Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Part 6

1642again, Going Postal
Bartolomeo Pinelli – The Death of Epaminonda 1812
Bartolomeo Pinelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Twin Battles of Mantinea and Cynossema, and Series Conclusion

In this final article of the Series, I want to discuss another of Thucydides’ apparent pairs of events – the Battles of Mantinea (late 418 BC) and Cynossema (411 BC), before summing up a few conclusions from the series generally.

The Battle of Mantinea

The Athenians broadly won the First Peloponnesian War (431-22 BC), despite the devastation of the Great Plague, because they held to Pericles’ strategy and because the Spartans had no effective plan or resources for defeating a maritime superpower.  The surprise Athenian destruction of a regiment of Spartans on the island of Spahakteria was a huge victory for Athens, despite the minor scale of Spartan troop losses, because the Spartans surrendered and Athens acquired a base on Spartan territory.  Only Sparta’s late desperate move in sending their talented commander Brasidas with a small expendable force of freed helot volunteers to stir up trouble among Athens’ subject cities in the Northern Aegean induced Athens to make peace at all.  Even the making of peace caused more trouble for Sparta because its prestige among its allies was materially damaged and several refused to make peace at all.

Athens followed this success up with a diplomatic strategy of breaking up the Peloponnesian League and giving it military dominance in Sparta’s backyard – Southern Greece.  To this end it concluded an alliance with Sparta’s historic rival for dominance of the Peloponnese – Argos – and wooed and won over some former Spartan allies among the Arcadians, including the important city of Mantinea, and the large state of Elis, in whose territory lay Olympia.  These new allies then set about picking off some further smaller Spartan allies, such as Epidaurus (418 BC).  The Spartan king Agis marched against Argos but then concluded an unexplained truce with the city and returned home to a storm of criticism.  In the meantime, Argos renounced the truce and set about subverting the key Arcadian city of Tegea, which controlled the main exit north from Spartan Laconia.

Agis marched out again, under supervision this time of ten senior Spartan officials, secured Tegea and then moved north to Mantinea where a large force of Athenians, Argives, Eleans and Arcadians now assembled.  Numbers as ever are a little vague, but the consensus is about 9-10,000 on each side, with the Spartans and their Arcadian allies slightly the larger.   The northern Spartan allies from Corinth, Megara, Boiotia etc did not have time to arrive before the battle was fought.

The Athenians and their allies saw the Spartans arriving and took up a strong defensive position on hilly ground. Agis, smarting at the humiliation he had received in Sparta for his conduct in the previous campaign, ordered an attack and the Spartan army deployed and marched to within javelin range at which point, according to Thucydides, one of the senior Spartans present called out to him that he was trying to rectify one mistake by committing another by attacking a greatly superior position.  Agis ordered a withdrawal back to Tegea and set about diverting a local river to flow through Mantinean territory, threatening its agriculture and potentially the city itself, with flooding.

Dissension had by this time broken out among the allied army, with many of the troops blaming their generals for not attacking the retreating Spartans, and the Argives believing their allies were betraying their interests, and so they decided to follow the Spartans onto the Mantinean Plain where they almost achieved surprise.  The two armies drew up regiment by regiment and advanced to attack one another.

One of the features of Classical Greek hoplite warfare, named after the 3’ diameter round shield (hoplon) carried by the dominant heavy infantry that fought in deep dense ranks with a 8-10’ thrusting spear and short sword, was that each infantryman tended to press rightwards under the cover of the shield of the man to his right, and so armies tended to drift right with the effect that by the time the respective armies engaged their right wings projected well beyond the enemy’s left flank, consequently left flanks often got routed, right flanks were victorious and the battle was decided in the middle.  This started to happen at Mantinea and so Agis ordered his left flank to move further left and two regiments from his right to fill the gap created.  Just before contact this was a recipe for chaos and the two right flank regimental commanders refused and so the Spartan left flank was near surrounded, suffering heavy casualties before fleeing.

In the meantime the Spartan centre routed their opponents, most of the latter fleeing before they even made contact, and the allied left flank, notably the Athenians, was overwhelmed and threated with being surrounded and wiped out, and so fled in rout.  The undefeated Spartans then marched against the victorious allied right flank, driving it from the field, with the Mantineans suffering heavy casualties.  Allied losses were about 1,100 and Sparta’s 300.

Consequences of the Battle of Mantinea

The political fallout from the battle was out of all proportion to the number of casualties suffered.  Sparta’s supremacy in the Peloponnese was resecured – a defeat would have almost certainly been decisive and given Athens victory. Argos entered a period of political instability, with regime changes following, other states switched back to pro-Spartan regimes and the Athenians seem to have concluded that they could not gain victory over Sparta on the mainland and so began to look further afield for expansion, settling on Sicily.  Meanwhile the fright at how close Sparta had come to defeat in its backyard seems to have triggered a realisation in Sparta that they had to change their strategy to beat Athens and become more flexible and ambitious.  Moreover, the victory restored something of Sparta’s self confidence after the malaise engendered by its defeat at Sphakteria.  Occurring almost exactly halfway through the Peloponnesian War, in a negative sense it was the turning point in the respective fortunes of Sparta and Athens.

The Battle of Cynossema and Its Implications

The sea battle of Cynossema that occurred in 411 BC had some similar implications with those of Mantinea in that it saved Athens’ naval supremacy for another seven years.  Defeat would simply have brought forward by seven years the events that caused Athens’ surrender in 404 BC – the decisive naval battle of Aegospotami which destroyed Athens’ last fleet, cut off its essential supplies of corn through the Bosphoros and Hellespont (the Dardanelles) from the Black Sea region, and brought the loss of its maritime empire.  Thucydides himself saw the parallels between the consequences of Mantinea and Cynossema in one of the last chapters of his History:

“Though the Athenians captured only a few ships nevertheless nothing could have been better for them at this time than the winning of this naval victory.  Up until now, because of the failures in some minor actions and because of the disaster in Sicily, they had been afraid of the Peloponnesian navy; but now they got rid of their feelings of inferiority and ceased to believe the enemy was worth anything at sea.”

After the loss of the double Sicilian expedition, Athens’ offensive resources were exhausted, its empire restive, Persian money on its way to help the Peloponnesians build a large navy, while the latter were reinforced by squadrons of ships from Syracuse and its Sicilian allies bent on inflicting revenge on Athens.  Athens resembled a-once champion boxer now on the ropes, refusing to go down but lacking the ability to knock out his opponent.  With the Spartan army now camped permanently on the Athenian mainland at Decelea and the population shut up inside the walls unable to tend their farms, Athens had to be fed on imported food, primarily from the Black Sea basin, and so the narrow Dardenelles and the Greek cities controlling them became the decisive theatre for the remainder of the war, accompanied by the constant outbreaks of revolt among Athenians tributary cities in and around the Aegean.

The first major Peloponnesian fleet to establish a major presence in the Aegean secured itself major allies from Athens’ empire such as the island of Chios and mainland city of Miletus, from where it maintained a kind of phoney war against Athenian forces based at nearby Samos, until a rebellion against Athenian control broke out in the small city of Eresus on the island of Lesbos. The Athenians at once laid siege to Eresos and, while distracted, the Peloponnesian fleet made a break for the Dardenelles to cut off Athens’ food supply and support some Athenian subject cities who rebelled as well.

Seeing the danger, the Athenian forces broke off the siege of Eresus and sailed north to the Dardenelles to confront the Peloponnesian fleet, the latter now being based on the Asian shore with the Athenians on the opposite European shore (modern Gallipoli).

The Peloponnesian fleet comprised many small contingents from different cities, totalling 86 triremes, while the Athenian fleet was slightly smaller at 76, but was overwhelmingly Athenian and more cohesive.  It was this fact, and their greater experience, that enabled the Athenians to defeat their opponents after a fierce fight and resecure this strategically crucial area.

And sadly that’s where Thucydides’ account ends in mid-sentence as if he died with pen in hand.  How he would have contrasted Cynossema with the later decisive battle of Aegospotami we cannot say but he almost certainly would have.  He however clearly saw Mantinea and Cynossema as similar battles, not hugely decisive in military terms, but ones that changed the course of the war for a period, resecuring one’s side’s respective sphere of dominance, rebuilding their self confidence and preventing early decisive collapse.  Of the two Mantinea was the more important: Cynossema delayed Athens’ defeat but did not stop it, Mantinea saved Sparta for nearly half a century.

Summary: Making Sense of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War

In this series we have been trying to make sense of Thucydides’ motives, technique and purpose in writing The Peloponnesian War rather than discussing the course of the war itself.  In a sense the war still resounds down the ages as much due to the power of Thucydides’ account and the striking nature of his personality as for the events of the war themselves.

Firstly, it is manifestly clear that the claims of him being a ‘scientific historian’, i.e. wholly objective, are utter nonsense and that his account is threaded with personal prejudices and own world view based on his axiom that human nature remains the same and that in similar circumstances people will behaviour similarly.  It may seem ‘scientific’ in comparison with the work of his predecessor Herodotus with his use of oracles, dreams and the Greek tragic cycle (hubris-até-nemesis) as the drivers of his narrative approach of understanding the events of the Persian wars, but both use speeches which were surely largely fictitious, and Thucydides merely substitutes his view of human nature for the metaphysical in his narrative.  Both use show, don’t tell as their principal narrative technique, but Thucydides’ personal views do intrude far more assertively into his account than those of Herodotus.  Herodotus is also a humbler historian, more honest even, he will say when he has conflicting sources and gives both sides of the story at times, Thucydides never – his determination of what actually happened and what it meant is the only one given space – there are no dissenting views allowed.

While Thucydides’ political and military analysis may seem cool and detached, in reality he is a more than competent dramatist when he wishes to convey to his reader the climactic importance of certain events for the course of the war such as the Plague of Athens and the final defeat of the Sicilian Expedition, in which he focuses on the human impact of the events described more than recording their actual course.  He is a fine writer, highly effective – his accounts of the Mytilenian Debate, the Melian Dialogue and the Corcyran civil war are all selected by him out of surely many other similar events in the war to become case studies and exemplars of more general trends in the Greek world at the time which he thought important.  Athens destroyed many more important Greek communities than Melos for example, but Thucydides raises it to the front rank.

Furthermore, his use of compare and contrasting pairs of events, often linked with other pairs, as well as pairs of speeches with subsequent events, seems to have been the filter by which he made sense of the war and what he thought was most important to record and analyse, and in consequence his history is a narrative history containing series of linked case studies to tease out for the reader Thucydides’ interpretation without usually showing his hand openly.  When one notices it, one begins to grasp the enormity, self-confidence and subtlety of his intention and technique in writing of the war.  No wonder it took him over 20 years and he was only two thirds through when he finished.  Given that he was only the second historian of whom we know (excluding the writers of the Old Testament), and the first to give no place to metaphysical explanations, it was astonishingly ambitious and an amazing achievement, not least because so many centuries of readers did not spot what was going on but took his claims at face value.

As the first known writer of political analysis he was remarkably effective.  His analysis of the deterioration of Athenian society, politics, leadership and character during the course of the war is almost certainly correct – Athens never really recovered.  His analysis of civil strife and war, which become endemic through much of the Greek world, was also chilling, witness his handling of the Corcyran civil war as the exemplar of the madness that took hold.  Likewise his almost forensic description of the Plague on its victims.

Even more chilling is his portrayal of the pitiless and remorseless logic of Total War and Empire in which realpolitik and the needs of the moment put aside any humanity or long term considerations – The Melian Dialogue and Mytilenian Debates are extraordinary pieces of writing.  But, above all, his account of the Sicilian Expedition is for me his high point, perhaps partly because it was the peak of Athenian power and ambition, in Herodotean terms hubristic to the point of blind folly (até) which brought about nemesis.  In a way, his account of the Sicilian Expedition epitomises his entire view of the war and represents the peak of his dramatic technique and contains much tragedy too – the account of the Athenian prisoners of war dying of disease and deprivation in the Syracusan quarries, the slippery Alcibiades betraying his own project, the sensible Nicias being compelled by a crazed populace to lead an expedition with which he fundamentally disagreed, one that in the end cost him his life.  If a city, as Aristotle would say, was its citizens rather than its settlement, in a way the Athens of Pericles, wounded by the Great Plague, died outside Syracuse, and what followed was something much less.

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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