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  • James Houser

425 BC - The Battles of Pylos & Sphacteria

October 27. 425 BC. Athens and Sparta are at war, a great conflict between Greek brother cities as the Persians watch with a bowlful of popcorn. Athens rules the waves, but Sparta rules the land. So what happens when the Athenian fleet traps the Spartan army on an island, where they cannot be defeated but where they cannot escape? The battles at Pylos and Sphacteria are about to be a humbling experience for mighty Sparta.

Earlier this month, I described how Athens and Sparta came to blows. I won’t delve deeply into the backstory of how these two cities, once allies against Persia, became enemies determined to bring each other down – I’ve already told that tale. I’ll be a sport and post the link for you if you want it. But I’ll give you a quick recap so you aren’t forced to read it.

Ever since the Persian invasions of Greece, Athens had gathered many of the islands and coastal cities of Greece into an enormous maritime alliance known as the Delian League. Soon these “allies” realized that they had become in reality subjects to Athens’ commercial and naval empire, which propelled Athens to dizzying heights of cultural sophistication and economic prosperity but at the expense of the League’s member cities. The rise of Athens induced fear among Greece’s strongest military city, Sparta, and its Peloponnesian League of land-based powers in southern Greece. After a series of provocations, and with a growing sense of inevitability, in 431 BC Sparta and Athens finally came to blows and began the 27-year struggle that became known as the Peloponnesian War.

The war was ridiculously complex, multifaceted, and full of scheming and coups and policy disputes and personalities. To make it simpler, though, the early years of the war boiled down to a simple formula: Athens and its empire were untouchable at sea, while Sparta and its army were untouchable on land. Sure, both sides could put up a FIGHT on either of these fronts, and if they were lucky they might scratch out a win, but the advantage was clearly weighted on one city’s side. Athens’ fleet dominated the seas of Greece, but they were never able to raise enough of an army to confront the Spartans.

This needs some clarification, however. I’ve done enough griping this year about Sparta’s swollen reputation, but it’s time to beat this dead horse again. When I say a “Spartan” army, I usually mean a Peloponnesian army. The Spartans were just one city, and they were not able to field the enormous numbers they once could. The Spartan military system was famously strict, keeping the men separate from the women, forbidding marriage until late in life, and even then forcing Spartan hoplites to sneak out of their barracks to visit their wives. Spartan fighting men, known as “Spartiates”, had to live in the barracks and eat at the mess with their comrades, most of their time was taken up with military training and strict routine, and that old bugbear of Greek pederasty was rampant.

Maybe this produced tough soldiers, I’ll allow that. But we can think of another problem that might result from separating most of your men from most of your women during their most…um…productive years. That’s right, the Spartan birthrate was in the hole and had been for some time. Turns out that building your entire society around discouraging male-female relations results in less people? Who knew! And guess what – that limited supply of manpower tends to fight wars a lot, so they ain’t getting much bigger anytime soon. And guess what else – when Spartans run out of money due to the fluctuating economy thanks to all that Athenian trade, they have to sell the lands that give them their hoplite status. Don’t forget that they kill all the sickly babies, so…yeah. All of a sudden this “warrior society” looks a lot more fragile.

There were never more than 9,000 of the “Spartiate” class at its peak, by the Persian Wars there were 5,000, and there were probably no more than 4,000 by 425 BC. Four thousand Spartans to fight a war. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Sparta lived in constant terror of the Helot and lower-class populations of its strip of territory in Greece – slave races that had been subjugated to do all the menial labor for the Spartiates. So at least a few Spartans always had to stay behind and keep the whip cracking, and any major shakeup to the Spartan state system ran the risk of a major helot uprising. Much like white southerners before the Civil War, the fear of a slave revolt was a stomach-dropping terror among the Spartans.

I promise all this is relevant.

So the Spartans had to run a very conservative, risk-averse war strategy, based largely around the needs of their allies in the Peloponnesian League who they could not afford to alienate. Without them and their armies, Sparta could not continue the war. So it was a Peloponnesian army – led and officered by Spartans, but consisting mostly of their allies – that marched in Athens’ home territory every year and burned their fields and vines, as the Athenians watched in safety from behind the walls of Athens and its port Piraeus. And the Spartans kept doing this year after year, having no better alternative to fight the Athenians.

For the Athenians’ part, their leader Pericles favored a defensive strategy against the Spartans. While the Athenian fleet cut off trade to the Peloponnesian League, the Athenian hoplites would guard their city and not attempt to interfere with the Spartans. Pericles hoped to fight a war of attrition that would eventually tire the Spartans and result in a negotiated peace, but it was hard to give the Athenians much hope when they had to watch their enemies march over and burn their farms year after year. They weren’t going to starve – the food that fed Athens continued to come in from the sea and from across the Empire – but this strategy did not seem to be working.

Two big things changed the course of the Peloponnesian War after those first few years, which is where I left off in my last post. First, Athens was struck by a terrible plague from 430-429 BC. With the city holding two to three times its normal number of citizens due to the Spartan rampages, the clustered and exposed population was extremely susceptible to the illness. The Spartans even refused to invade Athens’ lands that year for fear of the plague. The Plague of Athens may have killed as many as half of the city’s inhabitants, including Pericles himself. It was a staggering blow to the city in more ways than one. With the towering figure of Pericles gone, the city’s leadership fell into the hands of disputing factions with differing ideas about the war. Their demographics also experienced the same shock that the Spartans had endured yearly, with only half the sailors and soldiers that had been available a few years before.

With Athens weakened, cracks began to show in the base of its power – its overseas empire. The city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, rebelled in 428 BC and tried to break away from the “League” that Athens still dominated. With this event, Sparta’s leaders found their new strategy: encourage rebellions across the Athenian Empire. For the rest of the war, Athens would have to keep a tight grip on its subject cities, and Sparta would look for opportunities to strip these unwilling allies away. But the strategy didn’t work in 428 or 427. The Athenian fleet easily blocked any Spartan attempt to help the Mytileneans, and by 427 BC the city had been reconquered. The Athenian democracy at first voted to wipe the city off the map completely, and even sent a messenger to order this be done. Only a last-minute change of mind and the dispatch of a faster ship saved Mytilene from total destruction.

The Athenians, too, found a new strategy. The younger, more aggressive men of Athens pointed out that the great plague had proved one thing: they could not sit in their city and wait for Sparta to get tired of the war. Sparta might not be the one that cracked. They needed to take the fight to Sparta and its allies. Let them feel what the Athenians had felt year after year. The chief voice for this new strategy was the hawkish demagogue Cleon, who had assumed Pericles’ old place as the democracy’s unofficial leader. Unscrupulous, warmongering, and charismatic, Cleon represented a much more negative turn for Athenian politics.

The military mind that directed the new strategy, though, belonged to the clever Demosthenes. Demosthenes was an unorthodox general, willing to use all sorts of stratagems and clever tactics to win his battles in unpredictable ways. He was a man who wanted to take advantage of weakness rather than match strength with strength, and his greatest quality was his flexibility in difficult situations. Demosthenes began to lead the Athenian forces on wide-ranging amphibious raids across the Peloponnese. His goal was to stretch the Spartan military across the peninsula, using Athens’ naval supremacy to threaten everything at once. He could attack anywhere, which meant the Spartans had to defend everywhere.

In 426 BC, Demosthenes led an expedition of 30 ships into the far-flung region of Aetolia, hoping to undermine Sparta’s allies in that region. He quickly put together a coalition force from Athens’ local allies, but soon ran into difficulty in the challenging terrain of central Greece. Short of the peltasts (light spear-throwing infantry) that were best able to use the rough landscape to their advantage, Demosthenes was ambushed and his forces routed. This defeat cost 120 out of the 300 Athenians on the expedition dead, and severely shook Demosthenes’ reputation. Afraid of the political consequences, he refused to sail home in retreat, staying in Aetolia to deal with the situation he had created.

Out of this straw, the Athenian wove gold. Some months after the failure of the Aetolian campaign, another Athenian ally in Acarnania asked for his help in resisting a Spartan invasion. The Spartan army of Eurylochus and Demosthenes’ mixed force of Athenian hoplites and local allies faced off for several days. In a magnificent tactical victory at Olpae, Demosthenes ambushed the Spartan force, killed Eurylochus, and then ambushed a second attacking army. His reputation restored by this great victory, Demosthenes returned to Athens, his reputation restored.

At the beginning of 425 BC, Demosthenes had a new plan. He wanted to set up a permanent base on the Spartan coast, where he could launch constant raids into their country and win more victories like Olpae. With any luck, he could also induce the repressed helots into revolt, and this might finally force Sparta to the peace table. Demosthenes chose his site carefully, picking Pylos on the very southwestern tip of Spartan territory. Pylos was at the end of a narrow peninsula from the mainland, separated by a tiny naval channel from the island of Sphacteria to its south and commanding the excellent harbor of Navarino. Due to its location on the narrow peninsula, Pylos was an easily defensible position, and Demosthenes saw its potential occupation as a knife held to the jugular of Sparta.

For 425 BC, the Athenian assembly appointed Demosthenes as an advisor to the two higher-ranking admirals Eurymedon and Sophocles. Their mission was to sail to Corfu in the Adriatic Sea with 50 ships and assist Athens’ allies there. Once they were at sea, Demosthenes presented his plan to fortify Pylos, which the other two generals disagreed with. As luck would have it, though, a storm caught the fleet at sea, and the Athenians were forced to beach their vessels at Pylos. “Well lookee here,” Demosthenes might have said. With nothing better to do, the Athenians spent their time waiting out the storm by fortifying Pylos against a Spartan attack. The sailors worked quickly, and soon a decent little barricade and trench system had been set up on the peninsula. When the storm passed, though, Eurymedon and Sophocles continued on their mission, leaving Demosthenes with five ships and their crews to hold the new base at Pylos.

The Spartans hadn’t cared when they learned that the Athenians had landed at Pylos – until they learned of the fort. That meant the Athenians were going to stay on Spartan territory, in easy raiding distance, and far too close for comfort. The news of the fort at Pylos shocked the Spartans so much that they cancelled their annual land campaign, sparing Athens’ farms a seventh consecutive year of desolation. Once the Spartans were home, they immediately sent an army marching towards Pylos, diverted their ships away from Corfu, and sent out a call to all their allies to send more men. Demosthenes’ plan had worked beyond his wildest dreams. The Spartans had literally dropped everything else they were doing to eradicate the threat at Pylos.

That threat was…like…5 ships and their crews. But Demosthenes had planned ahead. He managed to call in some favors and pull in reinforcements and supplies, so that when the Spartan army and navy both arrived he had put together a decent force of 600 soldiers – but that was nothing when faced with the thousands of men that Sparta had sent. Demosthenes had also sent a fast ship to his comrades Eurymedon and Sophocles, asking them to send the fleet back as fast as they could before he was wiped out by the oncoming Spartan sledgehammer. In the meantime, Demosthenes divided his force to meet the Spartan assault. He put the bulk of his force at the chokepoint on the peninsula, while he himself with 60 hoplites and some archers lay in wait near the sea for the expected amphibious assault.

The warm wind of Greece brushed the waves as the Spartans closed in to attack Pylos. They assaulted from both land and sea, attacking the wooden fort at Pylos from the land side. Their navy landed a large number of hoplites on the island of Sphacteria in order to prevent Demosthenes from retreating across the narrow waterway, and then launched an amphibious assault from Sphacteria onto the beaches near the fort at Pylos. Due to the narrowness of the beach, though, only a few ships could land troops at a time, and this was when Demosthenes emerged to ambush the landing parties. It was hard for the heavy Spartan hoplites to charge on the beach when confronted by determined Athenian resistance, and repeated waves of Spartan attacks from both the land and sea side failed to dislodge the defenders.

With a full two days’ attacks unsuccessful, the Spartans settled into a siege, and sent several ships to gather wood to build siege engines. They were in for a rude surprise, however. Eurymedon and Sophocles had received Demosthenes’ plea for help, and the day after the Spartans broke off their attacks the Athenian fleet arrived off the coast. Their ships stormed into both entrances to the harbor, routing the Spartan fleet and driving most of the ships onto the shores of Sphacteria. Pylos was safe from attack, and this alone would have been an Athenian victory, but the course of the battle had resulted in a disaster for the Spartans. Their fleet – and 420 Spartiates – were trapped on Sphacteria. The Athenian fleet circled the island, preventing their escape or any attempt to rescue them. The hoplites on Sphacteria might as well have been prisoners.

“420 people isn’t that much,” you say, and you’d be right – but remember what I said about Spartan demographics. That small number came to about a tenth of their elite male population, and 120 of them were of the royal governing class. The loss of the hoplites at Sphacteria wouldn’t just be a military loss; it would be a demographic catastrophe. For the United States in 2020, a proportionate number would be five million able-bodied men. Imagine five million American soldiers (a number that we literally have never fielded in the U.S. Army) stuck on New Zealand surrounded by the Chinese fleet. That is what the Spartans were staring in the face.

The Spartans freaked OUT. They immediately requested an armistice from Athens, meeting with Demosthenes and his comrades at Pylos to arrange a cessation of hostilities. Sparta was able to send food to the island, the Spartans agreed to turn their ships over to the Athenians, and a delegation was sent to Athens to negotiate a lasting peace. Yes, the potential capture of 420 Spartans had literally brought the end of the war in sight. This is what happens when you run a military hellstate into a demographic corner, folks.

The Spartans made an appeal to the Athenian assembly, urging them to accept a peace on equal terms as long as their luck lasted – after all, it had been mere chance that all this happened. They ran face-first into the wall of Cleon, who treated this proposition with derision. He demanded harsh terms from the Spartans, including the abandonment of multiple allies, recalling previous insults the Spartans had dealt to Athens. This wasn’t just warmongering. Athens had little to gain from a peace that gave up the advantage they had just won without seriously hurting the Spartans; “quit while you’re ahead” doesn’t make sense when you hold a winning hand. The Spartans went home without a peace, and Athens was free to pursue the campaign at Pylos & Sphacteria to its conclusion.

The Athenians accused the Spartans of attacking their wall at Pylos and thus violating the truce, using this as an excuse to keep the Spartan ships (an ACTUAL violation of the truce). This isolated the Spartan soldiers once again on Sphacteria. Demosthenes, though he had the Spartans basically trapped, knew that trying to land on and force the island was a bad idea – look how the Spartans had fared when they tried to attack Pylos – and these were Sparta’s elite soldiers. He tried to starve them out, but the blockade could not be tightened enough to prevent small shipments of food from getting in. Time was running out, too; when winter came, it would be impossible to keep the fleet on the seas due to the weather. If Athens was going to win this thing, they had to do it soon.

Cleon, of all people, came to the rescue. He browbeat the Athenian assembly into sending Demosthenes reinforcements, and he brought them himself. Though he was no military man, he was quite happy to take credit for the coming victory. When these reinforcements arrived, Demosthenes and Cleon could muster 3,000 hoplites and 8,000 sailors with missile weapons to overwhelm the Spartan defenders. Demosthenes chose the landing point as the weakest spot in the Spartan defenses, and late in the autumn of 425 BC the entire Athenian force landed there. They swamped the beach defenses with missile fire and ground inland, outflanking and encircling the Spartans rather than face them head-on. The Spartans finally withdrew behind a wooden wall on the northern tip of the island, but even then Demosthenes found a way behind their fortification. The Spartans lost 148 men killed, with the rest taken prisoner.

The victory at Pylos & Sphacteria, though it did not give Athens victory in the war, shook the Greek world. It was easily the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of Sparta and caused a subsequent loss of prestige across Greece. Cleon held the Spartiates as prisoners in Athens itself, threatening to execute them if the Spartans invaded Athens’ territory again. This preserved Athens’ land from Spartan ravages for several years. For the first time since the war began, Athens’ people could tend to their farms without fear. The fort at Pylos was – as Demosthenes predicted – a thorn in Sparta’s paw, as the Athenians and their allies sent constant raids into Spartan territory and instigated the desertion and rebellion of the helots. Cleon was the hero of the hour, and Athens pursued the war with more zeal and fury than they ever had. It seemed like the tide was turning.

But Sparta was down, not out, and they would strike back. Episode III of the Peloponnesian War will come soon.

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