Saturday 23 September 2023

Sparta’s First Attic War

It is possible that my loyal reader, having read the title, has concluded that a loft conversion is on the cards for a wargame headquarters. Not so, I have to say. The title comes from a book I have just finished:

Rahe, P. A., Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478 – 446 BC

The book is part of a series on Sparta from the Persian Wars through to, well, I am not sure when it is supposed to end, but it would seem that volume four is on the start of the Peloponnesian War, down to 418 BC.

You might wonder whether the Spartans in fact had a grand strategy over this period. The book sometimes reads as an account of the period from a Spartan point of view. This in itself is a rather splendid achievement, as most of the sources, and most of the historiography, are from the point of view of Athens. For example, one of the main sources for the period, Thucydides, was an Athenian. He might have landed up an exile in Sparta, but he is still more at ease with goings on in Athens.

Still, there is a little more to the grand strategy of Sparta than just an account, against the grain, of the period between the Persian War and a sort of peace that broke out. According to Rahe, there were three main protagonists, Sparta, Athens, and Persia. The book describes what we might call Sparta’s strategic culture, the sort of mental strategic furniture that the Spartan leaders had at the time.

There were three aspects to Sparta’s strategic culture or grand strategy. The first was their own helots, the subjugated peasants of the Peloponnese who kept Spartan citizens in the style to which they had become accustomed. There was always the danger of a helot revolt, and the Spartans had to keep some of their forces available to keep an eye on them and nip any rebellions in the bud, if possible.

The second aspect of strategic thinking was the Persians. The campaigns of Marathon and Plataea had shown that control of the seas was vital to keep Hellas safe from the Persian Empire. The Athenians had set up the Delian League to ensure naval superiority. While Sparta might, in general, have disapproved of this, and also the method used to keep league members in line, they recognised that without the Athenian triremes, Greece was open to invasion by the hordes of troops at the King of King’s command.

The third aspect, which made the balancing act of Spartan strategy tricky, was the need to keep Athens in check. The Athenians, according to this account, were rather overbearing, adventurous, and risk-taking. They would do more or less anything for adventure and expansion, and that included trespassing on what the Spartans considered to be their home turf. Thus, when Argos, in the north-eastern Peloponnese allied with Athens this was a Spartan problem, as Argo was an age-old enemy of Sparta. All sorts of issues, and not a few campaigns, ensued.

There were also, of course, events. One of the key ones was an earthquake which seems to have killed a large number of Spartan citizens and left the Spartans undermanned (465/4 BC). It would seem that over 20000 Spartans were killed, and more than half of adult male Spartiates lost their lives (p. 118). This was combined with a helot revolt, which again seems to have undermined Spartan manpower, either through massacre or the dispatch of fighting forces.

The alliance of Greeks which had seen off the Persian threat at and beyond Plataea broke down on other points. The Spartans offered support to the Thasians whom the Athenians were besieging. The Athenian discovery of this pledge undermined the relationship with Sparta and further prompted a breach between the Greeks.

Examples can, and are, multiplied. The Athenian defeat in Egypt left that city denuded of manpower (as well as the Spartans) and they needed to do two things. Firstly, there was a requirement to ensure that the Persians did not regain control of the Eastern Mediterranean. This was achieved by a naval thrust at Cyprus which led to an Athenian victory at Cypriot Salamis. The King of Kings agreed to a truce.

Secondly, in order to regroup, Athens had to achieve a truce with Sparta. The land war was not going particularly well and Athens could not sustain the pace. On the other hand, the Spartan king and his advisor were thought to have the city by the throat. However, they withdrew. This seems inexplicable except in terms of the Spartan Grand Strategy outlined above: the Spartans needed the Athenian navy, and therefore could not overthrow Athens and the Delian League.

There was some bargaining. The Athenians lost a fair bit of their position on mainland Greece but kept the League and the islands. But the Spartans had survived and their shield against Persian fleets was intact.

As you might expect, there is a lot in this book, and I liked it. There are all sorts of maneuvers and battles that are only mentioned by our sources but which could form the basis for a wargame or two, or a whole campaign (or set of campaigns). The balance between the three powers and their allies is quite delicate. Some of the actions, such as the Athenian expedition to the Nile, were due to activities within the Persian Empire. Other were acts of nature, such as the Spartan earthquake. There is also an awful lot of rivalry between cities: Sparta and Argos, Athens and Aegina, Megara, and so on. As Rahe remarks, most cities were rivals with their neighbour. This gives a lot of scope, it seems to me, for a neat wargame campaign.

As you might have noticed, I like this book. Its precursors, on the Persian War and the Spartan Constitution, are on my hit list, and I think the volume down to 418 BC has just been published. There are almost endless possibilities here plus, unusually, the maps are quite useful.  

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