Investment of Plataea by H. L. Havell

In the third year of the war the usual invasion of Attica was omitted, and the Peloponnesian army under Archidamus marched against Plataea. Having pitched their camp before the walls they prepared to lay waste the territory; but before the work of havoc began, the Plataeans sent envoys to remonstrate. "Unrighteous are your deeds," said the spokesman of the embassy, "ye men of Sparta, and unworthy of the men whose sons ye are. After the victory of Plataea, which ended the struggle against Persia, Pausanias, the chief captain of the confederate Greeks, offered sacrifice and thanksgiving at Plataea to Zeus the Liberator, and swore a solemn oath, both he, and all the Greeks whom he led, to maintain the independence of our city against all who should assail it. This they did as a recompense for our valour and devotion in our country's service. But ye, in direct violation of that oath, have made common cause with our worst enemies, the Thebans, and have come hither to enslave us. In the name of the gods who witnessed that covenant, in the name of every power worshipped alike at Plataea and at Sparta, we adjure you not to commit this sacrilege, but to leave us in peaceful possession of the privileges vouchsafed to us on that memorable day."

Such were the words of the Plataeans, to which Archidamus replied as follows: "Ye say well, men of Plataea, if ye act in the spirit of the compact to which ye have appealed. The oath which Pausanias swore was taken in defence of the common liberties of Greece. Against those liberties a new enemy has arisen, Athens, who holds half our nation in bondage, and threatens to lay her yoke upon us all. To put down that tyranny has this great coalition been called together, and if ye are true men, ye will enlist in the same cause, and take up arms for the relief of your distressed countrymen. Or at least, if ye cannot do this, then stand apart from this conflict, helping neither one side nor the other; and with this we shall be satisfied."

Having heard the answer of Archidamus, the Plataean envoys went back, and reported his words to their fellow-townsmen. But the Plataeans replied that, without the consent of the Athenians, they dare not accept his proposal, as their wives and children had been removed to Athens. Moreover, they feared that if they remained neutral the Thebans would seize the opportunity to make another attempt on their town. "Well, then," answered Archidamus, "we make you this second offer: Hand over your town and your dwellings to us, the Spartans; keep a strict account of all your trees, [Footnote: Vines and olive-trees] and of all else that can be numbered, and retire yourselves to some safe retreat, as long as the war continues. When it is over, we will restore all your property, and meanwhile keep the land in cultivation, and pay you a fixed rent, such as may suffice you."

The offer was fair, and even generous; but the Plataeans were powerless to act, without the consent of the Athenians, who held their families as hostages. Accordingly they asked for a truce, to enable them to lay the proposal before the authorities at Athens, and this being granted, they sent envoys to Athens, who speedily returned with this answer: "We have never left you at the mercy of your enemies in the past, since ye became our allies, nor will we do so now, but will help you to the best of our power; and we charge you by the oath which your fathers swore not to depart from your allegiance to Athens."

It was a cruel alternative which was offered to the hapless Plataeans: either they must leave their wives and children to the vengeance of Athens, or face the whole power of the confederates, led by Sparta. True to their character, they chose the nobler part, and determined to stand by the Athenian alliance. Henceforth no one was allowed to leave the town, and their final answer was delivered from the walls. They were unable, they said, to accept the terms offered by Archidamus.

On hearing their decision, the Spartan king made a last solemn appeal to the powers who presided over the territory of Plataea, a hallowed precinct, now about to be given up to plunder and ravage: "Ye gods and heroes, who keep the land of Plataea, bear witness that we had just cause from the first for marching hither, since the Plataeans had forsaken the alliance, and that if we do aught against them, we shall still be justified. For we have made them the fairest offers, but they would not be persuaded. Therefore let those with whom the guilt lies be punished, and prosper ye the cause of righteous vengeance."

The siege of Plataea now began in earnest. First the town was surrounded with a palisade, to prevent anyone from escaping, the materials being taken from the plantations in the neighbourhood of the town. Then they raised a mound against the wall, expecting that with so large a force as theirs they would easily carry the place by storm. Timber was brought from Cithaeron, and with this they set up two stout buttresses of cross-beams, at right angles to the town-wall, to serve as a support on either side of the mound. Within this framework they piled up fascines, stones, earth, and whatever else was at hand. The whole army was employed in this task, which was continued for seventy days and nights without intermission, the men working in regular spells.

Meanwhile the Plataeans had not been idle. First they built a wall of bricks and timber opposite to the point where the mound was rising, and resting on the ramparts, in order to raise the height of their defences. The new wall was covered with hides, raw and dressed, to protect the timber and the workmen from being injured by burning arrows. And while this structure was in progress, they made a breach in the old wall, and carted away the earth from the bottom of the mound. To prevent this, the Peloponnesians filled up the space thus caused with heavy masses of clay, rammed tightly into baskets of osier, which made a solid structure, much harder to remove than the loose earth. Then the Plataeans had recourse to another device: marking carefully the position of the mound, they ran a mine from the city under it, and as fast as the earth fell in, they carried it away. This continued for a long time, for the Peloponnesians, who saw their mound rising no higher, for all their labour, but rather growing less, did not guess the cause, but went on heaping up materials, which were swallowed up as fast as they were brought.

Still the Plataeans feared that in spite of these counterworks they would at length be overpowered by numbers, unless they contrived some better means of defence. So they left off building the wall of bricks and timber, and beginning at either end of it, they built a crescent-shaped wall, curving inwards towards the city. Thus the Peloponnesians, if they succeeded in carrying the first wall, would find themselves confronted by a second line of defence, and would have all their work to do over again, besides being exposed to a cross-fire.

While the Plataeans were thus vigorously defending themselves, and before the mound was completed, the Peloponnesians brought siege-engines to bear on the wall, one of which greatly alarmed the besieged garrison, by severely shaking their wall of timber and bricks. But this new mode of attack was frustrated, like the rest, by the ingenuity of the Plataeans, who dropped nooses over the ends of the battering-rams, and drew them up just before the moment of impact. Moreover they suspended heavy beams of wood at intervals along the wall, each beam hanging by long chains from two cranes which rested on the wall and projected outwards from it; and whenever a ram was being brought up, they drew up the beam at right angles to it, and then, letting go the chains, dropped the ponderous timber, which came crashing down on the ram, and broke off its head.

Thus baffled at every point, the Peloponnesians began to despair of taking the town by assault, and thought that they would be compelled to form a blockade. But before being driven to this costly and tedious operation, they determined to try and set fire to the place, which seemed possible, as it was but small in extent. So they waited till the wind was in the right direction, and then brought vast quantities of faggots, and threw them into the space between the mound and the wall; and this being soon filled up, they piled up more faggots as far as they could reach within the city itself, and then throwing in lighted torches, with brimstone and pitch, they set fire to the whole mass. Then arose a great sheet of flame, such as had never been raised by human hands, though not, of course, to be compared to the vast forest-fires, produced by natural means; yet it was sufficient to cause a panic among the Plataeans, and bring their town to the verge of destruction. The heat was so intense that a whole quarter of the place was cleared of its defenders, and if a wind had arisen to drive the flame inwards, nothing could have saved the whole town from destruction. [Footnote: Thucydides seems to imply that there was a wind, though a slight one.] But fortunately the breeze was but slight, and it is said also that a heavy fall of rain came on, and quenched the conflagration.

Having failed in their last attempt, the Peloponnesians sent away part of their army, and employed those who remained in building a blockading wall round Plataea. The work was completed towards the end of September, and they then disbanded their army, leaving a force sufficient to guard half the wall; for the Thebans, relentless in their zeal against Plataea, took charge of the other half. The number of the besieged was four hundred and eighty, of whom eighty were Athenians, and a hundred and ten women to make bread for the garrison.