When the legendary reputation of Sparta is mentioned, its usually backed up by an example of Thermopylae, that epic battle where 300 doomed Spartans held a pass for two full days against some 400,000 Persians.
Well….. It is true that a numerically small number of Greeks held out against a numerically superior army and caused King Xerxes no end of consternation, but it wasn’t just 300 Spartans. Herodotus says that there were something like 5,000 or more Greeks present during the course of the battle from all over Greece. Most of them withdrew after the Persians encircled the Greek position, leaving a very small rearguard to protect their retreat. Yet even then it was not JUST 300 Spartans. Some 700 Thespians (from the polis of Thespiae) volunteered to stay behind with the Spartans, and they died just as bravely as the Spartans, and some 400 or so Thebans also took part, but they surrendered to the Persians before the end (which really steamed the rest of the Greeks). After the Spartan King Leonidas (Sparta had two kings at a time) was cut down near the end, the Greeks regrouped and were shot down in a storm of arrows. According to historians, the casualty estimates are about 1,500 Greeks and 20,000 Persians. Even though it wasn’t as lopsided as its been romanticized, the Greeks were still badly outnumbered. Herodotus gives a number of over 5 million Persians at the battle, but that’s a hotly debated topic among historians.
While by itself, the Spartans clearly lost, it did by the rest of the Greeks time to regroup and work toward forcing Persia into a naval battle at Salamis. Sparta does have a well-deserved reputation for ferocity and valor, but the city-state itself was a curious mix of privilege, xenophobia and outright cruelty that was completely unlike any other Greek polis. They had a mystique, even in antiquity, that still resonates.