In the year 423 BCE, the Athenians and Spartans, who had been in the midst of the Peloponnesian War since 431 BCE, decided to observe an armistice that was planned to last for one year. Athens and Sparta did, indeed, halt the official war, yet smaller states on the periphery of their alliances kept fighting in their own minor feuds. As for the leaders of the war, Athens and Sparta, they also kept up their militancy in ways that would not break the armistice. For Athens, this was a time to crush rebellions and suppress dissidents. On the Peloponnesian side, a general named Brasidas (responsible for many of the aforementioned Athenian rebellions) decided to occupy his time by participating in a joint-invasion alongside his ally, King Perdiccas of Macedonia, against the Kingdom of Lyncus.
Lyncus was a kingdom surrounded by enemies. The Illyrians lived to the west of Lyncus and they were working with Perdiccas, King of Macedonia, whose kingdom bordered with Lyncus on the east. Furthermore, the ruler of the Lyncestians, King Arrhabaeus, had a long-standing feud with Perdiccas. As such, the Macedonian king often pressured the Peloponnesian general, Brasidas, to attack the lands of Lyncus. Yet, while the war with Athens was ongoing, Brasidas refused to invade Lyncestian territory—a decision that resulted in Perdiccas reducing his financial aid to the Peloponnesian cause. After the armistice was signed, however, Brasidas finally agreed to join Perdiccas in an invasion of Lyncus.
King Arrhabaeus had either been expecting an attack, or he received information about the plan, because when the Peloponnesians and Macedonians launched their attack, a Lyncestian army was already mobilized to defend the border. Despite Arrhabaeus’ preparedness, the Peloponnesian infantry, assisted by a large contingent of Macedonian cavalry, soundly defeated the army of Lyncus. After the battle, King Arrhabaeus and the survivors of the Lyncestian army fled to the safety of higher ground, while the victorious Brasidas and Perdiccas debated whether to wait for Illyrian reinforcements or to continue the invasion alone.
The Peloponnesian and Macedonian camps decided to leave the matter for the morning and settled in for the night without having made a decision. When morning arrived, Brasidas awoke to a shocking sight—the Macedonian army was gone. Apparently, Perdiccas heard a report that the Illyrian reinforcements had switched sides and joined with the Lyncestians. Fearing an invasion of his own kingdom, Perdiccas quickly withdrew his army back to Macedonia and he supposedly did not take the time to inform Brasidas of his decision to retreat. As such, when morning came, the Peloponnesian camp found itself alone in Lyncus, surrounded by the surviving Lyncestians and the newly arrived Illyrians.
Spartans such as Brasidas were usually known for their stubborn refusal to retreat. Yet, the threat of the combined Lyncestian and Illyrian front was imposing enough to make Brasidas immediately organize his army for a speedy escape. He pulled his forces into a defensive square, with the hardiest hoplites on the outside lines and light infantry in the middle. Brasidas also called together an elite band of veteran soldiers to serve as the rear guard, where he suspected most of the enemy attacks would occur. If, by chance, the Lyncestians and Illyrians did strike from another angle, the quickest and most energetic infantrymen from the defensive square were ordered to charge out to meet the attackers. With his men in formation, Brasidas began quickly moving his army back toward the Macedonian border.
When it became apparent that the Peloponnesians were withdrawing, the Lyncestians and Illyrians set off in pursuit of the fleeing army. Brasidas’ defensive strategy proved effective when put to the test. Each time the pursuers tried to engage the Peloponnesians, the rear guard or other charging infantrymen would fend off the attack, allowing the bulk of the army to continue retreating. After several unsuccessful attacks, it seemed to the Peloponnesians as if the warriors of Lyncus and Illyria had given up the chase. Many of the pursuers had left, leaving only a token force to half-heartedly follow behind Brasidas’ army.
Unfortunately for the Peloponnesians, the disappearing Lyncestians and Illyrians were not returning home. Instead, they had rushed up ahead and prepared an ambush for the Peloponnesians, hoping to encircle the enemy. The ambushers, however, sprung their trap too early, allowing Brasidas to see what was happening before the envelopment was complete. Reacting quickly, the Spartan general moved his elite troops from the rear guard up to the front of the defensive square. With them acting as the point, Brasidas had his forces quickly charge up a hill to claim the favorable high ground. The elite soldiers at the head of the charge easily defeated a small group of ambushers that had already been on the hill, allowing the Peloponnesian army to take up a defensive position.
According to Thucydides, the Lyncestians and Illyrians were dismayed when they saw the Peloponnesians occupy the hill. Brasidas’ army had already proved to be a difficult prey, even while on the run. Now that the Peloponnesians had halted and taken up a defensive posture on the high ground, they would be even more difficult to defeat. Realizing this, the Illyrians and Lyncestians lost the will to continue the fight, allowing Brasidas to cross into Macedonia without further conflict.
Even though King Perdiccas was still technically an ally, Brasidas and the Peloponnesian army felt betrayed. As a reprisal for abandoning them in Lyncus, Brasidas let his troops loot Macedonia for supplies, stealing food, equipment and livestock from the countryside. In response, King Perdiccas ended his partnership with Brasidas and negotiated a peace between Athens and Macedonia.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Battle between Greeks and Persians from a book by John Warner Barber c. 1798-1885, [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.