Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Pylus (Pylos) and Sphacteria (4:1-51)

The first fifty-one chapters of Book Four cover activity that occurred in 425BC. I’ll focus on the Athenians setting up fortifications at Pylus (as spelled in my version, “Pylos” in most modern texts) and their siege of the Spartans on the island of Sphacteria. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Pylus can be found on this map on the western shore of the Peloponnese (about 50 miles west of Sparta).

Map of Sphacteria
Picture source

Demosthenes had “lived privately” since his return to Athens. The forty ships that Athens promised to send to Sicily were about to sail when the city told Demosthenes he could “make use of the same galleys, if he thought good so to do, about Peloponnesus.” So he had control part of the way while Eurymedon and Sophocles had responsibility for the overall mission (Pythodorus, the original third general, had already arrived in Sicily). Demosthenes “willed” the fleet to put into Pylus, wishing to establish a foothold on the Peloponnesus, as well as requesting the soldiers to fortify Pylus (saying he had come there for no other reason) but he is denied on all accounts. First the fleet is driven to Pylus by a storm and eventually the soldiers get bored, deciding to build a fort “of their own accord.” Pylus proved to be a location “strong by nature, and needed no fortifying at all.”

After finishing a protective wall, the Athenians continue on their mission to Sicily but leaving Demosthenes with five ships to defend Pylus. Spartan response to Athens establishing a foothold in their area “set lightly by it”, although several key Spartans realize the hazard it represents. Spartan ships and troops arrive at Pylus to lay waste to the Athenian hastily constructed fort. Demosthenes, knowing he’s in trouble, sends two of his ships to catch the generals that had just left to request their return. The Spartans try to block the harbor, taking the nearby island of Sphacteria to help bar entry. Demosthenes anticipated where the Spartans would attack and fends off them off. The Spartan Brasidas proves to be valorous, fainting from his wounds. Thucydides finds the battle ironic, mentioning twice that the Athenians fought from land against the Spartans in ships. The battle goes toward the Athenians as they take several of the Spartan ships.

Magistrates from Sparta visit the scene of the battle and realize they need to ask for a truce regarding Pylus. While the absolute number of trapped Spartan troops does not look large, they represent a sizeable percentage of the total Spartan army. The Athenians agree to allow the Spartans on Sphacteria to be supplied while a Spartan assembly visits Athens. The Spartan embassy to Athens proves to be a revealing encounter. The Spartan speech points out to Athens that they are in the ascendency only because of Spartan misjudgments in tactics and that the Athenians are capable of the same misjudgments. The Spartans offer an alliance that would help settle the conflicts in Greece. But then they make a startling admission…or at least it was to me (as anyone that slogged through my posts on the first Book and the causes of the war would testify). The Spartans appeal to the Athenians’ sense of being seen as providing peace: “For they [other allies on both sides in Greece] make war, not knowing whether side begun”. In this case, the Spartans echo my confusion. And they had every right to think that Athens would accept their proposal—after all, Athens had requested peace a few years earlier.

Thucydides’ disdain for Cleon surfaces again, describing him as “a popular man at that time, and of greatest sway with the multitude.” He persuades the Athenian assembly that they need to take Spartan hostages and demand the return of cities ceded in the 445 BC peace treaty in order to guarantee peace. The Spartans don’t reject these demands out of hand but request a private conference between representatives of each side. After all, if you’re contemplating selling out your allies, you don’t want to do it in public for all to see. The Athenian representatives reject the private conference and the Spartans envoys leave. The Athenians refuse to release the Spartan ships (also being held hostage) and terminat the truce at Pylus. Athens sends more ships to help “guard the island”.

The siege of Sphacteria officially begins, taxing the Athenians because of the lack of natural supplies in the area. As time passes and nothing is settled, Athenians become angry that their troops are tied up on Pylus for so long. They probably regret the chance for peace that they turned down, especially if the leverage they had in trapping the Spartan troops on Sphacteria ends up slipping through their fingers. Cleon feels he is the one being judged since he helped turn the Athenians away from a peace treaty. We see an open split between him and the general Nicias at this point. Cleon glances

at Nicias the son of Niceratus, then general, upon malice and with language of reproach: saying it was easy, if the leaders were men, to go and take them there in the island; and that himself, if he had the command, would do it. But Nicias, seeing the Athenians to be in a kind of tumult against Cleon, for that when he thought it so easy a matter he did not presently put it in practice; and seeing also he had upbraided him, willed him to take what strength he would that they could give him, and undertake it. Cleon supposing at first that he gave him this leave but in words, was ready to accept it; but when he knew he would give him the authority in good earnest, then he shrunk back; and said, that not he, but Nicias was general; being now indeed afraid, and hoping that he durst not have given over the office to him. But then Nicias again bade him do it, and gave over his command [to him] for so much as concerned Pylus; and called the Athenians to witness it. They, (as is the fashion of the multitude), the more Cleon declined the voyage and went back from his word, pressed Nicias so much the more to resign his power to him, and cried out upon Cleon to go. Insomuch as not knowing how to disengage himself of his word, he undertook the voyage; and stood forth, saying, that he feared not the Lacedæmonians, and that he would not carry any man with him out of the city, but only the Lemnians and Imbrians that then were present, and those targettiers that were come to them from Ænus, and four hundred archers out of other places: and with these he said, added to the soldiers that were at Pylus already, he would within twenty days either fetch away the Lacedæmonians alive, or kill them upon the place. This vain speech moved amongst the Athenians some laughter, and was heard with great content of the wiser sort. For of two benefits, the one must needs fall out; either to be rid of Cleon, (which was their greatest hope), or if they were deceived in that, then to get those Lacedæmonians into their hands. (emphasis mine)

You can do it better Cleon? Fine, do it! Cleon chooses Demosthenes as “his companion” having heard of his exploits, especially what he had done in Pylus. Demosthenes was probably having some misgivings at this point, remembering his earlier losses at Aetolia since several circumstances were similar. But chance lent a hand. Soldiers cooking their dinner begin a major fire that strips much of the trees on the island of Sphacteria, allowing the Athenians to prepare their troops better since they can ascertain the enemy’s numbers and locations. The Spartans have been able to hold out so long on a barren isle thanks to supply help from free men and helots promised rewards and freedom.

The Athenians invade the island, taking and killing the guards and alighting to higher ground where possible. While the fighting lasts all day, a contingent of Athenian allies circle behind the Spartans in the fort and force a wry comparison from Thucydides:

And the Lacedæmonians, being now charged with their shot both before and behind, were in the same case (to compare small matters with great) that they were in at Thermopylæ. For then they were slain by the Persians, shut up on both sides in a narrow path: and these now being charged on both sides, could make good the place no longer; but fighting few against many, and being weak withal for want of food, were at last forced to give ground: and the Athenians by this time were also masters of all the entrances.

Talk about damning with faint praise. Cleon and Demosthenes know the Spartans are worth more alive than dead so they allow them to surrender. The sight and rumor of Spartans voluntarily surrendering would be a publicity coup for the Athenians. Cleon’s star shines brighter than ever since his promise, “as senseless as it was, took effect: for within twenty days he brought home the men as he had undertaken.” Opinions around the Greek world changes since everyone expected that Spartans “should never, neither by famine nor whatsoever other necessity, have been constrained to deliver up their arms, but have died with them in the hands, fighting as long as they had been able”. Their hard-fought reputation was now being called into question.

Other activity during the year
Sicily: Messana revolted from the Athenians. Syracusians could now use Messana as a base for their expanded fleet and harass Rhegium (just across the narrow strait). Messana took all their forces against Naxos but nearby mountain residents assisted in routing the Messanians. The Athenian troops attempt to take Messana but fail. They retire to Rhegium and “the Grecians of Sicily warred one upon another without the Athenians.”

Corinth: Athens demonstrates its increasing aggressiveness as Nicias takes troops to Corinth. The Athenians get the better of the Corinthians in a battle but do not follow up their victory, mistaking arriving men as hostile forces, retiring from the field when they were at their highest advantage. Athens does use the foothold gained in the area to take additional nearby cities.

Corcyra: at the site that provided the spark for the war, the Corcyraen oligarchs had been harassing the “commons” of the city. With Athenian help the banished oligarchs are captured and placed on a separate island for their protection under a truce. Some of the Corcyraen commons induce the oligarchs to attempt an escape, breaking the truce with Athens. The Athenians turn the oligarchs over to the Corcyraen people who murder most of them in torturous fashion. Many of the oligarchs commit suicide to avoid such treatment. “And thus ened this far-spread sedition, for so much as concerned this present war: for of other seditions there remained nothing worth the relation.”

Persia: Athenians intercept an ambassador from the king of Persia and read his letters which are a response to Spartan requests for help. The Persian king, expressing confusion at differing requests, had asked the Spartans “if therefore they had any thing to say for certain, they should send somebody to him with this Persian [Artaphernes, the Persian ambassador]'. Athenian envoys are sent to Ephesus with Artaphernes (the reason is not given—probably to let the king know the Athenians know about the Spartan requests?). When they reach Ephesus, though, they find out that the king Artaxerxes (son of Xerxes) had recently died so the Athenian envoys return home. Two quick notes: 1) Persian power and support could be a game-changer in the war, adding men and material that would greatly benefit those aided, and 2) Sparta, supposedly fighting to free the Greeks from Athenian control, turns to the Persians? The irony meter just red-lined. The Athenians clearly didn’t take the implications of Persian involvement in the war seriously at this point by simply leaving upon the news of Artaxerxes' death.

Happy New Year
So where do the Greek powers stand entering 424 BC? Athens’ fortunes are clearly ascending. They had Sparta requesting a peace treaty that would have been beneficial to both sides but, as proposed, did not completely solve current issues or address long-term peace. Spartan hostages were held in Athens while the Spartan fleet was nearly wiped out with the loss of their ships at Sphacteria. Corinth, one of the early instigators in trouble, was a shadow of its former self.

The key, to paraphrase Donald Kagan in his book The Peloponnesian War, will be what kind of victory or peace agreement Athens wants to achieve. They clearly smarted from the peace treaty they signed at the end of the first Peloponnesian War in 445 BC (the so-called thirty-years peace agreement), feeling they had signed under duress. Did they want to be in Sparta's place when that treaty was signed? (And did they consider the ramifications regarding how Sparta would view such a peace over time?) Or did they want to go for complete mastery of Greece? Whatever the mindset, everything going their way with their new aggressive policy (especially with Cleon and Demosthenes) would probably skew any consideration of peace.

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