The Battle of Sphakteria and the Athenian Expedition to Sicily
These two battles stand out in a book full of military engagements because of the dramatic nature of the language employed by the author, that describing the looming final defeat of the large Athenian expedition to Sicily reaches the heights of one of the famous Athenian dramatists, such as Euripides, of his day. Particularly in the final naval battle of the latter he uses a narrative technique more akin to that of a novelist than an austere historian. This is deliberate on his part.
They are more than linked by dramatic telling, however, but represent hinge points in his history of the War. Technically, the Peloponnesian War was two wars with a brief period of peace, termed the ‘Peace of Nicias’, the Athenian negotiator, in 422-21 BC. Each battle represented a humiliating defeat for one of the sides so great that it risked locking in a spiral of decline making final defeat inevitable. How the Spartans reacted to Sphakteria and how the Athenians to the annihilation of their Sicilian expedition seems to have been of great significance to Thucydides.
The Battle of Sphakteria (425 BC)
More widely called the Battle of Pylos after the nearby settlement, the main engagement and crushing Spartan defeat occurred on the offshore island of Sphakteria in the Bay of Pylos on the south western shore of Messenia, a subject province of Sparta. In British naval history terms it is where the Battle of Navarino Bay was fought during the Greek War of Independence between British-French-Russian and Turko-Egyptian fleets.
Until this point neither side had really landed a heavy blow on the other. The annual unchallenged Spartan invasions of Attika continued, the Athenian fleet continued to raid the Peloponnesian coast, Spartan attempts to help would-be rebel Athenian subject cities revolt all met with failure because of Sparta’s inability to project naval power. Perhaps the highest stakes wree both side’s involvement in the prolonged civil war in Corcyra (Corfu) between pro Athenians democrats and pro-Spartan oligarchs, and indeed it was an Athenian attempt to prevent another Spartan attempt to help their Corcyran allies that lead to the battle of Sphakteria in the first place.
The Athenians learned that Sparta’s ally Corinth was leading a fleet to secure Corcyran so countered with sending one of their own. On its way around the Peloponnese it put in for shelter from a storm into the Bay of Pylos, and one of the leading Athenians there persuaded the commander to build a fort on a defensible bit of the coast as a base for raiding Spartan territory and stirring up rebellion among the Messenian helots. The main Spartan army was away in Attika and the Spartan government at first didn’t take the Athenian presence seriously and was very slow in responding. By the time they did the Athenian fort was built and the Spartans were not able to take it by storm, so they sent 420 of their hoplites (elite heavy infantry) across to Sphakteria with a view to blocking the narrow double entrance to the bay to deny access to an Athenian relief fleet for the Pylos garrison. However, other Athenian naval forces arrived such that the Spartan garrison on the uninhabited and wooded island of Sphakteria found themselves isolated and blockaded. Spartan efforts to rescue the garrison came to nought.
Meanwhile, political manoeuvering in Athens resulted in the leading politician Cleon being sent to Pylos with an expeditionary force; Thucydides portrays this in the worst possible light for Cleon, something we should distrust by reason of Thucydides’ loathing of him. Cleon and the Athenian commander on the spot (one of Athens’ most able) agreed to land troops on Sphakteria to attack the Spartan garrison. The assault went well; surprise was achieved and by using light infantry and archers the Athenians were able to wear down the already hungry and tired Spartan heavy infantry from all sides until the latter, their commanders dead or wounded, agreed to surrender. Thucydides’ description of the fighting and the ordeal suffered by the Spartan troops is vivid and compelling and describes just how the Spartans were pushed beyond the limits of even their endurance.
Thucydides comments, “This event caused much more surprise among the Hellenes than anything else that happened in the war. The general impression had been that the Spartans would never surrender their arms whether because of hunger or any other form of compulsion; instead they would keep them to the last and die fighting as best they could. It was hard to believe that that those who had surrendered were the same sort of people who had fallen.”
The consequences for both sides were significant. The Athenians became more aggressive, posting Messenian helot deserters in Pylos to raid throughout Spartan territory and inciting revolt, something that terrified the Spartans who suffered a collapse of confidence. The annual invasions of Attika ceased, the Spartans needing to keep their army home to deter revolt and because the Athenians threated to execute their Spartan prisoners if they did.
Meanwhile the Athenians, full of confidence, redoubled their attacks on Sparta’s allies and rebuffed all Spartan attempts to make peace. Pericles’ war fighting strategy was succeeding, but it went to Athenian heads and instead of making a winning peace when they should, they forced the Spartans into a desperate unSpartan move – they sent their talented commander Brasidas with a small expeditionary force to Macedonia and the North Aegean with a remit to suborn the discontented Athenian subject cities there into revolt, something at which he succeeded beyond Sparta’s wildest dreams.
At the same time the Athenians decided to knock some of Sparta’s key allies out of the war, cities that bordered Athenian mainland territory – strategically crucial Megara, whose territory controlled the isthmus joining the Peloponnese with mainland Greece, and the powerful Boiotian confederation led by Thebes, Athens and Megara’s northern neighbour, with the help of pro-Athenian sympathisers. The loss of ether of these allies would have been a huge blow to Sparta, threatening the break-up of the Peloponnesian League which had hitherto been the instrument of Spartan dominance. Nevertheless, the despondent Spartans didn’t venture out other than by chance Brasidas’ small army on route to Macedonia was in the vicinity of Megara when the Athenians made their intervention. With their help and that of some other Boiotian troops, Brasidas defeated the Athenian incursion decisively and rescued Megara for Sparta, before departing for Macedonia.
The following year a full-scale Athenian land invasion of Boiotia, something well outside Pericles’ strategy, was decisively defeated by the Boiotians. These defeats, along with the looming collapse of Athens’ empire in the Northern Aegean owing to Brasidas’ successes, forced the Athenians to make a Ten-Year Truce with Sparta on terms far inferior to those they could have got after Sphakteria, including releasing the Spartan prisoners. Both Brasidas and Cleon had been killed in the final battle of the war at Amphipolis, removing both sides’ most aggressive leaders.
Prelude to the Athenian Expedition to Sicily
In reality the Truce was unfinished business leaving neither side satisfied, and some Spartan allies such as Thebes refused to make peace at all. Other Spartan allies felt that Sparta had not defended their interests because the Athenians were still making aggressive moves against them and so allied with Sparta’s mortal enemy and neighbour Argos, which was bent on revenge for a century of defeats and territorial losses at the hands of Sparta. A couple of important Peloponnesian states, previously Spartan allies, defected to the Athens-Argos alliance and inevitably fighting broke out. Sparta was faced with the ending of its hegemony over the Peloponnese, a potentially existential threat, and was forced reluctantly to mobilise. Eventually the two sides fought a pitched battle at Mantinea between Sparta and Argos, the biggest one of the entire war.
Despite the Spartan commander almost messing it up with a late change in deployment orders, the superior discipline and training of the Spartan army won a major victory, effectively knocking Argos out of the war and allowing the restoration of Spartan hegemony throughout the Peloponnese. Once again, Athenian ambitions were greater than their capacity to realise them, but the defeat did not cause Athens to become more risk adverse – if anything to increased Athens’ aggression and appetite for conquest. Equally importantly, Sparta recovered its self-confidence and prestige, and seems to have realised that Athens would not leave it in peace and that to defeat Athens it needed to develop a far more wide-ranging strategy beyond annual invasions of Attika.
Despite its name, the Peloponnesian War was never confined to present day Greece and the Aegean. Both sides had interests and allies among the Greek cities of Sicily and Southern Italy, some of which was large and prosperous, strong enough to defeat a major attempt by the Carthaginian empire to conquer them in 480 BC. Of them, Syracuse was the greatest, and was like many of the others a colony of Sparta’s ally Corinth, and still maintained close links with the founding city. While most Sicilian and Italian cities were Dorian or other minority ethnic Greek groups, and therefore inclined to the Peloponnesian side, enmities among them meant that Athens had some allies and had been for decades attempting to establish stronger influence in the region.
The Athenian Expedition to Sicily (415-13 BC)
Proxy wars between the allies of the two sides had broken out shortly after the main war started and Athens had sent a series of small naval expeditions to help its allies against the stronger pro-Peloponnesian party led by Syracuse. The latter in general had the better of it but neither side gained the mastery until in 416-15 BC Athens took the unprecedented step of deciding on a full-scale invasion of Sicily, as Thucydides says,
“In the same winter (416/15 BC) the Athenians resolved to sail again against Sicily with larger forces than those which Laches and Eurymedon had commanded, and if possible, to conquer it. They were for the most part ignorant of the size of the island and of the numbers of its inhabitants, both Hellenic and native, and they did not realise they were taking on a war of almost the same magnitude as their war against the Peloponnesians.”
As is his wont with such episodes, Thucydides recounts a debate in the Athenians Assembly about whether to launch such an expedition, ostensibly to help some of its Sicilian allies who offered to pay its costs. The first speaker was Nicias, a general already earmarked as one of its leaders despite him arguing strongly against it and not wanting the appointment, doubting the veracity of their allies’ promises of money and the wisdom of diverting so many forces on a new risky venture with the war hotting up at home. Speaking in favour was the young Alcibiades, another general earmarked as a commander of the expedition.
Alcibiades is a fascinating character of much charisma, but also dubious morality and character, one might say the Boris Johnson of his day, and he was very much in favour of the expedition as an opportunity to make his reputation and give him political leadership in Athens. His arguments carried the day and the Athenians prepared a huge force of their best soldiers and warships – 4000 hoplites, 300 cavalry and 100 triremes with 50 more of the latter provided by allies along with thousands more troops. By Greek standards it was huge.
Just before it set sail however Alcibiades was drawn into a major religious scandal. He was a member of the aristocratic fast set, rich young men widely suspected on aiming at instituting an oligarchy at the expense of the democracy, the Bullingdon Club of Ancient Athens one might say. One night, a number of sacred statues were vandalised in Athens and reports circulated of the conducting of parodies of some of the most sacred religious ceremonies by some of the fast set. Inevitably, Alcibiades was drawn in by association by his political enemies and the whole expedition set out under something of cloud. Shortly after arriving, he was summoned home to face investigation and deserted with his companions on route home, making for Sparta where he offered his services to the arch enemy of his home city and persuaded the Spartans to send one of their own commanders, Gylippus, with a small force of allies to take command of the Syracusans in their war with the Athenians. Gylippus seems to have been an untypical Spartan, another Brasidas – talented, flexible, creative and able to build and command coalitions of disparate allies successfully against superior forces.
The Athenians arrived in Italy and Sicily, now led by Nicias who had spoken against the expedition and who had been appointed its general against his wishes, to find that most cities were hostile and wouldn’t sell them provisions, and the lavish funds promised by their few allies there didn’t exist. There was some desultory campaigning in western Sicily and then the Athenians sailed onto attack the Syracusans who were marching to attack Catana, one of Athens’ allies. Defeating the incautious Syracusans and driving them back into the city, they began to establish a blockade of the great city by land and sea.
There is no time here to recount the swings and roundabouts of the epic siege of Syracuse by the Athenians. Gylippus raised a small army from Syracusan allies in Sicily and this, and a small Corinthian fleet, arrived in the nick of time to prevent Syracuse’ capitulation and full blockade. Gradually the tide turned against the Athenians who were now hard pressed not to be besieged themselves, so much so that Athens decided to send another expedition to reinforce the first and force Syracuse’s surrender.
Arriving the following Spring they fought a series of losing land and sea battles (in the Great Harbour of Syracuse) against the forces of the Syracusans and their allies, led by Gylippus. Finally, surrounded in their camp they resolved to break out of the Great Harbour where they were now blockaded by land and sea. It was a titanic encounter, narrated with high drama by Thucydides who barely describes the tactical course of the battle but rather its impact on the soldiers watching on the shore:
“While the issue of the battle at sea still hung in the balance, great was the stress and great the conflict of soul among the two armies on the shore. The Syracusans being on edge to win an even greater glory than before, and the invaders fearing that they might find themselves even worse off than they were already. For the Athenians everything depended on their navy, their fears for the future were like nothing they had experienced; and as the battle swung this way and that, so, inevitably, did their impressions as they watched it from the shore. The sight was close in front of them, and as they were not all looking in the same direction, some saw that at one point their side was winning and took courage from the sight and began to call upon the gods not to deprive them of their salivation, while others, looking towards a point where their men were being defeated, cried out aloud in their lamentation, and were more broken in spirit by the sight of what was being done than the men actually engaged in the fighting…”
And so, it continues. It is a battle narrative presented as a psychological observation of men in the extremis of existential conflict, and one of the peaks of the whole history of the war. Clearly, Thucydides invested this dramatic effort in his narrative for a reason and it can only because it was endeavouring to show a deeper truth, to scar his reader with the thought of how reckless gambles in the midst of war lead to utter disaster, because in the end the Syracusans prevail, the Athenian fleet is destroyed, the army tries to escape into the Sicilian interior where it is destroyed, hardly anybody surviving.
The ingredients of the disaster from which Athens never really recovered – it was its Singaporre moment – are all laid out in the narrative: a reckless ill-considered gamble born of hubris moved by an ambitious and unscrupulous man on the make who is then disgraced and prompts the enemy into a strategy that destroys his own country’s venture, the remaining commander being forced to lead an expedition he was convinced would be a disaster and was, not recalling the expedition when it was already going wrong, allies who promised much but delivered little…
Athens’ greatest defeat of the war (until the final decisive battle at Aegospotami almost a decade later) is clearly seen by Thucydides as borne out of reckless arrogance and was the complete antithesis of the patient war winning strategy set out by Pericles 15 years previously, and a sign of the deterioration of the character and governance of Athens.
Sparta however, shown in the early stages of the war as strategically clueless, plodding and unimaginative, is humbled at Sphakteria, so much so that it’s supremacy on land and in the critical Peloponnese is threatened and the state itself is consumed by self-doubt, but in its lowest moments it breaks free of its hidebound approach and finds a succession of excellent commanders (Brasidas, Gylippus and later Lysander) who are a match for the daring Athenians for innovation, strategy and dashing leadership. Ultimately, Sparta finds within itself new qualities to win through, Athens abandons the qualities that made it great in the first place, and the two hinge points of the whole war are Sphakteria and Syracuse, separated by Sparta’s redemptive victory at Mantinea. For Athens there were to be only false dawns thereafter, no redemption because it was now internally deteriorating into division, recrimination and folly.
© JD de Pavilly 2021
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