431 - 421 BC
The First Peloponnesian War, also known as the Archidamian War
epends upon terrain - remember the Pylos/Sphacteria campaign (names and details from memory) from the Peloponesian wars when some 600 Spartiates surrendered because they were unable to fight against the Athenian javelin armed light troops formed from the rowers of the Athenian ships involved. The campaign involved an Athenian force of some 5 or so Athenian triremes (50 to 60 hoplite style equipped marines and some 1,000 javelin armed oarsmen) beaching on the Pylos penninsular and the Athenians building a fort on the neck of the penninsular. The Spartans took great exception to am Athenian fort on their territory because it was an open Athenian invitation to helots to run away and join the Athenians and the Spartans reacted accordingly. However, the Spartans couldn't take the fort and had difficulty bieseging the fort at the neck of the penninsular because with the sea to their backs the Athenians had all the supplies of men and supplies they needed due to the relative strengths and capabilities of the Athenian and Spartan fleets. The Island of Sphacteria (hopefully spelt correctly), was a long thin island across the entrance to the bay, probably a second long spit that had been separated from the coast to form an island. The Spartans garrisoned Sphacteria with a large number of Spartiates inorder to to prevent Athenian ships entering the bay to land supplies and hence persuade the naval garrison of the Athenian fort to abandon the fort and retreat to the sea. Like the Pylos peninsular, Sphacteria did not have a fresh water supply and required supplies landed by boat from the mainland. Instead of retreating, the Athenians used their naval superiority to cut the Spartans on Sphacteria from supplies until they eventually relied on volunteers to take supplies to the island by swimming and depending upon rain water. The Spartans refused to withdraw so the Athenians landed on Sphacteria and used their unarmoured javelin equipped oarsmen to defeat the Spartiates on Sphacteria by wearing them down with prolonged javelin fire - The Spartiates being unable to close to hand to hand combat with the Athenian oarsmen. To prevent a Spartan night attack, the Athenians withdrew across the bay at night to the Pylos penninsular. Starving, dehydrated and unable to defend themselves effectively because they couldn't counter the the Athenian javelin armed oarsmen other than forming a shield war and suffering attritional casualties, the Spartiates on the island of Sphacteria eventually surrendered. As Spartiates, the prisoners became a symbol of National disgrace - some 600 Spartans who didn't come home on their shield or carrying it and they also became a bargaining counter because Sparta was desperate for their return. Why did the Spartiates lose - because they were too hidebound and rigid in their fight against the Athenian Oarsmen. If the Spartiates involved had detailed their youngest, quickest and most agile hoplites to discard their bodyarmour and charge out of the Phalanx at speed as individuals armed with just spear and shield as the 10,000 Greeks returning from Persia on the Anabasis did, they would have been able to catch up with and kill some oarsmen and and force them out of effective range. Alternatively they could have discarded their body armour and collected the javelins thrown at them and throw them back at the Athenian oarsmen depending upon upon the lack of a hoplite shield to result in greater casualties among the Oarsmen - Wounded oarsmen that could be despatched with ease. As to the Zulus - The effectiness of the Zulus in Southern Africa derived from the reforms made by Shaka (now known as Shaka Zulu). Prior to Shaka Xhosa tribes of Southern Africa were armed with traditional body length hide shield and traditional throwing assegi's. Battles taking the form of two long lones of troops at throwing their assegi's at each other without effect whilst taunting each other in the mammer of Mel Gibson's Braveheart film. Shaka modified the Assegi's of his clan so his men carried both a throwing and a stabbing Assegi. The stabbing Assegi having a lengthened blade and a shorter wooden handle. He trained his clan to fight hand to hand with a Roman style offensive use of the shield to batter the opponents shield aside to open up opponents body to a killer thrust from the stabbing assegi. Shaka's modifications resulted in a change from the indecisive battles that occured previously to a series of decisive battles won by Shaka's tactics. Shaka rose from a clan war leader to the leader of the Zulu nation following a series of internecine wars in which Shaka's forces first defeated the rival clans and then absorbed them into his army retraining them in his method of fighting. Once all his Zulu rivals were eliminated and the Zulu's united under Shaka Zulu as he was then known, the tactics were turned on the rival Xhosa tribes. Against the Spartans, the the Zulus might have had an advantage at night or if they could disrupt the Spartan formation but the heavier Spartan equipment and team centred fighting techniques of a hoplite phalanx would have been sufficient to overcome the Zulu in a straight battle, even the Zulu's of Shaka's time. However, I suspect that the mobility of the Zulu's would have given the Zulu's a distinct strategic advantage on compaign because they could run for 30 miles and still fight a battle on the same day, something I doubt the Spartans could do. Ironically, the tactics of the Zulu and the other Xhosa tribes before Shaka of using throwing assegis and declining hand to hand fighting under a 'living to fight another day' policy would have been the most effective tactics the Zulu's could adopt against an enemy like the Spartans. Under Shaka I suspect the Zulu's had a military leader who could adapt to circumstances and would have developed such hit and run tactics to defeat the Spartans..
I can use this as an example because it did exist. Remember the Athenians had at most 50 to 60 hoplite armed troops at 10 to 12 marines a trireme and under 1,000 oarsmen (192 I think per trireme) armed as javelimen whilst the Spartans involved weren't just Spartans but Spartiates from the top of Spartan society. Not only did the Athenian oarsmen keep the Spartans under almost continuous javelin attack during the days, the Athenian Oarsmen and especially the Marines had to defen the fort at the neck of the pylos penninsular so that whatever force was landed on Sphacteria was outnumbered. I pointed out in my post that the Spartiates were deployed to Sphacteria (I will have to look up the spelling) to use the island to prevent the Athenians getting supplies and force the Athenians to withdraw from Pylos. The Athenians decided to turn the ratchet and blockaded Sphacteria so that the only supplies that could get in were those carried by individual swimmers and that starvation and especially dehrdration had an effect. I also pointed out that the Athenian oarsmen landed during the day and withdrew at night to avoid a surprise Spartan attack at night. Whilst on Sphacteria they subjected the Spartans to continuous missile attack. The Spartans had several options: - 1) Leave their armour and swim for the mainland. They could have even swum for the mainland in their armour if they used inflated animalskins as floats - The animal skins swum across with wine/water in. Even the non-swimmers would have made it. 2) Adapt to conditions my forming unarmoured snatch/hit squads of shield/spear armed hoplites to dash out and attack the oarsmen. Tactics used by the Greeks to drive off javelin and sling attack during the anabasis. 3) Pick up the javelins thrown at them and form a javelinmen force of shield and javelin armed men to counter thje oarsmen. The Spartiates were to hidebound to their training and too blinkered to adapt and became the first Spartans to surrender after the Spartan reforms and breaking the requirement to come home bearing their shields or with their bodies bourne by their shields. The reason the example was selected was to indicate the terrain decided if the Spartans could use their skills and their training/equipment to decisive use. On Sphacteria they couldn't. I am not sure if Iphicrates drew inspiration from Sphacteria for his reforms but the later defeat of a Spartan hoplite column by peltasts came about because the peltasts fought the battle on their terms and not that of the Spartans. With regard to the Spartan/Zulu question the example is appropriate because the the ability of nthe Zulu to run 30 miles a day and fight a battle meant that a Zulu relying on his throwing assegi could engage a Spartan phalanx and use his speed to avoid hand to hand combat to defeat the Spartan Phalanx by attritional losses - Much the same way a parthian army of 1000 cataphracts and 9000 horse achers desroyed a Roman army by long range missile fire and withdrawing a safe distance at night. To complete the analogy I specifically stated that a Zulu army under Shaka would have realised the need to destroy the Spartans at range and adapted his tactics accordingly.
The unavoidable clash between Sparta and Athens
came with an incident at the friendly to Athens city of Plataea. Archidamos
invaded Attica in the spring of 431 BC without opposition, since Athens
had taken the decision not to engage to a land battle with Sparta and
thus started the Peloponnesian war, that lasted for 28 years. The first
ten years of the war (431 - 421 BC) were named "Archidamios war"
from the name of the able king of Sparta Archidamos.
On the side of Lacedaemonians were all the Peloponnesian states with
the exception of Argos and Achaea which entered the war joining Sparta
later. They were also the Boeotians, Megarians, Lokrians, Phokaeans,
Leukadians, Ambrakiotes and Anaktorians. The coast states supplied ships,
the Boeotians, Locrians and Phokians with cavarly.
On the side of Athens were the Plataeans, Chians, Lesbians, Messenians,
Corkyraeans, Zakynthians, Akarnanians as well as the towns of the coast
of Asia and Thrace and all the isles of Aegean, except Melos and Thera.
The Athenian troops were 29,000 hoplites, 1200 horsemen and 1600 archers
and her navy was 300 triremes without counting those of her allies.
The Chians, Corkyraeans and Lesbians supplied shipping.
Archidamos forces which entered Attica consisted from about 60,000 to
100,000 men and at the beginning he tried unsuccessful attacks upon
the fortress of Oenoe, on mount Kithairon, failing to take it. He then
marched towards Eleusis, where he arrived at the middle of June 431
BC. After ravaging the Thracian plain he encamped at Acharnae, seven
miles from Athens. In the meantime the Athenians had collected the population
within the walls and had sent all the animals to Euboea. Archidamos
evacuated Attica at the end of July and his army was dismantled immediately.
Upon his departure the Athenians at the end of September, attacked Megara
which they ravaged totally.
At the spring of 430 BC, Archidamos again invaded Attica, but in the
meantime the plague had broken out in Athens. The Lacedaemonians with
greater force ravaged all the neighborhood of Athens marching as far
as the mines of Laurium. In their turn Athenians, with 100 triremes
under the command of Knemos devastated the island of Zakynthos.
At the third year of the war (429 BC) Archidamos marched towards the
city of Plataea and demanded to hand him over the city and their land
properties, promising that after the war everything would be restored
to them. The majority of Plataeans were in favor of the proposal, but
Athenians exhorted them to hold out promising them assistance. After
their refusal, Archidamos surrounded the small city of Plataea and the
famous siege started. For three months Spartans tried everything to
conquer the city but without success. They then decided to blockade
and starve the population. The double walls of Plataea build by the
SpartansFor this they surrounded Plataea with a double wall, but even
this measure had no success. After two years, when the provisions of
Plataea started to run short, 212 men escaped in a stormy December night.
The rest of the population surrendered in 427 BC. They were put in trial
before five Spartan judges and executed. The town of Plataea was transferred
to Thebes, who after a few months destroyed all the private houses to
In the fourth and fifth year of the war Spartans again invaded Attica.
In the sixth year of the war (426 BC) the Spartans did not invade Attica.
A series of severe earthquakes and floods occurred in various parts
of Greece. At Athens the plaque reappeared.
During the seventh year of the war the Lacedaemonian army under the
command of Agis invaded Attica, but only for the sort time of fifteen
days. Agis was recalled and marched towards Pylos, because the Athenians
had established a military post at Pylos in Messenia. The Peloponnesian
fleet that was in Corkyra under the command of Thrasymelidas, was also
ordered to sail to Pylos. Thrasymelidas on arriving at Pylos with his
fleet, he occupied the small but densely wooded island of Sfacteria
with four hundred and twenty hoplites and their helots. Part of these
men, two hundred and ninety-two, among them many belonging to chief
families, were later captured by the Athenian Kleon and brought to Athens
in chains, the rest had been killed after a severe conflict on the islet.
The event surprised the Hellenic world who knew that Spartans never
surrendered. Sparta was now in a bad position. The Messenians from Pylos
together with the runaway helots were able to plunder the country, also
Sparta could not invade Attica, knowing that the captured men would
put immediately to death.
The eighth year of the war (424 BC) was disastrous for Athens. They
defeated at the battle of Delium, by the Thebans. They also lost Thrace.
After all these Athenians seriously considered the proposals for peace
At the same year one of the biggest crimes, committed in ancient Greece,
occurred. Sparta pretending to give liberty to the most worthy Helots,
who had fought bravely, selected two thousand of the best men and after
honoring them and crowning them with garlands at a ceremony, slain them
by secret orders from the Ephors. The reason being, that Sparta felt
threatened from their increased power.
In the ninth year of the war (423 BC) a truce was signed for a year,
on which a permanent peace would be prepared. But the negotiations were
interrupted two days after the signing of the truce, when Athenians
learned that Scione had revolted and was under the command of Brasidas.
In August, an Athenian force by the command of Kleon was sent to Scione.
At the battle that followed, both Kleon and Brasidas were killed and
thus the obstacles for permanent peace seized to exist.
The Spartan king Pleistoanax and general Nikias of Athens, in the spring
of 421 BC, signed a peace treaty for fifty years, the so-called peace
of Nikias. The Spartan prisoners were returned and Athens was allowed
to keep the cities of Anactorium, Sollium and Nisae. Not everybody was
satisfied by the peace and the allies of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Megara
and Eleans refused to ratify it.
During the peace between Sparta and Athens matters were far from being
satisfactory. Her allies, Boeotians and Corinthians never accepted the
peace and Athens refused to evacuate Pylos. Alkibiades of Athens persuaded
both Achaea and Patrae to ally with Athens and helped Argos in the attack
upon Epidauros, which they ravaged. Spartans could not accept all these
and assembling a large army in which her allies were participating,
invaded Argos and surrounded the Argive army. A battle was ready to
start when two Argive oligarch leaders came to king Agis of Sparta and
persuaded him to sign a truce for four months. A little later Alkibiades
leading a force of one thousand hoplites and four hundred cavalry came
to assist Argives and persuaded them to attack the city of Orchomenos
in Arcadia. After they conquered Orchomenos they marched against Tegea.
In the meantime king Agis, who had being blamed for the truce with the
Argives, marched with a large force in the territory of Mantinea and
positioned himself near the temple of Hercules. The Argives and their
allies left the city of Mantinea and in a well chosen ground offered
battle. King Agis was ready to attack them at this advantageous for
the Argives ground, but when the Spartans came close, an old Spartan
warrior told him, that with his act was trying "to heal one mischief
by another". These words made him to withdraw his men. After this,
the Argives took position in the plain and tried to attack them by surprise.
The right section of the Argive army, which was consisted from the flower
of aristocracy, a permanent body of one thousand chosen soldiers drilled
and maintained by the city of Argos, were successful to route the Lacedaemonians,
but Agis with the rest of his army which was more successful, he managed
to win the battle (June 418 BC). Athenians lost two hundred hoplites
included the generals Laches and Nikostratos, the Argives and their
allies lost another nine hundred men. From the Lacedaemonian army only
three hundred men lost. Even after all these, the peace of Nikias typically
was still in existence.
Preparations before the battle