Skip to Content

Category Archives: Wars

After 300: The Posthumous Vengeance of King Leonidas of Sparta

by April 3, 2018

By Riley Winters, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned alongside the Eurypontids almost since the beginning of the city-state.
When war was on the borders of their land, and that of their neighboring city-states, it was to the current Heraklean descendent that those city-states turned. Even the Athenians, who were long-time rivals of the Spartan warriors, looked to the current Agiad king for guidance in the darkest time of the war.
That king, unsurprisingly, was King Leonidas I.
A King Amongst Kings
The better remembered of the two warrior-kings of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta, King Leonidas I lived and ruled between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. His time on the throne was short-lived, but his legacy has lasted lifetimes.
Leonidas is the king who many other kings aspire to emulate; King Leonidas gave everything to defend and protect his homeland. Called upon to lead the allied forces of the Greek city-states based on his military record alone, it is said that King Leonidas tried to protect his soldiers, ordering them to leave the battlefield to fight another day.
They did not, as one might guess, as they were Spartans; one way or another, Spartans return from battle—either with their sheilds, or on them, as the saying goes. Leonidas’ words of protection at the battle of Thermopylae fell on deaf ears, and the Greeks were slaughtered that fateful day in 480 BC.
Leonidas at Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David (Public Domain)

What happened after the massacre, however? What happened after the death of the one of the greatest military leaders? Without Leonidas, Sparta was down one king; it had been tradition for two kings to rule the city-state, one from each of the two primary families, the Agiads and the Eurypontids. With his death at the hands of the army of Xerxes, king of Persia, and his head paraded around on a spike, Sparta was left short-handed. What was the next step?
Revenge.
Image of Leonidas

Leonidas I of Sparta (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wrath of the Gods
If one believes in the ancient Greek gods—as the city-states clearly did—it is impossible not to see the vengeance those gods encouraged through their mortal soldiers following the death of Herakles’ descendent. With the death of King Leonidas and the insult to his person, the Persians had essentially painted a bright red, divinely taunting target on their backs.
Over the next year, the Persians and Greeks engaged in their final land and sea battles, of which the Persians suffered as often as not. Salamis and Plataea, two of the most decisive Greek victories, officially turned the tide in favor of the Greeks.
In fact, a better vengeance could not have been written for King Leonidas. The Greeks, who had not forgotten the slaughter of Thermopylae, returned the favor in spades at the Battle of Plataea.
The Battle of Salamis painting

A romantic version painting of the Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. (Public Domain)

The ancient historian Herodotus (5th century BC) is one of the primary sources of this battle. Following a stalemate around the Persian camp constructed in Plataea, the Persians were unintentionally (though it was lucky for the Greeks) lulled into a sense of victory.
Having cut off the Greeks from their supply lines, the Persians believed the few Greeks who retreated to regain those connections represented the whole army; the subsequent Persian attack quickly proved them wrong. The Greek allies literally had the high ground, and a defeat of those Persian forces, led by Mardonius, was relatively swift. The Greek forces then, loosely interpreted from ancient texts, exacted their revenge for the slaughter of Leonidas and his men by massacring the Persian camp at Plataea. Later that afternoon, the Greeks finished the job at the final battle of Mycale.
Exacting Revenge
One could attribute this “retribution” as constructed by King Leonidas’ son Pleistarchus, intended to take the throne upon Leonidas’ death. Yet in an interesting turn of events, Pleistarchus was too young to rule at his father’s death, and the boy’s guardian Pausanias, was actually on the second Spartan throne.
Thus the decisive, somewhat brutal, actions against the Persians at Plataea and Mycale may or may not have been an act of vengeance in the name of the father Leonidas, but were almost certainly for the Herculean general who sacrificed everything for his home, and the homes of those allied with him.
(One should remember that Sparta and Athens were only on good terms when they were teamed up against Persia. They placed their animosities aside during the Persian War, Athenians willingly following Spartans, and Spartans trusting to delegate to Athenians. This alliance would crumble soon after the war, but Leonidas’ actions are even more inspiring for the prejudices put aside.)
Warriors on a shield

Greek and Persian warriors depicted fighting on an ancient kylix. 5th century BC. (Public Domain)

United States of Leonidas
King Leonidas’ sacrifice might not have resulted in the battle to end all Persian-Greek battles, however it did inspire a great deal of “nationality”, a concept not yet fully formed in the ancient world. Yet the Greek city-states saw a common enemy, and shared a common goal, and for a brief period of time, respected and valued the same man—homeland and culture aside.
The increased sense of unity Leonidas inadvertently forged between the Spartans, Thebans, Athenians, etc. led to an increased determination; the Greeks left no man standing at Plataea and Mycale if they could find one. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians resonated for centuries, and Leonidas’ name is remembered far better than those of the men who returned home with their shields rather than on them.
Because of this (and the later cockiness of the Athenians), the Spartans and their allies successfully defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, the next great battle on their horizon.

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand

by October 22, 2017

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: The Sicilian Expedition can be found HERE.
Peloponnesian key points

Key Points in the Peloponnesian War

The year is 413 BC and the battle between Sparta and Athens continues to rage. The war, which saw a brief 6 year peace, is now back on after Athens’ bitter defeat in Sicily. The Spartans had sent aid to their allies on the island, but that did not fully satiate their desire for domination.
Sparta wanted to do more … they wanted to destroy Athens.
This brings us to the second segment of the Peloponnesian war. The Spartans still had their secret weapon, Alcibiades, the former Athenian General who was charged with religious crimes. Alcibiades, knowing Athens’ weakest points, convinced Sparta to build a fortification in Decelea, a strategic post right outside of Athens. This would prevent all overland shipment to the Athens, forcing the city to get their supplies by boat, which was much more costly.
This additional expense was then combined with the nearby disrupted silver mines and the 20,000 freed Athenian slaves, resulting in a serious economic crisis for Athens. Their treasury and emergency reserve fund of 1,000 talents was swiftly dwindling away. Their only remaining course of action was to raise taxes or tributes from their allies, which wasn’t a popular decision.
At this point, both parties pumped more troops and ships into Sicily. The Corinthians, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League all sent reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians, however, did not withdrawal. Instead, they brought their own additional men, around 5,000 troops and another hundred ships. It didn’t do the Athenians any good.
The Spartan hero, Gylippus, won all the land wars in Sicily and smartly advised the Syracusans to build a navy, in case the Athenians wanted to escape. Sure enough the Athenians tried and were defeated. Eventually the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed and virtually the whole army sold into slavery.
This was Athens’ lowest moment. Everyone believed her empire was over. Her best men had already died or defected and she was without money, strength or moral. Clearly the Athenians had overestimated their own abilities and were now about to face the truth of their limits.
But Athens didn’t die. Even though her allies revolted against her, the treasuries were empty, and the Syracuences were on the offense with a ship to attack, aided by support in Persia… Athens still had a few things working on her side.
Replica of Athenian ships

Replica of Athenian Ships

For instance, the other side was slow in bringing their ships to the Aegean. Some of their allies returned with hopes of protection and the Persians were slow in furnishing the promised funds. In addition, Athens had a backup plan. In a prudent moment, she had saved some money and 100 ships for a rainy day.
These were immediately released.
With these ships out warring, the Athenian government was taken up by an oligarchical revolution, run by 400 men. Peace was finally possible. The fighting fleets now based on the island of Samos, however, did not recognise the new rulers and the possibility of a ceasefire. In fact, in 411 BC they engaged the Spartans at the famous Battle of Syme. The runaway fleet then appointed Alcibiades as their leader and continued the war until the Athenian democratic government was reinstituted.
Even though Alcibiades was condemned as traitor, he was still influential in Athens. He wanted to restore democracy in a diplomatic manner. So he managed to persuade the renegade ships to not attack Athens, but instead turn their weapons on the Spartans in the battle of Cyzicus. Finally the Athenians had a turning point, they obliterated the Spartan fleet. This helped to re-establish the financial basis of the Athenian Empire.
Between 410 and 406 BC, Athens managed to actually win battles, recover territory and resurrect their fiscal stability. Almost all thanks to Alcibiades.
This happy Athenian moment did not last long.
Though it would not at first appear to be the case, things went back to bad at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Athenians actually won, losing only 25 ships compared to Sparta’s 70. Unfortunately the weather was so bad that the Athenians did not finish off the Spartan fleet, nor rescue their stranded crew. This lead to a very controversial trial which ended with the execution of the Athens’ six top naval commanders. This action depleted the navy’s intelligence, experience and moral.
Lysander of Sparta

Lysander

Then the Spartans promoted a new general, Lysander. He was navy-savvy and a diplomat who cultivated fresh relations with the Persians. In 405 BC, Lysander initiated a cunning attack on Hellespont, the Athenian bread basket, which if destroyed, would threatened widespread starvation.
The Athenian fleet had no choice but to engage in battle and they were crushed.
Eventually, after facing starvation and disease from the never ending siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC. The defeat was immense. The city was stripped of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. In addition to this, Corinth and Thebes required retribution, demanding that the city be destroyed and all the people enslaved.
Sparta, Athens’ arch-enemy, then did something very remarkable.
Instead of continuing with their warlike ways, Sparta announced their refusal to destroy a city that had previously done so much good. They would take Athens into their own system and ultimately save it from the other city-states, revealing the clemency of the Spartans once and for all.
 
“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition

by September 28, 2017

The Sicilian Expedition
To read the previous segment on the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE.
When we left off last week, the Peloponnesian war had been raging for 16 odd years, with the latter six under a suspicious title of ‘peace’. The dominance of the Athenians had been questioned and the first set of battles ended inconclusively. It’s no wonder then the war began again, this time with the aim of deciding, once and for all, who ruled the Grecian world.
Expedition to Sicily

The Sicilian Expedition

And so, the second part of the Peloponnesian War began after what was euphemistically termed the ‘Sicilian Expedition’. The Sicilians were in fact allies of the Athenians, though very distant. Under normal circumstances, they would probably go unnoticed. And perhaps they would have…except for the fact that these islanders were Ionian, just like the Athenians…and they were under attack by the people of Syracuse, who happened to be ethnic Dorians, just like Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. As a cunning way to get back at their real foe, therefore, the Athenians saw an opportunity to get involved.
Power can be a dangerous thing. Those who hold it, don’t like losing it, and so make decisions that affect the lives of countless others. Seated in their comfortable havens, they command young men to death in the name of gods, kings and country. Along with the fallen soldiers are those whose lands are destroyed, whose sons are subjected to famine, whose wives and daughters are slain. These are the innocents caught in between, the residents of random places, where the strongest states battle for power, seemingly without end…
It is not so different from the United States and Russia battling it out in far flung locations like Vietnam and Korea. These current countries clashed outside their own boundaries, in search for more power without the destruction on their own soil.
Ethnic alliance and wars of opportunity were not the only reasons for the Athenians to sail to Sicily. Another plan was afoot. They wanted to conquer Sicily…to use as a starting point for conquest in Italy and Carthage.
Bust of Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the Athenian in charge of the expedition and a crucial character from here on out in the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, right before the renowned general and his army headed off, some religious statues were damaged, nay mutalitated. Alcibiades was accused. He tried to resolve the issue before leaving for Sicily, knowing that it could take an unfortunate turn if he was not there to defend himself.
But the powers that be forcibly bid him farewell and he took his crew on the perilous journey. Unfortunately, Alcibiades was commanded back for the trial promptly upon arriving on foreign coast. Fearing he would be condemned unjustly, he decided not to return to Athens. Instead Alcibiades defected and went to the Spartan side…taking with him the Athenian designs to take over Sicily.
The Athenians just lost their main player. The trouble, however, did not stop there. Upon landing on the island, the Athenian army made a classic mistake. They weren’t prepared for the winter and, unlike the Spartans, they were unaccustomed to feeling uncomfortable. So they took a break from the weather and tried to conserve their resources.
This gave the Syracusans just enough time to call their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, for help. Sparta was more than happy to lend a hand to spite their former foe… especially knowing from Alcibiades how important the island was in the grand Athenian war strategy. So Sparta sent General Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. They swiftly defeated the shivering Athenian forces.
Syracuse coin

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating the naval victory (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

The Athenians did not tuck in their tail and turn. Nicias, our previous Athenian peacemaker, called for reinforcements. These additional armies arrived and vicious battles ensued. Eventually, however, the Athenians realised they had to retreat. They prepared to do so at once, but were stopped in their tracks. A bad omen, a lunar eclipse, took place, and so the Athenians delayed their withdrawal. This moment’s hesitance cost them greatly. The Spartans met their fleeing fleet before they could escape. A huge sea battle raged, and the Athenians were defeated once more. This time all survivors were killed or enslaved.
The war was back on.
 
 

To Read the finale of the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE for “Athens’ Last Stand”.

“The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two

by August 11, 2017

The entirety of the Peloponnesian war is broken into two parts, punctuated by a brief, and probably very welcomed, armistice. The total engagement, with all its battles and betrayals, began in 431 BC and finally concluded with complete devestation in 404 BC. The first collection of campaigns, referred to as the “Archidamian War” after the Spartan king, lasted a full ten years.
The Plan of Attack for the land-loving Spartans and their allies was to surround the Athenians, thereby depriving them of their productive fields. This, however, was only partially effective because the Spartans could sustain siege for just a few weeks at a time. The hoplites, or infantrymen, were still farmers after all. They had to return to their own harvest and to quell the occasional slave uprising.
Athenian Strategy

Athenian Strategy

Nonetheless, Pericles, the Atheniangeneral, advised his men to not enter into combat with Sparta’s masterful soldiers on the ground. They would only fail. Instead, the Athenians, far superior in naval warfare, protected the access to their port with a formidable wall and relied on the dominance of their fleet to launch attacks against their enemy. So far, so good.
Bust of Pericles

The Athenian General, Pericles

That’s when the plague hit. Perhaps more than any other factor, it was the sweeping disease that weakened Athens and brought the fair city to her knees. It wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers, including their revered general and his sons. It is estimated that between one-third to two-thirds of the entire Athenian population perished.
After all the bodies had been disposed of, Athens renewed her military ambitions with emboldened hostility. The general who replaced Pericles, Cleon, embarked on an aggressive strategy for taking down the Spartans. The Athenians continued relentlessly with their naval raids, and stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia. In addition they began fortifying posts, one of which was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria. There the course of the first war turned in Athens’s favour.
Finally, things were looking up for Athens. They started taking advantage of Sparta’s greatest weakness: Helots. Helots were essentially slaves that made the Spartan system possible. By doing the farm work, they freed up the citizens’ time to become expert soldiers. However, they were also prone to revolts – and the Athenian presence at nearby posts helped spur them on. Without their working class, Sparta would have a hard time of surviving.
The Athenians rejoiced after the Battle of Pylos in 425, when they defeated the Spartans and captured between 300 and 400 soldiers. However, this joy did not last long. The Spartans fought back with their own belligerent general, Brasidas. He raised an army and took the Athenian silver mines, a crucial source of funding.
Bust of Thucydides

The historian, Thucydides

Interestingly enough, it was Thucydides, the famous historian, who was supposed to have saved the Athenian silver mines. Maybe it’s not so strange then that he said the following: “War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.”
However, Thucydides failed to arrive at the mines in time to defend them and consequently was exiled for his failure. Fortunately for us, this meant he was able to communicate with both sides, gaining a unique perspective which he later recorded in his major work, History of the Peloponnesian War.
The Athenians also knew that silver was pretty key. And so, they tried to retake their productive metallic mines… but, maybe not so tragically, the bellicose generals from both sides, Brasidas and Cleon, were killed in the fight. With no hawkish fame seekers to push the men into action, it was hard to keep warring. In fact, this resulted in the Peace of Nicias, which spanned 6 years.
‘Peace’, however, might be a little bit of an overstatement. There were still plenty skirmishes. Alliances were created and broken and large forces navigated the seas and lands… war was just a shot away.
Click HERE to read about the post peace Grecian breakdown in The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Three: The Sicilian Expedition.
“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One

by July 18, 2017

Reconstruction of Athens

Athens in its Golden Age

You couldn’t imagine two cities less alike. Athens was a powerful democracy where citizens spent their days reclining and discussing politics and culture.

Sparta was a ruthless oligarchy where individuals were born and bred to fight. Athens controlled a large, mostly coastal territory with its commanding navy, while Sparta was infamous for its authoritative army. The former had its own empire; the latter ran the Peloponnesian League. In ethnicity and dialect, too, the Athenians were Ionian, the Spartans Dorian.

Sparta versus Athens

The Navy versus the Army

The Peloponnesian War was bound to happen… eventually.

The two great cities were too contrary, too dominant to stand in the other’s shadow. They were enemies. Man, throughout time, has found causes, large and small, over which to wage war. Jealousies, grudges and human nature, ever open to corruption and debasement, push him to the battlefield.
The Peloponnesian war was no exception.
It was a war that forever changed the Ancient Greek world. It took down the mightiest city-state, Athens, and established Sparta as the superior power. Costly campaigns plunged the Peloponnese into a deep poverty, from which they never really recovered. The war itself was a shift from the earlier, smaller battles to full-out warfare across the region, initiating atrocities never before seen. It marked the end of the fifth century BC and the Golden Age of Athens.
This war, while greater than previous skirmishes, was not entirely anomalous. The two immensely powerful city states had been at each other’s throats for years in the first Peloponnesian war. They only managed a respite from the violence with the ‘Thirty Years Peace’ treaty in the winter of 446/5 BC. That peace accord, however, didn’t really last long.

Thucydides, the great historian and the source for most of the information on the Peloponnesian war, spelled it out clearly: “Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”
the_peloponnesian_war__431___404_bc__by_hms_endeavour-d5a56fn
Trouble started brewing as early as 440 BC when some of the Athenian allies started to revolt. Sparta wanted to take advantage of its weakened enemy, which would have triggered a major assault. It was held off, however, by another key player, Corinth. But the calmness proved fleeting. Alliance breaks, wavering warships, stringent trade sanctions, mutinies and betrayals across the region all threatened to erode the thin veneer of Grecian stability.

And then Athens infuriated Corinth, their original saviors. Strategically placed warships stopped the Corinthians from capturing Corcyra, a powerful sea colony not yet allied to either side. This did not sit well with the budding city-state. The insults, however, did not stop there. Afterwards Athens instructed Potidaea, a tributary ally of Athens but a colony of Corinth, to become submissive to the Athenian Empire. Essentially, they were ordered to tear down their walls, send hostages to Athens, dismiss the Corinthian magistrates from office, and refuse the magistrates that the city would send in the future. Now Corinth was really angry.
Eventually, in 423 BC, Sparta summoned the members of the Peloponnesian League to air their grievances with Athens. A debate ensued with the Athenians (who were present…though not invited). The Corinthians accused Sparta of not having the gumption to challenge the growing Athenian empire, goading them on to fight. The Athenians, for their part, retorted that unleashing Sparta’s military might could have undesired consequences. In the end, a Spartan majority voted and declared that Athens had broken the peace agreement… essentially declaring hostility.
And this is how the war began, with a whine and not a bang.
——
To read Part Two of the Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals, click HERE.
“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One” was written by Anya Leonard

We’re building a wall…and Sparta’s going to pay for it!

by August 26, 2016

We’ve discussed The Donald in these pages before. Almost every time we’ve come back from the ordeal beaten and bloodied after perusing our reader responses.
Is Trump the “democratic tyrant” that Plato warns us about in his The Republic?
We pondered that question some months ago. Seemed plausible at the time, but maybe we had the guy wrong. Perhaps Big Don isn’t a fear monger at all. He might just be a classical reader!
Sure, he’s the kinda guy that wants to build a wall because those damn foreigners are coming to kill us.
But he’s not the first…
A great, big, beautiful wall
 
That brings us to our bit of history for today.
Building walls was not an unusual occurrence in the ancient world. Off the top of your head, you could probably name the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Benin, or perhaps even Hadrian’s Wall.
Defensive walls were an integral part of the ancient world. During the infancy of human civilization, marauding pirates, encroaching foreign armies, and addled emperors with a penchant for putting entire cities to the flame were vey real concerns.
Today we look at one particular set of walls. They are the Long Walls of ancient Athens described by Thucydides in his The History of the Peloponnesian War.
The walls of the ancient Athenian city began construction during the lead up to the Peloponnesian War in the mid 5th century BC.
N.B. The Persian armies of King Xerxes had previously destroyed the Athenian walls during the Greco-Persian wars several decades earlier.
An interesting piece of engineering, defensive walls were erected around the city proper, but construction also began on a series of 6km “Long Walls” that would connect the city of Athens to its ports at Piraeus.
Wall
The Athenian Long Walls
The Long Walls created a protected corridor that could provide a valuable link to the sea, even during times of siege.
More interesting than the walls themselves was the story behind how they were built.
The Missing Envoys
 
The historian Thucydides tells us that after the successful expulsion of the Persian armies, the Spartan Greeks looked upon Athens with fear and mistrust. In the course of “defending” smaller cities from the Persians, Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. The Athenians coerced or otherwise intimidated smaller cities to join their military coalition or otherwise face destruction.
Fearing the strength of a fortified Athenian city, the Spartans pleaded with Athens to not reconstruct the defensive walls.
They would have themselves preferred to see neither her nor any other city in possession of a wall; though here they acted principally at the instigation of their allies, who were alarmed at the strength of her newly acquired navy and the valour which she had displayed in the war with the Medes.

-Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, Chapter IV)

 
Themistocles, the man largely credited with orchestrating the Greek victory over the Persians, informed the Spartans that he would sit with them and discuss the proposition.
You know-hash it out.
Themistocles proceeded at once to Sparta but informed his countrymen to delay the departure of themistoclesthe other emissaries. Upon his arrival, the general stalled for time and made excuses. His colleagues had yet to arrive, you see, so he couldn’t possibly go before the Spartan assembly to discuss the prospect of an Athenian wall.
The Spartans trusted Themistocles, a man who was for years their ally. However, unbeknownst to them, the construction of the Athenian wall had already begun.
The Spartans heard rumors of the wall and deployed emissaries to confirm the reports. Themistocles secretly sent word to the Athenians to capture the emissaries and detain them indefinitely.
By this time, construction of the Athenian walls was far enough along that Themistocles felt it safe to drop his ruse. He announced openly that the Athenian wall, to the great consternation of the Spartans, had already been constructed.
In essence, saying: Whaddya gonna do about it?
Taking a page from Thucydides
 
By this time our mind drifts back to the modern age.
Is it fair to The Donald to compare him to ancient demagogues? While we’re at it, is it fair to the demagogues to compare them to Trump?
No answers for certain…but we sure would love to hear what you have to say, dear reader.
For now though, let’s be content with our examination of this unique bit of history. We don’t know precisely how Themistocles made his case to the Athenian people, what stirring rhetoric he must have employed.
But we like to imagine…
Hey guys, I got great news. We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall…
And Sparta’s going to pay for it!