You might not see a connection between Sparta and Crete, I didn’t. For me, they appeared to be opposites as one was an in-land nation and the other an island nation. Yet, there were similarities as one produced the most feared infantrymen in antiquity and the other the deadliest bowmen in ancient times. It was these results that interested me.
Classical Greece had four major ethnic groups: The Dorians, Aeolians, Achaeans, and Ionians. Settlements linked to the Dorian group include Sparta and Crete. Due to this heritage, the two shared some culture traits. Among them, both were committed to shaping their soldiers from a very young age. And while the Spartans were famous for their agoge, they weren’t alone in the tradition.
Per Greek historian Strabo concerning Crete:
…and in order that courage, and not cowardice, might prevail, he commanded that from boyhood they should grow up accustomed to arms and toils, so as to scorn heat, cold, marches over rugged and steep roads, and blows received in gymnasiums or regular battles; and that they should practice, not only archery, but also the war‑dance…so that not even their sports were without a share in activities that were useful for warfare…and that they should use military dress and shoes; and that arms should be to them the most valuable of gifts…
Both cultures had their male children sent to a school to become warriors. But, in Sparta, elders examined all male babies for their fitness to attend the academy. On Crete, only children capable of completing the rigors of the training were sent by their families to the agoge.\
This parallel, yet dissimilar, approach went beyond the selection process.
The boys ate together.
In Sparta, the instructors cluttered the boys into Herds. Instructors in Crete called their charges Troops. Both the Herds and the Troops ate together. However, in Crete, the Troops participated in the Andreia (Prowess). Along with others who were fed at public expense, the Cretan boys ate on the ground with the poor and downtrodden. It was a way to teach them humility and connect them to the lesser members of the society.
In Sparta, the elite Herds dined separately from the population.
Their landscapes and lifestyles designated the weapons and the use of the warriors.
Ancient Sparta had wide valleys to accommodate the Phalanx formation and allowed for infantry tactics. Therefore, the Spartans trained for the landscape with spears and shields. Built and maintained for internal defense to control their slave population and to defend their lands, it took a lot of convincing to get a Spartan army to operate beyond their borders.
Ancient Crete boasted rough terrain, mountains, and shorelines. To take advantage of the landscape, bows and arrows, light battledress, and foot speed were required.
Without bordering countries to defend against, archers from the Island of Crete were hired out as mercenaries. From the Peloponnesian Wars, through the campaigns of Alexander the Great, to the Roman Legions of the 2nd Punic War, and into the middle ages, Cretan archers were a desirable addition to any army.
One aspect that demonstrated the difference between the cultures concerned money.
To a Spartan, money was useful to maintain the state and to support the army. No one would get rich fighting for Sparta. It was every male citizen’s duty.
Quite the opposite, the expectation for Cretans was to make a profit in every venture. Which helps explain why they would train light infantry archers, then send them around the world as a commodity on lease.
Training for both was hard, and it produced surprisingly similar but different results.
Spartan infantry displayed tenacity, brutality, and discipline in holding their formation against overwhelming odds.
Cretan archers showed ferocity as skirmishers, speed as couriers, and deadly accuracy with arrows from their formations.
This begs the question of how could bowmen use a formation? Most archers of antiquity fired in mass.
Dienekes, a Spartan at the Battle of Thermopylae, was warned that Persian archers would discharge their arrows and, by their multitude, would obscure the light of the sun. Dienekes replied it was good news because they would battle in the shade.
This demonstrated the norm of shooting arrows in mass. But for archers from Crete, history gave us a hint of archers in a tight formation.
William Louis described countermarches for Phalanx formations as configurations for musketeers in the 16th Century. In his letters, Louis mentioned countermarches, one being the Cretan Maneuver.
This made it clear that Sparta and Crete used formations in battle. For Spartans, it was throwing a lance, then rotating to the back of the file to rearm. While for Cretan archers, it meant shooting tight groups of arrows at an enemy in proximity before rotating to the rear of a file to rearm. In both cases, the formations allowed for a steady stream of missiles heading toward an approaching enemy.
Orchestrating formation maneuvers could only be accomplished by soldiers with a shared philosophy of warfare. Soldiers such as the Spartan infantrymen and the Cretan bowmen who graduated from separate but very much alike agoges.
I became aware of the connection between Sparta and the Island of Crete while researching Journey from Exile. Journey from Exile is book #1 in A Legion Archer series. Set during the 2nd Punic War, the books follow the adventures of a Latin boy trained in the ways of the Cretan archers as he struggles to find his place in the world and uncover his true identity.
J. Clifton Slater
I am J. Clifton Slater and I write Military Adventure both Future and Ancient.
The question of how the Legionaries heard commands while in combat came to me while doing research for my historical adventure series. The Clay Warrior Stories are books set in the framework of the First Punic War. They are epic tales designed to make you want to strap on a shield, grab a gladius, and join a Century’s battle line.
Available on Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.
Clay Warrior Stories
Set in the backdrop of the 1st Punic War, the books tell the tales of a hot-headed young swordsman in the growing Republic.
The Clay Warrior Stories are Available at Amazon.com in paperback, on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.