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Brasidas

Brasidas (†422 BCE): Spartan officer, one of the most important generals during the Archidamian War.

The Archidamian War

Fifth-century hoplite.
Fifth-century hoplite.
Brasidas was the son of a Spartiate named Tellis, who may have been a man of some influence but is not really well-known. His son became famous during the conflict between the Spartan alliance (the Peloponnesian League) and the Athenian alliance (the Delian League) that is known as the Peloponnesian War and started in the spring of 431. The first ten years are often called the Archidamian War, after the Spartan king Archidamus II, whose strategy was to lay waste Attica and force the Athenians to fight an infantry battle.

However, the Athenians refused to play this deadly game. One of their politicians, Pericles, convinced them that they should retreat behind the Long walls, and use their navy to attack the Peloponnesian coast. This would sooner or later create a rift in the Spartan alliance, because the people of the coastal towns would suffer, and those living in the inland would not.

In the first year of the war, Brasidas was in the southwest of the Peloponnese, serving in what may have been a home guard unit controlling the helots of Messene. When the Athenian fleet attacked the port of Methone, he rushed to the town to support its defenders, and was able to save it. It was one of the few Spartan successes in the first year of the war. The historian Thucydides adds that "because of this, Brasidas was the first man in this war to receive official honors at Sparta". He is not specific about these honors, but the historian Xenophon tells that in the next year, Brasidas was the eponymous ephor, which means that the year was called after him.

In the subsequent years, Brasidas served as adviser of Cnemus, the admiral of the Peloponnesian League in the naval war against the Athenian commander Phormio at Naupactus (429); Brasidas also acted as adviser of Alcidas, the commander of a Peloponnesian force that intervened at Corcyra (427). It is surprising to find Brasidas in a position inferior to other commanders, but it is not entirely without parallel: in the second phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Decelean or Ionian War, the Spartan admiral Lysander also acted as adviser or deputy to other commanders, because the Spartan law forbade him to be admiral twice. Perhaps a similar rule made it unable to make Brasidas commander in 429 and 427.

One of his ideas was to drag the Peloponnesian ships from the Corinthian gulf across the Isthmus of Corinth and launch a surprise attack on Piraeus, the port of Athens. Although this plan was not accepted, it shows the characteristics of Brasidas' later style: surprise and speed.

Sphacteria

Map of Sphacteria
Map of Sphacteria
In 425, the war entered its seventh year. The Athenians had already discovered that the strategy of Pericles was too expensive. Sparta was slower to develop a new strategy, and it was Athens that first embarked upon a new course. In the spring, their commander Demosthenes occupied an ancient fort in the southwest of the Peloponnese, called Pylos. It could be useful as a base for further raids in the region, and offered helots an opportunity to escape, which would cripple the Spartan economy.

Sparta immediately sent troops, which included Brasidas, who commanded a triere (a warship). Using the isle of Sphacteria as their base, the Spartans tried to land near Pylos, and Brasidas was among the most daring captains: instead of ordering his soldiers to jump into the sea and walk to the land, he simply ran his ship ashore. The amphibious assault did not help: the Spartans fought bravely -Brasidas was severely wounded- but the Athenians were superior, the Spartan navy was defeated, and no less than 292 Spartan soldiers, including 120 elite Spartiates, were cut off on Sphacteria. In a second operation, they were captured by that Athenian commander Cleon.

To the north

The Spartan defeat made it clear that Sparta had to rethink its options. Athens refused to negotiate and pillaging Attica was no longer possible (the captives would be executed). An opportunity, however, offered itself, when the Macedonian king Perdiccas II requested Spartan help. Brasidas suggested to accept the invitation and send an army to the north, where it could also attack the Athenian allies on the Chalkidike. If successful, the Spartan army could proceed further to the east, seize the forests where the Athenians harvested the timber that was needed for their ships; further to the east was Byzantium, where a Spartan army could cut off the food supply of Athens, which needed grain from the Black Sea region.

Much depended on the willingness of the inhabitants of the northern towns to revolt against Athens, but on the other hand: even when only a couple of towns were captured, the expeditionary force could inflict losses upon the Athenian alliance. After all, the Spartans could hand over the towns to Perdiccas of Macedonia, and in that case, they were lost for Athens. It was a brilliant plan. However, Sparta could hardly afford to send away many Spartiates, who were now needed on the Peloponnese to control the helots of Messenia. In the end, Brasidas received an army of 700 loyal, liberated, and armed helots.

Brasidas proceeded to Sicyon and Corinth, where he wanted to recruit additional forces. At the same time, the Athenian commanders Demosthenes and Hippocrates tried to capture Megara. The surprise attack, however, was foiled when the soldiers of Brasidas, who had made a forced march, arrived on the scene. Still, Megara had lost its port Pegae, another severe blow for a small town that had already been reduced to straits by the war.

Reinforced with 1000 men, Brasidas continued to Thebes, Thessaly, and Macedonia, where king Perdiccas demanded the help he had requested, and ordered Brasidas to march to the country of the Lyncestians, west of the Macedonian heartland. Losing men in Macedonia, however, was hardly in Brasidas' interest, and he immediately opened negotiations with the Lyncestian leader Arrhabaeus, offering to be arbiter in the conflict. Perdiccas was angry, but Brasidas simply retreated, and continued his own campaign against the Athenian possessions on the Chalkidike. The alliance was damaged, but still existed; Brasidas still received supplies from Perdiccas.

The first aim of the expeditionary force was Acanthus, the town that controlled the isthmus of the Athos peninsula. It was at the beginning of September, about the time of the vintage. Brasidas, who was, according to Thucydides, "not a bad speaker, though a Spartan," explained that he was there to liberate the Acanthians from Athenian repression, and many people allowed themselves to be persuaded - partly out of fear for their fruits.

Amphipolis

Almost immediately, the next town surrendered as well, Stagira. Brasidas had now created a powerful enclave on the Chalkidike. Slowly, the revolt spread. Early in December, when snow was falling (early in the year), Brasidas marched to the east, captured Argilus and proceeded to the two Athenian strongholds at the mouth of the river Strymon: the port Eïon and the city of Amphipolis. The latter controlled the forests, several mines, and a bridge across the river. The snowstorm was still blowing when at dawn, Brasidas seized the bridge and captured the Amphipolitans who were outside their walls.

Panorama of Amphipolis
Panorama of Amphipolis
The commander of the garrison sent for the commander of the Athenian forces in the neighborhood, Thucydides, the historian who wrote the main narrative of the war. He was not at Eïon but at Thasos; he does not explain why. Brasidas feared that Amphipolis would not surrender once its inhabitants knew that Thucydides was on its way, offered very favorable terms, and the town came over to the Spartan side (text). Thucydides arrived too late, but was able to save Eïon; yet, he was held responsible for the fall of Amphipolis, and banished from Athens.

This was one of the most important events during the war. Other member states of the Athenian league now revolted as well: almost every town on the Athos peninsula and Torone on the Sithonia peninsula. Brasidas now needed reinforcements, because he could not control so many towns; when the campaign had been launched, it had been believed that there would be sufficient Macedonian soldiers to help, but king Perdiccas was unreliable. This was also the reason why Sparta was unable to send the reinforcements that were required: the Athenians would not again allow Spartan troops to pass through Thessaly, and it was unlikely that the Macedonian king would again allow a Spartan army to pass through his territories after Brasidas' unwillingness to do what had been requested.

Continued success

Soon, it turned out that the reinforcements were no longer needed either. The Spartans regretted the loss of Pylos and Sphacteria, and the Athenians regretted the fall of Amphipolis. On both sides, there were people who wanted to make an armistice, and this came into force on the fourteenth of the month Elaphebolion (c.24 April) 423. After the successes of Demosthenes and Cleon, the Athenians had refused to talk about peace; Brasidas had sent them to the negotiation table.

While the negotiations were going on, a town on the third peninsula of the Chalkidike decided to revolt as well: Skione. The inhabitants offered Brasidas a golden wreath and called him the "liberator of Greece". However, their revolt took place after 14 Elaphebolion, which meant that Brasidas could not support it. On the other hand, leaving Scione alone would mean that the Athenians would mercilessly punish the city that had just asked Brasidas for protection. In this situation, the Spartan general decided to lie: he reported that the revolt had taken place before the fourteenth. This only encouraged the people of nearby Mende, who asked and received protection against the Athenians too.

This was a violation of the armistice, and more towns may have been tempted to rise against Athens. The Athenians sent their commanders Nicias and Nicostratus to the north, to lay siege to Mende (which soon fell) and Scione (which held out). Everything was ready for a renewed war in which Brasidas would not receive any support from Sparta

Macedonian intermezzo

However, his ally Perdiccas of Macedonia prevented escalation. Knowing that Brasidas had no excuse to refuse his request, he again asked his help in the war against the Lyncestians. Brasidas may have been happy with the request, because it saved him from a lot of trouble on the Chalkidike.

This time, it was Perdiccas' turn to double-cross his ally. Seeing that the Lyncestians outnumbered the joined Macedonian and Spartan forces, he abandoned his ally: one day, Brasidas and his men found they they were alone, and understood that the king had sided with the Athenian forces in the neighborhood and had left them to die at the hands of the Lyncestians. Brasidas' men panicked, but their commander ordered them to form a hollow square, which would surround the army's unarmed attendants. In this way, he was able to bring back his men.

Final battle

On 14 Elaphebolion (c.13 April) 422, the armistice expired, and the Athenian general Cleon sailed to the north with an expeditionary force. It was imperative for Athens to regain access to the forests and mines of Amphipolis. Initially, Cleon was successful. He made a feint at Scione that enabled him to capture Torone - which was far more important - without encountering much resistance. Thucydides, who hated Cleon because he had sent him into exile, does not record that many towns in the area were also recovered, but the Tribute Lists leave no doubt.

Map of Amphipolis and Eïon
Map of Amphipolis and Eïon
Cleon knew that Brasidas was not to be underestimated, and patiently waited for reinforcements from Macedonia and Thrace, meanwhile organizing a base at Eïon and moving with his army to Amphipolis, which he wanted to see before he could start to besiege the city. Brasidas understood that he could not attack Cleon's superior numbers and retreated to the city.

When Cleon had seen the town, he started to retreat to the south, to Eïon, when he was unexpectedly attacked by Brasidas with a small number of men from the southern gate of Amphipolis. It was a bold maneuver, because the Athenians heavily outnumbered the Spartans. The Athenians turned to face the attack. This slowed down their progress sufficiently to give a second Spartan army, which left the city through the northeasterrn gate, to catch up with the retreating force. It attacked Cleon's army from its right, where they were vulnerable (soldiers had their shields on the left arm).

Both Brasidas and Cleon stood on the most dangerous positions: Brasidas led the attack from the southern gate of Amphipolis, whereas Cleon was on the unprotected wing of the Athenian army. Both commanders were killed in action.

Assessment

According to Thucydides, the battle of Amphipolis removed the two men who were most opposed to peace. This is partly true. Brasidas had shown himself to be willing to break an armistice and hated the Athenians more than most of his compatriots. He was indeed an obstacle to peace.

Cleon, on the other hand, was a democratic politician and might have followed the people's wish to look for a peace treaty, as he had done in 423, when the armistice had been concluded. Had he remained alive, peace was still possible, and probably, a treaty that had been designed by Cleon, would have been better than the Peace of Nicias; after the death of Cleon, Nicias was in charge of the negotiations, and the peace treaty that bears his name, was not based on a realistic assessment of the political and military situation. The treaty came into force in March 421 and was almost immediately regretted.

Brasidas was buried in Amphipolis and was recognized as the town's second founder (after the Athenian Hagnon); the Spartan commander received heroic honors and was always held in great esteem. Several years later, his soldiers were still called "the Brasidans" and his father Tellis was recognized as one of Sparta's seventeen most important man: he was one of those who took the oaths of the Peace of Nicias.

This page was created in 2005; last modified on 26 July 2014.