In 413 BCE, Demosthenes led an army of over 5,000 Athenian and allied forces to Sicily in order to reinforce a preexisting siege of Syracuse. A certain band of around 1,300 tardy Thracian mercenaries was meant to be sailing with that army, but when the swords-for-hire arrived in Athens, they found that Demosthenes had already sailed away. The jobless Thracians then renewed the offer of their military services to the city of Athens, which at that time was plagued by the presence of a nearby Spartan stronghold that had recently been built at Decelea, in the Athenian heartland of Attica. Although the Thracians were helpful in countering Peloponnesian raids, the Athenians decided that the mercenary company was too expensive to keep around. Athens eventually forced the Thracians to leave, but as they headed home to Thrace, the mercenaries were paid for one last job.
Athens tasked the homeward-bound Thracian mercenaries with the job of spreading chaos in the Spartan-aligned regions of Greece as they traveled back to Thrace. To help with this mission, the Athenians apparently gave the Thracians an advisor (or possibly a general), as well as a fleet of transport ships. The Thracians sailed these transports along the coast of Greece, intending to sail into the Euboean Gulf, but they took a detour to raid Tanagra, on the borderland between Attica and Boeotia. After rushing back to their ships with the plunder, the mercenaries passed through the Euripus Strait between Euboea and mainland Greece, continuing to sail along the Boeotian shoreline.
Yet, before the Thracians sailed too far from the Euripus Strait, they disembarked on Boeotian soil and began marching inland. For unknown reasons, but perhaps on direction from their Athenian advisor, the Thracians continued marching inland until they reached an uninformed and poorly defended city called Mycalessus. It was a settlement seemingly devoted to farming, with little else of note except a few modest shrines and a large school for boys. Perhaps the city also catered to travelers, for there was a sizable temple of Hermes located only two miles away from the town. As Mycalessus was well inland and not a power player in the region, the people there had unfortunately let their guard down. The city was ill-protected by an inadequate garrison, and, although the city did have walls, the defensive features of the settlement were dilapidated and crumbling. Unfortunately, as the city also apparently had little in the way of scouts or patrols, Mycalessus left its gates wide open and it walls virtually undefended. The city remained in this sorry state as the army of Thracian mercenaries marched ever closer.
Eventually, the mercenaries arrived at the aforementioned temple of Hermes, which lay about two miles out from the city. Even then, the city of Mycalessus apparently still had no knowledge of the danger they were in. The mercenaries spent the night camped by the temple, but once daybreak arrived, they quickly rushed across the two mile stretch to the city and assaulted the unprepared people of Mycalessus. When the mercenaries attacked, the gates were still open, the wall still had gaps, and the garrison of the city was still understaffed. The Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), wrote of this event in hisHistory of the Peloponnesian War and his account infers that the city fell without a battle—the mercenaries were able to break in and immediately begin pillaging.
For no stated reason, the mercenary army’s occupation of Mycalessus became a bloodbath. According to Thucydides, “The Thracians burst into Mycalessus, sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither the young nor the old, but methodically killing everyone they met, women and children alike, and even the farm animals and every living thing they saw” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VII, section 29). As happened with the city’s temples and houses, the boys’ school of Mycalessus was also invaded, and all of the schoolchildren who had gone to class that morning were reportedly massacred by the mercenaries. Thucydides’ sympathy for the city is palpable in his writing. He stated: “Mycalessus lost a considerable part of its population. It was a small city, but in the disaster just described its people suffered calamities as pitiable as any which took place during the war” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VII, section 30).
Fortunately for the survivors of Mycalessus, the city of Thebes had a competent intelligence network and learned of the attack quickly. A respected Boeotian commander named Scriphondas mobilized the forces of Thebes and rushed to the aid of Mycalessus. The Thebans caught the mercenaries unawares and unprepared. Some Thracians were still pillaging in the city at the time, while the majority were back out in the field. Upon the arrival of the Boeotians, the mercenaries apparently abandoned any of their comrades still inside the city and began an orderly withdrawal back toward their ships. The main contingent of Thracians was able to escape to the coast by carefully alternating between advance and retreat against the pursuing Thebans. Any mercenaries still inside the city, however, were said to have been killed by the newly arrived Boeotians forces.
When the embattled Thracian mercenaries reached the sea, a problem quickly developed. The Thebans had chased the mercenaries to the coast and the Thracians had not been able to fully embark on the ships before Boeotian archers forced the transports to sail out of arrow range. Many mercenaries found themselves stranded and some were either slain on the beach or drowned as they tried to swim to the transports. Although the majority of the mercenaries had escaped, a reported 250 Thracians died during the Theban counter-attack at Mycalessus or on the beach. The casualties of the Theban relief force was much lighter, with twenty men reported dead. Unfortunately, the leader of the Theban army, Scriphondas, was among the dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene depicting Aphrodite saving Aeneas, Etruscan black-figure amphora, ca. 480 BC. Martin-von-Wagner-Museum, L 793, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.