Rome and Sparta had some of the most legendary fighting forces in the ancient world. The two empires also existed in close geographical proximity to one another. Inevitably, this gives rise to speculation on how Roman and Spartan armies would have matched up if they met on a battlefield.
The Romans fought the Spartans on at least one occasion, although not single-handedly. The two armies met when a Roman-led coalition of Greek states took on Sparta in the Laconian War of 195 B.C. Rome’s allies in this war included the Achaean League, Macedon, Pergamum, and Rhodes.
This article will compare the fighting capabilities of Roman and Spartan armies. It will explain whether the Roman and Spartan empires existed simultaneously and answer who won when the Romans fought the Spartans.
Were the Romans or Spartans a More Formidable Fighting Force?
The Roman army was a more formidable fighting force than the Spartan army. It was numerically much larger than the Spartan army. As the first professional military in history, the Roman army was better organized and financed and used superior tactical formations and strategy than the Spartans.
Spartans are justifiably famous for their fighting prowess. Not only was their society built around a warrior cult, but the Spartans also repeatedly proved their might in battle. Their fierce reputation as fighters made them the natural leaders of the Greek states in the Greco-Persian War.
However, the Spartan state was geographically limited. Even at its peak, it never extended further than the Greek isles.
In comparison, Rome was a colossus. Its sprawling empire spanned much of Europe and extended into North Africa, dwarfing all the earlier Greek states, including Sparta. At its apex, the Roman Empire was the most extensive unified political system in the western world.
To build and defend this enormous territory, Rome needed to raise and maintain a vast and well-administered fighting force. They brought all the administrative acumen that went into running a vast empire to military administration.
While Sparta drew its warriors from Spartan citizens, the Roman army included non-Roman conscripts. The Romans recruited their soldiers from every corner of the empire and deployed them far and wide on a permanent basis. They even paid mercenaries to fight in their army.
According to the World History Encyclopedia, Rome maintained a 350,000 strong army throughout its Imperial period.  In the ancient world, these were massive numbers. There was no other force of comparable strength in all of Europe.
Roman soldiers were full-time and dedicated military men, unlike Greek warriors who were landowning farmers. They served a mandatory term and were paid for their service, including pensions consisting of a plot of land post-retirement. The Roman army was also equipped with fighting gear by the state, whereas the Spartans had to pay for their weapons.
Another very significant advantage that the Roman army had over the Spartans was in tactical formations and strategy. Like Spartans and other Greeks, the Romans had started out fighting in the dense infantry formations known as phalanxes. 
Phalanxes consisted of 8 to 25 ranks of men armed with spears and shields. Their strength lay in their massed numbers, which gave them great staying power in standing battles on open ground.
However, phalanxes were also hard to maneuver over rough terrain and vulnerable to attacks from the rear and flanks. Fighting in phalanxes also made it hard to replace tired soldiers with fresh ones.
The Romans eventually refined these tactics. Later, Roman soldiers fought in smaller, more nimble units known as maniples.  Manipular formations had several advantages over fighting in phalanxes.
Fighting in maniples gave the Romans greater flexibility than the Spartans, as maniples could maneuver more quickly than phalanxes. Fighting in maniples also made it easier to protect against attacks from the rear and flanks and better navigate uneven terrain.
Finally, the Roman soldiers fighting in maniples used swords instead of spears. This made Roman soldiers more effective in combat at close quarters than Spartans, who used spears.
Did the Roman Empire and Sparta Exist at the Same Time?
The Roman Empire and Sparta did not exist at the same time. Although Rome and Sparta were founded within two centuries of each other, Rome did not become an empire until 27 B.C. By then, Sparta had lost its status as an independent state.
Sparta was founded in 900 B.C. and grew to prominence as a military force in the Hellenistic world when it took leadership of the combined Greek forces in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 4th century B.C.
Sparta maintained its independence until the Roman Republic conquered it in 146 B.C. It continued to be a Roman protectorate until the Visigoths sacked it in 396 A.D.
Rome was founded in 753 B.C. but it did not become an empire until 27 B.C. when Augustus Caesar became its first emperor. Rome grew rapidly until it was split into two halves by Emperor Diocletian in 285 A.D.
The Western Roman Empire continued to exist until 476 A.D., when it was defeated by the forces of the Germanic king Odoacer. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire existed until 1453 A.D. when it fell to the Ottoman Turks.
So, while the existence of Rome and Sparta overlapped for over a thousand years, the Roman and Spartan empires did not coexist. By the time Rome became an empire, Sparta had ceased to be one.
Who Won When the Romans Fought the Spartans?
When the Romans fought the Spartans, the Romans won. Rome and her allies, the Achaean League, Macedon, Pergamum, and Rhodes, defeated Sparta in the Laconian War of 195 B.C. This defeat played a significant part in the demise of the Spartan empire.
After the Laconian War, Sparta was forced to accept peace on Roman terms. Sparta agreed to pay a war indemnity to Rome for eight years and ceded political control of its territory to the Achaean League. As a result, Sparta permanently lost its status as an independent state and a preeminent power in the Greek world.
In 147 B.C., Sparta left the Achaean League and became a Roman colony a year later. Sparta continued to be a Roman protectorate until the Visigoths sacked it in 396 A.D. Thus, the Romans played a significant role in the demise of the Spartan Empire.
The Romans and their allies fought and defeated Sparta in the Laconian War of 195 B.C., contributing to the eventual demise of the Spartan empire.