Demosthenes: The Peloponnesian Wars

Among the operations of the sixth summer of the Peloponnesian wars was a campaign which the Athenian commander Demosthenes conducted in Aetolia-successful at the outset, but terminating in disaster, which made the general afraid to return to Athens. He seized a chance, however, of recovering his credit by foiling a Lacedaemonian expedition against Naupactus; and in other ways he successfully established a high military reputation, so that he was no longer afraid to reappear at Athens.

Next year, the Athenians dispatched a larger fleet, with Sicily for its objective. Demosthenes, however, who had a project of his own in view, was given an independent command. He was thus enabled to seize and fortify Pylos, a position on the south-west of Peloponnese, with a harbour sheltered by the isle of Sphacteria. The Spartans, in alarm, withdrew their invading force from Attica, and attempted to recover Pylos, landing over 400 of their best men on Sphacteria. The locality now became the scene of a desperate struggle, which finally resulted in the Spartans on Sphacteria being completely isolated.

So seriously did the Lacedaemonians regard this blow that they invited the Athenians to make peace virtually on terms of an equal alliance; but the Athenians were now so confident of a triumphant issue that they refused the terms--chiefly at the instigation of Cleon. Some supplies, however, were got into Sphacteria, owing to the high rewards offered by the Lacedaemonians for successful blockade-running.

At this moment, 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.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I