Saturday, May 23, 2015

Peloponnesian War: The First Ten Years: The War in Chalcidice

When we last left the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were in dire straits, an Athenian outpost established on their doorstep, beset with internal security fears, and 392 of their men captured, desperate to get them back.  Thucydides often criticizes the Spartans as having been torpid, if not outright timid, in their conduct of the war, but that was about to change.  So they sent out their best general, Brasidas in 424 B.C. with a force of 700 liberated helots and various troops hired from the allies (apparently the internal security fears were too great to allow them to spare any regular troops). Thucydides clearly admires Brasidas, who distinguished himself in both war and diplomacy.  He had been mentioned before, always fighting with great energy and courage.

Location of the Chalcidice
He then set out to counter his own country's problems with rebellious subjects by giving Athens some of its own, and to counter a naval power's advantage in mobility with an extended overland march into the the Chalcidice.  The Chalcidice was a prominence with three long peninsulas on the north side of the Aegean.  It had a longstanding history of rebellion against Athens, presumably because it could receive assistance from the kingdom of Macedonia just to the north.  (The unfortunate Potidea was in the Chalcidice).  Due to its distance and lack of naval power, Sparta had not been able to offer much assistance until then.  To reach the Chalcidice overland, it was necessary to pass through the pro-Athenian Thessaly as well as the pro-Spartan Macedonia.  However, Brasidas seems to have seen himself as a liberator and acted as such.  He was able to negotiate passage through Thessaly as well as Macedonia and arrive without resistance.

Closeup of the Chalcidice
He went first to the city of Acanthus where, Thucydides reports, his actual supporters were a minority.  But seeing his army on their land, the people thought it wisest to let him in.  There he presented himself as a liberator from Athenian oppression, promised to respect the city's autonomy and not to impose and oligarchy -- and threatened to lay waste to the countryside if they did not accede in their liberation. Swayed by this mixture of promises and threats, the people of Acanthus agreed to defect from Athens and admit his army.

He then moved on to Amphipolis.  That town was founded as an Athenian colony, but the Athenians were a minority in the city and much resented by the other residents for their arrogance.  His supporters who let him in were therefore a majority.  Brasidas won further support with his promise  to respect the property and personal rights of any opponent who wished to stay in the city and to allow anyone who wished to depart.  Brasidas' policy of restraint was winning defectors all over the Chalidice and alarming the Athenians.

Next he moved on the city of Torone, where once again a few associates in the city let him in.  Once again he calmed the city with the assurance that he was acting as a liberator and would respect the rights of the pro-Athenian party.  The people of Torone accepted his presence.  These advances sufficiently alarmed the Athenians that they agreed to a truce.  As these negotiations were going on, the city of Scione also revolted and welcomed Brasidas.

Only after Brasidas had taken possession Scione did he or the people of Scione learn that a truce had been reached two days earlier.  Cleon of Athens, furious over the revolt, passed a resolution of extirpation, ordering that Scione be destroyed, with all the men killed and the women and children sold as slaves.  Unlike the prior such decree in Mytilene, this one stood.  Thucydides makes clear that this decree was triply unjustifiable.  The inexcusable brutality of the order is obvious.  Even if revolt during a truce could justify such a decree, the people of Scione didn't know there was a truce in force at the time.  And in any event, if the Athenians had simply submitted the matter to arbitration, they would have won.

Brasidas then proceeded to take his own unjustifiable action.  Despite now knowing that a truce was in place, he proceeded to seize the city of Mende.  Making his actions doubly unjustifiable, the small number of people who delivered the city to him were opposed by a strong majority of citizens. Knowing that the Athenians were on their way, angry and vengeful, Brasidas evacuated most of the non-combatants from Scione and Mende and sent them to the city of Olynthus.

The Athenians were angry and vengeful indeed.  In Mende, even though the majority had opposed the revolt, and even though the democratic party promptly revolted on behalf of the Athenians and opened the gate to them, the Athenian army began sacking and slaughtering until the generals restrained them.  The Athenians then told the Mendians that they could govern themselves as before and withdrew, presumably after having made enemies of their former allies.  In Torone, also delivered to Brasidas by a minority faction, the Athenians sold the women and children as slaves and took the men back to Athens as prisoners.  The Toronean men were later released in a prisoner exchange after peace was (temporarily) reached, but whether they ever recovered any of their families is not recorded.  The Athenians also surrounded Scione and settled in for a long siege against people who could expect no mercy from surrender or betrayal.  The Athenian attempt to retake Amphipolis failed with 600 Athenians killed, including Cleon who make the infamous degree against Scione.  The Spartan forces took only seven dead, but the seven included Brasidas.  The two strongest war leaders removed, the two sides proceeded to make peace.*  Each had taken enough of a beating not to want to take any more.

Under the terms of the agreement, Athens and Sparta were each to go to the aid of the other if the other was attacked by a foreign power.  The Athenians were also to go to the aid of Sparta in case of domestic rebellion.  There was considerable exchange returning captured territory to each other. The neutrality of most cities in the Chalcidice was guaranteed.  But the Spartans, though they received the promise that their own forces and allies in Scione would be allowed to withdraw in safety, abandoned that unfortunate city to its fate.  The treaty was reached in 421 B.C.  But, as Thucydides makes clear, the treaty did not bring about anything like true peace.  Each side regularly violated the treaty and harmed the other in ways short of outright war.  Both Athens and Sparta fought plenty of wars while nominally at "peace," just not with each other directly.  Indeed, it was during the time of nominal peace that Athens committed its worst atrocities and most inexcusable acts of imperial aggression.  But that will be addressed at a later date.

This account, incidentally, is nothing close to comprehensive.  It is an attempt to fit into four or five blog posts some 363 pages (without maps).  I have omitted countless minor battles, rebellions, civil wars and local feuds and stuck to the highlights.  The war would resume and be the (temporary) undoing of Athens' democracy.  But that is a later subject for a later date.  In the meantime, I want to discuss a few implications of democracy and the war.

*Thucydides shows a certain ambivalence about Brasidas, admiring his courage, initiative, diplomacy, and restraint, but also recognizing that he played an important role in keeping the war going.

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