Book Review: Spartan Warrior 735-331 BC
With spear in one hand and shield in the other, we step into the phalanx with Paul Robinson while he attacks Osprey's dissection of the life of the Spartan warrior.
Author: Duncan B. Campbell
Publisher: Osprey Publishing, 2012.
So you’ve seen the movie and maybe even read the comic book 300. Now, find the truth about those most famous of military nations—the Spartans! Written by Duncan Campbell and illustrated by Steve Noon, an artist fast becoming an Osprey Publishing stalwart, this is one of the latest offerings from that company’s Warrior series.
The book is specifically about the Spartiates. They are the core of the Spartan army; the true born Spartans. They underwent a harsh upbringing and an intense military training to become the living walls of Sparta. Mention is made of the other groups who eventually made up the majority of the Spartan army (the Neodamodeis, freed helots and the Perioikoi)—the Spartans immediate neighbours. But the book’s focus is on those men who most famously fought and died at the epic battle of Thermopylae. The book covers their history from the time of the King Lykourgos (who laid down the law of Sparta and started them on their course to become the most feared army in Greece for centuries), through the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, to their decline to become one of history’s also-rans. And this is all set out in the “Chronology” at the start.
The text concentrates on the Spartan warrior in adulthood (although that really didn’t fully start until a Spartan was thirty, in military sense) and doesn’t dwell on the rigours of a Spartan childhood. The layout of the Warrior series books is fairly standard with chapters on “Training & Education”, “Dress and Appearance”, “Equipment”, “Military Service”, “Belief & Belonging” and the “Warrior in Battle”. These are followed by a section on “Further Reading”, a useful “Glossary” and “Abbreviations” relating to sources used.
One of the great things about the Spartans is that they seemed to have produced many quotable quotes. The author re-produces a number here. You may have heard of the one where a mother says to her son come back with it or on it, referring to his shield. My favourite quote in this book is this: A son says to his mother that his sword is too short (the Spartans apparently were known for the shortness of their blades). Her reply? “Add a stride to it”!
A fascinating thing that came out of the text for me was Mr. Campbell’s discussion on Spartan shield blazons. Now as a wargamer myself, I have fought against numerous Spartan hoplite shield walls all emblazoned with the Lambda symbol—basically an upside down “V”. This design is often shown in illustrations of Spartan hoplites in a number of books I possess. Now I suspect this is the subject of scholarly debate amongst the cognoscenti, but it appears that this may be incorrect. There seems to have been a period where Spartan hoplites could, and would, put any design on their shields (with some favourites being the Gorgon and the Cockerel). But when city emblems became established (for example, the city of Thebes used a club) it seems there is little evidence for the use of the Lambda by Sparta on its shields. In fact, it is mentioned that the lack of a symbol on the shield was the Spartan equivalent of telling the enemy to… errr... “foxtrot oscar”. In other words, an extremely strong Anglo-Saxon phrase for telling someone you no longer appreciate their presence and would really like them to go away.
The artwork by Steve Noon is generally very good. There are seven full colour plates; a couple showing the battle gear of the Spartiates. These pictures are clean and simple as befits the spartan-nature (no pun intended) of the men themselves. In their ultimate incarnation they went to war with just spear, shield, short sword and a light helmet.
Two of the plates show action scenes. One is the Spartan battle line at Plataia in 479 BC (note: I have given the spellings of Greek names and places as used by the author). It shows them enduring a Persian arrow storm as the priests make a sacrifice of a goat to read the omens. While I cannot fault the artwork, I thought the composition itself lacked realism. The Spartan hoplites are shown in their earlier equipment of full helmets, shield and body armour; and are clearly under a heavy barrage—with arrows sticking out of their shields. The priests, meanwhile, stand in the frontline unarmoured, seemingly immune from the worst the Persians can throw at them. Having said that, the plate is extremely useful for modellers and wargamers as a painting guide; with a number of great shield patterns to emulate!
The other action sequence shows the Spartans erecting a victory trophy after the battle of Mantineia in 418 BC. This shows them in their later, lighter battle gear and again is a useful source for figure painters. Two other plates show examples of how the Spartans manoeuvred in formation. These are perhaps the most important plates in terms of supporting the text as it was this battlefield manoeuvrability that actually set the Spartan army apart from its contemporaries. There is also plate showing the construction of the hoplite shield.
The book is well supported by colour photographs. These are largely of Ancient Greek pots, jars and vases; these tend to abound with military themes. They often show fascinating detail of how equipment is used, worn and carried. They are a great source for shield designs if you want to add that bespoke element to your wargames army. Other photographs show other carvings, statues and pieces of military equipment etc… These all help to provide a full picture of the Spartiate.
This is a good book overall for what it sets out to achieve: an overview of the Spartiate, his skills and equipment. However, it lacks completeness for anyone wishing to put together a Spartan wargames army as it has few details about the other troops that supported the Spartiates. Also, it is not really a history of Sparta or the wars and campaigns they took part in (although certain battles, etc… are mentioned). The artwork is good and is a useful addition to the library of any figure painter interested in Ancient Greece. If you buy this one you might also want to consider the Elite series of books: “The Spartan Army” and “The Ancient Greeks” also by Osprey Publishing. Osprey also does a number of other books that cover Ancient Greek subjects.
Review written by: Paul Robinson, Staff Writer
About Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson is a wargamer with over 30 years of experience in figure wargaming. He has interests in all things military from the Ancient Sumerians to the British Army in Afghanistan. He is an obsessive collector of books from Osprey Publishing and has contributed widely to the Field of Glory wargames rules franchise. A confirmed “Trekkie”, he also regards Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as great TV! He lives in Surrey, England with his wife, two children, one cat and a large collection of wargaming figures.