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In Kithairon's Shadow

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Brasidas—Sparta's Most Extraordinary Commander
Brasidas—Sparta's Most Extraordinary Commander
by Jon Martin

During the opening phase of the Peloponnesian War (431-422 BC), Sparta produced a commander that would shape the tactics, strategy and personal conduct of military leaders to follow. Both Xenophon and Alexander the Great must have studied his campaigns, for his signature is indelibly marked on their exploits. Although Lysander is the best known of the Spartan commanders of the war, being the architect of final victory, no other single Spartan exhibited the flexibility of intellect, persuasiveness of oratory and bravery and skill in combat. So exceptional were his abilities that traditional, ultra-conservative Sparta did as much to suppress his actions as did any Athenian foe. In a more modern context, he may be compared to Rommel, a popular and chivalric general, dispatched by his country to a remote theater of war, with an inadequate force and little expectation of success. Like Rommel, he would astonish enemy and friend with his victories, but unlike Rommel, he would ultimately triumph.

Brasidas' early life is lost to us, but like any Spartiate, or full citizen male, he would have been enrolled in the Agoge at aged seven. Until the age of twelve his training would consist of physical toughening, learning to operate as a member of "herd" or unit, and exhibiting unquestioning obedience to his commander. In the next stage of his schooling military drilling would be introduced along with more emphasis on singing and dance—two skills thought to be invaluable for developing the constitution necessary for war. During his teens he would have run the gauntlet of whips at the temple of Artemis Orthia, competed on the ball field of the Plantanista, been introduced to novice participation in the Spartan dining messes, and finally cast out of the city for almost a year to live off the land in secret during the survival test known as the Fox Time. By eighteen he would be in charge of a company of youth in the Agoge, and possibly be recruited for the Krypteia, or Spartan secret police. At twenty he would petition for inclusion in a dining mess and finally be counted as a hoplite, or heavy infantry-man in the Spartan phalanx.

Thucydides is our main source for Brasidas, and we first hear of him during the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC). The Spartan army and its allies, under King Archidamos, invade Attica with the intention of drawing the Athenian army into a pitched infantry battle, the long-standing method of deciding conflict in ancient Greece. Battles were concluded in a day, victor and vanquished quickly established, with the citizens of both sides returning to their homes, and farms with little delay. But unlike the past, Athens, under Pericles, knew full well what the outcome of such a battle would be, and failed to venture out from behind her walls. Meanwhile Brasidas, inexplicably, had been sent to the southwestern Peloponnese as commander of a local guard unit. An appointment, which no doubt was expected to be uneventful, delivered Sparta's first land victory over Athenian troops. An Athenian naval contingent had been sent to Methone to attack and capture this sea-side town. Brasidas, in the vicinity with his guard unit, raced to the town, and with audacity and courage punched through the Athenian lines, inflicting casualties, before finally reaching the walled town itself. Thucydides lauds the Spartan on this action, but it is only later, in Xenophon's Hellenica, that we learn that Brasidas is elected to the post of ephor ( magistrate) the following year, most certainly a reward for this outstanding action.

Subsequent years pass by with Brasidas unexplainably acting as advisor to other, decidedly inferior Spartan commanders. He rallies demoralized trireme crews after defeats they have suffered under these commanders. Later he formulates novel battle plans, such as a daring raid on the Piraios Harbor by dragging warships across the Isthmus of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf in secret—but with Brasidas relegated as a spectator, and the fate of the allied fleet in the hands of others, many opportunities are lost. It is during the battle for Spacteria that Brasidas, as commander of a trireme, attempts an amphibious assault of the Pylos, fortress but it severely wounded, collapses and loses his shield. There is some speculation that the shield now hanging in the Agora Museum in Athens may in fact have belonged to Brasidas. On its surface is engraved, "Taken from the Lakedaimonians at Pylos". It is only after this humiliating defeat, and the loss of several hundred Spartiates, that the powers in Sparta finally unleash their ablest commander.

Brasidas lobbies for an expedition to Thrace, a region vital to Athens. From here timber for the construction of Athenian warships is harvested. Here also, the European flank of the Bosporus can be protected, insuring the passage of Black Sea grain necessary to sustain Athens during the years-long siege. Again, either sort-sightedness, jealousy, or paranoia afflict Spartan leadership—Brasidas is sent on his expedition, not with Spartans, or any other trusty Laconians but a few companies of Helot slaves and the money to recruit mercenaries along his way. In quick time he has the makings of an army, repels an attack on Megara by an Athenian invasion force, then quickly—much too quickly for his enemies—marches through central and northern Greece to the Chalcidice, exhibiting Alexander-like characteristics in avoiding unnecessary clashes en-route. Again, as Alexander would almost a century later and by the sheer force of his personality, he gained the allegiance of towns once loyal to Athens, kept an army of slaves and mercenaries absolutely loyal, and wrested control of a strategically vital region from his enemy, with hardly a drop of blood shed. But unlike Alexander, he was a citizen of his country and not its absolute ruler, and therefore was compelled to follow his government's orders and the demands of allies.

One such ally, Perdiccas of Macedonia, was a sponsor of Brasidas' expedition, providing money, provender and passage, in exchange for what Sparta believed to be a request for aid against the common enemy, Athens. Peridiccas, in the typical tradition of Royal Macedonians, played all sides. He needed Sparta, but only as an ally against his neighbor Lyncestis. Brasidas delayed as long as he could but finally crossed the frontier with the Macedonians on their intended invasion. The Lyncestians gathered in numbers far greater than Perdiccas had expected, and the canny Macedonian decided it was better to abandon an ally and live, than to embrace honor and die. Brasidas awoke one morning to find his relatively small force surrounded, deep in hostile territory and vastly out-numbered by indigenous troops. With a speech both rousing and coolly rational, he exorcised the panic that had inflicted his men, clearly defined their responsibilities and encouraged nothing but a vision of unquestionable success in the events of the coming day. For the first time in history an army retreated using a hollow square to protect its unarmored warriors and attendants. Small mobile units—shock troops—were created and employed to repel the enemy and race ahead to secure the high ground near defiles. This tale of a bold, courageous withdrawal from the heart of enemy territory would be repeated over twenty years later by the Ten Thousand of Xenophon.—but the instruction manual for that great adventure was written by a Spartan, in the wilds of the Balkans in 423BC.

Brasidas' exploits in Lyncestis luckily occurred during a year-long armistice with Athens. Not long after his retreat, the armistice expired and Brasidas retired to the fortified town of Amphipolis, a town he had captured earlier through the force of words and not weapons. Once an Athenian stronghold that controlled the bridges over the River Strymon, it was now in the hands of Sparta's most audacious general. Forced by the disaster at the Battle of Delium, the Athenians, under Cleon, could delay no longer. The strategic resources of Thrace must be secured if Athens was to triumph, and the key to Thrace was Amphipolis.
Brasidas' forces were depleted after the Lyncestian campaign—money was needed to pay and retain his mercenaries and to replace lost weapons. Ever resourceful, he did manage to collect enough money, silver, and gold to re-equip a large number of his troops. Now he prepared.

Cleon landed at the seaport fortress of Eion, but a few miles down river from Amphipolis. Thucydides describes his approach to the town as almost casual, as though he expected Amphipolis to fall at the mere sight of his invasion force. Amphipolis, as its name suggests, was bounded on three sides by the Strymon sitting upon a hill. Rising up south of the town was the hill of Kerdyllium; east of Amphipolis and facing its walls stood another unnamed hill. Brasidas knew his adversary would claim at least one of these, occupying high ground. He clearly knew the advantages of each and would offer only one to the Athenians. Brasidas chose Kerdyllium, establishing a conspicuous and chaotic camp on its summit and slopes. Cleon marched his forces onto the eastern hill, expecting the Spartan to either surrender or fight—he did neither. Brasidas evacuated Kerdyllium, retiring into Amphipolis, leaving the Athenians to exhaust their supplies and patience. Through negligence or incompetence Cleon had been maneuvered easily into a tenuous position. Marching to the eastern hill he had presented his well defended shield side of his infantry to the enemy, but now, if he wished to retire to Eion, he would do so with shields facing away from any attackers. This must not have seemed an unmanageable problem, if he could form up into normal phalanx rank and file when Brasidas launched a detected attack. But it seemed that the Athenians, through lack of discipline, unbridled haste and poor battlefield leadership, descended the eastern hill onto the road to Eion, not in phalanx order, but in three separate contingents spread out in marching order.

Two gates, one at each end of Amphipolis, faced the road. From the southern gate Brasidas rushed out leading his men, with a band of picked troops and slammed into the Athenian column, sending it reeling under the swift and violent assault. The only hope for this, the center section of the Athenian force, was a quick and coordinated link up by the third contingent just now coming down off the hill. But before this, or any initiative could be taken by Cleon, a second assault force from Amphipolis was launched from the northern gate. Seeing this, the first, or lead Athenian contingent fled toward Eion. The remainder, caught in the open, with their shields turned away from a surging wave of attackers, buckled then disintegrated.

In the shadow of the walls of Amphipolis lay over 600 Athenian dead, Cleon foremost amongst them. His death, described by Thucydides, was hardly an honorable one—but we can excuse our chronicler a bit of bias in the account, for it was Cleon who led the cry for Thucydides' exile before the expedition took place. Only six of the Spartan led troops perished during the battle, Brasidas included amongst them. This victory compelled Athens to negotiate a peace settlement. Ironically it was Brasidas' own father Tellis who was a signatory to the treaty. This peace would prove to be short-lived, due to the emergence on the Athenian political scene of a young upstart named Alcibiades.


- The Landmark Thucydides edited by R. Strassler -Touchstone -1998
- Warfare in Antiquity by Hans Delbruck -Univ. of Nebraska Press -1990
- Alexander by Theodore Aryault Dodge -Da Capo Press 1996
- Sparta by H. Mitchell - Cambridge Univ. Press 1964
- Ancient Sparta by K. M. T. Chrimes - Greenwood Press 1949
- Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War by G. Cawkwell - Routledge 1997
- The Spartans by Paul Cartledge -The Overlook Press 2003
- The Genaralship of Alexander the Great by J.F.C. Fuller - Da Capo Press 1960
- A History of Macedonia by R. M. Errington - Univ. of California Press 1990
- A History of My Times by Xenophon - Penguin Books 1979
- Studies in Ancient Greek Topography Part III by W. K. Pritchett - Univ of California Press 1980
- The Archidamiam War by Donald Kagan - Cornell Univ. Press 1990
Copyright © 2005 Jon Martin

Written by Jon Martin. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Jon Martin at: or visit
Published online: 02/13/2005.
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