Capture of A Hundred and Twenty Spartans

at Sphacteria by H. L. Havell


The result of six years of desultory fighting had fully justified the forebodings of Archidamus, and the sanguine anticipations of Pericles. In spite of the terrible ravages of the plague, Athens had easily held her own against the whole power of the Peloponnesian league. As yet, however, no decisive advantage had been gained on either side. But in the seventh year of the war an event occurred which would have enabled the Athenians, but for their own folly, to conclude an honourable peace.

The ablest of the Athenian generals at this time was Demosthenes, [Footnote: To be carefully distinguished from the great orator, born about forty years after the date reached in this chapter (425 B.C.).] who in the previous year had greatly distinguished himself by a brilliant campaign in Aetolia. In the following summer he obtained permission to take passage on board a fleet which was bound on a voyage to Corcyra and Sicily. He sailed in a private capacity, but he was authorized to use the ships against the coasts of Peloponnesus, if he saw any opening which might be utilized in the interests of Athens.

On a rocky promontory, at the northern end of the spacious bay of Navarino, lies the little town of Pylos, generally believed to have been the home of the Homeric Nestor. Since the conquest of Messenia by the Spartans, the town had remained in ruins, and the country for some distance round was a desert. The natural advantages of the adjacent coast had already caught the keen eye of Demosthenes, and he had formed the plan of raising a fortified outpost on the spot, to be held by a picked troop of the banished Messenians, and thus planting a thorn in the side of Sparta.

Fortune favoured his design. For on rounding the western headland of Peloponnesus, the fleet encountered a storm, and was compelled to seek shelter at Pylos. Demosthenes now urged the admirals to employ their enforced leisure in fortifying the place. But they repulsed him rudely, and treated his suggestion with contempt. He next tried to interest the inferior officers in his project, but meeting with no better success, he began to fear that this grand opportunity would be thrown away. The discussion, however, had reached the ears of the soldiers, and having nothing else to do, they agreed among themselves to pass the time by building a fort. Choosing a place of great natural strength, where the rocky coast descends abruptly to the open sea, they went to work with a will. As they had no tools for stone-cutting, they picked out the stones, and fitted them together according to their shape; and for want of hods they carried the mortar, wherever it was required, on their backs, stooping forward and clasping their hands together behind them, to prevent it from slipping off. They carried out their self-imposed task with great energy, and after six days of vigorous labour the fort was completed, for the natural defences of the site were so strong that in most places there was no need of a wall. As the weather was now favourable, the fleet proceeded on its voyage, leaving Demosthenes with five ships to garrison the fort.

The news of the occupation of Pylos soon reached the Spartans, but at first they paid little heed, thinking that they could expel the audacious intruders whenever they chose to exert themselves. Moreover, they were just then engaged in keeping one of those religious festivals of which the Spartan calendar was so full, and a good part of their army was absent in Attica. Agis, however, the Spartan king, and those under him who were commanding in Attica, took a wiser view of the situation, and cutting short their operations they led their forces with all speed back to Sparta. They were the more inclined to do this as the season was yet early, the weather inclement, and, the corn being still green, they wanted means to nourish their troops. Thus the inventive genius of Demosthenes had already proved of signal service to his country; for this was the shortest of all the Peloponnesian invasions, lasting only fifteen days.

On the return of their troops from Attica the Spartans sent a small force to commence the attack on Pylos, and ordered the main body of their army to follow. There was some discontent among those who had already been serving abroad at this second levy, and the full muster of the troops was consequently delayed. In the meantime a message was despatched to a Peloponnesian fleet then sailing to Corcyra, which at this time was in a state of revolution, with orders to return at once, and assist in the campaign against Pylos. Demosthenes was now in imminent danger, being threatened with an immediate assault by sea and land, which he had no adequate means of repelling. Having sent off two of his ships to recall the Athenian squadron from its voyage to Corcyra, he prepared to defend himself, until the arrival of succour, as best he could.

The Peloponnesian fleet was the first to arrive, and the Spartans, who were now present in full force with their allies, determined to make the most of their time. They hoped, by a simultaneous onslaught of their army and fleet, to carry the fort before the Athenian ships had time to return. But in case they should fail in this, they intended to cripple the movements of the relieving squadron, by blocking the entrances to the bay. For the long, narrow island of Sphacteria forms a natural break water, converting the harbour of Navarino into a land-locked basin, with two narrow passages at the northern and southern end. [Footnote: The description of Thucydides does not correspond to the picture of the harbour given in our modern maps. But in the course of twenty centuries great changes may well have occurred.] These inlets the Spartans proposed to close, by anchoring triremes close together, with their prows turned seawards, which they could easily have done, for at the southern entrance there was only room for eight or nine vessels to sail abreast, and at the northern entrance only room for two. This precaution, however, was never carried out; and the Spartans, as if blinded by fate, adopted another measure, which led to fatal consequences for themselves. Wishing to keep command of every spot of land in the neighbourhood of Pylos, they landed a body of their own men, numbering four hundred and twenty, with the usual proportion of Helots, on the island, and the same time posted troops at every assailable point on the opposite coast.

Thinking now that the little garrison at Pylos, surrounded on all sides by enemies, would fall an easy prey, they sent orders to the fleet to get under way, and prepared to attack the fort on the land side. Meanwhile Demosthenes had not been idle: having drawn his three remaining ships under the shelter of the fort, and protected them in front by a stockade, he armed the crews with such weapons as he had, including a number of wicker-shields, taken from a thirty-oared Messenian galley which had recently come to his assistance with a force of forty hoplites. Then, having posted the greater part of his troops for the defence of his position against the Peloponnesian army, he himself descended with a picked body of sixty hoplites, and took up his station on the rocky shore. For on this side the defences were weakest, as the Athenians, in building the fort, had never anticipated an attack from the sea.

Demosthenes had just time to address a few words of caution and encouragement to his men, assuring them of victory, if they would only stand fast, when the Peloponnesian fleet was seen bearing down upon them; and at the same moment a loud shout from the fort announced that the garrison was already engaged behind them. The assault was fiercest at the point where Demosthenes and his men were stationed, and the Peloponnesians made desperate efforts to effect a landing. But they were embarrassed by the difficult and rocky coast, which only allowed a few ships to approach at a time. As fast as one division was beaten back, another came on, with the white foam spouting round the prows, and the waters roaring and eddying to the strokes of the gigantic oars, while the cliffs resounded with the shouts of their comrades in the ships behind, cheering them on to the attack.

Conspicuous among those who fought on the ships was seen the gallant figure of Brasidas, who exerted himself, by voice and by example, to infuse his own heroic spirit into the rest of the crews and their officers. His ringing tones were heard above the tumult, urging on the captains and steersmen, when they hung back in fear lest their ships should be shattered on the rocks. "Spare not these timbers," he cried, "but let every hull among them go to wreck, rather than suffer the enemy to violate the soil of Lacedaemon. Where is your loyalty to Sparta? Have you forgotten the debt which you owe to her? Have at them, I say, and hurl this fort with its defenders into the sea." Saying this he ordered the master of his own trireme to beach the vessel, and stood ready on the gangway, that he might be the first to leap on shore. But as he attempted to land he was hurled back by the Athenians, and fell fainting, covered with wounds, on the deck. His shield slipped off his arm, and dropped into the sea, and having been washed ashore, was picked up by the Athenians, who used it to adorn the trophy which they afterwards erected.

After the fall of Brasidas the Peloponnesians still continued their efforts to effect a landing, but they were baffled by the obstinate defence of the Athenians, and the rugged and inhospitable coast. It was a strange reversal of affairs which had been brought about by the fortune of war. On one side were the Spartans, trained to military service on land, but now compelled to serve on board a fleet, in order to obtain a footing on their own territory, and on the other side the Athenians, whose natural element was the sea, drawn up on land to repel a naval attack.

Next day the assault was repeated, but again without success. The Spartans sent for a supply of timber, to construct siege engines, intending to try and batter down the Athenian wall where it overlooked the harbour, as at this point there was a better landing-place for the ships. In this task, however, they were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the Athenian fleet, now numbering fifty vessels, having been reinforced by four Chian ships, and six from Naupactus. Finding the harbour occupied by the Peloponnesians, and the whole coast lined with troops, they retired for the night to the little island of Prote. Next day they weighed anchor early, and dividing their fleet, sailed into the harbour of Navarino by both entrances at once. Though taken by surprise, the Peloponnesians manned their ships, and as fast as they were ready put out to meet them; but before their array was complete they were attacked by the Athenians, who disabled many of their vessels, captured five, and drove the rest ashore. So complete was the rout that the Athenians pursued the flying ships into the very interior of the harbour, and rammed some of them after they had been brought to land. Others they charged while the crews were still getting on board, and began to tow off the disabled hulls. But in the heat of victory the Athenians had pushed their advantage somewhat too far, and they paid for their audacity by the loss of a considerable number of their men. For the Lacedaemonians, in wild dismay at the defeat of their ships, by which their comrades on the island would be cut off from all help, made desperate exertions to save their fleet, wading into the water in their heavy armour, and hauling back the vessels as they were being towed off. In the confined space manoeuvring was impossible, and the sea-fight had now become a furious hand to hand encounter, as between two armies on land. After a prolonged struggle, in which both sides suffered severely, the Spartans succeeded in saving their ships, except those which had been taken at first, and the Athenians then retired to their station.

The result of this battle was to give the Athenians complete command of the sea, for the Peloponnesian fleet was in no condition to renew the engagement. From their camp on the mainland the Spartans could see the Athenian triremes rowing round and round the island, and keeping vigilant watch, to prevent those who were confined there from escaping. News of the disaster was sent without delay to Sparta, and the magistrates, recognising the gravity of the crisis, proceeded at once to Pylos, wishing to inform themselves on the spot, and then decide what was best to be done. Finding on their arrival that there was no prospect of rescuing their men on the island, they applied to the Athenian commanders for a truce, to enable them to send envoys to Athens, and arrange some terms for the recovery of the imprisoned Spartans. The Athenians consented, and a truce was made on the following conditions: The Spartans were to surrender all their fleet, including any ships of war on the coast of Laconia, to the Athenians, and to refrain from any attack on the fort, until the return of the envoys. The Athenians, on their part, agreed to allow provisions to be sent to the Spartans on the island, all such provision being conveyed thither under their own inspection, and none by stealth. They further agreed to carry the envoys to Athens in one of their own triremes, and to suspend all hostilities until the expiration of the truce. When the envoys returned, the Peloponnesian ships were to be given back.

It was a proud moment for Athens when the Spartan envoys appeared before the assembly, bearing the humble petition from her great enemy. The terms offered by the spokesman of the embassy in the name of Sparta were simple and concise, peace and friendship with Sparta, in return for the men shut up on the island. The rest of his speech was made up of grave moral reflections, such as are generally paraded by those on the losing side. Let the Athenians beware of abusing their advantage; though they had the upper hand to-day, they might be brought to their knees to-morrow. War was a game of hazard, in which the luck was always changing. Now they had an opportunity of concluding an honourable peace, and establishing a lasting claim to the gratitude of Sparta. And if the two leading states of Greece were once united, they could dictate what terms they pleased to the rest.

The notorious selfishness of Spartan policy is glaringly manifested in this speech. In their anxiety to recover their own citizens, the Spartans completely ignored the interests of their allies, and held out the right hand of fellowship to the people whom they had lately branded as the oppressors and spoilers of Greece. The Athenians might well distrust the professions of these perfidious statesmen, who repudiated their sworn obligations with such cynical levity. The Spartans in Sphacteria were already, they thought, prisoners of Athens, to be dealt with as they pleased; and were they to resign this costly prize, in return for a vague promise of friendship from Sparta? Their answer was framed on the advice of Cleon: they could not, they said, enter into any discussion, until the men on the island had surrendered themselves, and been brought to Athens. Then, if the Spartans agreed to restore to the Athenians Nisaea and Pegae, [Footnote: The harbour-towns of Megara.] and some other places which they had held before the Thirty Years' Truce, peace might be made, and the prisoners restored. The Spartan envoys were somewhat startled by these demands, which involved a gross breach of faith to their own allies; so they affected to ignore the proposal, and suggested a private conference between themselves and select Athenian commissioners. It is not impossible that the terms offered, infamous as they were to Sparta, might have been accepted; but the whole negotiation was frustrated by the violence of Cleon, who, on hearing the suggestion of the envoys, overwhelmed them with abuse, accusing them of double-dealing and bad faith. The envoys were confounded by this specimen of Athenian manners, and seeing that they were wasting their time to no purpose, they turned their backs on the city of free speech.

On their return to Pylos the truce expired, and the Spartans demanded back their ships, but the Athenians refused to restore them, on the ground of some alleged violation of the conditions laid down. Thereupon hostilities were resumed with vigour on both sides. The Spartans made repeated attacks on the fort, and watched for an opportunity of bringing off their men from the island: and the Athenians kept a vigilant guard to prevent their escape. During the day two triremes sailed continually round Sphacteria in opposite directions, and at night their whole fleet, now raised to the number of seventy by the arrival of twenty fresh ships, was moored about the island, except on the exposed side in windy weather.

Before long the Athenians began to feel the difficulties of their position. They were but scantily supplied with food, and had much trouble in obtaining water. The only spring to which they had access, and even that by no means abundant, was in the citadel of Pylos, and most of them were reduced to scraping the shingle, and thus obtaining a meagre supply of brackish water. On land their quarters were straitened and uncomfortable, and they had no proper anchorage for their ships, so that the crews had to go ashore in turns to get their meals. They were greatly disappointed to find their task thus prolonged, for they had supposed that a few days' siege would suffice to starve the imprisoned Spartans into a surrender, as the island was barren and ill-furnished with water. But day followed day, and still they waited in vain for any sign of yielding. For the Spartan magistrates had offered large rewards to anyone who succeeded in conveying wine, meal, or other portable provisions, to the island, and many were tempted to run the risk, especially among the Helots, who were offered their liberty in return for this service. They put out from various points of the mainland, and landed under cover of night on the seaward side of the island, choosing their time when the wind was blowing strong from the sea, which made it impossible for the Athenian triremes to keep their exposed anchorage. The Spartan hoplites stood ready on the rocks to help them; and so long as they could get ashore with their freight, they cared nothing what happened to their boats, for if they were wrecked, the Spartans had pledged themselves for the full value. Others, still bolder, swam, across the harbour, dragging after them leather bags filled with a mixture of poppy-seed or linseed and honey, [Footnote: Poppy-seed was valued in ancient medicine as an antidote against hunger, and linseed against thirst.] and attached to a cord. These were soon detected; but the other source of supply remained open, and it seemed likely that the siege would be protracted till winter, when it would have to be given up.

The Athenians at home were much concerned when they were informed of this state of affairs, and they began to regret that they had not accepted the terms offered by Sparta. They were suspicious and uneasy, and Cleon, on whose advice they had acted, saw himself in danger of falling a victim to their resentment. But his boundless self-confidence served him well in this crisis. At first he affected to disbelieve the report sent from Pylos, and proposed to send commissioners to inquire into the true state of the case. His motion was carried, and he himself was nominated as one of the commissioners. Cleon was now placed in an awkward position: either he would have to confirm the statement of the messengers from Pylos, and thus make himself ridiculous, or, if he contradicted them, he would be convicted of falsehood. So he turned round again, and advised the Athenians, if they believed the report, to waste no more time, but to order an immediate attack on the island. "If I were general," [Footnote: The chief civil and military magistrate at Athens, corresponding to the Roman consul.] he said, with a meaning glance at Nicias, who was then holding that office, "it would not be long before these Spartans were brought in chains to Athens. The Athenians want a man to lead them."

This Nicias, on whom the demagogue had so scornfully reflected, was a great noble, and the chief political opponent of Cleon. When he heard the boastful words of his rival, it struck Nicias that there was a fine opportunity of bringing him to ruin, by thrusting upon him a command for which he was totally unqualified. Encouraged by the shouts of the multitude, who were crying to Cleon, "Why don't you go and do it?" he rose from his place, and proposed that the tanner should be sent in charge of an expedition to take the men at Sphacteria. At first Cleon agreed to go, thinking that Nicias was jesting; but when he saw that the proposal was made seriously, he began to draw back. "It is your business, not mine," he said to Nicias. "I am not general—you are; why should I do your work for you?" "Never mind the title," answered Nicias; "I resign my office on this occasion to you." The dispute grew hotter and hotter, much to the amusement of the Athenians, who fell readily into the humour of the situation, and loudly applauded the proposal of Nicias. The more Cleon objected, the more they shouted that he should go. Finding that he must make good his words, Cleon at last plucked up a spirit, and accepted the honour thus contemptuously forced upon him. "I am not afraid of the Spartans," he declared valiantly. "Give me the contingent of soldiers from Lemnos and Imbros, the Thracian peltasts, [Footnote: Light-armed soldiers.] and four hundred archers, and without taking a single Athenian from the city, within three weeks I will either bring those Spartans as prisoners to Athens, or kill them where they are."

There was some laughter among the Athenians at Cleon's vain-glorious promise; but the more sober-minded were not displeased at his appointment, expecting that, if he failed, they would be rid of a nuisance; while, if he succeeded, they would gain an immense advantage over their enemies. Such, at least, is the comment of the historian; but he makes no remark on the incredible levity of the Athenians, to whom the gravest interests of state were matter for mirth and pastime; and he has not a word of censure for Nicias and his "sober-minded" partisans, who, in their eagerness to ruin a political opponent, showed a criminal disregard for the welfare of Athens.


When Cleon arrived at Pylos with his forces, he found Demosthenes engaged in active preparations for an attack on the island. For his troops were growing impatient, and clamouring to be led into action, and a happy accident had recently occurred, which greatly increased the prospect of success. Till quite lately Sphacteria had been covered with a dense growth of underwood, and Demosthenes knew by his experience in Aetolia that an attacking force would be at a great disadvantage in marching against an enemy who fought under cover, and knew every inch of the ground. But a party of Athenian soldiers, who had landed on the island to cook their breakfast, accidentally set fire to the brushwood, and a wind springing up, the flames were carried over the greater part of the island, leaving it a blackened waste. Demosthenes now discovered that the besieged Spartans were more numerous than he had supposed, having hitherto believed that their number had been purposely exaggerated, to give an excuse for sending more food; and the main obstacle being now removed, he issued the welcome order to make ready for an immediate assault.

When he received his commission, Cleon had prudently stipulated that Demosthenes should be associated with him in the command. The two ill-assorted colleagues—the turbulent demagogue, and the veteran general—now took counsel together, and after a last fruitless attempt at negotiation, they set sail at night with a force of eight hundred hoplites, and disembarking just before dawn on both sides of the island at once, led their men at a run against the first guard-station of the Spartans. They found the enemy posted in three divisions: the first, consisting of thirty hoplites, formed an advanced guard; some distance behind these, where the ground forms a shallow basin, containing the only spring in the island, was stationed the main body, commanded by Epitadas; and at the extreme north, opposite Pylos, there was a small reserve force, left to guard a sort of natural citadel, which would serve as a last retreat, if Epitadas and his men were overpowered.

The thirty Spartans in the outpost were taken by surprise, and cut down to a man; for though they had seen the Athenian ships putting out, they had no suspicion of what was intended, supposing that they were merely proceeding to their anchorage for the night. At daybreak the rest of the fleet put in at the island, bringing the whole of the forces which Demosthenes had at his disposal, except a few, who were left to garrison the fort at Pylos. They were a motley host, armed for the most part with slings, javelins, and bows, but admirably suited for the work which was to be done. Swarming over the island by hundreds and by thousands they took up their stations on every piece of rising ground, threatening the enemy in front, in the rear, on the right flank, and on the left. The Spartans, in their heavy armour, were helpless against these agile foes, who eluded every attempt to come to close quarters, and kept up a continual shower of arrows, javelins, and stones. Such had been the orders of Demosthenes, which were now carried into effect.

When the Spartans under Epitadas saw their advanced guard cut up, and the Athenians marching against them, they drew up in order, and tried to come within spear-thrust of the enemy; but they were unable to effect their purpose, for the Athenian hoplites kept their ground, and at the same moment they themselves were assailed on both flanks and in the rear by a cloud of light infantry. It was a kind of warfare to which the Spartans were totally unaccustomed: if they attempted to advance, their nimble assailants drew back, and pursuit was impossible on the rocky and broken ground. For a time the light-armed troops approached them with caution, being somewhat cowed in spirit when brought face to face with the renowned warriors of Sparta, hitherto supposed to be invincible. But seeing how the Spartans were embarrassed, they took courage, and came on in a roaring multitude, surrounding them on all sides, and leaving them not a moment to take breath. The air was darkened by a tempest of missiles; and a fine dust, caused by the ashes of the late fire, rose in choking clouds from the trampling of many feet. Exhausted by their violent exertions, stunned by the uproar, and blinded by the dust, the Spartans began to give ground, and closing their ranks fell back on the stronghold where their reserve was stationed. They were hotly pursued, and some few were cut off in the retreat, but the greater part succeeded in reaching the fort, where they turned at bay, and prepared to defend themselves to the last. Until a late hour in the day the Athenians made vain attempts to dislodge them from their position, which was only assailable in front. At last, when both sides were sorely distressed by the long conflict under a burning sun, an officer who was in command of the Messenian troops came to the generals, and offered, if they would place a few light-armed soldiers at his disposal, to lead them up the precipitous cliffs at the northern end of Sphacteria, and take the Spartans in the rear. Permission being readily granted, he chose his men, and taking care that his movements were not perceived by the enemy, made his way with them along the perilous and slippery face of the cliffs to the rear of the beleaguered garrison, scaled the steep ascent, and suddenly appearing on the heights, struck terror into the Spartans, and gave fresh courage to their assailants.

The situation of the Spartans was now similar to that of their ancestors when they made their last stand at Thermopylae. They were attacked in front and rear, and hemmed in on both sides by the natural difficulties of the place. In their weak and exhausted condition it would have been an easy task to make an end of them. But the great object of Cleon and Demosthenes was to take them alive. They therefore suspended the attack, and sent a herald, and summoned them to lay down their arms. When they heard the proclamation, most of them lowered their shields, and waved their hands in the air, to show that they had dropped their weapons. The Athenian generals then entered into a parley with Styphon the third in command of the Spartans; for Epitadas, the chief officer, was slain, and Hippagretus, the second, had been left for dead on the field. Styphon requested permission to communicate with the Spartan authorities on the mainland, and ask what he and his comrades were to do; and the Athenian commanders sent one of their own men to carry the message. Having heard his report, the Spartan magistrates sent a herald to see how matters stood; and after more than one messenger had passed to and fro between their camp and the island, they sent their final instructions, conveyed in these words "The Spartans bid you to decide for yourselves, but to do nothing dishonourable."

Fifty years before, these wounded and weary men would have needed no instructions to tell them their duty. According to the ancient tradition of Sparta they had but one course open to them—to die at their posts. But the lapse of time had softened the stern fibre of the Spartan character; and the broken remnant now brought to bay in Sphacteria interpreted the ambiguous mandate in their own favour, and surrendered themselves and their arms.

The number of the prisoners was two hundred and ninety-two, of whom about a hundred and twenty were Spartans of pure descent, several of them belonging to the highest families in Sparta. They were distributed among the captains of the fleet for transportation to Athens. Dating from the first sea-fight, the siege had lasted altogether seventy-two days; and during seven weeks of this period they had subsisted on the casual supplies smuggled over by the blockade-runners from the mainland. Great was the joy at Athens when that costly freight was brought safely into the harbour of Peiraeus; and Cleon, whose bustling energy had really helped to precipitate a crisis, was the hero of the hour. He had promised to settle the business, one way or the other, within twenty days, and this promise, which had been laughed at as a piece of crazy vanity, was fulfilled to the letter. The whole merit of the performance, however, belonged to Demosthenes, who had planned the attack on Sphacteria with admirable sagacity, and led the operations from first to last.

The surrender of a picked troop of Spartan warriors caused a revolution of feeling throughout Greece. Hitherto it had been assumed as a matter of course that no Spartan soldier, in any circumstances, would yield to an enemy; but now more than a hundred Spartans had preferred life to honour. It was generally believed that the survivors were inferior in valour to those who had fallen; and some time afterwards one of the captives was asked this insulting question by one of the Athenian allies: "Your brave comrades were buried on the field, I suppose?" The Spartan's answer was couched in a riddle: "It would be a mighty clever spindle, [Footnote: Arrow.] which singled out the brave." His meaning was that the stones and arrows had dealt out death among his comrades without distinction.