Delium: The Battle Only One Man Wanted–Part I

by Victor Davis Hanson

Military History Quarterly

[Delium will appear this week in a five part series: 1)The Battle, 2) The Aftermath, 3) Armor and Ranks, 4) Innovation and the Battlefield, 5) Coalition Warfare]

Part I: The Battle

By 424 B.C., the Peloponnesian War was at a stalemate. Perhaps a quarter to a third of the Athenian population alive at the start of the war was now dead seven years later, mostly due to the ravages of the plague rather than Spartan spears. The stalemate was due in part to the reluctance of Athens, a great naval power, to engage Sparta’s vaunted land force. Now, seeking an end to the conflict, Athenians at last saw the necessity of a land battle.

In Athenian eyes, ending this two-front war meant either knocking out the Spartan ally Boeotia, or marching directly into the Peloponnesus after crafting an alliance to defeat formidable Sparta in its homeland. In November, near the small seaside sanctuary of Delium, on the border between Athens and Boeotia and only a two-day march from the Athenian Acropolis, a battle at last broke out.

The fighting had begun with the Athenian general, Hippocrates, promising his men that a victory would mean the Spartans could no longer cross Attica at will into the sanctuary of Boeotia, as the northern front would be forever closed. He assumed, however, that a defeat would doom Athens to a perpetual two-front war of attrition that it could not win.

A single bold win at Delium might lead to the end of Boeotia’s support of Sparta and the near-constant raiding across the border. The Spartan forces operating to the north would be cut off, with hostile territory barring their return to the Peloponnesus.

Three months earlier, the Athenians had sought to subvert the government of Boeotia in ways that might have avoided a single pitched battle. The Athenian general Demosthenes had sailed from home intending to raise democratic insurrection through the southern Boeotian countryside by an unexpected amphibious landing. Then, aided by partisans, he was to march east toward Delium about the same time that Hippocrates and his Athenian hoplites marched northward to meet them. The outnumbered Boeotian army would scatter beneath the hammer and anvil. Then the surrounding countryside would rise up in open revolt.

Such triumph would be possible only if the numerically superior infantry forces of the Boeotians would face two simultaneously advancing Athenian armies and an aroused countryside eager for a more egalitarian government. Unfortunately, Demosthenes began his naval assault at the Boeotian town of Siphae too early. Once local oligarchs betrayed his insurrectionary plans to the Boeotian authorities, he was of little value in drawing off opposition from the Athenian troops marching up from the south. Demosthenes sailed away, accomplishing nothing.

Demosthenes’ failure doomed a rag-tag Athenian army of reservists to meet in open battle what may have been the finest infantry force in Greece. Throughout the latter fifth century and the fourth century, it was the Theban farmers who proved “mightier in war” — fighting a series of ferocious battles at Delium, Nemea, Coronea, Haliartus, Tegyra, Leuctra, and Mantinea, where they either crushed their opponents or died trying.

In 424 B.C., Thebes was relatively unscathed. Its previous meager contribution in the war had been parasitic and opportunistic: attacking a neutral Plataea, raiding across the Attic border, and joining in the invasion of Attica when the Peloponnesians first arrived in the thousands. In contrast, in the first seven years of the war an exhausted Athens had lost thousands to the plague, emptied its treasury in the near-constant deployment of more than two hundred ships, and seen its sacred soil violated on five occasions.

Between forty thousand and fifty thousand warriors clashed at Delium. Besides the seven thousand hoplites in each army, thousands more without armor joined the Athenian side, outnumbering even the then thousand or more lightly armed auxiliary troops of the Boeotians. The formal engagement broke out when thousands of demoralized Athenians were caught unawares, trudging back home after their failed invasion under General Hippocrates. Most of their Boeotian pursuers were squabbling among themselves, with no real desire to risk pitched battle with an enemy already in retreat. Then a Boeotian general in his sixties, Pagondas, persuaded his reluctant fellow generals to strike the Athenians.

Pagondas’ pursuing army pulled up out of sight on a knoll across from the Athenians’ right, on the poorly demarcated Athenian-Boeotian border. The hilly terrain probably explains why, until the last minute, the Athenians were unaware that the enemy was so near, much less holding a superior position. Suddenly, without warning, the spirited hoplites of Pagondas charged downhill. They caught the Athenian general, Hippocrates, in midsentence, haranguing his own troops. The lateness of the hour, the rolling terrain, the autumn dust, and the surprise approach of the Boeotians made Delium a different kind of hoplite battle; from the very beginning, nothing was quite what it first seemed.

Pagondas had arranged the phalanx by confederate villages, his Thebans on the honored right wing of the allied Boeotian line. Two large gullies on each side of the battlefield cut off any real chance of an outflanking movement. In fact, the two armies scarcely fit into the plain that was no more than eight hundred yards wide. Ravines on each side of the killing ground may explain why Pagondas could pull some of his men off the line and safely stack them twenty-five shields deep on the right flank, more than three times the normal eight-man depth of a phalanx.

Bravely, Hippocrates and his elite Athenian right chose to charge uphill. They may have thought that the hills and ravines offered some advantages in limiting the use of the enemy’s horsemen. They probably could not see just how deep the Theban right wing had stacked and so had no idea of the peril to come on their left from the greater enemy weight.

The battle appears to have lasted no more than a few minutes — giving some credence to the two-century-old agrarian idea that brief hoplite collisions could settle entire conflicts — nevertheless, the Peloponnesian War would involve twenty more years of fighting.

The allied villagers of Thespiae took the brunt of the Athenian right’s uphill assault, which smashed through Pagondas’ weak confederates. Soon all five hundred Thespians were at the point of obliteration. The allied contingents of another two thousand hoplites on their immediate right had wisely (but less courageously) fled from the charging Athenians.

The collapse of most of the Boeotian left wing doomed the Thespians. They now would be cut off, detached from the main phalanx, encircled, and then butchered. The degree to which they slowed the Athenian juggernaut was the chief legacy of their sacrifice, allowing their own right wing under Pagondas time to finish off its own opponents without worry of being swarmed from the rear.

Not all the Boeotian allies of the left and center escaped. Some, in vain, tried to flee outright. The more resolute fought until their own right scattered the Athenians and came up in support. Nearly all the five hundred dead Boeotian infantrymen of the battle were either the surrounded Thespians or their disoriented and stampeding neighbors.

The victorious Athenians on the right, at the cutting edge of the phalanx, soon began to circle completely around in the wrong direction. In great confusion, they then stumbled head-on into their own troops shuffling up from the rear. There the general Hippocrates, himself the nephew of the dead politician Pericles, along with many others of the Athenian elite, suddenly found themselves spearing upper-crust Athenians. These possibly included the philosopher Socrates, future commander Alcibiades, Plato’s stepfather Pyrlimapes (called Laches in a later eponymous Platonic dialogue), and the demagogue Cleonymus, all of whom were present. [0]Before these crazed hoplites could be pulled apart, dozens must have been impaled by their own brothers, fathers, and friends.

Next, something even more inexplicable happened. The victorious Athenian right wing abruptly disintegrated at the climax of the battle when it wrongly identified a few squadrons of Boeotian horsemen approaching over the hill as a fresh army. To the victorious and exhausted Athenians under Hippocrates, the idea that cavalry would play a decisive role in phalanx battle was apparently unexpected. Even more unanticipated was the notion that such fresh troops on the horizon were still uncommitted and appeared seemingly to come from nowhere. The mercurial Athenians suddenly imagined an entirely new army was upon them, replete with horsemen, and thus despaired. Again, rumor and panic were the prime forces in battle when thousands yelled, charged, and collided without clear sight, with impaired hearing.

Thucydides says the Theban right wing gradually pushed the Athenian left downhill, and cleared the battlefield through the advantage of favorable terrain and superior depth. Their momentum probably was due to numbers rather than the bulging muscles of the famed Theban agrarians — the force of twenty-five shields concentrated against eight, and the fact that the experienced Boeotians were pitted against the less-reliable Athenians. Greater mass (what the Greek historians called baros or plêthos) frequently decided battles. The Athenian left disintegrated. Soon the entire army was in panic — the once victorious and savage right wing now running away from a mythical new army; the left wearied, beaten down, and fragmented by the pressure of the accumulated shields of Pagondas’ mass bearing down from higher ground.

The Athenians fled to nearby Mount Parnes, the fortified sanctuary at Delium proper, the safety of Athenian ships, or for the woods in the Oropus along the border in Attica. Shields, helmets, greaves, and breastplates littered the hills: each man calibrated his survival on how quickly he could toss away his heavy equipment and outrun the victors.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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