The Impressive Defense Of Acarnania Against A Spartan-Led Coalition During The Peloponnesian War

 

Sometime between 429-428 BCE, the Peloponnesian League combined its forces to invade the region of Acarnania. Their target was wedged between Aetolia to the east and Epirus to the north, all of which was geographically north of the Peloponnesus. Acarnania was an ally of the Peloponnesian foe, Athens, and by conquering the coastal region, the Peloponnesians believed they could halt the dangerous Athenian naval raids that constantly threatened their shorelines.

Sparta, the leading state of the Peloponnesian League, was said by Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) to have contributed 1,000 of their feared hoplite infantry to the expedition. Numerous Spartan allies also contributed ships and soldiers to the coalition force. Thucydides mentioned that Corinth, Sicyon, Leucas, Anactorium and Ambracia contributed resources to the cause. They apparently joined forces with a large contingent from Epirus and Macedonia. Most notable of these were the Chaonians and Orestians, who brought 1,000 men each. Other members of this Epirote-Macedonian coalition were the Thesprotians, Molossians, Atintanians and Paravaeans. King Perdiccas of Macedonia, too, was supposedly going to join the expedition with 1,000 of his own troops, but he arrived too late to contribute to the campaign. Sparta placed a man named Cnemus in charge of this large military force.

The coalition entered Acarnania without much resistance and set out for the city of Stratus, the leading settlement in the region. The Acarnanians sent messengers to the nearby Athenian commander, Phormio, who was leading allied troops in the city of Naupactus. Unfortunately, Phormio responded that he could not leave Naupactus undefended while a Peloponnesian fleet was so near. Therefore, the Acarnanians would have to fight off their invaders alone.

In Acarnania, the Peloponnesians and their allies split into three divisions. The center division, which was the farthest forward, consisted of the troops from Epirus and Macedonia. To the left of center marched the allies of the Peloponnesians, men from Leucas and Anactorium. And on the right, Cnemus led the Spartan troops and other soldiers recruited directly from the Peloponnesus.

As can happen with divided forces, the three separate groups began to see themselves as rival parties in a competition to seize the city of Stratus—the center division full of men from Epirus and Macedonia was said to have been particularly enthralled by this idea. With little regard for discipline or coordination with the other wings of the invasion force, the center division charged toward the city, leaving behind the rest of the allied army. They planned to seize the city, and the glory, all by themselves. Unfortunately, Acarnanian scouts realized what was happening and the city of Stratus sent out troops to set up hidden ambush spots outside of their walls.

When the rogue division reached Stratus, the Acarnanians launched their attack. Thucydides wrote that the garrison inside the city poured out to meet the invaders while the ambushers simultaneously attacked the division from behind. The soldiers from Epirus and Macedonia were not suspecting such resistance from Stratus and fled in fear. Meanwhile, the other two divisions had no clue of what had happened. The rest of the army was only enlightened to the fate of the center division when scattered bands of soldiers sought refuge in the left and right wings of the invasion force. In light of the new circumstances, the invaders decided to combine their divisions back into one camp. Yet, the Acarnanians now had the momentum. The city of Stratus set up more ambushes and sent out slingers to launch a persistent stream of projectiles into the Peloponnesian camp.

The Acarnanian guerilla warfare was so effective that the Peloponnesians found that they could not move except when they were fully armored and alert. Even more alarming, they heard that Acarnanian reinforcements were heading to relieve the city of Stratus. Eventually, the invaders simply lost the will to continue their campaign. Cnemus carefully retreated his forces back to the river Anapus and escaped with his army through the friendly territory of the Oeniadae people. Then, the tired coalition disbanded and returned to their respective homelands.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Drawing of a Balearic slinger by Johnny Shumate (jjjshumate@earthlink.net), in front of a 1903 map of ancient Greece, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book II) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

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