Battle of Sphacteria

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The Battle of Sphacteria was a battle of the Peloponnesian War in 425 BC, between Athens and Sparta. It was an important part of the longer Battle of Pylos.

The Athenian land forces in Pylos had successfully driven back the Spartan attempts to land from the sea, and the fifty Athenian ships were able to drive the sixty Spartan ships out of the harbour at Pylos (see Battle of Pylos). This meant that the island of Sphacteria, where Epitadas had landed with 440 hoplites, was completely blockaded by the Athenian fleet. This was such a shock to the Spartans that representatives from Sparta itself came to negotiate an armistice at Pylos, with a view to safeguarding the troops on Sphacteria until an end to the war with Athens could be arranged. An armistice was agreed upon between the combatatants at Pylos, the terms of which were as follows:

  1. All Spartan ships would be handed over to the Athenians for the duration of the armistice
  2. The Athenians would allow the Spartans on shore to send rations, under close supervision, to the troops on Sphacteria; the Spartans would make no unauthorized visits to the island
  3. Neither side would atack the other; the Spartans on shore would desist form their attempts to capture the fortifications, while the Athenians would not attempt to capture the island garrison
  4. The Athenians would transport Spartan ambassadors to Athens to allow them to attempt to negotiate a truce. When their work was concluded, they would be returned to Pylos. The armistice would be ended upon their return, and the Spartan navy would be restored to them.

Both sides agreed that any infringement of the terms of the armistice would result in its immediate cancellation. The ships were handed over, and a ship was dispatched to carry the ambassadors to Athens.

In Athens the ambassadors made an uncharacteristically lengthy speech calling for a truce:

"Sparta calls upon you to make a treaty and to end the war. She offers you peace, alliance, friendly and neighbourly relations. In return she asks for the men on the island, thinking it better for both sides that the affair should not proceed to the bitter end...Now is the time for us to be reconciled, while the final issue is still undecided, while you have won glory and can have our friendship as well, and we, before any shameful thing has taken place, can, in our present distress, accept a reasonable settlement." (Thucydides 4.18-20)

The Spartans were operating on the assumption that the Athenians had wanted to make peace earlier, but had been prevented from doing so by Spartan opostion to the idea.

However, the Athenians, led by Cleon, were opposed to peace now that they had the upper hand. Cleon proposed that the Spartans on Spahcteria surrender their arms and be brought to Athens. If this were done, and the Spartans agreed to return the lands that Athens had forfeited by the terms of the previous peace treaty, then an end to the war could be negotiated. The Spartans replied that they wished to appoint an arbitration committee, so that they could discuss the proposed terms in a calm atmosphere; Cleon refused, and prevented them from achieving their goals by inflaming the assembly against them. Seeing that they would not accomplish their goals, the ambassadors left, returning to Pylos. When they arrived, the Athenians claimed the armistice had been broken due to a Spartan attack on the fortification, along with other very minor infractions, and that they therefore did not have to return the Spartan ships. After formally protesting this, the Spartans prepared to renew the attack; by this point there were now seventy Athenian ships blockading Sphacteria, and the Spartans had been joined by their Peloponnesian allies, who had set up camp outside Pylos.

The Athenian blockade of Sphacteria continued for much longer than either side had anticipated; there was very little food, water, or room for the Athenians in the beach fortifications. The Spartans had enough food for themselves and for the hoplites on Sphacteria, who were supplied by helots promised money and freedom by the Spartans for successfully breaking the Athenian blockade. They would put to sea and land on the seaward shore of Sphacteria, where it was difficult for the Athenians to maintain the blockade at all times.

In Athens, people by now felt that they should have accepted the offer of peace when it was made. They realized that the onset of winter would end the blockade, and allow the garrison to escape. Cleon, becoming unpopular for having blocked the peace treaty, declared the messengers were lying about the true state of affairs. As a result, he was chosen to sail out and assess the situation fisrthand. Realizing the damage this would do to him (he would have to contradict his previous stance, for the situation really was dire) Cleon suggested sending out another expedition instead, with competent generals, and proceeded to blame the lack of leadership for the situation. He got into trouble, however, by saying that he would have captured the island long ago, and was forced to accept command of the new expedition. He claimed he would have the matter cleared up in twenty days or less, without even taking any Athenian troops, and set sail for pylos with light allied reinforcements.

Demosthenes, the commander at Pylos, had meanwhile been planning to land on the island. His plans were aided when a fire, accidentally caused by a Spartan soldier, burned down most of the woods on Sphacteria. The open ground thus created, along with the ability to see the terrain, greatly encouraged him. Upon Cleon's arrival, they sent a herald to the island asking for the garrison's surrender, which was refused. The next night, they loaded 800 men onto ships, and landed on both sides of the island before dawn. These men immediately attacked the forward Spartan camp (there were three) and overran the surprised defenders in it. As soon as day broke, the rest of the army was landed as well, and they drove the Spartans to the western extremity of the island, into a small fortification there. The Spartans mounted a fierce defense, which was broken when they were flanked by archers, caught in the rear, and rendered unable to effectively defend themselves. Cleon and Demosthenes called back their forces, wanting to take the remaining Spartans alive. Surprisingly, the Spartans surrendered after a conference among themselves, something they were not accustomed to doing. Of the 440 Spartan hoplites, 148 had been killed. After seventy-two days of siege and battle at Pylos and Sphacteria, both sides withdrew, and Cleon returned to Athens having fulfilled his promise to capture the island in twenty days.

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