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Thucydides on the Battle of Mantinea


Corinthian helmet. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Corinthian helmet (British Museum)
In the spring of 421, the Athenians and Spartans concluded the Peace of Nicias. After eight years of fighting and an uneasy truce of two years, the Archidamian War was over. Sparta, which had gone to war "to liberate Greece" had not succeeded in dissolving Athens' Delian League had had, in one word, lost. Even worse, its reputation of invincibility was destroyed when 292 Spartans surrendered at Sphacteria, and it appeared to have abandoned its allies Thebes, Megara, and Corinth, which were deeply disappointed: whereas they had suffered most, Sparta gave up first.

In the next years, Athens concluded a new alliance with the democratic states on the Peloponnese: Argos, Mantinea, and Elis. In 418, the Spartans attacked the allies, and forced Athens to choose between either its Spartan alliance (which meant abandoning its allies), or its treaty with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis (and risking an open war with Sparta in its backyard). As it turned out, Athens preferred the second option, and when the Spartan king Agis II marched to the north, the Athenians supported the democrats. In 418, a battle was fought at Mantinea, and the Spartan king Agis defeated his enemies. Now, Athens and the democratic were discredited.

Thucydides describes the fight. His account is a classical description of a hoplite battle. The translation of History of the Peloponnesian War 5.66-74 was made by Richard Crawley. A satellite photo of the battlefield can be found here.

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The battlefield of Mantineia, seen from the southwest. Photo Jan van Vliet.
The battlefield of Mantineia, seen from the southwest

[5.66] The next day the Argives and their allies formed in the order in which they meant to fight, if they chanced to encounter the enemy; and the Spartans [...] suddenly saw their adversaries close in front of them, all in complete order, and advanced from the hill.

A shock like that of the present moment the Spartans do not ever remember to have experienced. There was scant time for preparation, as they instantly and hastily fell into their ranks, their king Agis directing everything, according to their law. For when a king is in the field all commands proceed from him: he gives the word to the polemarchs; they to the lochages; these to the pentecostyes; these again to the enomotarchs, and these last to the enomoties.[1] In short all orders required pass in the same way and quickly reach the troops; as almost the whole Spartan army, save for a small part, consists of officers underofficers, and the care of what is to be done falls upon many.


Vase painting of a hoplite. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
Vase painting of a hoplite (KMKG, Brussel)

[5.67] In this battle
  • the left wing was composed of the sciritae, who in a Spartan army have always that post to themselves alone;
  • next to these had been the soldiers of Brasidas from Thrace, and the neodamodes with them;
  • then came the Spartiats themselves, company after company,
  • with the Arcadians of Heraea at their side.
  • After these were the Maenalians,
  • and on the right wing the Tegeans with a few of the Spartans at the extremity;
  • their cavalry being posted upon the two wings.
Such was the Spartan formation. That of their opponents was as follows:
  • On the right were the Mantineans, the action taking place in their country;
  • next to them the allies from Arcadia;
  • after whom came the 1000 picked men of the Argives, to whom the state had given a long course of military training at the public expense;
  • next to them the rest of the Argives,
  • and after them their allies, the Cleonaeans and Orneans,
  • and lastly the Athenians on the extreme left,
  • and their own cavalry with them.
[5.68] Such were the order and the forces of the two combatants. The Spartan army looked the largest; though as to putting down the numbers of either host, or of the contingents composing it, I could not do so with any accuracy. Owing to the secrecy of their government the number of the Spartans was not known, and men are so apt to brag about the forces of their country that the estimate of their opponents was not trusted. The following calculation, however, makes it possible to estimate the numbers of the Spartans present upon this occasion. There were seven morai in the field without counting the sciritae, who numbered 600 men: in each company there were four lochoi,[2] and in the lochos four enomoties. The first rank of the enomoty was composed of four soldiers: as to the depth, although they had not been all drawn up alike, but as each captain chose, they were generally ranged eight deep; the first rank along the whole line, exclusive of the sciritae, consisted of four hundred and forty-eight men. 

[5.69] The armies being now on the eve of engaging, each contingent received some words of encouragement from its own commander. The Mantineans were reminded that they were going to fight for their country and to avoid returning to the experience of servitude after having tasted that of empire; the Argives, that they would contend for their ancient supremacy, to regain their once equal share of Peloponnese of which they had been so long deprived, and to punish an enemy and a neighbor for a thousand wrongs; the Athenians, of the glory of gaining the honors of the day with so many and brave allies in arms, and that a victory over the Spartans in Peloponnese would cement and extend their empire, and would besides preserve Attica from all invasions in future.[3]

These were the incitements addressed to the Argives and their allies. The Spartans meanwhile, man to man, and with their war songs in the ranks, exhorted each brave comrade to remember what he had learnt before; well aware that the long training of action was of more saving virtue than any brief verbal exhortation, though never so well delivered.

[5.70] After this they joined battle, the Argives and their allies advancing with haste and fury, the Spartans slowly and to the music of many flute players - a standing institution in their army, that has nothing to do with religion, but is meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without break their order, as large armies are apt to do in the moment of engaging.

[5.71] Just before the battle joined, king Agis resolved upon the following maneuver. All armies are alike in this: on going into action they get forced out rather on their right wing, and one and the other overlap with this adversary's left; because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next him on the right, thinking that the closer the shields are locked together the better will he be protected. The man primarily responsible for this is the first upon the right wing, who is always striving to withdraw from the enemy his unarmed side; and the same apprehension makes the rest follow him. On the present occasion the Mantineans reached with their wing far beyond the sciritae, and the Spartans and Tegeans still farther beyond the Athenians, as their army was the largest.

Agis, afraid of his left being surrounded, and thinking that the Mantineans outflanked it too far, ordered the sciritae and Brasideans to move out from their place in the ranks and make the line even with the Mantineans, and told the polemarchs Hipponoidas and Aristocles to fill up the gap thus formed, by throwing themselves into it with two companies taken from the right wing; thinking that his right would still be strong enough and to spare, and that the line fronting the Mantineans would gain in solidity.[4]

[5.72] However, as he gave these orders in the moment of the onset, and at short notice, it so happened that Aristocles and Hipponoidas would not move over, for which offense they were afterwards banished from Sparta, as having been guilty of cowardice; and the enemy meanwhile closed before the sciritae (whom Agis on seeing that the two companies did not move over ordered to return to their place) had time to fill up the breach in question.

Now it was, however, that the Spartans, utterly worsted in respect of skill, showed themselves as superior in point of courage. As soon as they came to close quarters with the enemy, the Mantinean right broke their sciritae and Brasideans, and, bursting in with their allies and the 1000 picked Argives into the unclosed breach in their line, cut up and surrounded the Spartans, and drove them in full rout to the wagons, slaying some of the older men on guard there. But the Spartans, worsted in this part of the field, with the rest of their army, and especially the center, where the 300 knights,[5] as they are called, fought round king Agis, fell on the older men of the Argives and the five companies so named, and on the Cleonaeans, the Orneans, and the Athenians next them, and instantly routed them; the greater number not even waiting to strike a blow, but giving way the moment that they came on, some even being trodden under foot, in their fear of being overtaken by their assailants.

[5.73] The army of the Argives and their allies, having given way in this quarter, was now completely cut in two, and the Spartan and Tegean right simultaneously closing round the Athenians with the troops that outflanked them, these last found themselves placed between two fires, being surrounded on one side and already defeated on the other. Indeed they would have suffered more severely than any other part of the army, but for the services of the cavalry which they had with them. Agis also on perceiving the distress of his left opposed to the Mantineans and the thousand Argives, ordered all the army to advance to the support of the defeated wing; and while this took place, as the enemy moved past and slanted away from them, the Athenians escaped at their leisure, and with them the beaten Argive division.

Meanwhile the Mantineans and their allies and the picked body of the Argives ceased to press the enemy, and seeing their friends defeated and the Spartans in full advance upon them, took to flight. Many of the Mantineans perished; but the bulk of the picked body of the Argives made good their escape. The flight and retreat, however, were neither hurried nor long; the Spartans fighting long and stubbornly until the rout of their enemy, but that once effected, pursuing for a short time and not far.

[5.74] Such was the battle, as nearly as possible as I have described it; the greatest that had occurred for a very long while among the Greeks, and joined by the most considerable states. The Spartans took up a position in front of the enemy's dead, and immediately set up a trophy and stripped the slain; they took up their own dead and carried them back to Tegea, where they buried them, and restored those of the enemy under truce.

The Argives, Orneans, and Cleonaeans had 700 killed; the Mantineans 200, and the Athenians and Aeginetans also 200, with both their generals. On the side of the Spartans, the allies did not suffer any loss worth speaking of: as to the Spartans themselves it was difficult to learn the truth; it is said, however, that there were slain about 300 of them.





Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Thucydides; mosaic from Jerash (Altes Museum, Berlin) Note 1:
Thucydides and Xenophon offer different information about the units in the Spartan army. The latter lived in Sparta and probably is the greatest authority. According to Thucydides:
  • polemarchs ('war leaders') were generals of one of the seven (Xenophon: six) divisions (morai) of the Spartan army;
  • lochages were captains of one of the four lochoi (companies of 144 men) of a mora;
  • and enomotarchs were commanders of enomoties, a quarter of a lochos. There were nominally thirty-two (Xenophon: thirty-six) hoplites in an enomoty.
A pentecostyes commanded two enomoties, or half a lochos.

Note 2:
Thucydides writes "pentecostyes", which must be an error.

Note 3:
If they were successful, the Peloponnesian allies would be a barrier between Athens and Sparta.

Note 4:
This rearrangement during the battle is most unusual, which may explain why two polemarchs did not obey the order.

Note 5:
The hippeis: the royal bodyguard.





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