The Spartan Helmet History

Posted by Alan Esquivel on

The Spartan helmet is known as a symbol of strength, loyalty, courage, and power. Dedicated to war, Spartans were known for their legendary physical and mental strength and their intense dedication to the defense of their city.

Their enemies feared the sight of Spartan warriors, shields raised, lances ready, and their helmets gleaming. Sparta was strong and her men gladly laid down their lives to defend her.

While many understand what the Spartan helmet stands for, let’s take a closer look at how this helmet became a symbol of warrior strength and why today’s fighting forces and action adventure fans still recognize its power.

Lycurgus, the fabled law giver to Sparta, once surmised: “A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.”  

There’s no quote out there that succinctly sums of Sparta quite like that one! Sparta, also known as Lacedaemon, was a city-state located in the ancient southern Greece region of Laconia. Unlike other city-states in Greece, such as Athens, known to focus on philosophy, learning, and the arts, Sparta was a warrior culture. 

Recent discoveries place construction of the city of Sparta in the first millennium B.C., but it was an important site in the region going back as far as 3500 years ago. Sparta as we speak of it now rose sometime after 1000 B.C. Its location in the fertile Eurotas Valley of Laconia gave Spartans access to an abundance of food, which is something other local cities did not enjoy. This fortunate location gave the Spartans valuable resources and freed them from toiling for food and water, allowing them to focus their time and energy on building the great military force for which they came to be known.

Sparta society consisted of three classes. Full citizens were Spartans, Helots were slaves, and the Perioec, who were craftsmen, built weapons for the Spartans.

Helots were Greeks conquered by the Spartans and without them, and the Perioec, the Spartans would not have been able to rise to be the great warriors of their time. Slaves handled mundane daily work tasks in the community, including tending to farms, performing unskilled labor tasks, attending to military needs, and attending to domestic needs. Perioecs, who were neither slave nor citizen, and widely considered to be the middle class of Sparta, were allowed to own property and conduct business, but they were not citizens. The Perioecs manufactured weapons, which again freed Spartan men to practice the art of war and focus on learning the military prowess for which they are famous.

At seven years of age, Spartan boys embarked on their military training. Taken from their mothers, they entered the Agoge system that emphasized duty, discipline, and endurance and focused on loyalty to the state and military service. They emerged at the age of 20 a full citizen of the Spartan community, ready for military service.

The Agoge system trained young men well. In ancient times, Spartan worth were widely considered to be worth that of several men from any other state. Spartans trained so well that the city of Sparta had no walls. They simply trusted to defend their city with their men rather than with brick. In battle, Sparta’s enemies would face a wall of shields, prickled with lances, for they mastered training as one, bearing down as one determined unit, ready to tear apart the opposing force with the power of all of Sparta.

In 480 B.C., King Leonidas of Sparta, led a small band of 300 of these exceptional soldiers, along with other Greeks, against a massive army of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The band of some 7,000 Greeks held the Persians back at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae for seven days, three of which included fierce battle. Though ultimately defeated, the Spartans inflicted casualties of 20,000 to the Persian army, which modern scholars estimate to have been 120,00-300,000 strong, though a few ancient historians number the Persian troops in the millions. Although defeated, the Battle of Thermopylae served as a moral victory, one that inspired the Greeks later at the Battle of Salamis.

The Battle of Thermopylae, and the fierce loyalty of the small band of Spartan warriors to their leader, King Leonidas, proves even today that free men who resolve to great sacrifice to preserve liberty can accomplish great feats against a mighty enemy. Although defeated at Thermopylae, the Greeks subsequently halted the Persian approach at the Battle of Salamis, forcing them to retreat. The Greeks, once led by the fearless Leonidas, prevailed against the Persian invasion.

In his book, “Gates of Fire,” Steven Pressfield writes these words of King Leonidas:

“But by our deaths here with honor, in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory. With our lives we sow courage in the hearts of our allies and the brothers of our armies left behind. They are the ones who will ultimately produce victory, not us. It was never in the stars for us. Our role today is what we all knew it was when we embraced our wives and children and turned our feet upon the march-out: to stand and die. That we have sworn and that we will perform.”

King Leonidas inspired his men to stand strong and be fearless in the face of opposition. When Xerxes I of Persia told the Spartans to lay down their arms and surrender, King Leonidas replied, “Molon Labe,” which means, “Come and take them.”

The phrase molon labe has served to inspire countless generals and politicians to express their determination not to surrender. It is the motto of the U.S. Special Operations Command Central, SOCCENT. Americans often invoke molon labe in their defense of the Second Amendment, directly challenging the government or anyone else, to infringe upon their right to keep and bear arms.

The Spartan helmet is rightly one of the most iconic symbols of ancient Greece. Made to cover the entire head, leaving a T-shaped opening for the eyes, nose, and mouth, the helmet struck fear into enemies and inspired pride in follow compatriots. The Spartan symbol meaning is strength, loyalty, courage, and honor.

While Spartan men and women dressed simply, they had true affinity for the color of deep crimson red. This color of war was the least feminine of the colors and disguised their wounds in battle so as not to give away any weakness to their enemies. Spartan history clothing often incorporates crimson to reflect the spirit of the Spartan warrior.

Spartan USA clothing pays tribute to the great Spartan warrior. With the Spartan helmet displayed prominently, often with a bright crimson plume or a splash of the U.S. flag across it, Spartan clothing shows American pride and honors the ancient warrior who was unafraid to face the enemy in their rally for liberty.

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