The Second Attic War: An Opportunity Squandered II

The Argives knew about the Spartan preparations well in advance of their departure from Lacedaemon, and they were not behindhand in alerting their allies. There is, in fact, evidence strongly suggesting that the Athenians had set aside funds for the expedition before their political year ended in late June. Nonetheless, when the crisis came, they were unconscionably slow in responding to the Argive plea for help—which had not been the case the previous year when Agis marched to Caryae and Alcibiades quickly brought reinforcements to Argos. Moreover, when the Athenians finally arrived, they were insufficiently numerous. The thousand hoplites and the three hundred cavalrymen that Athens eventually sent would surely have been most welcome had they arrived in time. But, in the circumstances, a great many more were needed. For Athens, as for her Peloponnesian allies, the stakes in this struggle were extremely high.

There had not been a genuine opportunity to eliminate Lacedaemon as a great power in half a century; and Alcibiades resembled the Themistocles of that earlier period in more ways than one. Like his illustrious predecessor, he knew where Sparta’s center of gravity lay, and he had an admirably clear understanding of the strategic situation. Moreover, like that great statesman, he did not fully command the support of his compatriots. In one respect, Alcibiades was better positioned than Themistocles had been. He had not been ostracized, and he was not operating from exile. He could appear in the assembly and make his case, and there he wielded considerable influence. But there were others—Nicias was their leader—who, in 418, commanded at least as much respect as he did (and quite possibly more), and they lacked the keen strategic insight that Pericles’ ward possessed.

Alcibiades’ compatriots were halfhearted. It would have taken a man graced with his late guardian’s stature and eloquence to instill in them the requisite resolve. They were prepared to pursue victory on the cheap, which is apparently the prospect that the son of Cleinias dangled before them. But, as he seems to have recognized, thanks to the plague and the losses they had suffered at Delium and Amphipolis, they were too exhausted and too weary of war to take the considerable risks they should have embraced.

That the tardiness of the Athenians was a function of the political conflict at Athens is certain. We know that there was fierce opposition to the expedition. In his play The Demes, the comic poet Eupolis tells us as much. The omens were bad, he reports. The generals were decidedly reluctant; and, to get them on the move, an unnamed proponent of the venture had to stand up in the assembly and threaten the expedition’s prospective commanders with the stocks.

The Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians were undaunted, and their commanders were not without intelligence. Their heavy infantrymen outnumbered by more than two to one the sixty-six hundred or so hoplites making their way north toward Phlius from Lacedaemon, Tegea, and elsewhere in Arcadia. As they recognized, their best chance for victory was to intercept this force en route. Agis understood the danger. It would have been foolhardy take the normal route from Caryae up the valley shared by Tegea and Mantineia. The latter city, which was situated astride that well-beaten path, stood squarely in the way. It was a virtual certainty that the Argives and their allies would take the Lacedaemonians’ appearance in the territory of Mantineia as an opportunity to force a decision before the great army could coalesce.

Mindful of all of this, Agis opted to bypass Mantineia and led the Lacedaemonians, Tegeans, and associated Arcadians through the plain in south-central Arcadia that would eventually be dominated by Megalopolis; then north-northeast through Zoitia and Trikolonoi on a roundabout route that ran initially to the west of Mount Maenalum; and finally, we have reason to believe, north and east from there to Arcadian Orchomenos—which had remained resolutely loyal to her hegemon. On Agis’ path, directly north of Trikolonoi and across from Mantineia, lay the Arcadian city of Methudrion. There, the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans gathered from the eastern and the western parts of the Peloponnesus; and there, no doubt to his great dismay, Agis found them waiting. For a brief moment, it looked as if there might be a battle. Each army occupied a hill, and the rival captains eyed one another warily. But Agis’ defect was not audacity, and he was anything but tactically obtuse. So at night—while the Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians were asleep—he broke camp and, thanks to negligence on the part of the Argive commanders in charge of the coalition forces, he managed to slip off toward Orchomenos and the rendezvous at Phlius further east-northeast.

In the aftermath, the Argives and their allies pulled back to Argos. Then, after a brief pause, they marched up through the Trestus pass along the main thoroughfare that stretched from that city to Corinth. Then, at Cleonae, they turned off onto the ancillary road that led to Nemea and Phlius in the west. It was their presumption that this was the path that the army concentrated at Phlius would have to take, and they may have supposed that they could stage a battle in a location near Nemea where the numerical superiority of the enemy and the cavalry they possessed would afford them no great advantage.

This was a bold and foolish maneuver. The proper station for an army intent on defending the Argolid was near the Heraeum at the point where an invader would emerge in column and in some disarray from the narrow Trestus pass. An army placed there could fall back on the city of Argos if the enemy chose one or more of the roads or paths less well-traveled—which is what a majority of those in Agis’ army, in fact, did

Instead of proceeding as expected, the son of Archidamus divided his army into three and had the separate contingents make their way to the Argive plain by different routes at distinct intervals. With the Arcadians and the Epidaurians, he and his fellow Lacedaemonians appear to have broken camp late at night, taking what Thucydides describes as a difficult path, which was no doubt seldom used. The Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians then set off at first light, some two hours before dawn, following another, similar route. Last to leave were the Megarians, Sicyonians, and Boeotians with roughly eighty-five hundred hoplites, who took the main highway through Nemea past Cleonae and down through the Trestus pass, which was the only road suited to the Boeotians’ five hundred mounts and to the carts bearing the army’s provisions.

Agis’ aim in staging this elaborate maneuver was to lure the Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians into a position in which they were surrounded and he could take maximum advantage of his army’s great numerical superiority and of the cavalry in its possession. Thanks to the fact that the coalition army commanded by the Argives had marched up the Nemea road, this stratagem worked brilliantly.

As was planned, the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians—roughly seven thousand in number—were the first to enter the Argive plain—almost certainly from the west by way of a path that ran west or east of the main summit of Mount Keloussa. At dawn, when the Argive commanders learned that at least part of the enemy army had taken the route in question, they reversed course and hotfooted it back down the Nemea road—aware that there was a hostile army situated between them and the city of Argos.

Shortly after reentering the Argolid, the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans encountered—to the northwest of the forces under Agis’ direct command—the Corinthians, Pellenians, and the Phliasians, whose heavy infantry contingent cannot have numbered many more than thirty-five hundred. After a brief skirmish in which they killed a few Phliasians and lost a few men in encounters with the Corinthians, they brushed them aside; and, seeing that their territory was being plundered, they made a beeline for the Lacedaemonian, Arcadian, and Epidaurian marauders, whose heavy infantry theirs also greatly outnumbered. It was their local numerical superiority and the apparent opportunity with which they had been presented that made the greatest impression on the Argive rank and file.

The coalition’s commanders no doubt knew better. They cannot have been unaware that something on the order of nine thousand Boeotian, Megarian, and Sicyonian hoplites and cavalrymen were unaccounted for. They knew that rough terrain rendered it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct cavalry by any route other than the main road running down from Phlius via Nemea, Cleonae, and the Trestus pass; and they must have anticipated being assaulted by twelve thousand hoplites and five hundred cavalrymen from their rear.

It is, of course, conceivable that the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans could have routed the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians and then wheeled about to take on the Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians to the northwest and the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians advancing from the northeast; and, since the odds are good that the latter contingent was not yet visible on the horizon, this may well be what the rank and file had in mind. But, in the best of circumstances, the achievement of successive victories of this sort would have been an astonishing feat, calling for iron discipline, astonishing endurance, and dispatch on a scale rarely achieved in classical antiquity except by the Lacedaemonians; and it would also have required time—time that, Thucydides intimates (if I and most scholars read him correctly), the Argives and their allies simply did not have. If the discernment ordinarily attributed to the Athenian historian is sound, as it seems to be, the soldiers in the Argive coalition were caught between two fires, and they were apt to be badly burned. Moreover, the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians were situated between the coalition army and walls of Argos. So, there was nowhere to flee.

This entire scenario is testimony to the tactical genius of Agis son of Archidamus. He had maneuvered the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans into a position where, if he wished, he could see to their slaughter. Not since the battle of Sepeia had the Argives been in such terrible straits, and the situation of the Mantineians and Eleans was no less dire.

The Eurypontid king was not, however, as astute politically as he was militarily. Just as the armies were about to do battle, when the Argive commanders asked for a parley, he agreed to a pause. This was on his part quite sensible. It afforded the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians more time in which to close in. But then, when an Argive named Alciphron, who was the próxenos of the Lacedaemonians at Argos, and another named Thrasylus, who was one of the five Argive generals, announced to him that the Argives were prepared to settle by “judgments consistent with equity and common practice” any complaints that the Spartans had to make and that they were ready and willing to pour libations and agree to a treaty providing for a lasting peace, he did what Pleistoanax had done vis-à-vis the Athenians in 446. He embraced their initiative. He informed “one of those in authority who was accompanying the army” (almost certainly one of the two ephors customarily assigned to keep an eye on a king sent out on such a command). But he did not consult his fellow Lacedaemonians—and he granted to the Argives a four-month truce in which to fulfill their promises. Then, without offering any explanation to Lacedaemon’s allies, he led his tripartite army off to Nemea.

The Spartans and their allies followed their commander’s lead dutifully, as the law required. But, in their conversations with one another, they reacted as they had when they marched out of Attica in 446. They showered blame on their king—in this case “thinking,” as Thucydides puts it, “that, with the enemy hemmed in on all sides by cavalry and footsoldiers, they had happened upon a fair prospect for converging and striking a great blow and that they were now departing, having done nothing worthy of the preparations that had been made.” It is in this context, as if to drive the point home, that Athenian historian describes in wonder the splendid quality of the army that camped at Nemea that night. In these circumstances, as in those that pertained in 446, it is hard not to sympathize with the Spartan and allied rank and file.

Thucydides does not tell us what the son of Archidamus intended on this occasion. His reticence could be an indication that he had no idea. There is, however, a great deal that he does not tell us because he supposed divulging his thinking pedagogically counterproductive. He does not, for example, explain why Alcibiades encouraged the citizens of Patras to build Long Walls down to the sea, and he does not spell out why the Athenian attempted to construct a fort at Rhium. His aim throughout was to give his readers the tools with which to sort out such questions for themselves. It is an error to suppose that, if Thucydides was of a certain opinion or even knew something to be true, he would have told us as much. His silence is more often than not an invitation to us to puzzle over the information that he did, indeed, provide.

Agis’ willingness to strike a deal with Alciphron and Thrasylus could be a function of caution. He does seem to have been risk-averse, and he may have had the good sense to recognize that, even in the most favorable of circumstances, going into battle makes one a hostage to fortune. Not one precious Spartiate and not one citizen from a community allied with Lacedaemon lost his life on that particular day because of the son of Archidamus.

There may, however, have been more to Agis’ calculations than an aversion to danger. He may have hoped for an outcome more favorable to the long-term interests of his city than a mere massacre of the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans. Alciphron the próxenos and Thrasylus, who was acting on behalf of his fellow generals, promised that there would be a settlement of disputed questions and a lasting peace. Such an arrangement would be a great boon for Lacedaemon. It would mean that Argos would remain quiet for an extended period; that Mantineia and Elis, once deprived of Argive support, could be forced to fall in line; and that Athens would lose her foothold within the Peloponnesus. It would restore within that great peninsula what must have seemed like the natural order, which had existed as long as this Eurypontid king could remember.

Alciphron may, moreover, have been Agis’ xénos. If not, he was almost certainly the guest-friend of Lichas, the Argive próxenos at Sparta, or of another leading Lacedaemonian. Otherwise, he would never have been awarded the proxenía he held. He was a friend to Sparta, and it was through such friends abroad—those whom they termed “serviceable men [epıtImages deıoı]”—that the Lacedaemonians provided guidance to the cities within the Peloponnesus and maintained their alliance.

Thrasylus may have been cut from similar cloth. He may have been well-known at Lacedaemon as a sympathizer. He, too, is apt to have been the xénos of an important Spartan. That such Laconizers existed at Argos and that some of them held high office is, as we have seen, an established fact; and Thucydides, who is nothing if not coy in his account of the flurry of diplomacy that took place in the wake of the Peace of Nicias, provides us with numerous clues suggesting their presence and importance. In the early summer of 421, the Corinthians knew to whom, among those in authority at Argos, they should in private turn. Later that summer, Cleobulus and Xenares knew whom at Argos they should alert to the willingness of the Boeotian envoys to discuss the forging of an alliance.

The Argive generals who sanctioned this overture were surely aware that Alciphron would be welcome in Agis’ entourage, and they may well have been of the same opinion regarding their colleague Thrasylus. After all, in 420, there had been influential Argives who had lent a hand in trying to stampede their compatriots into the alliance with Lacedaemon that Eustrophus and Aeson, the two Argives then judged “most acceptable to the Spartans,” had been dispatched to Laconia to negotiate. Within three or four months, there would be a briefly successful attempt, concerted between the Lacedaemonians and certain Argives, to install an oligarchy in Argos. The movement that produced a coup d’état in the fall of 418 did not come from out of the blue—and, as will become clear in the next few pages, in August 418 the royal son of Archidamus was prepared to protect such men.