This is the second part in our two-part special on the Peloponnesian War. To read the first, see here.
Late in the summer of 418 BC, if Thucydides is to be trusted, a message reached the Spartan capital of Lacedaemon from those known to be ‘serviceable’ to the Spartans at the Arcadian pólıs of Tegea (in the mountainous centre of the Peloponnese). If they did not quickly show up in force, they were told, there would be a revolution and the city would go over to the anti-Lacedaemonian coalition that had formed around their rivals the Argives.
This was a grave matter for the Spartans, who controlled the southern Peloponnese. As we have seen, their way of life rested on Lacedaemon’s subjection of the Messenians occupying the Pamisos valley, across the Taygetus massif from the Eurotas valley in Laconia, where the Spartans themselves resided. These Messenians were a nation in bondage, functioning as sharecroppers, or helots; and apt to revolt at any time. They were also far more numerous than the Spartans, and the chief road linking the two river basins ran through a district in south-central Arcadia not far from Tegea. The Argive coalition – named after the city of Argos, in the eastern Peloponnese – had the support of the Athenians. It included two of Sparta’s erstwhile allies – the Eleans and the citizens of Mantineia, which lay in Arcadia just to the north of Tegea. If the last of these cities joined the coalition, Lacedaemon’s very existence would come into question.
It is not then surprising that, in response to this emergency, a relief force of Spartiates, their Lacedaemonian subject-allies the períoıkoı, and their helots immediately set out from Sparta. Word went out for the Arcadians still in alliance with the Lacedaemonians to join them at Tegea. Messengers were dispatched to Sparta’s more-distant allies – the Corinthians, Boeotians, Phocians, and Locrians – asking that they, too, come as soon as possible; and, though Thucydides does not mention it, couriers were no doubt sent on similar errands elsewhere.
When these Lacedaemonians reached the town of Oresthasion, in the district of Maenalia – where the helots and períoıkoı from Messenia could join them and the road for wheeled transport leading up from the Eurotas valley came to an end – the Spartan commander, Lacedaemon’s Eurypontid king Agis II, sent back the oldest and youngest of the Spartiates (one sixth of the whole) to guard their homes. Perhaps, as one scholar suggests, this was because he had learned that a quarrel had taken place within the Argive coalition, that the Eleans had walked out in a huff, and that his hoplite heavy infantrymen would have fewer combatants to confront. Then, on arrival at Tegea, the Lacedaemonians and their Arcadian allies marched up through the 18-mile-long valley, shaped like an hourglass, that the Mantineians and Tegeans shared. They passed through the stretch, three miles south of the city of Mantineia, where the plain is at its narrowest and a mere two miles separates the Mytikas ridge to the west from the Kapnistra ridge to the east, and marched on a mile or so to the temple of Heracles, where they made their camp and began to plunder the Mantineian countryside.
Manoeuvring for advantage
The Argives, Mantineians, and Athenians, when they became aware of this, did nothing to interfere, for it was August. The fields had been harvested, and there was little damage the Lacedaemonians could do. Instead, coalition forces stationed themselves to the north on a hill (almost certainly, the lower slopes of Mount Alesion) from which they could intervene should Agis attack the city of Mantineia. And there they formed up for battle. They could afford to wait. The allies summoned by the Spartans were not going to arrive any time soon.
Agis was in a more difficult position. Earlier in the summer, he, with a massive force drawn from every city still within the Spartan alliance, had had the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans trapped in the Argolid (the peninsula that takes its name from the city of Argos). Then he blundered. Hoping to lure Argos into the Spartan alliance, he had negotiated a truce that the Argive assembly later repudiated. Now he needed a victory. He had been charged with softness and cowardice (malakía); his office as king was at stake; and Tegea might switch sides at any time. He needed to demonstrate the vigour and energy he had hitherto seemed to lack. In consequence, he immediately led the Lacedaemonians towards the enemy, reportedly coming within a ‘javelin’s cast’ of the army on the hill.
This advance was, however, extremely risky, even foolhardy; and it met with a stern rebuke from one of the senior Spartiates, who – seeing the unassailable position on which they were advancing – yelled out that Agis was ‘intent on curing one ill with another’, intimating that he could not now make amends for his withdrawal from Argos with an ill-timed eagerness for battle. Then, with great haste, Agis suddenly reversed course and led his army back without engaging; and, after withdrawing into the territory of Tegea, he spent the rest of the day diverting on to land farmed by the Mantineians a stream, which had long been a bone of contention between the two Arcadian communities in that flood-prone upland valley. His aim was to force the enemy to come down from the hill and fight it out in the plain.
The Argive commanders found Agis’ manoeuvre puzzling, and, for understandable reasons, at first had no idea how to respond. Like Agis, however, they were under pressure. For the rank and file within their army still thought their commanders at fault for their failure earlier in the summer to attack the Lacedaemonians and their allies in the Argolid. Moreover, in a fashion suggesting an awareness that some of their leaders were Spartan sympathisers, they intimated that treason might be the reason for their commanders’ lack of enterprise. Disturbed by the anger they encountered, the generals led their army into the plain and camped for the night, intent on engaging the enemy on the morrow.
While these two armies were manoeuvring, the Eleans had had time to reconsider their foolhardy earlier refusal to join their allies in the march to Mantineia, and were now on their way – as were an additional thousand Athenian hoplites. Had the Argive commanders been aware that reinforcements in the form of 4,000 hoplites would soon arrive, they would surely have put off seeking a decision on the battlefield – as was in their power. Instead, however, on the next morning, the Argives and their allies formed up for a fight on the presumption that they might soon encounter the enemy, and, we are told, they entirely escaped notice.
The Mantineians must have controlled the high ground in their territory – the Mytikas and Kapnistra ridges – where Agis would undoubtedly have posted scouts had he been able. And either the Argives had drawn up their army behind one of the two ridges where it could not have been seen from the south, or there was in the plain a visual obstruction (such as a grove of trees) unmentioned by Thucydides, Xenophon, and, later, Polybius in their respective descriptions of battles that took place in this valley. What is crystal clear is this: the Spartans, when they marched back from their hydrological labours toward their original camp near the Heracleum, stumbled on the enemy phalanx unawares and were, we are told, ‘astonished and panic-stricken on a scale greater than anyone could remember’.
Thucydides’ report should give us pause. Something is missing that he would no doubt have supplied had he lived to rewrite his draft. Not only does he not explain why Agis and his officers failed to spy the Argive army until they were well nigh upon them. His report concerning the intentions of the Argive commanders is also inadequate. One does not deploy a hoplite army for battle in preparation for a march. One does so only in the expectation that hand-to-hand fighting is about to take place. The details of Thucydides’ description make sense only on three presumptions: first, that the Argive commanders knew precisely where the Lacedaemonians were and where they were going (about which Mantineian scouts posted up on the Mytikas and Kapnistra ridges could easily have kept them informed); second, that they had prepared an ambush; and third, that the Spartans were clueless about the trap they were marching into.
Startled though they were when they stumbled into the Argives’ ambush, the vast majority of Agis’ hoplites were Lacedaemonians and, as such, up to the challenge. Despite the shock, and with virtually no time for preparation, they are said to have redeployed ‘immediately, in haste’ from column to phalanx, and to have ‘come into fine order – with Agis their king taking the lead in everything precisely as the law directed’. This manoeuvre was, from Thucydides’ perspective, a remarkable achievement; and he describes the distinctive Spartan chain of command that facilitated such a rapid transmission of orders – from the king to the polemarchs (warlords), on to the regimental commanders (lochagoí), the ‘leaders of 50 men’, the ‘leaders of the sworn bands’, and, finally, the ‘members of the sworn bands’.
The order of battle
When the two armies lined up, the Sciritae, who lived just to the north of the Eurotas valley, occupied the extreme left in the Spartan line, as they always did. Brigaded with them were the Brasídeıoı, the survivors from among the 700 freed helots who had accompanied the Spartiate Brasidas to Thrace in the late 420s, and the considerably smaller contingent of neodamoˉ´deıs freed from helotage for service in Laconia and Messenia. After them came the Lacedaemonians in regiment (lóchos) after regiment, then the Arcadians of the city of Heraea, the Arcadians from Parrhasia and the southern districts of Maenalia, and, finally, on the army’s extreme right, the Tegeans; and, of course, cavalrymen were posted on both wings.
In the opposing army, the Mantineians – in whose territory the battle would take place – occupied the post of honour on the right (opposite the Sciritae), followed by their Arcadian subject-allies, the thousand picked men from Argos, the rest of the Argives, their Cleonaean and Ornean subject-allies, and finally, on the extreme left, the Athenians with the cavalry they had brought. Such was the order of battle.
In one passage, Thucydides reports that the army commanded by Agis appeared to be the larger of the two forces; in another, he suggests that it really was the larger. He was nonetheless hesitant to hazard the size of either force – in part because of the ‘secretiveness’ of the Lacedaemonian regime. But he also claims to have penetrated the veil of secrecy in the Spartan case; and, by specifying the number of men in the first rank and the number of files behind them, he indicates that their contribution must have come to roughly 3,584 Lacedaemonian hoplites. To this we must add an additional 600 Sciritae, something like 600 Brasídeıoı, and perhaps another 400 neodamoˉ´deıs – as well as the 300 hıppeîs, cavalrymen who functioned as a royal bodyguard.
With regard to the rest, we are left to guess. As they regarded the situation as a grave emergency, the Spartans sent five-sixths of their levy. Ordinarily, however, when dispatching expeditions abroad, the general expectation was that cities would retain one-third of their hoplites for homeland defence and send two-thirds. Based on earlier troop numbers, this suggests that the Tegeans could field an army of about 2,250 heavy infantrymen when defending their own territory, as on this occasion; and that the Arcadians of Herae and the Parrhasians and Maenalians in the south could supply another 2,250 hoplites.
If the Argives and their subject-allies also sent two-thirds of their ordinary levy against the Lacedaemonians, they should have been able to field something like 4,000 hoplites in addition to the elite unit of 1,000 that we know they sent – while the Athenians are known to have provided 1,000, and the Mantineians and their allies, just under 3,000 additional heavy infantrymen. If these estimates are anywhere near correct, the two armies were tolerably well-matched – with Sparta and her Arcadian allies fielding at least 9,700 hoplites; and the Argive alliance, not many fewer than 9,000.
In describing the two armies as they converged, Thucydides drew a sharp distinction between them. Before they marched into battle, the Mantineian leaders are said to have exhorted their troops by arguing that they were fighting for their fatherland, and to decide whether they were destined for enslavement or empire. The Argive commanders urged their hoplites to take revenge on the enemies who had done them many wrongs, and to battle for the ‘ancient hegemony’ that was theirs in the time of Agamemnon. For their part, the Athenians were reminded that glory was at stake, and that victory would safeguard their empire. By contrast, the Lacedaemonians eschewed oratory. Instead, they resorted to their traditional songs of war – exhorting one another in this fashion to remember that the extensive drill and training they had undergone would be more likely to save them than words delivered on the spur of the moment.
After this, while the Argives surged forward eagerly, the Lacedaemonians are said to have advanced at a slow, deliberate, and (one might even say) majestic pace – with the pipers in their midst maintaining a steady rhythm so that the hoplites could march in formation. If, at this time, the Lacedaemonians all had the Greek letter lambda emblazoned on their shields, as was certainly the practice a few years thereafter, they will have seemed all the more fearsome as they bore down on their foe.
Battle is commenced
Thucydides’ account of the battle itself turns initially on a pattern of behaviour inherent in all hoplite warfare. As he explains, the hoplite phalanx is a system of interlocking shields; and, because the aspís (wooden shield) borne by each hoplite covers its bearer’s left but not his right side, and he relies on the aspís of the man to his right for protection in this regard, there is in every phalanx a soldier at the right end of the front rank whose right side is dangerously exposed. As a result of fear, this hapless individual tends to drift to the right, and to draw everyone along with him in a slow but inexorable chain-reaction. This, in turn, tends to cause each phalanx to outflank the other on that wing, and there are times when this forces the commander of the opposing army’s left flank to take compensatory action.
This is precisely what happened at Mantineia, where the Sciritae and liberated helots on the Lacedaemonian left and the Athenians on the Argive left found themselves dangerously outflanked. Agis, stationed in the centre, noted the danger. Judging that the units to his right would be strong enough, even at reduced strength, for the challenge they faced, and fearing that the men on his left flank would be overwhelmed, he ordered the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı to shift to their left, and instructed the polemarchs Hipponoidas and Aristocles to bring in two regiments (lóchoı) from among the units to his right to fill the gap opened up when the Sciritae and Brasídeıoı made their move. No one but the well-drilled Lacedaemonians would have attempted so complex a manoeuvre at this time, but Agis apparently thought it worth the risk.
The two polemarchs took a different view, thinking it unwise, if not impossible, to move large units about at the very moment of the onset, and they refused to budge. Agis responded by ordering the Sciritae back to their original station, but it was too late for them to close the gap. On this occasion, as Thucydides wryly observes, the Lacedaemonians proved deficient in tactical skill and inept, and for this they paid a price. When the hand-to-hand combat began, the Mantineians on the Argive right flank rolled over the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı, while the remaining Mantineian troops, their subject-allies, and the thousand-member elite force of the Argives poured through the gap in the enemy line. They routed the Lacedaemonians to their immediate left, encircling and slaughtering many; then drove the rest back to the wagons that made up their baggage train, where they killed some of the older men stationed there as guards.
Elsewhere, however, as Thucydides emphasises, the Lacedaemonians demonstrated that they were anything but inferior in courage. In the centre, where Agis was posted with the 300 hıppeîs, and to his right, the Spartans fell upon the five lóchoı fielded by the Argives, on the Cleonaeans and the Orneans, and on the Athenians posted with them, and drove them off. When the hand-to-hand combat began, most of the Argive army immediately fled the fight, with some trampled underfoot in panic. On Agis’ right flank, the Tegeans and a handful of Lacedaemonians posted with them curled about the Athenians they had outflanked; and, when the Argives and the Cleonaeans, Orneans, and Athenians posted with them, who were stationed on their army’s left immediately to the right of the main body of the Athenians, cut and ran, those on the flank found themselves caught between two fires. Had it not been for their cavalry, Thucydides reports, his compatriots would have suffered greater losses than any other part of the Argive army.
At this point, Agis ordered his army to wheel about and come to the defence of his own left wing. This enabled the Athenians and the defeated Argives to escape, and caused the Mantineians and members of the elite Argive unit to take to their heels. The former suffered grievously. But, according to Thucydides, the majority of those in the elite Argive unit survived. The disparity does not appear to have been an accident. The 1st-century BC historian Diodorus Siculus, following his 4th-century predecessor Ephorus, reports that Agis had these Argives surrounded, could easily have slaughtered them, and would have done so had he not been restrained by one of the xúmbouloı (councillors), a distinguished Spartiate named Pharax, who instructed him to let them escape. These men would later col-laborate with the Spartans in attempting to impose an oligarchy on their fellow Argives.
The battle’s aftermath
In the battle’s aftermath, Agis sent messages to Tegea and Corinth – announcing the victory and indicating that the Spartans would no longer need help. Later, he led his army back to Lacedaemon to celebrate the traditional festival of the Carneia. But first they collected the enemy dead, laid them out, and set up a trophy as a memorial of their victory. They then conveyed their own dead to Tegea, and buried them there; and returned those of the enemy, as was the custom, under a truce.
Losses among the Argive coalition were heavy. The main body of the Argives and their subject-allies had sacrificed 700 lives (perhaps 17.5 per cent of the hoplites they fielded); the Mantineians, 200; and the Athenians and their Aeginetan colonists, another 200 – including the generals Laches and Nicostratus – which is to say one man in five. Although no one really knew how many Lacedaemonians died, Thucydides reports that it was supposed that they had lost roughly 300 men. Most of these were, we must suspect, Sciritae, Brasídeıoı, and neodamoˉ´deıs.
At Mantineia, the result was by no means a foregone conclusion. Had the Eleans and the Athenian reinforcements arrived in time, the Argives and their allies would have outnumbered the Lacedaemonians and theirs by a ratio of 4:3, and would almost certainly have won. Had the Mantineians and the elite Argive unit acted in the manner in which the Spartans were trained to act – had they exercised self-restraint and remained in formation after routing the Sciritae and the Brasídeıoı, and had they then wheeled to the left and attacked the centre of Agis’ army from behind – the Spartans might well have lost. It is even conceivable that, if the polemarchs Aristocles and Hipponoidas, who were subsequently exiled for malakía, had obeyed Agis’ orders, the Lacedaemonian contingent to his right would have been so weakened that, in the face of the main body of the Argives, it would have collapsed.
But the Spartans did win – in the old-fashioned way, by displaying strategic vision, courage, steadfastness, discipline, restraint, solidarity, and respect for the law that they had been taught. They stood up to the Argives, and cowed them; and when they routed them, they did not break ranks and pursue those they had defeated. They remained in formation, as was their practice; they awaited orders; and they then wheeled about to take on those opponents who had thus far enjoyed success.
By the same token, the Argive alliance lost in the old-fashioned way by displaying strategic incomprehension and the vices of cowardice, half-heartedness, indiscipline, faction, and lawlessness. The Eleans conducted themselves in a childish and self-destructive manner. The Argive generals were tactically astute, but their compatriots were inadequately trained, morally unprepared, and politically divided. The Mantineians possessed courage but lacked tactical focus and restraint.
The largest land battle fought in Greece during the Peloponnesian War re-established Spartan hegemony throughout the Peloponnese. For the Athenians, however, it was a missed opportunity. Their failure came from strategic incomprehension. They badly misjudged the stakes and sent too few men, squandering the best chance in half a century to eliminate the one power in Hellas that posed a serious threat.
Within eight years – with a devastating defeat at the hands of Sparta and its allies during the Sicilian Proxy War (415-413 BC), and the outbreak of the final phase of the Peloponnesian War (413-404 BC) – the Athenians would rue the day they threw away their golden opportunity to win victory at Mantineia. •
Paul Rahe is the author of numerous books, including Sparta’s Second Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 446-418 BC, from which the second half of this special has been adapted with permission from Yale University Press. This autumn Encounter Books will publish its sequel Sparta’s Sicilian Proxy War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 418-413 BC.
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated