The Roman Conquest of Thrace

The first conflict between the Roman Republic and the Kingdom of Macedonia started in 217 BC, while the Romans were already fighting against Hannibal and the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War. The second conflict with Carthage was particularly dramatic for Rome, involving Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and several heavy defeats for the legions. Trying to take advantage of the ongoing military difficulties of Rome, the Macedonians decided to attack the Republic while most of its legions were facing Hannibal. Philip V, King of Macedon, opened hostilities with Rome after the legions were utterly defeated at the Battle of the Lake Trasimene in June 217 BC. With the Carthaginian army seemingly running amok across Italy, the Macedonian monarch was sure that the Romans would be too busy to oppose his plans to conquer continental Greece and the Illyrian territories of the northern Balkans. During the preceding decades, the Roman Republic had already fought two victorious conflicts against the Illyrians and thus had reached the borders of Macedonia; in addition, the Romans had gradually obtained naval dominance over the Adriatic Sea. These expansionist moves were clearly unacceptable for the Macedonians, who considered the whole Balkans as part of their sphere of influence. The First Macedonian War started with a Macedonian invasion of the Illyrian territories on the Adriatic coast. For the first time in their history, the Macedonians built a large fleet, consisting of more than 100 warships, and disembarked their forces in Illyria. The ensuing land campaign, however, was a complete failure for Philip V, who achieved very little. In the summer of 215 BC, after the Romans had been crushed by the Carthaginians at the momentous Battle of Cannae, the Macedonians sent ambassadors to southern Italy in order to negotiate a military alliance with Hannibal. On their way back to Macedonia, the emissaries of Philip were captured by the Romans, who thereby learned of the new alliance between Carthage and Macedonia from the official documents that they were transporting. In 214 BC, a Macedonian army tried again to invade Illyria, but this time the Romans were able to disembark troops on the Balkan coast to oppose Philip’s offensive. Despite facing greater numbers, the Roman legions were able to defeat the Macedonians and restore Rome’s influence over Illyria. Philip V was obliged to abandon his expansionist plans, returning to Macedonia with his forces. During the following years, the Macedonians tried to penetrate Illyria from the south, while the Romans secured the area by concluding a military alliance with the Aetolian League. This was a confederation of Greek communities located on the southern borders of Macedonia, which had until recently been at war with Philip V. In 211 BC, the Aetolians allied themselves with Rome in order to fight more effectively against their common enemy, Macedonia. During the following year, the Kingdom of Pergamon also joined this anti-Macedonian alliance and sent its fleet to the Adriatic in order to support the Romans. The Macedonians had destroyed their own fleet after their first failed invasion of Illyria, having had no further use for it, so the allies controlled the Adriatic Sea without hindrance. The Macedonians fought in mainland Greece against the Aetolians for several years, obtaining the support of the Achaean League (another confederation of Greek communities and the mortal enemy of the Aetolian League). In 206 BC, after having suffered several heavy defeats, the Aetolians decided to make peace with Philip V: their Roman allies were heavily involved in campaigns against the Carthaginians and thus could not provide effective military support. The fleet of Pergamon had also returned to Anatolia, so the Aetolians were left to fight alone without allies. The First Macedonian War officially came to an end in 205 BC with the Treaty of Phoenice, according to which Philip V renounced his alliance with Carthage but could still exert direct influence over certain areas of Illyria. In practice, very little changed from the situation of 217 BC; it was by now clear, however, that Rome and Macedonia would fight a new war for dominance over the Balkans as soon as Hannibal could be defeated, which happened in 202 BC with the decisive Roman victory at the Battle of Zama in North Africa.

Sure enough, the Second Macedonian War broke out in 200 BC after Philip V invaded Attica and menaced the city of Athens. Advancing from their bases in Illyria, the Romans invaded Macedonia from the west but were not able to obtain a clear-cut victory over the Macedonians. In this conflict, the Roman Republic was again supported by the Kingdom of Pergamon and the Aetolian League: Pergamon sent its fleet and the Aetolians attacked Macedonia from the south. In 198 BC, after several months of inconclusive operations, the Romans landed in the Balkans with a substantial army. The Roman expeditionary force was able to achieve an initial victory in Epirus, at the Battle of the Aous, but the clash did not prove decisive. Meanwhile, at sea, the allied fleet of Rome and Pergamon reinforced Athens, which convinced the Achaean League to join the anti-Macedonian alliance. During the winter of 198–197 BC, the opposing sides tried to find a compromise in order to bring the hostilities to an end, but the peace negotiations came to nothing. The decisive clash of the Second Macedonian War was fought at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. Here, for the first time on Greek soil, the famed Macedonian phalanx faced the Roman legions, with 26,000 Romans defeating 25,000 Macedonians. The battle took place on hilly terrain, where Philip V’s heavy infantry did not have enough space to manoeuvre effectively: this greatly advantaged the flexible Roman legions, which resisted the enemy charge and used their missile weapons (javelins) in devastating fashion. After this defeat, having also suffered significant losses on other secondary fronts, the Macedonian king decided he had no option but to make peace with Rome. Under the terms of the subsequent agreement, the Macedonians were forced to remove all their garrisons that were scattered across Greece and – for the first time since the age of Philip II – were obliged to acknowledge the political freedom of the Greek cities. Philip V also had to pay a large war indemnity and was made to surrender all his naval forces. The Macedonian Army, meanwhile, was reduced to just 5,000 soldiers and was officially forbidden from having war elephants. Thanks to their victory in the Second Macedonian War, the Romans could present themselves as the saviours of Greek freedom, yet all they had done was simply replace Macedonian predominance over Greece with their own.

Philip V died in 179 BC and his ambitious son, Perseus, became King of Macedon. Perseus had great plans for the expansion of his realm, his main objective being to restore Macedonia’s ancient glory. To achieve this goal, he spent most of his early reign trying to form a large anti-Roman alliance that comprised the Seleucid Empire as well as Greek cities, the latter having soon turned against the Romans after the Republic assumed indirect control over their territories. The Third Macedonian War duly broke out in 171 BC, the Romans once more being supported by their historical allies the Aetolian League and Pontus. While a Roman army disembarked in Greece, Macedonian forces invaded Thessaly from the north. Thessaly had been part of Macedonia’s territory since it was conquered by Philip II, and Perseus could not accept that it was now free from his political influence. It was in Thessaly that the first significant clash of the Third Macedonian War was fought, at Callinicus. The battle was a significant victory for Perseus, who defeated the Romans thanks to the superiority of his cavalry and light infantry. The war, however, was not yet over. In 169 BC, the Macedonians invaded Illyria, being by now sure that their home territories could no longer be attacked from Thessaly. The Macedonian invasion of Illyria was a success: Perseus’ troops conquered many enemy strongholds and captured more than 1,500 soldiers from the local Roman garrisons. During the winter of the same year, the Macedonians also invaded Aetolia, but this operation ended without achieving significant results. In the following spring, the Romans landed an army in Epirus and marched on Macedonia, but faced strong resistance during their advance across the mountains. Perseus’ light infantry fought with great distinction during these operations, greatly slowing down the movement of the Roman legions, to such an extent that the Romans were not able to invade Macedonia as they had planned.

The decisive year of the Third Macedonian War was 168 BC, during which a major pitched battle was fought north of Thessaly at Pydna. The Battle of Pydna is widely recognized as one of the most important military clashes of Antiquity, which can be clearly understood by analysing the numbers of troops involved on either side. Perseus deployed his whole military potential, with 39,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, while the Romans confronted him with 36,000 foot troops and 2,600 mounted men. When the battle was over, Perseus had lost most of his forces, with 11,000 troops captured by the Romans. From a practical point of view, the Macedonian military potential had been broken decisively. After the defeat, Perseus retreated north to his capital of Pella with what remained of his cavalry; despite having suffered such severe losses, he was determined to continue resisting. However, the young Macedonian monarch was soon surrounded by Roman forces and had no choice but to surrender. Once captured, he was sent in chains to Rome, where he spent most of the rest of his life as a captive.

With the Third Macedonian War now over, the Romans were determined to avoid any future military resurgence by Macedonia. To that end, the Senate decided to break up the Kingdom of Macedonia into four cantons, which would be Roman protectorates. Rome now exerted control over all the natural resources of the country, in particular over its gold and silver mines. In addition, Macedonian territory was garrisoned by significant numbers of Roman troops. The peace conditions imposed by the Roman Republic were felt to be too harsh by the Macedonians, who were forced to become vassals of a foreign power after having been the dominant state of the Greek world for two centuries. Consequently, in 150 BC, a man named Andriscus, pretending to be a son of the former Macedonian king Perseus, guided a popular uprising in the four regions of Macedonia. His rebellion soon developed into a widespread conflict, which became known as the Fourth Macedonian War. Despite having only a handful of soldiers under his command, Andriscus was able to obtain several minor victories, and thus his uprising continued until 148 BC. In that year, the Romans were finally able to restore order in Macedonia by using very harsh repressive methods. Two years later, in a last desperate attempt to preserve their independence, the Greek cities of the Achaean League attacked the Romans, but were easily defeated by the legions. Roman troops besieged and destroyed Corinth in 146 BC, thus bringing to an end Greek freedom. In that same year, Macedonia was transformed into a Roman province and the Third Punic War was fought, which ended with the destruction of Carthage and the disappearance of the Carthaginians from the political scene of the Mediterranean. The fall of Corinth and the destruction of Carthage were two events that had a great symbolic impact at the time, with 146 BC marking the ascendancy of the Roman Republic as the leading power of Antiquity.

The Macedonian Wars had a deep impact on the destiny of the Thracians, whose participation in the four conflicts had been significant.During the Second Macedonian War, for example, some 2,000 Thracian warriors were part of the Macedonian Army during the Battle of Cynocephalae (197 BC). With the end of hostilities in 196 BC, the Thracians were freed from any form of Macedonian indirect rule. The various tribes, however, started to be increasingly worried about the expanding Roman military presence in the Balkans. With the defeat of Macedonia, a significant power vacuum had been created in Greece: the Romans wanted to fill this with their own legions, but the Seleucid Empire was also looking to conquer the southern portion of the Balkans. As a result, in 192 BC, hostilities broke out between the Roman Republic and the Seleucid Empire. Two years into the war, the Romans obtained a decisive victory over the Seleucids at the Battle of Magnesia in Anatolia. While returning to Greece, however, the victorious Roman legions were attacked by the Thracians, who had assembled an army of 10,000 warriors and waited for the Romans at a narrow forested pass in south-eastern Thrace. The tribal fighters attacked the Roman rearguard, which comprised a baggage full of riches that had been taken from the defeated Seleucids. The Roman rearguard was taken by surprise and routed; all its wagons were looted before the Thracians returned to their forest fastnesses prior to the arrival of Roman reinforcements. This little-known ambush was seen as a disaster by the Romans, and was something that they would never forget. While it had been a success for the Thracians, it was obviously not a decisive one for the destiny of their country.

At the outbreak of the Third Macedonian War, Perseus’ forces comprised around 3,000 Thracians, who were later supplemented by another 2,000 fighters provided by the Odrysians (who were allies of Macedonia). At the Battle of Callinicus (171 BC), the Thracians in the Macedonian army secured a clear victory over the Romans: according to ancient sources, they returned from the battlefield singing, with hundreds of severed Roman heads. This was the second time that the Thracians had humiliated the Romans, but once again this Thracian success could not halt the expansionist policy of the Roman Republic. In 168 BC, a Macedonian army was soundly defeated by Rome at the Battle of Pydna, practically ending the Third Macedonian War and transforming the Macedonians into Roman vassals. At this point, with Macedonia having been conquered, the Thracians found the Roman legions at their frontier and thus feared being next in line for Rome’s expansionist moves. In 150 BC, an attempt to re-establish an independent Kingdom of Macedonia having provoked the outbreak of the Fourth Macedonian War, which lasted until 148 BC, the Thracians were again part of the anti-Roman front. As we have seen, the pretender to the Macedonian throne was defeated by the Republic and Macedonia was officially transformed into a Roman province in 146 BC. From that time onward, a state of constant war existed on the border between Roman Macedonia and independent Thrace. The Romans wanted to transform the various Thracian tribes into client communities, since they considered themselves the heirs of Macedonia’s political influence over Thrace. The Thracians, of course, had no intention of accepting the Romans as their overlords, and consequently soon started to launch aggressive raids against the province of Macedonia.

During the many ‘little wars’ fought against the Thracians, Roman armies were defeated on several occasions and even had one of their proconsuls killed. The Thracian warriors, with their elusive skirmishing tactics and great mobility, proved very difficult opponents for the Romans, who struggled in Balkan territory which was unknown to them. From 146 BC, the Roman Republic tried to recreate some sort of unified Thracian state, in order to transform Thrace into one of its vassal kingdoms. It would have been much easier for the Romans to control a single ‘puppet’ kingdom instead of keeping order among many warlike tribes. Around 100 BC, a new Odrysian Kingdom was created, but this did not last for long due to the internal divisions of the Thracians (most of whom were strongly against Rome’s indirect rule of their homeland). Around 30 BC, some form of Thracian Kingdom had been restored by the Romans; by this time, the Thracian tribes that were still autonomous had all accepted some form of Roman suzerainty. In 15 BC, the population of the Thracian Kingdom rose in revolt against the Romans and killed the puppet monarch who had been installed by Rome, but the rebellion was quickly crushed by the legions. Further Thracian uprisings took place during the following decades as the Roman presence in present-day Bulgaria became increasingly stable. In AD 12, Rome divided the territories of Thrace into two puppet kingdoms, but even this measure did not change the situation. The two Thracian realms soon started to fight against each other, and anti-Roman uprisings continued to occur with great frequency. In AD 45, a major new rebellion erupted in Thrace, which caused the death of one of the puppet kings chosen by the Romans. To stop the endemic guerrilla warfare that was ravaging the region, Emperor Claudius decided to transform Thrace into a Roman province in AD 46. Thracian uprisings and revolts continued for several years, but without achieving significant results. Like many other peoples living around them, the Thracians had lost forever their independence and were already slowly disappearing from history. During the following centuries, they were a fundamental component of the Roman Empire’s population.

Dacian Military Organization and Tactics

Ancient Warfare VI.2

Ancient Warfare VI.2 with ‘The Dacian Wars of Domitian and Trajan’.

From a cultural point of view, the Dacians were quite different from the Thracians: across the centuries, they had developed a sedentary way of life in which agriculture played a prominent role. Most of the Dacians were free farmers, who lived on several acres of fertile land and had a good number of domestic animals. Their agricultural production was abundant enough to provide food for the whole year to their families, and thus each Dacian community was completely autonomous from an economic point of view. From the days of Burebista’s reign, the Dacians also started to extract large amounts of natural resources from the numerous mines of their homeland. This enabled them to become richer and to improve their general conditions of life. When the various tribes of Dacia were unified under Decebalus’ rule, their way of life changed quite significantly: the central state started to exert some form of control over agricultural production and several public constructions were built on the territory. Decebalus ruled over Dacia as an absolute monarch, but with the fundamental support of the country’s aristocracy. The aristocracy was particularly powerful, since nobles were the only members of society capable of raising warriors in case of conflict; as a result, they could greatly influence the military and foreign policy of the king. Generally speaking, the Dacian farmers were excellent warriors. They were used to harsh living conditions and knew how to employ their weapons in the most effective way. The infantry were the main component of the Dacian military forces, since cavalry consisted of just a few mounted skirmishers with light equipment. Under Decebalus, however, the Dacian Kingdom was able to conclude an alliance with the Roxolani (Sarmatians), who provided the Dacians with large and excellent cavalry contingents. These used the equipment and tactics that were typical of the steppe peoples: they could be heavily armoured cataphracts or lightly equipped mounted archers. During their first war against Trajan, the Dacians were also supported by large numbers of foot soldiers provided by the Bastarnae and Scordisci, ferocious fighters who were particularly feared by the Romans because of their great combat skill. Consequently, we could say that the Dacian Army – especially under Burebista and Decebalus – was a multinational force, comprising Dacian infantry and cavalry, Sarmatian cavalry, Bastarnae infantry and Scordisci infantry. The basic Dacian infantryman was different from the Thracian peltast: he was armed with throwing javelins but carried a large shield, and was armed with a sword with a straight blade. Most of the Dacian warriors did not wear armour, except for the nobles, who usually also had helmets and mostly fought on horse. In addition to the light skirmishers mentioned above, the Dacian cavalry also included some small contingents of heavy horsemen provided by the aristocracy. These were known as tarabostes. Almost 75 per cent of the Dacian Army consisted of infantry armed with javelins or spears, the remaining part comprising small quotas of archers and the cavalry (divided between light horsemen and armoured nobles). Considering the standards of the Ancient World, the Dacian armies deployed by Burebista and Decebalus were impressive from a numerical point of view. With the support of their allies, the Dacians could easily deploy an army of 100,000 warriors against their enemies. Unlike the Thracians, the Dacians had no problems in fighting pitched battles and were equipped to face the Roman legions in close combat. Since the days of Burebista’s wars against the Celts of Transylvania, the Dacians had adopted the large oval shields used by the Celts, and this enabled them to fight against any kind of heavy infantry. The Dacian warriors, however, always retained a high degree of mobility, since they never used armour on a large scale. Like the Thracians, no permanent military units existed in peacetime except for the small bodyguards of the king and the major nobles. In times of war, the warriors were assembled on the battlefield according to their tribal origins and were commanded by the nobles of their respective community. They were not paid for their military services and did not receive their personal equipment from the administration of the state. When operating on enemy terrain, however, they were permitted to pillage and raid unrestrictedly.

After the war with Domitian, in view of future conflicts with Rome, Decebalus decided to retrain part of his military forces according to contemporary Roman models. This was something that the Thracians had already done during the previous decades and that could have transformed the Dacian Army into a much more effective fighting force. Decebalus, in particular, was interested in improving the general quality of his infantry: he wanted to introduce the same close tactical formations as the legions, and to do this he needed Roman instructors. Initially he hired Roman deserters who had joined his cause or Roman prisoners of war who had been captured during the conflict with Domitian. Later, as a result of the peace conditions agreed with the Romans, he could count on the Roman military engineers who were sent to Dacia to rebuild the local fortifications. Apparently, however, Decebalus’ programme of military reforms never became effective as the Romans in his service were too few to retrain the whole Dacian Army and the king had to face serious internal opposition that made the introduction of military innovations practically impossible. The Dacian nobles did not want to change their traditional way of fighting, and were against their warriors being equipped like the Roman legionaries. Since the tribal contingents of the Dacian Army were all controlled by the aristocracy, Decebalus had no choice but to renounce his plans. Generally speaking, the Dacian Army always suffered from the divisions emerging between the king and his aristocracy: no standing royal army existed, which greatly limited the personal power of Decebalus.

The allies of the Dacians, who were a fundamental component of their army, always retained their own military organization and tactics, which for the Bastarnae and Scordisci were clearly Celtic. At the beginning of a battle, Celtic infantry were deployed in great masses according to their own tribal/family provenance. Before charging the enemy, they used all their weapons of psychological warfare in order to spread terror in their opponents’ ranks. First of all they slashed the air with their long swords and poured abuse on the enemy, producing a great noise with terrible war cries and by banging their weapons on their large shields. This incredible spectacle was completed by the tossing of standards and by the terrific braying of horns and trumpets. During this initial phase, some champions – chosen warriors – usually came out of their ranks and engaged in duels with the best fighters of the opposing army. The outcome of these single combats usually had a deep impact over the morale of the two armies deployed on the field, so were not merely a secondary part of a battle’s early phase. After some time spent carrying out these preliminary activities, the Celtic warriors charged the enemy en masse, during which they continued to scream and to slash the air with their swords, hoping to cause a breaking of the opponent’s line due to panic. Shortly before investing the first line of the enemy, Celtic warriors equipped with javelins – who were deployed in the first lines – used their missile weapons to break the integrity of the enemy formation. Once in direct contact with the enemy, each Celtic warrior engaged in a duel with an opponent, these individual clashes – which could last from a few seconds to several minutes – being decided by the physique and swordsmanship of the individual fighters. Generally speaking, Celtic tactics were extremely simple: if the frontal assault described above was repulsed, Celtic warriors had no alternative but to launch another similar one. These frontal charges would continue until the enemy army was broken or until the Celtic fighters became exhausted. Very frequently, after a failed assault, the Celts completely lost their morale and were crushed by an effective counter-attack mounted by their enemies. The chances of victory for a Celtic army were strongly related to the success of the first charge: if that failed, Celtic warriors generally lost their impetus and tended to abandon the battlefield. The infantry, however, was not the only component of Celtic armies. Light troops, both foot and mounted, had little tactical importance and were mostly employed to harass the enemy during the early phases of a combat or during guerrilla operations conducted on broken terrain. Heavy cavalry, on the other hand, played a major role in Celtic warfare. The majority of Celtic cavalrymen, being noble warriors, had heavy personal equipment, including helmet and chainmail; their offensive weapons included javelins (used during the first phase of a combat), spear and long slashing sword (employed during frontal charges).

The Sarmatian tribes had a military organization that was quite similar to that of the Dacians. Each community had its own tribal chief, who was a warlord with great experience and exerted control over the other nobles, who commanded the various contingents of warriors. Small permanent bodies of professional fighters did exist, but these usually acted only as the bodyguards of the aristocrats. The majority of the warriors were called to serve only in the event of war. Differently from what happened in the Dacian Army, they could receive part of their panoply from the noble under whom they were serving. Each man was a potential warrior, as the Sarmatians spent most of their life on horseback and were trained to use the bow since childhood. Sarmatian military forces consisted almost entirely of cavalry, with very small quotas of foot soldiers, who were mostly recruited from the subject peoples that they had defeated. Sarmatian cavalry featured a large number of horse archers armed with the composite bow and a smaller – but still significant – number of heavy cataphracts. These heavy cavalry were armed with a two-handed heavy spear known as the contus, which could be used with devastating effects against any kind of enemy, either mounted or on foot; for this reason, they were considered to be the best of all Sarmatian warriors, and Decebalus always tried to have large numbers of them under his command. The horses of the cataphracts were armoured like their riders, and this made the Sarmatian heavy cavalry practically invulnerable to enemy arrows. Sarmatian cavalry tactics were based on feigned retreats, which were followed by rapid attacks that encircled the enemy and crushed it with a rain of arrows. When the enemy was subsequently concentrated in a single point of the battlefield, a final charge by the cataphracts usually concluded the battle in their favour.

Cyrus the Younger – Bid for the Persian Throne


Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.


Persian Immortals


Battle of Cunaxa – First phase of battle


Battle of Cunaxa – Second phase of battle

It all began with sibling rivalry. Darius II (r. 424-404 bc), Great King of Achaemenid Persia, had many children with his wife Parysatis, but his two eldest sons Arses and Cyrus got the most attention. Parysatis always liked Cyrus, the younger of the two, better. Darius, though, kept Arses close, perhaps grooming him for the succession. Cyrus he sent west to Ionia on the shores of the Aegean Sea, appointing him regional overlord. Just sixteen when he arrived at his new capital of Sardis, the young prince found western Asia Minor an unruly frontier. Its satraps (provincial governors), cunning and ruthless men named Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, often pursued virtually independent foreign policies, and sometimes clashed with each other. There were also western barbarians for Cyrus to deal with. Athens and Sparta, now in the twenty-third year of their struggle for domination over Greece (today we call it the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 bc), had brought their fleets and troops to Ionia. The Athenians needed to preserve the vital grain supply route from the Black Sea via Ionia to Athens; the Spartans wanted to cut it.

The Achaemenids had their own interest in this war: after two humiliatingly unsuccessful invasions of Hellas in the early fifth century, they wanted to see Greeks lose. Hoping to wear both sides down, the western satraps had intermittently supported Athens and Sparta, but Darius desired a more consistent policy. That was one reason why Cyrus was in Ionia, to coordinate Persian efforts. He made friends with the newly arrived Spartan admiral Lysander. Persian gold darics flowed into Spartan hands; the ships and troops they bought helped put the Lacedaemonians on the way to final victory. In return, the Persians reasserted their old claims over the Greek cities of western Asia Minor. To safeguard their interests, Cyrus and the satraps relied on an unlikely source of manpower: Greek soldiers of fortune. Mercenaries were nothing new in the eastern Mediterranean, but by the end of the fifth century unprecedented numbers of Greek hoplites (armored spearmen) had entered Persian employment. Many of them garrisoned the Persian-controlled cities along the Aegean coast.

In the fall of 405 bc, as Sparta tightened its grip on Athens, Darius took ill. He summoned Cyrus home; the prince arrived at the fabled city of Babylon with a bodyguard of 300 mercenary hoplites, a symbol of what Ionia could do for him. On his deathbed, Darius left the throne to Arses, who took the royal name Artaxerxes II. The satrap Tissaphernes took the opportunity to accuse Cyrus of plotting against the new Great King. Artaxerxes, believing the charge, had his younger brother arrested. Parysatis, though, intervened to keep Artaxerxes from executing Cyrus, and sent him back to Ionia. Cyrus took the lesson to heart. The only way to keep his head off the chopping block was to depose Artaxerxes and become Great King himself. He set about making his preparations.

Across the Aegean, the Peloponnesian War was coming to a close. In May 404, Athens fell to Lysander. The city was stripped of its fleet and empire, its walls pulled down to the music of flute girls. For nearly a year following the end of the war a murderous oligarchic junta ruled the city, and with democracy restored the Athenians would begin looking for scapegoats; Socrates was to be one of them. The victorious Spartans faced other challenges. Having promised liberation from Athenian domination during the war, Sparta now found itself ruling Athens’ former subjects. The austere Spartan way of life provided poor preparation for the role of imperial master. Accustomed to unhesitating obedience at home, Lacedaemonian officials abroad alienated local populations with their harsh administration. Even wartime allies like Corinth and Thebes soon chafed under Sparta’s overbearing hegemony. Then there was the problem of Ionia. While their struggle with Athens went on, the Spartans had acquiesced in Persia’s expansionism, but now their attention began to turn eastward.

It was against this backdrop that, probably in February 401 bc, Cyrus, now an impetuous twenty-three-year-old, again set out from Sardis. His goal: take Babylon, unseat Artaxerxes, and rule as Great King in his brother’s stead. At the head of some 13,000 mostly Greek mercenaries along with perhaps 20,000 Anatolian levies, Cyrus marched east from Sardis across the plains of Lycaonia, over the Taurus Mountains through the famed pass of the Cilician Gates, through northern Syria, and down the Euphrates River valley into the heartland of Mesopotamia. Artaxerxes had been intent on suppressing a revolt in Egypt, but after being warned by Tissaphernes, he turned to face the new threat. Mustering an army at Babylon, the Great King waited until Cyrus was a few days away, then moved north against him.

In early August the two brothers and their armies met near the hamlet of Cunaxa, north of Babylon and west of present-day Baghdad. The heavily armed mercenaries routed the Persian wing opposing them, but to no avail: Cyrus, charging forward against Artaxerxes, fell mortally wounded on the field. In the days following the battle, the prince’s levies quickly fled or switched loyalties to the Great King, leaving the mercenaries stranded in unfamiliar and hostile territory. Their generals tried negotiating a way out of the predicament, but the Persians had other ideas. After a shaky six-week truce, Tissaphernes succeeded in luring the senior mercenary leaders to his tent under pretense of a parley; then they were seized, brought before Artaxerxes, and beheaded.

Rather than surrendering or dispersing after this calamity, though, the mercenaries rallied, chose new leaders, burned their tents and baggage, and embarked on a fighting retreat out of Mesopotamia. Unable to return the way they came, they slogged north up the Tigris River valley, then across the rugged mountains and snow-covered plains of what is today eastern Turkey, finally reaching the Black Sea (the Greeks called it the Euxine) at Trapezus (modern Trabzon) in January 400 bc. From there they traveled west along the water, plundering coastal settlements as they went. Arriving at Byzantium (today Istanbul) that fall, the soldiers then spent the winter on the European side of the Hellespont, working for the Thracian kinglet Seuthes. Finally, spring 399 saw the survivors return to Ionia, where they were incorporated into a Spartan army led by the general Thibron. In two years of marching and fighting, the mercenaries of Cyrus, the Cyreans, had covered some 3,000 kilometers, or almost 2,000 miles – a journey roughly equivalent to walking from Los Angeles, California, to Chicago, Illinois. Of the 12,000 Cyreans who set out with Cyrus, approximately 5,000 remained under arms to join Thibron. At least a thousand had deserted along the way; the rest had succumbed to wounds, frostbite, hunger, or disease.

The march of the Cyreans fascinates on many accounts. Cyrus’ machinations open a revealing window on Achaemenid dynastic rivalry and satrapal politics. His reliance on Greek mercenaries and Artaxerxes’ attempt to destroy them dramatically symbolize the convoluted blend of cooperation and conflict that characterized Greek-Persian relations between the first meeting of Hellene and Persian in mid-sixth-century bc Ionia and Alexander’s entry into Babylon some two centuries later. With its unprecedented mustering of more than 10,000 mercenaries, the campaign marks a crucial moment in the development of paid professional soldiering in the Aegean world.

Demosthenes of Athens I

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.

Demosthenes of Athens II

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).

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.

Demosthenes of Athens IV

The route the Athenian fleet took to Sicily

Map of the siege showing walls and counter-walls

Disaster in Sicily

The last and most fateful chapter in Demosthenes’ career took place on the island of Sicily, and he himself was largely to blame for it. In 415, the Athenians sent a large fleet to Sicily and used it in the following summer to besiege Syracuse, the most powerful city on the island. This is not the place to discuss in detail the vagaries of what is known as the Sicilian Expedition, but it is necessary to describe the circumstances awaiting Demosthenes when he arrived at Syracuse with large reinforcements in 413.

Before Demosthenes’ arrival, the Athenians had won consecutive victories on land and sea against Syracuse, primarily under the leadership of their experienced general Nicias. They had occupied Plemmyrium at the entrance to the Great Harbor of Syracuse, built a wall that partially surrounded the city, and gained access to Epipolae (“Overtown”), a plateau overlooking Syracuse. To the Athenians’ disadvantage, however, the Syracusans had occupied Olympeium (a fort southwest of the Athenian camp in the harbor, north of River Anapos), recaptured a fort at Labdalum on the western Epipolae, and built a counter-wall that prevented the completion of the Athenian wall. In addition, the Spartan general Gylippus arrived to aid the Syracusans in the summer of 414 and won a first land victory against the Athenians. He then left to collect reinforcements and allies in Sicily. Twelve Peloponnesian ships also made it to Syracuse, representatives of a newly invigorated Spartan fleet.

At this juncture, Nicias sent a letter to Athens, drawing a gloomy picture of the Athenians’ situation and prospects. He asked to be relieved of his command for health reasons and offered two alternatives: recall the expedition or send large reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians chose the latter option. They appointed two commanders on the spot as Nicias’ colleagues and substitutes if he died, giving Demosthenes and the veteran general Eurymedon the command over the new armada. Eurymedon was one of the generals who opposed Demosthenes’ request to occupy Pylos, and in 424, he returned from campaigning in Sicily with nothing to show for it. Demosthenes also came back empty-handed from Boeotia in the same year. Yet, with the talented Alcibiades in exile, the general Lamachus dead (shortly before in Syracuse), and the ailing Nicias away, the inventory of accomplished Athenian commanders was fairly limited. On the positive side, both new generals could use their respective connections in Corcyra, western Greece, and Sicily to help with the campaign, while Demosthenes’ proven resourcefulness promised quick results.

Eurymedon left immediately for Sicily with money and a few ships, but Demosthenes waited until early spring of 413 before sailing with sixty-five ships, 1,200 Athenian hoplites, and an unknown number of allied troops. On the way to his first major stop in western Greece, he plundered Laconian land and participated in the fortification of a site on the Laconian coast across from the island of Cythera, intending to use it as a shelter for refugee helots and as a raiding base. It is unclear whether he initiated the project, but the similarity to his tactics at Pylos, noted by Thucydides, clearly suggests his endorsement. From thence Demosthenes sailed to Acarnanian and Ambraciot waters, collecting troops from allied cities on the islands and the mainland along the way, including his old friends in Acarnania and the Messenian Naupactus. It was there that he heard bad news from Eurymedon, who had returned from Sicily: the Syracusans had succeeded in capturing Plemmyrium on the mouth of the Great Harbor, where Athenian grain, goods, naval equipment, and personal belongings were stored. The loss also reduced the Athenians’ control over the land from which they could launch and protect ships or to which they could retreat from battle. Contributing to the Athenians’ distress and low morale were the Syracusans’ increased interceptions of provisions brought by sea to the Athenian camp.

The worsening situation in Syracuse did not cause Demosthenes or Eurymedon to hurry there: they were busy drafting hoplites and light-armed troops in western Greece and southern Italy. Because the reported numbers of the new recruits are incomplete—we know only of 700 hoplites and 750 light infantry from Italy—they tell us little about the success of their recruiting. Yet their delayed arrival at Syracuse proved a costly risk, because it gave the Syracusans time to gain additional local allies, receive reinforcements from Greece and Sicily, and win a modest first victory over the Athenian navy in the harbor. Among their reasons for engaging the Athenian navy was their wish to forestall the arrival of the second armada. Demosthenes often relied for victory on his ability to predict and shape the enemy’s response to his actions. This time, his and Eurymedon’s calculated delay actually helped the enemy.

When the new Athenian fleet sailed into Syracuse harbor, however, it inspired disappointment, fear, and confusion in the enemy, and restored optimism and confidence to the Athenian camp. In his biography of Nicias, Plutarch describes Demosthenes’ showy entrance into the harbor:

Just then Demosthenes appeared off the harbors in a magnificent show of strength which dismayed the enemy. He had brought seventy-three ships, with 5,000 hoplites on board, and at least 3,000 others armed with javelins, bows, and slings. With his array of weaponry, with the figureheads on his ships, and the number of men employed in calling the time for the rowers and playing the pipes, he presented a fine display, designed to strike fear into the enemy.

Plutarch’s focus on Demosthenes is apt, because by all accounts he now dominated the scene. Thucydides ascribes to Demosthenes, not only an assessment of the situation when he arrived, but also a criticism of Nicias’ management of the war so far, although it is unclear if Demosthenes made it to Nicias’ face.56 He is depicted as almost a mirror image of the more cumbersome and passive Nicias, displaying decisiveness, a knowing-best attitude, and the confidence of a man who had a quick solution for the protracted campaign. In brief terms, his plan called for an attack against the Syracusans’ (third) counter-wall, which he identified as their weak spot. This was to be executed before the psychological impact of the fleet’s arrival wore off. Demosthenes is also said to have predicted two opposite outcomes of his plan: the fall of Syracuse or the Athenians’ withdrawal. That Syracuse did not fall and that the Athenians would withdraw only later and under worse conditions had much to do with the way he chose to implement his idea.

Nevertheless, the new vigor Demosthenes brought to the campaign appeared to have an effect. The Athenians descended on Syracusan lands around the River Anapos, and the enemy’s lack of response was optimistically interpreted as a yielding of control over land and sea to the Athenians. The next engagement was more sobering, however. Demosthenes used siege engines and frontal attacks against the Syracusan counter-wall but was repelled by the defenders. Under the largely self-induced pressure of having to take instant action, and with his colleagues’ consent, Demosthenes turned to his favorite modus operandi, a surprise attack.

He aimed to surprise the enemy on the Epipolae plateau by launching an attack from the relatively unexpected direction of the western and more accessible Euryalus Hill. More significantly, he took with him (according to one account) 10,000 hoplites and a greater number of light infantry for a full-scale night battle. There was no known precedent for fielding such a large force in a night combat, even in such bright moonlight as shone that night. The opposition consisted of a fort and sentries on the Euryalus, three fortified camps on the Epipolae, an advance guard of 600 men, and men in the city who could join the fighting. At first, everything seemed to go the attackers’ way. Led by Demosthenes and his colleague Menander, the Athenians went up the Euryalus, destroyed those they encountered, and took the fort there. Demosthenes, running ahead as at Megara, scattered the 600 advance guards who tried to oppose him. By now the surprise was gone, but Demosthenes and his men hurried on in order to exploit their momentum and to prevent the enemy from organizing a more effective defense. When the Syracusans’ commander Gylippus and his men came out of their camps, they were beaten back. In the meantime, other Athenian troops were busy tearing down the Syracusan counter-wall, whose guards fled. Yet the Athenian wave of attack collapsed entirely when it came up against its first stubborn opposition: a Boeotian unit that stood its ground and put the attackers to flight.

Because Demosthenes relied on surprise and speed for victory, he had to sacrifice order and effective communication with, and control over, units that were not in his vicinity. Poor visibility hampered his ability to respond to setbacks, while speed undermined the cohesion of his ranks. These conditions allowed an unyielding unit of defenders to repel the charge and caused the fleeing Athenians to sow confusion and uncertainty among their fellow combatants. According to Thucydides’ graphic account, the impaired visibility prevented the attackers from telling friends from foes, while those who kept arriving at the scene did not know where to join the battle. The only means of identification was the watchword, which the din of battle obscured, and which the enemy soon found out and used to its advantage. There were even incidents of Athenians’ dying from “friendly fire” and in near-clashes among fellow soldiers. Additional problems stood out because Demosthenes should have known better. At Acarnania, Sphacteria, and even Megara, he had won largely by his successful coordination of attacks from different quarters. On the Epipolae, there seemed to be no coordinated effort, only a rush forward to meet the enemy. At Acarnania, Demosthenes had used the Dorian-speaking Messenians to mislead the Ambraciots into believing that his troops were their allies. On the Epipolae, it was his own troops who fell victim to such confusion. Thucydides says that what confounded and terrified the Athenians most was the singing of Dorian paeans, because there were Dorian Greeks fighting on both sides. Finally, at Acarnania and Pylos, Demosthenes had made good use of local intelligence and the terrain to defeat the enemy. At Syracuse, those advantages worked in the enemy’s favor. Soldiers who had just arrived with Demosthenes were unfamiliar with the ground, lost their way, and were killed by the Syracusans even if they made it down from the plateau safely. In addition, the Athenians’ panicked retreat clogged the only narrow path down the Epipolae, and many of them fled their pursuers only to throw themselves off the high cliffs to their death. According to the sources, the Athenians lost between 2,000 and 2,500 men on and around the Epipolae. No other land battle during the Peloponnesian War resulted in so many casualties.

Like the plan of attacking Boeotia from different directions, the failure at Syracuse was not inevitable, but it could have been anticipated. Demosthenes took a gamble on surprise and lost disastrously, committing many men and assuming optimistically that shock and speed would compensate for the well-known difficulties of a night attack. His plan made it very difficult to direct the offensive and even the retreat.

The defeat had a significant impact on everyone involved, including Demosthenes. His arrival had caused fear among the Syracusans, which he wished to exploit, but now their fear changed into optimism and self-confidence, and they even used the victory to mobilize aid in Sicily. The defeated Athenians, who suffered also from unhealthy conditions in camp, grew despondent, and their leadership became divided. Demosthenes’ authority as the new commander who would change the course of the campaign suffered a devastating blow. When he recommended a return home, he was successfully opposed by Nicias, who had regained the prime leadership. It appears that the other Athenian generals also deemed Demosthenes’ solution of cutting their losses too radical, especially coming from the man who was responsible for the losses. Demosthenes then suggested evacuating the army to friendly Catana or Thapsus in Sicily, in order to raid enemy territory from there, or to fight at sea. Although his idea gained Eurymedon’s approval, Nicias successfully shot it down. Later the Athenians changed their minds about evacuation to Catana, but a lunar eclipse was interpreted as portending disaster, and no one could overturn Nicias’ decision to stay at Syracuse for twenty-seven days, as seers had prescribed. Because of my focus on Demosthenes’ generalship, I shall not dwell on the motives Thucydides attributes to Nicias on this and other occasions. The historian ascribes Nicias’ errors of judgment to his fear of the supernatural and of punishment at home if he returned, as well as to his belief that the Athenians could still take Syracuse. Whether Demosthenes’ suggestions were sound or not, his clouded reputation from the failed attack on the Epipolae forced him to defer to Nicias.

Demosthenes appears only sporadically in Thucydides’ narrative of the ensuing events. He is not mentioned among the generals who participated in the next naval battle in the harbor, though he may have fought in it. This engagement cost the Athenians their general Eurymedon, about 2,000 men, and at least eighteen ships, though they did repel a Syracusan attack on the Athenian walls. Thucydides suggests that the Athenian defeat at sea changed the Syracusan definition of victory from driving the invaders away to preventing them from escaping to a friendly base, and that they accordingly blocked the entrance to the harbor with a boom. In response, the Athenians set their slender hopes on an all-out naval battle, which, if successful, would allow them to sail out of the harbor, and if a failure, would compel them to march by land to a friendly place. They also limited their control over land to a small, fortified space next to the ships, which was easier to defend and allowed them to free troops to man the ships. The man in charge was Nicias, according to Thucydides, who credits him with a pre-battle exhortatory speech and with individual appeals to the ship commanders. Plutarch even suggests that Nicias refused to yield to the Athenians’ demand to retreat by land and insisted on a naval battle.

But Demosthenes’ possible contribution to the Athenian plan, or at least his support of it, can be gleaned from the fact that he was one of the generals who commanded the huge Athenian fleet of about 110 ships, as well as from the tactics chosen. Victory hinged on the Athenians’ numerical superiority (about 110 ships to 76) and their ability to convert the fighting into something like a land battle. The plan called for the light infantry on deck to shoot arrows and javelins at the enemy while the marines used grappling irons to prevent the enemy ships from backing away, finally boarding them to kill those on deck. Thucydides specifically mentions Demosthenes’ Acarnanian recruits among the light-armed troops who fought at the harbor. Demosthenes had little experience in maritime warfare, if any, but the kind of naval battle sought by the Athenians was as close as possible to the land fighting he was familiar with. In addition, the Athenians’ use of land forces on ships copied the Syracusans’ tactics, and Demosthenes had shown in the past his ability to learn from the enemy.

To judge by Thucydides’ description of the battle, the generals played only a limited role in it. The Athenians succeeded in breaking the barrier at the harbor mouth, but once the Syracusans joined battle, the fighting consisted largely of individual conflicts, with the generals mainly watching lest ships back away unforced from the fray. The Syracusans won because they made the Athenians fight a traditional naval battle in which the Syracusan lighter vessels enjoyed an advantage, destroying about fifty ships and losing only about twenty-five. Fear now dominated the Athenian camp. The troops were so desperate to leave by land that very night that they were willing to give up collecting their dead. But Demosthenes approached Nicias with a different plan, which illustrated the essence of his generalship. The general, who recommended surprise attack as the preferred solution for most military problems, suggested that they board the remaining triremes straightway and attack the enemy unexpectedly. One may admire Demosthenes’ resourcefulness in the face of adversity and his unconventional thinking, but his idea was unworkable for two reasons. The Athenians had lost faith in their ability to win at sea—understandably, in light of their two recent, consecutive defeats in the harbor. Moreover, they had only sixty ships left and about 40,000 people in camp, which meant that even a victory would give them little chance of evacuating so many people by sea, rather than by marching on land.

In the end, the Athenians waited two days before starting their march away from the harbor and generally north toward Catana. They were despondent, hungry, and full of guilt for leaving the wounded and dead behind. Thucydides’ emotive description of their retreat and tragic end is unsurpassed. Reduced to factual terms, it tells us that the Athenians formed a hollow square, Nicias leading the van and Demosthenes bringing up the rear, with the rest of the marchers in the middle. Their pace was slow and grew increasingly slower, largely because of their short supplies and the Syracusan opposition. Intentionally or not, Thucydides’ narrative of the Athenians in retreat evokes memories of the Spartans on Sphacteria, who were similarly harassed by elusive light infantry. With distress growing, the leading generals approved what would be Demosthenes’ last attempt at outwitting the enemy. The Athenians lighted many fires, as if camping for the night, but left under cover of darkness, changing direction toward the southwest, away from their Syracusan pursuers and toward the sea and friendly locals. The tactic won them freedom from pursuit only till the middle of the next day. They became disoriented and very fearful, and a gap was created between the van under Nicias and the larger rear under Demosthenes. Thucydides notes that Nicias’ men marched together and in good order, while Demosthenes’ troops moved more slowly and in disarray. It was as if a circle closed in Demosthenes’ career: his last retreat resembled his first one in Aetolia where his troops fled in disorder and suffered losses. In fairness to Demosthenes, we should note that the Syracusans attacked his men with greater frequency than they did Nicias’ division. Demosthenes arrayed his troops for battle in an enclosure, but the Syracusans did not take the bait: it was easier and safer to bombard the enemy with missiles from a distance. At the end of that day, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and many injuries led Demosthenes to surrender with 6,000 of his troops on the condition that no one would be killed. Nicias capitulated two days later after losing many more men, a carnage that justified Demosthenes’ decision to spare his followers’ lives.

The sources are divided about Demosthenes’ fate. Thucydides, our most authoritative informant, says that the Spartan general Gylippus wished to bring both Demosthenes and Nicias to Sparta as living trophies, but the Syracusans “cut their throats.” Other sources mention a debate in the Syracusan assembly over their fate that ended with the same result. We are even told that Demosthenes tried unsuccessfully to kill himself when surrounded by the enemy, and that later, when he and Nicias learned in prison of their imminent execution, they took their own lives. Their bodies were then exposed to public display.

Pausanias, the Greek traveler of the Roman era, cites an Athenian inscription that commemorated the war dead, including those killed in Sicily, along with its interpretation by the Sicilian historian Philistus (c. 430–356):

The names of the generals are inscribed with the exception of Nicias, and among the private soldiers are included the Plataeans along with the Athenians. This is the reason why Nicias was passed over, and my account is identical with that of Philistus, who says that while Demosthenes made a truce for the others and excluded himself, attempting to commit suicide when taken prisoner, Nicias voluntarily submitted to the surrender. For this reason Nicias had not his name inscribed on the slab, being condemned as a voluntary prisoner and an unworthy soldier.

We don’t really know why Nicias’ name was not inscribed, but the contrast drawn between him and Demosthenes is surely unfair. Some scholars think that Thucydides is equally unfair in eulogizing Nicias as the man who, of all the Greeks of his age, least deserved his misfortune, saying nothing comparable about Demosthenes. Clearly, the last chapter of any commander’s career should not dominate the assessment of his entire generalship, but it is equally wrong to ignore it. Demosthenes was neither a hero nor a failure, but both, or one of these historical actors who do not easily fit a single category. He demonstrated original thinking and good planning skills in each of his campaigns. He was chiefly known for his victories at Pylos and Sphacteria and for establishing a permanent base in enemy territory. His success encouraged imitations as early as the year he captured Pylos (425), when the Athenians set up a post near Epidaurus to raid the adjacent territory. By 413, when the Spartans similarly occupied Decelea in Attica, and when Demosthenes himself fortified a site in Laconia opposite Cythera, such projects had become quite common. Demosthenes therefore deserves credit for coming up with a plan that was adopted by both his city and its enemy, although it is ironic that the Spartans made more effective use of it at Decelea than the Athenians did anywhere. In some of Demosthenes’ campaigns, he used military intelligence and light infantry very effectively, although Greek antecedents of such uses suggest that he was not their originator. He was a gambler who enjoyed good luck in some of his operations and suffered losses in others. He was a firm believer in surprise and deception as the best means of accomplishing his goals. His personality well suited these qualities: he was ambitious, aggressive, self-confident, daring, and a risk-taker, but also someone who tended to take failure as an endpoint instead of as a temporary setback. His impatience, however, was not as disastrous as his preference for a quick solution in the form of surprise attack, even when conditions disfavored it. With its share of successes and disappointments, Demosthenes’ career shows the benefits and pitfalls of having such a general in command.

Roman Success at Sea in 260–257 BC


In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the First Punic War, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic’s military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans’ application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.

Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other’s structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is “most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would not be seriously upset”.

Some other historians believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship’s navigability and the Romans lost almost two entire fleets to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for the abandonment of the boarding-bridge in ship design by the end of the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won without it.

The intensification of the Punic war at sea was demonstrated when the new Roman fleet first approached Sicily and the Carthaginians made an effort to stop it from securing a position on the Sicilian coast.

The consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio had given orders to the captains to sail towards the Straits when the fleet was ready, while he put to sea with seventeen ships and proceeded to Messana to prepare for the arrival of the main fleet. However, Scipio was then taken prisoner at the Lipari Islands. Polybius describes how an opportunity came up to capture Lipara by treachery, and so Scipio sailed there with his seventeen ships. The Carthaginians at Panormus learned about Scipio’s presence at Lipara. Hannibal dispatched Boödes, a member of the senate, with twenty ships and he blockaded the Romans in the harbour. Scipio surrendered to Boödes, who took him and the captured ships to Hannibal.

Much has been made of this failed enterprise. The Romans gave Scipio the nickname ‘Asina’, she-ass, but he was released later in an exchange of prisoners and continued his career. Scipio was right to try to take Lipara. It was one of the ports that the Carthaginians could use to protect traffic in the Straits and interfere in Roman transports. If the Romans had captured it, the crossing of their main fleet would have been safer. While they already controlled the ports of Messana and Syracuse and could rely on the support of their ally Hiero along the east coast of the island, the rest of the Sicilian seaboard was dominated by the Punic fleet and was hostile to them. So, for the Romans, Lipara was an important target and the capture of it could have been their first success in the campaign to conquer the Punic ports.

Next, the Roman and Carthaginian fleets clashed off the coast of Bruttium, near a place called the Cape of Italy. This could well have been the Taurianum promontory, known today as Cape Vaticano. Polybius states that Hannibal came upon the main Roman fleet sailing southwards in good order and trim. He does not give details about the battle but claims that Hannibal lost most of his fifty ships before escaping with the remainder. The reasons for Hannibal’s voyage are not clear. According to Polybius, he wanted to discover the strength and the general disposition of the enemy and perhaps he intended to combine this reconnaissance with a plundering raid. It is possible that his motive was more ambitious than this. Since the Carthaginians had recently captured seventeen new Roman ships and their commander, he may have felt confident enough to stop the main Roman fleet and take over more of their ships.

When the Roman fleet arrived in Sicily, Gaius Duilius, the consul leading the Roman land forces on the island, was called in to command it. He handed over his legions to the military tribunes before leaving to join the ships. The Romans began to get ready for a sea battle. Polybius states that, since their ships were badly-built and slow-moving, it was suggested that they should equip them with boarding-bridges.

There is no doubt about the historicity of the boarding-bridge or corvus. Polybius gives a description of its structure that Wallinga has corrected on some points. It worked as follows: at ramming distance, a gangway located on the bow was lowered onto the enemy deck and the soldiers ran across it in order to fight. The mechanism consisted of a pole with a pulley at the top. A rope ran through the pulley to a gangway that could be raised and lowered. Under the end of the gangway was a pointed pestle that, when the gangway was lowered, pierced the deck of the enemy ship and kept the two vessels locked together.

For anyone who follows Polybius’ view that the Romans were novices in maritime warfare and operated with poor-quality ships, the boarding-bridge has come to be seen as the key to their success, especially as, in his description of the battle at Mylae, he states that this device made combat at sea like a fight on land. However, it is doubtful whether the corvus had such a decisive impact. The Romans won their first battle on their way to Sicily without it, capturing many Punic ships, and the device is only mentioned twice in the sources: in the sea battles of 260 and 256 – thereafter there is no reference to it.

In my opinion, the corvus should not be seen in the context of the Romans’ inexperience in maritime warfare; there is a precedent in naval history that points to its real significance. Thucydides describes how the Athenians used grappling irons when they tried to break out from the harbour at Syracuse in 413. They boarded the enemy ships with soldiers and drove their opponents off the deck. According to Thucydides, the sea battle changed into a battle on land. The mass of troops on board made the Athenian ships heavy and hampered their manoeuvres. The Athenian innovation started a new era in naval tactics.

The boarding-bridge was a typical device in the Hellenistic period, when armies and navies were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and experimented with new fighting methods in order to surprise them. Once the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, they must have come up with a defence against the corvus but the sources do not describe the measures they took. Some of the technical details concerning the operation of the corvus remain uncertain, such as the angle at which it could be revolved, and it is not clear why the Romans stopped using it.

As for the alleged slowness of Roman ships, knowledge about the comparative performance of Roman and Carthaginian vessels is based on the outcome of the battle at the Cape of Italy where the Romans captured around fifty Punic ships and the remainder fled. The excessive weight of the Roman ships may have been due to the fact that they were loaded with troops, equipment and supplies, rather than a consequence of poor shipbuilding. However, the Romans had been unable to take a few of the Punic ships. In this context perhaps the boarding-bridge should not be seen as a defensive tool but as a sign of the Roman determination to hunt down every enemy ship at every opportunity. By using the boarding-bridge, they could make sure that no Punic ships could escape.

We do not know how long the preparations for the battle took. Polybius states that the Carthaginians were ravaging the territory of Mylae and that Duilius sailed against them:

They all [the Carthaginians] sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs … On approaching and seeing the ravens [corvi] nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.

The first thirty ships were taken with their crews. Hannibal, who was commanding the fleet in the seven that had formerly belonged to Pyrrhus, managed to escape in the small boat. Trusting their swiftness, the Carthaginians sailed around the enemy in order to strike from the side or the stern but the Romans swung the boarding-bridges around so that they could grapple with ships that attacked them from any direction. Eventually the Carthaginians, shaken by this novel tactic, took flight. They lost fifty ships.

According to Polybius, Hannibal had 130 ships; according to Diodorus he had 200 ships involved in the battle. Diodorus says the Romans had 120 ships. Information about the type of ships that Scipio Asina lost at the Lipari Islands is not given in the sources but it seems probable that the Romans still had around 100 ships from their original fleet. Possibly they borrowed ships from their allies and made use of captured Carthaginian ships but no information is available. The brief description of the battle that has survived does not indicate whether the Romans arranged their ships in two lines or one. At first it seems the Carthaginians tried a diekplous attack. When that failed, they switched to a periplous attack but the Romans repulsed that too. If we accept Wallinga’s theory that the boarding-bridge could be revolved through 90 degrees, rather than freely in all directions as Polybius claims, then the Romans must have manoeuvred and regrouped their ships during the battle to defend themselves and to target the Punic ships as they approached. So, in practice, they continued to use the traditional tactics that were intended to sink enemy ships with rams and the deployment of the boarding-bridge did not make a significant difference to this aspect of the battle.

Duilius was given extraordinary honours by Rome. He was awarded the first naval triumph in the city’s history, ‘de Sicul(eis) et classe Poenica’, ‘over the Sicilians and the Punic fleet’. Two columns decorated with beaks were built, one in the Forum, probably close to the Rostra, and the other perhaps at the Circus Maximus, and a waxen torch was borne before him and a flautist made music whenever he returned from dining out. The Rostra and the Columna Rostrata C. Duilii were the two most important war monuments of Republican Rome.

Polybius sees the victory at Mylae as one of the important moments of the war; he states that the determination of the Romans to prosecute the war became twice as strong. This is plausible. The victory and the retreat of the Carthaginian navy opened the north coast of Sicily to the Romans, who used their fleet to take troops westwards when they raised the siege of Segesta and took Macella.

No figures are available for the size of the fleets of 259–257, when the Romans extended their operations to other islands and attacked important Punic harbours. The consul of 259, Gaius Aquillius Florus, operated in Sicily against Hamilcar and celebrated a triumph ‘de Poeneis’, ‘over the Carthaginians’. We do not know exactly what he accomplished. According to Polybius, Roman troops did nothing worthy of note in Sicily that year. Perhaps events on land were slow; as Lazenby puts it, it is most likely that Aquillius had two legions with him consisting of about 20,000 men. This was not a large enough force to take on Hamilcar’s army in which there might have been up to 50,000 men after the fall of Agrigentum. Diodorus, however, states that Hamilcar took Camarina and Enna and fortified Drepana on the north-west coast and that people were moved there from Eryx. Drepana was one of the most important Carthaginian harbours in Sicily. The Carthaginians reacted to the presence of the Roman navy and the threat it posed to them.

According to Polybius, the Romans – from the moment they concerned themselves with the sea – began to entertain designs on Sardinia. Sardinia and Corsica were strategically important and taking Sardinia would put a stop to Carthaginian attacks on the Italian coast from that direction. Moreover, the Romans had a long-standing interest in both islands, demonstrated by their attempts to found colonies on them.

The second consul of 259, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, brother to Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, was awarded a triumph for his campaign against the Carthaginians on both Corsica and Sardinia. His opponent was Hanno. Scipio started on the east coast of Corsica, capturing Aleria and other ports that are not named in the sources. While sailing towards Sardinia, he spotted a Carthaginian fleet, which turned and fled. He went on to Olbia on the north-east coast of Sardinia. There a Carthaginian fleet put in an appearance but Scipio decided to sail home, judging that his infantry was insufficient to give battle. Scipio’s funerary inscription records his success in Corsica:

He took Corsica and the city of Aleria

He dedicated a temple to the Storms as a just return.

The reference to ‘Storms’ in the dedication presumably alludes to a particular storm that Scipio was fortunate to escape and probably it was Hannibal’s Carthaginian fleet that caused him to turn back. Polybius does not record previous events in Corsica and Sardinia but he continues the story of Hannibal, who had sailed to Carthage after the Battle of Mylae. He collected additional ships and recruited some of the most celebrated Carthaginian naval officers, then returned to Sardinia. There he was blockaded in one of the harbours by the Romans and, after having lost many ships in a battle, he was arrested by his men and crucified in Sulci, in the south-west corner of the island. The Roman consul who defeated Hannibal was probably Scipio’s successor, Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus. He was awarded a triumph ‘over the Carthaginians and Sardinia’. We have no further information about subsequent events in Sardinia until the great mutiny of the Carthaginian mercenaries in the aftermath of the war and the consequent Roman annexation of the island.

The other consul of 258, Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, operated in Sicily. He attacked the Carthaginian winter quarters in Panormus but withdrew his forces when the Carthaginians refused to give battle. The Romans took Hippana, Mytistratus, Camarina and Enna and besieged Lipara. Surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Lipara and Panormus were important Punic naval bases and the Roman attacks demonstrate the powerful position the Roman fleet had gained on the north coast of Sicily. Atilius celebrated a triumph ‘over Sicily and the Carthaginians’.

In 257 both consuls operated in Sicily. Information about Gnaeus Cornelius Blasio’s campaign has not come down to us; Gaius Atilius Regulus, however, was awarded a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’. It is hard to say what he achieved; Polybius states that, in a sea battle off Tyndaris on the north coast of Sicily, the Romans took ten Carthaginian ships with their crews, sinking eight. Details of the battle have been lost but he describes the consul’s ship as well-manned and swift. The rest of the Punic fleet withdrew to the Lipari Islands. A surviving fragment in the works of Naevius mentions the ravaging of Malta. Orosius, Zonaras and Polyainos state that Atilius operated against the Lipari Islands and Malta. Certainly, operations against these two islands helped to make the route safe for the invasion of Africa that began in the following year.64 Atilius’ triumph was the seventh that had been celebrated during the war and the second for naval operations. Once again, naval paraphernalia must have been displayed in the triumphal procession; there is no record of a monument being built to commemorate the victory.

What made a naval triumph? All the Roman operations of this period depended on cooperation between the army and the fleet, in particular on the rapid transport of troops, which could only take place in areas where the navy had cleared the coast of the enemy fleet and made safe landing possible. Scipio’s operations in Corsica, which included the capture of important Punic harbours, had not earned him a naval triumph. As for Atilius, we do not know exactly what he achieved but we must assume that he inflicted a serious loss on the Punic navy that could be counted in terms of booty and a significant number of captured or sunken ships. Perhaps his success at the Battle of Tyndaris fulfilled the criteria for a triumph and in addition he may have fought the Carthaginians at the Lipari Islands or Malta, in sea battles of which we know nothing.