A Decision at Mantineia 418 BC I

The Spartans were sane and disciplined; the Argives, neither. The latter had far less reason than the former to be enraged about the four-month truce. Alciphron and Thrasylus had rescued them from a catastrophe. But they were furious nonetheless, “thinking,” as Thucydides puts it, “that the Lacedaemonians had escaped and that they would never again have so fine an opportunity.” Moreover, where the Lacedaemonians reined in their anger and operated within the framework of the rule of law, the Argives took out theirs on the person of Thrasylus. In the bed of a watercourse called the Charadrus, which was dry except after a heavy rain, the army of Argos ordinarily paused to try deserters and the like before making their way into the city. There, on this occasion, however, they sidestepped the formalities of justice; and they turned on Thrasylus, hurled stones at him, and would have taken his life had he not fled to the altar. His property they later confiscated.

Of course, the catastrophe from which the Argives had just escaped really had been a product of defective military leadership. Thrasylus and his colleagues could justly have been taken to task for letting Agis give them the slip at Methudrion and for marching up the Nemea road. Had they positioned the coalition army in the Argolid, they would have been in a position to take on the three contingents of Agis’ army seriatim, and they would have had the city of Argos as a refuge. A commission of inquiry was certainly in order, and there was a case to be made for cashiering the generals, but not for a lynching.

Not long thereafter, Laches and Nicostratus arrived with one thousand Athenian hoplites and a cavalry force of three hundred. They were not warmly welcomed. The leading Argives knew who they were. Laches had been one of the two principal sponsors of the peace with Lacedaemon; Nicostratus was an associate of Nicias; and, if Eupolis can be trusted, the two may well have borne some responsibility for the expedition’s delay. The Athenians were bluntly asked to leave—in part, one must suspect, out of resentment that they had left their allies in the lurch; in part, we are told, because those in charge at Argos were loath to break the agreement so recently contracted with the Lacedaemonians; and in part, we know, because those responsible for setting the assembly’s agenda did not want the Athenians to address the people of Argos. When, in fact, the Athenians leaders asked for a hearing, those in charge flatly refused—and that would perhaps have been the end of it all had the Mantineians and Eleans, who were still there, not made a great fuss and forced them to give way.

We are not told with whom at Argos the Athenians at first dealt. The odds are good, however, that initially Laches and Nicostratus conferred with their peers—the four remaining Argive generals. This would have been in accord with the dictates of protocol, and it helps explain the cold welcome the Athenians received. Argos’ generals will have been particularly upset about the Athenians’ failure to show up. Moreover, when Alciphron and Thrasylus negotiated the truce, they were not, in fact, acting entirely on their own. Thrasylus was a spokesman for the entire board of generals, and the four remaining had no desire to renounce the engagement which he had negotiated on their behalf. They had had a sobering—one might even say, terrifying—experience. They had seen with their own eyes what the Lacedaemonian confederacy was capable of, and even those on the board who in no way sympathized with Sparta must have been wary of tangling with her again.

If the Argive democracy was anything like the one at Athens, the city’s generals had it in their power to call a special meeting of the assembly. This they not only refused to do. They appear also to have persuaded Argos’ probouleutic council, which certainly had such a prerogative, to take the same stand; and its members had held firm—until the Mantineians and Eleans caused a ruckus.

Alcibiades was present—not this time as a general nor even as a soldier, but as an ambassador—and he it almost certainly was who spoke on behalf of the Athenians before the Argive assembly. The oration was aimed at saving the enterprise that he had set in motion two years before. The individual who delivered it chided the Argives for making a truce, arguing that they had no right to do so under the terms of the alliance without the consent of their allies, and he suggested that, now that at so propitious a moment the Athenians had arrived, the war ought to be resumed. This argument carried the day, and the Eleans and Mantineians soon marched off against Arcadian Orchomenos in company with the Athenian hoplites. The Argives were, however, slow to follow—presumably because they were still at odds with one another regarding the truce—but follow they did; and the coalition forces mounted a siege and assaulted the walls of the town.

Their principal aim may have been to secure the hostages from Arcadia lodged in the town. But their goal was surely also strategic—for the wagon road that ran through the valley beneath Orchomenos and that it commanded was almost certainly the route that the Lacedaemonians had taken when they made their way north, then east from Methudrion in the direction of Phlius. They had undoubtedly passed that way—either en route to Phlius, on the way back from Nemea, or on both journeys—for it was they who had deposited the Arcadian hostages there, and, as we shall soon see, the Mantineians, Eleans, Argives, and Athenians had in mind a plan that required that they be able to obstruct, if not block, all of the main thoroughfares leading from the northern to the southern Peloponnesus.

The citizens of Orchomenos were aware that their walls were weak, and they were persuaded that the town was apt to be stormed before a relief expedition could be mounted. So, like the citizens of Acanthus and Amphipolis in similar circumstances, they took counsel and made the best deal they could. The hostages in their keeping they handed over, the alliance they joined, and they turned over to the Mantineians as security hostages of their own.

When the news reached Lacedaemon that the Argives had broken the truce and that Orchomenos had capitulated, the criticism and anger directed at Agis grew more intense. Earlier in the summer, the Spartans had gone to a great deal of trouble in assembling an enormous and splendid coalition army. The rank and file knew that it would be almost impossible to duplicate that feat, and all along they had heaped blame on the Eurypontid king for squandering an opportunity to lay their hands on Argos of a kind never before afforded them. Nonetheless, despite the fact that many supposed Agis guilty of malakía, as a community, the Lacedaemonians had refrained from acting against the man—perhaps because the ephors and the gérontes, who functioned as a court in such cases and who cooperated in setting the agenda for the assembly, were well-informed concerning the presence of Laconizers in Argos and thought Agis’ political stratagem worth the risk.

Now, however, the members of “the little assembly” gave way; and, in their fury, the Spartiates in “the common assembly” broke with their ordinary mode of conduct and deliberated whether they should first impose on the son of Archidamus a fine in silver of one hundred thousand Aeginetan drachmas (which is to say, twenty-three Attic talents, nearly two-thirds of a ton) and then, in ceremonial fashion, raze his house—as the Spartans had done almost sixty years before when his great-grandfather, the Eurypontid king Leotychidas, had been caught on a campaign in Thessaly taking bribes. Agis begged his compatriots not to do this, pledging that he would lead out the army and rescue himself from blame by the good service that he would do. If he fell short, they could, he told them, do with him as they pleased.

This induced the Lacedaemonians to suspend the fine and put off the razing of his house, but they did pass a measure, hitherto unprecedented in the case of a king, imposing on the royal son of Archidamus for the time being ten Spartiates as xúmbouloı. It is unclear just how far the brief of these ten men extended. Without the permission of these “councillors,” Thucydides tells us, Agis did not have the authority to lead the army back home from a war with the enemy. Diodorus, no doubt following Ephorus, goes further, insisting that the king was instructed to do nothing contrary to his councillors’ advice. This may be a distinction without a difference. For, in either case, it would have been a grave imprudence on Agis’ part not to consult these ten men at every turn.

While these developments were taking place at Lacedaemon, the Argives, Athenians, Mantineians, and Eleans were deliberating with regard to their next move. Everyone agreed that it was high time that they took the struggle to the southern Peloponnesus. This they had no doubt decided before the march on Orchomenos. As far as we know, however, no one had yet done what a Corinthian leader would do early in the fourth century—which was to compare Sparta’s strategic position with a stream. No one had first observed that, “at their sources, rivers are not great and they are easily forded, but the farther on they go, the greater they get—for other rivers empty into them and make the current stronger” and then gone on to say of the Lacedaemonians, “There, in the place where they emerge, they are alone; but as they continue and gather cities under their control, they become more numerous and harder to fight.” No one is known to have suggested that prudence dictates that enemies seek battle with the Spartans in or near Lacedaemon where they are few in number and relatively weak. But everyone at Orchomenos that summer’s day in August 418 surely understood the principle. They were all aware that, if they now moved with all due speed, they could get the jump on the Spartans and force them to fight without the very considerable support that they had enjoyed in July from the Boeotians, Megarians, Corinthians, Sicyonians, Phliasians, and Epidaurians; and one of their reasons for seizing Orchomenos was to delay, if not deny, this coalition access to the southern Peloponnesus.

Greek cities tended to be parochial in their outlook. It is this in part that explained the Argive obsession with Epidaurus, and it no doubt helps explain why, at Orchomenos, the Mantineians proposed that they march on Tegea and the Eleans, that they first make their way to Lepreum. The Argives and the Athenians were the arbiters, and they opted for an assault on Tegea—with good reason.

Lepreum mattered to Elis. But, in the larger world, this tiny pólıs counted for little. She occupied an outpost on the Neda River near the western coast of the Peloponnesus. This outpost was near and dear to the Eleans, and it was on the border with Messenia. But, although they had gone to some trouble to secure it, the Spartans could do without it. They had done so for decades before the Archidamian War; and, as we shall see, they would forsake it again within a couple of years. For Lepreum, they might well not fight, and they might take the isolation of the coalition army in the southwestern Peloponnesus as an opportunity to send an army up north again to meet with their allies in that part of the Peloponnesus and attack Mantineia or Argos.

Tegea was not like Lepreum. She was one of the two great cities in Arcadia; and, as the Corinthians and the Argives had recognized when they approached the Tegeans in 421, the plain which Tegea and Mantineia shared was the fulcrum of the Peloponnesus. The great power that secured hegemony over Arcadia would have enormous leverage everywhere else. As Themistocles had recognized fifty years before, Arcadia was the key to everything. It was sizable, populous, fiercely martial, centrally located, and bitterly divided; and Sparta’s security depended on keeping it divided in this fashion. If Tegea and Mantineia were to come together and join forces, they could easily carry with them the remaining communities within Arcadia. If they did this and a proper Arcadian League was established, it would control south-central Arcadia—the strategically vital district through which the wagon road ran linking the Eurotas valley, where the Spartans resided, with the Pamisos valley, which the Messenians farmed on their behalf. Lacedaemon’s hold on the latter valley would not be secure if Arcadia escaped her grasp—and without Messenia and the foodstuffs produced therein she could not support her regime and sustain her peculiar way of life. For Tegea, Sparta would fight without a doubt.

There was one further fact favoring an assault on Tegea. Civil strife was as much the bane of the ancient Greek city within the Peloponnesus as it was elsewhere. Thanks, in particular, to the influence of Homer, the pólıs was an agonistic community in which the struggle for primacy and honor often trumped everything else—including civic loyalty. There were three further complications which added intensity to the rivalries that arose. First, resources were scarce, and poverty was the norm. Second, the Greek cities were slave societies, membership in the ruling order was regarded as a privilege, and the cultural ethos was anything but egalitarian. In consequence, the battle for primacy and honor was especially fierce, and it was often reconfigured by the political opportunities presented by the tension which existed between the propertied and those without property at all and by that between those who thought themselves especially worthy of inclusion within the ruling order and those to whom they wished or had managed to deny access. Third, in wartime, factions could look to outsiders for support—in this case, to Athens and Argos, on the one hand; and to Lacedaemon, on the other—and these connections could very easily play into the divisions having to do with class and regime. Rare in this time of war, deprivation, and political temptation was the city not rent by domestic strife. Athens escaped it for a time. So, as far as we can tell, did Corinth for an even longer period—and Sparta, thanks to her peculiar regime, was very nearly immune. But Tegea cannot be placed on this exceedingly short list; and, in 418, as the conferees at Orchomenos soon learned (if they were not already aware), there was a faction of self-described democrats at Tegea ready, willing, and eager to hand over the city to the Argives, Athenians, Mantineians, and Eleans and establish themselves in power.

These considerations, though they should have been dispositive, were not sufficient to satisfy the Eleans. They desperately wanted what they wanted, as most human beings do. Moreover, they had risked their lives for the Argives, whom they had come to think unworthy; and now they thought that they had been cheated. They were furious—and in their anger they grew short of sight and forgot a fact fundamental to rebellion: that rebels who do not hang together are apt to hang separately.

Had Laches and Nicostratus been enthusiastic supporters of Alcibiades’ Peloponnesian venture, had their level of commitment been widely known, and had they arrived in a timely fashion with the one thousand hoplites and three hundred cavalrymen dispatched from Athens, they might have commanded goodwill, trust, and respect sufficient to allow them to mediate. Had Alcibiades himself been present, his charm might have worked wonders (as it often did), and his fervor for the cause might have given him the moral authority with which to get the Eleans to calm down and think soberly about their long-term interests. But his name is not mentioned in connection with this campaign, and there is reason to suspect that he may have returned to Athens to drum up support for sending further reinforcements to the coalition army.

For their part, the Mantineians were an interested party, to whom the Eleans would not listen; and, thanks to their strategic incompetence and the truce, the Argives had squandered much of the respect and goodwill that they had hitherto commanded. So, the Eleans, fed up, went home in a huff while everyone else marched off to Mantineia to prepare for the reckoning to come.

While the three coalition members with soldiers at Mantineia were making their preparations, a message reached the Spartans from those “serviceable [epıtImages deıoı]” to them at Tegea that, if they did not show up in short order, the city would go over to the Argives and their allies (if she did not defect in the interim). In response to what was taken as a great emergency, a relief force of Lacedaemonians and helots on a scale never before seen immediately set out from Sparta. Word went out for the Arcadians in alliance with the Lacedaemonians to join them at Tegea. Messengers were dispatched to the Corinthians, Boeotians, Phocians, and Locrians, asking that they come to Mantineia as soon as possible; and, though Thucydides does not mention the fact, couriers were no doubt sent on a similar errand to Sparta’s Megarian, Sicyonian, Phliasian, and Epidaurian allies as well.

When these Lacedaemonians reached Oresthasion in Maenalia, where the helots and períoıkoı from Messenia could join them and the road for wheeled transport leading up from the Eurotas valley came to an end, Agis sent back the oldest and youngest (one sixth of the whole) to guard their homes—perhaps, as one scholar suggests, because he had learned that, with the Eleans absent, his hoplites would have fewer combatants to confront. Then, upon arrival at Tegea, the Spartans and their Arcadian allies marched up through the eighteen-mile-long valley, shaped like an hourglass, that the Mantineians and Tegeans shared. They passed through the stretch—three miles south of Mantineia, where the plain is at its narrowest and a mere two miles separates the Mytikas ridge to the west from the Kapnistra ridge to the east—and marched on a mile or so to the temple of Heracles, where they made their camp and began in an almost ritual fashion to plunder the Mantineian countryside. If, by marching against Orchomenos, the coalition had issued a challenge, Lacedaemon and her allies had now taken it up.

The Argives, Mantineians, and Athenians, when they became aware of this, did nothing to interfere, for it was August. The fields had been harvested well before, and there was little damage that the Lacedaemonians could do. Instead, they stationed themselves a couple of miles to the north on a hill, steep and hard to approach—almost certainly, on the lower slopes of what the ancients called Mount Alesion—from which they could intervene should Agis attack the city of Mantineia. And there they formed up for battle. They could afford to wait. The allies summoned by the Spartans were not going to arrive any time soon. They would first have to rendezvous at Corinth, Sicyon, Phlius, or Nemea and then proceed en masse. For, thanks to the coalition’s conquest of Orchomenos, Lacedaemon’s enemies were in a position to obstruct travel by small contingents on the main roads.

Agis was in a more difficult position. He needed a decision. He had been charged with malakía; his office as king was at stake; and Tegea might switch sides at any time. He needed to demonstrate the spiritedness, vigor, and energy he had hitherto seemed to lack. In consequence, he immediately led the Lacedaemonians toward the enemy and reportedly came “within a stone’s throw or javelin’s cast” of the army on the hill. This advance was, however, an extremely risky, even foolhardy maneuver, and it met with a stern rebuke. One of the senior Spartiates (quite possibly a xúmboulos, though not identified as such), seeing that the position on which they were advancing was unassailable, yelled out to Agis that he was “intent on curing one ill with another,” intimating that he could not properly make amends for his blameworthy withdrawal from Argos with an eagerness for immediate battle that was ill-timed. Then, with celerity, Agis suddenly reversed course and led his army back without engaging; and after withdrawing into the territory of Tegea, he spent the rest of the day diverting onto land farmed by the Mantineians a stream, which had long been a bone of contention between the two Arcadian communities situated in that flood-prone, exceedingly well-watered upland valley. His aim was to force the enemy to come down from the hill and fight it out in the plain. In August, when the streams were relatively dry, such a maneuver was not apt to elicit as quick a response as it would have in the spring. But, in time, it would assuredly have an effect.

1 thought on “A Decision at Mantineia 418 BC I

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