425 BCE began almost identically to the six years of the Peloponnesian War that came before it. The Peloponnesians launched an invasion of the Athenian heartland in Attica, as they had diligently done almost annually since the war began. At the same time, the Athenians had their fleets moving about the seas of Greece. In particular, a group of forty ships from Athens was en route to Sicily. On a spur of the moment idea, one crafty Athenian general named Demosthenes decided to detour the ships to Pylos, located on the southwest of the Peloponnesus. While the Peloponnesian forces were away in Attica, the crews from the forty Athenian ships spent six days building a fortress in Pylos, securing an invaluable natural harbor in enemy territory. After the fortification was built, Demosthenes was left five ships, with the crews serving as a garrison, before the rest of the fleet departed.
The Peloponnesian army canceled their invasion of Attica as soon as they heard of Demosthenes’ accomplishment and moved their men and ships to confront the fortification at Pylos. They hoped that they could seize the newly built fort before Athenian reinforcements arrived, but they planned ahead for the worst—a large Peloponnesian fleet plugged the natural harbor at Pylos and the besiegers divided their forces between the mainland and a nearby island, called Sphacteria. Despite having a larger army and navy at Pylos, the Peloponnesians could not break Demosthenes’ defenses. Consequently, the siege was still ongoing when fifty ships carrying Athenian reinforcements arrived.
Noticing that the Spartan ships had not adequately sealed the entrance to the harbor, the Athenian fleet charged the opening and managed to force the Peloponnesians to pull their ships onto the beaches. This defeat caused over 400 Spartan soldiers to be stranded on the island of Sphacteria, cut off from the rest of their army by the Athenian fleet. In reaction to this shift of power, the Spartans called for an armistice in order to negotiate a possible end to the war with Athens. The Athenians agreed to the idea of an armistice, but the terms they wanted to impose were strict—the Spartans were allowed to send ambassadors to Athens and provide rations to their troops stranded on Sphacteria, but in return, they had to hand over all of their ships located near Pylos. Sparta agreed to the terms and handed around 60 ships over to Athens.
Of course, the Spartan ambassadors that traveled to Athens could not convince the Athenians to make peace. After all, the Peloponnesian War would continue for more than two decades. Therefore negotiations ended, the ambassadors left, and the battle for Pylos continued. Unsurprisingly, the Athenians refused to return the 60 surrendered ships to the Peloponnesians. In the end, the Athenians assaulted the island of Sphacteria and killed or captured the soldiers who were stranded there. After the fall of Sphacteria, the Peloponnesian forces withdrew from Pylos, giving the Athenians a significant victory.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of an ancient ship, from John T. Campbell and Edward Keble, 1878-1944, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.