The Master of Surprise
Demosthenes and His Military Challenges
In 432–431 BCE, the Spartans called an assembly of their allies to discuss going to war with Athens. According to historian Thucydides, the delegation from Corinth forcefully argued that Sparta should take immediate action. Among their means of persuasion was contrasting the Athenian “national character” with Sparta’s in a way calculated to make the Spartans fear Athens and choose war. The Corinthians described the Athenians as full of action and energy and willing to put their minds and bodies at the service of the state. They were innovative in tactics and military thought, as well as “bold beyond reason.” They were ambitious for gains and looked for them away from home. They tried to exploit their military successes fully, and when they failed in one place, they were ready to try again elsewhere.
In his character and career, the Athenian general Demosthenes (to be distinguished from the famous fourth-century orator of the same name) exemplifies in many ways the character of his city as described by the Corinthians. He was very active, daring, and ambitious, dedicated to his city, and a designer of original military plans. Unlike the Athenians of the speech, however, he did not always stay sanguine in times of trouble, and tended to give up when unsuccessful, but otherwise Demosthenes fitted well the portrayal of his fellow citizens.
Though some of Demosthenes’ attributes also characterize Pericles’ art of command, the two generals differed from each other in several important respects. Demosthenes was far less involved in the city’s politics, and was more a tactician than a strategist. He was also less wary than Pericles of meeting the Spartans in battle. While Pericles shunned risks, Demosthenes appeared to court them. Whereas Pericles had to deal with the defense of both empire and city, Demosthenes spent his entire military career away from home and in different theaters of war than those Pericles had visited. The older statesman regarded Athens’ navy as crucial to victory, but Demosthenes fought the enemy mostly on land. These differences from Pericles and other generals earn him a place in a book on Greek generalship.
Because Demosthenes’ generalship began in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War, it will be useful to contextualize his first appearance by looking at the balance sheet of the opposing sides from its outbreak. By then, the two chief antagonists, especially the Spartans, had little to show for their efforts. The Peloponnesians’ annual invasions of Attica were relatively short, and the damage they caused was insufficient to induce the Athenians to meet them in an all-out land battle, still less to capitulate. The only meaningful victory the Peloponnesians could claim was the destruction in 427 of the small city-state of Plataea, Athens’ ally on its border with Boeotia. The Athenians had done considerably better. Under Pericles, they had already occupied a few places in and around eastern Locris and turned the island of Aegina into an Athenian colony in 431. They also added the western island of Cephalonia to their alliance, and defeated and colonized Potidaea in Chalcidice (430–429). In the post-Periclean era, the general Phormio won two naval victories over Peloponnesian fleets in the Corinthian Gulf in 429, and Athens put down a revolt of the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in 427. It also captured and colonized Notium in Ionia in 427, and occupied Minoa, opposite Megara. In the summer of 426, while Demosthenes was fighting his first campaign in western Greece, Athens won a victory over Tanagra in Boeotia.4 Although the list looks impressive, it is also misleading, because Athens’ gains were local and insufficient to move the Spartans to reconsider their strategy, to say nothing of their decision to go to war. Athens also lost many citizens in a plague, as we have seen, and its most prominent leader, Pericles. The time was ripe, then, for a general who could make a difference, and Demosthenes appears to have played this role, intentionally or not.
Nothing is known of Demosthenes’ background, except for his father’s name, Alcisthenes, and his membership in the large deme of Aphidna in northern Attica. His “bursting” onto the scene in 426 was followed by two years of intense activity, in which he led campaigns against the Aetolians and the Ambraciots in western Greece, against the Spartans in Pylos and the island of Sphacteria in the western Peloponnese, and against Megara and Boeotia in central Greece. A hiatus in his career was soon interrupted by a small rescue operation near Epidaurus in the eastern Peloponnese in 418, and in 414–413, he led reinforcements to the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily, where he met his death.
In the course of his career, Demosthenes faced considerable challenges. They included leading an army of men who were drawn from different states and included units with different proficiencies in attack and in retreat. He was forced to contend with enemies that had an advantage in heavy or light infantry and on unfamiliar terrain. He had to defend fortified sites against attacks by land and sea, but he also tried to capture walled cities in cooperation with fifth-columnists. The difficulties of his operations were exacerbated by the need to coordinate land and sea forces and to conduct simultaneous attacks from different directions. He also had to fight a naval battle in small confines. Beyond the battlefield, Demosthenes was called to mediate conflicts among allies and accommodate their diverse interests in order to obtain their help. He similarly had to persuade colleagues, and even his troops, to cooperate with him and accept his authority. Demosthenes opted for surprise attacks to meet many of these challenges, a solution that created difficulties of its own.
Modern historians of the Peloponnesian War tend to give Demosthenes high marks for military leadership. They depict him as a brilliant strategist, courageous, and resourceful—someone who could “think outside the box,” to use a modern catchphrase. In fact, Demosthenes had a checkered career that at times justified these praises, but at others showed him responsible for failures and even disaster.
Defeat and Victories in Western Greece
Demosthenes first operated in western Greece, where rival communities sought to strengthen their positions by making (or shifting) alliances with Athens or Sparta. In general terms, communities on the northwestern shore of the Corinthian Gulf were friendly to Athens. These included the city of Naupactus, settled by Messenian refugees of the so-called great helots’ revolt against Sparta in 460s and their descendants. The city functioned as an Athenian naval base. Naupactus’ neighbors, the Ozolian (Western) Locrians, were Athens’ allies as well. Further to the west was Oeniadae, a friend of the Peloponnesians and the target of several Athenian attacks. The belligerent Acarnanians, Oeniadae’s neighbors and enemies, were Athens’ friends, as were the Acarnanians’ allies, the Amphilochians in and around (Amphilochian) Argos. There was bitter enmity between the Amphilochians (and the Acarnanians) and communities on the Ambraciot Gulf such as Ambracia and Anactorium, both Peloponnesian allies. The island of Leucas across from Acarnania was also a Peloponnesian ally. In short, regional rivalries supported by rival hegemonic powers created a messy situation that offered both opportunities and difficulties for Demosthenes.
In 426, Demosthenes arrived in this region with the general Procles and an Athenian fleet of thirty ships, and after a short raid of the island of Leucas, he learned firsthand about the conflicting local interests. While the Acarnanians wanted him to help them in the siege of a city on Leucas, “their inveterate enemy,” the Messenians of Naupactus wished him to go against their foes, the Aetolians in the north. Demosthenes took the Messenian offer because he thought he could integrate it into a larger plan of attacking the Boeotian confederacy centered at Thebes. Thebes and other Boeotians were among Sparta’s chief allies and the most powerful of Athens’ inimical neighbors. Not for last time, Demosthenes’ plan showed a mixture of ingenuity, risk-taking, and grand ambition that could result in great rewards but also heavy losses. The general intended to assemble a large force in order to defeat the Aetolians, who were regarded as largely uncivilized tribes, unschooled in heavy-infantry warfare. From Aetolia, he planned to march through Ozolian Locris to Phocis, a former friend of Athens that he hoped to turn back into an ally by persuasion or intimidation. Creating a pro-Athenian bloc from the Adriatic Sea to Phocis would have been a major gain for Athens and could have served as a launching pad for an invasion of Boeotia from the west.
The plan proved too intricate, however, and exposed Demosthenes to many conflicting pressures. Everything hinged on first defeating the Aetolians with a blitzkrieg requiring enough light-armed troops to contend with their skilled javelin throwers. But Demosthenes’ rejection of the Acarnanians’ request to conduct a siege on Leucas led to their refusal to join him with their light-armed forces. The general thought he could substitute light-armed Locrians for the missing units, but fear of allowing the Aetolians time to mobilize a large force compelled him to attack them quickly without waiting for the Locrians’ arrival. He was also dependent on the Messenians, who pushed him to keep marching and fed him optimistic intelligence, while his own ambition and confidence encouraged him to take the risk. He took the Aetolian town of Aegitium, but against expectations, the Aetolians came in large numbers to its rescue. They descended on the Athenians from the hills and showered them with their javelins, withdrawing or advancing according to the Athenians’ counter-movements. After a long battle, the Athenians gave up. The repeated pursuits and retreats exhausted them, and the death of the commander of their archers unit and shortage of arrows eliminated the only effective weapon they had against the attackers. The lightly armed and fast Aetolians had little trouble killing the battle refugees, who were unfamiliar with the terrain. They fled right into their enemies’ ranks or to dead-end ravines, with many finding shelter in a wood that the Aetolians then set on fire.
Demosthenes’ defeat was not inevitable, but he did much to bring it about. He yielded to the pressure of his allies and to his own belief that he could use them in a greater design of catching his opponents by surprise. His ignorance of the terrain was compounded by his underestimation of the enemy’s fighting ability and willingness to fight and by the absence of lightly armed troops who might have matched the Aetolian javelin-throwers. His lack of experience showed in the conventional ways in which his hoplites tried and failed to contend with the enemy light infantry. In essence, he allowed the enemy to establish the manner of combat and take advantage of its greater mobility and knowledge of the terrain.
Demosthenes escaped to the coast, having lost many allies, his colleague the general Procles, and 120 Athenian hoplites, whom Thucydides describes as “the finest men lost to the city in the course of this war.” Because the Athenians were capable of severely punishing generals for poor results, Demosthenes chose to stay in and around Naupactus rather than go home. But soon his career was inadvertently saved by the enemy that had defeated him and by the allies he had disappointed.
At first, Demosthenes frustrated a combined Aetolian-Peloponnesian offensive against Naupactus by bringing 1,000 Acarnanian hoplites to its defense. Preventing the fall of Naupactus into Peloponnesian hands was in the common interest of Athens and Acarnania, and Demosthenes deserves credit for his rescue operation. Later in the winter, he commanded a mostly Acarnanian force that came to the help of the Amphilochians, the Acarnanians’ allies, against a joint Peloponnesian-Ambraciot attack. In two battles, Demosthenes showed the great rewards of successful surprise tactics.
The first battle, near Olpae. Demosthenes surprised a larger Peloponnesian-Ambraciot army, catching it between his Messenian hoplites and an ambush of Acarnanian hoplites and light infantry. The general had learned the lesson from his failure in Aetolia. Now he left little to chance, and his objective was more limited and better defined. He was also fortunate in having skilled troops from Naupactus and Acarnania, who, we recall, had refused to follow him to Aetolia. Finally, thanks to his local allies and his military intelligence, he could skillfully use the terrain instead of being its victim.
Demosthenes followed up the victory at Olpae by inflicting additional losses on the Ambraciots, although not necessarily by design. The Peloponnesians, who had lost two of their senior commanders, made a secret pact with him that allowed their officers, the Mantineans, and certain important Peloponnesians to retreat unharmed, leaving the rest to their fate. Their departure was very much in Demosthenes’ interest because it left the remaining force leaderless and without its best troops. Thucydides also suggests that it weakened the Peloponnesians’ local allies and put the Peloponnesians in bad odor with them. Seeing the Peloponnesians fleeing, their Ambraciot allies (who were ignorant of the deal) joined the flight, and in the ensuing confusion, the Acarnanians killed about 200 Ambraciots. The rest of the troops escaped and took refuge with a friendly local ruler.
A more-significant and better-planned victory was won the next day, when Demosthenes took full advantage of his superior military intelligence and his allies’ knowledge of the land. He found out that Ambraciot reinforcements, unaware of the defeat at Olpae, were on their way to help their countrymen. He dispatched units to ambush the roads and take control of commanding sites. When the Ambraciots arrived at a place called Idomene and occupied the smaller of two hills there, they did not know that Demosthenes’ advance force was already hidden on the larger hill. Under cover of night, Demosthenes sent half of his army by a roundabout way, either to the enemy camp or to catch fleeing Ambraciots, while taking the other half on a direct route. At the head of his force he placed Messenian troops, who used their Dorian dialect to mislead Ambraciot sentries (who spoke a similar dialect) into mistaking them for friendly soldiers. At dawn, he attacked the enemy and caught them completely unprepared, with the advance party on the adjacent hill presumably joining the attack. Many Ambraciots were slaughtered, and others fled straight into Demosthenes’ ambushes or to unfamiliar ground, where the local and lighter-armed Amphilochians had an easy time pinning them down with their javelins. The Ambraciots who made it to the sea swam away in fear of the Amphilochians, their bitterest enemies, only to be killed by the Athenians who patrolled the water.
Thucydides was so impressed by the magnitude of Demosthenes’ victory that he used it to narrate a short tragedy (or a macabre comedy) of errors played by an Ambraciot herald and an anonymous victorious soldier. The herald, knowing nothing of what had happened at Idomene, came to ask for the bodies of 200 soldiers who had died after the battle of Olpae the day before. He was puzzled by the amount of stripped arms on the ground, which suggested about 1,000 dead. The victorious soldier, who thought the herald had come to ask for the dead of Idomene, did not understand the herald’s surprise. When the herald finally realized the size of the calamity, he went away, forgetting his whole mission. Thucydides adds to their dialogue the claim that this was the greatest disaster to befall a single Greek city in such a short time in the course of the war, saying that he refuses to record how many Ambraciots died lest he be disbelieved. The historian’s implied sympathy for the losses of the defeated city does not negate the tribute he thus paid to Demosthenes’ victory. Yet, as much as Demosthenes deserved credit for his victories at Olpae and Idomene, their consequences were something of a disappointment. When he suggested to his allies that they follow up the victory with the capture of the now greatly weakened Ambracia, they refused. Thucydides sensibly suggests that they feared mighty Athens would take over the city, making it an unwelcome neighbor. What the historian does not say is that Demosthenes had to concede to the Acarnanians, because, just as in Aetolia, he was dependent on allies who would cooperate with Athenian generals only so far as it served them. Indeed, the Acarnanians and the Amphilochians soon made peace with Ambracia, which even received a garrison of 300 hoplites from Corinth, Athens’ foe.
The victories in northwestern Greece allowed Demosthenes to return to Athens without fear of public prosecution for his earlier failure. Three hundred enemy panoplies that survived the trip home commemorated his accomplishments in Athenian temples, and Demosthenes must have had little trouble getting choice military assignments in the future.