I enjoy ancient history, particularly Greek and Roman history. One of the best books I’ve read is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which I had to read during my academic career when I was getting my BS in International Affairs and my MS in International Relations. It’s basically a required textbook for international affairs students, because Thucydides explores the causes and reasons for the war, and the interactions among nations.
One of the paper I wrote when I was getting my MS was about a Spartan officer named Brasidas, who I thought was particularly valuable to the Spartan war effort. The post below is this paper, which I originally wrote 7 years ago, with some edits since then.
The Leadership of Brasidas, Inspiration of the Spartans
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War details the nearly thirty-year war between Athens and Sparta in the late Fifth Century B.C. Both sides utilized a shifting array of allies and leaders to prosecute the war. However, one individual stands out for his ability to comprehend the uncertainty, or “fog” as Clausewitz called it, of war and react to its capriciousness. Only the Spartan Brasidas performs remarkably in the annals of the war and imprints his name upon the memory of posterity. Early in the war, the Spartans are largely incompetent and weather a series of military disasters, but it is Brasidas who inspires hope and admiration. His ability to detect the weakness of the enemy and the decisiveness to attack those weak points renders him invaluable to the Spartan cause, and certainly makes him the single most important person on either side during the war.
Brasidas makes his appearance in Thucydides’ record during the first year of the war in 431 B.C. and is identified as a Spartan military officer (Thucydides, 2:25). The Athenians and the Corcyrians made a series of surprise naval raids on Peloponnesian territory while the main Spartan army was occupied in other areas. They then made an attack on the undefended city of Methone (Ibid.). There was no garrison in the town, but Brasidas “happened to be in this district with a special detachment of men” (Ibid.). As soon as Brasidas learned of the events at Methone he marched to the defense of the town with 100 hoplites, found the Athenian attackers disorganized and not anticipating the Spartan attack, and penetrated the Athenian lines in order to prevent the city from falling into enemy hands (Ibid.). For his “exploit he was the first person in the war to receive official congratulation at Sparta” (Ibid.).
The Spartans also called on Brasidas in 429 B.C. as one of the advisors to the Spartan commander Cnemus who had lost a naval battle near the Athenian city of Naupactus. During both the naval battle and a previous lost land battle, Cnemus had shown some failings in his leadership (Ibid., 2:81 – 85). Brasidas, Cnemus, and the other commanders encouraged their men before challenging the Athenians to another battle at sea (Ibid., 2:85-86). The Peloponnesians won the initial battle, but became overconfident and disorganized and were subsequently forced to retreat by the Athenians (Ibid., 2:91-92). Although the battle was lost in the end, Brasidas seems to have learned from this failure because he did not allow disorganization or success in battle to be the cause of defeats in the future.
Brasidas is also mentioned to have served as an advisor to the Spartan naval admiral Alcidas who had earlier failed in his task to protect the island of Lesbos from the Athenians as well as had been indecisive as a commander (Ibid., 3:69; cf. Ibid. 3:16; 26-7, 29, 31 – 34). So, Brasidas was once again called upon in 427 B.C. to help correct the mistakes of another, less able commander (Ibid., 3:69, 3:76). He took part in a naval victory off the coast of Corcyra against the Corcyreans and the Athenians. Following the victory he exhorted the other commander Alcidas to attack Corcyra while the defenders were in disarray, but “was overruled” (Ibid., 3:78-79). Due to Alcidas’ failure to heed the advice of Brasidas, the Spartans lost an excellent opportunity to defeat Corcyra, which was a significant contributor to the Athenian navy as well as an instigator of the war itself.
The most memorable feat of Brasidas occurred during the Spartan fight to retake Pylos. Brasidas fully displayed his courage, reasoning ability, leadership, and decisiveness in this battle, and “it was [he] who distinguished himself more than anyone else” (Ibid., 4:11). The Athenians had captured the barren Spartan town of Pylos on the coast of the Peloponnese in 425 B.C. and fortified it while the Spartans were observing a “festival” and had their main army near Athens itself (Ibid., 4:3-5). As soon as the Spartan king Agis, who was leading their main army in Attica, learned of the Athenian presence at Pylos, he brought his army back to Sparta to prepare for an attack against the Athenians at Pylos (Ibid., 4:6,8).
While awaiting the Spartan attack, the Athenian general at Pylos, Demosthenes, had his men drag their ships behind the fortifications, and armed the sailors so as to defend the place on land. He had most of his defenders defend the landward side of the fortifications, and brought “sixty hoplites and a few archers” to the shore to defend against a seaborne attack (Ibid., 4:9). The likely Spartan landing site “was difficult and rocky ground, facing the open sea, but it was here that the Athenian wall was weakest, and this fact, Demosthenes thought, would encourage them to try to force their way through” (Ibid.). With these actions, Demosthenes himself deserves credit for doing the best he could to defend his outpost. However, he had to defend this area with such a small number of men because “the Athenians had never imagined that they would be confronted with superior naval forces, and had consequently not fortified this sector properly, so if the enemy could once force a landing, he would have it in his power to capture the position” (Ibid.).
The Spartans attacked the Athenian fortifications at Pylos with their land and naval forces simultaneously (Ibid., 4:11). In the naval part of the attack, the Spartans were forced to assault the Athenian defenders on shore with only “a few ships at a time, since there was no room to bring greater numbers inshore.” The Spartans pursued the attack with “enthusiasm,” but “[i]t was Brasidas who distinguished himself more than anyone else” (Ibid.). Brasidas had a trireme under his command and noticed that “because of the difficult nature of the ground, the captains and steersmen, even at points where it did seem possible to land, were hanging back for fear of damaging their ships.” The anxiety of these sailors irritated him, so he took action, yelling to them to disregard the potential of destroying their ships and instead concentrate on defeating the enemy (Ibid.). Brasidas was entirely correct in this and rightly saw that the land was full of trees and ships could be rebuilt, while the earth was sparse with brave men and would become even more devoid if the Athenians were allowed a base in the Peloponnese from which to launch attacks.
Brasidas intended “to make a landing some way or other, and to overwhelm the place and its defenders” (Ibid.). He forced his ship ashore while making “his stand on the gangway” (Ibid., 4:12). Regrettably, during the landing he was attacked by the defenders on shore and fell back into the ship, while his shield fell overboard. After Brasidas fell, the Spartan attack fizzled and the Athenians were able to successfully defend Pylos (Ibid., 4:12-14). If his action at Pylos was his finest moment, what were to follow later were his most venerable.
In 424 B.C. Brasidas was in the area in the vicinity of the Spartan city of Nisaea and feared that both Nisaea and the nearby town of Megara might be taken by the Athenians before he could arrive. He therefore sent for reinforcements from the Spartan allies and then immediately headed to Nisaea with a respectably sized fore (Ibid., 4:69-70). Upon arriving at the city and finding that it had already been captured by the Athenians, he immediately took a picked force to Megara in order to try to “hold it” (Ibid., 4:70). However, the people in Megara feared both the Spartans and the Athenians, and so they would not allow Brasidas to enter with his forces (Ibid., 4:71). He returned to the bulk of his forces and received reinforcements “at dawn” from the Boeotian forces for whom he had sent. He now had a fairly large army of “at least 6,000 hoplites” (Ibid., 4:72).
The Athenians had positioned their hoplites circling Nisaea facing the land and the sea, and their light troops were scattered over the countryside. The Boeotian cavalry forced the light soldiers to flee to the sea and fought a stalemate with the hoplites (Ibid., 4:72). After the cavalry returned, Brasidas found a new location to post his troops that was close to Megara and the shore; then, he awaited an Athenian attack. He wagered that the Athenians would feel compelled to attack in order to keep from losing Megara, and so chose the best spot in which to receive them (Ibid., 4:73). Brasidas showed his intelligence by not attacking Nisaea itself, and thus facing forces in a defensive posture and a difficult fight; by anticipating his enemy’s actions and choosing his own optimal location in which to fight he was able to grant his own forces the greatest advantage possible. In fact, he was supremely successful in his goals since the Athenians did not dare attack him and thus he was able to have Megara peacefully turn itself over to him (Ibid., 4:73).
During the summer of 424 B.C. Brasidas brought his army through Thessaly with an escort of Pharsalians and a few Thessalians. As Thucydides explains, traveling through Thessaly was difficult, even with an escort, but Brasidas showed his persuasive skills by informing the Thessalians who opposed his army’s advance that he had come as a friend and simply wanted to pass through their country; if they would not allow this, he would cease, although “he did not think it right that they should stop him” (Ibid., 4:78). His argument was successful and he was able to pass safely through Thessaly (Ibid.).
Brasidas arrived safely on the other side of Thessaly in Chalcidice and met up with the Macedonian king Perdiccas. Chalcidice had rebelled from Athenian rule and the surrounding towns were also close to doing so (Ibid., 4:79). At the time, the Spartans were performing poorly in the war and so wanted to deflect the Athenian attacks on Spartan territory by supporting revolts of the Athenian allies (Ibid., 4:79-80). Brasidas’ army was composed of 700 helots, Spartan slaves, serving as hoplites and mercenaries. He was sent on the mission due to both his own desire to lead it, and due to the fact that the Chalcidicians “also were eager to have him, a man who in Sparta itself had a great reputation for energy in every direction and who on his foreign service had shown himself to be so valuable to his country” (Ibid., 4:80-81). He was able to get the Athenian allies either to revolt or to capture them relatively peaceably through “his upright and moderate conduct towards the cities” (Ibid., 4:81). In addition, Brasidas’ kind treatment of the cities and his valor proved its enduring worth much later in the war following “the Sicilian expedition;” indeed, “by the excellent reputation which he won for himself on all sides he left behind a rooted conviction that the rest also were like him” (Ibid.).
Brasidas went with Perdiccas and his Macedonian army to the territory of Arrhabaeus, whose land was on the border to Perdiccas’ country. Perdiccas and Brasidas had a disagreement over the fact that Perdiccas wanted to destroy Arrhabaeus and his armies, while Brasidas wished to attempt to peaceably bring Arrhabaeus into an alliance with Sparta (Ibid., 4:83). Brasidas refused to yield to Perdiccas’ view since he “thought himself entitled to consider the wider implications in dealing with Arrhabaeus.” Brasidas prevailed and thus was able to successfully bring Arrhabaeus into the Spartan alliance (Ibid.). In these actions Brasidas continued to show the magnitude of his worth to the Spartan cause by the conscientiousness he showed towards the overall purpose of the war, and by his understanding that the actions of himself and of his army would impact his country’s prospects for the war.
Following these events, Brasidas led his army to the territory surrounding the town of Acanthus. Because of the town’s concern for their crops outside the city walls, Brasidas entered the town by himself in order to make his appeal to them to turn to the Spartan alliance (Ibid., 4:84). In his speech to the city’s assembly he mentioned the Spartan desire to liberate Hellas from Athenian control, and the fact that Sparta wished to gain their alliance without the use of force (Ibid., 84-86). He also stated that if the town were turned over to him he would respect their “own constitutions” and not involve himself in their “internal affairs” (Ibid., 4:86). However, if they failed to ally with Sparta, he would be forced to use force to bring them into the alliance and would be completely justified in so doing (Ibid., 4:87). Due to his persuasive ability, he was successful in winning them over to his argument and was yet again able to effect his goals without having to fight (cf. Ibid., 4:88). As the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu stated, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill” (Sun Tzu, III:3).
In the winter of the same year, Brasidas led his army against the Athenian colony Amphipolis. The fact that he marched his army in the winter, which was not the usual season for military campaigns, and at night and in snowy, stormy weather shows his leadership and decisiveness (cf. Ibid., 4: 102-103). Indeed, the cause of his haste was that “he wished to get to Amphipolis before anyone knew of his coming, except for the party who were to betray the place” (Ibid., 4:103). Amphipolis was on the other side of the river Strymon from Brasidas’ approach, but he took the guards on the bridge by surprise and was able to bring his army across without problem (Ibid.). His decisiveness meant that “at one stroke he gained possession of everything belonging to the people of Amphipolis in the whole area outside of the walls” (Ibid., 4:103-104).
However, he now learned that the city would not be betrayed to him as he expected and was forced to encamp his army outside the walls (Ibid., 4:104). It was now a race against time for Brasidas, as the Athenian garrison in the town had sent for reinforcements, and Brasidas desired to control the town before they arrived (Ibid. 4:104-105). In this task, he stipulated very lenient terms of surrender, similar to those previously provided to Acanthus, and successfully captured the city (Ibid., 4:105-106). Once again, Brasidas’ speed, intelligence, and moderation enabled him to gain another ally for Sparta without being forced to risk a battle. In fact, by capturing Amphipolis, he removed a significant source of funds and ship timber on which the Athenians depended, and caused Athens a large amount of distress due to his success in turning their allies against them (Ibid., 4:108). Brasidas’ success in gaining new allies for Sparta was due to his “moderation” and the fact that he instilled in others the sense “that it looked for the first time as though they were going to find the Spartans acting with real energy” (Ibid.). The Spartans had been conducting the war limply until Brasidas came on the scene, so he naturally inspired awe and admiration in others.
Brasidas then led his army from Amphipolis to other cities in the area and gained a number of new allies for Sparta (Ibid., 4:109). He arrived at the Chalcidicean town of Torone undetected by the Athenians and was able to capture it with the help of a party inside the city “while most of the people of Torone were still in a state of confusion” (Ibid., 110-113). After capturing the town, he took the time and effort to ease the minds of the townspeople that he held no grudges for any past opposition they had given to the Spartan cause (Ibid., 4:114). Brasidas then made a quick effort to capture the nearby town of Lecythus and was able to also bring it over to the Spartan cause (Ibid., 4:114-115). After this, he used the rest of the remaining season “in re-organizing the places which he had already won and in making plans for future conquests” (Ibid., 4:116). His quick actions during his campaign that season gained many allies for Sparta and weakened the Athenian alliance.
After these successes of Brasidas, Athens and Spartan agreed to a one year armistice (Ibid., 4:117-119). During the discussions concerning the armistice, the city of Scione in Pallene revolted from the Athenian alliance. Brasidas headed overnight for the town as soon as it revolted. By making a speech along the lines of the ones he had made previously at countless other towns, he was able to get the city to happily turn itself over to him and become a loyal ally of Sparta (Ibid., 4:120-121). After capturing Scione, Brasidas received news of the armistice. The Athenians demanded that he return the city to them, since they believed that he had captured it after the armistice had been signed, but he adamantly refused (Ibid., 4:122). In addition, the city of Mende then revolted from Athens and allied itself with Brasidas and Sparta. Because he anticipated an Athenian attack on both Scione and Mende, Brasidas prepared to defend these cities (Ibid., 4:123).
While waiting for an attack on Mende, Brasidas went with Perdiccas and his army to “the country of Arrhabaeus” and defeated the Lyncestians. After the battle, Brasidas desired to return to Mende to await the expected attack by the Athenians, but Perdiccas disagreed, wanting to continue to Arrhabaeus (Ibid., 4:124). While they were still encamped in disagreement, they received word that a force of Illyrians had “joined forces with Arrhabaeus” (Ibid., 4:125). During the night, Perdiccas and his army fled in retreat without informing Brasidas, who was encamped with his army further away. In the morning, Brasidas saw that his army had been left by Perdiccass’ forces and that the Illyrians were nearly upon him (Ibid.). He immediately began to organize a retreat of his army, and took steps to ensure that it was orderly. He arranged “his hoplites into a square, with the light troops in the center” and “the youngest soldiers were detailed to charge out against the enemy at any point where an attack was made, and Brasidas himself with 300 picked men brought up the rear” (Ibid.). Through these steps, Brasidas helped to ensure that his army would be able to defend itself during the retreat.
Brasidas’ troops fared well during the retreat and in fact discouraged the attackers, most of them leaving to pursue the retreating Macedonians under Perdiccas. After defeating the Macedonians, the Illyrians successfully occupied a restricted pass in Brasidas’ line of retreat (Ibid.). When he realized this, Brasidas sent his 300 picked troops running ahead to occupy one of the hills overlooking the pass. These defeated the defenders, who then gave up their attacks against Brasidas (Ibid., 4:128). His army now in safety, Brasidas led it to the Macedonian territory of Perdiccas and allowed it to kill the cattle they encountered on the march as well as to confiscate the abandoned equipment of the Macedonian army (Ibid.). These actions caused Perdiccas to depart from the Spartan alliance and ally with Athens. The actions of Brasidas’ army are unfortunate in this regard, but considering that they were forced to engage in a fighting retreat due to the betrayal of Perdiccas’ army, they were overwhelmed with anger (cf. Ibid.). Brasidas deserves some amount of demerit for allowing these actions to occur, for he either allowed his men to do so, or he lost control over his men; either way his conduct was not to the high standards to which it normally reached. However, he was able to prevent the destruction of his army through his excellent organization of the retreat.
The following summer in 422 B.C. Brasidas learned that the Athenian general Cleon intended to attack Amphipolis and took measures to defend the city (Ibid., 5:6). He began by placing his army “on high ground across the river” near the city. This location afforded Brasidas a clear view in all directions so as to observe Cleon’s approach (Ibid.). He anticipated that Cleon would attempt a move on Amphipolis before being joined by reinforcements; while waiting for Cleon, he sent for reinforcements himself (Ibid.). Once he detected the approach of Cleon, Brasidas took the remainder of his army into Amphipolis (Ibid., 5:8). Because he feared for the relative quality of his troops, Brasidas intended to hide them from observation by the Athenians and instead chose 150 men to “make a sudden attack before the Athenians withdrew;” the others were under Clearidas’ command (Ibid.). Indeed, Cleon intended simply to reconnoiter the town and then withdraw (Ibid., 5:7,10). Once Cleon learned that the Spartans inside the city seemed to be readying for an attack, he “imagined that he would have time to withdraw” and so sounded the retreat rather than arrange his forces for battle (Ibid., 5:10).
The only feasible way to orderly retreat, considering the current disposition of his forces, was for his army’s left wing to lead the advance, with the right in the rear. Therefore, he ordered his right wing to wheel to the left so as to bring his forces into a column for the retreat; in doing so the wing “[exposed] its unarmed side” to the Spartans in the city (Ibid.). Once this occurred, Brasidas bolted out from the city gate with his force of picked men and defeated the center of the Athenian line. This was followed immediately by the charge of Clearidas’ forces from the city (Ibid.). The Athenian left beat a hasty retreat and the center was destroyed, so Brasidas focused his attention on the right. It was here that he was injured and taken off the field by his men (Ibid). By Brasidas’ bold actions, the Spartans won the battle, defended the town, and killed the Athenian Cleon (which was a blessing in disguise for Athens) (Ibid.). However, Brasidas had been killed, and with him perished the most visionary and energetic leader of the war (cf. Ibid., 5:11).
In the Peloponnesian War, Brasidas deserves to be remembered as the leader most capable of reacting to war’s uncertainties. In the beginning of the war, Sparta appears cursed due to her inability to comprehend the full spectrum of the conflict in which they were involved. Every battle is lost before it is begun. Only with the arrival of Brasidas does Sparta gain hope for the future and in her ability to defeat Athens. Likewise, the Athenians do not possess a commander to rival Brasidas. Not even Demosthenes with his qualifications was so often able to foresee his enemy’s actions as well as Brasidas. Even the Melians, in their famous dialogue with the Athenians, shame the Athenians due to the ability of the Spartan Brasidas (cf. 5:110). Only Brasidas was capable of not only effectively reacting to his enemy’s actions, but also of anticipating them beforehand. He alone stands out in the three decades of the war as the one most essential to his cause.
Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
(Image by U.S. Army Cartographer, as amended by uploader to correct spelling mistake. The Anome at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons. href=”http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APeloponnesian_war_alliances_431_BC.png”)