Most people have heard of the famous Spartan warriors who were as ferocious and renowned for their fighting skills as any warrior class in the world. Sparta’s entire culture focused on battle strategy, fighting, the military, and war, making them an incredibly powerful nation. They won many victories over the years and attained great renown, but were they ever defeated?
Sparta lost the Laconian War. They also lost some individual battles. Sparta’s most famous battle losses were at the Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians and the Battle of Leuctra against the Thebes. Other Spartan defeats occurred in the Battles of Tegyra, Naxos, Haliartus, Cyzicus, and Pylos.
This article will discuss whether the Spartans really were as good at fighting as history says they were. It will also outline who Sparta’s rivals were and how the age of Spartan rule finally came to an end. After all, it didn’t happen precisely the way the movie 300 made it seem.
Were Spartans Good Fighters?
Spartan men were excellent fighters. They were raised as warriors from childhood, and even the women were expected to be strong and fierce in their own way. Spartan warriors often receive a lot of hype for being the best fighters of their age, but most of it is well-deserved.
Spartans were such good warriors because of the militaristic training they received beginning when they were seven years old.  At that time, the state took boys from their parents and forced them into a communal living situation that trained them to become fierce warriors.
Boys were stripped practically naked, refused food and shelter, and told to survive through any means necessary. These “means” included stealing food, fighting one another for resources and status, or hunting their own food.
And just because they were encouraged to steal doesn’t mean they were allowed. If caught, the state punished them severely with public floggings. Sometimes, they received these floggings for no reason other than to toughen them up.  They were also taught to fight, of course.
If the boys survived this “training” – which lasted for the next 13 years – they became full citizens of Sparta, which also meant they became Spartan soldiers. Full citizenship didn’t mean their training ended, however.
They continued learning the arts of war, battle strategies, and how to fight in the typical hoplite phalanx formation favored by the Spartans. 
Not All Spartans Were Renowned Warriors
Despite the rigorous training and the fame of Spartan warriors and leaders, not all men earned the same esteem. Boys born cripple or lame were often abandoned shortly after birth.
For the most part, those who weren’t abandoned grew up to be viciously mocked and criticized. (There were exceptions, however. For example, some scholars maintain that King Agesilaus II of Sparta was born lame, though others argue “lame” only meant that he was bastard-born.)
Even so, the lesser-known Spartan warrior Brasidas also wasn’t the bravest and boldest of men. At one battle, he charged recklessly into the fray, was shot repeatedly with arrows, and fainted, losing his shield in the process. 
However, he took that experience and learned from it. He became one of the cleverest and most diplomatic Spartans ever, and he won many battles because of it. However, most of his victories had more to do with his quick wits and sharp mind than his battle prowess.
Who Were the Rivals of the Spartans?
The Spartans had many rivals throughout history, including the Persians, Argives, Thebes, Arcadians, and the Macedonians. However, the Spartans’ most significant rivals were the Athenians. The two city-states fought in dozens of battles against each other and hated one another fiercely.
Everything about Athens and Sparta was different, leading the two city-states to continuously get on each other’s nerves and be at each other’s throats.
The following chart outlines some of the key differences between the two (and a few similarities):
|Form of Government||Military society; an oligarchy of sorts||Democracy|
|Interests and Key Areas of Study||Battle strategy; military training||Arts and sciences, philosophy|
|The Role of Women||Spartan women had more freedom and ran the households; they received formal education and could own land||Athenian women were more subservient and rarely left their homes|
|Formal Education||Both men and women received an education, including physical fitness-like training||Men were educated in academic subjects and warfare; women were uneducated|
|Economy||Focused primarily on conquests and farming||Trade-based economy|
|Military Strength||More powerful on land (army)||More powerful on water (navy)|
|Primary Fighting Style||Phalanx formation||Phalanx formation|
|Religion||Polytheistic; worshiped the Greek gods||Polytheistic; worshiped the Greek gods|
Though the two had some things in common, their differences were too many to overcome. As a result, the two city-states fought many, many battles.
Ultimately, the Spartans won the Peloponnesian War with Athens, but Athens won its share of battles over the course of their long feud, as well.
How Did Sparta End?
Sparta ended with its defeat in the Laconian War. However, they lost much of their power in 371 BC when they lost the Battle of Leuctra against the Thebes. Afterward, they could never rebuild their strength or reclaim their power and authority. Finally, the Achaean League absorbed Sparta in 146 BC.
The Spartans suffered their first great defeat in 371 BC at the Battle of Leuctra. After that, they were never fully able to recover. According to scholars, there were three primary contributing factors to the fall of Sparta:
- Population decline
- A shift in Spartan values
- Sparta’s insistence on conservatism and resistance to change 
They hung onto their statehood for several decades after their defeat in 371 BC, but they lost more and more battles and territory. Eventually, after losing several battles to the Achaean League – a unified group of city-states – they stopped fighting and joined with them in 146 BC.
The Spartans were fearsome warriors who deserved all the respect given to them. However, even the best warriors can be defeated, and Sparta eventually was.