Sparta and Athens are the two most famous city-states of Ancient Greece. But both were incredibly different not only when it came to their political systems, but especially when it came to their military strengths and weaknesses. While Sparta had the strongest land-based army in ancient Greece, Athens had become the strongest naval power in Ancient Greece over the course of the Greco-Persian Wars. Here you can find out more about why the Persian War catapulted Athens into the position of a major political player and naval power.
But even though Sparta relied on its strong army for most of its history it also had a navy.
The Spartan navy in the Greco-Persian Wars was only 20 triremes strong. After the war, Sparta continued to mostly rely on the ships of its allies and only increased its navy in the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, which was shaped by naval battles in the Aegean Sea. Then Sparta, with financial aid from the Persians, built several large and powerful fleets (like the fleet of Lysander that consisted of 200 triremes) and was eventually able to overpower the Athenian navy.
Let`s take a closer look.
The Size of the Spartan Navy
Just like the size of the Athenian fleet the Spartan fleet also varied in size. But unlike the Athenian navy, the Spartan navy was not massively increased during the Greco-Persian Wars.
At the beginning of the Greco-Persian Wars, the entire Spartan navy consisted of only 20 triremes. So Sparta had to rely on its Greek allies, especially the Corinthians, whenever it needed a strong fleet.
After all, Sparta prided itself on its extremely powerful army and not so much on its navy. That also shows when we look at the units that each member of the Hellenic League contributed to the war against the Persians. By the way, not all of Greece united to fight the Persians. In fact, only a small minority (31 out of more than 1,000 Greek city-states) joined the Hellenic League to fight the Persians.
And when the Greco-Persian Wars were over Sparta did not see the need to drastically increase its navy since its new rival Athens dominated the sea while Sparta itself dominated land-based warfare.
The specialization on different branches of the military was actually one of the reasons why the Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years! The first years (431-425 BC) of the Peloponnesian War were shaped by a stalemate. Each year Sparta with its superior land-based army marched into Attica and devastated the Athenian lands without being able to defeat the Athenians who had withdrawn behind the city walls of Athens. Meanwhile, the superior Athenian navy sailed around the Peloponnese and devastated its coastal lands.
Things only started to move in 425 BC. Not only did the Peloponnesian War lose much of its intensity, Sparta also lost a big part of its navy. In 425 BC a Spartan fleet (or rather a fleet of the Peloponnesian League) that consisted of 60 triremes was handed over to the Athenians to secure a ceasefire. The reason behind that was that a Spartan army, including 120 Spartiates, had been encircled and had to surrender to Athens. So handing over the fleet was an attempt of protecting the captured Spartiates.
Now the whole story might come as a surprise to you. After all, didn`t Spartans have a rule to never surrender? Well, you can find the answer to that in my article here.
So in the early years of the Peloponnesian War Sparta had the superior army and Athens had the superior navy.
But that changed in the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, the so-called Decelean War (413-404 BC). That last phase was mostly shaped by naval battles in the Aegean Sea. So Sparta needed to step it up and build a fleet that was able to defeat the Athenian fleet. But after years of war, both Sparta and Athens were financially strained.
It was at this moment that an old enemy of Athens saw a chance to reintroduce itself into the politics of Greece by financing the construction of new Spartan fleets.
The old enemy I`m talking of was the Persian Empire. I actually wrote an entire article on the alliance between Sparta and the Persian Empire at the end of the Peloponnesian War and the financial aid that Sparta received as a result. So please check it out if you want to learn more. Sparta used the Persian money to drastically increase its navy. Well, actually Sparta had to build several fleets before it could finally defeat the Athenians.
One of these fleets was commanded by a Spartan called Lysander and consisted of 200 triremes. So at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan fleets could match the Athenian fleets.
But they were not only of equal size, they also used the same type of ship.
What Ships Did the Spartan Navy Use?
The Spartans, just like the Athenians (and even the Persians) used triremes. Here you can find a video of how the replica of a trireme is rowed.
The trireme was a 38 – 40 yd (35-37 m) long and 16 – 19 yd wide warship that had a sail and oars. The Trireme was a fast and agile ship that could reach a top speed of 11 mph (18 kmh / 9,7 knots). It was manned by a total of 200 men (including 170 oarsmen, 10 Hoplites, 5-6 archers, and 15 sailors). Until 413 BC most triremes in the Spartan navy were provided by Sparta allies, for example by Corinth.
Ok, so how strong was the Spartan navy?
How Strong Was the Spartan Navy?
Well, the answer to the question of how strong the Spartan navy was depends on the time period we look at.
The Spartan navy in the Greco-Persian Wars was pretty weak since it only consisted of 20 triremes while the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Salamis (at the end of the Greco-Persian Wars) consisted of 253 triremes. In the last phase of the Peloponnesian War (after 413 BC) the Spartan navy grew in size and strength and was eventually bigger and stronger than the Athenian navy. However, the increase in size and strength of the Spartan navy was only possible because of the financial support of the Persian Empire. Needless to say that that support didn`t come for free.
The damage to its reputation that the alliance between Sparta and Persia against Athens caused for Sparta was actually one of the 3 reasons for the downfall of Sparta.
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).*
Jenifer Neils: The Cambridge companion to ancient Athens.*
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