There is the idea that a Spartan warrior rather died than retreated from battle. That idea is so popular, that even Hermann Göring drew a parallel between the last defenders of Stalingrad (who were prohibited from retreating) and the 300 Spartans.
But is the idea that Spartans never retreated really historically accurate?
Sparta didn`t have a law or a code of honor that prohibited a tactical retreat. Atimia (the loss of honor) was a punishment for cowardness in battle, not for a tactical retreat. In fact, Spartan armies regularly retreated when the battle went ill for them.
Let`s take a closer look.
Ok. So did Sparta have a rule to never retreat?
Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that Spartan society was extremely strict and forced Spartiates to live in barracks until they turned 30. There were two good reasons why Sparta forces its full citizens to live in barracks for 12 years of their adult lives, but these reasons are a story for another time.
With that in mind, it does not seem out of the ordinary to assume that Sparta might have had a law that severely punished retreating soldiers. But that was not the case!
There was no law or code of honor in place that prohibited Spartiates from performing a tactical retreat when necessary.
Since the population decline of Spartiates was one of the major reasons for the downfall of Sparta it would have been quite unwise to always fight to the bitter end without the option of retreating from a hopeless situation.
And there were actually several occasions in which a Spartan army retreated.
One of which, that is reported by the Greek historian and writer Xenophon* , is especially interesting. The Spartan phalanx usually advanced slowly against the enemy`s phalanx in hopes that the enemy would get scared and flee without a fight. However, when the Spartan phalanx advanced against the hostile Phalanx, the opposing phalanx stood its ground. But since both armies were of basically equal strength the Spartans were not too keen on fighting.
So they retreated to once again slowly and menacingly advance toward the opposing phalanx. But once again the hostile Hoplites stood their ground. That spectacle was repeated until the Spartans realized that their enemy would not break and flee. But since Sparta didn`t want to fight under these conditions, the Spartan army itself withdrew from the battlefield.
I always found that story fascinating. And it shows that the Spartiates carefully chose their battles and tried not to fight in battles that were staked against them. That, in my opinion, makes Sparta much more interesting than its one-dimensional cliche version.
Ok, so Spartiates were not prohibited from performing a tactical retreat. But what about the most famous of all Spartan battles: The Battle of Thermopylae in August of 480? There, the Spartans didn`t retreat?
So why did Leonidas and his Spartans not retreat from the Battle of Thermopylae when there was no Spartan law that prohibited a tactical retreat? Well, I wrote an entire article on the topic of why Leonidas and his Spartans chose not to retreat (even though there was no law against a retreat). Please feel free to check it out!
And if you are interested in whether or not Spartans were allowed to surrender you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*
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