After the Affair of Epidamnus and the subsequent battle of Sybota, Corinth would yet again pounce at the opportunity to pounce on Athens and her empire. Rebellions up north would give Corinth the chance to turn allies against one another, and the resulting battle at Potidaea would become the final straw for Sparta in beginning the devastating Peloponnesian War.
Check out my previous post on the Battle of Sybota, 433 BC
THE BATTLE OF POTIDAEA, 432 BC
[ABOVE: A map of ancient Chalcidice, northern Greece, showing Potidaea higlighted in green, by William Robert Shepherd, 1926]
Not long after the affairs surrounding Epidamnos and Sybota, another dispute worsened Athenian-Peloponnesian relations: Wary of further Corinthian retaliation, Athens took precautionary measures in the city of Potidaea, in the Pallene peninsula. Potidaea was originally a Corinthian colony, but had since become a tribute-paying member of Athens’s Delian League. Thus with a significant Corinthian populace inside, and fearing Corinth may rouse the city to revolt against them, Athens demanded the city demolish one side of its city walls, provide hostages and Corinthian magistrates, and refuse any future replacements of the sort sent by Corinth. The other fear was that Peridccas II, the king of Macedon on friendly terms with the Peloponnesians, had also been attempting to rouse several nearby Delian League-allied states to revolt too.
PERDICCAS II OF MACEDONIA
[ABOVE: Silver tetrobol coin from the reign of Perdiccas II, 448 - 413 BC, showing Perdiccas [left] and the Nemean Lion killed by Heracles [right]]
By now, Corinth was openly hostile towards Athens. Worse still for Athens, Perdiccas II, the new king of Macedonia, broke his alliance with Athens and turned hostile, since Athens had allied with Perdiccas’s brother, Philip, and King Derdas of Elimea, both of whom opposed Perdiccas. Alarmed, Perdiccas opened up negotiations with Sparta, hoping he could sway them towards deciding for war against Athens, and hoping to incite revolt in Potidaea. Attempting to incite other Thracian kingdoms to revolt, Perdiccas hoped he could put himself in a better position for war against Athens.
Hearing of these ongoings, Athens begun preparing a fleet of thirty warships and one thousand hoplites, commanded by Archestratus, to go to Potidaea and take hostages, demolish the city walls and garrison the area to keep watch on other roused-up states.
Potidaea sent envoys to Athens, hoping to convince them not to alter their relations with them. Potidaean envoys were also sent to Sparta to lay the foundations for a military alliance, should that become necessary. The negotiations for Athens proved useless, and the Potidaean ships sent to Macedonia proved just as useful as they did harmful as many were diverted to attack Potidaea instead. With this, and the promise of Spartan aid in Attica against Athens, Potidaea threw itself into open revolt.
[ABOVE: Potidaean coin, c.525-500 BC, showing a horseman wielding a trident [left] and the head of an unknown Archaic female [right]]
Perdiccas was able to persuade many Chalcidians along the coast to tear down their own settlements, and to move themselves inland to the city of Olynthus to prepare for war. Perdiccas even gave some of these people some of his own private land to cultivate.
The thirty Athenian ships eventually arrived in the Thracian region, whereupon they found Potidaea already in revolt. Seeing it as impossible to take on both Perdiccas and Potidaea, the fleet’s commanders turned instead to attacking Macedonia, beginning their own campaign against Perdiccas, simultaneously to Philip’s campaign against Perdiccas.
With both Athenian ships attacking Macedonia and Potidaea in open revolt, Corinth, fearing for their colony, sent out a force of Corinthian volunteers and Peloponnesian mercenaries - 1,600 hoplites and four-hundred light troops in total - commanded by Aristeus, a loyal ally of Potidaea. This force arrived roughly forty days after the revolt had begun.
Quickly receiving word of the ongoings in and around Potidaea, Athens too sent out their own force under the command of Callias: two-thousand hoplites and forty ships. Arriving first in Macedonia, they found a force had already taken the city of Therme, and were now besieging Pydna. Athens joined the siege, but it was soon lifted after an agreement was made with Perdiccas, who was pressed into the agreement after deciding that the situation at Potidaea was too urgent.
Callias thus left Macedonia, marching to Potidaea with the other thousand hoplites. These three-thousand hoplites were joined by Philip and Pausanias’s cavalry, six-hundred in total.
Expecting the Athenian-led army, Potidaea’s people and Aristeus’s army made camp outside Olynthus, around ten kilometres north of Potidaea, setting up a market for the troops’ provisions. Aristeus was given command of the infantry, and Perdiccas, who had again broken with the Athenians and now sided with Potidaea, commanded his own two-hundred cavalry. Aristeus planned to hold his infantry back to prepare for an Athenian attack, while Perdiccas and his other allies remained in the camp, ready to hit the Athenians in the rear once they engaged the infantry.
Meanwhile, Callias sent his Macedonian cavalry and other allied infantry towards Olynthus to halt any potential attacks, while the rest of the army marched towards Potidaea. Seeing the enemy preparing for battle as well, the Athenians formed into battle order, and engaged the enemy line head on. Aristeus’s own wing routed their immediate opposition, pursuing some distance. However the rest of the Athenian army made good progress against their enemies, forcing the Potidaean and Peloponnesian soldiers to withdraw behind the city walls.
Aristeus returned to the main battlefield with his soldiers. Seeing the rest of his army broken, he now had to choose between making a move on either Olynthus or Potidaea. Deciding on the latter, he bunched his soldiers together and ran them to Potidaea. Moving along the breakwater and under constant missile fire, Aristeus and his men made it into Potidaea. Some casualties were taken, but most made it inside.
Meanwhile, the Olynthians were ready to send aid to Potidaea, and set out to join battle. Soon after, though, they were set upon by the Macedonian cavalry, forcing them to return to Olynthus.
Following the battle, Athens set up their victory trophy on the battlefield, and allowed a truce for the Potidaeans to collect the dead. Potidaean casualties mounted upwards to three-hundred, while Athens lost about half, around one-hundred and fifty. Among the dead was Callias.
Athens had their side of the battlefield fortified with a garrisoned wall, except the south side on the isthmus. Reinforcements from Athens would eventually bolster this undefended south side with 1,600 hoplites under the command of Phormio. Phormio then advanced towards Potidaea, looting the land as he went, fortifying the Athenian walls’ south side and putting Potidaea under siege. Potidaea was now besieged on two sides, and an Athenian fleet blockaded it on the coast.
[ABOVE: The remains of Potidaea's city walls, photo taken in 2008]
In such a dire situation, Aristeus advised Potidaea to almost completely evacuate the city, leaving only five-hundred men there, so the food supplies would last longer while the city was besieged. Those leaving the city would wait for the right wind to leave by sea, while Aristeus volunteered to stay behind with the five-hundred men still inside Potidaea. He would, however, be forced to flee the city himself after none of his men followed his advice. Aristeus remained in the region to prolong the conflict and ambush some small forces. Phormio, meanwhile, was still ravaging the nearby countryside and taking some settlements with his 1,600 hoplites.
In many of Plato’s dialogues years later, the philosopher mentions that Alcibiades, a prominent Athenian statesman during the coming war, was involved in the battle, and that his life was saved in an engagement by Plato’s own tutor: Socrates himself.
[ABOVE: "Socrates saves Alcibiades", engraving sketch by Wilhelm Müller, drawing by Jakob Asmus Carstens, 1788]
The battle of Potidaea piled the grievances up for both sides of the conflict; Corinth held their grievance against Athens for blockading Potidaea itself with military forces, while Athens held a grievance against Corinth for inciting rebellion in their territory. War between Athens and Sparta, however, had not yet started, since Corinth had been acting alone. A truce still stood between the two Greek superpowers.
Corinth could not lay idle while Potidaea was besieged. They thus resorted to meeting with their envoys at Sparta to launch an invective against Athens. Corinth insisted that Athens broke the Thirty Years Peace treaty. Sparta too invited envoys from cities who had suffered injustice by Athens and their growing empire. Megara, in particular, complained of how Athens had barred them from utilising any port owned or controlled by Athens, cutting Megara off from most ports and markets around the Aegean. The Corinthian envoys gave a lengthy speech convincing Sparta to remain passive no longer, and declare war, arguing that their inactivity would eventually leave them without allies and outflanked. They argued that it was Sparta who was to blame for Athens’ growing power and being allowed to fortify their cities following the Persian invasions.
THE ATHENIAN EMBASSY
Another delegation of Athenians had invited themselves to this embassy at Sparta, having already been in the city on separate business. Hearing of what Corinth’s envoys had said, the Athenians were keen to make the power of their city well known. With Sparta’s invite to step forward, the Athenians spoke, reminding the assembly of who it was exactly that won the great engagements against the Persian Empire at Marathon, Salamis and Mycale, and that it was the rest of the Greeks who came for Athenian aid while Sparta remained idle during the Greek Counterattack. They also mentioned that Sparta should seek the arbitration provided by the First Peloponnesian Wars' Thirty Year’s Peace.
[ABOVE: A woodprint of King Archidamus II, 1629]
When each side had made their speech, Sparta allowed each party to convene in private. Most sides already agreed that Athens was guilty already, and war should be declared. However, Sparta’s king, Archidamus II, gave a rousing speech to speak out against the prospect of war, noting of Athens’s skill and dominance of the Aegean, as well as the diversity of their strength on land and a much higher population of citizens and subjects to call upon. Sparta’s only advantage, a significant one all the same, was their infantry, the finest in all of Greece. Yet Athens’s empire was so vast that significant efforts would have to be put into raiding one small portion of their land, while supplies would simply be shipped over in support. Archidamus feared that such a prolonged war would be extended to the next generation of Spartans, and it would be they who would be the victims of Athens in the end. Alliances first should be made in preparation - Greek or otherwise - to bolster their comparably weak navy and finances. Wars between two cities can be resolved in the end, but when those two states are at the head of their own confederacies and leagues, only disaster would be the result.
Once Archidamus made his speech, Sthenthelaïdas, one of Sparta’s five ephors, came forward. He had heard what the Athenians had to say of their victories against Persia and the power they now wielded, but they must be punished for abusing their power since, and for what they had done to the allies of the Peloponnesians. He argued that they were doubly in the wrong for turning from such greatness and stooping so low. Sthenthelaïdas argued that the quicker action was taken, the better, before Athenian power became too great.
[ABOVE: Reimagined drawing of the Spartan ephors, by Ludwig Löffler, 1862]
With his speech made, Sthenthelaïdas, with his capacity to do so as an ephor, put the question to the Spartan assembly, whose decisions in turn were made by acclamation - that is, voting by shouting the loudest. Sthenthelaïdas then claimed that he could not tell which side had shouted the loudest, so insisted that the assembly divide themselves into the room, with one half standing on one side of the room in favour of the war, and the other opposite them against the war. The result was clear: most agreed that Athens had broken the treaty, and that war should begin. With that, the rest of the Greek envoys were called from their private gatherings and asked to call upon all their allies in a full conference to decide finally on war.
Sparta was never one to declare war on anyone without being absolutely sure it was the right thing to do. So, they also sent envoys to the Oracle of Delphi, asking if they should declare war on Athens. The response seems to have been that they would have great success, should they attack in earnest.
Sparta once again called their allies back. Once Sparta had heard everyone’s say, the majority vote was given. Sparta was, in that year, underprepared to actually stage a military campaign against Athens, so time would be needed to prepare and gather supplies.
Yet, the decision was made: The Peloponnesian War had begun...
NEXT POST: THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR BEGINS, 431 BC: The Greatest Speech in History
- Thucydides, "History of the Peloponnesian War", Book 1.56 - 1.125
- Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History", Book XII.30
- Plutarch, "Lives: Pericles"
- Paul Cartledge, "Sparta and Lakonia - A Regional History", pg's 192-227
- Plato, "Symposium", 219e - 221b
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