A Spartan General Claimed He Was Aided In Taking An Athenian Fortress By Athens’ Patron Goddess, Athena

 

Around 424 and 423 BCE, a skilled Spartan general named Brasidas was causing all sorts of problems for Athens. He had taken an army out of the Peloponnesus and passed relatively unnoticed through Thessaly to link up with King Perdiccas of Macedonia near Mt Olympus. From there, Brasidas set out on an impressive campaign in the regions of Chalcidice and Thrace, where he strove to cause as many rebellions among Athens’ northern allies as he could manage to ignite. Using diplomacy and military pressure, the Spartan general was able to get results. The historian Thucydides, who happened to be one of the Athenian generals pitted against Brasidas, wrote that the silver-tongued Spartan was able to convince several important cities to defect to the Peloponnesian side with the use of only his words and his reputation for leniency. Yet, if Athenian allies were stubborn, he was not afraid to meet them on the battlefield.

One of the last actions that Brasidas took before Athens and Sparta agreed to an armistice in 423 was an attack on a pro-Athenian fortress at Lecythus, a region mainly known for its temple of Athena. The defenders of Lecythus were refugees from Torone, a nearby city in Chalcidice that Brasidas had taken by force. The Spartan commander gave the soldiers at Lecythus two days of peace and during that time he sent them messages, warning that if they did not abandon their fortifications, an assault would be imminent. When the troops of Lecythus remained where they were, Brasidas settled in for a siege.

The defenses that Brasidas faced at Lecythus were not pretty. After Athenian loyalists fled from Torone, they had sought shelter in Lecythus and pulled together whatever defensive structures they could muster in that short amount of time. It must have been a chaotic sight, with makeshift walls and turrets built around and on top of existing structures. Thucydides wrote that the soldiers in Lecythus even constructed a wooden tower on top of a house. Despite the speedy and unorthodox design of the defenses, the odd fortress held up against Brasidas’ attacks. After a day of fruitless attempts to scale the wall, the Spartan general decided that he needed a siege engine to bring down the impromptu fortifications. Nevertheless, Brasidas still announced to his troops that he was willing to pay thirty minae in silver to the one who could breach the enemy’s walls first.

Perhaps, not only human ears listened to Brasidas’ promise. On the next day of the assault, something went terribly wrong for the defenders in Lecythus. The house that they had used as a foundation for their tower proved to be too weak for such a heavy structure. The house collapsed, causing the tower to come crashing down on top of whatever other defensive emplacements were in its path. The spectacle was a great surprise to both sides involved in the struggle, but it definitely affected the defenders in a much more palpable way. Soldiers defending the far side of Lecythus thought that the commotion by the tower had been caused by whatever siege engine the Peloponnesians were constructing. Believing Lecythus to be lost, the defenders began retreating toward their ships.

When Brasidas saw that the defenders were fleeing, he renewed his attack, possibly making use of a gap in the defensive structures caused by the tower’s collapse. Once inside Lecythus, Brasidas slaughtered any defender who had been too slow to seek shelter on the ships.

Remembering the promise that he had made earlier, about paying thirty silver minae to whoever could first breach the walls, Brasidas concluded that it was not a man who had caused Lecythus to be captured, but a goddess. Therefore, Brasidas apparently donated the thirty silver minae to the temple of Athena in Lecythus and, when the fortifications were cleared away, he had all of the land there declared a sacred site of Athena.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Frederick the Great as Perseus, painted by Bernhard Rode (1725–1797), [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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