Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC)

Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC)


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Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC)

The battle of Sphacteria (425 BC) was the second part of a two-part battle which ended with the surrender of a force of Spartan hoplites (Great Peloponnesian War). The chain of events that led to this almost unprecedented disaster began when an Athenian force under the command of Demosthenes landed on the rocky headland of Pylos, in the south-west of the Peloponnese and fortified their position. The Peloponnesian army under King Agis abandoned their short invasion of Attica and returned to the Peloponnese, while the forces already at Sparta moved west to deal with the new threat.

For a brief period Demosthenes was in serious trouble. The Spartans summoned their fleet to Pylos, and he found himself besieged by land and sea. The Athenian position was on a headland at one end of the Bay of Pylos. The island of Sphacteria ran across the mouth of the bay, and was occupied by the Spartans. The Spartan fleet moved into the bay, trapping the Athenians and prevented any supplies from reaching them. In the resulting battle of Pylos the Athenians managed to hold off a two-pronged Spartan assault, but they were really saved by the arrival of an Athenian fleet. This fleet inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spartan fleet inside the bay, in the process lifting the blockade of Pylos.

The tables were now turned on the Spartans. A force of 420 Spartan hoplites, under the command of Epitades son of Molobrus was trapped on Sphacteria. The Spartans responded by sending senior members of their government to Pylos to examine situation. When it became clear that they couldn't hope to get supplies onto the island or rescue the hoplites they asked the Athenians for an armistice. The biggest weakness in the Spartan system was the shortage of full citizens, and they could hardly afford to lose 420 full Spartans. This was reflected in the terms they agreed with the Athenians. Every warship that had taken part in the earlier fighting and every warship in Laconia was to be handed over to the Athenians for the duration of the armistice. The Spartans were to stop all attacks on Pylos, while the Athenians stopped attacking Sphacteria, and allowed a fixed amount of food onto the island. The armistice would stay in place while Spartan representatives went to Athens to offer peace terms.

The peace negotiations and their aftermath do not reflect well on the Athenians. They demanded the return of lands lost at the end of the First Peloponnesian War, and when the negotiations broke down refused to honour the terms of the armistice and kept the Spartan warships. The armistice lasted twenty days.

After the failure of the negotiations the fighting resumed. The Spartans continued their attacks on the Athenians on Pylos, while the Athenians maintained the naval blockade of Sphacteria. Both sides were effectively under siege, but at first it was the Spartans who put the most effort into getting supplies to their troops. Volunteers were asked to try and get supplies onto the island, with a cash reward for free men and freedom as the reward for helots. Any boats used in the operation were valued beforehand, so it didn’t matter if they were lost. Some men waited for the right weather and effectively rammed the island at full speed, damaging their boats but winning the reward. Others swam in under water, towing supplies protected by skins.

As the siege dragged on the Athenian people became concerned that the Spartans would escape. The politician Cleon, who had played a major role in convincing the people to reject the Spartan peace offer, became increasingly unpopular. In an attempt to restore his popularity he tried to blame the general, Nicias son of Niceratus, for the failures, claiming that a true leader would have easily captured the island by now. This badly backfired, for the Athenian people began to ask why Cleon wasn't leading the army if it was that simple. Nicias added to his problems by giving him permission to take any troops that he required and take command of the siege. Eventually Cleon was backed into a corner, and had no choice other than to go to Sphacteria. He now raised the stakes once again by announcing that he would take the island in twenty days, without using any fresh Athenian troops.

Cleon timed his arrival at Sphacteria perfectly. Demosthenes had been unwilling to risk a landing on the island because it was covered in thick woodland, with no paths, and he believed that this would give the Spartans too big an advantage. Just before Cleon arrived one of the Spartans accidently set the woods on fire, and most of the trees burnt down. The fire also revealed a number of landing points, and that there were more Spartans on the island than previously believed, making them an ever bigger prize.

The two Athenian generals began by sending a herald to the island to ask the Spartans to surrender on generous terms. When this offer was rejected, they waited for a day and then launched a surprise attack on the island. The Spartans were divided into three camps. The main camp, under their commander Epitades, was in the centre of the island. This was both the most level and best provided with water. A guard of thirty hoplites was at the end of the island the Athenians chose to attack (probably the southern end), and another small detachment was posted at the opposite end, facing the headland of Pylos. This was the rockiest end of the island, and was topped with an old fort that the Spartans hoped to use as a final refuge. This attack came on the seventy-second day after the naval battle that had trapped the Spartans.

The Athenians caught the Spartans out by loading their 800 hoplites onto the ships while it was still dark. The ships then put out to sea as if they were about to mount their normal daily patrols, but instead landed on the island. The first Spartan post was overwhelmed. This allowed Demosthenes to bring over the rest of his army - 800 archers, at least 800 peltasts, the Allied contingents and the crews of the seventy Athenian warships. This army was then divided into groups of around 200, and these groups were posted on high ground all around the main Spartan position. The Greeks are often accused of being unimaginative in warfare, relying entirely on simple clashes between hoplites, but here we see Demosthenes using a different tactic. The Spartans would find themselves in a trap. If they attempted to attack any part of the Athenian line they would be exposed to attack from the rear, while the lightly armed Athenian troops would be able to retreat from the heavily armoured Spartan hoplites.

When Epitades realised that the Athenians had landed on the island he formed up his men and moved to attack the Athenian hoplites, expected the standard clash between two lines of similar troops. Instead the Spartans found themselves being harried from both flanks by the bowmen, peltasts and stone throwers. The Athenian hoplites refused to come forward and fight, so the Spartans were denied their main target. They were sometimes able to close up with the light troops, but not to crush them. Eventually they were forced to retreat back up the island to the fort. The Athenians followed, and launched a series of frontal assaults on the fort, but this time the advantages were with the Spartans, and these attacks failed to push the Spartans out of their final defensive lines before the fort itself.

The stalemate was broken by the commander of the Messinian contingent. He asked Cleon and Demosthenes to give him some archers and light troops. He then picked his way around the rocky coastline of the island, until he was in position on some high ground behind the fort. When these troops appeared behind them the Spartans abandoned their outer lines and pulled back.

At this point Cleon and Demosthenes called a halt to the fighting, and once again sent a herald to offer surrender terms. By now the Spartans had lost Epitades, who had been killed, while their second in command, Hippagretas was badly wounded and believed falsely to be dead. This left the third in command, Styphon son of Pharax, in charge. According to Thucydides most of the Spartans lowered their shields and made it clear that they wanted to surrender when they first heard the heralds, so Styphon had no choice other than to enter into surrender negotiations. After consulting with the Spartans on the mainland, who have him no useful advice ('make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonourable'), Styphon decided to surrender.

The Athenians had captured a very valuable prize. Of the 440 hoplites who had been trapped on the island, 292 were captured and taken to Athens. Of these 120 were full Spartans, a sizable proportion of a very small group. The surrender of the Spartans caused shockwaves across the Greek world. Spartans were not expected to surrender, but to fight to the death, regardless of the odds against them. The surrender also caused great despondency in Sparta, and triggered a series of peace offers. The prisoners were still a major factor four years later, when the Peace of Nicias (421 BC) did actually end the war for a short period. One of the clauses of the peace treaty saw the Athenians return all Spartans in prison in Athens or in any Athenian dominion.


Battle of Sphacteria

Template:Infobox Battles The Battle of Sphacteria was a battle of the Peloponnesian War in 425 BC, between Athens and Sparta. It was an important part of the longer Battle of Pylos.

The Athenian land forces in Pylos had successfully driven back the Spartan attempts to land from the sea, and the fifty Athenian ships were able to drive the sixty Spartan ships out of the harbour at Pylos (see Battle of Pylos). This meant that the island of Sphacteria, where Epitadas had landed with 440 hoplites, was completely blockaded by the Athenian fleet. This was such a shock to the Spartans that representatives from Sparta itself came to negotiate a truce. The Athenians demanded that Sparta hand over its entire navy in exchange for sending food to the stranded hoplites on Sphacteria. They offered to escort ambassadors from Sparta to Athens, after which the Spartan ships and men would be returned. In Athens the ambassadors made an uncharacteristically lengthy speech calling for a truce:

"Sparta calls upon you to make a treaty and to end the war. She offers you peace, alliance, friendly and neighbourly relations. In return she asks for the men on the island, thinking it better for both sides that the affair should not proceed to the bitter end. Now is the time for us to be reconciled, while the final issue is still undecided, while you have won glory and can have our friendship as well, and we, before any shameful thing has taken place, can, in our present distress, accept a reasonable settlement." (Thucydides 4.18-20)

Many Athenians, the most vocal of whom was Cleon, were opposed to peace now that they had the upper hand, and Cleon also demanded that Sparta give up all the territories they had taken from Athens. The Spartans wanted to appoint an arbitration committee, but Cleon refused, and the ambassadors left. When they returned to Pylos the Athenians claimed the armistice had been broken due to some minor infraction, and they therefore did not have to return the Spartan ships. By this point there were now seventy Athenian ships blockading Sphacteria, and the Spartans had been joined by their Peloponnesian allies, who set up camp outside Pylos.

Although there was still fighting going on in Sicily after Sparta had incited Messina to revolt from Athens, Athens could no longer commit any ships there, as the majority of the Athenian navy was at Pylos. Despite some successes, the Athenians left the Sicilians to fight amongst themselves, although they would return later in the war.

Meanwhile the blockade of Sphacteria continued for much longer than either side had anticipated, and there was very little food or water for the Athenians. The Spartans had enough food for themselves and for the hoplites on Sphacteria, when they could successfully risk running the blockade. Many people in Athens by now felt that they should have accepted the offer of peace. Cleon at first refused to believe the Athenians were so unsuccessful, and then blamed Nicias for the supposed cowardice of the generals. Nicias offered to resign his post as strategos and let Cleon take command of the siege, thinking that Cleon would be just as unsuccessful nevertheless, Cleon accepted this challenge and sailed to Pylos with a few hundred men, claiming he would take Sphacteria within twenty days.

Demosthenes, the commander at Pylos, had meanwhile been planning to land on the island. He was aided in this endeavour when a Spartan soldier accidentally burned down the forest hiding the Spartan troops, making it easier for Demosthenes to view their movements. Cleon soon arrived, and the two called on the Spartans to surrender, but they refused.

Demosthenes and Cleon then landed about 800 men on the island, taking the Spartans by surprise. The next morning the rest of the Athenians landed as well, consisting of the crews of the ships, as well as more than 1600 other men, competely surrounding the Spartans. The Athenians pushed the Spartans across the island into the small fort located on the beach at one end, which the Spartans were able to defend for most of the day. The Spartan commander Epitadas was killed in the fighting, and Styphon took command. At the end of the day a force of archers found a way around the fort and began attacking the Spartans from behind.


The Battle of Sphacteria: Light Versus Heavy Infantry in Maneuver Warfare

Although there are a great number of battles that have taken place throughout the great spans of history whose names are so familiar, the name, Sphacteria, does not typically ring a bell with the average person. In spite of this the Battle of Sphacteria was a paramount military engagement of the classical world where the advantages of heavy versus light forces, and combined arms forces are concerned. This match-up took place on the island of Sphacteria in 425 BC during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens 1 . While it would be very easy to get involved in discussing everything culminating up to the point of this battle, it should suffice to state the fact that the Spartans were concerned that the Athenians would take the island and Sparta deployed a force of 420 hoplites (heavy infantry) to the island to occupy it. What the Spartans did not count on was the Athenian sea victory around the island that stranded the 420 hoplites, leaving them effectively cut off and isolated on the island. 2 Next, the Athenian forces invaded the island in an attempt to smash the Spartans’ force and themselves occupy the island. What took place was a key point in the evolution of combined arms warfare.

The Athenian force that landed on the island outnumbered the Spartans force. The Athenians deployed 800 of its own hoplites onto the island along with approximately 300 Messenian heavy infantry, but along with these heavy infantry the Athenians deploy another 800 archers and 800 peltasts, light troops armed with slings. 3 In the opening stages of this battle the Athenians were able to assault a small Spartan outpost, perhaps an observation post, and overrun the position, but the Spartan main force began to move forward towards the Athenians to push them off of the island. 4 What took place next proved the worth of using combined arms warfare and maneuver warfare as opposed the head-on linear warfare that was phalanx warfare. The Athenian force would prove itself leaps and bounds more effective than the Spartan hoplite force of heavy infantry. While the Athenian hoplites advanced as if to meet the Spartans head-on, the Spartans found that the harassing fire from the Athenian light troops was beginning to take its toll. Furthermore, the heavily armored Spartan hoplites were unable to move quickly enough to catch the Athenian light troops who had little or no armor at all. The Athenian light troops had speed, maneuverability, and projectile weapons that could engage the Spartans at approximately 50 yards distance. 5 This allowed more than enough time for the Athenian peltasts to reposition themselves when the Spartans attempted to reach them. What further complicated matters for the Spartans engaged with such an enemy is that a fire had destroyed nearly every tree on the island and left the Spartans with virtually no cover against the Athenian peltasts and archers.

The famed and world renowned Spartan hoplites in the Battle of Sphacteria found themselves outclassed and outmaneuvered by a combined armed force of Athenians made up of heavy and light forces, both infantry and projectile launching troops. The Spartans could not hope to move forward on the offensive without either of their flanks or formation rear being compromised by a more agile Athenian light force. It was the equal to getting caught in a L-shaped ambush. The Spartans were engaged at their front and yet lighter Athenian forces maneuvered to the Spartan flanks and began to fire into the side of their formations. The Spartan commander, Epitadas, was killed in action during the fighting and their deputy commander was nearly killed, being himself wounded in action. 6 The Spartan force retreated and took cover in the ruins of an old fort on the top of a hill, but it was not long before the Athenians maneuvered upon an adjacent cliff and compromised the Spartans position in the fort. 7 The Spartan force, presumably demoralized by the events taking place and almost surely exhausted from repeated charges that never actually lead to any close combat of consequence, surrendered to the Athenian force. Out of the 400 Spartan hoplites, 292 remained and were captured. The Athenian casualties are recorded as having been 50 killed in action. 8 Clearly this was a battle in which the Spartans were simply confounded and overwhelmed tactically by the Athenians. The peltasts would have been no match for the Spartans had they been able to close with them, but the peltasts were too fast and could hit the Spartans from a distance. Likewise the same holds similarly true for the Athenian archers.

What could the Spartans have done differently here? Thus far out of all of the options, there is but one that stands out and it is not something that took place very much, if at all during the era being discussed. It is a nighttime assault launched by the Spartans. Any ideas on how the Spartans may have been able to pull this off? What would have been the benefits of such a bold move by the Spartans? Could it have worked? What else might the Spartans have done in the campaign?

1.Pomeroy, Sarah B., Burstein, Stanley M., Donlan, Walter, Roberts, Jennifer T. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press 2008. 325

2. Pomeroy, Sarah B et al. Ancient Greece. 325

3.Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. OK: University of Oklahoma Press 2006. 53

4. Warry. Warfare in the Classical World. 53

Brian Todd Carey. Warfare in the Ancient World. UK: Pen and Sword 2009

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burnstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer T. Roberts. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press 2008

John Warry. Warfare in the Classical World. OK: University of Oklahoma Press 2006


Battle of Sphacteria

The Battle of Sphacteria was a battle of the Peloponnesian War in 425 BC, between Athens and Sparta. It was an important part of the longer Battle of Pylos.

The Athenian land forces in Pylos had successfully driven back the Spartan attempts to land from the sea, and the fifty Athenian ships were able to drive the sixty Spartan ships out of the harbour at Pylos (see Battle of Pylos). This meant that the island of Sphacteria, where Epitadas had landed with 440 hoplites, was completely blockaded by the Athenian fleet. This was such a shock to the Spartans that representatives from Sparta itself came to negotiate an armistice at Pylos, with a view to safeguarding the troops on Sphacteria until an end to the war with Athens could be arranged. An armistice was agreed upon between the combatatants at Pylos, the terms of which were as follows:

  1. All Spartan ships would be handed over to the Athenians for the duration of the armistice
  2. The Athenians would allow the Spartans on shore to send rations, under close supervision, to the troops on Sphacteria the Spartans would make no unauthorized visits to the island
  3. Neither side would atack the other the Spartans on shore would desist form their attempts to capture the fortifications, while the Athenians would not attempt to capture the island garrison
  4. The Athenians would transport Spartan ambassadors to Athens to allow them to attempt to negotiate a truce. When their work was concluded, they would be returned to Pylos. The armistice would be ended upon their return, and the Spartan navy would be restored to them.

Both sides agreed that any infringement of the terms of the armistice would result in its immediate cancellation. The ships were handed over, and a ship was dispatched to carry the ambassadors to Athens.

In Athens the ambassadors made an uncharacteristically lengthy speech calling for a truce:

"Sparta calls upon you to make a treaty and to end the war. She offers you peace, alliance, friendly and neighbourly relations. In return she asks for the men on the island, thinking it better for both sides that the affair should not proceed to the bitter end. Now is the time for us to be reconciled, while the final issue is still undecided, while you have won glory and can have our friendship as well, and we, before any shameful thing has taken place, can, in our present distress, accept a reasonable settlement." (Thucydides 4.18-20)

The Spartans were operating on the assumption that the Athenians had wanted to make peace earlier, but had been prevented from doing so by Spartan opostion to the idea.

However, the Athenians, led by Cleon, were opposed to peace now that they had the upper hand. Cleon proposed that the Spartans on Spahcteria surrender their arms and be brought to Athens. If this were done, and the Spartans agreed to return the lands that Athens had forfeited by the terms of the previous peace treaty, then an end to the war could be negotiated. The Spartans replied that they wished to appoint an arbitration committee, so that they could discuss the proposed terms in a calm atmosphere Cleon refused, and prevented them from achieving their goals by inflaming the assembly against them. Seeing that they would not accomplish their goals, the ambassadors left, returning to Pylos. When they arrived, the Athenians claimed the armistice had been broken due to a Spartan attack on the fortification, along with other very minor infractions, and that they therefore did not have to return the Spartan ships. After formally protesting this, the Spartans prepared to renew the attack by this point there were now seventy Athenian ships blockading Sphacteria, and the Spartans had been joined by their Peloponnesian allies, who had set up camp outside Pylos.

The Athenian blockade of Sphacteria continued for much longer than either side had anticipated there was very little food, water, or room for the Athenians in the beach fortifications. The Spartans had enough food for themselves and for the hoplites on Sphacteria, who were supplied by helots promised money and freedom by the Spartans for successfully breaking the Athenian blockade. They would put to sea and land on the seaward shore of Sphacteria, where it was difficult for the Athenians to maintain the blockade at all times.

In Athens, people by now felt that they should have accepted the offer of peace when it was made. They realized that the onset of winter would end the blockade, and allow the garrison to escape. Cleon, becoming unpopular for having blocked the peace treaty, declared the messengers were lying about the true state of affairs. As a result, he was chosen to sail out and assess the situation fisrthand. Realizing the damage this would do to him (he would have to contradict his previous stance, for the situation really was dire) Cleon suggested sending out another expedition instead, with competent generals, and proceeded to blame the lack of leadership for the situation. He got into trouble, however, by saying that he would have captured the island long ago, and was forced to accept command of the new expedition. He claimed he would have the matter cleared up in twenty days or less, without even taking any Athenian troops, and set sail for pylos with light allied reinforcements.

Demosthenes, the commander at Pylos, had meanwhile been planning to land on the island. His plans were aided when a fire, accidentally caused by a Spartan soldier, burned down most of the woods on Sphacteria. The open ground thus created, along with the ability to see the terrain, greatly encouraged him. Upon Cleon's arrival, they sent a herald to the island asking for the garrison's surrender, which was refused. The next night, they loaded 800 men onto ships, and landed on both sides of the island before dawn. These men immediately attacked the forward Spartan camp (there were three) and overran the surprised defenders in it. As soon as day broke, the rest of the army was landed as well, and they drove the Spartans to the western extremity of the island, into a small fortification there. The Spartans mounted a fierce defense, which was broken when they were flanked by archers, caught in the rear, and rendered unable to effectively defend themselves. Cleon and Demosthenes called back their forces, wanting to take the remaining Spartans alive. Surprisingly, the Spartans surrendered after a conference among themselves, something they were not accustomed to doing. Of the 440 Spartan hoplites, 148 had been killed. After seventy-two days of siege and battle at Pylos and Sphacteria, both sides withdrew, and Cleon returned to Athens having fulfilled his promise to capture the island in twenty days.


Attack on Sphacteria

Demosthenes had already been planning an attack on Sphacteria, as the difficulty of the circumstances his men were in had led him to doubt the viability of a prolonged siege. Moreover, a fire on the island, ignited by Athenian sailors sneaking across to cook a meal away from the crowded confines of Pylos, had denuded the island of vegetation and allowed Demosthenes to examine both the contours of the island and the number and disposition of the defenders. [9] Seeing that only thirty Spartans were detailed to guard the southern end of the island, away from Pylos, Demosthenes landed his 800 hoplites on both the seaward and landward sides of the island one night. The Spartan garrison, thinking that the Athenian ships were only mooring in their usual nightly watch posts, was caught off guard and massacred. At dawn, the remainder of the Athenian force streamed ashore these included some 2,000 light troops (psiloi) and archers and some 8,000 rowers from the fleet, armed with whatever weapons could be found. [10]

The Spartans, under their commander Epitadas, attempted to come to grips with the Athenian hoplites and push their enemies back into the sea, but Demosthenes detailed his lightly armed troops, in companies of about 200 men, to occupy high points and harass the enemy with missile fire whenever they approached. When the Spartans rushed at their tormentors, the light troops, unencumbered by heavy hoplite armor, were easily able to run to safety dust and ash from the recent fire, stirred up by the commotion, further contributed to the Spartans' predicament by obscuring their attackers from their sight. Unable to make any headway, the Spartans withdrew in some confusion to the northern end of the island, where they dug in behind their fortifications and hoped to hold out. A stalemate took hold for some time, with the Athenians trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the Spartans from their strong positions. At this point, the commander of the Messenian detachment in the Athenian force, Comon, approached Demosthenes and asked that he be given troops with which to move through the seemingly impassable terrain along the island's shore. His request was granted, and Comon led his men into the Spartan rear through a route that had been left unguarded on account of its roughness. When he emerged with his force, the Spartans, in disbelief, abandoned their defenses the Athenians seized the approaches to the fort, and the Spartan force stood on the brink of annihilation.


Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) was fought between Sparta and Athens, a war full of complex combat strategies from both parties. During 425 BC Sparta launched an ambitious offensive on Athens which would become known as the battle of Sphacteria.

The plan was to attack the main fortress of Athens from the side by accosting their ships in a quick offense and breaking the walls of the fortress. Sparta only had a couple of hundred warriors but they were deemed the elite at the time, giving them an extra reason not to retreat nor surrender.

Athens managed to speculate this offensive and prepared with the right defenses right before the attack. After a whole day of failed offensives, the Athenian naval force made its appearance. Being flanked and attacked on two fronts, the Spartan army decided to retreat to Sphacteria island.

This meant that most of their ships were left behind in the possession of the Athenians. Sparta sent a diplomat to negotiate although all of those attempts failed. The Athenians knew that if they didn’t attack the retreated Spartans soon, they would leave the Island and come back with new forces.

The Athenian army on the island was composed of almost 1,000 troops that were all veterans of this war, meaning that they were seen as the best troops around. The Athenians launched a surprise attack on the retreated Spartans. Although the Spartans used their brilliant defensive tactic. Each attempt of the Spartan army to counter-attack ended up in major losses as the Athenians were filling the sky with arrows and spears.

The last Spartan counter-attack within the battle of Sphacteria led to the death of the general commanding the Spartan army. Meanwhile, a message was sent from the council of Sparta saying that the remaining troops can choose their own faith as long as they are not dishonored. This was the point where all of the Spartan remaining troops surrendered, something that shocked the whole of Grece.


Sphacteria

The Athenian land forces in Pylos had successfully driven back the Spartan attempts to land from the sea, and the fifty Athenian ships were able to drive the sixty Spartan ships out of the harbour at Pylos (see Battle of Pylos). This meant that the island of Sphacteria (or Sphaktiria, today known as Sphagia), where Epitadas had landed with 440 hoplites, was completely blockaded by the Athenian fleet. This was such a shock to the Spartans that representatives from Sparta itself came to negotiate a truce. The Athenians demanded that Sparta hand over its entire navy in exchange for sending food to the stranded hoplites on Sphacteria. They offered to escort ambassadors from Sparta to Athens, after which the Spartan ships and men would be returned. In Athens the ambassadors made an uncharacteristically lengthy speech calling for a truce:

"Sparta calls upon you to make a treaty and to end the war. She offers you peace, alliance, friendly and neighbourly relations. In return she asks for the men on the island, thinking it better for both sides that the affair should not proceed to the bitter end. Now is the time for us to be reconciled, while the final issue is still undecided, while you have won glory and can have our friendship as well, and we, before any shameful thing has taken place, can, in our present distress, accept a reasonable settlement." (Thucydides 4.18-20)

Many Athenians, the most vocal of whom was Cleon, were opposed to peace now that they had the upper hand, and Cleon also demanded that Sparta give up all the territories they had taken from Athens. The Spartans wanted to appoint an arbitration committee, but Cleon refused, and the ambassadors left. When they returned to Pylos the Athenians claimed the armistice had been broken due to some minor infraction, and they therefore did not have to return the Spartan ships. By this point there were now seventy Athenian ships blockading Sphacteria, and the Spartans had been joined by their Peloponnesian allies, who set up camp outside Pylos.

Although there was still fighting going on in Sicily after Sparta had incited Messina to revolt from Athens, Athens could no longer commit any ships there, as the majority of the Athenian navy was at Pylos. Despite some successes, the Athenians left the Sicilians to fight amongst themselves, although they would return later in the war.

Meanwhile the blockade of Sphacteria continued for much longer than either side had anticipated, and there was very little food or water for the Athenians. The Spartans had enough food for themselves and for the hoplites on Sphacteria, when they could successfully risk running the blockade. Many people in Athens by now felt that they should have accepted the offer of peace. Cleon at first refused to believe the Athenians were so unsuccessful, and then blamed Nicias for the supposed cowardice of the generals. Nicias offered to resign his post as strategos and let Cleon take command of the siege, thinking that Cleon would be just as unsuccessful nevertheless, Cleon accepted this challenge and sailed to Pylos with a few hundred men, claiming he would take Sphacteria within twenty days.

Demosthenes, the commander at Pylos, had meanwhile been planning to land on the island. He was aided in this endeavour when a Spartan soldier accidentally burned down the forest hiding the Spartan troops, making it easier for Demosthenes to view their movements. Cleon soon arrived, and the two called on the Spartans to surrender, but they refused.

Demosthenes and Cleon then landed about 800 men on the island, taking the Spartans by surprise. The next morning the rest of the Athenians landed as well, consisting of the crews of the ships, as well as more than 1600 other men, competely surrounding the Spartans. The Athenians pushed the Spartans across the island into the small fort located on the beach at one end, which the Spartans were able to defend for most of the day. The Spartan commander Epitadas was killed in the fighting, and Styphon took command. At the end of the day a force of archers found a way around the fort and began attacking the Spartans from behind.

Cleon and Demosthenes called back their forces, wanting to take the remaining Spartans alive. Surprisingly, the Spartans surrendered, something they were not accustomed to doing. Of the 440 Spartan hoplites, 148 had been killed. After seventy-two days of siege and battle at Pylos and Sphacteria, both sides withdrew, and Cleon returned to Athens having fulfilled his promise to capture the island in twenty days.

Bronze Spartan shield , Athenian Trophy from the battle of Sphacteria in the Agora of Athens Museum (Stoa of Attalos) with inscription "Athinaioi apo Lakedaimonion ek Pylo"


Battle of Tanagra (457 BC)

Battle of Tanagra in 457 BC was a battle in the Megarid between the Athenians and Corinthians, and campaign of Lacedaemonians in Doris.

An Athenian army, 15,000 strong, under the conduct of Myronides, entered Boeotia to protect its independence and delivered battle at Tanagra in 457 BC. The two armies met at Tanagra in a battle marked by bloody slaughter on both sides.

Spartan warrior
Animated by this exhortation, they fought with so much valour that they all perished but the Athenians lost the battle by the treachery of the Thessalian. This defeat, however, was repaired a few weeks afterwards, by a complete victory over the Thebans at Cenophytam in the plain of Tanagra.

There was great slaughter on both sides but the Thessalian horsemen deserted during the combat, and the Lacedaemonians gained victory.

The Spartan won the day but quickly withdrew fighting through the Megarid, their ability to capitalize in the victory an early sign of vulnerability to casualties because of the chronic lack of citizen manpower at Sparta.

The victory was not sufficiently decisive to enable the Lacedaemonians to invade Attica but it served to secure them an unmolested retreat, after partially ravaging the Megarid through the passes of the Geraneia.
Battle of Tanagra (457 BC)


Pylos and Sphacteria Trivia Quiz

  1. Athens manned Pylos and fomented a Messenian "revolution" in the Peloponnese. To the Spartans' credit, they did a good job of hiding the guerrilla war being waged and their weakness. They never gave up on getting Pylos and the captured Spartiates back and, after the Spartan victory at Amphipolis in 422 and the death of the war leaders on both sides, Cleon and Brasidas, those conditions were agreed upon at the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC. The Athenians also promised not to promote a Messenian rebellion and even to assist in putting it down. In the end, Sparta got the the Spartiates and Pylos back and the Messenians were put down and the war would resume--indirectly, at first-- in 418 at the Battle of Mantinea.
    But other than the later Spartan navarch Lysander, Demosthenes had the clearest strategic vision in the war and the weaknesses of Athen's bitterest rival.
    The plan of freeing the Messenian helots and breaking Spartan power would have to wait and be successfully taken up by the Theban General Epimonondas in 370-369 BC, when Messenia was declared free and Megalopolis was established.
    One can conclude that Demosthenes' original vision inspired him.
  2. That the Spartan surrender was the most surprising event in the war: The Greek world could not believe that the Spartans, who had heroically died to a man at Thermopylae Pass against the Persians in 480 BC, had surrendered to anybody. All Greeks knew that the best army in all Greece, if not the world, was the Spartan army.
    Thucydides also states the Athenian troops were afraid at first to come to grips in close-in fighting with the Spartans. But as they began to wear them down with their long distance weapons, their confidence increased.
    One captured Spartan said the the Athenian "spindles" (arrows) could not tell the difference between a brave man and a coward and thus it was not a fair fight or a true reflection of Spartan bravery.
  3. Violating the Pylos truce by attacking Athenian fortifications: The Athenians played hardball and accused the Spartans of attacking their walls. The Spartans denied it. But as a result, the former refused to give the latter's ships back to them.
    Things were becoming increasingly difficult for the Spartans on Sphacteria as food and supplies had to be smuggled on to the island. The supply situation was not much better for the Athenians either and so they pressed forward for a final battle.

  4. Cleon does not appear in history to be the most sympathetic of characters. His fellow Athenian, the historian Thucydides, has little good to say about him in his opus. Some believe that Cleon scuttled a chance for peace and guaranteed 20 more years of war. But as Donald Kagan has argued, and the Spartans themselves stated, a peace treaty in 425 BC did nothing to impair Sparta's ability to make war down the road and thus Athens needed to take advantage of its negotiating leverage. In hindsight Thucydides appears right but certainly the Athenian demos may have felt quite differently after six years of war already and little to show for it.
  5. The Spartans asked for a treaty to end the Peloponnesian War: The initial truce allowed for the Spartans to re-supply their men on Sphacteria but in return they had to turn over their ships--around 50--to the Athenians for security. Because the Athenians completely controlled the sea around the island, the Spartans were completely at the former's mercy and had to agree.
    But once the Spartan delegation reached Athens, the delegates wanted to talk about a general peace to end the war. They argued that Sparta had suffered a stroke of bad luck but its capacity to wage war was not damaged. Hence it was better for Athens not to test the fates and chances of more war. It was here however that the domestic politics of Athens intervened.
  6. Many historians have concluded that the Spartan government was most concerned with the possible loss of the Spartiates. Spartiates were those Spartans who had been through the Spartan training system and met all requirements for being full citizens of Sparta, including at age 30 the right to vote in the Spartan Assembly. Moreover, Sparta practised eugenics, did not have a high birth rate due to marriage practices and operated a rigorous cut-throat training method (the agoge) that produced the best warriors in Greece, but not very many of them.
    Thucydides said that 120 of those Spartans who survived the battle were of the "Spartan officer class." Thus they were a super-select group who were members of the best families and showed the most leadership skills. By some historians' count, these men constituted as much as 10 percent of the Spartan elite--a not inconsiderable number for Sparta.
  7. Demosthenes accurately predicted exactly where the Spartans under the excellent commander Brasidas would attack and, because the Spartans could not bring all their forces to bear at once, repulsed them with a mere 60 men at the water's edge.


Modern-day ruins

Sparta continued on into the Middle Ages and, indeed, was never truly lost. Today, the modern-day city of Sparta stands near the ancient ruins, having a population of more than 35,000 people.

On the ruins of ancient Sparta, the historian Kennell writes that only three sites can be identified today with certainty: "the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia beside the Eurotas [the river], the temple of Athena Chalcioecus ("of the Bronze House") on the acropolis, and the early Roman theater just below it."

Indeed, even the ancient writer Thucydides predicted that Sparta's ruins would not stand out.

"Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of the buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be." (From Nigel Kennell's book "Spartans: A New History")

But Thucydides was only half-correct. While the ruins of Sparta may not be as impressive as Athens, Olympia or a number of other Greek sites, the stories and legend of the Spartans lives on. And modern-day people, whether watching a movie, playing a video game or studying ancient history, know something of what this legend means.


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