The Spartan hoplites cried foul. The mightiest warriors in ancient Greece had been brought low by the despised bow, a weapon they had traditionally viewed as the preserve of cowards and women. Now, however, hundreds of men in the garrison of Sphacteria had been forced to surrender by a withering hail of Athenian arrows to which they had no response.
The humiliating defeat at Sphacteria in 425 BC proved to be a turning point in Spartan military tactics and organization. It had previously been thought that no Spartan would ever surrender while he yet stood and bore a weapon; certainly past experience had proved the fanatical martial spirit of these indomitable warriors. It was now all too clear that bravery and stoicism stood up poorly to the reach and power of the bow. The Spartans had to adapt or risk losing their vaunted battlefield supremacy.
No one can pinpoint when the bow originated, though evidence suggests it was approximately 15,000 years BC in the south of Europe and in Africa. Bows were then seen in northern Europe in the 9th or 10th millennia BC, when the ice receded northward and trees began to grow there once more. Cave paintings in Spain clearly depict men hunting with bows, and fragments from mid–Stone Age period bows have been unearthed in Germany. An example on display in the National Museum of Scotland dates back more than 6,000 years. In addition to hunting, war bows were used by early Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
The changing fighting styles of the Bronze Age, with armies fighting at close quarters with spear and sword, temporarily placed the bow on the sidelines. New metallurgical advances meant that armor, in the form of shields and cuirasses, offered a degree of protection from arrows that was previously unimaginable. It was in this environment that the Greek hoplite developed, and in which the Spartans’ casual disregard of the bow was born. Certainly events up to the 5th century BC seemed to reinforce their view that bows were of little more than nuisance value in battle; there are few records of the bow playing a decisive role in any Hellenic battle to that date.
That is not to say that archers did not appear in Greek armies in some capacity, typically as skirmishers in auxiliary units. Sparta was a notable exception. The proud, arrogant Spartan hoplites despised archery. Their way—in their eyes the only honorable way—was to fight as heavy infantrymen in close quarters; any other form of combat was viewed as cowardly. For example, Plutarch recorded the words of one Spartan as he lay mortally wounded by an arrow. The warrior was not troubled by his imminent death, only that it should have come at the hands of a “womanish” archer.
In light of this deeply ingrained prejudice, the defeat at Sphacteria must have been extremely traumatic for the entire Spartan army. The battle-hardened, iron-disciplined troops there were heavily armored with composite cuirasses and shields and were well entrenched behind defensive works. And yet to a man they surrendered, after enduring the withering archery of their enemies. This was the first large-scale surrender in Spartan history.
In the wake of defeat, the Spartans did what the vanquished have done throughout history—analyzed what went wrong and then adapted their military structure and training to conform to the lessons harshly learned. Spartans may have been haughty, but they weren’t foolish. Despite their disdain for the bow, it was painfully obvious that archers had to be incorporated into their army if defeats like the one at Sphacteria were to be avoided in the future. And so an archery force of unstated size was raised.
This was no overnight revolution, however. In fact, it seems the Spartans may have taken some time either to resign themselves to the need for archers or to actually incorporate the force into their order of battle. There is, for example, no mention of archers among the Spartan ranks at the First Battle of Mantineia in 418 BC, some seven years after the defeat at Sphacteria.
A few decades later, however, one sees the archer well ingrained in Spartan martial thought. The army of Cyrus the Younger, a pretender to the Persian throne, assembled with Spartan support in 401, included a company of 200 archers. A force of 300 archers accompanied the Spartan infantry at the Battle of Nemea in 394, alongside an even larger force of slingers.
Evidence of how important the archer had become in Spartan military success can be found in events that unfolded in 388 BC. King Agesipolis led his army as far as the walls of Argos, a rival city-state. The Argives remaining in the city panicked at the sight of the approaching enemy host, even shutting the gates on a contingent of allied Boeotian cavalry. The Boeotians were forced to cling like bats to the walls beneath the battlements, where the Spartan hoplites could not reach them with their spears. Contemporary accounts explicitly point out that the Boeotians could have been annihilated where they cowered, if the archers had not been away on a raid.
Just who were these archers who had suddenly become so invaluable? Most were almost certainly Cretans, as Sparta had intimate contact with several Cretan cities, and the tough islanders were noted for their prowess with the bow. Some other companies of archers were raised in Asia Minor in the early 390s, though presumably as mercenaries, and likely only served in Asian campaigns.
Though archers through the ages were traditionally lightly armed and armored, there is evidence the opposite may have been the case in the Spartan army. While the Spartan archer likely wouldn’t have had a shield, which he couldn’t hold while using a bow, he may have been heavily armored with the composite cuirass of the hoplite. If so, this would indicate that archers, as used by the Spartans, were far more than mere skirmishers, and may have been used akin to line troops in battle, exchanging their bows for swords when the situation dictated. If nothing else, it suggests the value Sparta placed upon bowmen.
The decisive and humiliating defeat of the vaunted Spartan hoplite at the siege of Sphacteria brought about a revolution in that aggressive city-state’s military thought. Grudgingly, the proud Spartan infantrymen came to accept the archer as a valuable addition to their army and a necessary component of battlefield success.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.