When Greek Met Greek
IT was the work of defeat, yet men were whistling at it. Sledge hammer, chisel, and pickaxe were clanging and banging. Athens was casting down her Long Walls. Running from the city to the sea and enclosing between them the Piraeus, — the harbor, — they were, like her ships, symbolic of her Empire. Now, beaten after a long struggle, even the Athenians were glad the war was ended. Triumphant Sparta had placed the Thirty Tyrants in the saddle; Athens was to lose her ships, her walls; she was to bow to Sparta in all matters of foreign policy; Corinth and Thebes were clamoring for her destruction.
A little knot of men were destroying a bastion that overlooked the Piraeus. Below them in the harbor lay a Spartan fleet, under the command of Athens’ mortal foe, Lysandcr. The proud Athenian navy, mistress of the Mediterranean for so many years, was utterly destroyed —shattered in the final tragic fiasco of Ægospotami. Three thousand captured Athenian citizens had been put to death at Lampsacus, on the Hellespont. Besieged thereafter by land and sea, Athens, starving, had finally accepted the Spartan terms in April of 404 B.C., after twenty-seven years of war.
A white mantle of rock dust settled slowly over the workers. In charge of them, yet working like the rest, was a grizzled, strongly built man who might have been in his fifties. Unlike his crew, all much younger men, he was not whistling; he worked with a grim determination to see the thing through. Younger men remembered only the desperate losing struggle of the last years, but he, Menocles, thought of a day when the stiff-necked Spartans had sued for peace, and Athens had haughtily rejected their suit.
As the sun rose toward noon the men stopped work to eat their lunch in the shade of the remaining wall. Grateful for bread, wine, and olives after the long famine of the siege, Menocles ate silently for a while; then, leaning back comfortably against a stone, he spoke the words that were in his heart.
Surely — he said, gazing at the bronzed, attentive faces around him — surely, it is right for you to whistle as you work. The war is ended, and Athenians should be lighthearted even in disaster. Yet I cannot whistle. My grandfather helped fortify the Pirams on the advice of Themistocles after the Persian War. My father helped build these Long Walls; now I help to tear them down. But if I cannot whistle I can tell a story, and it is fitting that it should be told here, in the face of the Spartan garrison. I shall tell you the story of Pylos, to remind you that Spartans have not always beaten Athenians, '
It was in the seventh year of the war — about the time when you were born, Achilades. I was one of the hoplites in an expedition of forty ships sent out under the generals Eurymedon and Sophocles to aid our allies in Sicily. But our fleet had got only to the western shore of the Peloponnese when that old fox, Demosthenes, spying the strong and precipitous promontory of Pylos, demanded of the generals that they land some men and fortify the place as a base for raids into the heart of Laconia. It was in a deserted countryside; stone and timber were at hand for whatever walls needed to be built; and there was a convenient harbor behind Sphacteria Island, which stretches southward from the tip of the promontory. At that very moment the Spartan army in its annual invasion of Attica was destroying our crops. Why not give the Spartans a taste of their own medicine?
Pylos in the hands of Athens would indeed be a thorn in their flesh. It could be garrisoned by Messenians, from whom Sparta had wrested the district years before. These staunch allies would ask nothing better than a chance to harass their Spartan enemies, and to stir up revolt among the enslaved Helots.
But the generals called him crazy and would have pressed onward, when a sudden storm caused our whole fleet to take shelter in the harbor of Pylos. The storm lasted several days. I tell you, we soldiers lost no opportunity of stretching our legs ashore, for the ships were crowded. We explored the rocky point, while Demosthenes vainly argued with the generals. Even the subordinate officers were against him, and most of the soldiers thought him cracked. But I know not how, unless it was because the natural strength of the place enticed our eyes, — yet really more for sport and exercise than for aught else, — we soldiers began to move a rock here and a fallen tree there; we surveyed the point, every man a general, and agreed on those few short spaces that would need to be walled. Enthusiasm swept suddenly through the ranks, and in a twinkling our idle play turned to earnest work — we began fitting stones and mixing mortar.
Demosthenes was triumphant. He won his point, and the whole force fell to work on the fortifications. My friend Oniachus solved one of our problems.
‘Well, comrades,’ he said, ‘let no man ever say that Oniachus was a hodcarrier!’ And stooping forward, with his hands clasped behind his back, he bade us load him with the wet mortar— for indeed, we had no hods. Then he trudged briskly to where Demosthenes was marking out a wall.
In a few days the most essential walls — on the neck of the point and a little stretch looking toward the sea — were finished, and the fleet went on its way, leaving five ships with Demosthenes, lie was to send for help when the Spartans attacked. My ship was one of those that stayed. You can imagine our feelings as our fellow Athenians disappeared over the horizon; we knew ourselves a small force in a hostile country, with Sparta only forty-six miles away. Our enemies already knew of our presence. In Sparta, at first, they laughed at us, saying we would run away as soon as they drew near, but King Agis, invading Attica with the Spartan army, took a different view of the matter; he cut short the invasion and hurried home with his men.
News filtered in to Demosthenes that Sparta and all her allies in the Peloponnesc were marching to a rendezvous at Pylos, determined to crush him like a fly. He got wind, too, that the Peloponnesian fleet had sailed. Demosthenes sent two of our five ships at once to bring our fleet to the rescue; he feared to entrust such a vital message to only one. Zeus! Did anybody sleep that night? In the morning we found ourselves besieged from the land by the Lacedæmonian army; the next had scarcely dawned when we saw their fleet swarming down upon us, like kites to a carcass. But we were not dead yet — though a few hundred men seemed only an appetizer for the host surrounding us. You can be sure Demosthenes was not idle. He had our sailors make themselves wickerwork shields; then fortunately a Messenian cutter and privateer came in, bearing extra arms and forty hoplites, all eager for a brush with the Spartans. Some say that Demosthenes had talked this plan over the previous year with the Messenians at Naupactus.
Now I shall tell you the situation as I saw it on the morning of the Spartan attack. The greater part of our little force faced the Spartans at the fortified neck of the promontory. Another detachment guarded the only possible approach from the bay. On Sphacteria Island, across the channel from the tip of Pylos, the Spartans had landed a force of heavy-armed soldiers with their attendant Helots. It’s easy to see now what a mistake that was, but it seemed a natural thing to do at the time, when Spartan ships commanded the bay and the near-by seacoast.
Our three ships were drawn up behind a stockade on the seaward side of the point, under the fort we had built there — for it was the only landing place on that side, t hough very rocky.
I shall remember what happened that day as long as I live. Demosthenes chose sixty hoplites and a handful of archers to hold the landing. Oniachus and I were among them. To fight shoulder to shoulder with a friend, under such a commander — what more can a Hellene ask? Rather than trust everything to the hastily built fort, our general determined to prevent the Spartans from landing. He pointed out to us clearly the difficulty they would have in disembarking in the face of their enemies, whereas we all knew that they were stubborn fighters once ashore.
‘I call on you to stand fast,’ he said, ‘and not let the enemy touch the beach. Thus you will save yourselves and the place.’
We raised a cheer and he led us down to the very water’s edge, where we formed a line, every man filled with a determination to succeed. It was a determination born of despair no less than bravery, for behind us rose the clash of arms as the enemy attacked from the land, and before us the Peloponnesians bore down from the sea with more than twoscore ships.
‘Only stand firm,’ said Demosthenes, ‘and, having so many advantages, do not take fright at the numbers of the enemy.’ And with other quiet words he steeled our hearts.
Then it was that we saw how wisely he had chosen his ground, for the rocks and the narrow approach fought mightily for us. Only a few ships could attack at a time; they came against us in relays. So it went, through the whole day — charge after charge, and again and again we thrust them back. Well do I remember using my long pike as a pole, pushing them off with both feet braced, while Oniachus shielded my head and back from the Spartan missiles. Or again, we would foul their oars and knock the rowers from their benches as they strove to drive the ships ashore. You have heard of the Spartan, Brasidas. His bravery is no myth, as I have good cause to know. Captain of a ship, he hurled her boldly upon us, deliberately running in upon the rocks to force a landing.
‘No time to spare timber now, when the enemy have built a fort in our country!’ he cried, urging on the overcautious. I saw him leap to the gangplank as his ship ran aground; he launched the javelin that killed my friend Oniachus; then, struck by our fast-flying spears and arrows, he fell, many times wounded, down from the bulwarks into his own ship — but his falling shield was washed ashore, a fitting trophy. Far better for Athens if he had died then — but the man was harder to kill than an Egyptian cat.
We were faint from hunger and thirst as the long day ended and the Peloponnesians finally withdrew their ships into the sheltering bay. But we had held them off, by sea and by land, and the next day it was the same. I tell you, that stout defense gave many a Spartan a new idea of what the men of Athens could do when fighting ashore.
There was a lull the third day. We were drawing in our belts for a long, hungry siege when, toward evening, we heard a joyful shout from the sentries on their high rocks: —
Zeus! Was there ever a sight more beautiful than those Athenian sails? But to our chagrin the vessels stayed warily clear and put back up the coast in the twilight.
‘What, are they afraid?’ we asked one another. But Demosthenes only laughed at us. Many a time X have thought that the old fox had the whole thing planned from the moment he left Athens. He knew very well t hat t he only way to get a fight with the Spartan ships—in those days — was to trap them. They wanted none of Athens on the open sea.
Watching from the point next morning, we could see the Spartans along the bay shore launching and manning their ships. It was easy to suppose they intended to hold the channels at either end of the island against our fleet; but the sluggards were too slow — perhaps they thought the Athenians would not dare attack within the bay. But that has been the glory of our city — to attack boldly whenever t here was something to be gained. For it has always been our saying that ‘to miss an opportunity is to lose a victory.’
At any rate, when our fleet came down again from the north it. lost no time, but attacked gallantly through both channels at once. What a fight it was! The Spartans were no match for us in the open bay. Five ships were taken and many rammed as they fled to shore. Then with ropes and grappling hooks our men strove to drag the Spartan vessels from the beach, but the Lacedaemonians rallied under the support of their army and fought stubbornly to save their ships. It was hammer and tongs for a long while, a bloody tug-ofwar, but eventually our men drew off, forced to be content with t he five already taken and the wreckage in the bay.
Only then did I realize the full value of our victory, for part of our fleet sailed immediately around the island, on which the Spartan garrison was now hopelessly cut off.
When our bold sailors came ashore on the promontory for water and their midday meal, we embraced them as deliverers, and they in turn saw to it that we did not lack provisions. Demosthenes and the other generals worked out a system of guarding the island, their intention being to starve out the garrison.
Then it was, I tell you, that the proud Spartans sued for peace, for they could not bear to see their comrades starved or massacred before their eyes. A truce was signed wherein all Spartan ships, not only at Pylos but in all Laconian harbors, were to be placed in Athenian hands till the truce was ended. Meanwhile the Athenian naval guard was to allow a certain limited amount of food to reach the Spartans on the island each day, and both sides were to abstain from assaults. There was water on the island — a well, near the centre; the island was a little over two miles long and heavily wooded. During the truce Lacedaemonian ambassadors were sent to Athens to discuss terms of peace.
Here we are today, humbling our beloved city before an enemy who, at that moment, earnestly begged us to accept an honorable, even a victorious, peace. The more fools we, for while we soldiers wore cooling our heels at Pylos, the politician Cleon at home was clamoring for more than the Spartans could possibly grant. He bellowed that the garrison should be surrendered to us and certain cities restored before any further peace terms were discussed. Elated by victory, our people listened to the demagogue rather than to wiser voices; the ambassadors could make no headway, and returned to Sparta. The truce was over, and Athens now had the task of capturing or slaying the garrison on Sphacteria Island.
Fighting was resumed at once. We in the fort stood off assault after assault from the landward side. The Spartans were desperately trying to get aid to their comrades. They were enraged the further because Athens duped them by keeping their ships, on a trumped-up pretext, contrary to the terms of the truce. Still, I have heard that many an old-fashioned Lacedaemonian thought they were better off without their ships, saying that men and money ought not to be squandered on seagoing toys — this even while wo Athenians were giving them lessons a-plenty in how those ‘toys’ could be used.
It was not long before we found that starvation would be a very tedious method of reducing the garrison. For the Spartans on the mainland promised gold and freedom to any Helot who succeeded in getting food to the island. Many tried and some succeeded, swimming in the dead of night from the shore or descending swiftly from the sea in small boats at times when a high wind and a lee shore made the naval guard impractical. Trying to elude the ships, they sometimes came within bowshot of the point. Not one but three nights when I was sentry did I shoot at foolhardy swimmers towing skins full of linseed meal or poppy seeds and honey.
Our own situation was far from comfortable. We were dependent on food brought by ship from distant places; also, the well on the promontory was inadequate for such a large force — for the fleet had been swollen by reenforcements to seventy ships. All the shore was held by the enemy except the point itself, and there the landing space was so limited that our sailors got but little rest ashore. Some of our ships risked landing at midday to eat lunch on the near-by tip of the island, posting sentinels to warn of any approach by the Spartan garrison. This practice had a bearing on the outcome of the siege.
After a delay of some weeks it happened that a party from an Athenian ship, eating their customary lunch on the northern tip of Sphacteria, carelessly set the woods afire, so that most of the island was burnt: over. Able at last to see what he had to face, Demosthenes laid his plans for an attack.
Meanwhile in Athens people were growing very impatient, fearing that winter might arrive to end the siege. Cleon, thrusting himself as usual into the public eye and trying to distract critical attention from his own part in rejecting the Spartan overtures, berated the generals vociferously for their delay, abusing especially Nicias (who was then the senior general at Athens) and proclaiming that if he were general he would ‘sail with an expedition to the island and take the garrison.’ Much to his surprise, Nicias took him at his word and resigned his generalship in Cleon’s favor. The people deliberately confirmed his action, and there was Cleon, forced to be a general whether he would or no! It was the best joke in Athens in my time. Unable to back out, he took with him some light-armed auxiliaries and set sail, promising bold as brass to bring back the Spartans dead or alive within twenty days. My father has told me that many hopeful Athenians congratulated themselves that either the city would gain a great victory or — still better — Cleon’s loud mouth would be hushed.
Yet in the light of what happened we cannot take Cleon to be a fool. He had sense enough to choose Demosthenes as his colleague in the undertaking, and placed himself and his reenforcements under Demosthenes’ direction.
Ah, how I loved the way the old fox went about it! He was not one to waste his men —he took full advantage of all the points in our favor: an overwhelming force, command of bay and sea, Spartan characteristics (the enemy were too conservative ever to make a night attack, so they never thought we would) — and finally Cleon’s light-armed troops. He took all the hoplites he could spare from our fortifications, and assembled more from the fleet and from the allies. He and Cleon called upon the Spartans once more to surrender the garrison, but they refused. Two nights later we made a landing just before dawn on two sides of the island at once, putting 800 Athenian hoplites ashore. I was with the first detachment. We made our way unchallenged through the charred thickets left by the fire and stormed a little hill at the southern end of the island. Our prey was a Spartan outpost. Confused by sleep, they fought desperately, but it: was soon over; they died to a man. Moving down again to the shore, we stood guard while t he main force was landed. There were the crews of some seventy ships, and many hundreds of bowmen and targeteers — in all, perhaps ten thousand.
For my part, I think the glory of the tale goes now to the Spartans, whose resistance was so valorous. Epitadas, their leader, waited for us in battle array near the well, with his little army of four hundred heavy-armed men, of whom the officers and about half the men were citizens of Sparta herself. Now indeed Demosthenes profited from his earlier beating by the savage Ætolians— he sent detachments of light-armed men all about the island, and, surrounding the Spartans with bowmen and spearmen, rained arrows and javelins upon them. When they charged, the light-armed men scampered before them, fighting as they ran and raising a choking dust of ashes from the burnt wood. We Athenian hoplites stood ready but were not engaged — a horde of bowmen kept the Spartans from us, though they would gladly have closed. After several hours of struggling over broken ground — wounded by arrows, tormented by dust and thirst — they were well-nigh exhausted.
Only then did they beat a stubborn retreat through thick-flying arrows to the northern part of t he island, where the last of their small garrisons still held a fortification on a rugged hillside that, closed off the approaches to that end. Many were killed on the way, but the remainder won through and were at last able to face us from the hill, no longer outflanked, for the cliff behind them appeared unclimbable. Now we hoplites came up and joined in the fight, which raged hotly most of the day, the hard-pressed Spartans clinging tenaciously to their position. Finally the leader of our Messenian allies, stealthily concealing his movements, found an unsuspected and precipitous way around the hillside and up with a few men to the top — unguarded, for the Spartans thought it inaccessible. With stones, arrows, and javelins the Messenian band took the enemy in the rear, and their position became hopeless. Weakened by hunger and dismay, they fell back at our charge, and we were pressing in to finish them when Demost henes stopped us.
For he and Cleon agreed that Athens would gain far more by obtaining the surrender of the remaining Spartans than by killing them. Throughout Greece it was the well-known boast of the Lacedaemonians that they would never surrender to a foe, but would die sword in hand. This they had done at Thermopylae, and this had been their reputation ever since. On it depended much of their prestige among their allies. Our two generals knew also that Spartan prisoners at Athens would be a powerful lever in any negotiations that might take place, for Sparta could ill spare men: it was known that her population was diminishing. For these two reasons, therefore, they caused a herald to announce that the enemy could, if they laid down their arms, still surrender at the discretion of Athens. Many were willing, but Styphon, their leader (for Epitadas and his lieutenant, Hippagretas, lay among the dead), first consulted through heralds with the Lacedaemonians ashore—the Athenians allowing this to be done. Powerless to help, his countrymen cast the cruel decision back at him with their final message: —
‘The Lacedaemonians bid you act as you think best, but you are not to dishonor yourselves.’
After a final desperate and bitter discussion among themselves the garrison agreed to lay down their arms. Of 420 hoplites, 292 remained alive, the Spartans among them numbering 120. The prisoners were brought to Athens, and all Greece rang with the news.
Foolish men taunted the survivors with cowardice. I heard one such ask a prisoner, ‘Where were the brave men — all killed?’ and the Spartan reply: ‘Of great worth the spindle if it picked out the brave ‘ — referring to the undiscerning arrow of the light-armed foe.
For my part, I know not what to think, since prestige was very important to Sparta. Many prominent Spartans were among those taken; their captivity was a sore hurt to their city. I am certain of one thing, however, and that is the courage of those men, for I fought against them. It was not until the bitter day of Mantinea that Sparta wiped out the sting of that defeat.
What of Cleon? He sailed triumphantly back to Athens with the prisoners, within twenty days as he had promised. Nicias and his other enemies were confounded; truly, he was the child of fortune. I shall say little of him — he has been well enough roasted by Aristophanes for stealing the ‘cake’ baked by Demosthenes at Pylos, and for many other things. But at the play no Athenian laughed louder than Cleon himself.
Well, those days are all over now. Where are the men of whom I have spoken? Cleon was cut down as he fled the field at Amphipolis, where the Spartan Brasidas died in the moment of victory. Demosthenes and Nicias lie dead in Sicily with our Athenian dreams. At home we are casting down the walls behind which the city rose to greatness. Success went to our heads, so that we never valued what we had, but always wanted more. Now the game is finished and we have nothing. No one can say what the future holds for At hens. Come, let us get on with the work — I see the guard over there making angry gestures at us. Strike up a tune, you whistlers!