When we think of ancient Greek armies then we usually first think of the Spartan army. And indeed, Sparta was not only a military state, the Spartan army was also the strongest and most feared land-based army throughout most of Classical Greece.
But how big was the Spartan army? And how big were the armies of other Greek states?
The largest Greek army fought in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC and consisted of 60,000 men (including 38,000 Hoplites). But that kind of army size was the exception. The armies of most Greek city-states were only a couple of hundred men strong. But it was quite common that allies joined their armies so that the individual contingents of only a couple of hundred men formed one army of a couple of thousand men.
A good example of such a joint army can be found at the Battle of Thermopylae, more on that here and at the very end of this article.
But let`s now take a closer look and start out by looking at the size of the Spartan army.
The Size of the Spartan Army
The size of the Spartan army, just like the number of Spartiates (the full citizens of Sparta) decreased drastically over time. One reason for that decrease was the strictness of Spartan society, that – unlike Roman society – didn`t really allow social mobility. That decrease was actually one of the 3 reasons for the downfall of Sparta.
But even during its prime Sparta only had 9,000 Spartiates, full citizens with all privileges and duties (like the duty of serving as Hoplites). By the way, that number of not more than 9000 Spartiates is rooted in the origins of Sparta, more on that here.
However, even at the time when Sparta still had 9,000 Spartiates that didn`t mean that all of them were called to arms. Spartiates usually only made up a minority in a Spartan army. By the way, the Spartiates fought as Hoplites in a phalanx formation.
Now that might sound odd, but let me explain.
Sparta (just like Athens) controlled a huge number of other Greek city-states through alliances. So not only the Spartiates had to answer the call when Sparta raised an army. The other members of the Peloponnesian League (the alliance led by Sparta) also had to contribute soldiers to the army. And even in an exclusively Spartan army, the Spartiates were only a minority since other population groups aside from the full citizens also had to participate in wars (even though they had no political say).
Let`s look at several Spartan armies throughout history to get a better idea of that. First I would like to look at the Battle of Plataea, one of the 4 major battles of the Greco-Persian Wars.
In the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC the army of the Hellenic League defeated the Persian army and ended the Greco-Persian Wars. The Greek army consisted of 60,000 men, 5,000 of them were Spartiates. Just for comparison, the total number of Spartiates was probably around 8,000 in 480 BC. So the fact that 5,000 of these 8,000 Spartiates fought in the Battle of Plataea shows just how important that battle was.
Speaking of the Hellenic League and the Greek fight against the Persians. Many movies portray the idea that all of Greece came together to fight the Persians. But that is actually not true, only a small minority of Greek city-states joined forces against the Persians!
Ok, so the army that fought in the Battle of Plataea included 5,000 Spartiates. But soon after the end of the Persian Wars, the number of Spartiates started to dwindle. There were multiple reasons for that, one was a devastating earthquake in 464 BC.
And that declining number of Spartiates also affected the size of the Spartan army.
The total size of the army of the Peloponnesian League, the alliance led by Sparta, at the start of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was 30,000 Hoplites. But only 2680 of these 30,000 Peloponnesian Hoplites were Spartiates. In total the military potential of the city of Sparta (without aid from its allies) was only 6700 men in 425 BC. And only 40% (2680) of them were Spartiates, the rest were Perioikoi, Mothakes or even freed Helots.
That military potential only went down as the Peloponnesian War dragged on since unusually high casualties could not be replaced. One of the reasons why these casualties could not be replaced was the fact that the Spartiates lived away from their wives in barracks for most of their lives.
But even in 425 BC, when the army of the Peloponnesian League was still relatively intact, the army did usually not operate as a whole but in smaller, appropriate-sized detachments.
One example of such a smaller army during the Peloponnesian War can be found in the year 422 BC when an army of 900 Spartan Hoplites was sent to Thrace. And after the Peloponnesian War in the year 390 BC a Spartan army of 600 Hoplites was crushed by an Athenian army that was reinforced by mercenaries. 250 of the 600 Spartan Hoplites lost their lives in that engagement.
That casualty rate was extremely high since the normal casualty rate of Hoplite battles was much lower (even in the case of a defeat). These high casualties that could not be compensated would eventually lead to the downfall of Sparta. But that is a story for another time.
Ok, to sum up this part of the article:
Sparta at its peak could muster up to 9000 Spartiates but that number declined over time. In 425 BC the military potential of Sparta (without its allies) was 6700 Hoplites of which only 2680 were Spartiates. Other Greek states could also raise large armies, Sparta’s rival Argos had a military potential of up to 5000 Hoplites in the year 550 BC.
Do you want to find out more about Sparta and whether or not Spartiates were really prohibited from retreating? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But now I would also like to talk about other Greek armies and their size since not only Sparta was able to field large armies.
The Size of Ancient Greek Armies
A good example of the military potential of another Greek city-state is the city-state of Argos, an old rival of Sparta. By the way, Argos was also one of the many Greek city-states that didn`t join the fight against the Persians in 480 BC.
The Greek city-state of Argos had a total military potential of 5000 Hoplites in the year 550 BC. Since only those citizens who were wealthy enough to afford the armament of a Hoplite fought as Hoplites we can assume that there was also an even larger number of less wealthy citizens who fought as light infantry.
But again, just because a Greek city-state had a military potential of 5000 men it didn`t send out armies of 5000 men.
A good example of the size of the contingents that were contributed by the individual Greek city-states to a combined army can be found in the Greek army that fought at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The roughly 7000 men strong Greek army at the Battle of Thermopylae was made up of 4000 Peloponnesian Hoplites from different city-states on the Peloponnese (Including 300 Spartiates), 700 Thespian Hoplites, 400 Hoplites from Thebes, 1000 Phocian warriors, and an unclear number of Opuntian Locrians.
So the Greek army that fought at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC is one, but not the only example, of an army that was made up of the detachments of several Greek city-states.
The armies of most Greek city-states were only a couple of hundred men strong. But it was quite common that allies joined their armies so that the individual contingents of only a couple of hundred men made formed one army of a couple of thousand men.
The largest Greek army consisted of 60,000 men (including 38,000 Hoplites) and fought in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. But such big armies were the exception, most were only a couple of hundred men strong. And on many occasions, the army consisted of detachments from different Greek city-states. All Peloponnesian city-states sent a combined total of 4000 Hoplites (including 300 Spartiates) for the Battle of Thermopylae while the city of Thebes sent 400 Hoplites and the city of Thespiae sent 700 Hoplites.
Do you want to find out more about why the Greeks decided to fight at the passage of Thermopylae in the first place? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the size of the Persian army they faced.
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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