Demosthenes of Athens III

Sneak Attack on Megara

Demosthenes’ next scene of operation involved the city of Megara, which occupied one of the most strategic locations on the Greek mainland, a narrow isthmus separating the Peloponnese from Attica and Boeotia. Megara also had two important military and commercial harbors, Pegae on the Corinthian Gulf and Nisaea on the Saronic Gulf. Megara’s relationship with Athens had its share of crises, among them the Athenian embargo against the city since 432, which was regarded, as we have seen, as a major cause of the Peloponnesian War. In the summer of 424, Megara was a Spartan ally with a democratic government. The city was under heavy pressure, both from oligarchic exiles at the harbor of Pegae, who raided Megaran territory from the west, and from annual Athenian incursions from the north. A Peloponnesian garrison occupied Nisaea in order to protect the harbor and keep the democratic leaders from changing sides.

Fearing the return of the oligarchic exiles to the city by popular consent, the Megaran democrats conspired with the Athenian generals Demosthenes and Hippocrates, son of Ariphron, to betray the city to Athens. Hippocrates came from a distinguished background—he was Pericles’ nephew—but his hitherto-unremarkable record and Demosthenes’ stature after Pylos make it likely that Demosthenes was deemed his senior. In this intrigue, however, Demosthenes played a relatively passive role, because the initiative came from Megara, as did much of the plan of attack. In order to prevent the Peloponnesian garrison at Nisaea or other reinforcements from foiling the plot, the local democrats proposed that an Athenian force launch a covert attack on the long walls, about a mile in length, that connected their city to its harbor at Nisaea. They also promised inside help in capturing the walls and occupying the city. The Megarans even told the Athenians exactly where and when to attack: they had already accustomed the commander of the guard to opening the gates before dawn for returning sea marauders, and they advised Demosthenes to rush the gates when they were opened to admit a carted boat.

The plan must have been warmly endorsed by Demosthenes, if only because it resembled his successful surprise attacks at night and other subterfuges at both Amphilochia and Sphacteria. On the appointed night, Athenian ships brought Hippocrates with 600 hoplites and Demosthenes with Plataean light-armed troops and Athenian peripoloi—young recruits who patrolled Attica and its borders—to a nearby base on the island of Minoa. At the same time, 4,000 hoplites and 600 cavalrymen left Eleusis, Attica, for Megara, where they were meant to join these advance forces and help them take the city. Demosthenes and Hippocrates marched to the vicinity of Nisaea, where Hippocrates and his hoplites hid in a ditch not far from the gates while Demosthenes with his younger and lighter-armed troops lurked closer to the walls in order to overwhelm the gates. When the gates were opened to let in a returning boat, Demosthenes and his men rushed in. We do not know how old he was at the time—probably older than thirty, the minimum age for a general—but he displayed both courage and physical fitness in being the first to enter the walls. In addition, and as shown on this occasion, in Amphilochia, and on Sphacteria, he appeared to make more frequent and better use of light infantry than other contemporary generals, because he was equally aware of their limitations in open combat and advantages in surprise attacks. He and his troops overcame the guards who offered resistance, and by the time Hippocrates’ heavier-armed hoplites arrived, the gate was already secured.

The success of the Athenians’ operation depended on taking the long walls, and Demosthenes was helped by his enemy’s conduct, as he was at Amphilochia and Pylos. The Peloponnesian guards were confounded by the night attack and feared local betrayal. They fled and shut themselves in Nisaea, leaving the long walls to the Athenians. By daylight, however, the Athenian plan had begun to unravel. Megaran collaborators were supposed to open the city gates by a stratagem, but their plot was discovered by their opponents, and the Athenians could not force their way in. Demosthenes and Hippocrates then decided to attack Nisaea, and for good reasons. Megara was bigger, better protected, and more populated than the harbor, which could easily be isolated from it. Nisaea was also defended by men who had just suffered defeat and who doubted the loyalty of the local population. The Athenians could also learn from their local friends that the Peloponnesians had little to no food reserves, and they knew that the defenders included Spartans, whose capture would have buttressed Demosthenes’ fame. Finally, Demosthenes could build a siege wall with ease and expertise. There were Athenian tools and stonemasons readily available across the border, building material in abundance nearby, and—with the arrival of an Athenian army from Eleusis—plenty of working hands.

Thus, after a concerted effort of less than two days, the Athenians largely completed the building of a cross-wall that surrounded Nisaea from all directions except the sea, which was probably patrolled by Athenian vessels. The Peloponnesians were moved to surrender by low morale and expectations, the quick success of the Athenians, and fears of starvation and Megaran betrayal. Once again, Demosthenes was lucky, because if the guards had waited a little longer, they would have learned that a large force was coming to their rescue (below). Instead, they surrendered Nisaea, their weapons, and themselves on the condition that they be ransomed. The Spartan commander and his fellow countrymen were not given this privilege, probably because the Athenians wished to reserve the possibility of executing them if the Spartans invaded Attica. The exact number of the Spartan prisoners is unknown, but their capture made Demosthenes a champion at garnering them. If the desire for this reputation was his motive for granting the stipulated terms, he was short-sighted, because in the following winter the released guards helped the Boeotians capture an Athenian base at Delium in Boeotia.

After Nisaea’s surrender, the Athenians demolished the long walls between their cross-wall and Megara in order to isolate their new acquisition from the city. This act also suggested that they had given up on capturing Megara, because leaving the walls intact could have facilitated their attacking it from Nisaea. That they were leaving Megara and their partners there in the lurch became more evident in the following days, when Demosthenes and the Spartan general Brasidas met for the second time after Pylos. This time, the Spartan commander did not let the Athenian force him to fight at a disadvantage. Brasidas was in the neighborhood of Corinth, preparing for a campaign in northern Greece, but when he heard of the Athenians’ occupation of the long walls he rushed to the rescue of Megara, Nisaea, and the Peloponnesians there. He assembled a force of about 3,800 hoplites, composed mostly of Corinthians, Sicyonians, and Phlians, and established a rendezvous with a Boeotian army in a village below Mount Geraneia, about 12 km west of Megara. He then hurried with 300 picked soldiers in an attempt to save Megara for the Peloponnesian cause. The Megarans, however, refused his appeal to be admitted. The city was divided between pro-Athenian democrats and pro-Spartan oligarchs, and neither side wanted to take action before seeing which invading army would prevail.

Brasidas went back to his army, which a reinforcement of Boeotians had enlarged to a force of about 6,000 hoplites and 600 cavalry. The Athenians had approximately 4,600 hoplites, 600 cavalry, and an unspecified number of light infantry. Their hoplites stood near Nisaea and the sea, and their light-armed fighters were scattered over the plain. It was now Demosthenes’ turn to be taken by surprise, unprepared as he was for the arrival of enemy forces, at least at this point. An advance force of Boeotian cavalry attacked and pursued the light-armed Athenians and was checked by the Athenian cavalry in a battle that ended indecisively. Shortly afterward, Brasidas arrived with his army and, finding suitable ground, arrayed his troops for battle. At stake was the fate of Megara, and with it the ability to control the Isthmian roads to Attica, the Corinthiad, and Boeotia. Neither side went on the attack, and after an undetermined time of waiting, the Athenians retreated to Nisaea. The effect of their decision was predictable. It was interpreted in Megara either as a refusal to fight for it, as a loss, or as a show of weakness, and the pro-Spartan oligarchs became masters of the city.

Thus, even though capturing Megara was the Athenians’ original goal, they conceded it after little effort. Demosthenes’ past record, greater prestige, and leadership of the attack on the walls makes it likely that he was chiefly responsible for the decision. Thucydides defends the choice to decline battle by saying that the Athenians risked more than the numerically superior enemy and that they had been quite successful so far. A loss could also ruin their best hoplites, while the enemy risked only fractions of their native armies. Yet this last rationale would have prevented the Athenians from ever confronting any coalition army, and can easily be refuted, like the rest of their alleged reasoning. The disparity between the opposing armies was not so great as to make the Athenian risk discouraging. The Peloponnesians had roughly 1,400 more hoplites, yet Demosthenes had faced and defeated significantly larger forces at both Olpae and Pylos. No side had an edge in the number of cavalry—both had about 600 horses—and the Athenians enjoyed the advantages of a close shelter in Nisaea, control over the sea, and proximity to home resources, including reinforcements. Thucydides suggests that the Athenian commanders feared losing what they had gained. The decision to go against Nisaea was justified under the circumstances, but Nisaea was only the byproduct of an operation whose main goal was Megara, a more significant asset. It seems that Demosthenes feared a battle because Brasidas left him no room for the preplanning or use of surprise that had won him victories in the past. It is also possible that Demosthenes worried that a defeat in battle would devalue his success in leading the attack on the long walls (Thucydides later saw a trophy there commemorating the event) and in reestablishing Athenian control over Nisaea. It would have equally detracted from his fame as the general who kept humiliating Sparta by capturing its men. His personality may also have played a role, because setbacks often moved Demosthenes to give up, as he did when his Aetolian campaign failed, when Megara did not open its gates, and—as we shall see—in Boeotia and Syracuse. His colleague, Hippocrates, was equally motivated not to allow possible defeat to tarnish his career. And if the Athenians at home complained about the generals’ failure to fight for Megara and their fellow democrats there, Demosthenes could have cited all the arguments Thucydides gives for avoiding battle, as well as a Greek proverb that ridiculed men who acted like children in risking their possession of half in an attempt to gain the whole.

Coming Out Empty-Handed in Boeotia

Upon their return to Athens, Demosthenes and his colleague Hippocrates were involved in one of Athens’ more ambitious war plans, this time against Boeotia. The Boeotian Confederacy was an active participant in the war against Athens, and its cavalry raided Attica during and beyond the periodic Spartan invasions. There was also a history of bad blood between these states. No wonder, then, that the Athenians welcomed a local initiative to effect a democratic, pro-Athenian revolution in two Boeotian cities.

The Boeotian conspirators, who sought Athenian aid, plotted democratic coups in the city of Siphae on the shore of the Corinthian Gulf and in Chaeronea on the western Boeotian border with Phocis. The Athenians, however, linked or subordinated these schemes to their seizing and fortifying the temple of Apollo at Delium near Tanagra in eastern Boeotia, across from Euboea. According to Thucydides, the idea was to achieve all three objectives simultaneously by surprise, in the hope that splitting the Boeotian army into three fronts would prevent them from coming in full force to Delium. It was also hoped that the capture of these places would allow the Athenians to raid the region, give shelter to Boeotian opposition, and, in a best-case scenario, cause a political change in Boeotia.

Generally, the plan was an expanded idea of epiteichismos, or the establishment of a well-protected base in hostile territory. It failed to achieve all of its goals because it was too demanding and complex and hence poorly executed. We shall focus on Demosthenes’ role in the affair.

In truth, the fragmentation of the Boeotian forces would have benefitted the attacks on Siphae and Chaeronea as much as the capture of Delium. Yet Delium’s greater proximity to Athens made it a prime target, at least in Thucydides’ eyes. Occupying Delium was Hippocrates’ mission, but Demosthenes was not relegated to the secondary role of diverting Boeotian forces. He went to western Greece because of his local connections in the region and his ability to enlist troops, especially Acarnanians, whom he had helped in 426 to defeat the Ambraciots. As in the past, the Acarnanians put a price tag on their assistance. After arriving at Naupactus with a forty-ship fleet, Demosthenes led the Acarnanians to victory over their northern neighbors, the Agraeans, thus expanding Acarnanian power and the pro-Athenian bloc in the region. He could now add Acarnanian and Agraean troops to the 400 hoplites he brought to Boeotia.

That was Demosthenes’ sole accomplishment in the campaign. For reasons that can be only conjectured, the simultaneous attacks on Delium and Siphae were postponed to the beginning of winter, increasing the chance that the plot would be discovered. Indeed, given the many people who shared the secret, including a chief conspirator from Thespia (or Thebes), plotters from Siphae and Chaeronea, Chaeronean exiles and Peloponnesian mercenaries they recruited, and men from Phocis interested in the defection of Chaeronea (not to mention Athenians in the know), it is hardly surprising that the plot was betrayed before the Athenian offensive began. When Demosthenes sailed to Siphae with his fleet and army, he found the city already secured by the Boeotians, who also made sure that no plot would unfold at Chaeronea. Thucydides states that a mistake or a failure caused Demosthenes to arrive at Siphae before Hippocrates left for Delium. Yet the real mistake was not his premature arrival, but the wish to coordinate the attacks in the first place. The goal of establishing bases in Boeotia could have been attained without simultaneous attacks: Hippocrates was able to occupy and fortify Delium unopposed even after the plot was uncovered and the Boeotians had returned from securing Siphae. The potential gain of surprising the enemy and forcing it to divide its force was offset by a delay in the attack that resulted in the discovery of the plot, which in turn prevented Demosthenes from taking Siphae.

As it happened, the Athenian occupation of Delium led to a large battle with the Boeotians, in which the Athenians were defeated and lost their general, Hippocrates. Thucydides, rightly focusing on these more important events, provides only a short description of Demosthenes’ activities, saying that, after his failure to take Siphae, Demosthenes sailed away to Sicyon. It is unclear why the general, with his large fleet and presumably adequate land forces, did not stay longer in the region to raid Boeotian lands, encourage revolutions, or draw Boeotian forces from elsewhere to himself, as was his original brief. We would suggest that Demosthenes’ propensity to cut losses and abort plans after a setback came into play here. He did employ the forces at his disposal for a landing at pro-Spartan Sicyon across the Gulf, perhaps intending to make raids or even an epiteichismos (his purpose is not reported). But the Sicyonians successfully repelled him, maybe because he landed at intervals instead of with the entire force at once.

It would be unfair to blame Demosthenes alone for the Boeotian plan and its failure, because he had many partners in it. But the endeavor shares traits with his previous campaigns, suggesting his role in it. The enterprise originated in, and relied on, local initiative, planning, and resources. It recalled Demosthenes’ idea of attacking Boeotia from the west, which the Aetolians frustrated in 426. It was built on secrecy and surprise, and evinced excessive optimism and ambition, but also an inclination to give up on the original goal too quickly. It was probably public disappointment with Demosthenes and the decrease in military operations after the Peace of Nicias between Athens and Sparta (421) that were responsible for the approximately six-year hiatus in his military career. The big assignments seemed to go now to other generals such as Alcibiades, Nicias, and Laches. Nevertheless, Demosthenes was sufficiently involved in public life to serve as one of the Athenian signatories on the Peace of Nicias, and wealthy enough to function as a sponsor of performances (choregos) in the City Dionysia, both in 422–421.

Demosthenes’ next assignment paled in significance and scope in comparison with his earlier commands, and suggests a decline in his career until he was sent to Sicily in 414. In 418, the Athenians and their allies built a wall around the pro-Spartan city of Epidaurus in northeastern Peloponnese, and manned a fortress there with a garrison that included a relatively small number of Athenians. A Spartan-Argive treaty later that year included an Argive commitment to destroy the fortification around Epidaurus and to treat Athens as an enemy if she refused to abandon it. The Argives asked the Athenians to evacuate the fort, and the Athenians, who were concerned about the non-Athenian guards’ reaction to the evacuation, sent Demosthenes to bring the men home. Under the pretext of an athletic competition, Demosthenes got the non-Athenians out of the fortress and then shut the gates behind them. Sometime later, when Athens and Epidaurus became friends, the fortress was surrendered to the Epidaurians.

Athens evacuated the fort because its continuing occupation would have complicated her relations with Peloponnesian allies and the cities of Argos and Epidaurus. Nevertheless, the incident was a minor affair. Demosthenes’ success confirmed his reputation for cunning, and even suggested that, in the absence of great risk, he was the man for the job.

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