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  • James Houser

421 BC - The Peloponnesian War Pauses; the Siege of Amphipolis

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

NOVEMBER 13: 421 BC. The last decade has been absolute hell on Athens and Sparta. They have waged a great war, the Peloponnesian War, that has brought untold misery to all of Greece. Athens has been wracked by famine and plague, but their military efforts have brought Sparta to near-disaster. It’s time for a truce, a true end to this terrible struggle that has nearly destroyed the Greek world. Will the truce hold? Not a chance. Strap in for Peloponnesian War Part 3.

Some people sing in the shower, some have arguments, some weirdos shower silently. My wife knows that I give history lectures in the shower. She’ll pass by and hear the word “Hitler” or “campaigns.” So if you haven’t been keeping up, don’t feel bad or anything: I’d be doing stuff like this even if no one was listening. But if you haven’t been keeping up, this is Part III of a little miniseries I’m doing on the Peloponnesian War: the great war between Athens and Sparta. If you need background, you can find the links HERE. Think of it as a TV show recap. “Previously on James Houser’s Facebook feed” or something.

But if you don’t need that recap, or you’re just willing to go along with it, I’ll bring everyone up to speed on where we are.

By the end of 425 BC, the Peloponnesian War was in its seventh year. On the one hand, there stood Athens, with its vast treasury, brilliant navy, and naval empire stretching across the Eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, there stood Sparta, the head of a large land-based alliance called the Peloponnesian League: a set of allies that stood against Athenian power. The Peloponnesian War had become one of the classical strategic problems for both sides: the Athenians had control of the sea and won almost all the naval battles, which let them strike at the Spartan alliance almost whenever they wanted. The Spartans, on the other hand, were dominant in the ground campaign, and for the last six years had marched into Athenian territory on an annual basis to burn and destroy their enemies’ farms and homes. The citizens of Athens could only watch from the walls of their city, frustrated and demoralized by the Spartan pillage.

The course of the war changed dramatically, though, with the battles of Pylos and Sphacteria in 425 BC. The Athenian Navy had built a coastal fortress on the Spartan coast at a place called Pylos, which could serve as a base for raids into Spartan territory. More dangerously for Sparta, from Pylos the Athenians could stir up the Helots that served as Sparta’s abused slave class. Being an oppressor, besides being wicked, makes you vulnerable. The Spartan counterattack failed, though, when the Athenian fleet trapped a large number of Spartan hoplites on the island of Sphacteria. After negotiations, arguments, and months of stalemate, the Athenians finally overwhelmed the trapped Spartans, taking several hundred of them prisoner when they surrendered.

The defeat at Sphacteria sent shock waves around the Greek world, especially the Spartans’ surrender. It had become a major turning point in the Greek perception of the Spartans: instead of fighting to the death as Leonidas had at Thermopylae, Greece’s most famous warrior state had seen many of its soldiers surrender rather than be killed. Sparta’s military reputation with its allies was badly shaken, but the defeat was not just a PR disaster. Athens’s new base at Pylos proved exactly as dangerous as the Spartans had feared, since the Athenians could now rile up the oppressed helots against Sparta. Just as threatening, the Athenians now had a brace of Spartan hostages trapped inside Athens, and threatened to execute these captives if Sparta resumed her old strategy of invading and burning Athens’ lands. It seemed like Athens had gained a permanent advantage over Sparta.

From the great campaign at Pylos & Sphacteria, two figures emerged who were more and more determined to prosecute the war to the bitter end. For the Spartans, this man was Brasidas, possibly their best general of the whole Peloponnesian War and a unique figure in his city. Brasidas had performed heroic deeds as a Spartan warrior and commander throughout the whole conflict, being gravely wounded during the fighting at Pylos. But Spartan bravery was the least remarkable of Brasidas’ talents. He was a marked contrast to the typical “Spartan” character, which was cautious, curt, soft-spoken, and stubborn. Brasidas, on the other hand, was clever, well-spoken, diplomatic and dynamic. He was a quick and aggressive planner, an improviser and a flexible commander. In short, he was the kind of leadership that the conservative, timid Spartan war effort needed more than anything. Brasidas, unlike many Spartans who were considering peace, thought the war had to continue until the Athenian Empire was thoroughly overthrown.

The new hero in Athens after the victory at Sphacteria was Cleon, the powerful leader of the war party in Athens’ democracy. Though the general Demosthenes had been the one to devise the strategy and tactics that resulted in victory at Pylos & Sphacteria, it had been Cleon who personally brought Demosthenes’ reinforcements and took the political credit for the triumph. Cleon was the most hawkish voice in Athens, a zealous and violent political agitator who nursed a deep hatred for Sparta and wanted their power utterly broken. He was opposed by a general named Nicias, a soft-spoken and respected leader who was trying to work towards a compromise peace with Sparta.

Cleon’s faction wanted to continue the war until Sparta’s power was demolished and the Athenian Empire expanded across the Greek world. His constant accusations of treason and advocacy of near-genocide against cities that rebelled against Athens have caused some historians to compare him to Joseph McCarthy.

In summation, that’s where both sides stood as 424 BC – the eighth year of the war – dawned. Both Athens and Sparta had moderate factions that were looking for a compromise peace, but they also had more extremist leaders that wished to push the war into the territory of total victory. Athens was ascendant on the strategic playing field, and Sparta was increasingly reluctant to commit more troops after the disaster at Pylos & Sphacteria. Cleon, leading Athens, wanted to push its war to the limits, while Brasidas was proposing alternate strategies to neutralize Athenian power. But neither side, after eight years of conflict, had truly come close to winning the Peloponnesian War.

424 BC saw the Athenians flexing their newfound supremacy and moral ascendancy. With no Peloponnesian invasion of their territory, they had the freedom to take the initiative. Nicias took a force to attack Cythera, a large island off Sparta’s coast, forcing the Spartan garrison to surrender and gaining yet another base to raid the Spartan homeland. When Nicias launched a raid on the Spartan ally of Thyrea later that year, the Spartan garrison actually fled, leaving their allies to be killed or sold into slavery. This brutal behavior was Cleon’s typical policy towards captured enemy cities ever since Sparta’s destruction of Athens-allied Plataea near the beginning of the war; this was a conflict that was quickly destroying all the old rules of Greek warfare. The flight of the Spartan garrison only deepened the mistrust Sparta’s allies now had of their nominal leader.

The next Athenian target was Megara, a strategically located Spartan ally. The Athenians had been cultivating a friendly faction within the walls, who had schemed to surrender the city to the Athenian forces of Demosthenes. Initially the plan succeeded, and Demosthenes captured Megara’s port city of Nicaea, but it so happened that the Spartan iconoclast Brasidas was nearby on a recruiting drive. He quickly took command of Megara’s defenses, brought in reinforcements, and threw back the Athenian drive. Athens’ overconfidence had kept them from taking appropriate precautions (good old victory disease), so Brasidas was able to win a major victory and save Megara from the Athenian plot.

Finally, one of the only large land battles of the war went against Athens. The Athenian general Hippocrates was trying to knock the city of Thebes, one of Sparta’s closest allies, out of the war altogether. He advanced and constructed a fortified post near the city of Delium, but the Theban army of Pagondas caught his troops outside of their palisade. In a battle that is often cited as the first use of combined-arms tactics in human history, Pagondas used his cavalry and light javelin-throwing island mountain troops to overwhelm the larger Athenian phalanx, outflanking it and forcing the Athenians into headlong flight. Over 1,000 Athenians, including Hippocrates, were killed at the Battle of Delium – a significant loss from a city already reduced by plague and war.

As the Battle of Delium was taking place, though, Brasidas had finally convinced the Spartan council and Kings to approve a new plan for winning the war. Though many Spartans were eager for peace, especially since it would mean the return of their friends and relatives still in Athenian hands after Sphacteria, Brasidas believed that only by turning the tide of the war back against Athens could Sparta make a good peace deal. His strategy was unorthodox, daring, and foreign to all Spartan military thinking.

Instead of a direct attack against Athens, Brasidas would launch an indirect strategy by taking Peloponnesian forces hundreds of miles away to the north Aegean Sea. Athens’ maritime Empire had several cities located on the northern coast of Greece, including their crown jewel of Amphipolis. These cities, far from the main Greek centers of power, were close to the Kingdom of Macedon, at that time a weak state vaguely allied to the Spartans. Amphipolis and the other cities were close to the silver mines that helped supply the Athenian treasury, as well as a prime outlet for the Balkan timber that Athens used for their great battle fleet. By taking his army on the long march overland to the Macedonian neighborhood, Brasidas would avoid the large Athenian Navy and keep his move a secret.

The Spartan council agreed to allow Brasidas’ scheme, but refused to let him take a large number of Spartan soldiers on what they considered a hairbrained plan. Instead, Brasidas had to supplement his small core of Spartan hoplites by gathering 1,000 hoplite mercenaries from the other Peloponnesian cities. He even recruited 700 helots, shocking Spartan public opinion by promising their freedom and recognition as Spartans in return for military service. With this improvised army, Brasidas only stopped to defend Megara from the Athenian attack before setting out on the long trek north.

When Brasidas arrived in northern Greece after several months of marching, he immediately made a deal with the Macedonian King Perdiccas. In return for Perdiccas serving as his paymaster, Brasidas would assist Macedon in several of their border wars. The Spartan and his gang of mercenaries and slaves soon set out on an offensive – but not a military one. Brasidas personally visited most of the Athens-aligned cities in northern Greece and won them over with diplomacy, charm, and energy. Most of these settlements were not happy under the heavy-handed rule of the Athenians, and responded favorably to Brasidas’s personal appeal and moderate demands. This same tact enabled Brasidas to placate King Perdiccas of Macedon while winning over one Greek city after another. Though there was some fighting, Brasidas was offering independence and protection from Athens, and his strategy worked almost effortlessly.

In late 424 BC, Brasidas approached Amphipolis itself, placing it under siege. The city was defended by an Athenian garrison, and this garrison’s commander sent for help from an Athenian fleet stationed nearby. The fleet was led by none other than Thucydides, a lower-ranked Athenian general and later the famous historian of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides quickly moved to the aid of Amphipolis, but was slowed by a storm. This delay proved to be enough time for Brasidas to convince the citizens of Amphipolis to surrender, over the wishes of the Athenian troops; Brasidas promised the Amphipoleans that he would respect their property and that anyone who wished to leave could do so. With the capture of Amphipolis, the Spartan general and his slave/mercenary army had struck a major blow against Athens’ economy. His plan had worked beyond his wildest dreams: by distant action far away from the main Greek centers of power and culture, Brasidas’s indirect strategy had had a major impact on the war.

Thucydides was brought back to Athens to stand trial for his “failure” to save Amphipolis, and was treated especially harshly by Cleon, which probably explains the negative depiction of this warlike leader in Thucydides’ histories. Thucydides was exiled from Athens in punishment for his defeat, a grave blow to his pride but a great stroke of luck for future historians. He travelled across the Greek world, interviewing many figures from all sides of the war, and distilled these findings into one of the first great works of critical, insightful history, an immortal work that has been used as a textbook for strategy, diplomacy, and international relations ever after: the “History of the Peloponnesian War.”

Both Athens and Sparta were growing increasingly exhausted. Even after their great victories over Sparta at Pylos & Sphacteria, the defeats of 424 BC – especially the irreparable loss of Amphipolis – had eroded Athenian support for the war. The Spartans were ready to call it quits as well, and still wanted their prisoners back from Sphacteria. Early in 423 BC, the peace parties in both cities temporarily prevailed, and under the guidance of the Athenian Nicias they signed a year-long armistice – only a temporary ceasefire, to be sure, but a first step. Under the terms of this armistice, each side was to hold all the territories it held on the day of its signature. This…would prove to cause issues. Because it’s a long travel time between heartland Greece and the fringes of the north, where Brasidas was still fighting his guerrilla struggle.

By now, Brasidas for Sparta and Cleon for Athens were the two major figures that everyone saw as preventing peace. Brasidas still had a skilled, able army under his command – and since it had been personally recruited and was led by him, this force was virtually outside of Spartan control. Sparta’s strangest and best general had ended up with something like a personal army, and if he wanted to go rogue he could, dragging his city back into conflict. Cleon, perched in Athens, angrily denounced the prospect of peace with Sparta. His forceful and bullying political style still commanded a major bloc in the Athenian Assembly, and without his support the peace might never happen. Fate, though, would soon conspire to remove both these men from the picture.

Two days after the truce had been signed in the spring of 423 BC, but before he heard about the new situation, Brasidas had won yet another Athenian-ruled city to his side. The town of Scione, which had eagerly gone over to Brasidas, now feared retribution by the angry Athenians and especially Cleon. When the Athenians demanded that Brasidas abide by the truce and turn Scione back over to them, Brasidas bluntly refused. Further compounding the issue, Brasidas also seized the town of Mende.

Both Sparta and Athens outwardly pretended that the truce was still in effect, but Athens was furious at Brasidas’s breach of the truce and Cleon sent several forces to try and retake the lost cities. In the meantime, Brasidas helped out King Perdiccas of Macedon with his border wars and displayed his usual military brilliance. Throughout 423 BC, the actions of both Cleon and Brasidas weakened the fragile peace that Nicias and the Spartan Council were trying to put together. Something had to give eventually.

When the truce finally did expire in 422 BC, Cleon decided that if you want something done right, you had better do it yourself. He raised a large force of 1,200 hoplites, 300 cavalry, and 30 ships, and led them personally up from Athens to begin retaking the key cities of northern Greece. He recaptured the towns of Torone and Scione, killing several of Brasidas’ junior commanders in the process. Scione suffered the fate they had feared, with cruel Cleon putting all the adult males to death and enslaving the women and children. Cleon moved on, with the reconquest of Amphipolis – his main target - utmost in his sights.

Brasidas had about 2,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry at his disposal, but he did not trust his slaves and mercenaries in a toe-to-toe fight against the elite Athenian hoplites. If he had had all Spartans, it would be a different matter…but he didn’t. So Brasidas withdrew his army inside the walls of Amphipolis and waited to see what Cleon would do. Both sides were aware that Amphipolis was the critical strategic target, and had been so for the last three years. Both Cleon’s Athenians, and Brasidas’ Spartan-led ramshackle army, were prepared to throw down for this city.

Cleon had based himself near to Amphipolis, and led his army out sometime in summer of 422 BC. As he got close to Amphipolis, he noticed a bustle of movement inside the city and realized that Brasidas was preparing to attack. Cleon was expecting reinforcements from Athens, and did not want to force a battle yet, so he decided to fall back – just as Brasidas came storming out of the city with only the Spartans at his back. Brasidas led his handpicked 150 Spartan hoplites in person, telling them "..bear in mind that the three virtues of a good soldier are zeal in battle, sense of honor and obedience to the leaders..and I will reveal that I will conduct myself in action following the advice I give to my comrades."

When Brasidas’ Spartans led their charge out of the gates, he caught Cleon’s army in the process of preparing to withdraw back to their base. The Spartans’ attack inspired the rest of Brasidas’ army, and they poured out to join the assault as the Athenians floundered and struggled to escape. Spears and shields and sweating men clashed on the plains in front of Amphipolis. Whatever you may think of either man, both Cleon and Brasidas fought in the frontlines of their armies, inspiring and generating zeal and courage from their soldiers. Warmongers they may have been, but they put their money where their mouth was. Allegedly the philosopher Socrates also fought for Athens in this battle.

By the end of the battle, the Athenians scattered back to their ships, leaving around 600 dead on the field. Among them was Cleon, the man who had done more than anything to keep the war effort going and paid the price for his own hawkish antics. But the Spartans, too, had suffered a great defeat, for Brasidas lay on the field with a mortal wound. He clung to life long enough to hear the extent of his victory, then he too died on the field at Amphipolis. The jubilant, liberated citizens of Amphipolis, exalted at being saved from the tender mercies of Cleon, gave Brasidas a state funeral and honored him as the honorary founder of their city. The Spartans, too, held a traditional service for their fallen hero back home. Brasidas was certainly far better remembered by his friends, allies, and even enemies than Cleon ever would be.

The deaths of Brasidas and Cleon, whatever anyone thought of them, caused both Athens and Sparta to sigh in relief. The two most prominent warmongers in each city were finally out of the picture, and they could get down to the business of making a lasting peace. The exhausted alliances were ready to call it quits. Pleistoanax, King of Sparta, and Nicias of Athens both sat down to haggle out an end to this terrible war. With a few exceptions, both sides would return everything they had conquered during the war – most critically for the Athenians, Amphipolis would be returned – and the Spartan prisoners from Sphacteria would finally be returned. After a few more negotiations, the treaty was signed in 421 BC, remembered throughout most of the Greek world as the “Peace of Nicias.”

And in a perfect world, the Peace of Nicias would end the Peloponnesian War. But it was only a ceasefire, and it would only last for six years – and even in that six years proxy wars, breaches of the peace, and major provocations would take place on both sides. Most notably, Athens never got Amphipolis back. The mercenaries and helots that Brasidas had led to northern Greece refused to surrender the city, and the Spartans could not force them to. Amphipolis, in fact, would remain independent for the next eight decades until it was conquered by Philip II’s Macedonians. Thus the Peace of Nicias was violated almost before it began.

Athens and Sparta were not done fighting. Not by a long shot. Stay tuned for Part IV.

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