Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Delium, Amphipolis I, Truce (or consequences), Thespiae (4:89-135)

This post looks at Chapters 89 – 135 of Book Four, covering the winter of 424/3 BC through the spring of 422 BC. Included in this section is the battle of Delium, one of the major ground battles during the entire Peloponnesian War. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Map of Ancient Attica
Picture source

The Athenian plot for attacking Boeotian cities began to fail as the carefully orchestrated timing the plan required failed—the generals Hippocrates and Demosthenes mistake which day the raids are to start. In addition, the Athenian plans had been betrayed to the Boeotians who strengthen their troops in several of the cities to deter Athenian attacks. Hippocrates marches to Delium, taking the temple of Apollo and fortifying it. This desecration adds another example of the breakdown of social mores during this war, a favorite Thucydidian them…unfortunately there would be more. After the fortification is ready, Hippocrates has the troops head home toward Athens while leaving a small garrison at the temple.

Boeotian troops follow the Athenian troops. As the Athenians cross the border, most generals approve “not giving battle”. Pagondas, a Theban general whose turn it was to lead that day, disagrees and gives a rousing speech to the soldiers. Even though most of the Athenian troops have left Boeotia and were no longer an immediate threat he paints the battle as defensive in nature, a preemptive strike to keep the Athenians from returning. He reminds them that they defeated Athens at Coroneia years earlier and had achieved peace, establishing “a great security: which lasted till this present.” Pagondas’ speech persuades the men to attack.

Hippocrates apparently didn’t realize the failure of Demosthenes to strike his targeted city, meaning he would face the bulk of Boeotia’s army. Realizing that enemy troops are pursuing him, he has his men readied for battle and provides a speech to them. He stresses the defensive nature of this battle even though they are “in the territory of another”. Preemption proved to be the cause of the day for the Athenians as well: “For in the territory of these men, you fight for your own. If we get the victory, the Peloponnesians will never invade our territories again, for want of the Bœotian horsemen. So that in one battle, you shall both gain this territory, and free your own.” Thucydides provides details on the composition of the battle lines, noting some innovation by Pagondas in arranging a deep wing of Thebans. The right wing of the Boeotians gradually force the Athenians to give ground. The Boeotian left wing was routed, with Athenians positioned there so disorganized during all the killing that “through ignorance slew one another.” Pagondas has some of his cavalry peel off from the right wing and circle behind a hill to reinforce his left wing,

whereby that wing of the Athenians which was victorious, apprehending upon their sudden appearing that they had been a fresh army, was put into affright: and the whole army of the Athenians, now doubly terrified by this accident and by the Thebans that continually won ground and brake their ranks, betook themselves to flight. Some fled toward Delium and the sea; and some towards Oropus; others toward the mountain Parnethus; and others other ways, as to each appeared hope of safety. The Bœotians, especially their horse and those Locrians that came in after the enemy was already defeated, followed killing them.

Only night prevented many of the Athenians from being slaughtered. Thucydides, in a later description (Book IV, Ch. 125) of Macedonian flight, describes what happened this way: “ (as it is usual with great armies, to be terrified upon causes unknown) being suddenly affrighted, and supposing them to be many more in number than they were, and even now upon them, betook themselves to present flight.” While it’s easy to second-guess Hippocrates and note he would have lost little had he continued back to Athens and avoided a fight, it took the brilliant tactics of Pagondas to secure such a stunning victory.

In ancient Greece a common procedure after a battle was the request for the dead to be returned for proper burial. The Boeotians, noting the sacrilege of the Athenians occupying the temple in Delium, refuse the Athenian request. The Boeotians state that the Athenians have transgressed “the universal law of the Grecians” in their profane actions, highlighting “that the invader of a another’s country should abstain from all holy places in the same”. The Athenians in reply make excuses that they weren’t doing any wrong at the temple and that the Boeotians are “more irreligious by far” by bartering with the dead. Sacrileges continue to pile up as the Athenian corpses rot on the battlefield. The Boeotians eventually assemble a large type of flamethrower that drives the Athenians out of the temple in Delium. With the temple restored, the Boeotians return the Athenian dead, seventeen days after the battle.

With the loss at Delium and Brasidas stirring revolt in Thrace, the tide has definitely turned against the Athenians. Demosthenes, after failing at the surprise attacks in Boeotia, turns to the coast near Corinth but is beaten back by the locals at Sicyonia. All is not well for Athens, and it’s only going to get worse.

The battle of Delium
Picture source

The Spartan general Brasidas, still in the area of Thrace and Macedonia, attacked the Spartan colony Amphipolis. Thanks to help from conspirators in the city, Brasidas is able to take a key bridge to the city by surprise. The gates of the city remain secure and the residing Athenian general, Eucles, “sent unto the other general, Thucydides the son of Olorus, the writer of this history,” for support. Wishing to avoid a strengthened Athenian force, Brasidas presents generous terms to the citizens of Amphipolis if they capitulate. The citizens agree to surrender the city. That evening, Thucydides arrives too late to save Amphipolis but is able to protect the nearby city of Eion from Brasidas. Additional cities in the area, seeing the fall of Amphipolis and the generous treatment by Brasidas, join the revolt from Athens. Thucydides points out some of the flaws in the reasoning of these cities:

For they thought they might do it boldly, falsely estimating the power of the Athenians to be less than afterwards it appeared, and making a judgment of it according to [blind] wilfulness rather than safe forecast: it being the fashion of men, what they wish to be true to admit even upon an ungrounded hope, and what they wish not, with a magistral kind of arguing to reject. Withal, because the Athenians had lately received a blow from the Bœotians, and because Brasidas had said, (not as was the truth, but as served best to allure them), that when he was at Nisæa the Athenians durst not fight with those forces of his alone, they grew confident thereon, and believed not that any man would come against them. But the greatest cause of all was, that for the delight they took at this time to innovate, and for that they were to make trial of the Lacedæmonians, not till now angry , they were content by any means to put it to the hazard. Which being perceived, the Athenians sent garrison soldiers into those cities, as many as the shortness of the time and the season of winter would permit.

Thucydides does not go into detail about the fallout in Athens over the loss of Amphipolis other than to note the citizens’ fear. It would have been interesting to hear directly about his trial for charges of treason (translation: failure to hold Amphipolis) and sentence of banishment from Athens. I’m sure I won’t be the first to note that his portrayal of the events around Amphipolis’ fall reads like a defense of his actions, pointing to failure by Eucles to protect the bridge and to the generous terms from Brasidas (out of fear) accelerating the city’s fall. Thucydides’ history rehabilitates his reputation in a way that his defense before the Athenians apparently was unable to achieve.

Map of ancient Greece
Picture source

Truce. Sort of.
Following up on the victory at Amphipolis, Brasidas requested more forces to be sent from Sparta while he was able to build ships upon the river Strymon (where Amphipolis was located). “But the Lacedæmonians, partly through envy of the principal men, and partly because they more affected the redemption of their men taken in the island and the ending of the war, refused to furnish him.” I’m not sure that covers all possibilities since Sparta had recently begged for peace from Athens and was happy to sign a truce a few months later.

Without receiving reinforcements from Sparta, Brasidas pushed on to the Chalcidice peninsulas and accepted the revolts of several cities while capturing others. His victories seemed to have the effect Sparta had wanted and in the spring of 423 BC a one-year truce was signed.

The Lacedæmonians and Athenians, in the spring of the summer following, made a cessation of arms presently for a year: having reputed with themselves, the Athenians, that Brasidas should by this means cause no more of their cities to revolt, but that by this leisure they might prepare to secure them; and that if this suspension liked them, they might afterwards make some agreement for a longer time : the Lacedæmonians, that the Athenians fearing what they feared, would upon the taste of this intermission of their miseries and weary life, be the willinger to compound, and with the restitution of their men to conclude a peace for a longer time. For they would fain have recovered their men, whilst Brasidas his good fortune continued; and whilst, if they could not recover them, they might yet (Brasidas prospering, and setting them equal with the Athenians) try it out upon even terms, and get the victory.

Thucydides lays out the terms of the truce, but I’ll point out one clause that I think shows how desperately Sparta wanted peace: “This is thought good by the Lacedæmonians and their confederates. But if you shall conceive any other articles more fair or of more equity than these, then shall you go and declare the same at Lacedæmon. For neither shall the Lacedæmonians nor their confederates refuse anything that you shall make appear to be just.”

Problems begin immediately after the truce is signed. Scione, a city on one of the peninsulas off Chalcidice, revolts from Athens and Brasidas accepts their alliance. When Athenians arrive with news of the truce, Brasidas lies and says the revolt happened before the truce was signed. “Whereupon, by the advice of Cleon, they [the Athenians] made a decree, to take them by force and to put them all [in Scione] to the sword. And, forbearing war in all places else, they prepared themselves only for that.” Then Mende, a city on the same peninsula as Scione, revolts and Brasidas accepts their alliance. Both Mende and Scione prepare for an expected Athenian attack.

Brasidas works with the Macedonian king Perdiccas—although Thucydides doesn’t give a reason, I would guess it’s because of their (fraying) alliance. Perdiccas leads their joint troops into Lynchus against the king with whom he held a grudge, even though Brasidas upset Perdiccas on the previous invasion because Brasidas mediated a peace, much to Periccas’ chagrin. After an initial victory, the two leaders learn that a supposed ally has switched sides. Because of their fear at this news, the Macedonians desert the battlefield and head home (this is the incident with the quote about unknown causes terrifying an army). Brasidas sees the Macedonians have fled and intends a retreat to support Mende and Scione, exhorting his men by telling them that barbarians cannot defeat a united Greek defense. Their retreat to Chalcidice proves successful, Brasidas remaining in the rear to help fight off opponents. Brasidas’ men are enraged at the Macedonian desertion and kill any oxen or keep any bundles from the Macedonian baggage train they find. Needless to say, Perdiccas and Brasidas have a falling out and the Macedonian king switches sides once again.

While Brasidas was away with Perdiccas, the Athenians attempt to take Mende. They are initially rebuffed (and Nicias wounded) so they ravage the nearby countryside over the next few days. As the Spartan leader Polydamidas exhorts the Mendaeans to defend their city but an altercation causes the citizens to revolt. When the Mendaeans open the gates without any agreed terms with the Athenians, the city is sacked by Athenian troops. These troops then besiege Scione (the siege is still ongoing at the end of this Book). The spiteful Perdiccas allies with the Athenians and has Spartan troops blocked from marching to help Brasidas. Brasidas attempts to take Potidaea during the winter of 423/2 BC (still during the truce) but fails.

The Thespians must have felt like an accursed people. Their men were positioned on the left wing of the Boeotian lines at Delium. Not only were most of their men slaughtered in that conflict (because of their sacrificial position against the Athenian right wing—considered a place of honor), Thebes pulled down the walls of their city because of Thespian “Atticism”. Thebes really did it simply because they had always wanted to and now they could with “the flower of their [Thespian] youth was slain in the battle against the Athenians.”

Almost sixty years earlier, during the Persian wars, the Thespian contingency had been the only other force to stay with the Spartans at Thermopylae:

The allies then who were dismissed departed and went away, obeying the word of Leonidas, and only the Thespians and the Thebans remained behind with the Lacedemonians. Of these the Thebans stayed against their will and not because they desired it, for Leonidas kept them, counting them as hostages; but the Thespians very willingly, for they said that they would not depart and leave Leonidas and those with him, but they stayed behind and died with them. The commander of these was Demophilos the son of Diadromes. (7.222 from Herodotus)

The epigram for the Spartans has always be remembered: "Oh stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their words." But Philiades composed an epigram for the 700 Thespians that fell: "The men who once dwelled beneath the crags of Mt. Helicon, the broad land of Thespiae now boasts of their courage." The loss for the Thespians didn’t stop there during the Persian wars. The Thebans made sure to point out to Xerxes that Thespiae fought against him when the Persian troops continued toward Attica after the victory at Thermopylae:

While the commanders from the Peloponnese argued thus, an Athenian had come in reporting that the Barbarians were arrived in Attica and that all the land was being laid waste with fire. For the army which directed its march through Boeotia in company with Xerxes, after it had burnt the city of the Thespians (the inhabitants having left it and gone to the Peloponnese) and that of the Plataians likewise, had now come to Athens and was laying waste everything in those regions. Now he had burnt Thespiai and Plataia because he was informed by the Thebans that these were not taking the side of the Medes. (8.50)

Troops from Thespiae also show up at the battle of Plataea the next year, although Herodotus notes they “were without heavy arms”, a recognition of what they lost at Thermopylae. (All quotes from Herodotus come from the G. C. Macaulay translation at Project Gutenberg.)

Since I’m planning on reading Xenophon’s Hellenika this year, I’ll save what happens to the Thespian troops during the battle of Nemea (394 BC) for that discussion.

Just before I hit "Publish" I found a five-part article that Victor Davis Hanson wrote for Military History Quarterly titled "Delium: The Battle Only One Man Wanted". The five parts can be found here:

1. The Battle
2. The Aftermath
3. The Armor and Ranks
4. Innovation and the Battlefield
5. Coalition Warfare

They provide more detail and are laid out better than what I have--highly recommended.


Unknown said...

The links to the first two parts Hanson's article do not work; Part 3 is here:

Dwight said...

Thanks so much David. I have updated all five links. The link you provided made things so much easier!

Unknown said...

You're welcome!