Article of the month: March

Spartan Navy

Article of the month

Modern reconstruction of Greek Trireme

Although the Peloponnesian War is often seen as a conflict between a great sea-power (Athens) and a great land-power (Sparta), and in many history books disparaging remarks about Sparta's "inability" to grasp the importance of sea-power can be found, Sparta ultimately defeated Athens at sea. Clearly, Sparta's pride was her army, not her navy, and clearly the Athenians were the "lords of the sea" throughout the Classical period, but I think it worth noting that the clichés about Sparta's lack of maritime power are overdrawn.

Sparta, unlike Athens, was not dependent on the sea for its very existence. Because it was self-sustaining in food and other necessities from ore to wood, Sparta did not need to trade. Because Sparta was not dependent on trade, it did not need to control the trade routes. It did need to control its bread-basket Messenia, but that could be done with its army. Thus, far from being negligent or backward (as some commentators suggest), the fact that Sparta could deploy a fleet at all is rather surprising.

In fact, based on Herodotus, it is arguable that Sparta had a credible fleet before Athens did. Sparta's first attempt to depose Hippias entailed, we are told, sending an army by sea (5:63) It hardly seems likely that Sparta would have sent their own modest fleet, if they had been facing a major sea-power at the time. True enough, the force dispatched was defeated on land by Thessalian cavalry, but it managed to successfully land troops in Attica, something that seems astonishing if the Athenians had truly had command of the sea at the time.

When Aristagoras convinced the Athenians to aid his rebellion against Persia, we are told the Athenians sent 20 triremes. That is respectable, but not overwhelming considering islands like Chias and Naxos could deploy fleets 100 strong. Obviously, Athens might have consciously chosen not to send too many ships, yet it seems odd they would risk the wrath of Persia with only a token force. Twenty triremes probably represented a sizable portion of their available fleet.

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