The Great War Between Athens and Sparta

by Bernard W Henderson

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I. The strength of the rivals

This is from the 1927 edition and the pages are linkable - eg

At the beginning of a war each side must consider its own and the enemy's resources. This done, each side plans its " strategy " as best it may. " Strategy " is the plan of campaign. It is too narrowly defined as " the art of bringing the enemy to battle ", of course under conditions that promise victory. For " strategy " includes the art of avoiding battle altogether, of course under conditions which are likely to involve defeat. " Tactics " are a simpler matter. These imply that the armies or navies are face to face. " Tactics " are defined as " the art of defeating the enemy." Tactics may win a battle and strategy may lose a war for the side which won the battle. On the other hand, good strategy may be hopelessly spoilt by bad tactics. A lost battle is a hard nut for strategy to crack. Yet there are times when tactical genius, like Alexander's, may redeem strategical blundering. Pericles framed his strategy for the opening of the war in the light of the comparative strength in men, ships, and money, of the two sides, though also with particular regard to the " temper " of the enemy. This comparison must also be the prelude to a discussion of the wisdom or folly of that strategy, a question round which controversy rages furiously.

At Athens military service was incumbent on every citizen between the ages of 18 and 60. There was no need to improvise a conscript army as the war went on. This was but the common rule for every ancient city state. (Hence the idea of bestowing the franchise on women was, except in the buffoonery of comedy, incredible, even in Sparta.) The citizen army thus consisted of heavy-armed (hoplites), light-armed, and cavalry. The " hoplite" force consisted of 19,000 men.[1] Of these, 16,000 were citizens, and 3000 were " metics ", resident aliens who had to perform military service. Of the 19,000 hoplites, 3000 were either too young or too old for service in the field, and served as a "Garrison Army " to guard Athens and Peiraeus and their connecting Walls, and such small forts as were placed on or near the roads leading to the northern frontier. Besides the hoplite force there were " light-armed " troops and cavalry. The former were numerous, and according to Thucydides many more than 10,000 of these were engaged in the campaign of Delium in 424 B.C.[Thuc- iv. 94.1 ; with 93. 3. ] Their military efficiency was not highly regarded, and as these were called on in large numbers to man the fleet their organisation was loose.[Cf. Grundy, Thucydides, pp. 310-311.] Among these was a special corps of 1600 archers, who were supplemented by hired mercenaries. But all Greeks relied at this time on the hoplite to win land battles. The cavalry were a sorry handful, but 1200 in number, includinghorse-archers. They have won fame on the boards of the comic stage in the Knights of Aristophanes. They won no glory in the great war. Athens' Thessalian allies ought to have remedied her own sore deficiency in cavalry, but the Thessalian horse belonged to that part of the population of that much-divided land which was most lukewarm in Athens' cause, and, save on the occasion of the petty skirmish at " Phrygia ", a hamlet in Attica, in 431 B.C.,[Thuc. ii. 22.] Thessalian cavalry gave very little help to Athens.

Contingents could be requisitioned from the cities of the Empire, and formed part of the great armada which sailed to Sicily in 415 B.C.[Thuc vii. 57.] Except when some such great effort was made, the "subject allies " rarely supplied troops except for minor operations on land near their own cities. Inde- pendent allies and mercenaries could also be enlisted on occasion. But for the war as a whole Athens must rely mainly on her 19,000 hoplites, and it was not an imposing force, even on the petty scale (in our own terrible experience of warfare) of all ancient inter-Greek warfare before the days of Alexander.

The land army of the Peloponnesian League, when mustered at strength, was by itself stronger in numbers than the full Athenian levy; and the Spartans, though few proportionately to the rest, supplied a stiffening of the whole of such priceless value that, with the one doubtful exception of the mysterious battle of Oenoe,[2] they had never yet been beaten in fair fight. Their northern allies in Boeotia were a doughty hoplite force, with whom the Athenians had, in recent years, measured themselves at the battle of Coronea to their own undoing. At the battle of Delium in 424 B.c. the numbers of Athenian and Boeotian hoplites were equal, 7000 on either side. Their courage was not equal. The cavalry of the northerners -Boeotians, Phocians, Locrians- were numerous and excellent, and nearly twice as strong in proportion to their heavy infantry as were the Athenian horse.[3] Their light-armed troops again were as many in number as the Athenian, and were more carefully organised and disciplined. Long before the next century had run its course the Boeotians were to prove themselves the sturdiest and best soldiers in Greece proper. Their day was not yet, but in the battles of the great war the coming events cast their shadows before. At its outbreak the northern army could be unduly belittled by clever Athenian strategists. One fact, however, was certain. Let the League forces on the south join hands with their northern allies, and there was no Athenian force strong enough to bear the brunt of the joint attack in the open field. An Athenian annalist of the time has set the total military strength of the enemy atthe round number of 100,000 men.[Androtion ap. Schol. Sophocles, Oed. Col. 698.] The joint army which wasted Attica at the outset of the war numbered 60,000[Plutarch, Pericles, 33.] The figure seems out of all reason in comparison with the opposition it was likely to encounter. Archidamus, its general, certainly proposed to make sure, if the Athenians came out to fight. This, indeed, Was his one great hope and, had not Pericles already been stoutly resolved, as will be seen, not to fight, the very numbers oi' the invaders might have determined him upon this prudent if unheroic course. As it was, it cannot be charged against the Spartan king that he defeated his own object. And invasion is always a risky affair. In the American Civil War the army of the South defending Richmond numbered 60,000 men, When the Northern general, McClellan, moved against it on York River he brought 110,000 men, while yet another 100,000 men hung menacingly on the north. Outnumbered on land always by the enemy, the Southern generals won victory after victory in sheer hard fighting. The odds against the South were much the same, some two or even three to one, as were those against Athens in the great war. The Confederates' strategy was different. Athens found no ,Lee or Jackson to lead her armies into battle. Her one brilliant general, Demosthenes, won notable victories, as will be seen. At the chief of these, the battle of Olpae, he had just sixty Athenian hoplites in his composite army. " The hoplite force at Athens seems to be in the sorriest condition," wrote an Athenian a few years after the war began.[Pseudo-Xenophon, Ath. Pol. 2.1 (date about 425 B.C.); sec below, p. 92.] " ln a single pitched battle ", Pericles himself admits, " the Peloponnesians and their allies are a match for all Greece." Later he seeks to encourage his people, " Our enemies ", he cries " have never yet felt our united strength ; the care of a navy divides our attention, and on land we are obliged to send our own citizens everywhere. But they, if they meet and defeat what is but a part of our whole army, are as proud as if they had routed us all, and, if they are defeated, they pretend they have been vanquished by our entire army." It were difficult to name any such victory won by Athens over the Peloponnesians in the lifetime ofthe majority of those of his hearers who would be going to war. Pericles' argument can have encouraged but few of these, and must have deceived himself least of all his fellow-countrymen.[Thuc. i. 141. 6; ii 39. 3.] Assuredly on land Athens could not speak with her enemies in the gate. Her one hope was to sever north from south and keep the League army at home by some counter-irritation. Once again the vital importance of Megara to the security of Attica starts clearly into view.

Upon the sea the position was exactly reversed. In numbers, as in efficiency, the Athenian navy was every whit as superior to their enemy as were the latter on the land. Athens' triremes numbered 300 by themselves.[Thuc. ii. 13.] Others were furnished by the two or three allies in the Aegean who still proudly contributed ships and not money to the resources of the Empire. Thus Chios had a navy of 60 triremes at least.[Thuc.viii.6.] The new independent ally Corcyra could muster as many as 120, and actually did send 50 of these to help their friends in the first year of the war.[Thuc i_ 25.4; ii. 25. 1.] Then Corcyra's enthusiasm evaporated, and Athens had little help from her afterwards. But at least Corcyra's ships formed no part of the foemen's fleet.

And a sorry fleet this Peloponnesian fleet was, as the " war by sea " was very quickly to show, In numbers, Corinth and her friendly colonies might muster 130 triremes, Megara some 40, Elis a miserable 10.[Thuc. i. 46; ii. 93. 2.] Once, before the war entered upon its final stage in 413 B.C., a Peloponnesian fleet of as many as 100 ships was found afloat in home waters.[In the attack on Zacynthus, 430 B.C., Thuc. ii. 66.] Once again, greatly daring, a Spartan admiral, Alcidas, took a squadron of 40 ships right across the Aegean in 427 B.C., only, as will presently be narrated, to run in panic homewards at sight of just two Athenian triremes in the offing.[4] But most significant of all is the comment by Thucydides upon a naval battle when neither side won the victory outright. In the year 413 B.C. a Corinthian squadron of some 30 ships was lying at anchor in the bay of Erineus, on the Achaean shore at the mouth of the Corinthian Gulf to safeguard the passage of merchantmen from Sicily to the Peloponnese. The Athenians, despite, the strength of their navy, were never able to blockade the long coast-line of the Peloponnese even in the summer months when alone operations by sea were possible. So in this the eighteenth year of the long War the small Corinthian squadron lay in Erineus bay, stretched in close line from one promontory to the other on the opposite side of the harbour. Troops lined the whole circuit of the little bay. Presently Diphilus, the Athenian admiral, sailing from Naupactus on the coast opposite with 33 vessels hovered off the harbour mouth. Seeing the strength of the enemy's position he did not attempt to force the entrance. The Corinthian admiral, Polyanthes, took his courage in both hands. He had carefully strengthened the " catheads " of his war-ships, a noteworthy device, and thereby made his ships the superiors of the lighter Athenian craft if it came to ramming. So he sallied out of harbour and bore down upon the enemy. His unusual courage and skill met with some well-deserved success. Three of his own ships were sunk, but he managed by ramming to put seven of the enemy out of action. With their oarage in disconsolate fragments the Athenians lay helpless on the surface of the sea. Luckily for the crews, the wind blew them northwards towards the friendly shore. So the engagement ended. Both sides withdrew to the ports whence they started. No prisoners were taken on either side. In itself it was a small and unimportant skirmish in a very secondary " theatre of operations ". It had no direct influence upon the course of the war. The Athenian command of the Greek and Western seas was not in any way seriously imperilled. But the Corinthians were enormously elated. They had fought by sea and they had not seen their fleet annihilated. They raised a trophy of victory on their coast with loud paeans of triumph. The Athenians, not to be outdone, presently, when all the enemy had sailed or marched away, also raised a counter-trophy on the Achaean shore some two miles off. But theirs was not so speedy nor so whole-hearted a jubilation. " For", writes Thucydides, himself an Athenian admiral at one time in the war:

The Athenians thought that they were defeated because they had not gained a signal victory : the Corinthians Considered themselves conquerors if they were not severly beaten.[Thuc. vii. 34. i]

The battle of Jutland was a great strategical victory. Never again did the German fleet challenge for the mastery of the sea. But that fleet had, albeit with loss, escaped homewards from the battle. Who that recalls the memory of that June morning when the news reached England can bear to this day to think long on the consternation, the almost incredulous anger, of the English? Was this the second Trafalgar of their dreams? And all the joy-bells of Berlin were ringing.

This their grave naval inferiority irked the Spartan Government sorely. At the very outset of the struggle they indulged in wild hopes of raising their available fleet to a grand total of 500, and sent orders to their friends in Italy and Sicily to send them such ships as they had, and build the many more required to make up this number.[5] The Spartans could summon ships from the West as Gwen Glendower could call spirits from the vasty deep :

But will they come when you do call for them?

It was not until the disaster at Syracuse had destroyed two-thirds of the Athenian navy that a score or so of ships, a twenty from Syracuse, a ten from Thurii, appeared in Aegean Waters, when all men thought that Athens' doom was sealed.[Thuc. viii. 26. 35.] Thereafter, and then only, the numbers of the rival fleets were equalised. And still for many years victory by sea rested with the Athenians.

Maritime skill, the most valuable of all Athenian assets, acquired by fifty unbroken years of practice, was added to what was an overwhelming superiority of numbers if the Athenian Admiralty handled their numbers well. Light-heartedly the Peloponnesian thought that such skill could be either improvised or at least speedily acquired.

" As soon as we have brought our naval skill up to the level of theirs, our courage will surely give us the victory," so Thucydides makes the Corinthians reassure the Spartans. " For courage is a natural gift which they cannot learn. But skill is a thing acquired, to be won by practice."[Thuc. i. 121. 4.] With what grim amusement must the historian, himself an admiral, have written these words!

" How can they acquire skill, no sailors they,- mere tillers of the soil ? " Pericles cried scornfully to his people. " Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated casually, at any chance time, by the way. It is jealous of any other occupation which distracts the attention for one moment from itself."[ Thuc. i. 142. 9. Cf. ii. 85. 2.] Every word of this is true, as the English beyond all peoples know. It needed a Phormio to drive the lesson home into the thick skulls of Spartan landsmen. How harshly, how unmeritedly, did Villeneuve suffer from the lashings of Napoleon's tongue!

After men and ships comes money. In modern warfare money tends to take the first place, and, above all, money is credit. In the ancient world there was no credit in the modern financial sense, The State imposed taxes, with two preferences, the one for taxing the alien rather than the citizen, the other for indirect over direct taxation. But the State did not borrow at interest from either foreign nations or its own citizens. Recovery after war was an easier matter in consequence. Repayment of the costs of war might be among the terms imposed on the defeated side. But neither victors nor vanquished were burdened with debt charges or the repayment of capital borrowed in the years of stress.

"War," said King Archidamus bluntly at Sparta when he was urging his people not to be swept away by the excited speeches of their allies, " war is a matter of money. We have no money in our Treasury, and we are never willing to contribute out of our private means."[Thuc i. 80. 4.] But when, despite his warnings, Sparta plunged precipitately into war, the lack of money seems never to have distressed her. The Peloponnesian troops received no pay. They went to battle when they were called out, and lived, so far as possible, on the produce and spoil of the enemy's country. When there was nothing left, they marched off homewards gaily again. The army was disbanded, and off every man went to his farm. It was the duty of the Government not to call men to the colours at a time of year when sowing or harvesting had to be done. This was convenient also to the enemy, but it could really not be helped. No doubt any sustained or continuous military operations were sorely hampered if not altogether frustrated by this simple system of "war finance". But to the Peloponnesians at least there seemed no other way possible. Hence on the outbreak of war there was no special War taxation imposed. " War needs no fixed charges," the King himself remarked.[Plutarch, Apoph. Lac. Arch. 7.] This happy-go-lucky casual system worked within its limits quite smoothly for the war on land. Some grandiose schemes for fixed contributions to the war chest or for borrowings on a large scale from the rich shrine of Delphi came to nothing.[6] Occasional demands for money from the allies might be made.[Thuc. i. 121. 5 ; Diodorus xiv. I7 ; Hicks, Manualof Greek Inscriptions (1882), No. 43.] But Peloponnesian war finance seems to _have been ofa quite engaging simplicity. Perhaps Corinth had to pay her sailors. There is no in- formation about this. Corinth, however, a rich merchant city, could well afford it. It was only in the last years of the war, when a big fleet had to be maintained at a heavy cost, that Sparta found herself in a sorry financial state, and " Persian gold " became the determinant factor of the struggle.

Things at Athens were totally different. The Athenian soldier or sailor expected to be paid, and paid well, when he was on active service. Such service for the fleet might be continuous for six months at least each year. The upkeep of a trireme was certainly as much as six talents a year, and there Were the 300 triremes. The entire cost of the war to Athens during the first ten years has been reckoned at 1300 talents annually.[Beloch, Rhein. Mus. 39, pp. 244-249.]

Pericles was the most skilled of financiers. " Wars", he declaired, "must be paid for out of capital, not out of forced contributions."[Thuc. i. 141. 5.] For many years before the outbreak of the great war he had been 1 heaping up wealth in the State Treasury. In the happy days of peace the income of Athens may have been upwards of 1000 talents a year. The bulk qi it eame from the annual tribute exacted from the cities of the Empire. Part of it came from State propperty (the silver-mines of Laureion in particular), from indirect taxes such as customs dues and lawcourt charges (the folk were notorious for "loving litigation "), and from taxes on the many aliens living at Athens. The happy citizen paid nothing by way of direct taxation at all. just when the struggle was about to begin, Pericles made a " financial statement " to his people. It is the most famous " Budget speech " in ancient history.[Thuc. ii.13.] At one time, he declared, there had been as much as 9700 talents reserve fund in the Treasury. At the moment this was reduced to 6000, by the expense of public buildings and the costly siege of Potidaea. (This siege, when later it ended, had cost Athens 2000 talents by itself.[Thuc. ii. 70. 2]) To this capital reserve sum there might be added, he said, another 540 talents' worth of uncoined gold and other precious treasure, available if wanted, even if it came to stripping the gold off the statue of the goddess Athena herself (the odd " 40 "). And the annual income from tribute was 600 talents, quite apart from the other normal sources of revenue. He was confident they had money enough in plenty to enable them to outlast their enemies' endurance and survive the war, if they were prudent and avoided wild-cat schemes of distant enterprise, which would waste their resources too rapidly.[Thuc. i. 143. 5; 144.1; ii. 65. 7.] It was an encouraging statement. The flaw in the argument was the entire dependence on the capital reserve fund; for the heavy adverse balance of war expenditure over income must be met from this source primarily, and it was not a bottomless purse. It was found, as the war dragged on its weary length year after year, that the great financial advantage over the enemy with which Athens certainly had started was rapidly vanishing away. Strenuous efforts had to be made to find new money. In the fourth year of the war a direct property tax (bringing in 200 talents a year) was actually levied then for the first time on the citizens,[Thuc iii. 19.] and for the next five years it was re-enacted year by year. The statesmen who succeeded Pericles were brought face to face with serious financial as well as military difficulties. It is part of Cleon's fame, as will appear, that he dealt with these in a drastic fashion.

From the very first, however, it was clear to all concerned that the war was paid for in the main by the " subject-allies " of the Athenian Empire. The greater part of the reserve fund itself consisted of the accumulation of unspent tribute. This tribute made up the greater part of the annual income. None realised this better than the subject-allies themselves. Here, if ever, there was a perfect system of taxation without representation. Discontent and ill-feeling grew stronger year by year. There was constant risk of " secession " even in the days of peace. This risk was at once many times increased upon the outbreak of war. The disaffected looked longingly to Sparta, champion of liberty, to come and help them cut loose from the chains which bound them to the tyrant city Athens. Upon this chance of revolt within the Empire the enemies of Athens rested many hopes " These are mostly islanders," Archidamus remarked shrewd1y. "Where is your fleet to defend them when they have revolted?"[Thuc. i. 81.] In actual fact this thought kept the whole Empire, with one exception, in obedience to Athens, sullen obedience though it was, until a great Spartan soldier, Brasidas found a way to the north by land, seven years after the beginning of the war. The exception was Lesbos Island which in 428 B.C. dared to revolt one city only upon it dissenting. This was the more striking because Lesbos still contributed ships of her own to Athens and therefore paid no money tribute. Athens' preparations to subdue the rebels were vigorous, Sparta's efforts to succour them were feeble. In due course the chief city, core of the revolt, Mitylene, was forced to surrender. "They learned nothing from the fate of other rebels," cried Cleon bitterly; " they trusted reck- lessly to the future. Cherishing hopes Which, if less than their Wishes, were greater than their powers, the went to war, prefering might to right."[Thuc. iii. 39. 3.] So, except in the cities of the Thracian coast, Where Brasidas wounded Athens in her Ahcilles heel, the fate of Mitylene kept the disaffection in the Empire from open outbreak, so long as Athens was undisputed mistress of the Grecian seas. No sooner had the annihilation of her armament at Syracuse cost her this supremacy than, one after another, city after city of the Empire promptly, in the black years 413 and 412 B.C., seceded. It is quite idle to deny Athens' great unpopularity as ruling city. " The revenues of the Athenians are derived from their allies," the envoys of Mitylene at Sparta truly said.[Thuc. iii. 13. 6.] Hence, in large measure, came Athens' political weakness as well as that financial strength of which Pericles made boast. No man was more ready to admit than Pericles himself that Athens' Empire was a "tyranny", i.e. irresponsible government exercised in the ruler's interest.[Th ii 63.2.] No man knew better than Pericles himself the risk involved in the hatred that tyranny might breed. Concessions of self-government he would not make. The first use made of such would have been the declaration of complete independence. Such generosity meant the destruction of the Empire from within. He was prepared to pay the price of tyranny, but he knew the peril. The great war was upon them. "Keep your grip of the Empire," he implored his people. " You cannot and dare not relax it."[Thuc. ii. 63. 2.] It was not this part of his policy which went unheeded by his successors, however keenly they contended among themselves for the leadership left vacant by the great statesman's death, as Thucydides bitterly declares.[Thuc. ii. 65. 10.]

Here, then, was the balance-sheet of strength and weakness at the opening of the war. Sparta immeasurably superior on land, Athens on the sea. Both were able to pay their way for some years of War at least, but a protracted struggle would literally cost Athens much the more. Sparta was at the head of allies who wished her heartily well ; Athens was queen of an Empire which was outwardly loyal but honeycombed with ill-will. But Athens could command her allies' instant unquestioning obedience in any enterprise. Sparta's more equal and independent allies could grumble and delay, or even carry a protest through against Sparta's wishes. The one supreme Athenian asset was quick-witted energy; the one Spartan was a dogged courage. Athens had every qualification for a ruling State save two, the power of attraction and the hardihood of persistence in times of depression and discouragement. Sparta was confident of speedy victory, fighting to destroy the rival Empire completely. Athens, reliant on her cause, was at least confident of disappointing the expectations of the enemy, resolute to maintain, perhaps presently to increase, the Empire as the final issue of the war. "We shall survive " was the keynote of all Pericles' encouragements to his people.[Thuc. ii. 13. 9.] His successors hoped for more positive fruits of victory.

With all these considerations before him Pericles had to frame his, the First, " strategy " of the war.

§ 2. Pericles' "strategy of .exhaustion ".

From the very first day of war to the last day of his life, two and a half years later, Pericles played for safety. By disappointing the enemy of their

updated 25th April 2011


  1. ^ This is controversial, as Thuc. ii. 13 gives 29,000 as the hoplite total, and Diodorus xii. 41 shows that Ephorus accepted this figure from Thucydides. But it does not square with' probability (the proportion of " old " to "young" men), or with other totals in Thuc. (eg. ii. 31 ; iv. 90 with iii 87 ; etc), and has been criticised successfully by Delbruck (Gesch. der Kriegskunst pp. 11-24) and Beloch. I adopt the latter's suggestion of 6000 for 16,000 in ii. 31.
  2. ^ Pausanias i. 15 1 ; x. 10. 4. But the controversy about the Athenian victory of Oenoe and its date cannot here be discussed. Thucydides does not mention it.
  3. ^ In Boeotia, cavalry were to heavy infantry in the proportion of 1 to 10, according to the newly found papyrus, chapter xi. 4.
  4. ^ Thuc. iii. 26-33. See below, Chapter~III. 4.
  5. ^Thuc. ii 7. 2. 500 is the roundest of Greek round numbers, as Busolt points out m another connection (Griech Gesch ii. p. 183). No ships were sent (Thuc. iii. 86. 2).
  6. ^Thuc. i 121.3; 143.1. That iv. 118.1 imp1ies such appropriation of sacred treasures from Delphi is most unlikely. Cf. Classen, ad loc.