The Battle For Delium In 424 BCE—Hillside Charges And Giant Flamethrowers


The Background

424 BCE was a momentous year in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Up until that point, the two warring factions, led by Athens and Sparta, had been trading blows for years, and Athens seemed to be gaining a strong advantage. Yet, in 424 BCE, the Spartan side was able to regain a great deal of momentum and morale. The Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400), attributed this shift of power to two men—the Spartan general, Brasidas, and Pagondas of Thebes, the commander-in-chief of the Boeotian League’s armed forces.

Brasidas, for his part, stealthily moved a Peloponnesian army up through Thessaly and was helped by King Perdiccas of Macedonia to incite numerous rebellions or defections among Athenian allies in the regions of Chalcidice and Thrace. Many of the cities he brought over to the Peloponnesian side through diplomacy and a policy of leniency toward those who surrendered. Yet, if a city persisted in its loyalty to Athens, Brasidas had no problem with using his army to take the place by force.

Brasidas was not the only one who had big plans during that year. Two Athenian generals formulated an extensive strategy to topple Sparta’s Boeotian allies and they wanted to put their plan in motion in 424 BCE, as well. These two Athenian generals were Hippocrates and Demosthenes. The former planned to move troops into the region of Tanagra in order to fortify the area of Delium, where a temple of Apollo was located. The latter, Demosthenes, planned to launch a simultaneous attack against Siphae, a coastal city located along what Thucydides called the Gulf of Crisa, in the territory of Thespiae. In addition to this, the two Athenians had a network of Boeotian dissidents who promised that they could incite unrest and rebellions throughout Boeotia. If all went according to plan, widespread rebellions would occur at the same time when Hippocrates and Demosthenes launched their attacks.

Yet, as endless proverbs and sayings warn, even the most thought-out plans can collapse. Thucydides wrote that a man named Nicomachus brought the Athenian plan to the attention of Sparta. With admirable subtlety, the Spartans were able to send warnings to their allies in Boeotia, all without raising the suspicions of Athens or the Boeotian conspirators working with the Athenian generals. As such, the Boeotian League was able to crack down on the traitors in their midst and prepare defenses, while also keeping Hippocrates and Demosthenes none the wiser that their plan had been compromised.

When the appointed day came, Demosthenes sailed against Siphae, but found the city well-defended and not at all in a state of unrest. Not giving up, he rerouted his troops back across the sea and tried to take Sicyon, but he was thwarted on the beaches by an armed force of attentive locals. While these defeats were embarrassing for Demosthenes—one of Athens’ better strategists—his time in Boeotia went much better than that of Hippocrates.

A little after Demosthenes failed to take Siphae and Sicyon, Hippocrates began his march into the region of Tanagra. He halted his troops near the temple of Apollo at Delium, located on the coast, facing the region of Euboea. For five long days, the Athenian troops dug trenches around the temple, supplying soil for a ring of earthen ramparts. On the ramparts the soldiers also piled up all sorts of imposing materials, such as stones, brick, lumber and wooden stakes. To complete the fortress, Hippocrates’ troops constructed a series of wooden towers that ran along the ramparts. When the defenses were complete, Hippocrates sent away almost all of his troops, except for his hoplite infantry and a small contingent of cavalry. He was not worried about doing this, as he had spent five days at Delium and had not even seen a glimpse of Boeotian resistance. According to Thucydides, Hippocrates must have assumed that the Boeotians were preoccupied by rebellions.

His assumption, however, was not reality. Instead of being distracted, the Boeotian League had gathered a large army. Even worse, as Hippocrates had started his march at a later point than Demosthenes, the Boeotian soldiers at Siphae were also able to regroup with their main army, commanded by the Theban general, Pagondas. While Hippocrates was setting up his defenses at Delium, the various cities of Boeotia had pooled their troops together and organized their manpower into a powerful fighting force. So, while Hippocrates was sending away key sections of his army, Pagondas was marching the combined might of the Boeotian League toward Delium.

Pagondas reportedly had some dissension among his fellow generals. When they realized that the Athenian leader, Demosthenes, had been completely repulsed and that a large portion of Hippocrates’ army had left, some of the Boeotian leaders thought a confrontation with Hippocrates was no longer needed. Nevertheless, Pagondas was able to sway the average soldier to keep marching, even if some of the other generals were still wary.

The Battle

Hippocrates was still in his makeshift fortification at Delium when he received the urgent news that a large Boeotian force was spotted beyond a hill near the fortification. Interestingly, the Athenian general decided to move his troops outside of the defenses to meet the Boeotians on the open battlefield—it was a decision that he would regret.

According to Thucydides, both sides in the battle had around 7,000 hoplites serving as heavy infantry. On the Athenian side, Thucydides mentioned no other troops other than a force of 300 horsemen, which were originally left in the fortress at Delium. The Boeotian side, however, was a different story. Pagondas had at his command a more well-rounded army—in addition to his 7,000 hoplites, he allegedly also had 10,000 light infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 500 javelin throwers. In a move that increased the Boeotian advantage even further, Pagondas took the high ground on the hill near Delium as soon as he realized that the Athenians were advancing against him.

The two sides clashed during the afternoon, with sundown not too far away. Pagondas and his Boeotian army was still on the hillside when the Athenian hoplites lined up opposite them. Thucydides wrote that the Boeotians charged forward first, but the Athenians answered with a charge of their own. Depending on how high up the hill the Boeotians had been at the start of the battle, they may have still had a significant elevation advantage when the two racing forces met shield-to-shield.

At first, the battle seemed to be swinging in favor of the Athenian hoplites. The left side of the Boeotian infantry force began to give way and the Athenians even managed to envelop the Thesbian division of the Boeotian army. Pagondas, however, was quick to respond and he sent cavalry to support the wavering troops. The horsemen took a hidden route and totally surprised the Athenian hoplites. According to Thucydides, the unexpected shock of the cavalry charge is what decided the battle—the will of the whole Athenian line broke and Hippocrates’ men scattered in all directions. The Boeotians hunted down as many Athenians as they could find until the coming of night ended the chase.

The Siege

Even though the battle was won, Hippocrates’ force was not completely defeated. Hippocrates had left a small garrison behind at Delium before he led his troops out to their ill-fated fight on the hillside. In addition to this, many of the Athenian survivors who had fled from the Boeotian cavalry charge were able to successfully reach the defenses at Delium. Unfortunately for Pagondas, this meant that his job at Delium was not over. The battle was won, but now it was time for a siege.

As the siege went on, the Boeotians only got stronger. Thucydides wrote that Pagondas received more slingers, javelin-throwers, and an additional 2,000 hoplites while waited outside the walls of Delium. In contrast, no known Athenian armies or fleets were heading to relieve the survivors of Hippocrates’ force.

The standoff continued for weeks, with little progress being made on the side of the Boeotians. Eventually, Pagondas decided that they needed a siege engine to bring down the Athenian defenses. The Boeotians did not make do with one of the simpler siege weapons. Their imaginative engineers did not have a commonplace battering ram in mind—instead, Thucydides wrote that they built a giant flamethrower. The foundation of the contraption was several carts, so that the engine would be mobile. On the carts, they placed a circular, hollowed-out wooden beam, which resembled a straight pipe. Fitted inside the hollowed pipe was a metal tube, creating something similar to a metal gun barrel attached to a wooden rifle stock. At one end of the metal tube, the Boeotians used chains to attach a large cauldron to the machine. This cauldron had some sort of access, so that objects could be added to the device. Thucydides wrote that the exterior of the wooden pipe was also given further protection by means of iron plates.

On the seventeenth day of the siege, the interesting machine was wheeled up to the fortifications at Delium, with the open end of the metal tube facing the Athenians. The Boeotians then filled the cauldron with all sorts of flammable materials, such as sulfur, pitch and lighted coals, and then, finally, they plugged the cauldron’s access with a great set of bellows. When the engineers worked the bellows, the innovative siege weapon allegedly shot a great burst of flame against the Athenian fortifications. The heat of the flames caused the defenders to abandon the walls, and when the wooden towers and other flammable parts of the fortifications began to catch fire, the Athenians decided to flee. Most of the retreating Athenians were able to reach their nearby ships, but a few were killed in the panic. Hippocrates, the leader of the Athenians at Delium, was not one of the survivors—he met his death in either the battle on the hillside or during the siege. In all, Thucydides estimated that 1,000 Athenians and 500 Boeotians died in the struggle over Delium.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Hoplite infantry on the Chigi Vase, assumed 7th century BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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