Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Scott Rusch, I'm a graduate student in ancient history at Penn, and I've been asked here today to speak to you about the various kinds of dangers a normal Greek city might find itself facing during the Archaic and Classical eras. Since this is a broad topic, I'm going to describe what happened to one particular Greek city during this period, a city that faced more than its fair share of dangers. Almost every method used to capture a city was utilized here at one time or another during the 6th, 5th, and 4th centuries B.C.
The city was called PLATAIA or PLATAIAI by the Greeks; I prefer the customary latinized form of the name, PLATAEA. It was located in the central part of southern Boeotia, near the northwestern border with Attica. Situated on a large sloping plateau projecting northwards from Mount Cithaerum, the city in the period we are discussing lay where the citadel of the late Classsical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods was located, in the northwestern part of the later city. The site is well known, having been excavated by American archaeologists late in the last century and surveyed about the same time by the topographer and historian George Grundy. The northern and western sides of the citadel position lie on the edge of the plateau and remain steep even today, 15 meters high in places; they were probably higher in antiquity. To the east a ravine, now filled by debris of the later city, afforded protection to the site. Only the southern and southeastern sides could be approached from level terrain. Grundy calculated the total circumference of the acropolis wall at 1430 yards, with that on the least assailable northern and western sides being 700 yards long, the section of east wall shielded by the ravine 150 yards, and the open section to the south 580 yards.
Plataea had, then, a small but defensible site, home to a citizen population of under a thousand men during the fifth century B.C. The plateau on which it lay juts into a fertile, well- watered plain, bounded on the north by the line of the river Asopus. When the Plataeans were strong, however, their territory could extend much further, incorporating villages in the southern Boeotian plain as far east as Tanagra. For them to be strong, though, the Thebans had to be weak. Thebes, in the geographic center of Boeotia, lies only nine miles north, and a little east, of the site of Plataea. In antiquity the Thebans were always trying to gain control over the whole of Boeotia, and they always had to gain control of Plataea in the process, needing both its croplands and the site itself, which was situated at the foot of two important passes across Mount Cithaerum, one leading to Megara and the Peloponnese, one to Attica. Plataea was the doorway to Boeotia, so anyone wanting to open or close that doorway needed to control the town.
The Plataeans, therefore, had the twin misfortunes of a strategic location and aggressive, expansive neighbors. In 519 B.C. the Thebans were busy putting together the first of several Boeotian leagues and were pressing the Plataeans to join it. We are told they were quite hard- pressed indeed, so it is likely that more than just pushy diplomats were entering Plataean territory. In fact, the Thebans and their Boeotian allies were probably raiding and ravaging Plataean territory with impunity. Backs to the wall, the Plataeans sought help.
They went first to the Spartans, who dominated the Peloponnese by this time and were the best soldiers in Greece. However, the Spartans refused, pointing out that they lived far off and would be unable to provide timely assistance. They suggested the Athenians, who were neighbors of Plataea and so could come quickly in time of trouble. Now, Boeotians were always said by other Greeks (especially the Athenians) to be a bit "slow," but I rather doubt the Spartan suggestion was a novel idea for the Plataeans. After all, they were on the borders of Attica, and probably knew very well how strong the Athenians were. It is likely, however, they had border disputes of their own with the Athenians, and in any case they must have worried that the Athenians would turn out to be masters instead of allies. But lacking any other acceptable option, the Plataeans came to the Athenians as suppliants and begged for protection.
They got it, probably because the Athenians were worried by the growth of Theban power and wanted to establish a buffer state between Theban territory and their own borders. Thus, when the Thebans sent an army against the Plataeans they found an Athenian one facing it. After a failed arbitration attempt by the Corinthians, the two armies fought. The Athenians won. They subsequently extended Plataea's borders at the expense of Thebes. The Plataeans had every reason, therefore, to rejoice in their alliance with Athens.
The Plataeans returned the favor in 490, going to Athens' aid when the Persians landed at Marathon and fighting on the left wing of the Athenian army during the battle. When King Xerxes invaded Greece ten years later, the Plataeans fought at sea alongside the Athenians, evacuating their own city in the face of the king's army, just as the Athenians had done. As for the Thebans, they fought Xerxes at Thermopylae, but when the king got through the pass they joined the Persians. This set the stage for the famous confrontation in the following year, when Thebes served as the base for the reduced Persian army, and the army of the Greeks, led by the Spartan regent Pausanias, was accordingly in the territory of Plataea. The resulting battle proved a decisive victory for the Greeks. The dispossessed Plataeans regained their lands and city, Pausanias having the Greek allies swear to respect the city's autonomy, to never march against the Plataeans unjustly or for their enslavement, and to come to their aid if they came under attack. The Thebans, on the other hand, were in the Greeks' doghouse, roundly condemned as "medizers" (people who had gone over to the Medes, a Greek name for the Persians), and their city was assaulted by Pausanias' forces until their leading politicians were handed over for execution.
Well, all this must have pleased the Plataeans mightily, and we need not doubt that they were happy to offer sacrifices yearly at the tombs of the Spartans and others killed in the battle and buried on their territory. We know they also sent a force to help the Spartans during the Third Messenian War, the great helot revolt of the 460's and 450's. The Plataeans remained Athens' allies as well, helping the Athenians get and keep control of Boeotia in the 450's and 440's. If Athens had kept control of Boeotia, or if Athens and Sparta had remained on more or less friendly terms, all would have been well for the Plataeans were concerned. Unfortunately for them, there was a successful Boeotian revolt in 447, resulting in the loss of the entire region, except for Plataea. Sparta and Athens had already fallen out, and though peace was arranged between the two powers, Sparta soon gained Boeotia as a major ally.
By the winter of 432/1, a series of crises had brought relations between Athens and Sparta to the breaking point, and war was expected in the spring. The Spartans and their allies had powerful land forces, so powerful that Athens could not hope to face them in direct combat. The Athenians, in turn, were mighty at sea. Had Plataea been a coastal town, Athens could easily have protected it. Being inland, it was open to invasion and siege, and this time the Athenians would be very reluctant to intervene, for although they were still stronger than the Boeotians alone, they were no match for Sparta and its allies in a major confrontation on land.
Given these circumstances, there must have been some very heated debate in Plataea about what to do in the event of war. The majority were in favor of remaining loyal to Athens, but there was a pro-Boeotian faction led by one Naucleides. The members of this faction were among the noblest and wealthiest men of the town; they must have been afraid for their country property in the event of war, and they certainly hoped to gain control of their city. Joining the new Boeotian confederacy, formed after the revolt from Athens, would assure them power, as the confederacy gave full citizenship only to those wealthy enough to possess hoplite arms.
Eventually Naucleides and his followers decided to betray the city to the Thebans. They conducted their intrigue with Eurymachus, a man of influence at Thebes, and it is a typical feature of warfare in antiquity that betrayals and other such secret operations were planned by only a few men, generals and other leaders, not by some military intelligence service. The Theban leaders responded quite positively, since they wanted to get hold of Plataea before the expected war broke out.
Thus it happened that during the early evening hours of a dark, rainy, moonless night in March or April of 431, a body of a little over 300 Thebans, commanded by a pair of Boeotian officials (Boeotarchs) named Pythangelus and Diemporus, were admitted into Plataea by Naucleides and his followers. It was not difficult; the Plataeans had set no watch, since as yet it was still peacetime, and they had been engaging in a festival that day anyway, so even if they had established a guard, it might not have been particularly attentive. Those of you who have managed to acquire a copy of Whitehead know how greatly Aeneas the Tactician worried over betrayal in general, and in particular about the dangers of night and festival times, the security of gates, and the need to maintain a careful watch in time of danger. The betrayal at Plataea certainly underscores all these concerns. However, we can hardly say that it was a typical betrayal; most demanded far more effort from those who were acting in the city, both in establishing and maintaining secret contact with the attacker, and in the performance of the action itself.
Perhaps it was too easy, for when the Theban detachment grounded arms in the agora, the market place and meeting area common to all Greek cities, its leaders refused to follow the advice of Naucleides and his followers to proceed at once to seize and kill their political opponents. The Thebans tried to bring the inhabitants over in a friendly agreement, having a herald proclaim that if anyone wished to become an ally in accordance with the ancestral customs of the Boeotian people (i.e., join the confederacy), he should take his arms and join them. Awaking to this in the middle of the night, the people of Plataea at first took fright and decided to negotiate, for they did not know at the time how many Thebans had entered the town, and there had been no act of violence to spur them on. However, while they were negotiating, the Plataeans saw just how few in number the Thebans were, and recovering their nerve decided to attack and overpower them, since most of the Plataeans did not want to abandon the Athenian alliance, as I have said. So they gathered together, reaching each others' houses by digging through the party-walls in order that they might not be seen going through the streets, and they upended wagons to serve as barricades. After making these and other preparations, they set upon the Thebans just before dawn, when it was still dark, believing that the Thebans would be more timid at that time, and certainly at a disadvantage fighting in a city they did not know and could not easily find their way about in.
The Thebans drew themselves together, however, and fought off two or three attacks, but when the Plataeans launched one more general assault, in a heavy rainstorm, and with the women and slaves of the town now up on the roof tops, screaming and throwing stones and heavy terracotta roof tiles down on their heads, the Thebans became panic striken and turned to flee. Not knowing the city, many got lost and were easily killed by the Plataeans, who had relocked the gates Naucleides and his followers had opened by using the butt-spike of a javelin in place of the usual pin to lock the cross-bars of the gates together. Some did get out, using an axe a woman gave them to cut through the bar of an unguarded gate, while others died in one way or another, but the majority, about 180, were trapped in a building they had entered by mistake, thinking it a way out. These surrendered, agreeing to be dealt with in whatever way the Plataeans wished. Eurymachus, the Theban leader with whom Naucleides had negotiated, was among the captives.
Now, by the time all this happened, the Thebans were on the way to Plataea in full force, perhaps 3000 strong, just in case things were not going well for their attack force. They were slowed down crossing the Asopus, which was running high because of the rain. Learning of the Plataean counterattack, they hurried to the city, only to find their men beaten. They began to think of seizing those Plataeans who were out in the countryside on their farms (it being peacetime, remember) and using them as hostages to secure the release of their captive countrymen. However, the Plataeans forestalled any such act by sending out a herald to berate the Thebans for their act of impiety in attacking a city in time of peace, and to threaten to execute their prisoners if the Plataean countryfolk were molested. If the Theban army withdrew, however, the captives would be set free. The Thebans withdrew, but the Plataeans, after bringing in their people from the countryside, at once killed all the prisoners, perhaps feeling that one act of base treachery deserved another.
It was a stupid act, as well as an ignoble one, for as the Athenians at once realized, Theban hostages would have been valuable. If they had been brought to Athens for safe keeping, the siege might never have happened. In any event, the Athenians sent an army to Plataea to bring in food, take out women, children, and the least capable men, and leave a garrison of 80 of their own men to supplement the Plataeans, 400 in number, who remained behind. There were 110 women as well, whose task was to prepare food for the troops. Plataea had been a city; it was now a fortress.
For two years not much happened, since the Spartans and their allies were concerned with invading and ravaging Attica, and thought this would bring them a quick victory. A Boeotian army did ravage Plataean territory at the time of the first Spartan invasion of Attica, and the Spartans themselves sent repeated embassies to the Plataeans, asking them to help free the Greeks from Athens' tyrannical rule, or at least to become neutral, receiving either side as friends. The negotiations failed, and in the early summer of 429 the Spartans and their allies abandoned their annual invasion of Attica, beginning perhaps to realize its futility, and instead marched with the Boeotians against Plataea. No doubt they wished to please the Thebans and their Boeotian confederates, who were vital allies in the war against Athens, and to gain control of a strategic location. They may also have had an interest in developing their skills in siege warfare.
Be that as it may, the army, which must have had tens of thousands of men in it, was commanded by King Archidamus II of Sparta, who had commanded the first two invasions of Attica, arrived, encamped, and was about to start ravaging the land when the Plataeans sent ambassadors to him, to remind him of Pausanias' oath that the allies of 479 would protect Plataea. They asked him in the name of the gods sworn to at that time to go away and leave them alone. This set off a round of negotiations, with Archidamus saying that he would do it, if the Plataeans kept their implied part of the oaths and joined in liberating those allies of 479 enslaved by the Athenians, or if they just became neutral, as the Spartans had already requested. The Plataeans deliberated, then returned to state that they could not act without Athens' permission, as their wives and children were in that city, adding that even if they agreed now, the Athenians might come later to veto the plan, or the Thebans might take advantage of Plataea's neutrality to make another attempt on the city.
At this point Archidamus made a remarkable offer: let the Plataeans consign their city and country property to Sparta. The Spartans would hold it in trust, paying rent, while the Plataeans themselves migrated wherever they pleased for the length of the war. When it was over, they could return and receive back their city.
Well, hearing this, the Plataeans decided to ask for a truce while they sent envoys to Athens and tried to persuade the Athenians to allow them to accept the offer. They got it, and the envoys went, but the Athenians demanded that the men of Plataea stand by their oaths, and promised to assist them with all their might. Hearing this, the Plataeans decided to remain loyal to their old allies, and to endure seeing their land ravaged and whatever else might occur. Sending no one else out, they responded from the wall that they could not do what the Spartans had proposed. Archidamus promptly called upon the gods and heroes of the country to note that it was the Plataeans who first abandoned the Pausanian oath, and so whatever the Spartans did now against them would not be wrong, for although they had made them many reasonable offers, all had failed. Having thus cleared the way with the gods, then, Archidamus began the siege.
The first thing Archidamus did was have his army ravage the land, in the form of cutting down trees. But he had them use the tree trunks to construct a stockade around Plataea, so that no one could escape the place. Then he had his soldiers begin to raise a mound of earth over against the town, hoping that with so large an army at work this would be the quickest way to take it. The idea was to build an artificial hill just outside the walls, then attack over it, thereby overcoming the defenders' advantage of height.
Now, this is hardly the quickest way to take a town, and we have to wonder why there was no attempt to storm Plataea. Those of you who have read the Iliad may have read Book XII, the so-called Teichomachia, or Wall-Fight, so you have some idea of what I'm talking about, but for those of you who have not, let me explain. A storm is a direct attack made by the infantry against a fortified site. Archidamus must have been planning to perform such an attack once the mound grew high enough, but it was possible even without a mound. We have descriptions of storms in a number of sources, including the Twelfth Book of the Iliad, as I've said, the Phoenician Women of Euripides, and the Fifth Book of Xenophon's Anabasis. The attacking army would deploy its troops as far around the site as it could, in order to stretch the defenders as thinly as possible. It would then approach and engage in an exchange of missile fire with the defenders. Those who had bows or slings would use them, but most either threw javelins or stones, the javelin being the national missile weapon of the Greeks, and stones being available everywhere in Greece. This exchange of fire could continue for hours, and went on throughout a storm. Many assaults probably went no further, the attackers deciding the defenders were too strong to tackle and moving off.
If the attackers pressed on, however, they had to find a way to enter the site. This meant going through the walls or over them. The former required the attacker to smash open a gate with crowbars and axes or some simple battering ram, or burn it open by piling logs against it and setting them and it on fire, or dig through the mudbrick (adobe) walls of the town and go in through the hole, or cause a wall or tower collapse by undermining them and entering the breach. Going over walls without using a mound or a wooden tower (and the Greeks don't seem to have used towers yet) meant using ladders, which were set against the wall at a 45 degree angle to make it harder to knock them off. Obviously all this was pretty dangerous, as it meant operating right under the wall. The defenders could be expected to drop very heavy stones on the attackers' heads and shoot missiles into their unshielded sides. However, it could work, and with tens of thousands of men attacking a mere 480, we have to wonder why it was not tried.
The answer, I think, is twofold. Two years before the siege of Plataea, Archidamus tried to take the Athenian border fort of Oenoe "with machines and in every other way," as our source Thucydides says, so he must have tried to storm it in the ways I've described, and of course he used siege engines there as well. All his attacks failed, for whatever reason. Now he was at Plataea, a less assailable site than Oenoe if the location proposed for the latter is correct, so it would not be surprising if he was reluctant to repeat himself. In addition, the Plataeans may have rendered their city more than usually impervious to such methods by walling shut their gates (480 men are not going to go out against 30,000) and building their walls in the assailable portion too high for ladders to be practical--over 30 feet high, according to later authors.
We've found enough of the lower part of their walls to know it was of stone, not brick, so it would have been difficult to dig through, and all the more so if the wall then was as thick as the later walls (3.3 meters). It is not hard to understand why Archidamus did not immediately attempt to storm the city, but held off doing this or using machines until his mound was high enough.
Now that I've described the storming tactics that weren't used, let me describe the tactics that were. As I said, the soldiers began raising a mound against the city. Accordingly, cutting timber on Cithaerum, they built a structure on either side of the mound, laying the logs crosswise to form a kind of wall, so that the mound would not spread too much. Then they brought to it wood, stones, earth and anything else that, when thrown upon it, would add to its height. They worked continu-ously for seventy days and nights, divided into relays so that some carried while others slept or ate; the Spartan leaders of foreign forces and the officers of each city's contingent kept them at their task.
Setting up chambers or barriers of logs to prevent stones
and earth from spreading was a usual feature of mound-building efforts. Making an attack to set this on fire was a standard defensive countermeasure in other sieges, but the Plataeans,
of course, were too few to dare such an action. The defenders did have bows and javelins, and must have harassed the workersto the best of their ability, so shielding of some sort must
have been set up to protect them. The figure of 70 days seems highly unlikely, since the Romans were able to complete their mounds in 15-30 days, depending on conditions. Furthermore, the largest Spartan and allied armies could only operate for 30 to 40 days before running out of supplies, and in any event most of their manpower had to return home soon to bring in the harvest. We do not know the true figure, or how the one of 70 days came into the text.
The Plataeans, seeing the mound rising, built a wooden wall and placed it atop their own wall where the mound touched it, reinforcing the wooden wall with bricks taken from nearby houses. The timbers held together the bricks, in order that the structure would not become weak upon gaining height, and there were coverings of skins and hides, so that the workers and the timbers could not be hit by fire-bearing arrows and would be protected.
The Plataeans here undertake a standard defensive tactic, increasing the height of their wall at a location where it was threatened by attack. Their need for protection against fire
arrows that Spartans, or at least their allies, had bowmen, and also shows the kind of shelter the attackers could have set up to protect their workmen from Plataean missiles.
The wall was attaining a great height, and the mound was rising opposite it just as fast. The Plataeans then contrived this expedient: digging through their own wall where the mound touched it, they brought in earth from the mound. By removing the earth where it touched their wall, the Plataeans kept open the space between the mound and the wall, which would prevent attacks over the mound. When the besiegers realized what was going on, they threw into the open space clay packed into reed mats, to keep it from scattering and so be carried off in the way the earth was removed.
Thwarted, the besieged gave up this plan, but digging a tunnel out from the city and estimating when they were under the mound, they once more began to draw away the earth from underneath the mound to their side; and for a long time they escaped the notice of those outside, so that in spite of what was heaped on less progress was made, because the mound, as it was sapped from below, kept settling down into the hollow area underneath.
Undermining siege mounds was a standard countermeasure, but drawing in the dirt constantly was not common. The normal action was for the defenders to construct a chamber beneath a mound, then collapsed it when an assault was underway. This was done, for instance, at the Greek Cypriot city of Paphos in 498, to frustrate a Persian assault. Since the Spartans were unable to discern what was happening for some time, and even then took no countermeasures of their own, tends to indicate their relative unfamiliarity with mounds.
The fact that the defenders tunnelled suggests that the attackers could have done so as well, digging under the walls for a long stretch, then collapsing the undermined section all at once, opening a breach. The Greeks knew of the tactic, for the Persians used it, and Aeneas is full of advice about what to do against it (37). Inexperience with the technique may have discouraged the Spartans from trying it.
In any case the Plataeans were still afraid that they, a few men against a multitude, would not be able to hold out, so they devised a further expedient: they stopped working on the large structure atop their wall opposite the mound, and began to build something a later era of siegecraft would call either a lunette or demi-lune, i.e. a "half-moon." It was a common defensive tactic throughout history. Starting at the low part of the wall on either side of the high structure, they began to build on the inside a crescent-shaped wall, so that if the high wall was captured, this lunette could offer resistance. The enemy would thus have to raise a second mound to oppose the new rampart, and once they advanced and came inside the crescent they would have to repeat their labors while being more exposed to attack on both sides.
The Spartans and their allies continued building their mound, but now also brought up siege engines against the city. One engine was moved forward over the mound and shook down a great part of the high wall, terrifying the Plataeans, while others were brought to bear at different parts of the wall. As we said above, we presume Archidamus held his machines back until now because they had failed at Oenoe two years before. They would fail here, too, for the Plataeans threw nooses over the engines and drew them up, and also suspended great beams by long iron chains attached at either end to two poles which rested on the wall and extended over it; then they hauled up the beams at right angles to the device, so that whenever it was going to strike anywhere they could let go of the beam by letting go of the chains, whereupon the beam would fall with a rush and break off the head of the ram.
These machines were clearly battering rams protected from missiles by a movable wooden shed, or tortoise, as the Greeks called it. They must have been much like the device shown in the illustration of an Assyrian siege on page 47 of Hackett, though perhaps not so imposing. We have a fifth century Greek ramhead, excavated at Olympia; it's bronze, shaped like a big square wedge, and has five teeth and a relief of a ram's head on each side. The design seems meant to dig through mudbrick walls. Some of the rams were probably suspended from a single point and designed to strike up at an angle, while others were suspended by two points and could only strike straight ahead and low. The first, which could reach the middle level of the wall just like the Assyrian rams did, would have been the ones whose heads were lassoed by the Plataeans and drawn up so they couldn't strike anymore. We see someone attempting the same thing against an Assyrian ram on a 9th century relief. The ones suspended at two points would have been able to strike harder, though only straight ahead. They would have been the ones damaged by the dropped beams. Note that the beams were still attached to the chains by which they were suspended, so they could be drawn back up into the city and used again.
After this the Spartans and their allies, seeing that the machines were doing no good and that the defensive counterwall was keeping pace with the mound, and concluding that it was not practical to attempt to take the city using the current measures, began to prepare for investing the site. But before doing that they decided to try fire, hoping that a wind would spring up and set the city, which was not large, on fire. In fact, there was no expedient they did not consider in the hope of reducing the site without an expensive siege. Concern with cost shows one of the main problems with blockades: they were costly, tying down large forces for uncertain lengths of time, often several months but sometimes more than two years. As a result, Greeks tended to employ blockade only when a site was known to be too hard to take by assault, or like Plataea had proved itself too tough.
Accordingly the besiegers brought brushwood and threw it down from the mound, first into the space between the wall and the mound. Then, since this area was soon filled by the great multitude of workers, they heaped up brushwood as far into the city as they could reach from the height of the mound, clearly throwing the wood into the open space in front of the lunette and behind the now-shattered brick and wood structure atop the main wall. Since the Plataeans had taken building material from houses in this area well before this, and they would have wanted to empty out the space in front of the lunette wall in any case, we need not doubt the clear space existed. To be sure, the Plataeans must have been trying to remove the wood as fast as they could, but there would have been no gate in the lunette--such a thing was not needed or desirable, given the purpose of the rampart--and there were too many workers outside throwing the stuff in for the Plataeans to catch up.
Finally, the Spartans threw fire together with sulfur and pitch upon the wood and set it afire. A great conflagration resulted, one which nearly destroyed the Plataeans, who could not enter a large part of their city, let alone come close to the flames, because of the heat. Had a breeze begun blowing towards the city as the attackers had hoped, the Plataeans would have been finished. But none did, and they survived. Also a heavy thunder shower occurred and quenched the flames, or so it was said; our source, Thucydides, appears a little skeptical here.
The fire having failed, the Spartans and their allies sent home the larger part of their army, no doubt to attend to the harvest, while the remaining portion set about building an investment wall around the city. Each city's contingent was given a section to build. Ditches were dug inside and outside the wall, from which came the clay for the wall's bricks. It was mid-September when the wall was finished, the siege having begun probably in May. The army then withdrew, leaving guards to defend half of the wall, while the Boeotians garrisoned the other half.
The wall was a bit unusual, for unlike most siege walls it was a double wall, with an inner circuit facing towards the city, and an outer circuit set to guard against an attack from Attica. The two faces were sixteen feet apart. The space in between the walls was divided into rooms assigned to house the garrison, and was therefore roofed over, so that the two walls appeared to be a single thick wall furnished with battlements on both sides. And at every tenth battlement there was a high tower of the same width as the wall, extending to the inner and outer faces of it, so that there was no passage left at the sides of the towers, but the guards had to go through the middle of the towers to pass along the wall. It is odd that the towers did not extend from the wall, to permit men in them to shoot at the unshielded sides of attackers, as was usual; it may have been done this way to simplify construction. At night, when the weather was rainy, the guards left the open battlements and kept watch from the towers, which were not far apart and were roofed overhead. The siege wall must have been long, Grundy thinking it lay 80 to 100 yards from the Plataean circuit. It probably had a couple of thousand defenders.
Although other besieged cities tried to hinder building of siege walls, they had armies with which to do so. The 480 Plataeans could do nothing themselves, of course, and despite their promise of aid the Athenians did nothing. However, as everyone except the garrison and its support staff had been withdrawn, and much food brought in, the Plataeans were able to hold out for a very long time, from the summer of 429 to the winter of 428/7. During that winter, the garrison began to be distressed by the lack of food, and realizing that there was no hope of aid from Athens or any other means of safety in sight, its members planned to leave the city and climb over the siege wall, in the hope of being able to force a passage.
The attempt was suggested to them by Theaenetus son of Tolmides, a soothsayer, and Eupompidas son of Daimachus, who was one of the generals. At first all were to take part, but later half of them lost their nerve, thinking the risk was too great, and only some 220 persisted in making the sortie. They made ladders equal in height to the enemy's wall, getting the measurement they needed by counting the layers of bricks at a point where the enemy's wall on the side facing Plataea had not been covered with the usual coating of clay and whitewash to protect the unbaked mudbricks from the rain. Many counted the layers of bricks at the same time, and although some were certain to make a mistake, the majority were likely to hit on the true count, especially since they counted time and again, and besides were at no great distance, and the section of the wall they wished to see was easily visible. Counting bricks in order to estimate the height of walls appears in fiction (Euripides' Phoenician Women) and in later history (Romans at Syracuse). Given the known thicknesses of bricks and the most likely height of the wall, there could have been 100 layers of bricks, each one of mudbricks laid in mud, not of baked bricks laid in mortar, so the various layers would not have been easy to distinguish.
After the Plataeans had finished their preparations, they waited for a night that was stormy with rain and wind and at the same time moonless, and then went forth. They were led by the men who had proposed the undertaking. First they crossed the ditch located on the inside of the siege wall, then got to the foot of the wall unobserved by the guards, who saw nothing in the all-pervading darkness and who heard nothing because the roar of the wind drowned out the noise of the Plataeans' approach. Moreover, the Plataeans kept a good distance apart as they advanced, in order that their weapons might not rattle against one another and be heard. The escapees were lightly armed and had their right feet unsandalled, to help prevent slipping in the mud, which gets pretty gooey in that region.
Scholars have wondered why, if one bare foot would help prevent slipping in the mud, the Plataeans did not bare both feet? Some have even accused our source, Thucydides, who had little respect for superstition, of providing a rationalistic explanation for something essentially done for luck, since the "one shoe off motif" appears in a number of legends. Frankly, this seems highly unlikely. Thucydides had every opportunity to interview the authors of this action, and must have known very well why they acted as they did. If they had resorted to "monosandalism" for religious reasons alone, he could simply have omitted the item from his report as unimportant. Thus we must believe the reason given was one given to him. I rather think the answer is that, while some of the area the Plataeans would be escaping through would be muddy, other sections of it would have been stony and difficult, which is usual in Greece.
Since the escapees could hardly have stopped to put sandals on or take them off when conditions changed, they compromised by putting one sandal on and leaving the other off.
In any case, the Plataeans came up to the wall at a place between two towers, knowing that the battlements were deserted due to the foul weather. First came the men with ladders, who set them against the wall; next came twelve light-armed men, led by Ammeas son of Coroebus, who mounted the walls, equipped only with dagger and corselet. Half of these went against one tower, half against the other. Following them came other men armed with short spears, their shields borne by a group behind them, so they could climb more easily; the shields were to be handed over when they were close to the enemy. When several of the men had ascended, the guards in the towers became aware of their presence, because one of the attackers in laying hold of the battlements had thrown down a tile, one of those huge terracotta tiles that protected the entire top of a merlon, as the "tooth" part of a battlement is called, from rainwater. It would have been about a meter long and half a meter wide. When one of those fell, you can believe it was heard.
The guards raised an immediate outcry, and the garrison of the siege wall rushed to man the battlements. However, as the night was dark and stormy, they did not immediately know where the danger was, and the Plataeans who had remained in the town now came out and attacked the wall on the opposite side from that over which their friends were escaping, hoping to distract the enemy as much as possible. This diversionary assault was probably just an exchange of missile fire and a lot of shouting, but that was all that was needed. The use of diversions of one kind or another is often found in assaults of this period, as is the use of surprise. In the event, the guards stayed at their posts, excited by the commotion but not willing to risk leaving their posts and uncertain about what was going on in any event.
However, a body of 300 men, who had been appointed to bring aid wherever it was needed, proceeded outside the wall in the direction of the outcry. The 300 are what military men call a reserve, a body kept out of the main line of battle so that it can be sent to any area needing reinforcement. Three hundred is a typical size for a picked body of Greek troops, as in the Three Hundred Spartans who fought with Leonidas at Thermopylae, the Theban Sacred Band that spearheaded the army of the Boeotians in the fourth century, or, for that matter, the "little more than 300" Thebans that entered Plataea on that dark night in 431.
Meanwhile, beacon fires indicating danger from the enemy were lit by the garrison of the siege wall and flashed towards Thebes. But the Plataeans in the town raised many beacon fires from their walls at the same time, having prepared for this action beforehand, in order that their enemy's beacon signals might be rendered unintelligible and the Thebans, mistaking the situation, might defer bringing aid until the escapees had gotten away. This must be one of the first attempts to jam a signal in the history of communications. Based on the number and position of the fires they lit, the besiegers apparently could send a variety of pre-arranged messages to Thebes. The Plataeans had seen that they could do this, but did not know the precise "code" arrangement, so they simply lit a lot of fires and hoped to confuse the Thebans.
While all this was going on, the foremost of the Plataean escapees had mounted the wall, killed the guards, and gotten possession of the two towers. They guarded the passageways running through the towers to prevent attack that way, and placing ladders against the towers got men on the rooftops, who joined with those still on the ground in throwing javelins at enemy troops attacking along the battlements. Meanwhile the main body of the escapees had put up a large number of ladders and thrown down the battlements, which were only half a meter thick. Having cleared the space between the towers, they were climbing over in force and going down to the outer side of the walls. As each man got to the ditch outside the wall, he halted at its edge and fired an arrow, or hurled a javelin, at any enemy soldiers who tried to approach along the wall and interfere with the crossing. And when all the main body was across, those who had been defending the towers made their way down the wall, the last with difficulty, and headed to the ditch, only to find the 300-man reserve force bearing down on them with torches in hand. But those Plataeans who had already crossed the ditch fired missiles into the right, unshielded side of the 300, being far better able to see them because of their torches than the 300 were able to see their attackers in the darkness. Consequently even the last of the Plataeans got safely across the ditch, but only with a great deal of difficulty, as the ditch was filled with water to the height of a man, with mushy ice on top.
Once gathered, the Plataeans advanced in a body along the road toward Thebes, for they thought no one would expect them of taking that road, and moreover they saw the enemy, torches in hand, taking the road towards Cithaerum and Attica in their pursuit. And for six or seven stadia (some 1200-1400 yards) they proceeded on the road to Thebes, then turned east to the region of Hysiae and Erythrae, then south to the mountains and to Attica. They were 212 in number; none had been killed in the escape, but one had been captured at the outer ditch, and others had turned back to the town without trying to climb the wall. These had told the remaining Plataeans that no one had survived the escape attempt, and so on the following day those in the city sent a herald to ask for a truce, so they might take up their dead. Learning the truth, however, they stopped their effort, since asking for a truce was the equivalent of admitting defeat, and they had certainly not been defeated.
Thucydides comments that it was chiefly the furor of the storm that enable the Plataeans to escape at all, but he is doing too little justice to them to say this. After all, the planners had chosen to move on a stormy, moonless night, so the fact of the storm was a part of the plan. The operation was simply elegant, obviously thorough in its planning and all but flawless in its execution. It shows you just what Greek generals and their men could accomplish when the opportunity offered itself, or the need arose.
The following summer, after more than two years of the blockade, Plataea was again assaulted, the Spartans and their allies doubtless hoping to bring the long and expensive siege to an end, and wishing to take advantage of the weakened state of the garrison, now numbering only 225 men and entirely with-out food. The size of the attacking army is unknown, perhaps only a few thousand, and the tactics used are not described. The important thing is that the weakened defenders could not resist those assaulting their wall.
The commander of the attackers, an Spartan left unnamed by Thucydides, realized their weakness but did not attempt to take the site by storm, as he had been ordered to gain control of Plataea by "voluntary" agreement, to prevent the site being returned as a "captured" city in a peace treaty. Accordingly, he sent a herald to them to announce that, if the Plataeans handed over their city to the Spartans and submitted to trial, the guilty would be punished, but no one contrary to justice. Being extremely weak, the garrison agreed and capitulated.
When the Spartan judges, five in number, arrived on the scene, they asked the Plataeans a single question: "Have you rendered any good service to the Spartans and their allies in the present war?" Taken aback by this loaded question, the Plataeans begged leave to speak at length, and did so, doing their best to remind the Spartans of Thebes' misdeeds and the Plataeans' consequent need of Athens, the favors and benefits the Plataeans had bestowed upon the Spartans, helping them in the wars against Persia and the helots and sacrificing at the graves of the Spartan dead of 479, and of course of Pausanias' Oath. Well, the Thebans demanded the right to respond, and in short order did their best to excuse their medism, to accuse the Plataeans of treachery and brutality in murdering the 180 prisoners in 431, and of "atticism" in general, and to remind the Spartans of their own aid in the war against Athens. The Spartan judges heard all this, decided that their many early offers to secure Plataea's safety and neutrality absolved them from having to keep the Pausanian Oath, and ended by simply repeating the same question. The Plataeans could only answer it in the negative, and as each one gave his response he was taken off and executed, 200 Plataeans and 25 Athenians in all. The women were sold as slaves, the city handed over to some exiled Megarians and pro-Theban Plataeans for a year, then torn down, and the Plataean land was confiscated and leased to the Thebans. Such was the fate of Plataea, at least for the moment.
The surviving Plataeans gained Athenian citizenship--the least the Athenians could do, since they had failed to act on their promise to rescue the beleaguered city--and spent years in exile. Nevertheless they retained their corporate identity as Plataeans, met regularly at a place in Athens, and awaited events. Forty years after their city was taken, the Spartans and the Boeotians were now at odds, and after a war Sparta had regained the upper hand in Greece. Among the things she did was to restore the Plataeans to their city. However, another war took place between the Boeotians and the Spartans in the 370's, in which Plataea served as a base for Spartan armies. The Spartans gradually lost control of the situation, and left the Plataeans unprotected.
Though there was no open war between Plataea and Thebes, the Plataeans naturally viewed the Thebans with suspicion, and kept a close watch over their city. They did not go daily to the fields that were at a distance from the city, but knowing that the Thebans (who now had a democracy) were accustomed to conduct their assemblies with every voter present, and at the same time to prolong their discussions, they waited until the assemblies met, then went out even to their furthest lands and worked them at their leisure. However, Neocles, an official of the new confederacy, was aware of the Plataean trick and proclaimed that every Theban should attend the next assembly armed. When the Thebans had gathered, he at once proceeded to lead them, not by the direct way from Thebes across the plain, but along the road to Hysiae due south from Thebes, where not even a scout had been placed by the Plataeans. Approaching the city then from the east, the Thebans arrived at the walls about noon. Most Plataeans were caught in their fields and cut off from the city's gates. The Thebans might next have assaulted the largely- deserted city, or hunted down those Plataeans in the countryside, but instead they came to terms with those caught in the city, allowing them to depart before sundown, the men with one garment each, the women with two. The Plataeans had lost their city once again, and again were forced to reside in Attica.
This was in 373. The Plataeans regained their city in 338, after Philip had won the battle of Chaeronea, and this time they kept it. Alexander's destruction of Thebes in 336 doubtless helped them. However, the Thebans and Plataeans eventually became reconciled, inasmuch as first Macedonian, then Roman rule over Greece reduced them to an equality of powerlessness that made further feuding not merely useless, but even ridiculous.
What can we learn from the story of Plataea, besides the obvious conclusion that it doesn't pay to be a small city on a strategic location between two major, quarrelling powers?
Well, we've seen that such cities had to pick their allies carefully, and could profit heavily when they chose well, but suffer terribly when they chose poorly. This made the choice of allies an important, and often divisive, political problem for the citizens of these places. The divisiveness of such a debate, along with additional sources of friction, the extreme competitiveness of Greek political life, and the existence of powers willing to intervene militarily in a city's internal affairs, could and did lead those who were opposed to their city's current leadership and its policies to betray their town rather than endure their own powerlessness. That is one reason for Aeneas the Tactician's predominant concern with betrayal and surprise.
The other reason is found in the assault efforts which we have seen. The 480 Plataeans and Athenians handily fought off the mound and machines employed by a huge Spartan and allied army. This is not an unusual thing; because Greek armies were typically composed of short-term militia or irregularly-hired mercenaries, they were never very good at performing this kind of intensive engineering effort, and they usually succeeded in them only when some kind of technological or tactical surprise was included. The Macedonians and Romans were very good and very successful in these efforts, but they were able to put armies of 20,000 or more experienced men into the field on a regular basis. On the other hand, the Greeks were excellent at observing opportune weaknesses in their foes and employing surprise and betrayal to take advantage of them. Thus a siege assault by a mighty army failed in 429, but a surprise attack by only a few hundred men succeeded in 428/7, as did another by a few thousand in 373, while a betrayal featuring a mere 300-plus attackers nearly succeeded in 431. Once again we see why Aeneas was so worried by surprise and betrayal. If the walls were in good condition and adequately manned by loyal fighters, there was little to worry about. In later times, catapults, giant battering rams, huge siege towers, and the other items of advanced siege technology, used by experienced armies, made siege assault more potent, and the siege manuals of the day spend much more time on them, than Aeneas does, but betrayal and surprise remained effective and important.
Finally, one other thing we've seen is just how large a role negotiations played in the Greek warfare in this period. Before the Athenians and Boeotians fought in 519 there was an attempt at arbitration. When the Thebans entered Plataea in 431 they sought to win over its citizens without violence. When Archidamus arrived in 429, the Plataeans tried to talk him out of the siege; he nearly talked them out of the city. When the assault in 427 seemed certain to succeed, the first thing the commander did was to stop the attack, hoping to win a "voluntary" surrender, as he had future peace negotiations in mind. Finally, when the Thebans reached the city in 373 and caught most of its people outside the walls, they did not try to storm the city; instead, they used their advantageous position to talk the Plataeans into quitting the place. Force and persuasion were intimately connected in Greek warfare, as indeed they are in all warfare. It is clear that war was very much a continuation of politics by other means in Greece, and that the reverse was also true, namely that politics, in the form of negotiations, often served the pursuit of military goals. It is also clear that people often had an eye on the peace that would inevitably follow a war, as well as on the war itself, and took pains to position themselves accordingly. A rather interesting observation, I think, for a class on war and peace in the ancient world.
For further reading, why not take a look at the original ancient sources? These would be Herodotus, Book VI, chapter 108, for the beginning of Plataea's alliance with Athens, and Pausanias, Book IX, section 1, chapters 4 to 8 for the Theban capture in 373. For the Peloponnesian War actions, however, the man to see is Thucydides, Book II, chapters 2 to 7 for the betrayal attempt, 71-78 for the negotiations, siege assault, and building of the investment wall in 429, Book III, chapters 20 to 24 for the nature of the siege wall and the Great Escape of 428/7, and chapters 52 to 68 for the final assault and the surrender, and the trial that resulted, with speeches for both sides. Thucydides was a contemporary of the events which he described, and almost certainly spoke with survivors from the city (such as Theaenetus, Eupompidas, and Ammeas) as well as with men on the other side, from whom he would have gotten the details of the surrender and trial. A powerful writer and a remarkable thinker, Thucydides is a man whose work well repays close study. He wanted it to be "a possession for all time," something that would inform the minds of readers long after his own era, and he achieved his purpose brilliantly. The discussion here only scratches the surface of his work; see for yourself.
To Dr. Rice's Notes as of 2/29/96