The Argive commanders found Agis’ advance and sudden withdrawal puzzling, and, for understandable reasons, they at first had no idea how to respond. Like Agis, however, they were under severe pressure—for the rank and file within their army still thought them at fault for their earlier failure to attack the Lacedaemonians in the Argolid, and they blamed them now for not pursuing Agis’ army. Moreover, malakía was not the charge that these ordinary Argives were inclined to lodge. In a fashion suggesting on their part an awareness that some of their leaders were Spartan sympathizers, they intimated that treason might well be the reason for their commanders’ lack of enterprise. Disturbed by the wellspring of anger they encountered, the generals led their army into the plain and camped for the night, intent on engaging the enemy on the morrow.
While these two armies were maneuvering for advantage, the Eleans had had time to calm down and reconsider the foolhardy decision they had made at Orchomenos, and they were on their way to Mantineia—as were another thousand Athenian hoplites. Had the Argive commanders been aware that reinforcements on such a scale would soon arrive, they would surely have explained the situation to the soldiers under their command, and they would have put off seeking a decision on the battlefield—as was in their power.
Instead, however, on the next morning, the Argives and their allies formed up for a fight on the presumption that they might soon encounter the enemy, and, we are told, they entirely escaped notice. The Mantineians must have controlled the high ground in their territory—the Mytikas and Kapnistra ridges—where there are the remains of ancient guardhouses and Agis would undoubtedly have posted scouts had he been able to do so. And either the Argives had drawn up their army behind one of the two ridges where it could not have been seen from the south by an army about to pass between the two on its way north from the territory of Tegea back to its original encampment at the Heracleum, or there was in the plain a visual obstruction unmentioned by Thucydides, Xenophon, and, later, Polybius in their respective descriptions of battles that took place in this valley—such as the grove of trees that the travel writer Pausanias came upon between the Heracleum and the border with Tegea more than half a millennium after the battle described by Thucydides. What is crystal clear is this: The Spartans, when they marched back from their hydrological labors toward their original camp near the Heracleum, stumbled upon the enemy phalanx unawares and were, we are told, “astonished and panic-stricken on a scale greater than anyone could remember.”
Thucydides’ report should give us pause. Something is missing that he would no doubt have supplied had he lived to rewrite his draft. Not only does he not explain why Agis and his officers failed to spy the Argive army until they were well-nigh upon them. His report concerning the intentions of the Argive commanders is also inadequate. One does not deploy a hoplite army for battle in preparation for a march. One does so only on the expectation that hand-to-hand fighting is about to take place. The details of Thucydides’ description make sense only on three presumptions: first, that the Argive commanders knew precisely where the Lacedaemonians were and where they were going (about which Mantineian scouts posted up on the Mytikas and Kapnistra ridges could easily have kept them well-informed); second, that they had prepared an ambush; and third, that the Spartans were clueless—that a visual obstruction, in all likelihood one of the two ridges, was cannily exploited by the Argives; that it prevented Agis and those in his entourage from recognizing that they were marching into a trap; and that this stratagem explains why the Spartan commander’s men were “astonished and panic-stricken.”
Startled though they were when they stumbled into the Argives’ ambush, the vast majority of Agis’ hoplites were Lacedaemonians and, as such, up to the challenge. Despite the shock that had been administered to them and with virtually no time for preparation, they are said to have redeployed “immediately, in haste,” from column to phalanx and to have “come into fine order—with Agis their king taking the lead in everything precisely as the law directed.” This maneuver, by which something like cháos quickly gave way to kósmos, was, from Thucydides’ perspective, a remarkable achievement; and, to underline its importance, he pauses briefly to describe the Spartan chain of command, in order to indicate that the rapid transmission of orders from the king to the polemarchs, on to the commanders of the regiments [lochagoí], then on to the “leaders of fifty men,” the “leaders of the sworn bands,” and, finally, the “members of the sworn bands” was a phenomenon duplicated in no other city.
When two armies lined up, the Sciritae, who lived in the rough country just to the north of the Eurotas valley, occupied the extreme left in the Spartan line, as they always did. Brigaded with them were the Brasídeıoı, the survivors from among the seven hundred freed helots who had accompanied Brasidas to Thrace, and the considerably smaller contingent of neodamImages deıs. After them came the Lacedaemonians in regiment [lóchos] after regiment, then the Arcadians of the city Heraea, the Arcadians from Parrhasia and the southern districts of Maenalia, and, finally, on the army’s right, the Tegeans (with a few Lacedaemonians as reinforcements); and, of course, there were cavalrymen posted on both wings. In the opposing army, the Mantineians—in whose territory the battle was about to take place—occupied the post of honor on the right (opposite the Sciritae), followed by their Arcadian subject allies, the thousand picked men from Argos, the rest of the Argives, their Cleonaean and Ornean subject allies, and finally, on the extreme left of their line, the Athenians with the cavalry they had brought. Such was the order of battle.
In one passage, Thucydides reports that the Lacedaemonian army appeared to be the larger of the two forces; in another, he suggests that it really was the larger. He was nonetheless hesitant to hazard the size of either force—in part because of “the secretiveness of the regime [tImages s polıteías tò kruptòn]” ruled out candor on the part of the Lacedaemonians, and in part because elsewhere men tended to be boastful and their estimates could not be trusted. But he also claims to have penetrated the veil of secrecy in the Spartan case; and, by specifying the number of men in the first rank and the number of files behind them, he indicates that their contribution must have come to roughly three thousand five hundred eighty-four Lacedaemonian hoplites. To this we must add an additional six hundred Sciritae, something like six hundred Brasídeıoı, and perhaps another four hundred neodamImages deıs—as well as the three hundred hıppeîs who functioned as a royal bodyguard.
With regard to the rest, we are left to guess. On this occasion, which they regarded as a grave emergency, the Spartans sent five-sixths of their levy. Ordinarily, however, when dispatching expeditions abroad, Lacedaemon and the cities in her alliance retained one-third of their hoplites for homeland defense and sent two-thirds, and this seems to have been the general expectation elsewhere as well. This would suggest that the Tegeans, who had dispatched fifteen hundred hoplites to Plataea, could field an army of something like two thousand two hundred fifty heavy infantrymen when defending their own territory, as they were doing on this occasion. The Arcadians of Herae and the Parrhasians and Maenalians in the south, who had supplied fifteen hundred hoplites for the invasion of the Argolid and who were similarly fighting in their own defense, should also have been able to come up with two thousand two hundred fifty additional hoplites.
The Argives and their subject allies had hostile neighbors—including the Epidaurians, who were itching for revenge and who were eager, therefore, to plunder their territory; and we are told that the Argives left behind a force for the defense of the Argolid. If, as was the norm, they sent two-thirds of their ordinary levy against the Lacedaemonians, they should have been able to field something like four thousand hoplites in addition to the elite unit of one thousand that we know they sent—while the Athenians are known to have provided one thousand and the Mantineians and their allies, just under three thousand additional heavy infantrymen. If these estimates are anywhere near correct, the two armies were tolerably well-matched—with Sparta and her Arcadian allies fielding at least ninety-seven hundred hoplites and quite possibly two hundred fifty more and the Argive alliance, not many fewer than nine thousand.
In describing the two armies as they converged, Thucydides drew a sharp distinction between them. At the last minute, each side sought to buck up morale, and each then marched into battle—but they did not do either in the same way.
The Mantineian leaders are said to have exhorted their troops by arguing that they were fighting for their fatherland and that this contest would decide whether they were destined for enslavement or empire. The Argive commanders urged their hoplites to take revenge on the enemies and neighbors who had done them many wrongs and to battle for the “ancient hegemony” that was theirs in the time of Agamemnon and for “the equal portion” allotted to them when the Heraclids divvied up the Peloponnesus.
The Athenians were reminded that glory was at stake and that victory would safeguard their empire, expand it, and end once and for all the prospect that Attica might be invaded. In contrast, the Lacedaemonians eschewed oratory. Instead, they resorted to their traditional songs of war, exhorting one another in this fashion to remember what they, as brave men, already knew: that the extensive drill and training that they had undergone for so long would be more likely to save them than words of exhortation eloquently delivered on the spur of the moment.
After this, while the Argives surged forward eagerly and in a great lather, the Lacedaemonians are said to have advanced at a pace slow, deliberate, and—one might even say—majestic. This they did to the sounds emitted by the multitude of hereditary pipers in their midst, who were charged with maintaining a steady rhythm so that the hoplites could march in formation and not break ranks as the soldiers in sizable armies were wont to do. If, at this time, the Lacedaemonians all had lambdas emblazoned on their shields, as was certainly the practice a few years thereafter, they will have seemed all the more fearsome as they were piped into battle and inexorably bore down on their foe.
Thucydides’ account of the battle itself turns initially on a pattern of behavior inherent in all hoplite warfare. As he explains, the hoplite phalanx is a system of interlocking shields; and, because the aspís borne by each hoplite covers its bearer’s left but not his right side and he relies on the aspís of the man to his right for protection in this regard, there is in every phalanx a soldier posted at the right end of the front rank whose right side is unshielded and dangerously exposed. In consequence of the fear to which his predicament gives rise, this hapless individual tends to drift to the right and to draw everyone to his left along with him in a slow but inexorable chain reaction—as one by one his fellow hoplites are forced by the empty space he originally opened up on his left to move in his direction and close ranks. This in turn tends to cause each phalanx to outflank the other on that wing, and there are times in which the threat this poses to the opposing army’s left flank forces its commander to take compensatory action.
This is precisely what happened at Mantineia—where, thanks to the chain reaction described above, the Sciritae and the liberated helots on the Lacedaemonian left and the Athenians on the Argive left found themselves dangerously outflanked. Agis, who was stationed in the center, took note of the danger. Judging that the units immediately to his right would be more than strong enough, even at reduced strength, for the challenge they faced, and fearing that the men on his left flank would be surrounded and overwhelmed, he ordered the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı to shift to their left, and he instructed the polemarchs Hipponoidas and Aristocles to bring in two lóchoı from among the units to his right to fill the yawning gap opened up when the Sciritae and Brasídeıoı made their move. No one but the Lacedaemonians would have attempted so complex a maneuver at such a time, but they were well-drilled in the making of such adjustments, and Agis apparently thought the maneuver worth the risk.
The two polemarchs took a different view, thinking it unwise, if not impossible, to move large units about at the very moment of the onset, and they refused to budge. Agis responded to the crisis by ordering the Sciritae back to their original station, but it was too late for them to close the gap. On this occasion, as Thucydides wryly observes, the Lacedaemonians proved deficient in tactical skill and inept, and for this they paid a price. When the hand-to-hand combat began, the Mantineians on the Argive right flank rolled over the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı while the remaining Mantineian troops, their subject allies, and the thousand-member elite force of the Argives poured through the gap in the enemy line; routed the Lacedaemonians to their immediate left, encircling and slaughtering many; then drove the rest back to the wagons that made up their baggage train, where they killed some of the older men stationed there as guards.
Elsewhere, however, as Thucydides emphasizes, the Lacedaemonians demonstrated that they were anything but inferior in courage. In the center, where Agis was posted with the three hundred hıppeîs, and to his right, the Spartans fell upon the five lóchoı fielded by the Argives, the Cleonaeans and Orneans, and the Athenians posted with them, and they drove them off. When the hand-to-hand combat began, most of those in the Argive army immediately fled the fight, and their panic was so severe that some were trampled underfoot. On Agis’ right flank, the Tegeans and the handful of Lacedaemonians posted with them curled about the Athenians whom they had outflanked; and, when the Argives, Cleonaeans, Orneans, and the Athenians posted with them, who were stationed on their army’s left immediately to the right of the main body of the Athenians, cut and ran, those on the flank found themselves caught between two fires. Had it not been for their cavalry, Thucydides reports, his compatriots would have suffered greater losses than any other part of the Argive army.
At this point, Agis ordered his army to wheel about and come to the defense of his own left wing. This enabled the Athenians and the defeated Argives to escape, and it caused the Mantineians and the members of the elite Argive unit to take to their heels. The former suffered grievously. But, according to Thucydides, the majority of those in the elite Argive unit survived. The disparity does not appear to have been an accident. Diodorus Siculus, following the fourth-century historian Ephorus, reports that Agis had these Argives surrounded, could easily have slaughtered them, and would have done so had he not been restrained by one of the xúmbouloı, a distinguished Spartiate named Pharax, who instructed him to let them escape.
In the aftermath of the battle, Agis sent one message to Tegea to Pleistoanax, who had brought up the rest of the Spartan levy in case they were needed, and another to Corinth—announcing the victory and indicating that the Spartans would no longer need help. Later, he led his army back to Lacedaemon to celebrate the Carneia. But, first, the Spartans at Mantineia collected the enemy dead, laid them out, stripped the corpses, and set up a trophy as a memorial of their victory. Their own dead they then conveyed to Tegea and buried them there; and those of the enemy they returned, as was the custom, under a truce.
The losses suffered by those in the Argive coalition were heavy. The main body of the Argives and their subject allies had sacrificed seven hundred lives (perhaps 17.5 percent of the hoplites they fielded); the Mantineians, two hundred; and the Athenians and their Aeginetan colonists, another two hundred—including the generals Laches and Nicostratus—which is to say one man in five. Although no one really knew how many Lacedaemonians died, Thucydides reports that it was supposed that they had lost roughly three hundred men. Most of these were, we must suspect, Sciritae, Brasídeıoı, and neodamImages deıs.
At Mantineia, the result was by no means a foregone conclusion. Had the Eleans and the Athenian reinforcements arrived in time, the Argives and their allies would have outnumbered the Lacedaemonians and theirs by a ratio of four to three, and they almost certainly would have won. Had the Mantineians and the elite Argive unit acted in the manner in which the Spartans were trained to act—had they exercised self-restraint and remained in formation after routing the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı and had they then wheeled to the left and attacked the center of Agis’ army from behind—the Spartans might well have lost. It is even conceivable that, if the polemarchs Aristocles and Hipponoidas, who were subsequently exiled for malakía, had obeyed Agis’ orders, the Lacedaemonian contingent to his right would have been so weakened that, in the face of the main body of the Argives, it would have collapsed.
But the Spartans did win, and they won in the old-fashioned way by displaying strategic vision and by exhibiting the virtues of courage, steadfastness, discipline, self-restraint, solidarity, and respect for the law that they had been taught. They not only stood up to the Argives, they cowed them; and when they routed them, they did not do what the Mantineians and the elite Argive unit did. They did not break ranks and pursue those they had defeated. They remained in formation, as was their practice; they awaited orders; and they then wheeled about to take on those of their opponents who had thus far enjoyed success.
By the same token, the Argive alliance lost in the old-fashioned way by displaying strategic incomprehension and by exhibiting the vices of cowardice, half-heartedness, indiscipline, faction, and lawlessness. The Eleans conducted themselves in a foolish, childish, and self-destructive manner. The Argive generals were tactically astute, but their compatriots were inadequately trained, morally unprepared, politically divided, and afflicted with a propensity for becoming a lynch mob. The Mantineians possessed courage but lacked the requisite tactical focus and restraint.
And the Athenians? Their failure stemmed from strategic incomprehension. As in the late 470s and the 460s, when they spurned the advice of Themistocles, they badly misjudged the strategic stakes, and on this occasion they squandered the best chance that they had had in half a century to eliminate the one power in Hellas that posed to them a serious threat. It seems to have been their fate to take great risks which they should never have even considered and to exhibit caution when the rewards on offer were of supreme value. Within five years, the Athenians would come to rue the day that they had thrown away the golden opportunity afforded them in the aftermath of the Peace of Nicias.