Ancient Sparta is one of the most famous Greek city-states of Antiquity. Its claim to fame is most likely a combination of its unique military society and the prominent role of the Spartan army in the Persian wars. So because of its famousness, it is quite normal that there are a lot of claims about ancient Sparta.
One of the most common ones is the claim that Spartans never surrendered. But did Sparta really have a rule against surrender? And were there any occasions where Spartans did surrender?
Surrender and cowardness in battle could be punished with the loss of honor (Atimia). Spartans who had surrendered or fled were denounced as „Tresantes“ (tremblers) and treated as social outcasts. But there were instances where surrendering Spartiates were not punished. One example can be found in 425 BC when a Spartan army that included 120 Spartiates surrendered to an Athenian army without being punished afterward.
We will later look at the reason why these surrendering Spartiates were not punished. But let`s take a closer look at whether or not surrender was actually prohibited in Sparta!
So: Did Sparta Have a Rule to Never Surrender?
Spartans who had surrendered or fled were denounced as „Tresantes“ (tremblers) and treated as social outcasts who had lost the privileges they had as full citizens. So there was a strong social pressure to not surrender or flee from the battlefield. (Although the claim that women and mothers told their husbands/ sons to either return on their shield or with it is most likely false)
Yet, there were still occasions when Spartans surrendered without any punishment.
The best example of a Spartan army that surrendered without being punished afterward can be found in the year 425 BC during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).
In 425 BC an army of 420 Spartiate and Perioikoi Hoplites was encircled by an Athenian army. Since there was no hope for reinforcements, the encircled army eventually surrendered and all 120 Spartiates went into captivity. Sparta went to great lengths to free its full citizens. And when it succeeded, the Spartiates who had surrendered were not punished in any way shape or form since Sparta could not afford to lose 120 of its precious full citizens.
Do you want to find out more about the special status of the Spartiates and how they differed from the Perioikoi and the other 2 social groups of Spartan society? Then please check out my article here!
So it shows that because of its declining population of Spartiates Sparta could just not afford to either lose 120 of its precious full-citizens in a lost cause or outcast the surrendering full citizens from Spartan society. However, in the end, that didn`t save Sparta. The decline of the Spartiate population only speeded up during the time of the Peloponnesian War.
The surrender of 120 Spartiate Hoplites was seen as an unexpected sensation and gave Athens a good bargaining chip since Sparta could really not afford to lose 120 of its precious full citizens.
But the Peloponnesian war didn`t end in 425 BC despite the bargaining chip of 120 captured Spartiates. Instead, the war would wage on until 404 BC. But that is a story for another time.
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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