Campaigns of Brasidas in Thrace by H. L. Havell


One advantage which accrued to the Athenians from the possession of the Spartan captives was the immunity from invasion. For if the Spartans prepared to make any movement against Attica, they could bring out their prisoners, and threaten to put them to death. And in other directions the future looked brighter than it had done for many years. They held Pylos, which was garrisoned by Messenian troops, and served as an open door, through which they could carry havoc over the whole western district of Laconia; and the occupation of Cythera, which was effected in the following year, gave them increased facility for harassing the commerce of Sparta, and making descents on her eastern coast.

Elated by these successes, the Athenians determined on a bolder flight, and forgetting the lessons of Pericles, thought of recovering the possessions which they had held on the mainland thirty years before. With this intention they planned an attack, which was to be carried out from three different points at once, on Boeotia. But the whole scheme proved a failure, and led to a severe defeat at Delium; and about the same time news arrived from Thrace which showed that the tide was turning, and should have warned them, if they were wise, to set bounds to their restless ambition.

Brasidas had long since recovered from the wounds received at Pylos. The deep humiliation of Sparta, now reduced to become a suppliant for peace, filled him with shame and sorrow, and in the eighth year of the war he formed the bold design of organizing a campaign against the coast-towns of Thrace, which were among the most important of the Athenian tributaries. Having obtained the necessary commission from Sparta, he collected a force of seventeen hundred heavy-armed infantry, and in the summer following the disaster at Sphacteria, turned his steps northward, and arrived without mishap at the borders of Thessaly. The Thessalians generally were then on friendly terms with Athens, and, apart from this, the passage of so large a force through their territory caused suspicion and alarm among the inhabitants. But Brasidas was a man of rare gifts: endowed with more than a full share of the typical Spartan virtues, he combined with these a graciousness of manner, and a winning eloquence, which made him an equal of the most accomplished Athenian. He had, moreover, friends among the powerful nobles of Thessaly, who undertook to guide him in safety to the Macedonian frontier. On reaching the river Enipeus, he found his passage barred by a Thessalian force, who seemed resolved to dispute his progress. His courteous demeanour, and fair words, disarmed their hostility, and he was allowed to pass. Fearing, however, a general rising of the natives against him, and urged to despatch by his guides, he pushed on by forced marches, and entering the passes of Olympus, descended into the southern plain of Macedonia, whose king Perdiccas, a shifty and treacherous barbarian, though nominally in alliance with Athens, favoured the enterprise of Brasidas.

Perdiccas had undertaken to provide pay for half the Spartan force, in return for help to be rendered against a rebel chieftain with whom he was at war. But Brasidas, whose main object was to raise a revolt among the Athenian allies, insisted on entering into negotiations with the rebel, and having patched up a truce, conducted his troops to the neighbourhood of Acanthus, a town on the eastern side of the Chalcidian peninsula, where there was a party discontented with the Athenian rule. In all the cities subject to Athens the general mass of the people were found loyal towards her, or, at the worst, disinclined for any change; and Acanthus was no exception. When Brasidas with his little army appeared before the walls the people at first refused him admission. But it was just before the vintage, and their grapes were hanging in ripe clusters, exposed to the hand of the spoiler; and so, to save their vineyards from ravage, they were at last induced to give him a hearing.

It was very important for Brasidas to secure the voluntary adherence of the Acanthians, whose action would have a powerful effect in determining the attitude of the other Chalcidians towards them. Accordingly he exerted all his skill as an orator, which was considerable, to allay their suspicions, and rouse their enthusiasm for the cause which he represented. That cause, he said, was the liberation of Greece from the tyranny of Athens. Let none of them suppose that he had come in the interests of a faction, to enslave the many to the few, or the few to the many. He had bound the authorities of Sparta by the most solemn oaths to respect the constitution of any state which enlisted under their banner. Freedom for Greeks!—that was the watchword which should find a response in every patriotic heart. After this fine burst of sentiment, Brasidas descended to a much lower level, and plainly intimated that if the Acanthians would not join him from these high motives, he would employ coercion, and proceed to ravage their estates, This last argument was decisive, and in order to save their valuable harvest from destruction, they agreed to admit Brasidas and his army into the town. Shortly afterwards their example was followed by Stagirus, one day to become famous as the birthplace of Aristotle.

It is melancholy to find a man of really pure and generous character like Brasidas lending himself to be the mouthpiece of Spartan hypocrisy. To him the sounding phrases and lofty professions which he uttered may have meant something: but in their essence they were mere hollow cant, intended to divert attention from the true issue, and drag a peaceful and prosperous community into the private quarrels of Sparta. So degraded was now the tone of politics in Greece, even among her best and ablest men.


On the banks of the Strymon, just where the river sweeps round in a sharp curve, west and east, the Athenians had founded, six years before the outbreak of the war, the colony of Amphipolis. It was a site which had long been coveted by the leaders of Greek colonial enterprise, being the key to the richest district in Thrace, with unrivalled facilities for commerce, and close to the gold-mines of Mount Pangeus. A previous attempt which was made by the Athenians to occupy the position had ended in ruinous disaster; but nearly thirty years later a second body of emigrants, led by Hagnon from Athens, met with much better success; Amphipolis now grew and prospered, and at the time which we have reached was the most important city in the Athenian empire.

The Amphipolitans had a bitter and jealous enemy in the neighbouring town of Argilus, situated a few miles to the west, on the road to Amphipolis; and ever since the appearance of Brasidas in Thrace the Argilians had been plotting against the tranquillity of their hated rival. Accordingly, when Brasidas, who had planned a surprise on Amphipolis, appeared before their gates, they welcomed him eagerly, and conducted him and his army to the bridge over the Strymon, which crossed the river just outside the southern end of the city wall. The defenders of the bridge, few in number, and taken unawares, were instantly cut to pieces; for Brasidas came upon them before daybreak, and the weather, which was wintry and inclement, favoured his design.

The farms and country-houses of the Amphipolitans, which occupied an extensive district on the eastern side of the city, now lay at the mercy of Brasidas, and after choosing a position for his camp, he began to overrun the country. For those who were responsible for the safety of Amphipolis had taken no precautions, though they knew that this daring and active enemy had been carrying on a campaign for many weeks in the adjacent parts of Thrace. Consequently, a good number of the citizens, who were attending to the business of their estates, fell into his hands, and it is not improbable that, if he had made a sudden assault on the city, he would have captured it on the same day.

There was a disaffected party in Amphipolis, who had planned the betrayal of the place, acting in concert with Argilus, through the agency of certain Argilian citizens residing in the town. The traitors now proposed that Brasidas and his army should be admitted, but they were overruled by the general voice of the people, and it was agreed that the Athenian Eucles, governor of Amphipolis, should send a message for help to another Athenian officer, who was commissioned to watch the interests of Athens in Thrace. That officer was Thucydides, the historian, from whose work the materials for the present narrative are taken. Thucydides was descended on his mother's side from the royal family of Thrace, [Footnote: Such, at least, is the highly probable conjecture of Classen.] and through this connexion he was the owner of valuable working rights in the gold-mines of Mount Pangaeus, and a man of great power and, influence in these districts. When the message arrived from Amphipolis, he was engaged in some business at Thasos, and postponing all other concerns he collected a small squadron of seven ships and hastened to the rescue with all speed. But Brasidas, who had received intelligence of his movements, was too quick for him. He had valuable hostages in the persons of those Amphipolitans who had been taken outside the walls. The population of Amphipolis consisted almost entirely of men of mixed or foreign descent, who were anxious about their properties, and in fear for their friends, while the few Athenian residents were alarmed for their own safety, having little hope of prompt succour. Taking advantage of this state of public feeling, the politic Spartan issued a proclamation, pledging him to respect the rights and property of all who chose to remain; while those who preferred to withdraw were allowed five days to take away their goods. This tempting offer produced the desired effect. It was in vain that the Athenian governor interposed his authority, and strove to uphold the imperial claims of Athens. The people threatened to rise in mutiny against him, and when the partisans of Brasidas, now grown bold, openly moved a resolution to accept his conditions, the proposal was carried, and the Spartan general marched unopposed into the town.

Late on the same day Thucydides sailed into the harbour of Eion, the port of Amphipolis, and learning that Brasidas was already in possession of the inland city, took all necessary precautions to provide against an immediate attack. He was only just in time; for on the very next day Brasidas carried his troops down the river on a flotilla of boats, and tried to establish himself in a strong position, commanding the mouth of the river, and at the same time sent a storming party to make an assault on the land side. But the attempt was frustrated, and Eion at least was saved to Athens.

The fall of Amphipolis, which occurred shortly after the crushing defeat at Delium, caused great consternation among the Athenians. Apart from the wound to their pride, they were deprived by this loss of a large portion of their revenue, and cut off from the principal source of their timber supply. And there were still further grounds for alarm. For Amphipolis was now an open door, through which the Spartans could send troops into eastern Thrace, and carry the war to the entrance of the Euxine. For a moment it seemed as if all their fears would be realized. The gentle manners of Brasidas—his fairness, modesty, and strict regard for the rights of all men—had won the hearts of the Athenian allies in Thrace, and secret agents were constantly arriving at his head-quarters on the Strymon, inviting him to come and help them to recover their liberty. He had skilfully appealed to the most deeply-rooted instinct of the Greek, the desire for unfettered action in his own city, free from all interference from outside. This instinct, long held in abeyance, first by the necessity for protection from Persia, and when that danger was removed, by the habits acquired under the mild rule of Athens, was now awakened into new life by the influence of the great warrior and accomplished statesman, whose watchword was "Liberty for Greeks!" The recent reverses of Athens had excited a feeling of contempt among her subjects, and led them greatly to under-estimate her real power; and Brasidas himself, by a not over-scrupulous perversion of facts, had been careful to encourage this belief. All these causes produced a burst of enthusiasm throughout Thrace, and if the Spartans had supported Brasidas with vigour, a general insurrection would have followed among the Athenian allies. But the authorities of Sparta were jealous of their brilliant officer, and their chief anxiety was to recover the prisoners taken at Sphacteria.

In the same winter the indefatigable Spartan effected the capture of Torone, a town situated on the second of the three headlands which project, like the prongs of a fork, from the peninsula of Chalcidice. As in the case of Amphipolis, Torone fell into his hands by treachery; but he had now made good his title as the champion of Greek independence, and early in the following spring the citizens of Scione, on the first or westernmost headland, invited him to come over and take command of their town. On receiving this welcome summons Brasidas lost no time, and crossed over by night in a skiff, which was convoyed by a trireme, so that if any hostile vessel appeared in sight, it might be engaged by the trireme, and leave him free to escape. He reached Scione in safety, and having convened a general assembly of the citizens, addressed them in flattering terms, praising their high courage and patriotic spirit. "You," he said, "have set a noble example to your oppressed brethren: isolated as you are, and cut off from all succour from the mainland, you have defied all perils, and thrown in your lot, for better or for worse, with the friends of liberty. Your gallantry and self-devotion has given you a just claim to the gratitude of Sparta and of all Greece." The revolt of Scione was indeed a daring defiance of the Athenian power, for since the capitulation of Potidaea, which occurred seven years before, the inhabitants had been in the position of islanders, exposed to the whole maritime power of Athens. For the moment, however, the people were carried away by a transport of enthusiasm, and little dreaming of the terrible vengeance which was to overtake them two years later, they greeted Brasidas as a deliverer, and vied with one another who should honour him most. He was publicly presented with a crown of gold, as the liberator of Greece; and in private houses he was wreathed with garlands, and surrounded with worship, like a victorious athlete.

But a few days before the defection of Scione all the ambitious schemes of Brasidas had been checkmated by the action of his own countrymen at home. For some time past negotiations had been in progress between Athens and Sparta; and since the battle of Delium, and the rapid successes of their great enemy in Thrace, the Athenians had been more disposed to come to terms. In this altered mood they agreed to make a truce for one year with Sparta, which would give time to arrange the conditions of a lasting peace, and leave them at leisure to repair the shattered fabric of their empire. Two commissioners, an Athenian and a Spartan, were at once despatched to announce the conclusion of the truce to Brasidas. They found him at Torone, preparing to set out a second time for the western peninsula, and continue his intrigues against the subjects of Athens. In the interview which followed a dispute arose between Brasidas and the commissioners, as to whether Scione should be admitted into the truce. Brasidas asserted that the city had joined the Spartan alliance before the truce was signed; but the Athenian commissioner loudly protested that the revolt occurred after the conclusion of the truce,—and such, indeed, was the fact. Brasidas, however, was bound in honour to defend the hapless community which had been drawn by his fatal influence into so fearful a peril; and in the existing confusion of the Greek calendar it was not easy to establish a date with perfect exactitude. Accordingly Brasidas refused to surrender Scione to the vengeance of Athens, and placed the town in a state of defence. Not content with this, he extended the same measures of protection to Mende, which revolted after the arrival of the commissioners. This was an open violation of the truce, and the Athenians, in great fury, immediately prepared to send a fleet against these audacious rebels, and passed a savage decree, condemning the whole adult male population of Scione to death.


During the following summer Mende was recovered by Nicias for the Athenians, Scione was closely invested, and Perdiccas, who had quarrelled with Brasidas, once more became an ally of Athens, and gave proof of his sincerity by preventing the passage of Spartan reinforcements to Thrace. The Athenians were thus left free to turn their attention to Amphipolis, and at the beginning of the tenth year of the war, the truce having now expired, Cleon was sent with a fleet of thirty ships to conduct the siege of this important place. That so weighty a charge should have been entrusted to hands so incompetent argues a degree of infatuation in the Athenians which is very hard to understand. On his voyage Cleon succeeded in retaking Torone by a sudden assault, and then proceeding northwards dropped anchor at Eion, where he remained inactive, after despatching messengers to Perdiccas, and to a friendly Thracian prince, to ask for reinforcements.

Meanwhile Brasidas, who some time before had returned to Amphipolis, was waiting to strike a blow at his unwarlike enemy. His own troops, though about equal in numbers to the force under Cleon, were far inferior in equipment and discipline; but he counted on some incautious movement on the part of the Athenian general, which would throw the picked infantry of Athens into disorder, and place them at a disadvantage. So he left Clearidas, a young Spartan, whom he had appointed governor of Amphipolis, in charge of the garrison, and taking with him fifteen hundred men occupied a position on the right bank of the river, where the ground rises abruptly to a considerable height, affording a wide view over the city to the country beyond, as far as Eion. From this point, which is called Cerdylium, he could watch the proceedings of the enemy, and still have ample time to rejoin Clearidas in Amphipolis, if, as he expected, Cleon should leave his defences and advance upon the town.

He had not long to wait. The Athenian soldiers stationed at Eion were chafing at their inaction, and mutinous speeches were heard on all sides. What a man was this Cleon, this cowardly braggart, under whom they were to take the field against the most daring and skilful leader in Greece! They had known what to expect from such a general, since the day when they sailed for Thrace. These murmurs reached the ears of Cleon, and he saw that something must be attempted, or his men would be totally demoralized. So he gave the order to march, and led his troops up the ridge of hills which slope down towards Amphipolis on the eastern side, where the town was defended by a single line of wall, reaching from the northern to the southern bend of the river. He was far from supposing that anyone would come out to attack him; he only wanted, he said, to take a good view of the place, and when his reinforcements arrived, he would surround the city on all sides, and carry it by assault. For his wonderful good fortune at Pylos had given him unbounded confidence in his powers as a strategist, and he thought that Amphipolis would prove a second Pylos, forgetting that here he had a Brasidas to deal with, and no Demosthenes to do the work for him. When he reached the top of the ascent, he called a halt, and took a leisurely survey of the wide sweep of country spread below him,—to the north, the broad, marshy waters of Lake Cercynitis, from which the river issues just above the town,—eastwards, the towering summit of Mount Pangaeus,—and on the other side, just beneath his feet, the devoted city, which now seemed cowering, silent and deserted, as if conscious of Cleon's eagle glance. The gates were closed, and not a man was to be seen on the battlements. "What a pity," remarked Cleon, "that we brought no siege-engines with us! We might have battered down the wall, and marched in at once,—there is none to oppose us."

So readily did this holiday general fall into the trap which Brasidas, with a just estimate of his capacity, had set for him. As soon as he saw that Cleon had started from Eion, the Spartan general left his post in Cerdylium, and led his men back into Amphipolis. Here he made such a disposition of his forces as to give the place that peaceful and innocent appearance which deceived Cleon's unpractised eye. Then he took up his station with a picked troop of a hundred and fifty hoplites at the southern gate of Amphipolis, leaving Clearidas in charge of the main body, and awaited a favourable moment to attack.

But these preparations could not be made without exciting some attention among the more experienced of the Athenian officers. They had seen Brasidas entering the city, and observed him offering sacrifice, as for battle, before the temple of Athene; and Cleon, who was standing, lost in his contemplations, some distance in advance of his forces, suddenly received the alarming intelligence that the enemy were on the point of making a sally. "The whole garrison is in motion," said the messenger, "and we have caught sight of the feet of many horses and men under the gates: evidently they mean to attack us." Thus rudely startled from his meditations, Cleon went to look for himself, and seeing that the messenger had spoken the truth he gave the order for a retreat in the direction of Eion. This movement should have begun from the left wing, but there was some delay in executing the order, and Cleon, who was in a great hurry to reach a place of safety, led the way with his own division, which, being on the right, ought to have closed the retreat. The consequence was that the whole Athenian army was thrown into confusion, and Brasidas, who was watching from his station at the gate, saw by the irregular motion of their spears and helmets that all discipline was at an end. "Now is our time," he cried to his men: "Open the gates! The day is ours." With these words he rushed out with his troops, and fell upon the Athenian centre; and at the same moment the main body under Clearidas poured out from the northern gate, and attacked them in the rear.

The effect of this sudden assault was to cut the Athenian army in half: the left wing, which was nearest to Eion, fled without striking a blow, but the right made a vigorous resistance, though abandoned by their cowardly general, who was cut down by a Thracian spearman as he tried to make good his escape. A far nobler name was also added to the death-roll of that fatal day: Brasidas, fighting at the head of his troop, received a mortal wound, and was carried, unobserved by the Athenians, into the city. He lived long enough to hear that his men had gained a decisive victory, and then passed away, the purest and the most heroic spirit among all those who played their part in this unhappy war. After his death he received divine honours at Amphipolis, and was worshipped as the second founder of the city.