The Hollow Peace by H. L. Havell


The negotiations for peace, begun in the previous year; had been interrupted by the brilliant successes of Brasidas, and the factious opposition of Cleon, and after their death the main obstacle to a pacific understanding was removed. The high hopes conceived by the Athenians after the capture of the Spartans at Pylos had been damped by their disastrous defeat at Delium, and by the revolt of their allies in Thrace; and, above all, they were anxious to recover Amphipolis. Still more depressed was the temper of the Spartans. They had entered on the war in a spirit of sanguine confidence, expecting to make an end of the conflict by a single invasion of Attica; and now, after ten years of fighting, their great rival remained almost untouched in the chief sources of her power. Their coasts were exposed to continual ravage by the Athenian fleets, and Pylos was still occupied by their bitter enemies, the Messenians, attracting all the discontented elements in Sparta, and keeping the Helots in a continual ferment. And finally a hundred and twenty of their noblest citizens were immured in the dungeons of Athens, and they were ready to make great sacrifices to procure their release.

Accordingly, in the winter after the battle of Amphipolis, negotiations were resumed, and early in the following spring a treaty of peace was concluded between Athens and Sparta, on the understanding that all places taken by force of arms should be restored, and all prisoners set at liberty. Such was the Peace of Nicias, named after its chief promoter, the former rival of Cleon, and now the leading politician at Athens. It was really a private agreement between Athens and Sparta, for the most important of the Spartan allies, who thought that their interests were neglected, refused to sign the treaty. Alarmed by this, the Spartans immediately concluded a second treaty with Athens, binding both sides to mutual aid and defence, in case their territories were attacked. The prisoners taken at Sphacteria were now restored, but owing to the bungling of Nicias, the Athenians failed to regain Amphipolis.


Six years elapsed after the conclusion of the Peace of Nicias, before war was again openly declared; but it was a peace only in name, and was broken by many acts of hostility on both sides. During this period the principal states of Greece were involved in a network of political intrigue, treaty following treaty, and alliance succeeding to alliance, for the most part with no result. To this statement, there is, however, one important exception. A year after the signing of the second treaty between Athens and Sparta, a coalition was formed, including Athens, Elis, and Mantinea, under the leadership of Argos; and in mentioning this event we have to usher on to the stage one of the most extraordinary characters in history. This was Alcibiades, a young Athenian noble, endowed with every advantage of mind, person, and fortune, whose fatal gifts, and lawless ambition, made him the evil genius of his country. His high birth, his wealth, his wit, and his wonderful beauty, attracted to him a host of flatterers, who fed his vanity with soft adulation, and led him to believe that nothing was too great for such powers as his. Like most of the brilliant young men of his day, he attached himself for a time to the philosopher Socrates, for whom he seems to have felt a warm admiration. But his connexion with that great teacher and thinker, though it served to sharpen his understanding, could not eradicate the effects of evil habit and example. His wilful, selfish, and despotic temper soon broke loose from that salutary restraint, and henceforth we find him pursuing a course of action which brought ruin on his people, and on himself a traitor's death and a dishonoured name.

Much irritation had been caused among the Athenians by the shifting and treacherous conduct of the Spartans, who had failed to redeem their sworn pledges, and had excited great suspicion at Athens by repeated intrigues with Argos, and with their own offended allies of the Peloponnesian League. Alcibiades had a private grudge against the Spartans, to whom he had made overtures of friendship and service at the time when the treaty was under discussion, only to be set aside as a profligate and frivolous youth, unfit to meddle with serious matters of state. He now placed himself at the head of the party hostile to Sparta, and it was not long before he had an opportunity of revenging the insult to his pride. He used all his influence to promote an alliance with Argos, the ancient enemy and rival of Sparta in Peloponnesus; and when envoys arrived from Sparta to remonstrate against this proceeding, and reassure the Athenians as to their intentions, he contrived by a masterpiece of low cunning to cover them with shame and contempt. When the envoys were introduced to the senate they declared that they had come with full powers to settle all differences, and Alcibiades feared that if they made the same statement to the general assembly of the citizens, they might induce the Athenians to renounce their alliance with Argos. So, after the senate had risen, he took the envoys aside, and with an air of great candour and friendliness warned them that they must conceal the extent of their powers when they appeared before the popular assembly. "You do not understand," he said, "how to deal with the mob of Athens; if you show your hand, they will force you into extravagant concessions. Leave the matter to me, and everything will turn out as you wish."

The simple Spartans fell into the snare. They were not at all startled by the proposal that they should eat their own words, for in dishonesty they were not behind Alcibiades himself, though they were no match for him in cunning. Being brought before the people, and asked whether they had come with full powers, they answered bluntly "No!" Great was the amazement at this flat contradiction of the avowal which they had made before the senate, and Alcibiades, giving voice to the general indignation, overwhelmed the astonished envoys with a torrent of invective and abuse. The Spartans were dumb-foundered by his perfidy, and looked helplessly at Nicias, the staunch friend and supporter of Sparta, whom they had forsaken for this shameless young reprobate. Nicias, who of course knew nothing of the trick, was utterly confounded by the double-dealing of the envoys, and could do nothing to relieve their embarrassment. The result was that the envoys were abruptly dismissed, and after a fruitless mission of Nicias to Sparta, which only served to lower his own reputation, the Athenians entered heart and soul into the Argive alliance.


We have seen how much the credit of Sparta had been injured in the eyes of Greece by the capture of her chosen warriors at Pylos, and by her subsequent behaviour during the negotiations which led to the peace of Nicias. Spartan valour was seen to be not above reproach, and the Peloponnesian allies had still better reason to complain of the hollowness of Spartan faith. The high reverence which had long been attached to the name of Sparta had given place to something like contempt, and the Eleans, who had an old grudge against her, took advantage of this feeling to exclude her citizens from taking public part in the Olympic festival, which was celebrated with great pomp and splendour in the second year of the peace. And the degradation of the proud Dorian city seemed to be complete, when a Spartan named Lichas, who had entered for the chariot-race under another name, was driven with blows from the racecourse. So deep was the abasement to which the great name of Sparta had now sunk.

The Spartans saw that a vigorous effort must be made, if they would recover their lost ascendancy; and two years later the opportunity occurred for which they were waiting. On the northern side of the Argolic peninsula lies the ancient city of Epidaurus, famous for its rich vineyards, and its great temple of Asclepius, [Footnote: Aesculapius.] the god of healing. For some time past, the Epidaurians, who were in alliance with Sparta, had been involved in a dispute, arising out of some obscure question of ritual, with Argos; and they were now in sore straits, being hard pressed by the whole weight of the Argive power, backed by the new confederacy. This was the pretext needed by the Spartans, and mustering their whole forces they marched, under the command of their king Agis, against Argos.

The Argives had received notice of the advance of Agis, and they immediately marched out to meet him, wishing to engage the Spartans before they had united with their allies from Corinth, Boeotia, and elsewhere, who were assembling in great force at Phlius. The two armies confronted each other for a moment at Methydrium, in Arcadia; but Agis succeeded in avoiding an engagement, and breaking up his camp under cover of darkness pushed on to Phlius. Thereupon the Argives, who were accompanied by their allies from Mantinea and Elis, returned in haste to Argos, and then, marching northwards, took up their position at Nemea, which commanded the ordinary route from Phlius to the Argive territory. But they were again outmanoeuvred by the skilful dispositions of Agis. Avoiding the road by Nemea, which led through a narrow and dangerous pass, he led his Spartans over the mountains and descended into the plain which surrounds the city of Argos. One contingent of his allies had orders to proceed in the same direction by another mountain-path, while the Boeotians, who numbered no less than ten thousand infantry, and five hundred cavalry, were directed to take the high road by Nemea; for Agis expected that by threatening the cultivated lands around Argos he would draw the Argives from their position, and bring them down in haste to the defence of their estates.

The plan was completely successful. As soon as the Argives learnt that Agis was ravaging their fields they set out with all speed towards Argos, and finding Agis engaged in the work of pillage, they drew up their forces, and offered battle. Their situation was in the highest degree perilous. In front of them, cutting them off from the city of Argos, was the flower of the Spartan army, reinforced by the troops of Tegea and Arcadia; on their right flank the mountain slopes swarmed with the infantry of Corinth and Phlius; and in the rear their retreat was cut off by the thronging masses of Boeotians, who were now pouring along the road from Nemea. They were fairly cut off, and seemed delivered over to destruction; nevertheless, such was the presumptuous confidence which possessed them, that they awaited eagerly the signal for battle, crying out that they had caught the Spartans in a trap.

Fortunately for them there were two men among their leaders who took a wiser view of the position; one of these was Alciphron, an official who represented the interests of Sparta at Argos, [Footnote: The Greek word is Proxenos,—a sort of consul.] and the other was Thrasyllus, one of the five generals. These two men entered into a parley with Agis, and by promising to satisfy the demands of Sparta induced him to grant a truce. Agis then drew off his forces, and returned by way of Nemea to Sparta; and the allies, much against their will, were compelled to follow his example. Loud were the murmurs among the confederates, and even among the Spartan soldiers, against Agis, who had thrown away this golden opportunity of humbling the pride of Argos, and brought dishonour on one of the finest armies that had ever been led into the field by a Grecian general. Strange to say, the Argives were not less indignant against the two men who had saved them from overwhelming disaster; and Thrasyllus, the general, narrowly escaped being stoned to death.


The Argives thought themselves bound to abide by the conditions of the truce, though made without their consent; but shortly after the retreat of Agis, an Athenian force of a thousand hoplites and three hundred cavalry arrived at Argos, and Alcibiades, who was present in the character of ambassador, strongly urged the renewal of the campaign. His proposal was warmly supported by the Mantineans and Eleans, and they and the Athenians marched forthwith against Orchomenus in Arcadia, which was in alliance with Sparta; and the Argives, who had wavered at first, soon afterwards joined them. Orchomenus was gained over with little trouble, and then the Eleans were eager to proceed against Lepreum, a town in their alliance which had gone over to Sparta. But the Argives, Athenians, and Mantineans, insisted on attacking Tegea, where there was a party opposed to Sparta, by whose means they hoped to bring this powerful city, the ancient rival of Mantinea, to their side. Thereupon the Eleans abandoned the expedition, and went home in a rage, but the rest of the allies took up their quarters at Mantinea, and prepared to make an attack on Tegea.

The Spartans were in high anger against Agis for his unsoldier-like conduct in the recent campaign, and when they heard of the capitulation of Orchomenus their resentment rose to such a pitch that it was proposed to inflict on him a heavy fine, and raze his house to the ground. At his earnest entreaty they consented to reserve the sentence, and give him an opportunity of wiping out the stain on his honour; but as a mark of diminished confidence they appointed ten commissioners, without whose consent he was not allowed to lead an army out of the city.

They had just come to this decision when an urgent message arrived from Tegea, bidding them to bring help with all speed, or the town would be lost. The imminent peril startled the Spartans from their wonted apathy, and they set out at once in full force to the relief of Tegea. On reaching the borders of Arcadia they sent back the elder and younger men, amounting to a sixth part of the army, to serve as a garrison in Sparta; and at the same time couriers were despatched to summon their allies in Arcadia and central Greece. The Arcadians arrived in time to take part in the battle, but the Boeotians, Corinthians, and others, though they hastened to obey the order, were delayed by a long and difficult march, through the hostile territory of Argos.

Passing by Tegea, Agis entered the district of Mantinea, and having pitched his camp began to lay waste the country. Informed of his approach, the Argives and their allies marched out to meet him, and choosing a position on the slope of a hill, defended in front by rugged and broken ground, they drew up in order of battle. The Spartans, incited, doubtless, by the example of their king, who was eager to redeem his reputation, rushed impetuously to the assault; and they were already within a stone's-throw of the enemy when a Spartan veteran cried out to Agis: "Heal not ill with ill!" His meaning was that in Argos Agis had been too cold, and now he was too hot. Agis heard the warning voice, and his own good sense must have shown him how rashly he was acting; accordingly, at the very moment of encounter, he gave the word to retreat, and fell back to the neighbourhood of Tegea. At this place there was a copious head of water, which, when properly regulated, served to irrigate the fields of Tegea and Mantinea. The disposal of the water-supply was a constant source of dispute between the two rival cities; and Agis now prepared to turn the whole volume of the fountain towards Mantinea, expecting that the Mantineans, when they saw their fields threatened with inundation, would come down into the plain to hinder the mischief.

The Argives and their allies were dumb-foundered by the sudden disappearance of the Spartans; and when they had recovered from their astonishment, they waited impatiently for the order to pursue the runaways. As no such order was given, cries of "Treason!" arose in the ranks, and the generals were openly accused of having sold themselves to the enemy. The Spartans, it was asserted, had been allowed to escape, when they were fairly caught under the walls of Argos; and now the confederates had been betrayed a second time by their officers. Amid the general clamour the Argive commanders stood for a moment confounded and amazed; then recovering themselves they gave the word to advance, and led their forces down into the plain. Here they passed the night in the open field, and early next morning they stood to their arms, and prepared for an immediate attack.

Agis was not aware that the Argive generals had taken up a new position, and thinking that the confederates were still stationed on the hill, he gave up his scheme of diverting the water, and directed his march towards the place where he had first encamped. As they proceeded thus in marching order, and quite unprepared for any hostile movement, the Spartans suddenly found themselves face to face with the whole Argive army, drawn up in order of battle. For one instant it seemed as if a panic were about to spread through the Spartan ranks; then their wonderful discipline prevailed, and with all promptitude, but without flurry or confusion, the necessary orders were passed from the King to the commanders of divisions, from these again to the colonels, from the colonels to the captains, and from the captains down to the sergeants, [Footnote: I have thought it best to give the English titles, which of course have only a general correspondence with the Greek Polemarch, Lochagus, etc.] who in their turn had to see that the required movement was executed by the men under their command: for such was the regular gradation of authority and responsibility in the Spartan army. Thanks to this perfect organization, in a very few minutes every man was in his place and ready for battle.

On the left wing of the Spartan army were posted the Sciritae, hardy mountaineers from southern Arcadia; next to them stood the enfranchised Helots, who had served under Brasidas in Thrace, and others of the same race who had received the Spartan citizenship in reward for public service; then came the main body of the Spartans themselves, and after them the rest of the Arcadian allies; while the right wing was assigned by immemorial privilege to the Tegeans, with whom were a few picked Spartans. The cavalry, never a very strong part of the Spartan army, were posted on either flank.

On the other side the Mantineans held the place of honour on the right wing, because the engagement was fought in their territory; next in order were the Arcadian allies of Argos, and after them, more towards the centre, stood a picked troop of a thousand Argives, trained and equipped at the public expense; then followed the main body of the Argive troops, with the rest of their allies, the Athenians occupying the extreme left. As to the numbers engaged, nothing certain is known.

Some time was lost by the Argive army in delivering the customary harangues addressed by the generals of the several contingents to their men, and this enabled the Spartans to steady their ranks before the fighting began. They, on their side, men of war from their youth, had no need of set speeches to remind them of their duty; but pithy words of exhortation passed from man to man, and high and clear rose their national war-songs, thrilling them with the memories of their heroic past. Then the signal was given on both sides to charge, and the Argives and their allies rushed impetuously to the onset, while the Spartans advanced to meet them with even and deliberate pace, timed to the music of numerous pipers, who were stationed at regular intervals in their ranks.

The regular equipment of the Greek infantry soldier consisted, besides his helmet and body-armour, of shield and lance, and in advancing to battle he had always a tendency to diverge towards the right, from a natural wish to keep his shielded side towards the enemy. This divergence from the forward direction was begun by the man posted on the extreme right; his comrade on the left followed his example, and the deflection was continued along the whole line. The consequence was that when two armies came into action, the left wing on either side was greatly outflanked by the opponents' right; and the battle of Mantinea affords no exception to this rule, for not even Spartan discipline was able to counteract the overpowering instinct of self-preservation. Seeing that his left wing was on the point of being outflanked by the Mantineans, Agis signalled to the Sciritae and Brasideans to draw off in a lateral direction towards the left, in order to present an equal line to the right wing of the enemy. The order was executed, and to fill up the gap thus produced on the left of his own centre, Agis ordered the Spartan officers commanding on his right wing to bring up their men and occupy the vacant space. They, however, flatly refused to obey the order, and consequently the Sciritae and Brasideans were assailed in front and on both flanks by overwhelming numbers, and driven back with great loss to their camp.

So completely were the Spartans out-manoeuvred and worsted in tactics, through the blunders of their general, and the cowardice of his subordinates. But in this terrible crisis they showed what native valour, aided by life-long discipline, can do. Leaving a victorious enemy in their rear, they advanced without flinching against the opposing centre, where the main body of the Argives were posted, with the troops of Orneae and Cleonaea supporting them on the left. Then it was seen that neither the courage of the Spartans, nor the terror of their name, had diminished with the lapse of time; for when the confederate troops found themselves face to face with the renowned warrior of the Eurotas, they turned and fled, almost without striking a blow, and trampling their comrades under foot, in their haste to avoid the thrust of the Spartan lances. The Athenians on the left wing were now in great danger; for the charge of the troops of Agis had cut them off from the centre, and they were attacked on the other flank by the Tegeans and Spartans. They were saved from immediate destruction by the exertions of their own cavalry, and presently found themselves at liberty to retire from the field; for Agis, having completed the rout of the main body, called off his men, and went to the relief of his own left. The Mantineans and the Argive Thousand made no effort to retrieve the fortunes of the day, but gave way before the first onset of the Spartans, and joined the flight of their comrades. The Mantineans suffered severely in their retreat, but of the Argives only a few were slain.

Such was the battle of Mantinea, which completely restored the military fame of the Spartans, and blotted out the reproach of cowardice and sloth which for some years past had rested on their name.


One incident remains to be recorded, before we proceed to the crowning catastrophe of our great historical drama. The Athenians, it should be observed, were still nominally at peace with Sparta, and if they had been wise they would have taken the opportunity of this respite from hostilities to recover Amphipolis, and consolidate their empire in Thrace. Instead of this, they looked around for fresh conquests, and fixed their eyes on the little island of Melos, belonging to the Cyclad group, which had been colonized in very early times from Sparta.

The Melians had not joined the Confederacy of Delos, and they might therefore be reproached for sharing the protection of Athens without making any return. Beyond this the Athenians had no ground of complaint against them, for they had taken no part in the Peloponnesian War, but had remained quietly at home, occupied with their own affairs. But Athens claimed the haughty title of mistress of the sea, and pretended to regard the neutrality of one insignificant island as an open defiance of her power. Ten years before an Athenian fleet had been sent under Nicias to reduce the refractory Melians to subjection; but the attempt was unsuccessful, and Nicias withdrew, after having ravaged the outlying districts. Being now more at leisure, the Athenians resolved, in the mere wantonness of power, that Melos should only be suffered to exist as a dependency of Athens, and thirty triremes sailed from the harbour of Peiraeus to carry out the arbitrary decree.

On their arrival at Melos the Athenian admirals sent envoys into the town, to summon the inhabitants to surrender. The envoys were invited to a private conference with the chief men of the island; and between the representatives of Athens and the Melian nobles there ensued an extraordinary dialogue, which is given at great length by the historian, and is commonly known as the Melian Debate. We cannot suppose that the arguments here placed by Thucydides in the mouth of the Athenian speaker were really uttered as set down by that writer. Such a paradox of iniquity, such a shameless insult to the general conscience of humanity, might have been employed by Plato, in exposing the vicious teaching of the Sophists, or by Aristophanes in the full riot of his satire: but the total abnegation of principle here implied could never have been openly avowed by a responsible agent, speaking for the most polished community in Greece. Even the worst criminals seek to give some specious colour to their villainy; and the condemned felon, who will face death without a tremor, shudders at the cry of execration which greets his appearance at the scaffold. So hard it is, even for the most depraved, to stifle the last embers of the moral sense. We cannot suppose, then, that an educated Athenian of the fifth century would publicly have claimed for his state the right of rapine and murder. For this is the line of argument pursued by the representative of Athens in the Melian Debate. The substance of what he says may briefly be stated as follows "You are weak—we are strong; Melos is a paltry island, Athens is queen of the Aegaean, and the existence of an independent city in these waters is an insult to her empire. Let us waste no time in discussions about abstract law and right. For the mighty there is but one law—to get what they can, and to keep it; and the weak have no rights, except by the sufferance of the strong. This rule of conduct we know to be universal among men, and we believe that the gods themselves are governed by it. [1] To sum up the whole case in one word: you must yield or perish."

[1] Desire of power, on earth a vicious weed,
Yet sprung from high, is of celestial seed;
In God 'tis glory; and when men aspire,
'Tis but a spark too much of heavenly fire.—DRYDEN.

It was in vain that the unhappy Melians tried to argue the question from a higher standpoint; in vain they warned the Athenians that they themselves might one day stand before the bar of justice, and plead for their existence. They were brought back relentlessly to the grim alternative-submission, or extermination. At length this strange controversy came to an end, and after one final hint, of fearful significance, the Athenian envoys withdrew, leaving the Melians to consider their answer. The brave islanders were not long in coming to their decision: they would not, they said, consent to enslave a city which had maintained its liberty for seven hundred years; they put their trust in divine justice, and in their kinsmen the Spartans, and were resolved to resist to the last.

On receiving this answer the Athenian commanders at once laid siege to Melos, and the doomed city was soon closely blockaded by sea and land. The Melians made a gallant defence, and twice succeeded in breaking through the lines of the besiegers, and conveying supplies into the town. But presently reinforcements arrived from Athens, and the Melians were confined within their walls. All hope of succour from Sparta had vanished, food began to fail, and treason was at work among the garrison. Thus driven to extremity, the Melians surrendered at discretion. Then the Athenians showed that their threats had not been idly uttered. All the men of military age in Melos were put to death, the women and children were sold into slavery, and the land was distributed among Athenian settlers.

In the fifth year of the war, after the capitulation of Mytilene, a thousand of the inhabitants had been butchered in cold blood; and this sentence, which seems so cruel to us, was regarded by the Athenians as an act of mercy. Six years later, the decree which had originally been passed against Mytilene, was actually executed on Scione, which had revolted at the instigation of Brasidas. In this act of savage retribution, Athens still remained within the limits of Greek international law, which placed the inhabitants of a revolted city at the mercy of their conquerors. But the case of Melos was different, for that island had never been included in the Athenian alliance, and the Melians had done nothing to provoke an attack. Thus the three names, Mytilene, Scione, and Melos, mark an ascending scale of barbarity, culminating in a massacre which, even in the eyes of Greeks, was an atrocious crime. Athens had now offended beyond forgiveness, giving colour to the accusations of her worst enemies, and heaping up vengeance for the days to come.