Around the year 403 BCE, a revolution erupted against a Spartan-supported Athenian oligarchic government, known as ‘the Thirty’. Leading the revolutionary cause was an exiled Athenian general named Thrasybulus. He inspired hope for the anti-oligarchy Athenians when he and a small band of comrades captured the fortress of Phyle, near Athens. The oligarchs attempted to recapture the fort, but Thrasybulus and his rebels held out against the assault. Next, Thrasybulus and his growing revolutionary army startled a camp of careless Spartan warriors that had been sent to assist the oligarchs. Only a fraction of the oligarchy’s manpower was killed in the ambush of the camp, but the assault invigorated Thrasybulus’ rebels and demoralized the oligarchs. Thrasybulus followed up this attack by abandoning his base at Phyle and advancing against Piraeus, the main port used by Athens. Thrasybulus successfully took the region, but he immediately had to defend against a retaliatory attack from the oligarchs. As the oligarchic army was the larger of the opposing forces, Thrasybulus wisely lured his opponents to a battlefield that favored the rebels.
Both armies met at a steep hill called Munychia (or Munichia), with Thrasybulus naturally positioned defensively on the high ground. In contrast, the army sent by the oligarchs had to awkwardly assault up a predefined roadway that steeply climbed to the top of the hill. The battle was winnable from the start, for Thrasybulus had the often clichéd (but palpably deadly) high ground for this battle. Yet, according to legend, the rebels also were especially emboldened by a prophecy that gave the army a simple game plan for victory.
Thrasybulus, so the odd story goes, supposedly had a warrior with prophetic abilities in his army. This mysterious supernaturally-informed figure allegedly told Thrasybulus that victory would be assured if the rebels held their ground at the top of the slope. No matter how tempting it may be, claimed the prophet, Thrasybulus must not sound a charge until after his army had suffered a casualty while they were still positioned at the top of the hill. After that first casualty occurred, however, Thrasybulus would then be guaranteed victory if he sent his troops charging downhill. This tale of prophesy and fate in the battle of Munychia was recorded by the warrior and scholar, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE). In his account of the battle, Xenophon claimed that the mysterious, unidentified, and folkloric prophet decided to sacrifice himself to make sure that Thrasybulus’ army seized victory that day. Xenophon wrote, “His prophecy came true. When they had taken up their shields, he, inspired by some kind of fate, sprang forward in front of them, fell upon the enemy and was killed. He lies buried at the ford of the Cephisus. The others, however, were victorious and drove the enemy down the hill to the level ground” (Hellenica, II.4.19).
Due to advantageous terrain and an effective troop composition (plus the morale boost of a prophecy), Thrasybulus was able to win the Battle of Munychia, which allowed him to carry on his war efforts in the Piraeus region. In the aftermath of the battle, he and the rebels would be required to endure a siege and skirmishes from the Spartan leaders, Lysander and King Pausanias. Yet, Thrasybulus and the rebels would survive these trials and tribulations, enter Athens, and eventually restore democracy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta neck-amphora (jar), dated c. 510 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.