Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: General Demosthenes

(4.89-100) A Boeotian campaign is entrusted to the same two generals.  It fails disastrously, with Hippocrates getting killed and his division bearing the brunt of the losses.  Thucydides is unclear about the details, but it seems that Demosthenes may have made an error of timing, as a result of which two separate surprise attacks that needed to be synchronized . . . weren’t.  It also seems that the enemy caught wind of their plans.

(4.101)  Demosthenes undertakes a raid against a coastal city west of Corinth.  He fails to take the adversary by surprise and his troops are routed.

(5.80)  Demosthenes is sent to evacuate a fort among allies of uncertain loyalty; he employs a ruse to accomplish this safely.

But alas, there is more.  In Part III, Demosthenes loses the Peloponnesian War:

(7.42) Demosthenes arrives in Syracuse to salvage the faltering Sicilian expedition.

(7.43-44) He hastens to mount a large-scale night-time surprise attack on Epipolae. Historians judge this to be a first, indeed wholly original: a large-scale nyktomachia, a night battle.  It miscarries due to poor intelligence, poor communication, and the inherent riskiness of such an action in the absence of radios or night-vision goggles.  Athenian losses are in the thousands, and morale is shattered.

(7.47-49) Having gambled and lost, Demosthenes votes to go home or at least move camp, but Nicias, the general on the scene whom he had criticized, refuses and prevails in council.

(7.72) After a devastating naval defeat, Demosthenes recognizes that the Athenians’ best way out is still by sea, but the demoralized soldiers won’t listen to him. They choose, fatally, to make their way overland to another part of the island.

(7.81) Marching “somewhat slowly and in disorder,” his division is surrounded by the Syracusans. According to Plutarch, Demosthenes attempts suicide.  Soon the rest of the Athenian army will also be captured.

(7.86) In captivity, Demosthenes is “butchered.”

As I struggled to draw conclusions from this extraordinary tale, I realized that I needed help, and I wondered if anyone had written a book about Demosthenes.  The New York Public Library was kind enough to fetch from its offsite storage a 1993 monograph [1] by Joseph Roisman.  It is a work of marvelous scholarship, free from pedantry and full of carefully-reasoned judgments.  Roisman notes that Demosthenes seems to have been always attracted to surprise tactics without realizing how heavily such tactics depend on good intelligence.

Moreover, the surprise attack works best on a small scale.  On a large scale, the friction of big organizations is wont to spoil the surprise or to impede the necessary coordination, and operational security is also harder to maintain when large numbers of people are involved. This was especially true in the ancient world with its limited technologies of communication.

At Olpae and Idomene, Roisman argues, Demosthenes received excellent intelligence from his local allies, and his goals were realistic.  I would note also that he showed prudence in letting the Peloponnesians get away: he was limiting himself to defeating the Ambraciots.  At Sphacteria, Roisman says, “He was successful because he had adequate intelligence, time to plan, and some luck; and he used surprise tactics on a careful and limited basis.”

In the Aetolian campaign, by contrast, Demosthenes was led on by an ambitious goal (a march through hostile Boeotia) for which his resources were inadequate. He had only a superficial plan, and when some of its key conditions were violated, he kept going with it anyway, convinced that he could take the enemy by surprise and that this would ensure victory. Worst of all, he had no good local intelligence. Where other scholars see the Aetolian defeat as “his education in the art of warfare,” Roisman sees it as “a presage of future disasters.”

Page 2 of 3 | Previous page | Next page