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Battle of Mantinea

Allen Parfitt Articles
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A Path Across the Rhine: Remagen
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Battles of Sparta: Mantinea
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Battle of Mantinea
Battle of Mantinea
by Allen Parfitt

This article will discuss the events leading up to the Battle of Mantinea in 418 (all dates BC, of course) between the Spartans and their allies and the Argives, Mantineans, a few Athenians, and their allies. It is usually referred to as the first Battle of Mantinea, to distinguish it from a significant battle near the same place in 362. Mantinea was the largest hoplite battle of the Peloponnesian War, and had far-reaching consequences. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the victory made the Spartan triumph fourteen years later possible.

From the mists of prehistory until the battle of Cheronae in 329 the Greek heavy infantryman was king of the battlefields of the eastern Mediterranean. The dictionary will tell you that he was called a hoplite, from his three-foot wooden shield, called a hoplon, but recent sources claim that the word hoplon actually refers to all his military equipment so "hoplite" meant "fully armed". The classical hoplite was indeed fully armed. He wore a metal cuirass to protect his chest, with flaps hanging down to cover his upper groin. Greaves snapped on to his lower legs, and his head was encased in a traditional helmet that covered not only the top of his head, but his face and neck as well. His primary weapon was a nine foot spear. The shaft was straight ash, with a metal point at the business end and a metal butt-spike at the other. He also carried a short sword. His characteristic shield was made of wood, about three feet in diameter, and had leather holds attached to the inside so it could be held at chest level by the left hand and forearm. All this equipment was heavy--probably sixty pounds or more. The hoplite usually had a servant or assistant to help him carry it, and waited until battle was imminent before equipping himself. Taken by himself, the hoplite looked menacing, but a little clumsy. The long spear was not a very flexible weapon, and the Corinthian helmet restricted his vision and hearing. But the hoplite did not fight by himself. He fought in a phalanx with thousands of other hoplites, drawn up eight or more ranks deep. The round shield protected not only the hoplite who carried it, but the right side of the man next to him. The spears of the first four ranks of the phalanx stuck out like the teeth of some gigantic animal and the weight of so many heavily armed men gave the formation power and shock value. Whether advancing at the run, as the Athenians did at Marathon, or moving at the slow but steady pace the Spartans preferred, no "barbarian" army could withstand them. The Persians, with the immense resources of their huge empire, tried several times, but their more lightly armed troops, even the famous "immortals", failed against the powerful Greeks. The Retreat of the Ten Thousand in 401 was a testament to the respect the Persians had for a hoplite phalanx, even a phalanx very far from home.

The Greek battlefield dominance was surprising, because Greece itself was far from united. The Greek world was divided into hundreds of city-states of varying size. Typically a Greek city-state consisted of a walled city and some surrounding countryside. Small states like this couldn't maintain a standing army, so the hoplites that protected it were citizen soldiers. Farmers, playwrights, merchants: as long as a male citizen could afford the equipment, he could stand in the phalanx. When two Greek city-states went to war, one of them would invade the other's territory and start destroying crops. This was the signal for the defending army to march out for battle. A hoplite phalanx did not maneuver well over rough ground, and did not like to advance uphill, so these battles were usually held "by appointment" on a nice flat field. Assuming that one side did not break and run, the two armies met in a terrific collision, followed by a brutal pushing match, until one side gave way and fled. Then the peace could be arranged, presumably with the loser conceding something, and everyone still standing could go back to his normal life.

Then there were the Spartans. Sparta was different. By means of its military prowess, Sparta conquered the largest land area of any city state, covering the southern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. But instead of farming themselves, the Spartans made the previous owners continue to do it as serfs, called helots. Spartan citizens had one occupation: soldier. Sparta's hoplites devoted themselves to war, and were the best trained and best disciplined army in ancient Greece. An intermediate class of "pereoici" (also transliterated as "pereskoi") served as merchants and craftsmen. The Spartan citizen-soldiers referred to themselves with a term often translated as "Similars"--a comparable usage would be the British term "peers". Throughout most of its history, Sparta had no walls, trusting in the dominance of its army.

In the fifth century hoplites began to shed some of their burdensome equipment in the interest of mobility. The Spartans took the lead, substituting a conical helmet that rested on the top of the head for the more confining Corinthian helmet, and dispensing with the greaves and cuirass. All that remained the same was the shield and the spear. This did not make the hoplite less dangerous. On the contrary--he gained some flexibility and maneuverability without sacrificing shock value. Interest also increased in the use of light troops--light spearmen called "peltasts" and missile throwers such as archers and slingers. Cavalry was mainly used for covering the flanks of an army, or harassing a defeated enemy. It would be left to the Macedonians to show how heavy cavalry could work with the phalanx to create an unbeatable military system.

The Peloponnesian War broke out in 433 between the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, and the Athenian Empire. But when the Spartans and their allies showed up in Athenian territory, the Athenians refused to come out and fight. Their great leader Pericles had a different idea. Athens had extended her walls down to the port at Piraeus, and would rely on her naval superiority. The Spartans could burn all the farmhouses and vineyards they wanted to. Athens would defend her walls and project her power through the Aegean and Adriatic seas with her fleet. Fleets cost money. Not only were triremes expensive and, as any boat owner can testify, always in need of maintenance, but traditionally the "thetes" who rowed them were paid. Athens was rich through taxes on the empire and the silver mines of Laurium. Sparta was poor, and had no fleet to speak of. Some of her allies, like Corinth, maintained fleets, but they could not equal the Athenians, either in quantity or quality. However, in 430-428 plague broke out in the crowded streets of Athens, and a quarter of the population died, including Pericles. Neither Athens nor Sparta was able to gain an advantage in this asymmetrical struggle, and in 423, they agreed to peace. The Peace of Nicias, named after the Athenian leader who sponsored it, was supposed to last fifty years. The Athenians wanted to replenish their treasury, recover their wayward colony at Amphipolis on the north shore of the Aegean, and reclaim the fort at Panactum on their border with Thebes. The Thebans were also holding some Athenian prisoners following their victory over the Athenians at Delium. The Spartans wanted to eliminate the outpost of Pylos in their territory, which the Athenians had made into a magnet for disaffected helots, and get back prisoners captured near there several years before.

But Sparta's allies were not so interested in the peace. The Corinthians could not see that they were gaining anything, and the Thebans were also unimpressed. The Amphipolans did not want to be returned to Athens, and the Spartan governor was unwilling or unable to force them. So the Athenians held on to Pylos. The prisoners on both sides were returned, but the Thebans destroyed Panactum rather than give it to the Athenians. And there was Alcibiades. Handsome, wealthy, ambitious, brilliant, sneaky, Alcibiades blazed across the history of these times like a berserk meteor. Thucydides and Plutarch both say that Alcibiades was angry when the Spartans came to Athens to negotiate peace and slighted Alcibiades in favor of Nicias, even though Alcibiades' family had historic ties to Sparta. It is also possible that he saw more scope for his limitless ambition in war than in peace. He went looking for trouble, and found it in Argos.

Argos was an ancient city-state in the northeastern Peloponnesus. The Argives had been eclipsed by the power of Sparta, and the Spartans had once captured land from them. Argos had stayed neutral and increased its strength during the first part of the Peloponnesian War, and now set about creating an anti-Spartan alliance. Their first addition to what Kagan refers to as the "Separate Alliance" was the city-state of Mantinea, north and east of Sparta. The Mantineans had taken the opportunity while Sparta was at war to gain territory from their smaller neighbors and were worried about the Spartan reaction. A third important member of the Separate Alliance was Elis, in the northwest. Together these three city-states formed a broad arc across the northern part of the Peloponnesus. The Spartans were not pleased and sent out their army. There was some maneuvering, especially on the borders of Elis, but no major battle. To make sure that the Spartans understood the purpose of this alliance, the Eleans provided the Spartans with a calculated insult. Olympus, home of the Olympic games, lay in Elean territory. At the games of 420, the Eleans told the Spartans they were not welcome, on the grounds that some of this military activity had taken place during the sacred truce. So concerned were the Eleans that the Spartans might show up at the games with an army that they kept their soldiers mobilized, and they were joined by a thousand men each from Mantinea and Argos. A Spartan named Lichas entered a chariot under Thebes, then came to the arena and crowned the charioteer when it won. The Eleans had him beaten up, further creating tension.

When the Spartans sent representatives to Athens to try to patch up the peace, Alcibiades tricked them into denying that they possessed powers to negotiate. Angry, the Athenians made an alliance with Argos, and the next year Alcibiades marched a small army clear across the Peloponnesus and persuaded the small but strategic city-state of Patria to join the alliance. And if the Spartans thought that the allies didn't mean business, the Argives attacked the city-state of Epidaurus, on the Saronic Gulf between Argos and Athens. Conquest of Epidaurus would make it easy for the Athenians to come to the aid of the allies, and cut Sparta off completely from its friends in Corinth and Thebes. The Spartans sent out their army, but as was their custom, they checked the omens before they crossed the border, and found them unfavorable. They also sent several hundred soldiers by sea to Epidaurus to make sure that the city was not captured.

Everyone knew that a showdown was coming. The Argives tried to prepare by forming an elite corps of a thousand aristocratic young men to stand up to the Spartan hoplites. The Spartans--well, this might be a good time to discuss the rather unusual Spartan system of government. Sparta was a monarchy--with two kings! Its kings sat on the council of elders, the Gerousia, but their main job was to lead the army. The actual administration of Sparta was handled by five ephors. It isn't quite clear how the ephors were chosen--perhaps by lot from among those eligible. One of the kings at this time, Pleistoanax, was seriously identified with those who sought peace with Athens. As the peace come unraveled, he lost prestige, so the Spartan army was placed in the hands of the other king, a young man named Agis. He was the second of the four men by that name to appear in Spartan history, and was not the Agis profiled by Plutarch. In 418 he led the Spartan army north. The Tegeans were still loyal, and Spartan allies from Corinth and Thebes were told to meet with the Spartans at Philea in the northern Peloponnesus. The Argives tried to prevent the Spartans from joining with the Corinthians and the Thebans, but it was notoriously difficult to force a hoplite army to fight when it didn't want to, and Agis succeeded in joining his allies via a night march. When he had done so he was in command of what Thucydides described as the "finest Hellenic army ever yet brought together." Agis had somewhere around 20,000 hoplites, another 5,000 light troops, and 1,000 cavalry. The allies had about 12, 000 hoplites, none of whom were Athenians, who had sent a token force of 1,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry too late for the confrontation.

It appeared that a great battle was about to be fought very close to Argos. Thucydides did not think much of the allies' chances. "The Argives were completely surrounded", he says, "from the plain the Spartans and their allies shut them off from their city, above them were the Corinthians, Phliasians and Pellenians; and on the side of Nemea the Boeotians [Thebans] Sicyonians and Megarians. Meanwhile their army was without cavalry, the Athenians alone among the allies not having yet arrived." He also reports that the Argives and their allies "did not see the danger of their position, but thought they could not have a fairer field, having intercepted the Spartans in their own country and close to the city." But then a very strange thing happened. Two men from the Argive army, Thrasylus and Alciphron, one of them a general and the other a man with historic ties to Sparta, went out and talked to Agis. Thucydides says that they went on their own authority, "not by order of the people", and that they assured Agis that the Argives were willing to submit any problems between them and Sparta to arbitration, make a treaty and live at peace in the future. Agis talked to one unnamed individual, presumably an ephor accompanying his army, granted the Argives a four months truce, told his allies to go home without consulting them, and led his army back to Sparta.

Kagan suggests that these two men told Agis that a oligarchic pro-Spartan coup was soon to occur in Argos, as, indeed, it eventually did, so the battle would be unnecessary. He also thinks that Thrasylus was the Argive commander, although this is conjecture. We might expect that when Thrasylus and Alciphron returned to Argos they would be greeted as heroes, and the Argives and Mantineans would proclaim a day of thanksgiving for their narrow escape. Not so! Thucydides reports that the Argives were furious. They still felt that they should have fought the battle, "and began to stone Thrasylus" He fled to the sanctuary of a temple, and his property was confiscated. About that time the Athenians finally showed up. Alcibiades, there as an ambassador, persuaded the Argives that they should not have made a truce without the consent of all their allies, and that they should resume the war, truce or no truce. They marched on the border city of Orchomenos, where the Spartans had parked some "hostages from Arcadia", and forced it to capitulate and join the Separate Alliance.

When Agis returned to Sparta, the Spartans were equally furious with him. To have assembled such an army and sent it home without teaching those annoying Argives a lesson seemed like a huge mistake. And when they heard about the capture of Orchomenos they were twice as mad. "Departing from all precedent......", an unusual thing for the tradition-bound Spartans, [they] "...almost decided to raze his house and fine him ten thousand drachmas." What a way to treat a king! Agis had to plead with them, promising to do better if they would only give him another chance. Since the Spartans still lacked confidence in Pleistoanax, who had also been previously exiled for bribery, they decided to stick with Agis as their general, but they appointed a committee of ten citizens to oversee his every move. Then the Spartans received word from their friends in Tegea that they had better send an army there immediately if they didn't want Tegea to go over to the Separate Alliance. This would be a catastrophe for Sparta. Tegea was one of their oldest allies, and commanded the approaches to Spartan territory. With that city in hostile hands, the Spartans could go nowhere and do nothing.

Agis and his ten guardians marched out of Sparta to the north with every man possible. They called for help again from their allies at Corinth and Thebes, but having marched halfway across Greece only to be sent home unceremoniously, the Corinthians and Thebans weren't in a hurry to do it again. The Spartans also did something they had been doing throughout the Peloponnesian War, but on a larger scale: training and arming the pereoici and helots to fight as hoplites. Thucydides tells us that this was happening, but does not comment on their effectiveness. We might guess that they were not as effective as fully trained "Similars", but perhaps as good as average citizen hoplites from other cities. The Spartan army went to Tegea, secured it, was joined by Tegean hoplites, and continued on toward Mantinea. On the way Agis got some good news. The Eleans had disagreed with the Argives and Mantineans about strategy after the capture of Orchomenos and gone home in a huff. Dumb, dumb. This meant that Agis would have numerical superiority, and he felt he could send home the oldest and youngest of his soldiers to provide some security for Sparta itself.

When Agis arrived at Mantinea he found the allied army drawn up on rising ground. Thucydides says he did not know how many soldiers were on each side, but that the Spartans had the larger army. Kagan estimates that King Agis had about 9,000 soldiers and the Argives about 8,000, including a thousand Athenians. There were also about 300 Athenian cavalry. In spite of his numerical superiority Agis faced a tough problem. A battle was absolutely necessary, and as soon as possible. The Eleans might come to their senses and return at any time, and the Athenians were also likely to send additional troops. But attacking uphill was very difficult for a hoplite army. When the armies met, there was intense combat, and a huge pushing contest as the hoplites attempted to create a break in the enemy army. Even soldiers as good as the Spartans would have a hard time pushing uphill. But Agis attacked anyway! We'll let Thucydides tell the story: "The Spartans at once advanced against them, and came on within a stone's throw or javelin's cast, when one of the older men, seeing the enemy's position to be a strong one, shouted to Agis that he must be thinking to cure one evil with another; meaning that he wished to make amends for his retreat from Argos, for which he was so much blamed, by the present untimely wish to engage." Who was this guy? Was he one of the ten "minders"? An ephor? Or just a wise old soldier? We don't know, but Agis immediately called off the attack. Now what? It was too late in the year to destroy crops, so Agis and his army began diverting water onto Mantinean lands. Meanwhile the Argives got impatient. Maybe this campaign would also end without a battle. They began complaining to their generals, who remembered what had happened to Thrasylus and moved down onto the plain.

When the Spartans finished playing with the water and returned to their camp the next day, they were astonished to find the Argives and Mantineans drawn up in front of them in battle formation. "A shock like that of the present moment the Spartans never remember to have experienced", says Thucydides. But he also says that their efficient chain of command allowed the Spartans to fall into line quickly and draw themselves up for the approaching battle. Thucydides is quite precise about the respective orders of battle. On the Spartan side the pereoici hoplites and some helots who had served previously near Amphipolis were on the left. The main body of Spartans, including the "Similars", was in the center, and some Arcadians, Tegeans and a few Spartans on the right. On the other side, the Mantineans stood on the right, along with the picked "thousand" of the Argives. The rest of the Argives stood in the center, then some allies, Cleonians and Orneans, and the Athenians on the far left. As the armies approached each other Thucydides makes reference to a well-known phenomenon of hoplite battles: the drift to the right. It's human nature. The last man on the right corner of the army does not want to see an enemy approaching from his unprotected right side, so he edges right. All his comrades follow him, seeking to tuck their unprotected right sides into the cover of the shield of the man next to them. So both armies not only drift right, but turn slightly on their axis, typically engaging their right wing first. For this reason hoplite armies usually put their best troops on the right. Agis became disturbed at the way the Argives were overlapping his left, and ordered the commanders there to extend their line to match the Mantineans. This opened up a gap in the line. The effectiveness of the hoplite phalanx depended on a solid line of shields, eight or more ranks deep. A big hole was worse, much worse than being outflanked on the left. Agis ordered two of his subordinates, Aristocles and Hipponoindas, to take their units and fill the gap. They refused! Why? It was not common for hoplite armies to do much maneuvering once they started to advance. It was usually a case of advance, fight hard, hope for the best. It is also possible that Aristocles and Hipponoindas had completely lost confidence in Agis, who seemed to be mismanaging the battle. In any event the result of all this is that the advancing Mantineans and the "thousand" Argives marched into the gap and routed the Spartan left wing.

Now if you were conducting the Battle of Mantinea as an imaginary board game, you would have a good chance of winning the battle and changing history. You would turn your victorious right wing to the left, take the Spartan center on the flank, and perhaps rout them. But reality was different. We do not know who the Argive and Mantinean generals were, but we know where they were--in the front of their army fighting for their lives. Greek generals led from the front, and frequently got killed there. So the victorious allies made the more natural move to their right to pursue the fleeing remnants of the Spartan left, clear back to the baggage wagons. Meanwhile the Spartan center continued to advance. The older Argive soldiers, and those Cleonians and Orneans were "instantly routed,.....the greater number not even waiting to strike a blow, but giving way the moment they came on, some even being trod under foot, in their fear of being overtaken by their assailants." The Athenians were surrounded, but Agis was still in control, and ordered his army to turn left to help his defeated wing. The Athenians, Argives, Cleonians and Orneans were able to escape, but the victorious Mantineans, outflanked and disorganized, "took to flight", suffering heavy casualties. Thus the Spartans, in spite of being outgeneraled and outmaneuvered, won the battle. Thucydides attributes it to their greater courage, but perhaps it was more due to their greater discipline and organization, which allowed them to make the necessary tactical moves in the heat of battle. He estimates that the Allies lost about a thousand dead, which would be typical, and the Spartans about three hundred, which would also be typical. The Spartans set up a trophy of victory, stripped the dead, and then returned the bodies under truce, according to custom.

No one was better placed to appreciate the victory at Mantinea than the Spartans themselves. Agis came home a hero. There was no more talk of fines or house-burning, and he was able to have Aristocles and Hipponoindas tried, convicted of "cowardice", and exiled. Two months later he led out an army to intimidate the Argives. They agreed to a treaty which forced them to give up Orchomenus, stop attacking Epidaurus, and renounce the alliances with Mantinea and Elis. Argos then had its oligarchic coup, and a Spartan-friendly government took power. The Mantineans also fell in line, agreeing to an alliance with the Spartans, and giving up territory they had previously conquered. Once again the Spartans could go anywhere in Greece outside the walls of Athens.

The Athenians shrugged their shoulders and went on to their next project, which was conquering the island of Melos in 416, killing all the adult men, and selling the women and children into slavery. But they had missed their golden opportunity to win the war. What if they had sent a more powerful contingent to fight at Mantinea? Had more Elean and Athenian troops been available at Mantinea, Kagan says, "the battle almost surely would have had a different result." We'll never know. But the Athenians seemed to have the curse of zigging when they should have been zagging throughout the war, and had they put a quarter the effort into helping their allies who were fighting the Spartans in their own back yard that they did in the disastrous expedition to Syracuse in 415, they might have won the Peloponnesian War instead of losing it.

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Notes on Sources (in order of importance)

Thucydides The Peloponnesian War I used The Landmark Thucydides edited by Robert B Strassler, translated by Richard Crawley. The Free Press 1996 The beginning of historical writing (with apologies to Herodotus), our indispensable source for the period. This edition is filled with useful maps, commentary, appendices, etc.

Kagan, Donald A New History of the Peloponnesian War Cornell University Press 1969-1987. Far more than just commentary on Thucydides, Kagan blends ancient sources, modern scholarship and his own insights to create a lengthy (four volumes, 1600 pages) and readable account of the war. The Battle of Mantinea appears in Volume III "The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition", especially chapters 4-6.

Hanson, Victor Davis The Western Way of War Alfred A Knopf 1989. This excellent book looks deeply into the details of Greek arms and combat in the classical period. Very insightful and easy to read.

Hanson, Victor Davis The Wars of the Ancient Greeks Cassell 1999.  The title speaks for itself. An overview rather than a detailed account of any one battle.

Sekunda, Nick The Spartan Army Osprey 1998 The best part of this book is the illustrations, and the way it relates them to ancient artifacts. The text is spare but informative and accurate.

Sekunda, Nick Greek Hoplite 480-323 BC Osprey 2000 Well written, well illustrated.

Plutarch Lives I used the Dryden edition from the Modern Library. Of particular interest are "Alcibiades" and "Nicias"

Grant, Michael The Classical Greeks Charles Scribner's Sons 1989

Cartledge, Paul The Spartans The Overlook Press 2003

Warry, John Warfare in the Classical World University of Oklahoma Press 1995

The Editors of Time-Life Books What Life Was Like at the Dawn of Democracy Time-Life Books 1997

A couple of useful websites:

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Copyright © 2006 Allen Parfitt.

Written by Allen Parfitt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Allen Parfitt at:

About the author:
Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher.  He has had a life-long interest in military affairs.  He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his wife and four cats.  He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.

Published online: 01/15/2006.
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