The Peloponnesian War: Sparta vs. Athens

Cleon, the Athenian demagogue, having rashly declared that he could easily capture Sphacteria, was taken at his word and sent to do it. He had the wit, however, to choose Demosthenes for his colleague, and to take precisely the kind of troops Demosthenes wanted; with the result that within twenty days the Spartans found themselves with no other alternatives than annihilation or surrender. Their choice of the latter was an overwhelming blow to Lacedaemonian prestige.

THE capture of the island of Cythera in the next summer gave the Athenians a second strong station from which they could constantly menace the Peloponnese. On the other hand, in this year the Sicilians were awakening to the fact that Athens was not playing a distinterested part on behalf of the Ionian states, but was dreaming of a Sicilian empire. At a sort of peace congress, Hermocrates of Syracuse successfully urged all Sicilians to compose their quarrels on the basis of uti possidetis, and thus deprive the Athenians of any excuse for remaining. Thus for the time Athenian aspirations in that quarter were checked.

At Megara this year the dissensions of the oligarchical and popular factions almost resulted in its capture by the Athenians. The Lacedaemonian Brasidas, however--who had distinguished himself at Pylos--effected an entry, so that the oligarchical and Peloponnesian party became permanently established in power.

The most important operations were now in two fields. Brasidas made a dash through Thessaly into Macedonia, in alliance with Perdiccas of Macedon, with the hope of stirring the cities of Chalcidice to throw off the Athenian yoke; and the democrats of Boeotia intrigued with Athens to assist in a general revolution. Owing partly to misunderstandings and partly to treacher, the Boeotian democrats failed to carry out their programme, the Athenians were defeated at Delium, and Delium itself was captured by the Boeotians.

Meanwhile, Brasidas succeeded in persuading Acanthus to revolt, he himself winning the highest of reputations for justice and moderation as well as for military skill. Later in the year he suddenly turned his forces against the Athenian colony of Amphipolis, which he induced to surrender by offering very favourable terms before Thucydides, who was in command at Thasos, arrived to relieve it.

The further successes of Brasidas during this winter made the Athenians ready to treat for peace, and a truce was agreed upon for twelve months. Brasidas however continued to render aid to the subject cities which revolted from Athens--this being now the ninth year of the war--but he failed in an attempt to capture Potidaea.

The period of truce terminating without any definite peace being arrived at, the summer of the tenth year is chiefly notable for the expedition sent under Cleon to recover Amphipolis, and for a recrudescence of the old quarrel in Sicily between Leontini and Syracuse. Before Amphipolis, the incompetent Cleon was routed by the skill of Brasidas; but the victor as well as the vanquished was slain, though he lived long enough to know of the victory. Their deaths removed two of the most zealous opponents of the peace for which both sides were now anxious. Hence at the close of the tenth year peace was concluded.

The Lacedaemonians, however, were almost alone in being fully satisfied by the terms, and the war was really continued by an anti-Laconian confederation of the former Peloponnesian allies, who saw in the peace a means to the excessive preponderance of Athens and Sparta. Argos was brought into the new confederacy in the hope of establishing her nominal equality with Sparta.

For some years from this point the combinations of the states were constantly changing, while Athens and Sparta remained generally on terms of friendliness, the two prominent figures at Athens being the conservative Nicias and the restless and ambitious young intriguer Alcibiades.

IN the fourteenth year there were active hostilities between Argos, with which by this time Athens was in alliance, and Lacedaemon, issuing in the great battle of Mantinea, where there was an Athenian contingent with the Argives. This was notable especially as completely restoring the prestige of the Lacedaemonian arms, their victory being decisive. The result was a new treaty between Sparta and Argos, and the dissolution of the Argive-Athenian alliance; but this was once more reversed in the following year, when the Argive oligarchy was attacked successfully by the popular party.

The next year is marked by the high-handed treatment of the island of Melos by the Athenians. This was one of the very few islands, which had not been compelled to submit to Athens, but had endeavoured to remain neutral. Thither the Athenians now sent an expedition, absolutely without excuse, to compel their submission. The Melians, however, refused and gave the Athenians a good deal of trouble before they could be subdued, when the adult male population was put to death, and the women and children enslaved.

AT this time the Athenians resolved, under colour of an appeal for assistance from the Sicilian city of Egesta, deliberately to set about the establishment of their empire in Sicily. The aggressive policy was vehemently advocated by Alcibiades, and opposed by Nicias. Nevertheless, he, with Alcibiades and Lamachus, was appointed to command the expedition, which was prepared on a scale of unparalleled magnificence. It was on the point of starting, when the whole city was stirred to frenzy by the midnight mutilation of the sacred images called Hermae, an act laid at the door of Alcibiades, along with many other charges of profane outrages. Of set purpose, however, the enemies of Alcibiades refused to bring him to trial. The expedition sailed. The Syracusans were deaf to the warnings of Hermocrates until the great fleet had actually arrived at Rhegium.

Nicias was now anxious to find an excuse, in the evident falsity of statements made by the Egestans, for the fleet to content itself with making a demonstration and then returning home. The scheme of Alcibiades, however, was adopted for gaining over the other Sicilian states in order to crush Syracuse. But at this moment dispatches arrived requiring the return of Alcibiades to stand trial. Athens was in a panic over the Hermae affair, which was supposed to portent an attempt to re-establish the despotism which had been ended a hundred years before by the expulsion of the Pisistratidae. Alcibiades, however, made his escape, and for years pursued a life of political intrigue against the Athenian government.

Nicias and Lamachus, left in joint command, drew off the Syracusan forces by a ruse, and were thus enabled to occupy unchecked a strong position before Syracuse. Although, however, they inflicted a defeat on the returned Syracusan forces, they withdrew into winter quarters; the Syracusans were roused by Hermocrates to improve their military organization; and both sides entered on a diplomatic contest for winning over the other states of Sicily.

Alcibiades, now an avowed enemy of Athens, was received by the Lacedaemonians, whom he induced to send an able officer, Gylippus, to Syracuse, and to establish a military post corresponding to that of Pylos on Attic soil at Decelea.

IN the spring the Athenians succeeded in establishing themselves on the heights called Epipolae, overlooking Syracuse, began raising a wall of circumvallation, and carried by a surprise the counter-stockade which the Syracusans were raising. In one of the skirmishes, while the building of the wall was in progress, Lamachus was killed; otherwise matters went well for the Athenians and ill for the Syracusans, till Gylippus was allowed to land at Himera, force his way into Syracuse, and give new life.

Nicias was guilty of the blunder of allowing Gylippus to land at Himera to aid the defence at the moment when it was on the point of capitulation. A long contest followed, the Athenians endeavouring to complete the investing lines, the Syracusans to pierce them with counterworks. Nicias sent to Athens for reinforcements, while the Syracusans were energetically fitting out a fleet and appealing for aid in the Peloponnese.

Nicias, in fact, was extremely despondent. He dispatched a pitiable letter (which Thucydides probably gives verbatim from some public record) to the home authorities. The arrival of Gylippus, he said, had completely changed the situation. The Syracusans would soon be strongly reinforced. His army were obliged to give up their own works of circumvallation, and had become rather the besieged than the besiegers. Their ships were leaky, their crews daily diminishing--some even deserting. The expedition must either be recalled at once or strongly reinforced. He himself was suffering from illness, and begged to be relieved of his command. The Athenians, however, answered his dispatches by preparing a great reinforcement under the command of Demosthenes, without accepting the resignation of Nicias. The Lacedaemonians, however, also sent some reinforcements; at the same time they formally declared war, and carried out the plan of occupying and fortifying Decelea, which completely commanded the Athenian territory and was the cause of until loss and suffering.

Now, at Syracuse, the besieged took the offensive both by sea and land, and were worsted on the water, but captured some of the Athenian forts commanding the entry to the besiegers' lines--a serious disaster. By the time that Demosthenes with his reinforcements reached Sicily nearly the whole island had come over to the side of Syracuse. Before this, the Syracusans had again challenged an engagement by both sea and land, with results indecisive on the first day but distinctly in their favour on the second. At this juncture, Demosthenes arrived and, seeing the necessity for immediate action, made a night attack on the Syracusan lines; but, his men falling into confusion after a first success, the attempt was disastrously repulsed.

Demosthenes was quick to realize that the whole situation was hopeless; but Nicias lacked nerve to accept the responsibility of retiring, and also had some idea that affairs within Syracuse were favourable. His obstinacy gave Demosthenes and his colleague Eurymedon the impression that he was guided by secret information. And now it became the primary object of Gylippus and the Syracusans to keep the Athenians from retiring. Another naval defeat reduced the Athenians to despair; they resolved that they must cut their way out.

THE desperate attempt was made, but by almost hopeless men against an enemy now full of confidence. To the excited, almost agonised, watchers on shore, it seemed for a brief space that the ships might force a passage; the fight was a frenzied scuffle; but presently the terrible truth was realized--the Athenian ships were being driven ashore. The last hope of escape by sea was gone, for, though there were still ships enough, the sailors were too utterly demoralised to make the attempt.

Hermocrates and Gylippus, sure that a retreat by land would not be tried, succeeded by a trick in detaining the Athenians till they had themselves sent out detachments to hold the roads. On the third day the Athenians began their retreat in unspeakable misery, amid the lamentations of the sick and wounded, whom they were forced to leave behind. For three days they struggled on, short of food and perpetually harassed, cut off from all communications. On the third day their passage was barred in a pass, and they found themselves in a trap. On the third night they attempted to break away by a different route, but the van and the rear lost touch. Overtaken by the Syracusans, Demosthenes attempted to fight a rearguard action, but in vain, and he was forced to surrender at discretion with his whole force.

Next day, Nicias with the van was overtaken and, after a ghastly scene of confusion and slaughter, the remnants of the vanguard were forced to surrender also. Nicias and Demosthenes were put to death; great numbers were seized as private spoil by their captors, the rest of the prisoners--more than 7,000--were confined for weeks under the most noisome conditions in the quarries, and finally the survivors were sold as slaves. So pitiably ended that once magnificent enterprise in the nineteenth year of the war.

The terrific disaster filled every enemy of Athens with confident expectation of her immediate and utter ruin. Lacedaemon anticipated an unqualified supremacy. At Athens there was a stubborn determination to prepare for a desperate stand; but half the islanders were intriguing for Lacedaemonian or Persian aid in breaking free, while Alcibiades became extremely busy.

The first Peloponnesian squadron which attempted to move was promptly driven into Piraeus by an Athenian fleet and blockaded. On the open revolt of some of the states, the Athenians for the first time brought into play their reserve fund and reserve navy--the emergency had arisen. While one after another of the subject cities revolted, the Athenians struck hard at Chios, and especially Miletus, and obtained marked success. Meanwhile, a revolution in Samos had expelled the oligarchy and re-established the democracy, to which the Athenians accorded freedom, thereby securing a useful ally. In Lesbos also they recovered their supremacy.

Phrynicus now came into prominence as a shrewd commander and a crafty politician, while the intricate intrigues of Alcibiades, whose great object was to recover his position at Athens, created perpetual confusion. These events took place in the twentieth year of the war, and to them must be added a Lacedaemonian treaty with Persia.

All the leading men, however, were engaged in playing fast and loose, each of them having his personal ambitions in view. Of this labyrinth of plots and counter-plots, the startling outcome was the sudden abrogation of the constitution at Athens and the capture of the government by a committee of five with a council of four hundred and a supplementary assembly of five thousand--in place of the whole body of citizens as formerly. The Five and the Four Hundred in effect were the government, and they established a reign of terror.

At Athens, the administration thus formed was effective; but the army and fleet at Samos repudiated the revolution and swore loyalty to the democracy, claiming to be the true representatives of the Athenian state. Moreover, they allied themselves with Alcibiades, expecting through him to receive Persian support; and, happily for Athens, he succeeded in restraining the fleet--which was still more than a match for all adversaries--from sailing back to Piraeus to subvert the rule of the Four Hundred.

The more patriotic of the oligarchs saw, in fact, that the best hopes for the state lay in the establishment of a limited democracy; with the result that the extreme oligarchs, who would have joined hands with the enemy, were overthrown, and the rule of the Five Thousand replaced that of the Four Hundred, providing Athens with the best administration it had ever known. A great naval victory was won by the Athenian fleet, under the command of Thrasybulus, over a slightly larger Peloponnesian fleet at Cynossema.

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