Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: General Demosthenes

[by A. E. Clark]

I cannot be the only reader to have been fascinated by the career of Demosthenes, the Athenian commander.

In outline:

(3.94-98) His attack on Aetolia, undertaken as the beginning of an ambitious campaign (projected, apparently only by Demosthenes, to pass through Boeotia), ends in disaster. The narrative supplies enough details for us to ponder the flaws in the general’s decision-making.

(3.102) His move to save Naupactus with troops he wheedles from allies whom he previously snubbed is all the more impressive because at this point Demosthenes has few resources — his generalship may have ended, and he is in such disfavor that it would be personally dangerous for him to return to Athens.

(3.105) Allies ask him to lead them in the West when the Peloponnesian army that he stymied at Naupactus keeps marching.

(3.107) An ambush on the battlefield brings him victory at Olpae.

(3.109) He craftily separates the Peloponnesians from their local allies.

(3.112) He wins a massive victory at Idomene by positioning his troops stealthily during the night and launching a pre-dawn surprise attack in which the enemy’s sentries are confused by Demosthenes’ use of allied troops whose dialect resembles the enemy’s.

(4.2) Demosthenes finagles himself an unofficial berth on a fleet rounding the Peloponnesus to relieve Corcyra.

(4.3-5) He has a plan: make an unscheduled stop and create an outpost at Pylos, in the Messenian country where the Spartans fear revolt. The generals in charge of the fleet laugh at him. Grossly insubordinate, he appeals to the soldiers and the junior officers. No one will listen. Then a storm drives the fleet into shelter at Pylos.  They still won’t listen to him.  But as the weather keeps them trapped in harbor, the soldiers get bored and decide to build Demosthenes his outpost. (Did it really happen like that? One wonders.) But he has neglected to bring any tools, so they must pile rocks to create walls in the most primitive manner.  The weather improves; the fleet sails on, leaving a very small force with Demosthenes in his vulnerable outpost.

(4.6) The Spartans are so alarmed by this tiny threat to their rear that they recall the army that has been laying waste the country around Athens.

(4.8) Then they come in ships to wipe him out.

(4.9-12) Having figured out where they will attack, he repels them from the beach in an epic action where one Brasidas, who will go on to do more harm to Athens than perhaps any other Spartan, is almost killed.

(4.13-14) The Athenian navy arrives in the nick of time. The Athenians discover they have trapped hundreds of the Spartan elite on a desert island next to Pylos: a most valuable bargaining chip.

(4.17-20) Sparta offers peace.

(4.21-22) Overreaching as they often do in this Greek tragedy, the Athenians (instigated by the detestable Cleon) spurn the offer.

(4.26-38) The blockade of the island proves long and difficult.  The Athenians blame Cleon and, calling his bluff, send him to sort it out in the expectation that he will humiliate himself.  Thanks to Demosthenes, who is mindful (Thucydides explicitly says) not to repeat a mistake he made in Aetolia, the Spartiates are defeated by Demosthenes’ use of stand-off missiles and a surprise attack from the rear. They surrender.

(4.41) Again, the Athenians have a chance to end the war on favorable terms.  Thucydides says, “The Athenians, however, kept grasping at more, and dismissed envoy after envoy…”

These events, engagingly narrated by our historian, make a strongly favorable impression.  It seems that Demosthenes learned from an early failure and, with a penchant for surprise attacks that was unusual in the warfare of his time, achieved significant victories.  I’d say Demosthenes won the war twice — once at Pylos and once at Sphacteria — but the Athenians threw the victory away each time.  There is more to the story, however. Now for Part II:

(4.66-73) Demosthenes and Hippocrates undertake a complex scheme to seize control of Megara with the help of traitors within the city. Again he carries out one of his signature night-time ambushes. But the Athenians are only partly successful, and soon find themselves confronted by the decisive and resolute Brasidas. They give up on Megara without a battle.

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