Escape of Two Hundred Plataeans,

Fall of Plataea by H. L. Havell

I

The siege of Plataea had now lasted for more than a year, and the brave garrison began to be in sore straits, for their supplies were giving out, and they had no hope of rescue from outside. In this desperate situation they resolved to make an attempt to break through the besieging lines, and make their escape to Athens. All were to take part in the adventure, leaving the Peloponnesians in possession of an empty town. But when the time came for carrying out this bold design, half of the garrison drew back, thinking the risk too great. The other half, numbering about two hundred and twenty, persisted in their purpose, and forthwith fell to work on their preparations. They began by making ladders for scaling the enemy's wall; and in order to ascertain the proper length of the ladders, they counted the courses of bricks in a part of the wall facing the town, which happened to have been left unplastered. Many counted the courses together, and by repeating the process over and over again, and comparing the result, they at last hit upon the right number. When once this was known, they could easily calculate the length of their ladders, for the bricks were all of the same dimensions, and they knew the thickness of a single brick.

The Peloponnesians had built a double line of wall round Plataea, the two lines being separated by a distance of sixteen feet. The whole of the space within this double wall was covered by a flat roof, so as to present the appearance of a single thick wall, with battlements on either side; and this covered space, which was divided into rooms by partition-walls, served as barracks for the besiegers. Along the top were high towers, with intervals of ten battlements between them, and built flush with the wall on both sides, so as to leave no passage, except through the middle of the tower. These served as guard-rooms, where the soldiers on duty took shelter on wet and stormy nights. For the distance between the towers was very small, and they could rush out and man the walls at a moment's notice.

The Plataeans omitted no precaution which might secure success for their hazardous enterprise. Every man understood exactly the part which he had to play, and knew that his own life, and the lives of his comrades, depended on his courage and coolness. They had chosen their time well, for it was now mid-winter. So they waited for a night of storm and rain, when there was no moon, and sallying forth from the town crossed the inner ditch, and came up to the inner wall, unperceived by the enemy; for the noise of their footsteps was drowned by the roaring of the wind, and they were careful to advance in open order, so as not to be discovered by the clashing of their arms. The whole troop was lightly equipped, and they walked with their right foot unsandalled, to give them a firmer hold on the muddy ground. Choosing one of the spaces between two towers, they adjusted their ladders, and began to ascend the wall. The first to mount were twelve picked men, armed with breastplates and daggers, who as soon as they reached the top, rushed to the towers, six men to each, and having overpowered the guard, stood ready to defend the passage. These were followed by others, armed with javelins, whose shields were handed up to them from below as they ascended, to enable them to climb the more easily. Several of this party had got up in safety, when one of those who were following dislodged a tile as he grasped the battlements. The sound of the falling tile alarmed the guards in the towers, and soon the whole besieging force was in a commotion. But being bewildered by the darkness, and deafened by the tempest which was blowing, they knew not which way to turn, and remained at their quarters, waiting for orders. And at the same time the Plataeans left in the town made a feigned attack on the Peloponnesian wall at the opposite side to divert the attention of the enemy. In the general confusion thus created the besiegers were at a loss what to do, and three hundred of their men, who were kept together for prompt service on any pressing occasion, took up their station before the outer wall, thinking that the Athenians had come to relieve the town. Fire-signals were now kindled by the Peloponnesians, to summon help from Thebes; but the Plataeans were prepared for this also, and they kindled other beacons which had been raised for the purpose on their wall, so as to obscure the meaning of the enemy's signals, and delay the march of the Thebans, until their own comrades had had time to escape.

The way was thus left clear for the gallant two hundred. Those who led the party had secured possession of the passages through the towers, and stood ready to bar the way against all assailants. Others who followed brought ladders, and planting them at the foot of the towers, mounted to the top, and kept off the Peloponnesians, when they attempted to force an entrance, with a shower of javelins. Over the intervening space now swarmed the main body of the Plataeans; and each man, as he got over, halted at the edge of the outer ditch, and kept up a hot fire of javelins and arrows, to cover the retreat of his comrades, and repel any attack from below. When all the rest had crossed the wall, those who held the towers began to descend; and this was the most perilous part of the adventure, especially for those who came last. All, however, succeeded in joining their comrades by the ditch, and just at this moment the picked troop of three hundred, who carried torches, came upon them. But fortune still favoured the Plataeans; crouching in the deep shadow thrown by the high banks of the ditch, they plied the enemy, who with their blazing torches afforded an easy mark, with darts and arrows. And thus, fighting and retreating at the same time, they made their way gradually across the ditch, but not without a severe struggle, for the water was swollen by the snow which had fallen in the night, and covered with rotten ice. Their best friend was the tempest, which raged with extraordinary violence throughout the night.

When their last man had crossed, the Plataeans went off at a run in the direction of Thebes, being assured that no one would expect them to take the road which led to their worst enemy. And the prudence of this course soon appeared, for looking back they saw the Peloponnesians hurrying with lighted torches along the road to Athens. Then after marching towards Thebes for about a mile, they doubled back, and taking to the mountains soon reached the friendly territory of Attica. They received a kind welcome at Athens, where it was found that out of the original two hundred and twenty, only eight were missing. Seven of these had lost heart at the last moment, and returned to Plataea, where they announced that all the rest of the party had been slain. One only, an archer, was taken prisoner at the outer ditch.

On hearing the report of those who had turned back, the Plataeans applied for a truce to bury their dead; and when their herald came back from his useless errand, they learned to their delight that this gallant enterprise, so ably planned, and so boldly executed, had been crowned with complete success.


II

Well would it have been for the Plataeans who remained in the town if they had stood by their first purpose, and shared the fortunes of their brave comrades. Better far to have died, sword in hand, than to meet the ignoble fate which was now reserved for them. It was in the following summer, two years after the beginning of the siege, that the crisis arrived. The Plataeans had come to the end of their provisions, and were suffering severely from want of food. In this state of weakness they were suddenly attacked by the besiegers, who might easily have carried the town by storm. But the Spartan general wished, if possible, to avoid this, as all places taken by assault would have to be given back to their original owners on the conclusion of peace, whereas those which had voluntarily surrendered might be retained. Accordingly he sent a herald, and summoned the Plataeans to surrender, promising that they should have a fair trial by Spartan judges; and they, being actually on the point of starvation, accepted the terms offered, and laid down their arms. They were kept in custody and supplied with food until the judges, five in number, arrived from Sparta. On the arrival of the judges no express charge was made against them, but they were called up one by one, and asked this simple question: "Have you done any service to the Spartans or their allies in the course of the present war?"

The Plataeans saw the snare which was set for them, and seeking to evade it they asked permission to plead their cause at length. Leave being given, the Plataean advocate rose to address the court, and made a most moving and eloquent appeal, which well deserves to be reproduced in its main outlines.

"Men of Sparta," began the orator, "we surrendered our city on the faith of your promise that the innocent should be spared, and only the guilty condemned. But we fear that our confidence has been misplaced. That our doom is already pronounced we have but too plain evidence, in your sinister question, in your cold, condemning looks, in the gloomy faces of our enemies, who have poisoned your ears against us. We have but little hope of turning you from your purpose by anything that we can say. Nevertheless we have resolved to speak, lest in the hour of death we should be tormented by the thought that a word might have saved us, and that word remained unspoken.

"In the history of the last fifty years no city in Greece has a fairer record than ours. Though not trained to the sea, we served in the fleet at Artemisium; we fought under Pausanias in the great battle which decided the fate of Greece, and took part beyond our strength in all the trials and perils of our common country. On the gratitude of Sparta we have a special claim, for in the day of her direst extremity, after the earthquake, when the Helots were in arms against her, we sent a third part of our citizens to her aid. Since then we have been found in the ranks of your enemies; but this was your fault, not ours. Who drove us into the arms of Athens, when we were hard pressed by the tyranny of Thebes? We joined the Athenian alliance at your bidding; they defended us against our enemies, and admitted us to the rights of Athenian citizenship. We were bound, therefore, by every tie of honour and duty to stand by them, whether their cause was just or unjust.

"What, then, is the meaning of your question, whether we have done you or your allies any service during this war? If you ask as foes, how can you claim any service? And if you ask as friends, you have done us bitter wrong, by attacking us unprovoked.

"The Thebans seized our city in time of peace, and at a holy season, and we were justified by the laws of nature and of nations in wreaking vengeance upon them. It may seem to your interest to pay court to them now; but think how different was our conduct from theirs when the Persian was at our doors, threatening slavery to us all. We were among the few who obeyed the call of honour, while Thebes and all the other towns of Boeotia took sides with the Barbarian.

"Hitherto Sparta has been called the glass of honour in Greece. What, then, will men say, if Spartan judges are guilty of blotting Plataea out of the map of Greece, and of the judicial murder of her citizens? Strange, indeed, and terrible has been the fate of our city, both now and in the past. Our fathers were brought to the brink of ruin by their valour and devotion; we, their sons, have just passed through all the horrors of a siege, and now we are forced to plead for our lives. Outcasts from our fatherland, spurned and rejected of all, we are thrown upon your mercy; and much we fear that your hearts are hardened against us.

"We adjure you, then, by the memory of those times, and of the part which we took in the salvation of Greece, not to betray us to our worst enemies, the Thebans. Do not win their gratitude by murder, but ours by mercy. Forget the cold calculations of policy; think of the everlasting infamy of such a deed. Your fathers are buried in our land, and we have been constant in paying all honour and service to their tombs. Will ye give up the land in which they rest to the men [Footnote: The Thebans, who fought on the side of the Persians at Plataea.] who are guilty of their blood? Will ye enslave those fields which saw the triumph of Greek liberty, and dishonour the gods by whose favour the victory was won? By your own renown, by the conscience of Greece, by the memory of your sires, we adjure you, men of Lacedaemon, not to do this deed.

"But it is time to make an end. If we have spoken in vain, and you are resolved on our death, we have still one request. Send us back into our city, and keep us there immured until we have perished of hunger. Any fate is better than falling into the hands of the Thebans, the enemies of Plataea, and of all Greece."

The orator had indeed spoken in vain, or if his words had made any impression on the minds of the judges, it was speedily obliterated by a fierce and bitter tirade which was delivered by a Theban speaker in reply. As soon as he had finished his harangue, the prisoners were called up again in turn, and questioned as before. When each of them had answered, in the only manner possible, he was led away and put to death; and not one of them was spared. The number of those slain was two hundred and twenty-five, and of these twenty-five were Athenians. The city was then levelled to the ground, and the territory left at the disposal of the Thebans. Thus was this brave little community sacrificed to the rancour of Thebes, and the selfish policy of Sparta.