Delium: The Battle Only One Man Wanted–Part V

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 V:  Coalition Warfare

In coalition warfare in which several allied city-states fought alongside one another, who and what determined which phalanx fought where, either on the esteemed right where there was little danger, or the inglorious left, where, in fact, peril was greatest? Usually the honored right slots were given either to the host poleis — the Tegeans and Mantineans respectively in 418 B.C. — or to the strongest and most numerous force, usually from Thebes, Athens, or Sparta. In response, allies usually resented the fact that they had followed the lead of such larger city-states only to end up fighting the strongest adversaries as their supposed betters over on the right wing faced the enemy’s weakest troops.

The later tactical breakthrough of the general Epaminondas at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. was not merely that he put his best on the left to a depth of fifty shields to ensure a slugfest with the Spartan elite right. By doing so, he demonstrated to his allies — as well as Sparta’s — that neither weaker side would have to face their betters and play the roles of sacrificial lambs. The next winter, Epaminondas invaded Laconia with a unified army and encountered Peloponnesian states that appreciated his past magnanimity and were now eager to join him. How odd that the basic idea that a leader should bear the greatest risk in battle by putting his men on the left of the phalanx did not emerge until the twilight of the hoplite age.

Normally, however, because such alliances were often shifting and predicated on internal political upheavals — various factions installing democratic government one day, oligarchy the next—there was constant suspicion within a coalition army. Sometimes as much enmity arose along the battle line as across it.

At Delium, internal strife among its several member city-states wracked the Boeotian confederation. The Theban hegemons especially distrusted their neighbors, the Thespians. It was probably out of enmity that Pagondas and his generals placed the suspect Thespians directly across from the Athenian right wing, perhaps in hopes that they either would fight well or be annihilated in the attempt.

As the battle unfolded, the Thebans got both their wishes. The Thespians were almost obliterated and yet kept back the Athenian elite long enough so that reserves could arrive to stabilize their wing, even as Pagondas shattered the Athenian left. The result of such sacrifice was that there were at least three hundred Thespians killed at Delium, from a contingent that originally numbered perhaps six to seven hundred.

What were the ramifications of the fatalities at Delium? Almost 50 percent of the Thespians at the battle were killed in an hour or so. Such catastrophic losses meant that a third of all the small farmers at Thespiae were now dead. Of the roughly seven thousand hoplites present at the battle, perhaps 60 percent of the dead came from those that made up 10 percent of the Boeotian army.

There were immediate consequences to such one-sided sacrifices. Thucydides reports that a few months after Delium, in the summer of 423, “The Thebans destroyed the walls of the Thespians, on the allegation of pro-Athenian sympathies. They had always wished to do this, but now they found an easy opportunity since the flower of the Thespians had been annihilated in the battle against the Athenians.” Thespiae, it should be noted, had suffered the same fate when its hoplite army had been wiped out at Thermopylae a half-century earlier, and it would again lose nearly its entire small army at Nemea (394 BC) thirty years after Delium.

Although a supposedly anachronistic way of fighting had in a few hours settled an entire theater of war for the duration of the Peloponnesian War, there were only two final traditional hoplite battles — Mantinea six years later and a small skirmish between the Athenians and Syracusans in Sicily — in the final fourteen years of fighting. By 413 B.C. Sparta had begun to develop a serious fleet and to build permanent fortifications in Attica, giving up the old pipe dream that any army would meet its own in battle.

If during the Peloponnesian War cities increasingly were protected behind strong stone walls, and if they weighed carefully the wisdom of committing their entire armies to old-style collisions against either numerically superior or more experienced phalanxes, then they would naturally redirect fighting against the entire urban community itself. Moreover, since the two most feared armies of the age — those of Sparta and Thebes — were allied, what army would be so foolish to challenge either and thereby guarantee its own destruction?

Yet, if there was a dearth of hoplite battles in the Peloponnesian War, there were instead attacks on cities in a manner unprecedented in earlier Greek history. Each side soon ignored the old idea that courage should determine victory, but instead looked to innovation, capital, and sheer manpower to storm the strongholds of their adversaries.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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