Part 3: Sleep of Bronze at it again with some learning about the Spartans.
I remember hearing some time ago that the Spartans in general weren't all that great a fighting force during the old days, they were just really totalitarian and had a good propaganda team. Was that the case?
Sparta's totalitarianism and insane fascistic society was indeed of a much higher calibre than either their ability to sell themselves or their fighting prowess. That doesn't mean so much, because they actually scored pretty highly in all of those categories. Despite having very very few notable writers of their own - a consequence of the laser-focused military lifestyle enforced on them - they still somehow ended up with a lot of fans, whether for their discipline or asceticism or plain lack of democracy, which is a big pull for your typically aristocratic Greek chronicler. The Spartans had a long period of real (land-based, at least) military dominance in Greece too, a result of being so much more professional than any other army that could be sent against them.
Unfortunately, this is something of a double-edged sword, which leads to Sparta's occasional defeats even during that dominant period and its eventual decline into almost total irrelevance. There were structural weaknesses inherent to maintaining a professional army at that point in history. The Spartans did it by devoting the entire male population of their ruling class (the Spartiates) to the army, training them harshly from boyhood and keeping them in their barracks or on campaign for most of their adult life. This means that every other activity necessary for a state to actually maintain itself, all the agriculture and industry, was left to the subject classes - the perioikoi, 'those who live around' Sparta itself; and the helots, the slave underclass.
So, Issue One: Helots
Reliance on this slave class particularly was a problem, because the Spartiate class was so much smaller numerically compared to its slaves than the other Greek states of the time. That meant very severe repression, to try to compensate for the disparity. Conditions were as bad for a helot, or worse, than American chattel slavery of the 18th/19th centuries, where at least some of the usual Greek slave population would have had much more humane treatment. There are lots of points during various wars where the Spartans either stay at home when they ought to have been marching out, or drop a campaign to return home, because they have to deal with helot revolts.
Issue Two: Numbers
This plays off the first point a little, in that the Spartiate numbers were just too small a lot of the time. This is obviously a risk from the start when you devote an entire class to war - people of that class have an unfortunately shorter life expectancy. On a tactical level, it means you can end up being so outnumbered that any amount of professionalism does you no good whatsoever. When the Athenians pull the rowers off their ships to help their dedicated land forces, as during the mini-campaign at Pylos and Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans end up outnumbered 20-1 or more. On a strategic level, it decreases their military flexibility a lot - simultaneously garrisoning areas and maintaing a sizeable mobile force becomes very tricky - and it means single battles can swing a war profoundly. Returning to Pylos and Sphacteria, the defeat there resulted in the capture of about 200 Spartiate warriors. That's not a lot even by the standards of a 5th century BCE Greek city state, but their loss was such a potential blow to the Spartan overclass that the city had to sue for peace. That battle and those prisoners decided the first part of the Peloponnesian War in favour of Athens. We often actually divide the more famous "Peloponnesian War" into two - the Archidamian War, for one of the Spartan kings at the time, which was lost by Sparta after Sphacteria; and the Decelean War, for the area of Attike that Sparta occupied, and which Sparta eventually won.
The numbers issue is probably the one I would link most to Sparta's long term decline. Between the exertions of the Peloponnesian War, the domestic and foreign battles fought during the brief Spartan hegemony afterward, and a couple of more-and-less lucky wins for their enemies as Spartan dominance of Greece collapsed, they just couldn't sustain an army that could do anything significant. Too many Spartiates died, and there wasn't a good way to compensate for it, as much as they tried. They were a spent force by the time Philip and Alexander come around, nice one liners notwithstanding.
Issue Three: Doctrine
This has links back to point 1 and 2, almost like societies are complex and interconnected things that resist neat categorisation. Anyway, I wanted to highlight this because it lets me elaborate a bit on how Greeks went to war and what the Spartans did the same and did differently.
Greek armies were not professional. You called up everyone you could who had armour, weapons, or a horse - some states wrote it in as class obligation, or put people on temporary war pay or something, but very few people just spent any peace time being a soldier, in the way modern armies do. This means you have a core of rich toffs with decent equipment - the cavalry and heavy hoplite infantry - and then kind of a rabble of skirmishers and lightly armoured troops who are likely as not just there for the loot. Spartans earned their reputation because the Spartiates, as professionals, were way better fighters than the hoplite core and should then be able to shrug off the poorer and less well equipped auxiliaries. Easy victory. It's a little more complex than that because the Spartiates often brought along auxiliaries - hoplites from their allies or the perioikoi, and helot slaves to be the accompanying light force - but that's broadly how it was meant to play out. If we look at the 300 Spartiates at Thermopylai, they were reinforced by allied/perioikoi hoplites in much greater numbers than them, but the Spartiates were lionised for staying so long and doing the bulk of the killing because they were the most professional part of the force.
This all leads up to the eventual point: some generals were too smart to play by the old rules, given that it looked like a losing proposition against the Spartans. For a long time, typical hoplite battle just wasn't going to get you a victory. So, instead, perhaps you concentrated on your light forces. The lightness, the mobility and the ranged advantage (plus the numbers, certainly) of the Athenian skirmishers and javelineers were key to Demosthenes winning the Athenian victory at Sphacteria. Hoplite armour was good, but when your enemies slip in and out and you're too weighted down to ever catch them, it will fail eventually.
Athens likewise could dominate long stages of the Peloponnesian War just by refusing to engage on land. During the build-up to and the early stages of the Peloponnesian War, Athens built fortifications around itself and extended the famous Long Walls out to the harbour at Piraios. Then they just sat inside it all and the Spartans basically couldn't do anything. Siege weaponry was inadequate, and the Athens was kept (mostly) well supplied by sea and their island empire. Athens even could launch raids by ship on the Spartan home territories in retaliation while the Spartiate army (too small, you remember, to do proper garrisoning) fruitlessly wandered around Attike being ineffectual. By moving the fight to the sea, where Athens was much more adept and professional, they turned the usual equation back on the Spartans.