By any standards Sparta was a remarkable society. Its early history is little known, but by the start of the Classical Period Sparta was one of many city-states vying with each other for power and hegemony. During the 5th century BCE Sparta became the dominant such power, and did so largely because its society was entirely focused on military preparedness. All of its male citizens (spartiates) were professional, full-time soldiers, reared from birth with that sole purpose in mind. These were the hoplites, and with such a uniquely rigorous and single-minded attitude it is no wonder that they were universally accepted as the finest soldiers in the Hellenic World. Their primary role was to ensure the continuance of the social order at home, where they were vastly outnumbered by the perioikoi (free non-citizens) and particularly the helots, who were serfs (basically enslaved conquered peoples). This set is dated for the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, which saw many wars between the various Greek city states as well as two major incursions by the mighty Persian Empire to the East. During this period Sparta rose to be the dominant power in Greece, then declined, and was ultimately conquered by Macedonia along with the rest of the Greek states.
Although there was no real concept of uniform, the appearance of warriors still followed fashion and changed over time, and this set is ambitious indeed in claiming that it covers two centuries, so to begin with we must examine this claim in detail. All the men wear bronze cuirasses, specifically the 'bell' cuirass, which was the forerunner of the muscle cuirass which strangely is illustrated on the front of the box but does not appear on the figures themselves. The bell cuirass was worn in the 6th and early 5th centuries BCE, but after that it disappeared, replaced first by the muscle cuirass and then largely by the stiffened linen cuirass. By the later 5th century the cuirass had disappeared entirely in an effort to further lighten the load of the soldier, although the latter seems to have returned later still. All this means these men are only suitable for the first few years of the 5th century, perhaps the first quarter century (given that Sparta was a highly conservative society and was very slow to change or abandon traditional costume). Zvezda then have wildly overestimated the suitable date range for these figures, which we must assume is a deliberate marketing ploy to maximise the appeal of the set. These figures are actually good for approximately 520 to 475 BCE.
There are plenty of other features of this set to confirm this dating. The helmets, though in several designs, are all of the Corinthian or the open-faced Illyrian type (these are modern categorisations). All have fixed cheek-pieces, and none have cut-outs for the ears, nor the completely closed face, which again fits exactly in our suggested period. All have crests, including one with a raised crest that would have been particularly old-fashioned by the early 5th century. All have greaves which cover the knee and clip on to the leg, which appear during the 6th century and disappear at the same time as the cuirass. A few also have metal armour on their upper right arm, which had largely disappeared by the close of the 6th century, but again may have persisted in conservative Sparta for longer. The same applies to the two poses with metal flaps round the groin, which would have been very rare by the 5th century. Finally, all wear a tunic. To what extent Spartan (or other) Greek soldiers actually went into battle naked remains a matter for debate, so the presence of the tunic is fine here.
The classic hoplite carried his round Argive shield, as all here do. They are about 11mm in diameter, which works out to about 80cm, which is OK, and the shape too is authentic. The system of straps by which the shield was held, and the reinforcement, have been well sculpted on all these figures. Each shield carries a blazon, or design, engraved on the front. The designs are of scorpions, a Gorgon’s head, a bull's head, a bird and some other animal, and are fairly typical of designs at this time. By around 475 BCE state control caused more uniform emblems (Sparta used the lambda letter), but at this time they represented whatever the individual wanted. We would have liked plain shields so we could choose our own decoration, but none of those here are wrong.
The principal weapon was the spear, which the majority of the figures are carrying. The spears are 32mm in length, which is 2.3 metres and historically perfectly correct, while they are very nicely done, with both the point and the butt-spike. When the spear was broken, the hoplite would turn to his sword, which is correctly done here with the leaf-shaped blade, but the blade length is only 5mm (36cm) in length. This kind of short sword - almost a dagger - did appear, but only much later in the 5th century, and during the early years it would have been nearer 60cm in length, so this is a mistake here.
The traditional Greek battle formation at this time was the phalanx, which called for some very precise movements and poses. The men advanced in ranks, holding their spear over the right shoulder and holding their shield to their front, which meant it covered their left side and the open right side of the man to their left. The only figure that really fits that very precise need is the last figure in the top row, although the second figure in that row is a variant that would work better in the second or subsequent rank, and the first figure is OK although a little over-exposed. The rest of the hoplite poses suggest that the phalanx has made contact with the enemy and a more disordered hand-to-hand combat is under way, which is fine. The first two hoplites in the second row have lost their spears and drawn their swords, as has the wounded man at the end of that row. The standing figure in the top row is clearly not in battle at all, but instead is in the classic 'at ease' pose. Zvezda have sensibly produced quite a lot of the same pose for the common poses, which encourages their placement in large formations. With most of the action poses devoted to the phalanx we thought these were very well chosen, and the dropping man with the arrow in the chest is particularly dramatic and poignant.
That still leaves almost half the poses to consider, and an interesting bunch they are too. The bottom row begins with a trumpeter and flutist, both of which were key elements in any Spartan army. The trumpet was used to signal orders, and the flutes were played at sacrifices and other religious occasions as well as during the advance, to give the men a rhythm to follow. Both these figures are very fine and correctly done. Third in our bottom row is another hoplite, but this time not in battle. He is an officer, as can be seen by the transverse crest on his helmet, and he holds a kopis sword/knife. If you thought that cute little goat by his side was a regimental mascot then think again, for the Greeks frequently (at least every day) sacrificed such animals to both please the Gods and look for (hopefully good) omens. Clearly this creature’s fate is sealed, but as religion played so important a part in such Greek armies it is nice to see this aspect represented here.
The last two figures to mention represent opposite ends of the Spartan social scale. Our last pictured figure is of a king. Now Sparta had a system of two kings at the start of the 5th century, which was intended to ensure no one man had too much power. Their role was to become more of a figurehead, but they became generals when there was war, although it seems only one king actually went on campaign. It was the king that read the omens and decided on what action to take, but in appearance the only differences between him and the more junior officers were in the quality and decoration of the clothes, so this figure works equally as any officer. The figure in the second row with the stick is a helot. Helots were essentially slaves who worked the farms and all the basic services required by the State. Although in later years they would sometimes actually be used as fighting troops, at this stage they were essentially pack animals, and each hoplite was in theory supposed to have one helot like this. He carries his master’s bedding on his back, has a couple of canteens by his side and holds a gulios, which was a wicker basket holding rations. Here it is modelled as round, but one modern source says this should be rectangular. The helot wears a simple cap and cloak, and may well be wearing animal skins as this seems to have been common.
The overwhelming majority of reviews of Zvezda figure sets on this site have gained 10 out of 10 for sculpting, and we can tell you know that these Spartans are no different. As usual the figures are just beautiful, with fabulous detail and an easy, lifelike quality to both the poses and the human anatomy. Subtle features like the men's long hair have been very pleasingly and accurately done, and clever positioning of the figures on the sprue mean no detail is lost in areas the mould cannot see. As we have often said, figures with shields and blade weapons almost always need to be done as multi-part, or with a multi-part mould, to gain a realistic posture, and nine of the 12 human poses in this set have some form of assembly. It means the shields can be properly done and, most importantly, properly positioned, and the same goes for the weapons. Separate arms are a little fiddly but everything here goes together extremely well and nothing needs to be glued. The results speak for themselves, so this is a top class product with no flash and, so it would seem, no compromises.
Much of this set could equally apply to other Greeks of the 6th century, although the hair seems to have been unique to Sparta. As so often it is easy to see where Zvezda turned for their inspiration - in this case Osprey’s 'The Spartan Army', plate E. This introduces the key word which we have not used yet - Thermopylae. That battle (480 BCE), more famous than any other in Spartan history despite being a defeat, is clearly what the designer had in mind here, and more broadly the wars with the Persian Empire of the 490s and 480s. Perhaps for that reason the set concentrates on the Spartiates and ignores other elements of the Spartan army, leaving us with the famous '300'. The later Peloponnesian War and many other conflicts with other Greek states, right down to the coming of Alexander, can find no use for these figures, so ignore the stated dates on the box. These are beautiful figures with only one accuracy flaw, but Zvezda all too often get their scaling wrong and produce giants. However here the scaling is perfect, much to the relief of all!