Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Battle of Sphacteria

The Battle of Sphacteria was a battle of the Peloponnesian War in 425 BC, between Athens and Sparta. It was an important part of the longer Battle of Pylos.

Battle of Sphacteria
ConflictPeloponnesian War
Date425 BC
ResultAthenian victory
About 3000 men440 men
Very few148
The Athenian land forces in Pylos had successfully driven back the Spartan attempts to land from the sea, and the fifty Athenian ships were able to drive the sixty Spartan ships out of the harbour at Pylos (see Battle of Pylos). This meant that the island of Sphacteria, where Epitadas had landed with 440 hoplites, was completely blockaded by the Athenian fleet. This was such a shock to the Spartans that representatives from Sparta itself came to negotiate a truce. The Athenians demanded that Sparta hand over its entire navy in exchange for sending food to the stranded hoplites on Sphacteria. The offered to escort ambassadors from Sparta to Athens, after which the Spartan ships and men would be returned. In Sparta the ambassadors made an uncharacteristically lengthy speech calling for a truce:

"Sparta calls upon you to make a treaty and to end the war. She offers you peace, alliance, friendly and neighbourly relations. In return she asks for the men on the island, thinking it better for both sides that the affair should not proceed to the bitter end...Now is the time for us to be reconciled, while the final issue is still undecided, while you have won glory and can have our friendship as well, and we, before any shameful thing has taken place, can, in our present distress, accept a reasonable settlement." (Thucydides 4.18-20)

Many Athenians, the most vocal of whom was Cleon, were opposed to peace now that they had the upper hand, and Cleon also demanded that Sparta give up all the territories they had taken from Athens. The Spartans wanted to appoint an arbitration committee, but Cleon refused, and the ambassadors left. When they returned to Pylos the Athenians claimed the armistice had been broken due to some minor infraction, and they therefore did not have to return the Spartan ships. By this point there were now seventy Athenian ships blockading Sphacteria, and the Spartans had been joined by their Peloponnesian allies, who set up camp outside Pylos.

Although there was still fighting going on in Sicily after Sparta had incited Messina to revolt from Athens, Athens could no longer commit any ships there, as the majority of the Athenian navy was at Pylos. Despite some successes, the Athenians left the Sicilians to fight amongst themselves, although they would return later in the war.

Meanwhile the blockade of Sphacteria continued for much longer than either side had anticipated, and there was very little food or water for the Athenians. The Spartans had enough food for themselves and for the hoplites on Sphacteria, when they could successfully risk running the blockade. Many people in Athens by now felt that they should have accepted the offer of peace. Cleon at first refused to believe the Athenians were so unsuccessful, and then blamed Nicias for the supposed cowardice of the generals. Nicias offered to resign his post as strategos and let Cleon take command of the siege, thinking that Cleon would be just as unsuccessful; nevertheless, Cleon accepted this challenge and sailed to Pylos with a few hundred men, claiming he would take Sphacteria within twenty days.

Demosthenes, the commander at Pylos, had meanwhile been planning to land on the island. He was aided in this endeavour when a Spartan soldier accidentally burned down the forest hiding the Spartan troops, making it easier for Demosthenes to view their movements. Cleon soon arrived, and the two called on the Spartans to surrender, but they refused.

Demosthenes and Cleon then landed about 800 men on the island, taking the Spartans by surprise. The next morning the rest of the Athenians landed as well, consisting of the crews of the ships, as well as more than 1600 other men, competely surrounding the Spartans. The Athenians pushed the Spartans across the island into the small fort located on the beach at one end, which the Spartans were able to defend for most of the day. The Spartan commander Epitadas was killed in the fighting, and Styphon took command. At the end of the day a force of archers found a way around the fort and began attacking the Spartans from behind.

Cleon and Demosthenes called back their forces, wanting to take the remaining Spartans alive. Surprisingly, the Spartans surrendered, something they were not accustomed to doing. Of the 440 Spartan hoplites, 148 had been killed. After seventy-two days of siege and battle at Pylos and Sphacteria, both sides withdrew, and Cleon returned to Athens having fulfilled his promise to capture the island in twenty days.