“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.
(For Part Four, go here)
BRASIDAS IN THE NORTH
Brasidas arrived in Macedonia at the head of a small army of allies and freed and trained helot-hoplites; called neodamodes. Immediately, tensions developed between he and his ally, the Macedonian king, Perdiccas II.
Macedonia in the 5th century BC was not the united realm it would be under Philip II and Alexander. All of the western Macedonian highlands, so-called “Upper Macedonia” was ruled by several competing petty-kingdoms: Orestis, Pelagonia, Lyncestis, Eordea, etc. Macedonia proper, where the king’s writ was law, was confined to the great plain of the Axios (Vardar) river, the coastal plains to its south, and the foothills to the west. Even its coastal regions were contested by the presence of independent Greek colonies; which were subject-allies of the Athenian Empire.
A Macedonian national “army”, as such, did not yet exist. The army of Alexander was the creation of his father Philip; still 130 years in the future. Perdiccas had nothing but his household retainers, those nobles and their mounted retainers who chose to respond to a royal summons; and a poor-quality infantry militia of farmers and townsmen. The sarissa-armed phalanx was also a thing of the future; these carried spear or javelin. The nobility and king’s retainers, collectively known as “The Companions” were some of the best cavalry in Greece. But they were a tiny force, not the trained and well equipped cavalry regiments of Philip and Alexander.
Perdiccas had his own reasons for aligning with Sparta. He saw here an opportunity of using the Peloponnesians to break Athenian power in the north; creating the opportunity for Macedonian expansion and control.
His first demand of Brasidas was that he lead his army not against the Athenian coastal cities; but into the Macedonian highland to the west, against the semi-independent kingdom of Lyncestis.
Wasting time and men fighting Perdiccas’ private wars against his rivals held no interest for Brasidas. Instead, he opened negotiations with the Lyncestians, offering himself as arbiter in their conflict with Perdiccas. Meanwhile, Brasidas marched his force into the northeastern Chalkidice region; to campaign against the Athenian interests there.
Here his skill as a politician and orator showed themselves. Proclaiming himself their liberator from Athenian domination, Brasidas found one town after another opening their gates to him. First Acanthus, then Stagira submitted. By December, he was at Argilus, and threatening Amphipolis and its port, Eion, at the mouth of the Strymon River.
The Athenians at Amphipolis sent for help to the nearest Athenian force, at the island of Thasos, commanded by the general Thucydides (the later historian). Thucydides rushed to the scene, managing to save Eion. But before he arrived, Amphipolis had surrendered on generous terms to Brasidas; whose army now occupied the city.
The news of the loss of Amphipolis shook Athens hold on the north, and evoked an immediate reaction. Thucydides was (unjustly) blamed for not “saving” the city, and was dismissed and exiled! Meanwhile, one Chalcidician town after another went over to the Spartans. Panicked, the Athenians requested an armistice to discuss peace; something they had rejected after their humiliating victory at Pylos and Sphacteria. The Spartans were eager to see the prisoners taken at Sphacteria returned, and granted the Athenian’s request.
Meanwhile, additional towns in the Chalcidice were throwing off their Athenian allegiance, and requesting Brasidas protection. Loath to give up the fruits of his victory at Amphipolis, or to leave these towns to the “mercy” of the Athenians, he granted their pleas, sending to Sparta for reinforcement to defend his gains.
The armistice broke down, and Athens dispatched the generals Nicias and Nicostratus with an army to restore their authority in the north. Mende was recaptured, and Scione besieged (though it held out). Brasidas, for his part, found himself isolated; as the Athenians closed off the land route through Thessaly to Spartan reinforcements (had any been dispatched).
Now King Perdiccas, disappointed with Brasidas for liberating the Greek cities of the Chalcidice and not turning them over to him, demanded that his ally now assist him against the Lyncestians. Brasidas forces joined with the Macedonian king’s, and marched into the highlands to the west.
Here, they found themselves outnumbered and hard pressed by the hillmen. Perdiccas, perhaps planning all along to get rid of his too independent ally, now betrayed Brasidas and in the middle of the night withdrew his forces. Returning to Macedon, he changed sides, making peace with the Athenians.
Brasidas found himself outnumbered and surrounded by hostile tribesmen. Keeping his head, the Spartan calmed his panicking troops; and ordered them to form-up into a large hollow square. Placing his non-combatants into the interior, he now marched them through the light-armed tribesmen, who were loath to close with the redoubtable
Peloponnesian hoplites. Their armor and large shields protecting them from hostile missiles, they succeeded in extricating themselves. This use of the tactical square in hostile country presaged the march of Xenophon’s 10,000 twenty-three some years later; and may have inspired Xenophon’s tactics.
In April of 422, the Athenian general (and political demagogue leader), Cleon the Tanner, sailed for the north with a new army and the mandate to restore Athenian control. In particular, his goal was to recapture Amphipolis, with its mines and wealth of timber.
Brasidas watched the Athenians outside the walls. Though outnumbered, he hastily formulated a plan of attack. As Cleon’s forces began to withdraw back toward Eion, the southern gates opened and Brasidas, at the head of his forces, charged out!
Cleon’s hoplites wheeled left to engage the Peloponnesians, and a fierce fight developed. Meanwhile, a second Spartan force, dispatched by Brasidas from the city’s northern gate, now came at a run around the eastern walls, to attack the Athenian’s right flank. Here stood Cleon, on the extreme right, the place where all phalanx commanders took their station.
The right flank of a phalanx is its most vulnerable place; its shieldless side. Charged here by the Peloponnesians, the Athenians gave ground, and were soon in complete rout! Cleon himself was slain in the fighting.
Unfortunately for Sparta, Brasidas too was killed in the fighting; leading the initial frontal charge into the Athenian phalanx. He was buried at Amphipolis, and honored in the city as a second founder. In Sparta, he was remembered with great honor as a hero of the city. His neodamodeis hoplites veterans were allowed to remain together as a regiment upon their return to Sparta; and to call themselves the “Brasidans”.
Brasidas was perhaps the most intrepid, bold, and forward-thinking Spartan general of the war; Lysander his only rival for the title. His ability as a politician and diplomat, unusual in any military man much less a Spartan, were exceptional and allowed him to win over the Chalcidice with little bloodshed. In battle he thought beyond the simple clash of phalanx, using ruses and flank attacks to good effect. As was the case with the WWII German general Rommel, he had that rare ability of inspiring admiration in the very enemies he was fighting. It has been argued that Thucydides’ (an Athenian general who opposed him) presentation of Brasidas is nothing less than a Homeric celebration of the epic hero’s valor. Like Achilles, he died too young.
Thucydides, the historian, points out that both Brasidas and Cleon represented the most bellicose elements in their respective cities. With both these leaders removed, peace could be negotiated.
Exhausted, the Spartans and Athenians soon concluded the Peace of Nicias; bringing the first half of the Peloponnesian War to a close. At the signing ceremony, one of the seventeen “most esteemed” Spartans taking part was Tellis, father Brasidas; so-honored in memory of his son’s heroic services to his country.
NEXT: The Battle of Mantinea