Thursday, May 21, 2015

Peloponnesian War, the First Ten Years. War on Sparta's Doorstep

In 426 B.C., the Spartans began their usual march northward to lay waste to the countryside surrounding Athens but were thwarted by a series of earthquakes and two or three tsunamis, which Thucydides correctly attributes to the earthquakes. (He is apparently the first person on record as making the connection).*  The Athenians sent a fleet to intervene in a war between the Greek city-states in Sicily but failed to achieve anything significant.

General location of Aetolia
And the Athenian general Demosthenes** led an invasion of
Add caption
Aetolia and we hear a confusing account of Aetolians, Acarnanians, and Ambraciots.  I see no need to go into much detail (or really even make the attempt to figure it out myself).  What is important is (1) all these places were on the western side of the Greek peninsula. (2) The Athenians fought  light, mobile javelin-throwers and were defeated with significant losses.  (3) After his defeat, Demosthenes did not dare go home because the Athenians had a deplorable habit of prosecuting generals who lost battles and acquittals were very rare.  (4) That winter Demosthenes got the chance to return to his countrymen's good graces when he intervened in a war between Archnania and Amborcia (on the side of Archnania) and was victorious and attacked an Ambraciot camp at night, inflicting such devastating losses that Athens' own allies hastened to make peace with their defeated enemy out of fear of the Athenians.  Demosthenes could now safely go home as a victor.

He would get a bigger victory the next year (425 B.C.)  Ordered to take his fleet to Sicily but unable to do so because of storms, Demosthenes instead seized Pylos, a peninsula guarding a harbor on the southwest side of the Peloponnese. The immediate surroundings were uninhabited and therefore unable to resist, and the nearest neighbors were the Messenians, the people conquered by Sparta and reduced to serfdom and always rebellious.  He then proceeded to fortify the outpost.  A threat so close to home and so dangerous to domestic security was alarming in the highest degree.  The Peloponnesian forces abandoned their usual invasion of Attica and returned home.  The Lacedamonians assembled their ships and attempted to retake Pylos but found that a landing force has the disadvantage over a defending force and were driven back.

When the Athenian fleet arrived, the Lacedamonian ships were routed and 420 of their men trapped on the island of Sphacteria, cut off from all supplies.  The Spartan authorities were beside themselves and promptly sought an armistice, turning over all their ships to Athens as surety if only supplies could be taken to their men on the island.  They opened negotiations to end the war, but the Athenians insisted on unacceptable terms and then (unsurprisingly) refused to return the ships.  The siege continued. The Spartans offered great rewards, including freedom to helots, to anyone who could take food to the starving men on the island.

The Athenians, far from home and in a hostile country, were also short on supplies.  But reinforcements arrived, so the Athenian forces landed on the island. Vastly outnumbered, surrounded on all sides, cut off from food or reinforcements, and worn down by hit-and-run attacks from the light forces, the Lacedamonian forces surrendered.  Some 292 were captured including 120 elite Spartiates (i.e., full Spartan citizens).  The Athenians took them back to Athens and held them as prisoners with the threat to execute them if the Peloponnesian army again invaded.  The invasions stopped.  Athenian farmers were again able to return to the countryside and city dwellers were relieved of the crowding.  In a presumably related development, the plague ceased.

The surrender shocked everyone because it had been assumed up until then that Spartans would fight to the last and never surrender.  The Athenian outpost became a base for Messenians to conduct hit and run raids into the interior.  Sparta's internal security problems became so severe that they resorted to the desperate measure of offering freedom to any helots who could establish they had done service to the state and then massacring some 2,000 who stepped forward on the theory that they were the ones most likely to start a revolt.***

The Athenians also attempted to take advantage of strife between the democratic and oligarchic parties in Megara to seize the city with the connivance of the democrats.  They failed.

*And just as a comment on how the Greek way of thought evolved over time, Herodotus also describes a tsunami but he attributes it to desecration of Poseidon's temple.  And the later historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C. and following Thucydides, takes for granted the earthquake as the cause.  (I do not know if tsunamis were a recognized phenomenon by Diodorus' time).
**Not to be confused with the famous orator named Demosthenes who lived a century later.
***There is some doubt as to when the massacre took place.  Thucydides mentions it in conjunction with the Spartans giving freedom to another 700 helots if they would join an army and march out to stir up trouble among the Athenians.  It seems most unlikely that they were doing both at the same time!  There is also the implication in Thucydides' language that the massacre had happened some time earlier, though if so he gives no hint as to when.

No comments:

Post a Comment