Clearchus of Sparta

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Clearchus of Sparta

411–401 BC

Spartan general and mercenary leader who joined Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to seize the Persian throne from Artaxerxes III.

Clearchus was a Spartan officer who held various commands at Byzantium (including making himself tyrant there in 403 BCE). He subsequently led a contingent of Greek mercenaries who fought on behalf of Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to win the Persian throne from Artaxerxes II. After Cyrus’ death at the Battle of Cunaxa, Clearchus was arrested and eventually executed.

Shifting Fortunes and the Fall of Athens

It must have been growing obvious to Athens’s leaders that their hit-and-run campaign along the Asian shore wasn’t producing decisive results. Despite a host of tactical successes, many key sites remained in enemy hands and there was no sign of an end to the rebellion wracking their overseas empire. As long as Sparta and its allies had a strong navy, they could back uprisings among island poleis and threaten critical trade routes, putting both tribute-paying territories and vital grain imports in jeopardy. The obvious remedy was for the Athenians to completely destroy opposition naval capability with their superior fleet. Of course, Sparta had come to a similar conclusion in devising its own strategy: it could cut Athens’s supply lines and win the war only through victory at sea. The conflict thus came to focus increasingly on fleet actions.


Mindarus, who had been Peloponnesian admiral in the defeat off Abydos, spent the winter assembling another 60 ships (per Xenophon, though Diodorus claimed he had 80). Fearing that this armada would attack Sestos, the Athenians pulled in triremes from all around the Aegean, 86 in all, to make a preemptive strike. Mindarus ducked immediate confrontation by sailing up the Hellespont to put in just below Cyzicus on the southern shores of the Propontis. He must have felt secure here, as the satrap Pharnabazus was present with cavalry and mercenary spearmen to shield his landward side. At the same time, lookouts along the Hellespont were ready to give advance warning of any developing seaborne threat. However, the Athenians foiled this early warning system by rowing up the strait under cover of night, taking advantage of a heavy rain to further mask their passage as they made close approach to the opposing fleet without detection.

The Athenian commander, Thrasybulus, made a landing on the south side of the peninsula jutting northwest from Cyzicus (which lay on a narrow neck connecting to the mainland) and then sent the general Chaereas overland toward the city with an assault force. Chaereas likely led around 1,700 hoplites, comprising half those aboard the fleet if each trireme carried about 40. Meanwhile, Thrasybulus split his ships into three groups and sailed against Mindarus. His sub-commanders, Alcibiades and Theramenes, each had 20 ships, leaving over half the fleet (46 vessels) under direct control of the admiral-in-chief. (Plutarch’s account gives 40 ships to Alcibiades, but the most complete battle description from Diodorus favors Thrasybulus having a larger share. This is also consistent with his higher rank. The 40 triremes of Plutarch were thus more likely a total for both subordinates, rather than Alcibiades alone.)

Alcibiades led his small flotilla forward as bait, enticing Mindarus to sail out for a battle against a foe he appeared to outnumber by 3 to 1. While continuing foul weather (Kagan 1987, 241) might have hidden size of the opposing force at first, Mindarus soon made out its true strength and realized his peril. Fearing both enemy seamanship and numbers, the Spartan ran for Cleri, a northeast-trending beach south and west of Cyzicus. Mindarus lost a few ships to hot pursuit, but got most of his fleet ashore, where Pharnabazus’s men came up to help fend off Alcibiades’ attempts to grapple and tow off the grounded vessels.

Assuming that 50 of Mindarus’s triremes survived, they would have beached as close together as possible (10m or so apart from prow to prow) along a half-kilometer stretch. This crowding let their spearmen (probably 2,000 at 40 per ship) front the entire anchorage at three shields deep, putting all within spear’s reach of a seaward attack. Mindarus also set up a reserve of 500 hoplites under Clearchus, Spartan governor of Byzantium, who was to back up the main line as well as respond to any landward threat. Many of the fleet’s spearmen were Ionian, while others came from Syracuse (volunteers and/or epilektoi) and the Greek mainland (Peloponnesians likely made up the elite reserve unit). The satrapal mercenaries, probably a hazarabam of 800-1,000, supported the defense by joining Clearchus.

Alcibiades’ marines made a spirited attempt to drag away some of the stranded ships. Though few in number (there would have been no more than 400 hoplites left after manning the column of Chaereas), they could strike with superior strength at select sites along the thinly stretched enemy line. Dashing in to throw their grapples, the Athenians took full advantage of opponents that had to stay in place if they were to guard all their ships. No doubt very sporadic in pace, this action must still have been intense at times, taking a toll on both sides to scatter dead and dying men along shore-some staining the sand with their blood as others reddened the shallow surf. The Athenian assaults would surely have succeeded at a few points if it had not been for Clearchus and his reserves stepping in time and again to prevent a breakthrough. But Alcibiades and his men persisted, falling back to regroup after each failed attack under protection of a deadly screen of arrows from their triremes.

Thrasybulus saw that Alcibiades was making little progress from offshore and sent Theramenes to find Chaereas so that they might then bring their combined strength overland against the enemy position. Meanwhile, the admiral took his own troops ashore to launch an assault that would provide more immediate help. Thrasybulus led what must have been just over 900 hoplites and nearly 200 archers in a bold advance on Mindarus’s northeast perimeter. As he approached, the Athenian would have fixed his right wing on the sea and spread out sufficiently to anchor his left in rough terrain; all of his bowmen could have then set up to further secure the landward flank. Mindarus reacted by sending his reserve up to confront this new threat before it could reach his embattled anchorage. Clearchus marched on Thrasybulus with 1,300-1,500 hoplites. This gave him a 50 percent or better edge in manpower, which would have allowed for files at least 12 deep versus only eight on the other side.

Thrasybulus undoubtedly sought to delay engaging for as long as he could. He would have done this by making as if to attack, but actually holding back in expectation that Theramenes would arrive soon and tip the numbers in his favor. The Athenian likely stood as per tradition, near the front and on the right side of his formation, putting him in all likelihood directly across from Clearchus and his picked lochos. While such a left-wing post was unusual for a Spartan commander, it made sense here, not only positioning him closer to the ships he was protecting, but also allowing him to face the best enemy troops with a secure anchor on his flank. The riskier and less prestigious job of holding the center and right thus fell to Pharnabazus’s hirelings.

As minutes passed without action, Clearchus couldn’t have helped but sense his opponent’s reluctance. He therefore decided to take the initiative and signaled his phalanx to advance into shock contact. The Spartan himself sought to push through on the left side, while mercenary hoplites extending out onto his right wing tried to turn the inland flank. Their opponents put up stiff resistance as, killing and being killed, they gave as good as they got in holding fast against superior depth and othismos. However, the satrap’s paid men eventually began to make gains as Thrasybulus’s troops tired and their fire fell off due to a dwindling supply of arrows. The mercenaries were soon on the verge of wrapping around an ever more exposed Athenian left.

Just as the Athenians were losing all hope, Theramenes finally arrived from northward with just over 2,100 hoplites, which let Thrasybulus and his exhausted men pull out of contact. They retreated through the approaching line of their comrades to then form ranks in back as fresh soldiers replaced them at the front (the account of Diodorus implies that Theramenes now led). Clearchus didn’t contest this rotation, apparently seeking instead to reform for another round of battle. But his opposition didn’t allow time for such adjustments, advancing to renew combat and take advantage of a phalanx that would have been filed at 24 shields against one at but half that depth. Clearchus and his troops seem to have given a good account of themselves in a stubborn contest of othismos and front fighting that lasted for some time. Eventually, however, the deeper Athenian files took their toll. The satrapal troops on Clearchus’s unanchored landward wing broke first, their flight exposing fellow mercenaries in the center of the field to trigger a collapse there as well. When these hired men fled, Clearchus and his elite reserve lochos had no choice but to also quit the field, falling back in reasonable order toward their anchorage.

As Theramenes and Thrasybulus redressed their ranks for a final advance on the grounded fleet, runners alerted Mindarus of Clearchus’s setback. Though still engaged in a chaotic duel with Alcibiades and his marines, the admiral reacted coolly by again splitting his hoplites, sending half of them (700 or so) up to reinforce his faltering right flank. Clearchus rushed to incorporate these men into his line for another effort against an enemy whose advantage in heavy infantry now approached 3 to 1. While both sides got ready to go at it again on the north, there was a lull in the action on that part of the field. But no such pause took place along the seafront, where pressure from offshore may even have picked up in pace. Alcibiades’ men were able to strike with increasing effectiveness as the opposing force shrank to meet threats elsewhere; and now, with their foes standing no more than two deep, they finally cut through to the beached ships.

Some among the stranded crews must have jumped into the fray in an effort to save their vessels, but had little chance of stopping the heavily equipped Athenians. Mindarus soon went down and his death put an end to the defensive stand. The Syracusans set fire to their triremes and joined other beaten men in a desperate race for the interior and safety. With black smoke rising, Clearchus witnessed the chaotic flight of those protecting his rear and sensibly withdrew as well, managing to get away before Theramenes could close into contact and fix him for an attack from behind by Alcibiades. There was little pursuit, as the victors were more concerned with securing abandoned ships and moving on Cyzicus. As it turned out, though they ultimately looted the city, they then had to put back to sea in order to avoid Pharnabazus, who had come up with his cavalry to support survivors from the battle.

Cyzicus II spurred the Spartans to propose a peace that would freeze territory held by each side at its present extent. Predictably, this was unacceptable to the Athenians, since it would cede much of their overseas empire. Ending hostilities now would also give Sparta time to replace its ships with Persian aid. Athens thus preferred to press its current naval advantage and recapture as much territory as possible before seeking a settlement. The Spartans countered by getting to work on rebuilding their fleet and sending Agis out from Decelea in the meantime to once more menace the walls of Athens. This last move proved rash. Thrasyllus was in the city at the time, exploiting victory at Cyzicus by asking for more resources for the Asian campaign. He took command of the garrison and led his troops out to marshal near the Lyceum (a gymnasium on the outskirts of town) that he might meet the enemy advance. Such boldness was a marked reversal of earlier Athenian reluctance to engage Agis, which strongly suggests that Thrasyllus held substantial superiority in numbers. If so, the Spartan king must have brought his modest Decelean contingent without waiting for a major mobilization from the Peloponnese.

Though sometimes recklessly aggressive, Agis was no fool; therefore, when he saw the sort of overwhelming manpower that Athens was sending out, he lost no time in turning about and marching back to Decelea. However, in his hurry to be off, the king left his rearguard exposed without adequate cover from either cavalry or light foot troops. This was likely one of his hoplite lochoi, perhaps the Sciritae if the column had retreated after a simple 180- degree turn. Thrasyllus’s light-armed troops took advantage of this mistake by charging in to repeatedly launch their javelins and arrows from short range, pulling back beyond spear-reach each time their slower opponents tried to close. Agis finally got away, but only after losing a number of men from his trailing unit. This sorry performance served to confirm the wisdom of concentrating on denying food and funds to Athens though action closer to its source of supply-in Asia.

One Last Triumph for Athens

Action in 408 B. C. closed on one last triumph for Athens. With the eastern side of the Bosporus now calm after the agreement at Chalcedon, focus had shifted onto Byzantium, which commanded the western side. The Athenians landed to pit their full strength against this key site, moving to erect an encircling wall and then launch a series of direct assaults. Clearchus of Sparta, still governor of the polis, was able to repulse these attacks with a combination of local militia (including perhaps 2,000-2,500 heavy-armed), mercenaries (800-1,000 hoplites), and allied spearmen from the Greek mainland. He had brought in the latter himself on troop ships-a dozen having survived his daring run past the enemy fleet. These men were a mixed lot from Laconia (perioeci and freed helots), Megara (Byzantium’s mother city), and Boeotia. Originally 1,800 strong (at 150 per transport), some of the mainlanders had gone to Chalcedon, leaving 1,500 or so with Clearchus.

Though there were 4-5,000 spearmen on each side of this confrontation, more than half of the city’s hoplites were lesser-quality locals and Megarans who would be of questionable value against the seasoned opponent camped outside. A wary Clearchus thus refused pitched battle, preferring to base his defense on the famously sturdy walls of Byzantium. Sound as this strategy might have been, it visited considerable hardship on the populace, with looming starvation sparking envy and anger against Clearchus and his well-fed garrison, whom most in town came to see as foreign occupiers. This led some citizens to conspire with the enemy, agreeing to betray a gate while Clearchus was out of town trying to secure ships and more money for his troops. For their part in the plot, the Athenians sailed away, making a showy pretense of abandoning the siege only to return that night. Secretly landing its hoplites in darkness near the targeted entrance, the fleet then rowed back into harbor at dawn to make a diversionary attack with light-armed men. As the garrison rushed dockside to meet this unforeseen menace at full strength, Athens’s spearmen marched to the appointed gate where their agents let them inside.

Regardless of any attempt at stealth, there was a major commotion as the Athenians came spilling in, and defenders at the harbor, who had forced their skirmisher opponents to reboard, saw that they had been tricked. They quickly prepared to meet this new threat by dividing their force more or less in half, setting the local men to safeguard the docks while the mercenary and allied troops marched back to town. Helixus of Megara and Coeratadas of Boeotia led the foreign contingent and put their 2,300-2,500 hoplites in order for a battle in tight quarters.

The returning garrison came to blows with the Athenians, possibly within the “Thracian Square,” which lay on the street the invaders used for entry. Alcibiades commanded on the right wing against the Megarans and Theramenes did the same on the left against the Boeotians, leaving the other Athenians and mercenaries to fight it out at center. Both sides must have filed very deeply in such a restricted setting, which most hurt the Athenians, who couldn’t take advantage of their greater numbers to outflank the enemy. As a result, the contest turned into a long and stubborn stalemate, with neither side able to push to victory in the close press of so many men. It was the Byzantines who then came forward to break this deadly impasse. Taking heart from assurances that no harm would come to them, the townsfolk changed sides. Their former allies suddenly found themselves among an openly hostile populace, with Byzantine spearmen moving up from the harbor to menace their rear and threaten their route of escape. Some of those surrounded chose to resist to the last, while others turned and ran for their lives through the streets.

There must have been a great slaughter of the garrison at Byzantium, and hundreds perished in a final stand. As for those who broke ranks, long-held enmity of many in town for these foreigners now came to the fore as citizens denied refuge to the fleeing men and even helped to cut them down. No record survives of how many Peloponnesians died in the aftermath, or how many got away altogether. Our sources indicate only that the Athenians took a mere 300 alive at the battle site, while but 500 more gained sanctuary in temples that they might surrender next day. Athens had finally secured both sides of the Bosporus and could now turn full attention upon remaining enemy strongholds on the Hellespont, in Thrace, and around the Aegean basin.

Tyranny was raising its ugly head to the east, where Sparta had dispatched Clearchus to help Byzantium against hostile Thracian tribes. But this man soon began to transform his appointed position into something that much more resembled an independent dictatorship. He had taken advantage of factional strife as an excuse to raise an army of mercenaries, paid for with funds seized from wealthy citizens accused of treason; then, instead of fighting the Thracians, he used this hired force to establish himself as tyrant. We have no record of the size of Clearchus’s mercenary corps, but it may have been similar to the one that he later led on behalf of the Persian prince Cyrus. If so, there were some 1,000 hoplites along with an equal number of light infantry. The latter would mostly have been Thracian peltasts, yet could also have included a couple of hundred archers from Crete. When the Spartans back home learned of this abuse of their authority, they sent representatives to ask the renegade governor to stand down, but he refused. Therefore, in 403 B. C., Sparta sent out the general Panthoedas to rectify the situation by force.

Clearchus couldn’t count on getting any support from the local people, whom he had victimized in his rise to power; therefore, when he learned of the expedition coming against him, he relocated westward along the south Thracian shore to Byzantium’s sister city of Selymbria. Shortly thereafter, Panthoedas arrived with 25 triremes, landing at least 1,000 hoplites (a Spartan mora) and a contingent of light-armed crewmen. Perhaps adding a lochos of hoplites and more skirmishers from Byzantium, the Spartan general then set out for Selymbria.

Clearchus met Panthoedas at a place called Porus. He was an experienced and capable combat commander and must have carefully selected this spot for his stand, its name suggesting a restricted passage. By staking his position in what was probably a narrow stretch between the sea and rough or heavily vegetated inland terrain, Clearchus could negate most of the effects of greater enemy numbers. Ideally, he would then have set up his phalanx eight or ten shields deep across a front of some 100-125m, placing peltasts to cover any passable ground on his upland left flank, with any bowmen present taking station at the rear.

Panthoedas would have arrayed to match Clearchus’s line, likely by ranking half his Spartans in front and the rest at the rear to sandwich the less reliable Byzantine hoplites in the middle, where they would add weight to his formation at minimum risk to its integrity. Panthoedas then led his men forward through a limited killing ground of missile fire, advancing at a deliberate pace until smashing with great violence into an enemy front that had to remain fixed on its chosen ground. Clearchus and his mercenaries probably withstood this initial blow, shoving and spearing back to make a hard fight of it. With both sides at or above optimum file depth, their othismos was very nearly equal in strength and the contest must have evolved into a lengthy affair. Still, Clearchus’s files weren’t so deep that they could hold out indefinitely-or even long enough for rearward archers to carry the day. Quantity might not have been able to dominate in this setting, yet that just made quality all the more important, and Sparta had the finest spearmen in the Greek world. Fighting and pressing ahead with indomitable fury, these superbly skilled and conditioned warriors seem to have simply outlasted their opponents, breaking down their will to resist and finally driving them into panicked flight. Clearchus escaped to eventually find refuge in Persian-held Ionia.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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