ARRSE BOOK REVIEW: SPARTA AT WAR by Scott M Rusch


(This review was originally posted on http://www.arrse.co.uk and is reposted here with their kind consent)

Most ARRSE members will be vaguely aware of the martial exploits of the Spartans, notably the heroic, last man defence of their king Leonidas and 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. If you want to find out more about Sparta’s military power then this could well be the book for you. Rusch covers a broad sweep of history which covers the rise and fall of Sparta and their protagonists, mostly the city of Athens.

The first chapters deal with how Sparta was organised, and why its heavy infantry (Hoplites) were so effective. The answer will be no surprise to any British soldier; committed training, excellent leadership and plenty of practice. Rusch describes in detail how combat worked, with serried ranks of Hoplites closing shield to shield, and then pushing, shoving, stabbing and slicing their way to victory. The Spartan superiority was that they were better drilled, and so were able to manoeuvre cohesively in this challenging environment while lesser armies could not.

We then are taken chronologically through the two centuries of Sparta’s rise and fall. Wars between the Greek city states involved an ever shifting pattern of alliance, treachery and combat. The main alliances were centred round Sparta, which dominated land warfare, and Athens, whose navy was superb. There were periods of peace but these were undermined by junior allies pursuing their own agenda against other city states, regardless of the current alliances. Generals of the time had to be orators, politicians and diplomats as well as leaders and commanders. They also had to be on good terms with oracles and priests, as almost any action was preceded by sacrifice to read the omens; if they were bad they would not fight, no matter how attractive the tactical picture.

Unfortunately the book sometimes becomes a litany of names and unruly, long sentences. For example; “The Lacedaemonians brought aid to The Dorians with 1,500 hoplites of their own and 10,000 of their allies, led by Nicomedes son of Cleombrutus on behalf of King Pleistoanax, the son of Pausanias, who was still a youth, and compelling the Phocians to yield the city by agreement they began homeward,” Thucydides reports.

There is no single map that show the locations of all the city states, nor is there a glossary of the key players. The number of characters involved is inevitably huge given the two centuries covered by the book, and the Spartans quaint tradition of having two kings exacerbates this. Although the book abounds with maps, they are not always helpful and frustratingly often places referred to in text are not identified on the maps.

Not all the contemporary chroniclers were dispassionate observers and often they produce conflicting accounts. The author’s analysis of them all and then justifying his selection does not aid clarity. Nordoes the occasional inclusion of original Greek terms and the translation. This is not an easy book to read. It would benefit from less detail or many more pages.

However the tale is one worth reading. There are obvious parallels between allied armies of small city states pursing their own agenda within a larger war and ISIL today. Similarly the source of Spartan power, a small but well trained, motivated and led infantry might ring the odd bell among ARRSE members, especially when it is revealed that the Spartans never really got the hang of cavalry.

Wisdom is not supposed to be easy to attain, and on that basis I award this epic work 3 out of 5.