Delium: The Battle Only One Man Wanted–Part II

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 II:  The Aftermath

Delium was the first battle in or on the border of Attica since Marathon (490 B.C.), and it would prove as embarrassing. The retreat seems to have been seared into the popular collective memory, the stuff of both Athenian contemporary history and later Platonic dialogues. “What did you at Delium?” — the answer seems to have haunted men like the runaways Cleonymus, Laches, and Pyrilampes, and emboldened stalwarts such as Alcibiades and Socrates.

At least a few of the terrified Athenian fugitives had retreated to their seashore garrison at Delium, occupying Theban ground, a Boeotian precinct sacred to Apollo. Why would the Athenians not give up and retreat as the “rules” of hoplite battle usually dictated? No doubt the five Peloponnesian invasions of Attica, the eighty thousand Athenians lost to the plague, the near-constant deployment of sixty thousand imperial oarsmen and endemic terrorism across Greece had long ago destroyed any notion that the Peloponnesian War would follow the niceties of agrarian warfare, where one side admitted defeat when its manhood was routed in open and decisive fashion.

The Boeotians decided to hold the decomposing Athenian dead “hostage” until the sanctuary at Delium was clear of its garrison. The Athenian sacrilege of occupying a holy place in Boeotia was now to be answered with the greater crime of holding on to the enemy dead, and then letting them rot. After seventeen days in the open autumn air, most of the corpses were probably a putrid mess.

After almost three weeks, the Boeotians brought in more reinforcements from their allies and formally besieged the trapped Athenian refugees in Delium. They even created an enormous flamethrower of sorts, using a hollowed-out beam through which they blasted a pressurized concoction of sulfur, coal, and pitch to send out a jellied flame into the Athenian breastworks. Quickly the garrison went up in flames, men and all. The terrified troops who survived the flames and the noxious fumes boarded ships, evacuating the sanctuary, leaving behind the cinders of two hundred trapped Athenians.

There is no exact knowledge of how many corpses were finally given back to the Athenians to be burned and their bones collected and buried. The total may well have been over two thousand if both hoplites and the irregulars are included.

The Athenian losses at Delium constituted only a fraction of the fatalities that would follow nine years later, during the debacle on Sicily, and were no more than were lost in any two-week period of the great plague. Yet the strategic consequences were just as calamitous: Boeotia on the northern border of Attica would remain an oligarchic and especially powerful ally of Sparta. Its continued hostility meant that Athens would be stuck with a two-front war for the duration of the conflict. Rumors of the entire debacle — unlike the news from Sicily that took several days to arrive at the Piraeus — spread through the Athenian agora within a few hours, reminding the citizenry that a victorious enemy was but a few hours’ march away.

After the Athenians experienced defeat at Delium, they never again tried to invade Boeotia, despite later having available far more troops than those on hand in 424 B.C. Similarly, after the Spartan alliance won at the great hoplite battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C., there was never again talk of a grand democratic alliance to overthrow its Peloponnesian hegemony until the invasion of Epaminondas a half-century later.

Even by the late date of the Peloponnesian War, there still remained some mystique to the old hoplite code from the earlier era of great battles, making them pivotal in ways that cannot be explained entirely in terms of casualties, tactics, or strategy. After all, for the purposes of killing, hoplite warfare made little sense — fewer than 40 percent of the combatants of the phalanx could even reach the enemy with their spears at any given time, quarter-inch armor kept most thrusts from hitting flesh, and the spear was never an especially lethal weapon.

Nevertheless, it was not just that Athens had lost one thousand of seven thousand hoplites at Delium, a surprising 14 percent fatality rate that was unmatched in classical phalanx battles (10 percent was typical). Rather, the real significance was that they had been beaten so badly in an apparently fair fight. The clash and subsequent mad Athenian flight appeared to offer a clear referendum on the respective courage and skill of both sides.

Winston Churchill recalled of the night battle of Jutland in World War I that the commander of the British fleet, Admiral John Jellicoe, was the only man who through his failure might have lost the war in a single day: battleships, like hoplite armies, were assets rarely used but whose destruction nevertheless left the enemy a deadly freedom of action. Athens may have had fortifications that stopped Spartans from reaching the Acropolis, but knowing that their army could not prevent enemy hoplites from marching up to the walls took a psychological toll on the great city’s population.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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