Brasidas was one of the greatest generals of classical Sparta. As a leader in the Peloponnesian War (431-405 BC), he proved himself a shrewd battlefield tactician, a brilliant strategist and diplomat, and a bold combatant. His actions against Athenian interests in the north of Greece were a turning point in the war.
Ironically, most of what is known about Brasidas has been passed down from Thucydides who was an Athenian general and opponent of Brasidas at Amphipolis. While not of royal descent, Brasidas seems to have come from a noted family nonetheless. His father Tellis was part of the Spartan delegation that negotiated terms of peace with Athens in 421 BC, and his mother Argileonis ended up being quoted by Plutarch in his essay “Lacaenarum Apophthegmata”.
Brasidas’ career was a remarkable one; presumably, he excelled from early on in the agoge, and probably served in the Crypteia like many high-ranking Spartans. At the break-out of war in 431 BC, he was serving as an Ephor, and Cartledge (2003) considers it likely that Brasidas was one of the political hawks in Sparta who pushed for the war. He is first mentioned in a military role while serving in Laconia as a district commander.
Athens had on the advice of Pericles refused to face the Spartan army on land, and had instead sent a large fleet to raid the Spartan home front i.e. the Peloponnesian hinterland. Messenia in particular was a target as it was the home of a large helot population who had suffered grievously at the hands of their Lacedaemon overlords. Freeing the helots and causing disarray was hoped to relieve the military pressure on Athens and to prove to Sparta that there was a high price to be paid for the war.
The Reinforcement of Methone
Landing on Messenian coast near Methone, Athenian marines pillaged and destroyed the countryside around the town before attacking the walled town itself. Methone would in all likelihood have fallen were it not for the arrival of Brasidas’ and a hundred heavy infantry. The Spartan officer took advantage of the gaps in the Athenian positions and quickly moved through them to reinforce Methone, taking some casualties. While still outnumbered by the enemy, the Spartan defenders had by their arrival increased the cost in lives and time for any planned Athenian assault. Disinclined to engage in a hard, drawn-out fight, the Athenian raiders re-embarked and sailed north. Such was the quick-thinking and daring exemplified by Brasidas at Methone that Sparta awarded him its public gratitude.
The Debacle at Naupactus, 429 BC
Brasidas’ star had risen in the eye of Sparta, and he is next mentioned by Thucydides as being sent as one of three advisers to the Spartan Admiral, Cnemus. Sparta’s navy was less experienced and competent by far in comparison to their Athenian adversary, and the difference was telling in engagement after engagement. In the Gulf of Corinth, Sparta’s fleet was at a numerical advantage to that of the Athenian Admiral Phormio, but although they were within a mile of each other at Rhium, the Spartan commanders were hesitant. Their confidence had been shaken by previous defeats, and their men could sense it. Addressing the marines and sailors, Cnemus and Brasidas attempted to rally them and reestablish morale. The commanders openly acknowledged the inferior experience of the Spartans, but called for bravery and daring to compensate for it and reminded them of their superiority in numbers. When at last Cnemus moved to engage, the Spartans succeeded in splitting their opponents and driving them before them. However once again their inexperience showed and, convinced that victory was secured, they became overconfident. When on the approach to Naupactus a lone Athenian trireme circled round and sank its pursuer, the Spartan fleet lost cohesion and direction in an instant. Phormio counterattacked, capturing or destroying six Lacedaemon vessels. Fearing that Athenian reinforcements would arrive soon, Cnemus and Brasidas slunk away in defeat.
The Assault on Salamis
With winter on its way, Cnemus and Brasidas returned the fleet to its harbors; their failures must have eaten at them and no doubt Sparta viewed their performance poorly. At this point an intriguing suggestion was made by Megara, an allied city across the Gulf of Corinth: the Athenian harbor at Piraeus was unguarded, and ripe for the taking. The Spartans had the marines and the sailors and the Megarians had forty empty triremes on the Saronic Gulf. With a march across the isthmus, the men could man the ships and set sail directly for Piraeus without alerting the Athenians.
The bold plan must have appealed to Brasidas, but he was an adviser and not the commander. Cnemus consented but was presumably cautious, even fearful. Once the men were aboard and the decision had to be made, the nerve of the Spartans failed them. Foregoing an attack on Piraeus which might have been a mighty blow to Athens, they instead attacked and sacked the nearby island of Salamis at night, just a mile from Piraeus. The operation was a success, but the Spartans made sure to beat a retreat once the Athenian triremes appeared the next morning.
Intervention in Corcyra, 427 BC
Two years later, Brasidas was again named advisor to the Admiral, but Alcidas, and no longer Cnemus, now held the position. Alcidas was also deeply aware of the Spartan inferiority at sea and his decisions reveal the same abundance of caution that his predecessor exhibited. Returning to the Peloponnese from an unsuccessful attempt to intervene in the civil war on Lesbos, an Athenian ally, word reached the fleet that civil war had broken out on the island of Corcyra. Brasidas’ task was to assist Alcidas in exploiting this opportunity. The oligarchic faction on Corcyra was aligned with Corinth, an ally of Sparta, and desperately needed support.
Together with ships from Cyllene, the Spartan fleet numbered fifty three vessels which made directly for Corcyra in the hope of settling matters before a large Athenian fleet turned up. The Corcyran fleet offered battle, but did not follow the advice of the Athenian commander, Nicostratus, who had but twelve ships with him. The Spartans and Cyllenians resoundingly defeated the Corcyrans who were poorly organized and came at them in a piecemeal fashion. The Athenians sank one Spartan ship, causing the Spartans to forget about the Corcyrans and concentrate all their forces on their naval nemesis. Fearing a repetition of their collapse at Naupactus, the Lacedaemonians kept their order but Nicostratus retreated carefully. At sundown, the Peloponnesians withdrew to the mainland with their thirteen captures. Brasidas pressed Alcidas to seize the momentum as “panic and disorder” reigned on Corcyra, but the Admiral refused to enter the city. The Spartans spent half the next day raiding the countryside; when word reached them of sixty Athenian vessels approaching from the south, they set a course for the Peloponnese, taking extra precautions not to encounter their arch-enemy at sea.
The Battle of Pylos, 425 BC
Pylos was an unmitigated disaster for the Spartans; for Brasidas personally it was a high-mark of his personal leadership in battle. Athens had found in Pylos a foothold on the Messenian coast from which it would be hard to dislodge. Located at the far end of a narrow peninsula, the heights of Pylos were naturally defensible, and when the Athenians with Demosthenes arrived there, they set about building fortifications. Demosthenes had but a small force and five ships, but he rightly predicted that the position was a strong one. At this time, a Spartan fleet was again occupied with affairs to the north on Corcyra where the civil war continued. Learning about the landing, the Admiral Thrasymelidas hurried south toward Pylos; Brasidas was a captain of a galley in the fleet.
The Athenian fleet had also been alerted and was en route to Pylos, and the Spartans understood they needed to act fast against the small force there before the fleet arrived. As before, they were anxious to avoid a sea battle with a large Athenian contingent. They had about two days to launch amphibious and land assaults on the small Athenian force before the odds shifted dramatically against them.
Brasidas participated in the amphibious assault which due to the lay of the terrain limited the amount of vessels which could beach at any one time. Wisely, Demosthenes had urged the Athenians, Messenians, sailors and mercenaries under his command to fight in the surf, denying the Spartans even a toehold on Pylos. Thus the Spartans became limited in the amount of hoplites and marines they could bring to bear on the beach. Brasidas saw how other captains were hesitant to land in the confined area for fear of damaging their ships. Thucydides relates:
…[Brasidas] shouted out to them, that they must never allow the enemy to fortify himself in their country for the sake of saving timber, but must shiver their vessels and force a landing; and bade the allies, instead of hesitating in such a moment to sacrifice their ships for Lacedaemon in return for her many benefits, to run them boldly aground, land in one way or another, and make themselves masters of the place and its garrison.
Running his own galley aground, Brasidas led from the front, battling his way down the gangplank and trying to lead his men on to the beach. The Athenians were steadfast however and he took many wounds, and was forced back until he fell into the bows of his ship and passed out from blood loss. His shield slipped from from his arm, fell into the surf and was eventually found by the enemy. Famously, it became a trophy to their victory over the Spartans there. Not only were the amphibian and land assaults repulsed – when the Athenian fleet arrived in due course, the Spartans were comprehensively defeated.
Treason at Megara, 424 BC
The defeat at Pylos, the subsequent surrender on Sphacteria and the later loss of Cythera (an island off the southern Peloponnese coast) had powerful psychological ramifications on the Spartans. They were no longer unchallenged masters of the Peloponnese and the Athenians had repeatedly defeated them at sea and now also on their very doorstep. Lacedaemon sued for peace but was rebuffed by the ascendant and confident Athens. Seizing the initiative, Athens now moved to close off the Peloponnese from the north by ‘flipping’ the city of Megara to its own alliance.
Megara lay on the Isthmus of Corinth which was the land bridge between the Peloponnese and central Greece. It was an old rival of Athens, but its newly-arisen democratic leadership conspired to open the gates to an Athenian force in a bid to rid the city of the rival oligarchic faction. The Megaran traitors overwhelmed the guards, and a large Athenian force under Hippocrates managed to take the Megaran port of Nisaea. As the port and city were connected by a long wall, the Athenians were now poised to take the city next.
By chance, Brasidas happened to be nearby in Corinth when news spread of the fall of Nisaea. Realizing the danger, he sent for reinforcements from Sparta’s ally Boeotia and moved his troops (mostly Corinthians under his leadership) to reinforce Megara itself. He was however denied entry by the Megarans who wished to see the struggle resolved by the two greater powers in the contest: Athens and Sparta. Upon arrival of the Boeotian hoplites and cavalry, Brasidas felt that his position was strong and thus decided to wait out the Athenians beyond the walls. The Boeotians and Athenians clashed outside the walls of Nisaea which resulted in the Boeotians losing their leader. Brasidas arrived with the rest of the force and lined up in a clear challenge to the Athenians on the walls. The generals of Athens, unwilling to engage in open battle with the large Spartan-led force, blinked first and declined to fight. In recognition of this tacit demural, the Megarans let in Brasidas and his men, checkmating the democratic faction and the Athenians. Leaving a garrison at Nisaea, Hippocrates and the remainder of his troops returned to Attica. The treasonous democratic faction was undone and fled, leaving the loyal-to-Sparta oligarchs to rule.
Brasidas had by quick and well-placed intervention denied Athens what would have been a critical victory. When inland and unsupported by their navy, the Athenians were more easily dealt with. The time had come for Sparta to take the fight to Athens on terms that suited the former. Brasidas would proceed to test the strength of Athens and its alliance by marching north into their hinterland.
The Campaign to Thrace and Amphipolis, 424-423 BC
Brasidas had been on important mission when the Megaran treason occured. Requests for assistance had arrived in Sparta from northern Greece. In Thrace, several towns wished to rebel against their nominal ally, Athens, which had been demanding more tribute of late. Also King Perdiccas of Macedonia wanted Spartan assistance to settle a score with King Arrhabaeus of the Lyncestians.
A campaign in the north matched Lacedaemonian interests in several ways. First, it was a means to retaliate for the Athenian raids in Messenia and Laconia, which were proving difficult to contain. Secondly, there was no naval component to the plan and the sorely-tried fleet would not have to be put at risk in the Aegean Sea. Moreover, no Spartans would lives would be risked except that of the leader as the force would be composed of helot-warriors, mercenaries and allied troops. Finally, the removal of some seven hundred helots of fighting age from the southern Peloponnese was convenient, as they were not entirely trusted not to rebel.
The enterprise seems to have suited his daring approach to the war, and Brasidas volunteered to lead it. His helot troops had been promised their freedom for fighting, and some of the costs of the campaign would be covered by King Perdiccas. Thus in the summer Brasidas headed north toward Hericlea at the head of seventeen hundred heavy infantry.
Getting to Thrace involved marching through Thessaly – which was both an Athenian ally and known for its cavalry. In the open plains of Thessaly, Brasidas infantry would be exposed. Being a clever diplomat as well as a general, he arranged to be escorted by local allies and friendly Thessalians. The maneuver worked, for when he was confronted by a small force of Thessalians, Brasidas stated he came in friendship and meant no harm to Thessaly as there was no quarrel between it and Sparta. Unsure how to proceed, the Thessalians left and Brasidas hurried on to the realm of Perdiccas before he could be intercepted again.
Brasidas’ meeting with Perdiccas did not match expectations. Eager to be done with his neighbor Arrhabaeus, the Macedonian wanted to march immediately on the Lyncestians. Brasidas favored a more moderate approach though, as he was inclined to make allies for Sparta in the north. He accepted to arbitrate between the two kings – which infuriated Perdiccas – and after meeting Arrhabaeus, Brasidas decided not to pursue the kings’ quarrel any further. Angry at the broken Spartan promises, Perdiccas reduced his support for the troops.
Moving quickly onwards, Brasidas force arrived at Acanthus, a town whose population was divided on whether to favor Sparta or Athens. The timing of the arrival was opportune because the harvest season was approaching, and it was understood that antagonizing the Spartan risked costing the town its crops. Accordingly, Brasidas was permitted to enter alone and to address the Acanthians.
His speech to them was critical both in gaining their support for Sparta and as broader propaganda for the Spartan cause. Sparta, he said, was fighting for the freedom of the Greeks and to liberate them from the yoke of the Athenian empire. At first, the Spartans had thought that they could achieve this goal alone by directly confronting Athens, but now the time had come to seek allies. Would Acanthus stand against the cause of Hellenic freedom? Would it continue to pay tribute to Athens, and by doing so oppose Sparta? Or would it, as a free and independent town, join with its’ friend Sparta to liberate Greece? The time had come to choose, and to choose wrongly would cost Acanthus its harvest he stated in no uncertain terms. After a long debate and a secret ballot, the Acanthians voted to admit the troops and to support Sparta with the understanding that their independence was guaranteed. This was a remarkable achievement for Spartan diplomacy and afterwards it earned the grudging respect of the Athenian historian Thucydides. It soon followed that another town, Stagirus, was likewise persuaded.
Winter came to northern Greece; Brasidas had expanded his army with Thracian allies, and he determined to march upon Amphipolis, an Athenian colony. The town was important for its gold and silver mines which helped fund Athens, and it was strategically placed near the sea on the way to the Hellespont – an area near which grain shipments to Athens passed. As had been the case in other Thracian towns, a faction within Amphipolis had contacted the Spartans to signal their support for Sparta and urge it to come. Although it was founded by Athens, the town had a mixed population, including some of neighboring Argilus who were active in the plot. Brasidas marched through the snowy night, rendezvousing in and securing Argilus on the way.
Arriving at the bridge near Amphipolis, Brasidas’ men overwhelmed the guards and crossed to the parts of the town outside the walls. The citizens were caught completely by surprise and fled inside the walls in great confusion. Athens had been aware that an attack might potentially come and had sent a general, Eucles, to advise Amphipolis. Eucles immediately sent for help from his colleague Thucydides (later the historian of the same name) who commanded seven ships off the coast, but as it turned out these failed to arrive in time. Sensing that he had to move fast, Brasidas conveyed moderate terms of surrender to Amphipolis which were accepted as the bulk of the populace were impressed by the gentleness of Brasidas. His message of ‘Greek Freedom’ had won hearts and minds in Thrace.
The same winter even more towns signalled their desire for independence from Athens. Brasidas took Myrcinus, Galepsus, Oesime, Torone and other towns on the Acte peninsula.
Such was the success of Brasidas that Athens began to negotiate more earnestly with Sparta for a cessation of hostilities, and the two parties concluded a truce which was to last one year. While the truce held in most parts of Greece, Brasidas largely ignored it. On the eve of its agreement he took Scione in the Chalcidice. There his campaign for “Greek Freedom” so won the hearts of the populace that they crowned him and titled him “Liberator of Hellas.” After the truce was already in effect, he moved on the town of Mende. Athens was understandably furious at this and sent an expedition to reconquer Scione and Mende.
At this time, King Perdiccas again called on Brasidas to support him in an attack on the Lyncestians. Unable to reject this request, the Spartan general travelled north to Macedonia. Meeting the Lyncestians in battle they soundly defeated them. They were both however betrayed by the Illyrians and when Perdiccas’ army fled, the Peloponnesian force was left alone to fight a retreat from Lyncestis. Harrassed by the pursuing enemy, Brasidas brilliantly rallied and controlled his men so that they repulsed attack upon attack even as they marched. His understanding of the terrain was such that just as the Illyrians were about to close his route of exfiltration, he ordered a crack unit to dislodge them from a key hilltop so decisively that the enemy despaired in its pursuit. The Peloponnesians successfully returned to Thrace, but their alliance with Perdiccas was in ruins.
Back in Torone, Brasidas discovered that the Athenian expeditionary force had retaken Mende. It then lay siege to Scione and made an alliance with Perdiccas which thereby isolated Brasidas in the north. Sparta moved to reinforce its maverick general, but this time the Thessalians did not allow the troops to pass through their territory. Eventually, the Athenians would have no more of the Spartan duplicity and the truce was broken. Athens sent a large force of thirty ships to oust Brasidas from Amphipolis and other cities.
Clash at Amphipolis: Brasidas vs. Cleon
The Athenian general, Cleon, was a leading politician of Athens and like Brasidas he was hawk who believed that his side could secure victory by force of arms. His opening moves met with success. While still besieging Scione, he attacked and captured Torone, defeating the Spartan general, Pasitelidas, there. Brasidas rushed to support Torone but arrived too late.
Sailing to the area of Amphipolis, Cleon next attempted to take Stagirus but failed; his assault on Galepsus was successful though and he began to undo the work of Brasidas by turning back other cities to Athens. Cleon’s and Brasidas’ forces were about evenly matched and the Athenian was careful not to move on Amphipolis yet. Time was on his side though because the alliance with Perdiccas would add to his strength as soon as Macedonian reinforcements arrived.
Brasidas was of a similar view; time was against him, and their forces about equally matched. He especially respected the Athenian heavy infantry under Cleon’s command as worthy adversaries. The Spartan waited for his opponent to make a mistake that he might seize on. To this end, he climbed Mt. Cerdylium with fifteen hundred men to observe Cleon’s every move. For reasons which are still debated, Cleon did exist his base at Eion and led his army to reconnoiter Amphipolis. He did not expect an attack. For his part, Brasidas observed the march and casual disposition of the Athenians which Thucydides remarks was one of “careless confidence”. Cleon took up a strong position on a hill outside Amphipolis, and made his reconnaissance with a small force. Reentering Amphipolis, Brasidas decided that marching out in full order was too great a risk. Instead, he determined that his deputy Clearidas would to march the bulk of the troops to the northern gate of Amphipolis and feign preparations for a sally in an attempt to trigger an Athenian withdrawal southward back to Eion. Such a withdrawal would bring them past the southern gate where a smaller force would prepare to sally forth against the Athenian flank. The beauty of the plan was the element of surprise and psychological momentum that would ideally catch the Athenians wrong-footed and create disorder and confusion in their ranks.
Brasidas made pre-battle sacrifices and preparations in Amphipolis knowing that all was watched by Cleon’s men on their hillside. Cleon learned of these, and of the troops moving towards the northern gate; he decided to call a retreat and hurrying to his own troops he joined the rearguard. Brasidas meanwhile was watching the lax Athenian troops and noted their demeanour:
Those fellows will never stand before us, one can see that by the way their spears and heads are going. Troops which do as they do seldom stand a charge. Quick, someone, and open the gates I spoke of, and let us be out and at them with no fears for the result.
Accordingly, Brasidas charged with one hundred and fifty men at the Athenian center which was passing the southern gate. The enemy center quickly panicked and fled, and so did the vanguard. From the northern gate, Clearidas then charged with the bulk of the troops against the rearguard. Brasidas moved to outflank the rearguard but received a wound in doing so and was carried back to Amphipolis. The Athenians held off Clearidas force for a while but their position was threatened from several sides now. Cleon attempted to flee but was struck by an arrow or other missile and died. In short order the rearguard was surrounded and broken; the Athenian army was routed, leaving six hundred dead in its wake. Brasidas survived long enough to hear the news of victory, but passed away shortly afterwards.
Epitaph of a Military Mastermind
The defeat of the Athenians at Amphipolis was critical to motivating their assent to the peace treaty concluded afterwards (the Peace of Nicias), not least because of the death of Cleon. Ironically, this development was not what Brasidas, being a hawk, might have wanted, but the great debt owed to him by Sparta for turning around a poor strategic position is undeniable. The Amphipolis campaign victories showed that the Athenian empire was vulnerable to defections, and that on land the Spartans still held the upper hand.
Brasidas received more praise in Thrace than in Sparta, perhaps due to his maverick ways. In the north, he was remembered as a heroic liberator, and he was even posthumously made the founder of Amphipolis (the original Athenian founder, Hagnon, was removed from the records). In Sparta, Brasidas exceptional career was recognized by a cenotaph next to that of Leonidas. When Thracians came to Sparta and eulogized him, his own mother Argileonis asked if he had died honorably. They confirmed this, and Plutarch relates that she responded with marked modesty: “Sirs, my son was a good and honourable man, but Sparta has many a man better than him.” One might not agree with her on that count.
- Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.
- Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans.
- Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War.