The Spartan Way: Become Battle-Ready to Dominate Life

At its peak, the Spartan army was the most dominant, and feared, military force in ancient Greece, and its prowess was built on the singular mentality and strategy it brought to the art of war.

Here we’ll take an expansive, inspiring, and thoroughly fascinating tour of the essential mindset and tactics that allowed these warriors to battle fiercely and come out the victor and that are applicable to every aspect of your life.

There Is Power in Appearance

Spartan men not only had the skills and training to back up their reputation as formidable warriors, they enhanced that reputation — and their efficacy on the battlefield — by cultivating an external appearance that matched their internal prowess.

The Spartans terrorized their enemy before they even got within spears’ length of them. As they awaited the command to advance, they stood straight and steady in formation, and everything from their clothes to their equipment bespoke strength, discipline, and ferocity.

The clothing and equipment of the Spartan warrior worked to his advantage in two ways: 1) it made the soldier himself feel more ferocious, more invincible, more confident, and 2) it intimidated the living daylights out of his foe.

The power of the Spartans’ appearance softened up the enemy line before they even hit it, and added to a reputation for strength that sometimes deterred enemies from even going to battle against them at all. 

Always Perform a Pre-Battle Ritual

Before battle, Spartan warriors kept their nerves at bay by staying busy with various tasks and physical rituals. In their youth, they had memorized verses of the poet Tyrtaeus, which they recited to themselves and sang and chanted as they marched on campaign. In the days prior to battle, they exercised before breakfast, had further military instruction and training after eating, and engaged in exercise and athletic competitions in the afternoon. During moments of repose, the men dressed and groomed their hair, and polished the brass exteriors of their shields.

When the time came to march on the enemy, the playing of a flute allowed the Spartans to perfectly keep time, and as a result of this music, as well as their other tension-reducing, courage-buoying rituals, they advanced upon the enemy in a slow, steady procession, which only added to the intimidation factor just described above.

A Warrior Can Be Both Fierce and Reverent

We’re apt to think of the Spartans as ferocious, cocksure warriors. But while no fighting force could be more easily excused for relying entirely on their own strength and abilities, the Spartans were in fact acutely cognizant of, and humbled by, the existence of forces greater than themselves.

The Spartans were an extremely reverent people. “From an early age,” Paul Rahewrites, they were “imbued with a fear of the gods so powerful that it distinguished them from their fellow Greeks.” Indeed, piety served as “the foundation of Spartan morale.”

The reverence of the Spartans could be called superstition, but it could also be called humility — an awareness of, and respect for, the forces of fate that ultimately, no matter one’s skill and preparation, can influence the outcome of an endeavor and cannot be wholly controlled.

Endurance Is the Foundation of Strength

In phalanx warfare, agility, cleverness, and speed were not as important as grit, fortitude, and stamina — sheer endurance. The virtues most needed by a Spartan warrior then were commitment, discipline, and the fortitude required to stand one’s ground and grind it out. Courage was certainly needed, but not the courage of intrepid boldness, but that which modern general George S. Patton called “fear holding on a minute longer.”

The end sought of Spartan training was an adaptability, a tolerance for pain and for changing, challenging conditions — a mental toughness that bolstered physical toughness, and vice versa. The aim was to inculcate the kind of strength most needed by a Spartan warrior: that of being able to hold the line under pressure. As Patton put it: “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”

Speak (and Think) Laconically

The Spartan philosopher Chilon — one of the Seven Sages of Greece — famously said that “less is more,” and this was a maxim that guided the whole ethos of Lacedaemon — from its buildings to its citizens’ clothing and diet.

The “less is more” principle also governed the language of the Spartans, who took a minimalist approach to speech which today we still refer to as “Laconic.” The ideal was to speak only when one had something important to say, and then only in short, terse bursts, pithy sayings, and the sharp, clever replies that characterized Laconic wit. The Spartans honed their words until they were as sharp as their spears — and just as sure to find their mark.

Socrates thought that the Spartans’ singular style of speech was a way of strategically getting others to underestimate them: “they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle . . . This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.” 

Achieve Mastery in Your Domain  

The Spartans were more multi-dimensional than often imagined: the polis was almost universally literate, excelled in music and dance, produced sculptors, philosophers, and poets, and of course engaged in an array of sports and athletics.

Nonetheless, they did undoubtedly give intense, relentless focus to one area above all others: the development of martial skill and virtue. This was the highest form of excellence — the domain in which every warrior strove to achieve absolute mastery.

The Spartans did not dabble in warfare; it was the pursuit around which all culture — education, relationships, politics — was structured and disciplined.

Citizens were barred from farming or practicing a trade, and even from possessing gold or silver coins; without the distractions of commerce and material acquisition, they could concentrate wholly on mastering the way of the warrior 

Fight From Habit, Not Feeling

As a result of this extraordinary focus on mastering a single domain — thirteen years of dedicated training, ten years of practice and real-life execution as a full-time soldier, and decades more of martial maintenance in the reserves — the ways of war become ingrained in the sinews of a Spartan soldier. Pressfield compares the preparation of this force with that of the militiamen mustered by other city-states: “This process of arming for battle, which the citizen-soldiers of other poleis had practiced no more than a dozen times a year in the spring and summer training, the Spartans had rehearsed and re-rehearsed, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred times each campaigning season. Men in their fifties had done this ten thousand times. It was as second-nature to them.”
For the Spartans, courage was not a vulnerable and transitory state of mind, but the product of preparation and practice. In fact, they did not respect the solider who fought in an impassioned rage, believing such loud and belligerent posturing was used to hide one’s fear and lack of self-composure. Instead, they sought to embody the ethos of “the quiet professional” who simply sets out to do his job, and lives the classic motto voiced by coaches like Vince Lombardi: “Act like you’ve been there before.”

The courage of the Spartans was not born of feeling, but discipline.

It was not an emotion, but a habit.

Conquer or Die

According to Herodotus, the exiled Spartan king Demaratus gave an answer to Xerxes on the eve of the battle, when the Persian “King of Kings” inquired as to how much resistance to expect from the Greeks: “As for the Spartans, fighting each alone, they are as good as any, but fighting as a unit, they are the best of all men. They are free, but not completely free—for the law is placed over them as a master, and they fear that law far more than your subjects fear you. And they do whatever it orders—and it orders the same thing always: never to flee in battle, however many the enemy may be, but to remain in the ranks and to conquer or die.”

The Spartan heading into battle didn’t save anything for the way back; he faced the enemy head on without thought of retreat. He lived the ethos embodied in the charge given him by his mother and wife as he left for battle: “Come back with your shield or on it.”

This, ultimately, was the Spartan way.