Peloponnesian War: Battle of Pylos

There is no human affair which stands so constantly and so generally in close connection with chance as War." So spoke Carlvon Clausewitz in the 19th century. But the thought is surely as old as warfare itself and was examined some 23 centuries earlier by the Athenian historian Thucydides. Many examples of the decisive effects of chance on the course of events emerge from his profound study of the Peloponnesian War of 431404 bc, and among the more interesting and decisive are those connected with the capture of Pylos in 425 bc. 

The conflict between the city-states of Athens and Sparta was in its sixth year, and the Athenians were straying from the careful plan laid down by Pericles for a limited, defensive war. Uninterested in territorial expansion or in decisively defeating the Spartans, who were overwhelmingly strong on land with the forces of their Peloponnesian League, Pericles had outlined a strategy that would capitalize on the strong suits of Athens’ mercantile empire in the Aegean–money and ships. With her population sheltered in the Athens? Piraeus fortress and fed by her grain ships, Athens could simply ignore the enemy invasion and crop destruction that were at the heart of traditional Greek warfare. Meanwhile, her navy would raid the coastal areas of Sparta’s allies in the Peloponnesus, helping to convince them that the war was not in their best interests. Under growing pressure from their reluctant allies, Pericles concluded, the Spartans would tire of spending their summers in Attica without achieving anything, and the war would fizzle to an end.

Although it was hard on the morale of the Athenians, who had to be restrained by Pericles from launching suicidal attacks on the enemy army lying outside their walls, his strategy appeared to be working in the opening years of the war. Unfortunately for Athens, however, Pericles died in 429, and with him died his plan for history’s first war of attrition. Falling increasingly under the sway of the emerging radical imperialists, the Athenian democracy found it more and more difficult to resist the temptations of power inherent in its immense superiority of resources. Without Pericles, the state began undertaking more risky offensive operations, aimed at expanding Athenian power rather than simply defending it. This development was gradual and was resisted by a conservative faction led by Nicias, but each success whetted the imperial appetite of the people and strengthened the position of the radical hawks.

In the spring of 425, a fleet of 40 warships was sent west to aid the pro-Athenian democrats in the civil war on Corcyra and to further Athenian ambitions in Sicily. With the expedition was the experienced general Demosthenes, at that time a private citizen with no official position, but with a writ from the assembly to use the fleet "around the Peloponnesus." His plan was to establish a fortified base at Pylos on the west coast of Messenia, a fortified base from which the Athenians could raid into Spartan territory and to which helots, the serfs on whose toil the Spartan system depended, could flee. The actual commanders of the fleet, Eurymedon and Sophocles, were unenthusiastic about the operation, especially once they heard that a Peloponnesian squadron had already arrived at Corcyra, but a sudden storm forced them to take refuge at Pylos. As the bad weather continued, the men fell to fortifying the position out of sheer boredom. Six days later, the work was complete, and the fleet sailed on, leaving Demosthenes with a garrison of five ships.

The Athenian generals were not overly impressed with Pylos as a strategic base, but the Spartan leadership was, and it reacted immediately. King Agis brought his army back from its annual sojourn in Athenian territory, while locally available troops were sent to the area as an advance guard. The 60 Peloponnesian ships at Corcyra were also summoned and reached the area soon after the first land forces, but not before Demosthenes had sent off two of his own vessels to catch the Athenian fleet, while the remaining three were dragged up behind a palisade.

The Athenians were, in fact, only some 75 miles away at Zacynthus, very likely because they had received word of the departure of the enemy fleet from Corcyra and were waiting to intercept it. Learning from Demosthenes’ appeal that the Peloponnesians had probably already slipped by them, they hastened back to Pylos.

Pylos is a narrow, rocky promontory about three-quarters of a mile long, and in antiquity was connected to the mainland all along its eastern side (the lagoon of Osmyn Aga is a recent development). The natural defenses of the place are such that the Athenians had to augment them with stone walls at just three points–short stretches in the north and southeast, and a longer line covering several hundred yards of vulnerable beach in the southwest. Pylos was in many ways a ready-made fortress, but nevertheless the forces available to Demosthenes for its defense were a bit thin, even with the addition of two small Messenian vessels that "happened by" (according to Thucydides–or perhaps they were actually summoned from the Athenian? Messenian base at Naupactus). Theships’ crews provided perhaps 600 men, but most of them were poorly armed and carried improvised wicker shields. As for serious heavy infantry, Demosthenes had at least 90hoplites (10 marines from each of his ships and 40 brought in by the Messenians), though there were probably more, since his successful defense is otherwise hard to explain.

Thucydides says nothing about the number of Spartan troops, but it must have been well over 1,000, perhaps 2,000 or more, if they could station several hundred hoplites on Sphacteria while simultaneously assaulting Pylos. The Spartans were confident that, given their superiority in numbers and the quality of their soldiers, they could easily overwhelm the hastily built and poorly defended fortifications at Pylos before the Athenian fleet returned. As soon as their forces were gathered, they attacked Demosthenes’ defenses at all three points, a squadron of 43 ships carrying a landing force of hoplites toward the wall along the southwestern beach. The Spartan command, which included Brasidas, one of the rare clever leaders to emerge from Sparta’s military system, calculated that the Athenian fortifications along the sea beach would be the weakest, because the Athenians would as usual have assumed that they would be in control of the sea and thus need to face assaults only on the landward sides. Thucydides, in fact, commented on the oddness of the situation, in which an Athenian army was defending against a landing by a Spartan fleet, a complete reversal of the normal circumstances.

The Spartan assessment was correct, but Demosthenes could just as easily read the situation. He sent the bulk of his forces to guard the landward walls, where Spartan numbers could ensure steady, tiring pressure, but he himself led a detachment of 60 hoplites and a few archers to deal with the expected amphibious attack. That attack indeed came, but despite superior numbers and the exhortations of Brasidas, who was wounded and put out of the action early, the Spartans could not gain a foothold. Because of the rocky and difficult nature of the shore and the narrowness of the Sphacteria channel,they could bring in only part of their fleet at a time, while the Athenians took courage from the knowledge of how extremely hard it was to force a landing against a resolute hoplite force on the beaches. The assaults went on for all of one day and part of the next, when the Spartans called a temporary halt and began preparing for a more serious attempt with some siege equipment the following day. The Spartans now faced the imminent return of the Athenian fleet, but they had already taken measures that they thought would solve that problem.

Lying immediately to the south of Pylos and stretching almost three miles across the entrance of the Bay of Navarino, the island of Sphacteria is extremely rough and, in Demosthenes’ day, was wooded. The channel north of the island is very narrow, about 150yards, but the southern passage is some 1,400 yards wide and 200 feet deep. That latter fact made the Spartan contingency plan, as explained by Thucydides, very difficult to understand. According to the historian, they intended–should they fail to capture Pylos before the Athenian fleet returned–to block the entrances to the bay with their ships and thus deny the Athenians an anchorage and any significant access to their comrades at Pylos. A force of hoplites was stationed on the island in order to prevent the enemy from establishing a base there.

That all made little sense, since the Peloponnesians could not have blocked the wide southern channel with twice the number of ships they had. Closing off the bay could only mean a full-fledged naval battle, and the war had gone on long enough for the Spartans to realize that that was a recipe for disaster, even against half their number of Athenian vessels. Thucydides had no apparent problem with that, since–lacking any firsthand knowledge of the area–he thought the channel was sufficiently narrow ("eight or nine ships abreast"). But even he never explained why the Spartans did not implement that plan when the enemy did arrive. They, of course, failed to implement it because in view of the actual topography it could never have been their plan. Why then did they station men on Sphacteria, where they would be immediately trapped if any Athenian fleet showed up?

In the absence of any other plausible answer to that question, one is forced to accept the explanation identified for many a blunder in military history–overconfidence and stupidity. The Spartan system did not produce brilliant leadership, and while the more than normally clever Brasidas was present, he was a subordinate commander, and in any case had no more experience in naval affairs than the average Spartan. Further, while Sparta’s naval allies had direct experience of Athenian naval skill, the Spartans themselves did not, and the impressive record of their army over the past century had bred an unmatched military self-confidence. That confidence, laced with contempt for the "soft" Athenians and perhaps inflated by their numerical superiority in warships, could easily have led to enthusiasm edging out sound judgment. It would not have been the first or last such case in military annals.

The Spartan reaction to the return of the Athenian fleet certainly supports the idea of a plan based on little more than the Greek sin of hubris (overweening pride). Arriving on the day after the assault on Pylos had been halted, the Athenian squadron, now increased to 50 triremes, made a quick reconnaissance and sailed off 10 miles to the north, to pass the night at the islet of Prote. The Spartans thus had plenty of time to evacuate their troops from Sphacteria, but they did not do so. Instead, they sailed out to give battle when the enemy entered the bay the following day. Confidence then ran up against the hard reality of Athenian skill at sea, and the Spartans were immediately put to flight. Most of their ships were saved from capture only by the action of the soldiers, who waded into the bay and dragged the vessels ashore.

That action, however, left 420 hoplites and their helot attendants trapped on the island. The Spartans immediately sought an armistice in order to negotiate an end to the war. That might seem an overreaction, but those troops on Sphacteria constituted a tenth of Sparta’s entire national army, and probably more than a third of them were Spartiates, members of the relatively small and inbred class of full Spartans that held political domination over Laconia and Messenia. Just how valuable a prize the Spartans had handed the Athenians is demonstrated by the terms of the truce. Each side would, of course, refrain from attacking the other, and the men on the island would be provisioned. But the Spartans also agreed temporarily to hand over all their navy at Pylos and in Laconia–some 60 warships in all. Since the Athenians could immediately suspend the truce by claiming some violation, the Spartan navy was thus made hostage to successful peace negotiations. Only desperate men would agree to such terms.

The Spartan ambassadors to Athens may have entertained high hopes, since the peace they offered granted all of Pericles’ war aims and some minor territorial gains as well. They were also careful to point out to the Athenian assembly that this was an attractive offer considering that, although Sparta was suffering a temporary embarrassment, the basic balance of power between the two states had not altered at all. But the mood in Athens had changed since Pericles’ day. Led by Cleon, one of the new breed of demagogic imperialists, the assembly rejected the offer–some out of distrust of Sparta, but more, it would seem, out of a desire to press the advantage even further. Cleon made a number of impossible territorial demands involving Spartan allies, and when the Spartans offered to discuss those outrageous proposals in private, he denounced them and thus killed the negotiations.

Once negotiations had broken off, the Athenians at Pylos promptly claimed a violation of the truce and refused to return the ships, thereby eliminating at a stroke the Peloponnesian navy. Joined by another 20 vessels from Athens, they expected the blockade of the island to produce quick results, since the trapped men had no food and only brackish water available. The Spartans, however, demonstrated surprising cleverness in smuggling food past the blockade in small boats and in bags towed by swimmers.

As the siege dragged on, the morale of the perhaps 14,000 Athenians now present began to sink. There was no place for the fleet to land, so the crews were forced to take turns cooking their meals on cramped beaches and spent the nights on their ships, something to which Greek sailors were unaccustomed. The only local water, a small spring at Pylos, was not quite adequate, and all food had to be brought in from Athens, which meant short rations. It also meant that this blockade was going to be extremely expensive if it went on for much longer. The Athenians, in fact, were beginning to wonder if they could complete the operation before the summer sailing season ended and made their position completely untenable. Clearly, the Spartans had also realized all that–they stopped sending embassies to Athens to attempt to reopen negotiations.

Back at Athens, Cleon was beginning to feel the heat and responded by accusing his political enemies, such as the cautious Nicias, of cowardice. Demosthenes, a bold general and natural ally of Cleon, had already requested additional light-armed troops for an assault on the island, and Cleon was reacting to the delaying tactics of Nicias, who had been delegated to lead the relief forces. Nicias replied to Cleon’s goading by offering him his command of the expedition. Delighted by that amusing turn, the assembly took up the suggestion, forcing Cleon into a political corner. Though he had no military experience, Cleon was compelled to take the offer and declared that he would capture or kill the Spartans on Sphacteria within 20 days. While the assembly considered that another example of his foolishness, Cleon knew that Demosthenes’ assault must succeed or fail well within that period.

Demosthenes was probably the best man available for the attack on Sphacteria, since his failed expedition into Aetolia the previous year had gained him valuable experience of fighting in rough and wooded terrain, where hoplites did not fare very well. He in fact had hesitated to launch an assault because the low woods on the island provided excellent cover for the as-yet-unknown number of Spartan troops there. But chance intervened again when the cooking fire of an Athenian ship’s crew who had briefly put ashore on Sphacteria to prepare their evening meal accidentally started a conflagration that burned off most of the trees. That revealed to Demosthenes several landing places and the numbers and dispositions of the enemy on the island. A small detachment occupied an old fort at the northern end, 30 hoplites guarded the south, and the main force, under the garrison commander Epitades, protected the water supply at the center.

Once Cleon arrived, the assault began. Under cover of darkness, Demosthenes landed 800 hoplites at two points on the southern end of the island and easily surprised and overwhelmed the Spartan guard. His beachhead established, he then brought in everything he had at dawn, leaving only a small garrison at Pylos. The invasion force then consisted of the 800 hoplites, 800 archers, perhaps 2,000 light-armed troops and as many as 8,000poorly armed rowers, all of whom were divided into companies of roughly 200. The Athenians immediately seized all the high points on the island.

The main Spartan force responded by forming up and advancing on the Athenian hoplites, but they were beset on all sides by the light-armed troops, who launched a barrage of javelins, arrows and stones. The heavily encumbered Spartans quickly began to tire from their unsuccessful charges at the light infantry, which effortlessly eluded them in the rough terrain. Encouraged, the Athenian hoplites repressed their instinctive fear of the legendary Spartans and pressed their attacks even harder.

Exhausted, blinded by the dust and beginning to take serious casualties, the Spartans regrouped and undertook a harrowing retreat north to the old fort. There, they were able to establish a viable defense, the fort and cliffs providing them a position where they could not be outflanked and taken from all sides.

The battle raged on, but heat, thirst and exhaustion were taking their toll on both sides, and it seemed a stalemate had been reached. Actually, Demosthenes had already won, since the Spartans now had no water supply, and their defeat was consequently only a matter of time. A Messenian commander, however, convinced Demosthenes to allow him to lead a small force of archers and light-armed troops through the rough cliffs that protected the Spartan rear. The climb was extremely difficult, but because of that fact the Spartans had left this route unguarded, and the force soon appeared on high ground behind the Spartans.

Trapped now like their ancestors at Thermopylae and with Epitades dead, the Spartans lost all hope. Cleon and Demosthenes, realizing the immense value of live Spartan prisoners, called a halt to the fighting and asked the Spartans to surrender. Probably to their surprise–certainly to the shock of the Greek world–the surviving Spartans did exactly that, breaking a two-century-old tradition of death before surrender. Seventy-two days after the siege had begun with the Athenian naval victory, 292 Spartans, about 120 of them full Spartiates, entered captivity.

The military and political repercussions of the Athenian victory at Sphacteria were far-reaching. The Spartan prisoners gave the Athenians, who threatened their execution, a guarantee against further Peloponnesian incursions into Attica and a powerful bargaining edge in any peace negotiations. That Sparta did not write off the captives as dishonorable cowards, as an earlier generation would have done, reveals just how far the gradual breakdown of her system and the decline in manpower was undermining traditional Spartan values. Further, the base at Pylos, garrisoned after the victory with free Messenians, remained a serious thorn in Sparta’s side, sending guerrilla raids into the Messenian countryside and serving as a magnet for rebelling helots. More than anything else, the captives and the Pylos base would lead Sparta to the negotiating table and the ultimately unworkable Peace of Nicias in 421 bc.

Athens, of course, went wild with joy. She was now free from the threat of invasion, had eliminated the Peloponnesian fleet and, through Pylos, could carry the war virtually into the heart of Spartan territory. Morale shot sky-high–who else had ever forced Spartans to surrender? The victory was not, however, an unqualified benefit for the Athenians. Cleon, with his aggressive imperialist policies, now enjoyed more influence than any other Athenian leader since Pericles. Nicias and the conservatives saw their hopes for a quick peace dashed as their countrymen, delirious with power, followed Cleon into increasingly dangerous expansionist schemes.

In the year after Sphacteria, Athens would send armies west into Megara and northwest into Boeotia. The Boeotian expedition would quickly culminate in the disaster at Delium, a recapitulation of the Athenian defeat at Coronea in 447, and the troops lost there might have been better employed guarding the strategically vital city of Amphipolis, which revolted in 424. Only the loss of Amphipolis and Cleon’s death in a failed attempt to recover it in 422 would finally lead the Athenians to the peace negotiations that the Spartans had desperately desired since Sphacteria. And in those negotiations, Nicias would foolishly throw away the prize of Sphacteria by trading the prisoners for promises that the Spartans had little hope of fulfilling.

For Thucydides, history was made by human beings. And if one understands human nature and how people, especially large groups of them, act in given sets of circumstances, one can to a great extent calculate future events; that is the prime quality of a great statesman like Pericles. But Thucydides also understood the role played by chance (tyche), which consists of those random occurrences that are outside human control, or purely accidental, such as the storm that drove the Athenian fleet into Pylos and the forest fire on Sphacteria. Such occurrences are usually minor and unimportant, but should they happen at a critical moment, they can have a dramatic effect on the course of events. That is true of all human affairs, but especially so during wartime, because war produces many more critical moments, when chance can powerfully swing events in one direction or another. Pylos in 425 was clearly one of those moments.

The storm at Pylos was undeniably important, since despite Demosthenes’ plan for a base on the Messenian coast, it simply would not have happened in 425 but for that weather. Nor would Pylos have been the site, though it was Demosthenes’ first choice, had the storm driven the fleet in at some other point on the coast. And the storm helped determine the circumstances of the fortification: The hastily built and weakly manned defenses and the departure of the fleet attracted an immediate Peloponnesian attack. In the course of that attack, the Spartans presented the Athenians with another opportunity through their key blunder of garrisoning Sphacteria. The accidental forest fire is harder to assess, since Demosthenes might well have decided to launch an assault regardless, given his superiority in light-armed soldiers and the magnitude of the prize. Moreover, it might have occurred to the Athenians to set the forest ablaze deliberately; such destruction of wooded cover for military reasons would not have been unprecedented. In any event, the fire did occur and made the entire operation much easier.

Without that chance storm off Pylos, the course of the war and the political climate in Athens would certainly have been very different, at least for the next several years. But for all the dramatic impact of such chance occurrences at critical moments, Thucydides was quick to assert that it is still men who react to those intrusions of chance. One of the qualities of a great leader, according to Thucydides, was the ability to react quickly and correctly to the random surprises tyche sends one’s way, as Demosthenes did. Thucydides would have no doubt agreed with the sentiments of Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke: "Luck in the long run is given only to the efficient."

This article was written by Richard M. Berthold and originally published in the February 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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