1755 engraving reasonably depicts the walls of circumvallation built by the
Spartans during their 429–427 bc siege.

The operation had not gone as planned. A strike force of some 300 Thebans had gained entrance to the walled city of Plataea under cover of darkness. The gates lay open, no guards had challenged them, and they soon occupied a strong position in the agora. They held the advantage of complete surprise. But soon they were desperately trying to find their way out again, for the Plataeans had blocked the narrow lanes with wagons and barricaded the gates. Hampered by rain and darkness and lost in a maze of unfamiliar streets, the Thebans came under attack from all sides and were pelted from above with stones and roof tiles. They fled as they could, with pursuers at their heels. Those who reached the outer wall hurled themselves over to break or die on the ground below. Others fought desperately in corners and alleyways. By the time dawn broke, all who remained inside had been slain or taken captive.

Decades before the 431 bc attack on Plataea a once united Greece had divided into hostile camps, and war had broken out. Ironically, Plataea had been the site of a decisive victory of allied Panhellenic forces over invading Persians in 479 bc. But in the half century since much had changed. The cobbled unity occasioned by the Greco-Persian War had eroded as the growing hegemony of Athens, founder and dominant member of the Delian League of city-states, created unease and mistrust among members of the Peloponnesian League, dominated by Sparta. During the resulting 460–45 bc war the rivals circled each other like boxers, engaging in proxy fights through allies as they measured one another’s strength. Signed in 446–45 bc, the Thirty Years’ Peace eased tensions for a time, but the root causes of conflict remained, and the treaty lasted less than half as long as its name had promised.

While Sparta’s citizens’ assembly formally broke the peace in 432 bc, the first assault of the Peloponnesian War didn’t come until the following spring—launched not by Sparta but by Thebes. The Thebans shared a long border with the Athenians, who had defeated and dominated them in the past. With war again brewing, Theban commanders turned their gaze on Plataea, a longtime Athenian ally holding a strategic position that flanked the approaches from Thebes to Athens and the Peloponnesus. Thebes could not resist an opportunity to absorb Plataea into its own Boeotian Confederacy while Athens was distracted by wrangling with the Peloponnesians.

Thebes’ ability to sneak a small advance guard into Plataea reveals much about the nature of the civil war. Greece was not only split between the leagues allied with Sparta or Athens, but also fragmented into oligarchic and democratic regimes within each city-state. The Thebans had no need to storm Plataea’s formidable walls. Confederates within, who had hoped through alliance with Thebes to eliminate their political rivals and gain ascendancy, had left open the city gates.

this article first appeared in Military History magazine

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These Plataean turncoats had urged the slaughter of their democratic opponents in their beds, but the Thebans refused. The coin of surprise can be spent in different ways. The Thebans instead chose to wake the citizens and cow them into voluntary submission. Initially, neither side resorted to violence. But during negotiations the Plataeans discovered just how few Thebans were present in their city and resolved to overpower them. Unobserved, they dug through the interior mud brick walls of their houses to join forces and coordinate. When all was prepared, they attacked while darkness still gave them an advantage. Defeated and demoralized, the Thebans who survived surrendered unconditionally.

The march of the Theban army that was to have cemented the occupation of Plataea had been delayed by the rain-swollen Asopus, thus it had arrived too late, and the gambit had failed. Determined to salvage what they could from the operation, the Thebans resolved to take hostages from the surrounding countryside and exchange them for their captive countrymen. Anticipating such a move, the Plataeans dispatched a herald to the Thebans, reproaching them for the sneak attack and warning that any harm to citizens outside their walls would be repaid in the blood of the captives they held. Though the Thebans withdrew, the Plataeans, their indignation fueled by long-standing antipathy, executed the 180 prisoners anyway.

Meanwhile, Sparta and its allies were mobilizing for an invasion of Attica. Though Plataea was not at the center of the action, the Athenians evacuated its noncombatants and established a small garrison in the city to prepare for further attacks. But Plataea remained an isolated outpost in the larger conflict. Not until 429 bc, the third year of the war, did the Spartans march to the aid of their Theban allies. Frustrated by Athens’ insuperable walls and the Periclean strategy of refusing open field combat, Spartan King Archidamus II eyed its more vulnerable Boeotian ally.

Despite Plataea’s strong walls and the shortcomings of Spartan siege craft, Archidamus had reason for confidence. He commanded an army of 30,000 combatants plus auxiliaries, a force greater than the population almost any city-state in Boeotia. He counted on making an impression of the consequences should negotiations with the Plataeans break down.

But he also had reason for chagrin. In both diplomatic and ethical terms, the entire situation was delicate. The Thebans had attacked Plataea in peacetime, an overt breach of the treaty. Any hostilities against Plataea would also belie Sparta’s oft-proclaimed resolve to defend Greek freedom against Athens’ imperial ambitions. Plataea itself stood as a symbol of Greek unity in defense of freedom. Adding to the awkwardness, Thebes had been on the wrong side in the late war with Persia, having betrayed its countrymen by allying with Xerxes I.

For their contribution toward the Greek victory in 479 bc the Plataeans had been granted the huge sum of 80 talents to build a temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare. In addition, Plataea was to be the annual meeting place of a joint Greek assessment of ships and men for the war against the barbarian, and every four years the city would host the Eleutheria, a festival to celebrate the triumph. Plataea was also given the privilege of offering sacrifices to the gods for the whole of Greece and continuing the rites of sepulture for those slain and buried on its soil. The city and its territory were proclaimed sacred and inviolate. As these measures had been sworn to by Spartan King Pausanius, Archidamus was bound by ancestral oath—a fact of which the Plataeans did not fail to remind him.

But Archidamus conceived a path around these difficulties. First, he required of the Plataeans only neutrality in the war, with reciprocal guarantees of their independence and property. Second, he turned the obligations of the oath back on them. The promises to Plataea had been made in the context of the struggle for Greek freedom. The struggle remained, he argued, but the present threat was Athens. Thebes was on the right side of that struggle. Were the Plataeans to remain allied with Athens, they would be aiding the oppressor.

After consideration, the Plataeans decided they could not agree to the proposal without informing the Athenians. They asked for a temporary truce, which Archidamus granted. When the envoys returned with a pledge of support from Athens, the Plataeans rejected the Spartan proposal. Proclaiming the Plataeans oath breakers, and being thus vindicated before gods and men, Archidamus hemmed in the city with a palisade of fruit trees cut from the surrounding countryside. The Plataeans were isolated and alone. They had been promised shelter beneath the Athenian shield, but their enemies were close and their friends far away.

It was only a matter of time before the trapped garrison of 480 combatants and 100 some workwomen faced starvation. But Archidamus had time pressures as well. For one, his large army would rapidly consume its own provisions, increasing the commitments of foraging and supply. For another, much of his army comprised farmers who would need to return home for the summer harvest. Finally, given Sparta’s existing reputation for incompetence in taking fortified positions, a prolonged siege could weaken its influence over city- states in the Peloponnese.

Rather than build permanent walls of encirclement, the Peloponnesians began raising a siege ramp to overtop the walls of Plataea. For 70 days they carried and stacked timber, stones and earth. But the Plataeans matched them in energy and ingenuity. First, with timber and brick salvaged from their own homes, they raised the wall against which the siege ramp lay. Next, after mining beneath the ramp, they carried earth inside the city, eroding any progress made by the besiegers. When the Spartans brought up timber battering rams, the Plataeans employed iron chains and heavy suspended beams to lift, drop and shatter the rams. As a final stopgap they constructed a semicircular inner defensive wall that would present the attackers with the same labor all over again.

Thus thwarted, the Spartans turned to fire. After piling pitch- and sulfur- soaked brush against the makeshift wooden barrier atop the wall and hurling more brush over the ramparts, the besiegers set it ablaze. A raging conflagration arose, but instead of the winds Archidamus hoped would spread the inferno throughout the city, a heavy rain began to fall, extinguishing the flames. The grinding of the Spartan king’s teeth must have contested with the taunts and jeers that no doubt rang from the battlements.

Months of effort had yielded no results. Archidamus could neither take nor afford to abandon the city. Accepting the reality of an extended siege, he dismissed much of his force. Those who remained began raising permanent and elaborate walls of circumvallation. If the city would not fall to the swift stroke, it could still be strangled to death.

The walls of circumvallation reflected a great commitment on the part of the besiegers. No such project had been attempted in Greek siege craft. Two parallel walls 16 feet apart—one to keep the Plataeans in, the other to keep any Athenian relief force out—were roofed over, guarded by towers and battlements, and flanked by trenches. Interior quarters for the garrison provided shelter from the elements during what could be a long wait. Indeed, 18 months later the besiegers remained in place, but the walls had done their work. Provisions within the city were failing, and Athens, immersed in troubles of its own, had sent no further aid. In the winter of 428 bc, nearly four years after the initial Theban assault, 220 of the remaining defenders resolved to escape.

Counting bricks by way of measurement, the Plataeans built ladders to match the height of the inner enemy wall. Lightly equipped for speed and stealth, and concealed by the inky black of a stormy night with no moon, they reached the wall without being discovered. The first scaling party, armed with daggers, ascended the ladders. No alarm was raised. A second group, armed with spears and shields, followed. Still, all was quiet. Many had gathered atop the wall when one of the Plataeans, grasping for the battlements, knocked loose a roof tile. The clatter roused the garrison, and the alarm was given.

But the Plataeans had planned well for the possibility of discovery. Their senses impaired by the storm and darkness, the Peloponnesians had trouble discerning where the danger lay. To maximize their confusion and divert their attention, the Plataeans who remained within the city launched a sortie against the enemy wall. When the besiegers lit fires in the direction of Thebes to signal for help, the Plataeans also kindled fires atop the city walls, rendering the enemy signals unintelligible. Meanwhile, the scaling parties had seized adjacent towers, slain the defenders and lowered their ladders from the outside of the double wall. Well-aimed arrows kept the besiegers’ heads down while they descended. The archers in the towers were the last to escape. As the Plataeans struggled over the outer ditch filled with icy water, they were met by a unit of 300 torch-bearing Peloponnesians set aside for just such emergencies. The latter made perfect targets for the night-shrouded, bow-wielding Plataeans.

Having slipped the enemy noose, the Plataeans started down the road to Thebes, reasoning correctly that would be the last direction the Peloponnesians would look. After a time they turned into the hills and eventually made their way to Athens. Though all but a handful of them got away, their comrades in the city had no way of knowing. The next morning, however, negotiations for a truce to recover the dead revealed the heartening truth.

By the following summer it was clear the Plataeans could hold out no longer, but the Spartan commander did not wish to take the city by storm. This had less to do with mercy than a calculation of interest. His instructions from Sparta were to win over the Plataeans voluntarily if possible. In the event a future peace treaty with Athens should stipulate those cities taken by force be returned, Plataea could be withheld from the list. In pursuit of these orders, he sent a herald to ask the besieged to surrender to the Spartans and accept them as their judges, on the understanding any punishment would follow the form of law. Starving and weak, the Plataeans were in no position to refuse.

The justice of subsequent events is questionable. Some days later five judges from Sparta arrived and put to the survivors a remarkable question: What had they done to help the Spartans and their allies in the current war? Aside from the practical consideration there is nothing they could have done while trapped within their city for four years, the Plataeans reasonably thought the question failed to take in the nuances of the situation and asked leave to speak.

Tactical Takeaways

Strike while the iron … At the outset of their 431 bc assault the Thebans squandered their advantage of surprise. When alerted citizens learned how few Thebans there were, the latter’s fate was sealed.

Ingenuity buys time. Plataean defenders undercut the Spartans’ siege ramp and lassoed their battering rams, stymieing the assault.

Expect no quarter. Plataeans managed to stall the Spartan siege for several years. When the city fell, they tried to negotiate surrender—little surprise to no avail.

Thucydides’ account provides a poignant, if apocryphal, speech from the Plataeans that evokes the hopes and fears of any people facing such a predicament. A retelling of Plataea’s role in defense of Greek freedom against the Persians and its inviolate status are meant to appeal to the protections of both gratitude and justice. Perhaps aware such appeals would not be wholly convincing amid the passions and calculations of war, the Plataeans connected them to the question of reputation. Here they hit closer to the mark, warning the Spartans that the infamy of Plataea’s ruin would haunt them, undermine relations with allies and hamper their war effort.

Realizing the Spartans were acting in part to please their Theban allies, the Plataeans offered them a rhetorical escape hatch, emphasizing the wickedness of the traitorous and fickle Thebans as the real agents of their destruction. They were to blame. Sparta could earn glory, gratitude and advantage by repudiating their ally’s dishonorable behavior.

The appeals fell on deaf ears, for the Spartans had their own calculations of reputation and advantage. They had poured too much time and effort into taking the city to relent. Bringing the Plataean defenders before them one by one, the judges again asked each whether he had done Sparta or its allies any service in the war. Each said he had not, and they were slain to a man. The workwomen were sold into slavery. The city was given to the Thebans, who ultimately razed it. Such was the long, sad, slow death of Plataea.

Justin D. Lyons is an associate professor of history and government at Ohio’s Cedarville University. For further reading he recommends History of the Peloponnesian War , by Thucydides; A War Like No Other , by Victor Davis Hanson; and The Peloponnesian War , by Donald Kagan.

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