An artistic depiction of a Greek trireme. The Spartans, like the Athenians, relied for a long time on this type of warship (telias.free.fr).
By Periklis Deligiannis
On the Spartan triremes, the Marine hoplites (“epibatae” in ancient Greek) consisted of Spartans and other categories of Lacedaemonians, the sailors were Laconian “perioikoi”, and the rowers (“eretae”) were Laconian “perioikoi” and helots. The captains (“triirarchoi”) were Spartans or Laconian “perioikoi”.
After the Persian Wars, the army of the Peloponnesian Alliance became essentially an organic part of the Spartan army. The same happened with the Navy of the Peloponnesian Alliance. The numbers of the Peloponnesian ships during the Persian wars, indicate that about 480 BC, the total Peloponnesian naval force consisted of 120-130 triremes. After the conquest of Aegina by the Athenians and the almost synchronous economic decline of Corinth, the Peloponnesian fleet was reduced significantly. The other Peloponnesian naval allies (including the Spartans) tried in vain to fill this “gap”. The Spartans raised the number of their triremes in 25 (413 BC). Despite the fact that the Peloponnesian fleet remained significant, it could not be compared with the opponent Athenian Navy during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). The Athenian fleet numbered around 350-480 embattled triremes (including the triremes of the maritime allies of Athens) during most part of the fifth century BC. From these triremes, a number of 200-300 could be manned.
Eventually the Persian financial support to the Spartans, enabled the maritime members of the Peloponnesian Alliance (Corinth, Megara, Sicyon, Ambracia, Elis and the Argolic Cities except Argos) to build 180 triremes. The Spartans conscripted a number of “perioikoi” and helots for service on the warships and recruited mercenary crews from the other Greeks (even from Ionian allies of the Athenians). With the contribution of the naval allies of Sparta in the Eastern Aegean (which they had already seceded from the Athenian-Delian Alliance) during the last years of the Peloponnesian War, the Peloponnesian Navy reached the number of 200 triremes.
A unique depiction of an ancient Greek horse-carrier vessel by Sam Manning. It must be considered a certainty that the Peloponnesian navy included this kind of ships.
Despite its numerical fluctuations and its clear weakness against the irresistible Athenian Navy, the Peloponnesian Navy was generally strong in both quantity and quality. The Spartans had at their disposal, the long maritime experience of Corinth, Syracuse (“Athens of the West”) and Megara, longer in duration than the Athenian for these three city-states alike. Especially the Corinthians – despite the gradual reduction of their fleet due to financial problems and maritime defeats suffered by the Athenians – proved with their innovations in naval warfare of this period, that they could confront the famous Athenian navy. Moreover, the Corinthians and the Spartans had at their disposal the high-tech of shipbuilding of Syracuse (a Corinthian colony in Sicily). The Syracusans crushed the Athenian Fleet during the Sicilian Campaign (414-3 BC), launched by the Athenians against them, and then they helped as far as they could Corinth and Sparta to achieve their final victory against Athens. In terms of Fleet commanders, Cartledge (a reliable modern historian pored over the Spartan history) thinks that Lysander the Spartan was the best Greek admiral since the time of Themistocles, with the exception perhaps of Phormion the Athenian. In my point of view, Lysander was a better commander than Phormion due to his unique naval strategy.
The offices of the Spartan and the Peloponnesian fleet were not significantly different from the other Greek. Close to the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans formally introduced the title of “navarchos” (“Admiral”) for the commander of the Fleet, whose mandate was strictly a year. His deputy was called “epistoleas” (“Chief of Staff of the Fleet”). Each trireme was commanded by the “triirarch” (“Chief of the trireme”) who had the general command, but it was navigated by the “commander” (“cybernitis” in Greek) who was responsible for its navigation.
The stubborn Spartans, despite the successive failures of the Peloponnesian Navy against the Athenians, did not abandon the effort. Finally they managed to create a fleet worthy of the Athenian, and defeat the Athenians in the sea where they were considered unbeatable. Thus they put an end to a destructive war lasting for 27 years (battle of Aegospotamoi, 404 BC).
After their victory, the Spartans reduced the number of warships of the Peloponnesian fleet, because the defeated Athenian fleet was reduced to 12 triremes, and the Persian naval power was not so feared anymore. After the Spartan territorial losses of 369 BC (Messenia, Arcadian territories etc.) and the subsequent economic decline of Sparta, the city lost her naval forces. The Spartans probably retained a small number of triremes, which they used as a Coast Guard of the Laconian coasts against pirates.