The Battle of Sparta

Flamininus’ three main assaults.

For four days the opposing forces limited themselves to skirmishes in front of the walls. When at some point the Spartans attempted to engage the Romans in proper combat, they were easily defeated and put to flight. Since the city walls still had gaps in several places, some of the Romans caught up in pursuit of the routed Spartans managed to briefly penetrate into the city. This fact did not escape Flaminus’ attention who decided, before beginning a regular siege of the city, to attempt her capture by storm. The Roman proconsul rode with his staff along Sparta’s fortifications in an effort to identify weak points in them. Nabis had not had time to completely fortify the city. The wall protected only the most vulnerable points, where the ground was flat and passable. In the hills, and otherwise inaccessible or rough areas, where the terrain provided a measure of natural protection, there was no wall.

Flaminius’ biggest advantage was his superiority in numbers. He tried to benefit from it as much as he could by concentrating all his forces around Sparta. To increase the numbers of his army even more, he summoned to Sparta even the personnel of his naval forces at Gytheion. His army now numbered 50,000 men. The fact that not all these men were of the same calibre as the Roman infantry did not inhibit the effectiveness of Flamininus’ plan in the least. What he needed the most, and they provided, was a feint for his legions. His forces developed around the city’s circuit. His aim was to attack at several places simultaneously, in order to confuse the defenders and to force them to scatter their forces. This way he would divert their attention from the points where the main attack would occur, so that it would be impossible for the Spartan forces to reinforce them.

The Roman legions aimed their main attack at the three unwalled areas in the south of the city: Diktynnaion, Eptagoniai and Phoebaion. It was there that the Romans would attempt to penetrate the defences.

When the signal was given, the attacking forces hurled themselves simultaneously at the city from all directions. The pressure was so strong and relentless that the defenders almost came to the end of their rope. Nabis constantly received agonized pleas for help from various areas of the city that were in danger. Whenever possible, he would send aid, while he himself would rush to the points which were under the greatest pressure. But the strain of such an intense the battle proved too much for his nerves, to the point where he lost control of the situation. As the battle was reaching its peak amid general confusion, Nabis became paralyzed and ‘was unable either to order what was appropriate or to hear the reports, and not only lost his power of judgment but was almost bereft of reason’.

The fighting reached its highest intensity in the three areas where Flaminius had directed his main attack. At Diktynnaion, Eptagoniai and Phoebaion, the defenders initially repulsed the enemy attacks. The Roman legions’ advance was slowed by the concentration of such a great number of troops in a limited space. However, this limited space created problems for the Spartans as well. It drastically reduced the effectiveness of the javelins they were throwing at their enemy, since there was too little room for them to run and build up momentum before launching them. This made it easier for the Romans to defend themselves with their large shields.

Eventually the leading Roman troops managed to push through the unwalled areas and approach the first houses of the city. There they found themselves at a disadvantage, as they also came under attack from above by the Spartans. The defenders resisted stubbornly, even removing and throwing tiles from the roofs of their homes at the invaders, while those who were still controlling the nearby hills tried to attack the enemy’s most exposed flanks. At that point, the Roman infantry displayed its superb qualities. Reacting calmly and with exemplary discipline, the Romans ‘…held their shields above their heads and fitted them so closely together that no space was left for random shots or even for the insertion of a javelin from near at hand, and having formed their testudo they forced their way forward’.

For as long as the fighting was confined to the narrow passages, the Spartans were able to hold their own against the Romans, who were not able to fully deploy their forces and exploit their numerical superiority. But when the Romans managed to move to wider thoroughfares and the open areas of the city, it was impossible to contain them. Some of the defenders retreated seeking cover and protection, while others fled the city spreading panic. When the Romans stormed into the city, most thought that Sparta had perished. Even Nabis himself ‘trembling as if the city had been taken, looked about him for a way to escape’. But against all odds, Sparta did not fall. Yet it was not the Spartan king, but the Argive Pythagoras who rose up to the challenge. Demonstrating the courage and determination of a truly great leader in that critical moment, he took initiative and saved the city: he ordered the torching of all the houses located near the gaps of the wall through which the enemy was pouring in. Dense clouds of smoke then spread throughout the city, creating a suffocating atmosphere. With no visibility and amidst pandemonium, the invaders could no longer keep their cohesion. The situation became even worse when parts of the burning rooftops started falling on them as they collapsed. The Roman army was cut in two. The fire prevented not only the retreat of those who had penetrated the walls, but also the advance of the forces that remained outside the walls. Considering the situation, Flamininus realized that the attack could not continue. Victory had literally slipped between his hands. Unable to do otherwise, he reluctantly ordered a general retreat. Sparta had been saved.

But this victory was only temporary. For the next three days, Flamininus continued to wear down the defenders of the semi-destroyed city ‘sometimes harrying them with assaults, sometimes blocking open spaces with siegeworks that no way might be left open for escape’. Realizing that continued resistance would result in annihilation, Nabis decided to capitulate. This time he sent Pythagoras to negotiate with Flamininus in order to end hostilities. According to Livy, initially Flamininus sent him away from his camp scornfully, and Pythagoras was forced to fall to his knees and beg the Roman general to condescend to listen to him. Yet Livy then continues to state that while Pythagoras offered Flamininus the unconditional surrender of the city, in the end the negotiations ended in a truce under the same terms that the Spartans had initially rejected. This unexpected turn, which certainly cannot be attributed simply to Pythagoras’ diplomatic skill, is remarkable. Flamininus himself claimed that he simply showed magnanimity, ‘when he saw that the destruction of the tyrant would involve the rest of the Spartans also in serious disaster’. But it is obvious that the lenient attitude of the Roman proconsul to Nabis and his regime owed less to his vaunted love of the Greeks and more to the realpolitik Rome exercised. What concerned Flamininus the most was that potentially, a complete weakening of Sparta would lead the Achaean League to dominate the Peloponnese with unpredictable consequences for the relations between the League and Rome. Instead, as long as the threat of Sparta lingered, the Achaean League would remain dependent on Rome and a faithful ally.

After this settlement, Flamininus headed to Argos to attend the Nemean festival and accept honours from the city’s oligarchs, who had come to power in the meantime. Flamininus was also honoured in other cities, such as Gytheion where citizens erected a statue in his honour. However, his allies did not show the same enthusiasm. When the news of the liberation of Argos was announced at the Achaean assembly, the general joy was tempered by the fact that Nabis had not been removed from power. The Aitolians, who were seeking an excuse to break their alliance with the Romans, took their resentment even further. In all their meetings they provocatively tore the treaty in pieces and declared that ‘the Roman army had become the ready agent of Nabis’ despotism.’ Despite these grudging reactions from the Achaeans and the Aitolians, the treaty was officially ratified by Rome in the winter of 195–194.

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