SPARTANS: ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE 4: DISGRACE AT SPHACTERIA ISLAND

“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 Three, go here)

DEMOSTHENES LANDS AT PYLOS

The Bay of Pylos (now Navarino Bay) is a well sheltered anchorage on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese; in the region known as Messenia. It is enclosed from the Ionian Sea to the west by a long, narrow island: Sphacteria. The bay can be entered through channels both north and south of Sphacteria. The narrow northern channel is bounded on the northern side by the rocky Pylos promontory. Here, in the Bronze Age, had been the citadel of the Trojan War leader, Nestor. In 1827 it was the site of the Battle of Navarino, where a British, French, and Russian coalition fleet defeated the Ottoman Turks.

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It was here in 425 B.C., in the 6th year of the Peloponnesian War that the innovative Athenian general, Demosthenes, with a fleet of 40 triremes bound for Corcyra was forced by bad weather to land.

Ever one to recognize a strategic opportunity, Demosthenes used the crews at his disposal to fortify Pylos; and when the fleet continued on to Corcyra, he remained behind with 5 triremes and their crews (about 1,000 men; less than 100 of which were likely hoplites). He was soon reinforced by another 40 Messenian-exile hoplites from Naupactos, an Athenian base on the Gulf of Corinth. None hated the Spartans more than these Messenians.

Demosthenes planned to use Pylos as a base of operations in Messenia. This land, comprising the southwestern quarter of the Peloponnese, had long been subjugated by the Spartans; and its native population reduced to helotry. From Pylos, the Athenians could raid into Spartan Messenia with impunity; and provide a refuge for runaway helots.

This potential thorn in the Spartan side was intolerable to the Spartan government. Immediately, the Spartan Army ravaging Attica under King Agis was recalled to the Peloponnese. A force of 43 ships and men was dispatched under Sparta’s most promising officer, the intrepid Brasidas son of Tellis, to expel the Athenians.

This is the first we hear of this enigmatic Spartan officer; destined to have such an impact on the direction of the war.

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For such an important figure, we know surprisingly little of Brasidas’ early life. Considering his later rank, he was almost certainly a “star” cadet during his days in the Agoge (see Part One). He likely served time in the Kryptea; for no one who had not served in that elite “Special Branch” ever rose to the highest ranks in Sparta, as Brasidas did. He became renown for his personal valor and fighting prowess (Plato, towards the end of theSymposium”, has Alcibiades compare Brasidas to Achilles); as well as for his strategic acumen, his ability to quickly arrive at a tactical solution to any problem, his considerable diplomatic skills, and his very un-Spartan ability to think “outside the box. He was a remarkably capable man.

By the outbreak of hostilities in 431, Brasidas was already of sufficient rank to be entrusted as a commander of forces patrolling and garrisoning helot Messenia. When the Athenians raided Messenia and laid siege to Methone, Brasidas gathered those forces available and rushed to the city’s relief. Thucydides, the Athenian general and chief historian of the Peloponnesian War, notes that “because of this, Brasidas was the first man in this war to receive official honors at Sparta”. He is not specific about these honors, but the historian Xenophon states that in the next year, Brasidas was the eponymous Ephor, meaning he was the senior of the five magistrates that year; and that in Spartan reckoning and annuals the year was called after him. In 429 he was a naval commissioner helping to supervise an early attempt to create a Spartan Navy; and was sent to the Gulf of Corinth to review naval strategy.

He was soon commanding his own trireme, and was part of the Spartan expedition sent to aid the Corinthians against Corcyra. During this period, he proposed dragging the Peloponnesian ships from the Corinthian gulf across the Isthmus of Corinth and launching a surprise attack on Piraeus, the port of Athens. Although this plan was not accepted, it shows the characteristic boldness Brasidas would later display with such success.

Brasidas now led the Spartan squadron to Pylos, to expel Demosthenes and the Athenians.

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Realizing the Spartans forces arrived at Pylos, forcing Demosthenes to beach his ships (but not before sending two northward to retrieve the fleet) and to man his stockades. Brasidas now attempted to land at Pylos, storming the rocky shore. The Athenians resisted fiercely, terrain and their makeshift defense-works in their favor. The Spartans were repelled, and Brasidas sustained a nearly mortal wound, as well as having his shield ripped from his prostrate body.

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The Spartans withdrew, and decided to blockade the Athenians, cutting them off from supply. To this end, a Spartan force of 420 men (including 120 Spartiates) was landed on Sphacteria, a rocky, scrub-covered island that closed the bay’s western side, from which it could (theoretically) help close the northern channel into Pylos Bay.

However, the Athenian fleet returned from Corcyra and, entering the bay, defeated and drove off the Peloponnesian ships. At a stroke, “the worm had turned”, and the Spartans on Sphacteria were cut off and isolated.

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Realizing the untenable position her garrison on Sphacteria were now in, Sparta immediately began negotiations with Athens for a truce that would allow their withdrawal. Their demagogic leader, Cleon the Tanner, convinced the Athenian assembly to make unreasonable demands, and the negotiations broke down.

Cleon and reinforcements were dispatched to Demosthenes, with orders to storm Sphacteria before winter weather made sailing impossible.

At this point, a chance fire on the island broke out, burning away the trees and scrub foliage that had given the tiny Spartan garrison cover and concealment. Now the Athenians off shore could clearly see how few were the Spartan garrison; and exactly where to land their troops unobstructed.

Stripping their ships to skeleton crews in order to field an overwhelming force, Demosthenes landed with several thousand heavy and light-armed troops. Taking the Spartans by surprise, they seized the island’s one well and drove the Spartan defenders to the far north end of the island; where the Spartans had built makeshift fortification on the highest ground.

Now the Athenian light troops, archers and javelin-armed “peltasts”, advanced up the hill to with missile range. They began a relentless harassment of the Spartans; who, formed up in phalanx, sheltered behind their shields. Several times the Spartans attempted to drive off their tormentors with charges. But the more nimble light troops easily eluded the Spartan hoplites; retreating to the shelter of their own hoplite’s phalanx. This was far more numerous than the Spartans, and occupied good defensive terrain that made direct attack suicidal.

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Over and over, the Athenian light troops returned to continue the bombardment. In the blazing heat of the day, the sun and lack of water took as much of a toil of the Spartan defenders as enemy darts. Even so, the Spartans closed weary ranks around their dead, and held their ground.

Presaging Alexander the Great at the Sogdian Rock, a century later, Demosthenes now sent a force of Messenian light infantry up the sea cliffs on the northern end of the island, behind the Spartan position. Deemed impassable, the Spartans had placed no look-outs on the heights. Like the American Rangers at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, the peltasts climbed the cliffs unobserved; then moved up to seize the islands highest ground, behind the embattled Spartans!

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Attacked now from all sides the Spartan garrison, reminiscent of their grandfathers at Thermopylae two generations before, seemed doomed to another glorious “last stand”.

But Demosthenes now did something even more cunning: he pulled back. His troops backed off and held their fire, giving the sun and lack of food and water work their malicious magic.

Several hours went by. Then an Athenian herald approached the bloody and weary Spartans.

Would they care to surrender, he politely asked them?

In other circumstances, on another day, the question would have been met with contempt. Every Spartan knew what was expected of him. This was their chance to find that which every Spartan warrior spent his life preparing for: kalos thenatos, a “beautiful death” in battle; a chance to pass the final test of a true Spartan.

But this was not “another day”.

Inexplicably, the Spartans on Sphacteria island surrendered.

292 prisoners were taken in chains back to Athens, 120 of them full Spartiates. Cleon put them on display for the populace to behold, like some strange and exotic wild animals! The sophisticated, effete Athenians viewed them with scorn and ridicule.

“So, did all the real Spartans die on the island”, they sneered?

To celebrate their victory, the Athenians built the Temple of Tempe of Athena Nike, upon a bastion to the right of the entry gate, the Propylaea. Here they hung the Spartan shields captured at Sphacteria, as trophies.

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Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, wherein hung the Spartan shields taken at Sphacteria; circled at the top image and on the upper right in the bottom, today

(Though Demosthenes’ strategy had won the victory, Cleon the Tanner stole the credit. Soon after, the comic playwright Aristophanes was lampooning the demagogue for this stolen glory in the comedy, The Knights (Hippeis).)

Morale back in Sparta sunk to the lowest it had ever been. The entire state seemed to have gone into a state of shock. In a fit of despair, Sparta agreed not to invade and devastate Attica; in return for Athens not killing its prisoners. Never had Spartans been known to surrender. The legend of Spartan courage and the myth of Spartan invincibility was shaken to their foundations.

When the prisoners were finally returned, the treatment they received was almost as unheard of as their surrender. They were not stripped of their status as Homoioi,“Equals”; they were not taunted in the streets by the Spartan maidens as cowards. They were quietly accepted back into Spartan society. It was as if all Sparta accepted, with a sense of shame and shared guilt, that Spartans were just not made of the same “stern stuff” as their forefathers.

The other Greeks took notice, and drew much the same conclusion.

The war continued.

BRASIDAS’ STRIKES NORTH

Now it was Sparta’s turn to do the unexpected and strike the enemy where they least expected. It was Brasidas, recovered from the wounds sustained at Pylos, who conceived a plan to revenge Sphacteria and strike at the roots of the Athenian Empire.

The northern Aegean shore was a source of wealth for the Athenians; both timber for ship building and mines from which gold and silver were extracted. That it remain in Athenian hands was particularly important as the Athenian grain shipments from the Black Sea passed below it on their way to the Queen City. Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in western Thrace, was the principal Athenian base in the northern Aegean.

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Athenian control of the coastal cities of Macedonia and Thrace was resented by the peoples of these regions. Now Perdiccas II, king of Macedonia, requested Spartan aid against these Athenian bases; the expectation being that the Spartans would turn them over to his control.

Brasidas argued to the Spartan authorities that here was an opportunity not to be missed. That once the Athenian subject-cities of Chalcidike and Macedonia were “liberated”, he (Brasidas) could march east along the Thracian coast, expelling the Athenians from all of their outposts. At the end of such a march lay the ultimate prize: Byzantium, at the exit of the Black Sea. With this in Spartan hands, the Athenian corn supply could be throttled!

Here was strategy on a high level.

But, however sound the plans, Sparta could not spare much of its army; already engaged in protecting the Peloponnese from the increasingly aggressive Athenians (who were now raiding from bases like Pylos all around the peninsula). In the end, Brasidas was given this command and allocated an army of 700 liberated and trained helots (called neodamodeis, “new men”); given their freedom in return for service and loyalty.

Brasidas moved to Corinth, where he recruited another 1,000 troops from the area. He also thwarted an attempt by the ever-active Demosthenes to seize the Spartan allied city Megara by coup d’main.

Brasidas marched north, through the plains of allied Boeotia; north, past the burial mound of the 300 at Thermopylae (where, no doubt, he paused to pay homage); on into Athenian-allied Thessaly, where so dreaded was his and the Spartan name that none dared to opposed his passing. Through the narrow gorge known as the Vale of Tempe, and into Macedonia.

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The “Vale of Tempe”, the narrow gorge through which the main way from Greece to Macedonia passed. Brasidas came through Tempe enroute to Macedonia

Here Brasidas was joined by Perdiccas, the Macedonian king. Immediately, conflicting interests began to strain this alliance of convenience.

NEXT: BRASIDAS’ NORTHERN CAMPAIGN

 

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4 Responses to SPARTANS: ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE 4: DISGRACE AT SPHACTERIA ISLAND

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Absolutely superb.!!!

  2. Pingback: SPARTANS, ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE 5: BRASIDAS’ MACEDONIAN CAMPAIGN | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

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