The widespread mental image most people seem to have of Spartans is of athletically built, muscular men wearing little more than loincloths and red capes. While it may be a very attractive and masculine image, how much does it resemble the truth of how Spartan warriors looked? Did they wear armor?
The Spartans wore armor, but not nearly as much of it as other warriors wore. Initially, Spartans wore bronze cuirasses, leg greaves, and helmets and carried shields into battle. Eventually, they stopped wearing the cuirasses, added armor to their arms, and changed their helmets.
This article will further explore the typical armor of Spartan warriors, breaking it down into head armor and body armor. It will also discuss the Spartans’ shields, including what they looked like and how the warriors used them.
What Head Protection Did Spartans Have?
During the Classical Age, Spartans wore Corinthian helmets. These covered the entire head and most of the face, leaving rectangular slits for the eyes and a vertical slit that began below the nose and continued to expose the mouth and chin. Later, they swapped to the pilos helmet.
Corinthian helmets* are easily the most recognizable of all the Spartan helmets. In fact, some people even refer to them as “Spartan helms.” However, they originated in Corinth and were used widely by many different countries’ military forces at the time.
*Fun Fact: Popular DC comic book character Doctor Fate wears a version of the original Corinthian helmet, though his doesn’t have the vertical slit revealing his mouth and chin. It does have the same shape and the rectangular eye slits, though.
Furthermore, while many images and depictions of Spartan warriors show them with large crests on top of their Corinthian helmets, most warriors probably didn’t have those.  Instead, the horsehair plumes were likely reserved only for the commanders of the Spartan troops. The same was true for Greek, Roman, and other armies of the period.
The tall crests – sometimes called plumes – made it easy to recognize the commanders on the field, making it easier to protect them or rally to them if the need arose.
While the Corinthian helmets were one of Sparta’s most famous pieces of armor, they weren’t the only helmets the warriors wore. Sometime in the 5th century BC, Spartans switched from the Corinthian helmets’ full facial protection to the cheaper, more easily manufactured pilos helmets.
These were conical-shaped helmets that sat on top of the warriors’ heads and provided some protection against direct attacks to the skull and forehead. However, they did not offer any protection for the face or neck.
Usually made of bronze, these helmets also had a place for a horsehair crest, but it, too, was given only to the troops’ leaders.
What Body Protection Did Spartans Have?
A Spartan warrior’s body protection consisted of a bronze cuirass, leg greaves, thigh armor, a codpiece, and his shield. Later, the Spartans gave up the cuirass in favor of a linothōrax, but eventually, they abandoned upper body armor altogether and added something similar to forearm guards.
Movies and comic books about the Spartans often depict them fighting practically naked, and eventually, they did ditch much of their armor. However, during the Classical Age, they wore several armor pieces, though it wasn’t as much as some of the other warriors in the surrounding countries.
The three main pieces of Spartan body armor were the cuirass, leg greaves, and shield. Some scholars even argue that those were the only body pieces the warriors wore into battle, along with their loin cloth-like bottoms, tunics, or capes (which they usually removed before battle for ease of movement).
Other historians and ancient history aficionados also credit them with wearing codpieces and thigh armor. 
Whatever the case, history shows that eventually, the Spartans exchanged their bronze cuirasses for linothōraxes, which was a type of upper body armor that combined a linen covering with a metal thorax.  Around the same time as this transition, they also adopted leather or metal bracelets, similar to forearm guards.
Sometime before their ultimate defeat in 146 BC, the warriors also abandoned their linothōraxes, choosing instead to fight bare-chested. To some, this may seem like a needlessly risky decision, but the Spartans primarily fought in a phalanx formation that kept them close together and covered by their shields.
In such a formation, the only armor they really needed – aside from their shields – were their helmets to protect them from an overhead assault. They kept their leg greaves, though, and some historians insist they retained their thigh armor and codpieces, as well.
Did Spartans Have Shields?
Spartans had shields that they relied on almost as much as the Vikings did theirs. Their shields were round and traditionally emblazoned with the letter lambda, which represented Sparta, as it was the first letter of the region where Sparta was located.
Though some history lovers insist that not all Spartan warriors decorated their shields with the famous lambda letter, an early reference by Athenian poet Eupolisto mentions rival warriors fleeing from the sight of the lambda on Spartan shields.
This reference suggests that the lambda decoration was popular enough that people at the time would be able to understand Eupolisto’s reference, meaning it was probably very commonplace. Still, archaeologists have found enough Spartan shields over the years to prove that not every Spartan soldier decorated his shield that way.
Other decorations include geometric designs, other letters, and even crude images.
No matter how they decorated them, Spartan warriors relied heavily on their shields. As has already been mentioned, they fought in the phalanx formation, keeping warriors shoulder to shoulder, organized row upon row. 
Each soldier held his shield on his left side, which protected him and the blind spot of the soldier to his left. That soldier was usually his brother, father, or other close family member or friend, giving him even more incentive to protect him just as he would defend himself. They held their spears through the wall of shields and fought from behind that wall.
If a soldier were injured or killed, someone from the same spot in the row behind would move forward, closing up the ranks. Without the shields, these maneuvers would’ve been impossible.
Contrary to what pop culture portrays, Spartans wore armor. They didn’t, however, wear an overabundance of it, preferring the protection of their shields instead.