Demosthenes of Athens II

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Battle of Delium, 424 BC ⚔️ Athens takes on Sparta ⚔️ Peloponnesian War

Astonishing Success in Pylos

Demosthenes’ greatest victory was at Pylos, on the Messenian coast of southwestern Greece. There, in the face of adversity, he displayed personal courage, excellent planning skills based on good military intelligence, and a perseverance that was not one of his enduring virtues, as we shall see. This section will attempt to describe Demosthenes’ exploits at Pylos while also putting them into perspective.

In the spring of 425, an Athenian fleet of forty ships left Athens for Sicily, where the Athenians were engaged in a local war. On the way there, the fleet was supposed to help the democrats on the island of Corcyra, who were under attack from Corcyran oligarchs on the mainland and a Peloponnesian navy at sea. In charge of the mission were the generals Eurymedon and Sophocles (not the playwright), and they were joined by Demosthenes, who had “held no command after his return from Acarnania, but at his own request the Athenians granted him leave to use these ships at his discretion on their voyage around the Peloponnese.” The Athenians could authorize a military command even to men who were not elected generals.

Demosthenes did not tell his fellow commanders exactly how he intended to use the fleet, and his authority to employ it for an undisclosed mission testifies to the trust and high repute he enjoyed in the city after his victories in Acarnania. His characteristic recourse to secrecy, however, was in this case directed against both the enemy and his fellow commanders. Planning to fortify and occupy a deserted place called Pylos on the Messenian shore, Demosthenes was apparently concerned that Eurymedon and Sophocles would refuse to collaborate with him even before he reached his destination. These colleagues were under pressure to reach Corcyra in order to save the democrats there, and they were concerned about the expenditure of public money his plan involved, as they told Demosthenes later. As discussed in the previous chapter, financial considerations played an important part in planning military operations, and in Athens, generals were also subjected to financial scrutiny (euthynae) in the form of a trial that could result in a heavy penalty for the defendant.

Yet Demosthenes’ plan had many virtues, chief among them the innovative idea of epiteichismos, or establishing a permanent presence in a fortified place in enemy territory. This was to be achieved first by occupying a well-protected site at Pylos and manning it with Messenians from Naupactus: friends of Demosthenes’ and former rebels (and their descendants) against Sparta in the late 460s who had found refuge in Naupactus with Athenian help. By raiding Messenian territory and (probably) encouraging insurrection among its residents, the Messenians from Pylos could inflict considerable damage on Sparta. Many of those who lived in the region and its adjacent lands were helots, people of semi-slave status who worked for their Spartan landlords and served in the army mostly as servants or light-armed troops. Their harsh treatment by the Spartans promised their cooperation with the men from Pylos. The site itself was well suited for Demosthenes’ purpose, and to his credit, he must have inspected or learned about it from Messenian sources before the expedition. Pylos was also sufficiently distant from Sparta—Thucydides estimates the distance at 400 stades, about 70 km—to complicate Spartan communications and countermeasures. The surrounding land was deserted, and a nearby natural harbor allowed access from the sea for the occupiers and those wishing to aid them. Walls could complement the natural defenses of the place, which had an abundance of building material. There was even a small spring that could supply water for a garrison (but not many more).

It has been claimed that Demosthenes’ plan complicated and even violated Pericles’ more conservative strategy of containing the conflict with Sparta. The reader will recall that Pericles opposed meeting the Spartans in battle and expanding Athens’ military commitments. Yet as we have seen, Pericles himself departed from his own guidelines, and Thucydides goes as far as to credit him with the same idea of epiteichismos even before the war started. In addition, none of Demosthenes’ contemporaries seemed to be bothered by his supposed deviation from Pericles’ strategy: Demosthenes’ colleagues, who opposed the fortification, raised no such argument.

Nevertheless, occupying Pylos was not an easy sale. Demosthenes’ colleagues opposed the idea when the fleet sailed by it, and they did not change their minds even after a chance storm forced them to anchor there and they could see the merits of Pylos for themselves. But Demosthenes did not give up. He looked for support for his project among the lower-ranking officers and even the marines and rowers. Athenian generals and their troops were never far removed from the culture of persuasion in the popular assembly. According to Thucydides, however, what decided the issue was the impulsive initiative of the crews, who in their idleness applied themselves to fortifying the place. Since building the walls required six days of hard labor and supervision, Demosthenes may have had a hand in this outburst of activity. His dominant personality and confidence in his plan, abetted by popular support, forced his colleagues to acquiesce. Possibly they came to share his concern about being caught between the stormy sea and a Spartan offensive. It helped the Athenians that the Spartans decided to wait for the arrival of their army from Attica and that the Peloponnesian fleet had to sail to Pylos from the vicinity of Leucas. Thucydides’ claim that the Spartans did not take the threat seriously at first is supported by their failure to send even an improvised force to interrupt the fortification of Pylos.

With the fortification done, the Athenians left Demosthenes with five ships at Pylos and sailed toward Corcyra. By now the Spartans had mobilized their army and other Peloponnesians for an attack on Pylos by land and sea. Thucydides’ description of how the Spartans intended to deal with Demosthenes and the Athenian fleet that came to his aid is beset with difficulties, perhaps even errors, some of which are due to his unfamiliarity with the locale. Less controversial is his report that the Spartans stationed land forces on the coast of Navarino Bay at an uncertain distance from Pylos, and that they sent 420 hoplites and an unspecified number of helot attendants to the uninhabited island of Sphacteria across from Pylos. The occupation of the island was part of their plan to prevent the Athenians from gaining a foothold in and around the bay. No one at the scene, however, could have foreseen that this defensive move would result in making Pylos a turning point in the Peloponnesian War and would provide Demosthenes with his crowning achievement.

In view of the Spartan preparations for an attack on Pylos, Demosthenes sacrificed the use of two of his five triremes in order to recall the Athenian fleet from Zacynthus. This loss was somewhat compensated by the arrival of two Messenian boats carrying at least forty hoplites and a large number of wicker shields. In spite of Thucydides’ language suggesting that they appeared by chance, it is more likely that the reinforcement had been coordinated in advance with Demosthenes, with only its time of arrival being unpredictable. Now expecting to be attacked from both land and sea, the Athenian general dragged his triremes ashore for their protection. In the absence of good-quality weapons, he armed their crews with substandard shields, including those brought by the Messenians. He anticipated that the enemy would come in great force from the direction of the mainland, and he sent the majority of his men, with or without arms, to defend this best-fortified part of the site. He himself took sixty hoplites and a few archers to the wall that reached the sea. The rocky beach worked to his advantage by endangering any ships that landed there, limiting their movement and number.

The Spartans attacked from land and sea, but Thucydides relates only what happened on the beachfront. He shows Demosthenes’ success in contending with the enemy in spite of their greater numbers, as well as the heroics of the Spartan commander Brasidas, whom Thucydides greatly admired. The historian also uses the fighting to draw attention to a reversal of roles, a recurrent theme in his work. In this engagement, the Spartans, known for their military prowess on land, fought the Athenians from the sea, while the latter, known for their naval skills, battled the enemy on land. The Athenians won the battle, thanks partly to their tenacious defense and partly to Demosthenes’ skillful use of the rough terrain. The defenders bravely withstood a Peloponnesian fleet of forty-three ships that carried many more marines than the Athenians’. (The sight and sound of a trireme landing could be quite frightening.) Yet it was the rocky ground that helped Demosthenes most. The Peloponnesians could land only a few ships at a time, and only where the Athenians stood. Landing on the beach also risked wrecking the ships—a sacrifice of men, equipment, and money that many of the Peloponnesian pilots and captains were unwilling to make. Even the valiant Brasidas, who called upon his fellow commanders to brave landing regardless of the consequences, was unable to disembark from his ship. (He collapsed because of his wounds and lost his shield, which the Athenians later retrieved and used for a trophy.) After two days of futile efforts, the Spartans gave up, planning to land in another spot and to use siege engines against the high wall there. But soon everything changed, thanks to the Athenian fleet.

Spartan neglect or lack of skill allowed the fifty Athenian ships that had come originally with Demosthenes to Pylos to return, enter the bay, and destroy or disable much of the Peloponnesian fleet. Although Thucydides fails to say so, it was a most important development in the entire Pylos affair. After the Athenian victory, the Spartans lost any viable option of attacking Pylos from the sea, and, more important, they risked losing their men on the island of Sphacteria. The Athenians blockaded the island, wanting these men dead or alive, and from that point on, the warring parties’ attention shifted from Pylos to the Spartans on the island.

The Spartan government was willing to go to great lengths in order to rescue these men. Sparta had just suffered a humiliating naval defeat close to home, and the prospect of losing even a few hundred men to captivity or battle was frightening to a state that already suffered from a shortage of citizens. The men on the island also included prominent, well-connected Spartans. These factors induced the Spartan authorities to accept harsh terms of truce that ensured the safety of the warriors on the island for the duration of peace negotiations with Athens. Thucydides reports a Spartan speech to the Athenian assembly on this occasion, offering to stop the war for a peace treaty. Ostensibly, the proposal suggested that Demosthenes’ idea of transferring the war into enemy territory had better chance of victory than Pericles’ strategy. Yet it is worth bearing in mind than no one predicted such a successful outcome of his action, not even Demosthenes himself. Moreover, while the Spartan delegates expressed concern for the men on Sphacteria, they said nothing about the occupation of Pylos. Perhaps the future of Pylos was among the points to be negotiated discreetly later. But it is just as likely that the Spartans considered the loss of Pylos less important than rescuing their men, a ranking of priorities that puts Demosthenes’ hopes for Pylos’ role in the war into perspective.

The Athenians sought to exploit the Spartan distress and demanded concessions that Thucydides deems excessive and that Sparta rejected. With the benefit of hindsight, the historian blames the Athenian politician Cleon for spoiling an opportunity to end the war with Athens on top. After the failed negotiations, the Athenians renewed the blockade of the island with their fleet, which now grew to seventy ships, and the Peloponnesians resumed their attacks on the walls of Pylos, with neither effort making any progress. We do not know what Demosthenes did at this juncture, because Thucydides loses interest in him for a number of chapters. We are told that the Athenians were disappointed in their hope of starving out the men on the island, because the Spartans established a successful smuggling operation by rewarding helots and others with freedom or monetary prizes for bringing food through the blockade. Epitadas, the Spartan commander on the island, also took the precaution of conserving food by putting his men on half rations.

Paradoxically, the Athenians fared worse than the besieged Spartans because they did not have enough provisions, water, or a suitable space for their big fleet. Their frustration contributed to their low morale and to their concern that the approaching winter would increase their difficulties of supply, or even force them to abandon the blockade altogether. Their hardship influenced the political scene at home, but Thucydides’ account of it is so biased against the politician Cleon—whom he portrays as demagogic, insincere, cowardly, and even clownish—that the reality of the situation is almost beyond recovery. In Athens, there were clearly calls for military action and criticism of the generals at Pylos, maybe even of Demosthenes. But Thucydides provides Demosthenes with convincing reasons for not landing on the island at this point. In essence, they amount to Demosthenes’ concern that fighting on the heavily wooded island would work in the Spartans’ favor. The enemy could ambush the landing force, exploit their knowledge of the terrain if fighting took place in the woods, and prevent the Athenian commander from managing the battle, since he would be unable to see where reinforcements were needed or even how many losses he had suffered. Thucydides suggests that Demosthenes’ concerns were directly related to his bitter experience in Aetolia, where his men had been hunted down by the locals. Equally applicable was his more positive experience in Acarnania, where he and his allies had knowledgeably exploited the terrain to inflict losses on the enemy. In any case, Demosthenes’ caution now was uncharacteristic of this daring general. One reason for his eventual success at Sphacteria was that his partiality for surprise attacks was well balanced by fears of being their victim.

What changed Demosthenes’ and the Athenians’ minds was a fire that largely denuded the island and exposed its occupants. Demosthenes could now ascertain how many men were on Sphacteria and their location. Thucydides says the fire was accidental, but modern scholars who think he was biased against Demosthenes, or that the latter was the best Greek general in the Peloponnesian war, credit Demosthenes with starting it. This hypothesis raises the question of what took him so long to resort to this means of exposing the enemy. It is simplest to take Thucydides at his word.

According to Thucydides’ description of events at Athens, the politicians Nicias and Cleon were tossing the command of the new operation at Pylos back and forth like a hot potato. It was Cleon who eventually took it, and when he promised to bring the men from the island alive or kill them there within twenty days, he seems already to have been aware of Demosthenes’ new plan of attack and what troops it required. Indeed, Cleon picked Demosthenes as his colleague for this mission before leaving for Pylos with reinforcements that had assembled in Athens. These included troops (possibly hoplites) from Athenian colonies in Lemnos and Imbros, lighter-armed peltasts from Aenos in Thrace, and 400 archers. Upon arrival, the new force joined the Athenian crews and soldiers already at Pylos, as well as recruits from neighboring allies. The invasion of the island took place on the seventy-second day of the blockade.

Demosthenes’ and Cleon’s plan of attack took into consideration the Spartans’ dispositions on the island, their predictable tactics, and the terrain. The enemy general, Epitadas, assigned thirty hoplites to a post in the southern part of the island, stationed the bulk of his forces at its center under his own command, and sent a small unit to guard a makeshift fort on the northern end overlooking Pylos. Under cover of night, the Athenian commanders landed about 800 hoplites on both sides of the island. This force attacked the unprepared enemy at the southern post and eliminated them. At dawn, the Athenian generals flooded the island with nearly 11,000 men, according to one estimate. These included 800 archers and 800 peltasts, as well as slingers and many other light infantry. Numbers do not always tell, but there were only 420 enemy hoplites on Sphacteria, with perhaps an equal number of lighter-armed attendants. The odds clearly favored the attackers.

As could be expected of the Spartans at the main post, they readied themselves for a hoplite battle in which they would enjoy a tactical and psychological advantage: the Spartan reputation on land was formidable. But Demosthenes was taking no chances, and he knew better than to let the enemy determine the form of the battle. He divided his troops into groups of 200 men and ordered them to seize the high points that surrounded the enemy. He then positioned his hoplites in the front, but used them more as bait for the enemy hoplites than as an offensive unit, ordering them not to advance, and sending his light-armed troops to do the fighting. Every time the Peloponnesians tried to engage the Athenian hoplites, they were attacked on their flanks by lighter troops including archers, slingers, and javelin-throwers, who shot at them from a safe distance. And when the Spartan hoplites pursued their attackers, the latter had little difficulty avoiding contact.

The more the Spartans chased the fleeing enemy and then regrouped, the more tired they grew. The din that the attackers made and the clouds of dust and ash from the fire impaired the Spartans’ hearing and sight, and hence the discipline on which much of their prowess depended. It appears also that they lost Epitadas, their commander, and that his wounded deputy was presumed dead, leaving them under the command of a third-ranking, junior officer. Finally, the psychological barrier of fighting the Spartans collapsed, and with the Athenians growing bolder, the Spartans retreated to their last position in the northern fort. This move gained them only a brief respite, because a Messenian commander, with Demosthenes and Cleon’s blessing, took a unit of archers and light troops and seized a higher spot at the Spartans’ rear.

Demosthenes and Cleon’s main concern now was to prevent their spirited troops from killing these potentially precious captives. They held the army back and demanded an unconditional surrender. It appears that most of the exhausted Spartans were willing to yield, but their commander wished to consult his superiors on the mainland first. After a few comings and goings of Spartan envoys, they received these final instructions: “(T)‌he Spartans tell you to make your own decision about yourselves, but do nothing dishonorable.” The Spartan authorities’ dilemma in reconciling their men’s survival, Spartan ideals, and concerns about the disastrous consequences of capitulation was understandable. Yet, if by “do nothing dishonorable” they meant surrender, the message was ambivalent, even contradictory.

Two hundred and ninety men, including 120 Spartans, surrendered and were taken to Athens by Demosthenes and Cleon. The Pylos campaign had succeeded beyond expectations, including Demosthenes’. The threat of executing the prisoners prevented the Spartans’ invasion of Attica, a major component of their war strategy. The victory also meant that, in the zero-sum game of national reputations, Athens’ prestige went up while the Spartans’ carefully cultivated ethos of courage and heroic death in battle suffered a major blow. Thucydides, always on the lookout for historical ironies, cannot resist contrasting the Spartan heroes of Thermopylae with their apparently lesser heirs:

To the Greeks this was the most surprising event of the whole war. They had thought that Spartans would never surrender their arms, in starvation or any other extremity, but would use them to the last of their strength and die fighting. They could not believe that those who surrendered were the same quality as those who were killed.

The Athenian success also encompassed the occupation of Pylos. The site was taken by highly motivated Messenians from Naupactus, who plundered Spartan fields and attracted helot deserters. Thucydides states that Spartans were very worried about the Messenians stirring up a wider helot revolt, and he mentions this fear and “the disaster on the island” as among their motives for agreeing in 421 to the Peace of Nicias, which (temporarily) ended the war. Yet scholars who congratulate Demosthenes on initiating an innovative strategy of establishing a permanent, fortified base in enemy territory (epiteichismos) and using it to encourage the local population to rebel, tend to ignore that it was never intended to win the war, but only to harass or at most exhaust the enemy. Moreover, the Spartans’ worries about a general helot revolt were never fulfilled, and in 409, they recaptured Pylos, with little to no effect on the course of the war or their strategy.

Demosthenes displayed commendable qualities in the Pylos campaign. He was daring and cautious at the right times, based his defense of Pylos and attack on Sphacteria on previously obtained intelligence, and took advantage of the enemy’s weaknesses. He even used his favorite surprise tactics without taking great risks. No less important, he was lucky: without the storm at Pylos, the Athenians’ easy defeat of the Peloponnesian navy, the fire on Sphacteria, and even the Athenian rejection of the Spartan peace offer, it is doubtful that the Pylos venture would have ended as it did.

Demosthenes may have been less successful in the competition over credit for the victory. If we believe the comic playwright Aristophanes, who was Cleon’s enemy, Cleon robbed the glory of Pylos from his colleagues. The Athenians, too, made a collective claim to honor when they commemorated the campaign with a bronze statue of Victory (Nike) on the Acropolis, and the Messenians did the same at Olympia. Yet even if success has many fathers, as the saying goes, we can be certain that Demosthenes did not keep silent about his role in the affair, and that the Athenians did not forget it, since they elected him general a year later (424).

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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