the Battle of Mytilene.
In 405 BC, 180 ships fighting for Sparta, Persia, Corinth, and the Peloponnesian League won the decisive Battle of Aegospotami over 170 ships fighting for Athens and the Delian League. While Spartan losses were minimal, Athens lost 150 ships and also 3,000 sailors who were executed. Athens was then besieged. Athens’s surrender ended the Peloponnesian War.
In 403 BC, Sparta defeated Athenian exiles in the Battle of Piraeus. Although Spartan losses are unknown, over 180 Athenian exiles were killed.
In 394 BC, 18,000 Spartan hoplites defeated 24,000 hoplites from Thebes, Argos, Athens, and Corinth in the Battle of Nemea at a cost of 1,100 dead or wounded Spartans and 2,800 dead or wounded Thebans, Argives, Athenians, and Corinthians.
In 394 BC, Sparta and Orchomenus with a strength of 15,000 defeated Thebes, Argos, and allies with a strength of 20,000 in the Battle of Coronea. The victors suffered casualties and losses numbering 350 versus the losers suffering casualties and losses numbering 600.
In Spring 272 BC, 2,000+ Spartans and Macedonians defeated 27,000 men and 24 elephants from Epirus in the Siege of Sparta. Casualties and losses were heavy on both sides.
In 227 BC, Sparta defeated the Achaean League in the Battle of Mount Lycaeum. Spartan losses were light, but the Achcaean League’s losses were heavy.
In 226 BC, Sparta again defeated the Achaean League in the decisive Battle of Dyme. Sparta’s forces included 9,000-11,000 as King Cleomenes III (r. 235–222 BC) trained 4,000 new hoplites to his force of 5,000 already active hoplites, while 600 of the total may have been cavalry. The Achaean League had about 20,000 total soldiers of which about 800-1000 were cavalry. Spartan casualties and losses were low, but the Achaean League’s losses were heavy.
Digging Deeper: Two Inconclusive Results
Other battles involving Sparta had less clear outcomes.
In c. 684 BC, Messenia battled Sparta to disputed results in the Battle of Deres.
In 546 BC, Argos and Sparta each pitted 300 men against each other in the indecisive Battle of the 300 Champions with 299 of Sparta’s 300 being casualties or lost and 298 of Argos’s 300 being casualties or lost.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is Sparta’s much celebrated military actually overrated? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hutchinson, Godfrey. Sparta: Unfit for Empire. Frontline Books, 2015.
Rahe, Paul Anthony. The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (Yale Library of Military History). Yale University Press, 2017.
Rusch, Dr. Scott M. Sparta At War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns, 950–362 BC. Frontline Books, 2011.
The featured image in this article, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by Jacques-Louis David, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.