The Second Attic War: An Opportunity Squandered I

Money is not the sinews of war. . . . That what we are saying is true every history shows in a thousand places, notwithstanding the fact that Pericles advised the Athenians to make war against the Peloponnesus in its entirety, asserting that they could win that war with industry and with the force of wealth. For although the Athenians did well in that war for a time, in the end they lost it; and the counsel and good soldiers of Sparta were worth more than the industry and the wealth of Athens.


DIPLOMACY and dissimulation are almost inseparable. The alliance linking Athens with Argos, Mantineia, and Elis was only nominally defensive. Its real aim was the opposite, and everyone knew it. The four cities were as one in wanting to destroy the foundations of Lacedaemon’s power. With this in mind, they set out to break up Sparta’s Peloponnesian alliance, knowing full well that, in the end, the question could only be settled on the battlefield.

The Olympic Games, scheduled to be held under the presidency of Elis in August 420, provided an occasion for ritually humiliating and provoking the Lacedaemonians. The latter had apparently attacked Fort Phyrcus in Triphylia and dispatched some of their hoplites to Lepreum shortly after the Olympic truce had been proclaimed in Elis. The Eleans seized upon this purported infraction to charge the Spartans with a breach of the truce, which barred attacks on the presiding city in the general period of the Olympic festival; and the tribunal at Olympia, which was under their control, levied a fine in silver of two thousand minae (nineteen-twentieths of a ton)—two minae per hoplite, as the Olympic law prescribed—which was to be divided between Elis and the treasury of Zeus at Olympia.

The Spartans might have objected that Triphylia did not belong to Elis, but they knew better than to suppose that this would be accepted. Instead, they relied on a technicality, protesting that they had dispatched the hoplites before the Elean herald, sent to proclaim the truce, had reached Lacedaemon. The Eleans, in turn, rejected their plea but offered to give up their share of the fine and to pay what was owed the god if the Lacedaemonians would restore Lepreum to them. When the Spartans balked at this, they sought to soften the blow (or, at least, assume a posture of reasonableness) by offering the Lacedaemonians a second option—that they swear before the Hellenes that they would pay the fine at a later time.

When this overture was also rejected, the Eleans barred the Lacedaemonians from the temple of Zeus, the opening sacrifice, and the games. Fearing that the Spartans would resort to force, they posted at Olympia or nearby a guard of their own soldiers supplemented by a thousand Argives, a thousand Mantineians, and some Athenian cavalrymen. Although the Lacedaemonians refrained from violence, they did, with the help of the Boeotians, attempt to make a mockery of the proceedings.

There was a well-known, wealthy, senior Spartiate named Lichas son of Arcesilaus. His father had twice been an Olympic victor in equestrian events; and, as one would expect, Arcesilaus’ son owned a splendid team of horses. These he loaned to the Thebans, who ran them and were proclaimed the victors when this team won the chariot race. Then, however, Lichas stepped forward to claim the victory as his own by crowning his charioteer with a headband—and the umpires gave him a taste of the whip.

It is conceivable, but most unlikely that Lichas was acting on his own. The fact that he was the próxenos of the Argives at Lacedaemon made this gesture and the savage response of the Eleans especially poignant. In effect, Elis and her allies had thrown down the gauntlet. For the time being, we are told, the Spartans did not stir. They appear to have shared the modern French view that revenge is a dish best eaten cold; and, as we shall see, when the moment was propitious, they took up the challenge.

In the meantime, the Eleans and their allies tried to cash in on Lacedaemon’s humiliation by luring Corinth into their alliance—but to no avail. The following winter, the Spartans suffered another setback. The tribes in the neighborhood of Heracleia Trachinia had harried that Lacedaemonian colony from the moment of her foundation. Now, in battle, they inflicted a devastating defeat on her citizens and killed Xenares son of Cnidis, who had been dispatched from Sparta as their commander. In the aftermath, the Boeotians, who did not welcome Sparta’s presence in their near abroad, occupied the town, expelled its governor, Hegesippidas, and sent that Spartiate home in disgrace.

Themistocles Redivivus

Early in the summer of 419, Alcibiades, whom the Athenians had made a general the previous June, did what Themistocles had done fifty years before. He journeyed to the Peloponnesus, taking with him a couple hundred Athenian hoplites and some archers; and, in concert with the Argives and Athens’ other allies, he traveled about, meeting with the men who counted and settling matters at this place and that with an eye to shoring up and expanding the anti-Spartan confederacy. Thucydides singles out only one enterprise for comment, noting that Alcibiades visited Achaea. There he apparently added Patras to the alliance and persuaded her citizens to build Long Walls from the town down to the sea. Nearby, at Achaean Rhium, he also attempted to build a fort but was stymied by the efforts of the Corinthians and the Sicyonians.

Why these two powers were concerned Thucydides does not explain. But it was surely material that Achaean Rhium on the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf is located directly opposite Antirhium (sometimes called Molycreian Rhium) on that body of water’s northern shore, that the two are situated astride the narrows where the Gulf of Patras to the west gives way to the Gulf of Corinth to the east and only a mile of water separates the two shores, that a coalition with ships stationed both at Patras on the south shore to the west and at Naupactus on the north shore to the east can quite effectively monitor and regulate traffic into and out of the Corinthian Gulf, and that Athens had controlled both shores and had no doubt used this to advantage against Corinth and Sicyon in the 450s. The prospect that suffering inflicted on one in the recent past will be inflicted once again concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Later that same summer—almost certainly in August—the Argives, with moral support from Alcibiades, launched an attack on Epidaurus. The pretext was religious; the purpose, political. The temple of Apollo Pythaeus was situated at Asine on the coast in territory seized by Argos from the local Dryopian population centuries before. By way of this conquest, the Argives had come to preside over the associated amphictyony, which they had made a vehicle for asserting their hegemony within the Argolid, the Argolic Acte, and beyond. On this occasion, the Epidaurians were accused of not having sent a victim for sacrifice that they owed—perhaps as a thank offering for the pasture land where their livestock grazed. In demanding that they meet the obligation to Apollo Pythaeus that they had long before incurred, the Argives were doing to the Epidaurus what the Eleans had done to Lepreum: they were demanding from a onetime client a symbolic acknowledgment of her subordinate status.

In seeking to conquer this city, Alcibiades and the Argives were also reportedly focused on forcing Corinth, which was situated to the north of Epidaurus across some rugged terrain, to “remain at rest”; and they were no less eager to secure for the Athenians a shorter route than the voyage around Scyllaeum into the Argolic Gulf by which to deliver to Argos aid at short notice from their stronghold on Aegina.

This maneuver was no doubt also intended as a provocation. Epidaurus was an ally of Lacedaemon. If the Spartans failed to come to her defense, and the Argives and Athenians seized and sacked the city, it would occasion a further, precipitous decline in Lacedaemon’s prestige; and. though intangible, this might well give the Corinthians, the Sicyonians, and the Tegeans pause and induce them to reconsider their allegiance.

The Spartans understood the consequences, and they knew that they had to intervene. So, in response to Argos’ invasion of the Epidauria, Agis son of Archidamus was dispatched with the city’s full levy up the Eurotas valley to a place called Leuctron (in all likelihood, modern Leondari) in the Alpheios basin on their frontier opposite Mount Lycaeum. From there, one could head almost anywhere—north-northwest toward Elis, for example, or north-northeast toward Mantineia or even Argos.

On this occasion, Lacedaemon’s Eurypontid king was no doubt acting at the behest of the ephors or of the “little assembly” constituted by the ephors meeting in consultation with the gerousía. For next to no one knew where this army was going, and all of the Spartiates would have been fully informed had the campaign been discussed and voted on at a meeting of the assembly.

At the frontier, it was the Spartan practice to conduct sacrifices called dıabatImages rıa and to examine the victim’s entrails before crossing from the domain of one set of heroes and gods to that of another. When the signs were unfavorable, it was the duty of the seer to inform his commander and of the commander to heed his warning. Of course, there were times when circumstances required audacity and others when they argued for caution; and, in one fashion or another, this may have influenced calculations. Moreover, some commanders and some seers were habitually more risk-averse than others.

As we have already had occasion to note, Agis appears consistently to have erred on the side of caution. The same can be said for his seer. Time and again, after Archidamus died, his elder son and heir marched out, examined the signs in consultation with his seer, and then turned back—which is what he did on this occasion, perhaps in part because the nine-day festival of the Carneia, when the Spartans would be barred from campaigning, would before long be upon them. When Agis once again reached Sparta, word was sent to Lacedaemon’s allies to be ready to march after the month of Carneios, which was among Dorian peoples a time sacred to Apollo.

Three days before that month began, the Argives, as a gesture of contempt, initiated their invasion of the territory of Epidaurus and began ravaging it. To make this right with the gods—given that they, too, were Dorians—the Argives resorted to intercalation, cynically adding a day to the month previous to Carneios for every day they spent on campaign. The allies summoned by the Epidaurians were more scrupulous. Either they begged off, citing the month, or they marched to the Epidaurian frontier and did not cross.

While the ravaging was going on, the Athenians summoned the Peloponnesian cities to a peace conference at Mantineia—almost certainly once again with an eye to persuading the Corinthians to join the four-power alliance and deny Sparta’s Boeotian allies access to the Peloponnesus. Accordingly, when a Corinthian named Euphamidas son of Aristonymos—an experienced general who had subscribed to the truce of 423 on his city’s behalf and who may have favored subscribing to the peace of 421—objected that it made no sense to be discussing peace while the Argives were in arms against the Epidaurians and their allies, Athens and her allies were quick to oblige. Delegates from the two sides were dispatched to separate the two armies, and the Argives actually withdrew from the Epidauria.

Of course, when the conference failed, the Argives conducted a second invasion, and, when the festival of the Carneia and the month of Carneios were over, the Spartans marched out again—this time to Caryae on the main thoroughfare leading via Tegea and Mantineia in eastern Arcadia to the Argolid. On this occasion, however, as on the previous occasion, the sacrifices conducted at the frontier were judged unfavorable, and so the Lacedaemonians returned home. Shortly thereafter, Alcibiades arrived in the Argolid with a thousand Athenian hoplites; and, upon learning that there was not going to be a showdown with the Spartans, he and they returned home. By the time that the campaigning season had come to an end, we are told, the Argives had ravaged a third of the Epidauria.

This fencing match continued in the winter. Early on, the Lacedaemonians managed to slip into Epidaurus by sea a garrison of three hundred under the command of the Hegesippidas expelled from Heracleia Trachinia shortly before. When the Argives upbraided the Athenians for having failed to prevent this and pressed them to reintroduce the Messenians and the runaway helots into Coryphasium, Alcibiades persuaded his compatriots to inscribe at the bottom of the pillar recording Athens’ treaty of peace with Lacedaemon that the Spartans had not kept their oaths. Then, he convinced them to conduct the fugitive helots back from Cranae to the fort at Coryphasium. In the Epidauria, toward the end of winter, there were raids and ambushes; and the Argives even approached the walls of Epidaurus with scaling ladders, hoping to find the city unguarded—but, thanks in part no doubt to the presence of Hegesippidas and his garrison, they did so to no avail.

The Spartans cannot have been entirely happy with Agis and his seer. They could not afford to allow the Athenians and the Argives a free hand indefinitely, and they knew it. As Thucydides observes, by the summer of 418, they were acutely aware “that the Epidaurians, their allies, were suffering hardship and that the remaining powers in the Peloponnesus had either revolted or were ill-disposed, and they thought that if they did not with expedition get out in front of events, seize the occasion, and arrest the evil the situation would grow even worse.” They did not, however, march out at the beginning of the summer, as they had in the past when they mounted invasions of Attica. Instead, they waited until midsummer—perhaps because it took some time to rally their allies; perhaps, as some scholars suggest, because they wanted to give their allies abroad and their helots at home (many of whom they intended to take with them) time to bring in the harvest; and perhaps, as others insist, because they thought that the Athenian generals slated to take office in late June were apt to be less enthusiastic regarding Alcibiades’ Peloponnesian venture than was the young man himself.

This last possibility needs emphasis. In March, perhaps because they were not themselves as excited about the enterprise as its progenitor, the Athenians had not reelected Alcibiades as general. The new board included Laches and Nicias, the chief promoters of the peace negotiated with Lacedaemon, as well as Nicias’ colleagues in various campaigns Nicostratus and Autocles, not to mention Callistratus and Demosthenes, who had both sworn on Athens’ behalf to observe the terms of peace and those of the alliance. The Spartans had good reason to suppose that Alcibiades intended their undoing. They knew that, if they lost the great battle which they intended to stage, it might well mean the total collapse of their alliance, the liberation of the Messenians, an erosion of the economic foundations of their regime, and an end to their way of life—and it was their hope that Athens would not make a wholehearted effort to effect their defeat.

Lacedaemon Stirs

The Spartans could hardly turn to the Agiad king Pleistoanax son of Pausanias for military leadership in such circumstances. He had been timid and, many believed, treasonous in dealing with the Athenians in 446; and he had championed the Peace of Nicias three years before. As such, he was suspect. So, it was his Eurypontid colleague Agis on whom they once again relied when they dispatched their full levy against Argos, accompanied by the helots in great numbers for the first time since the battle of Plataea. Along the way, he picked up the Tegeans and Lacedaemon’s other Arcadian supporters.

Those of Sparta’s allies which were situated either along the north coast of the Peloponnesus or beyond the Isthmus of Corinth gathered at Phlius—a city, fiercely loyal to Lacedaemon, situated near Nemea not all that far from the Argolid, which most of them could easily reach via Sicyon without having to cross any territory controlled by Argos or her allies. Notable among those who gathered at this mustering place were the Corinthians with two thousand hoplites (three thousand fewer than they had been able to send to the battlefield at Plataea), the Phliasians with every last man they could spare (at least one thousand heavy infantrymen), and, most important of all, the Boeotians—who dispatched five thousand hoplites, a like number of light-armed troops, and five hundred horsemen with as many light-armed infantrymen trained to operate in cooperation with their cavalry. There were also Sicyonians and Achaeans from Pellene to their west (who could march directly to Phlius), and there were Megarians and Epidaurians as well. It is also conceivable that there were contingents from Troezen, Hermione, and perhaps even Halieis in the Argolic Acte—though, since they pass unmentioned and were located on the coast of the Saronic Gulf where, as they knew only too well, the Athenians could do them great harm, they probably thought discretion the better part of valor.

All in all, with perhaps fifteen hundred Tegeate hoplites (the number sent to Plataea), another fifteen hundred Arcadians, as many as three thousand from Sicyon, and perhaps another fourteen hundred from Pellene, Megara, and Epidaurus in attendance, as well as something like fourteen hundred forty Spartiate hoplites and two thousand one hundred sixty períoıkoı, the army of the Lacedaemonians and their allies is apt to have approached, if not exceeded, nineteen thousand hoplites with five hundred cavalrymen and an untold number of light-armed troops.

“This was the most splendid Hellenic army ever yet assembled by far.” So says Thucydides, who appears to have been an onlooker. “It should have been seen while it was still intact at Nemea—the Lacedaemonians there with their whole army, the Arcadians, Boeotians, Corinthians, Sicyonians, Pellenians, Phliasians, and Megarians—all of these the picked troops from each city, seeming a match in battle for the alliance of the Argives and for another such added to it.”

The forces available within the Peloponnesus for the defense of the Argolid were far fewer. There were three thousand Elean hoplites. This much Thucydides tells us, but he does not indicate how many hoplites the Argives and Mantineians with their subject allies could field. Given what we know of Argos’ capacity at an earlier time when the city was also flourishing and at a later time, seven thousand is a reasonable estimate of what they and their allies could turn out at home to defend their own territory, and we are told by Diodorus Siculus that the Mantineians (with, we must suspect, their subject allies) supplied just under three thousand hoplites. Without Athenian help, these three powers cannot have been in a position to field a great many more than thirteen thousand hoplites, if even that.