The Surprise of Plataea by H. L. Havell


On the northern slope of Cithaeron, the mountain range which divides Attica from Boeotia, lies the little town of Plataea. By race and by geographical position the Plataeans were naturally included in the Boeotian confederacy, under the leadership of Thebes. But nearly a century before the time of which we are now speaking they had deserted the Thebans, whose rule was harsh and overbearing, and enrolled themselves among the allies of Athens. On the eve of the battle of Marathon, they had joined the Athenians with their whole force, a thousand strong, and shared the peril and the honour of that glorious day. Ten years later their city was laid in ruins by the army of Xerxes, at the instigation of the Thebans; and in the following year the great battle which ended the long struggle between Greece and Persia was fought within sight of their shattered walls. In gratitude for this great victory, the confederate Greeks under Pausanias declared that the Plataean territory should be hallowed ground, and swore a solemn oath to maintain the independence of the city. But the Thebans had never forgotten or forgiven the secession of Plataea from the confederacy of which they were the leaders; and seizing the opportunity while the Athenians were occupied with measures for their own safety, they made a treacherous attempt to gain possession of the town.

On a dark and moonless night in the early spring three hundred armed Thebans appeared before the gates of Plataea, which were opened to them by a party of the citizens who favoured their design. Marching in a body to the market-place, they made proclamation by a herald, inviting all who chose to return to their allegiance, and take sides with their lawful leaders, the Thebans. For they wished, if possible, to gain over the place without bloodshed, and before the war had actually broken out; otherwise, they might have to give it up again on the conclusion of peace.

The Plataeans, being wakened out of their first sleep, and thinking that the Thebans were in much greater force than was really the case, at first attempted no resistance, but were disposed to accept the terms offered them. But perceiving by degrees that their enemies were far weaker in numbers than themselves, they changed their minds, and resolved to attack them. For the party which had betrayed the town was but small, and the general body of the citizens detested the thought of falling once more under the supremacy of Thebes. Their measures were taken with great secrecy and despatch: to avoid exciting the suspicions of the Thebans, they broke down the dividing walls of their houses, and passed to and fro unobserved, until they had completed their preparations. To embarrass the movements of the Thebans, they barricaded the streets with waggons, and then, just before daybreak, they poured out of their houses, and fell upon the enemy, who were still stationed in the market-place. Though taken by surprise, the Thebans defended themselves stoutly, and standing shoulder to shoulder repulsed the assault of the Plataeans two or three times. But they were greatly inferior in numbers, wearied by their long vigil, and soaked with the heavy rain which had fallen in the night; the Plataeans returned again and again to the attack, assailing them with furious cries; and the women and slaves who crowded the roofs added to their discomfiture, pelting them with tiles and stones, and stunning their ears with a frightful uproar of yells and shrieks; so that at last their hearts failed them, and breaking their ranks they fled wildly through the streets. Some succeeded in reaching the gate by which they had entered, but only to find that their escape was cut off in this direction; for one of the Plataeans had closed the gate, using the spike of his javelin to secure the bolt. Others lost their way in the narrow and muddy streets, and wandered up and down until they were slain by the Plataeans. A few contrived to escape by an unguarded postern-gate, having cut through the bolt with an axe given them by a woman. Others, in despair, flung themselves from the walls, and for the most part perished. But a good number, who had kept together, were caught in a trap; for coming to a large building which abutted on the wall, and finding the doors open, they thought that they had reached the town-gate, and rushed headlong in. The pursuers, who were close at their heels, made fast the doors, and then the question arose what they should do with their captives. Some proposed to set fire to the building, and to burn it down, with the Thebans in it; but at last those who were thus taken, and the few who were still straggling in the town, were allowed to surrender at discretion.

Meanwhile a strong reinforcement of Thebans, who had started after the three hundred, were on the way to Plataea; but being delayed by the state of the roads, and the swollen condition of the Asopus, which they had to cross, they arrived too late. Being informed of what had happened, they prepared to plunder the property of the Plataeans outside the walls, and seize any of the citizens who crossed their path, to serve as hostages for their own men in the town. The Plataeans, perceiving their intention, sent a herald to remonstrate, threatening that unless they desisted, all the Theban prisoners should at once be put to death. And they promised further, under an oath, that if the Thebans would withdraw their forces, the captives should be restored—at least this was the account which was afterwards current at Thebes, though the Plataeans denied that they had made any such promise unconditionally, and declared that they had sworn no oath. It seems probable that the Thebans had received some such explicit assurance as they asserted; for, on receiving the answer from Plataea, they marched away without doing any harm. No sooner were they gone than the Plataeans made all haste to get their property within the walls, and then put all their prisoners to death. The day was not far distant when they were bitterly to rue this act of passion, which was not only cruel, but grossly impolitic; for the Thebans thus slain in cold blood, a hundred and eighty in number, would have been invaluable as hostages, whereas the Plataeans had now cut themselves off from all hope of reconciliation with Thebes, and virtually sealed their own fate.

Two messengers had been despatched from Plataea to Athens, one after the first entrance of the Thebans, and the second after their defeat and capture; and the Athenians, on receiving the second message, sent off a herald bidding the Plataeans to wait for further instructions, before taking any steps against the prisoners. When the herald arrived, he found the men already slain, and the Athenians then proceeded to place the town in a state of defence, removing the women and children and all those who were unfit for military service, to Athens, and leaving a small body of their own citizens to direct operations.


The surprise of Plataea was the first open violation of the Thirty Years' Truce, and from this time forward all Greece was involved for many years in civil war. Public opinion was strongly on the side of the Spartans, who stood forward as champions of the liberties of Greece; but there was great enthusiasm on both sides, and the popular imagination was much excited by the approaching struggle between the two imperial cities. Both in Sparta and in Athens there was a younger generation, who had grown up during a long period of peace, and now entered gaily into the contest with all the light-hearted ignorance of youth. Old prophecies current among the people, foretelling a great war of Greeks against Greeks, passed from mouth to mouth, and the professional soothsayers, whose business it was to collect and expound such sayings, found eager hearers. The gods themselves could not be indifferent on the eve of such mighty events, so deeply affecting the destiny of the nation which worshipped them in a thousand temples; and an earthquake, which had recently occurred at Delos, the sacred island of Apollo, where such a visitation had never been known before, was interpreted as a portent of great things to come.

While the Peloponnesians were mustering their forces at the Isthmus, the rural population of Attica were breaking up their homes, and flocking by thousands into the city. A constant stream of waggons passed along the roads, loaded with furniture, household utensils, and even the woodwork of the farm-buildings; and many a little group of women, children, and servants set out on that sorrowful journey, leaving their fields, their gardens, and their vineyards, to be trampled down and laid waste by the ruthless invader. Athens, indeed, was the common mother of them all, their glory, their strength, and their pride; for since the days of Theseus the scattered rural communities of Attica had been united under the Aegis of Athene, and acknowledged Athens as the head and centre of their civic life. But a large proportion of the Athenian citizens still continued to reside in the country, and all their dearest associations were connected with the little spot of earth where they and their fathers were born. Here were the graves of their ancestors, and the temples of the heroes who were the guardian spirits of each little aggregate of families. It was therefore with bitter and resentful feelings that they left these happy scenes behind them, and turned their steps towards the gates of the city, through which many of them were never to pass again. For all of them it was a grievous change from the free and careless life of the country-side to the confined space, polluted air, and jostling multitudes of the town, now crowded to overflowing. Some few found shelter in the houses of friends or relations; but by far the greater number were obliged to encamp in the open spaces of the city, in the precincts of temples, or in the narrow room between the Long Walls. Even a place beneath the Acropolis, called the Pelasgic Field, was now covered with the huts of the immigrants, though an ancient oracle had forbidden its occupation under a curse. From day to day new crowds kept flocking in, and the later comers were obliged to take up their dwelling in Peiraeus, which was soon almost as much overcrowded as the upper city.

And now the younger generation of Athenians, who had entered so cheerfully into the conflict, were to have their first taste of the grim realities of war. The Peloponnesian army advanced leisurely, and proceeded at first to Oenoe, an outlying fort near the borders of Boeotia; for Archidamus, who held the chief command, still hoped that the Athenians, when they saw the enemy on the confines of Attica, would make some concessions, to save their farms from destruction. For this reason he had long delayed his march from the Isthmus, and now wasted more time in fruitless operations at Oenoe, until the allies began to murmur against him, and suspected him of receiving bribes from the Athenians to spare their lands. At last, being unable to put off the fatal moment any longer, he turned southwards, and after ravaging the plain of Eleusis, advanced to Acharnae, one of the most fertile and prosperous districts of Attica, about seven miles north of Athens. Here the Peloponnesians encamped, and applied themselves systematically to the work of pillage and havoc.

Great was the rage of the Acharnians, a hardy race of farmers and charcoal-burners, when they saw the smoke rising from their ruined homesteads; and their feelings were shared by the general body of the citizens, who had watched the advance of Archidamus from Eleusis, and had now no hope of saving their estates. Little knots of angry disputants were seen in the streets and public places, for the most part clamouring against Pericles, and demanding to be led against the invader, while some few argued for the more prudent course. But Pericles, who knew the fickle temper of the multitude, turned a deaf ear to all this uproar, and steadily refused to summon an assembly, lest some hasty resolution should be passed, which would lead to useless loss of life. In order, however, to relieve the public excitement, he sent out a body of horsemen to skirmish with the enemy, and despatched a fleet of a hundred triremes to ravage the coasts of Peloponnesus.

When the first invasion of Attica was over, two cities, which had been foremost in stirring up war against Athens, were made to feel the full weight of her resentment. The unhappy Aeginetans were expelled from their island, and the land of Aegina was distributed among Athenian citizens. And later in the same summer the Athenians marched in full force into the territory of Megara, which was laid waste from end to end. This proceeding, which afforded a pleasant summer excursion to the Athenians, was repeated annually for the next seven years. The banished Aeginetans found an asylum at Thyrea, a coast district of eastern Peloponnesus, which was assigned to them by Sparta. And so the first year of the war came to an end; for, except on extraordinary occasions, no military operations were undertaken during the winter.