At the Amsterdam wargames club recently I organised a refight of the battle of Amphipolis, in the Peloponnesian war. Rather than the British De Bellis Antiquitatum (DBA) rules which I know well, we used a French set, Art de la Guerre. These rules treat movement in a more complicated way and combat more simply. They need more model soldiers. I am still deciding if I prefer them.
The Peloponnesian war began in 431. The land power (Sparta) and the sea power (Athens) could do each little to harm the other. In 424, Sparta tried a new approach by sending a small army under the swashbuckling general Brasidas north by land into Thrace, at the head of the Aegean, where Athens was the power holder. Brasidas quickly captured Athens’ main colony, Amphipolis. This could open the way for Sparta to march on Byzantium or the Dardanelles, closing off the Black Sea grain imports which fed the people of Athens.
The Athenian leader who failed to stop this city surrender, Thucydides, was exiled for his fault.
We should be grateful for that, because nearly everything that is known about the first twenty years of this war comes from the history that he went on to write.1
In 422 Athens sent an army under the populist leader Cleon to retake Amphipolis. He landed at the port of Eion, 5 km to the south, and marched up to Amphipolis. Brasidas led his army out of the city and defeated Cleon. Six hundred Athenians were killed, including Cleon; seven Spartans were killed, including Brasidas.
Before, I organised a refight of another battle of the Peloponnesian war, Mantinea (https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/3483). I used secondary sources. For the strange battle of Amphipolis, though, these sources told confusing tales. They put different weight on Thucydides’s putative bias as a beaten or a bitter general. I went to Thucydides’s book itself. There I found four puzzling points.
Puzzling point 1: Which army was stronger?
Brasidas thought Athens was stronger: He lacked confidence in his own force and thought them inferior, not in numbers (they were about equal), but in quality, since the Athenians on this expedition were first-rate troops and with them were the best of the Lemnians and the Imbrians.
When he found out the full size of Brasidas’ force, Cleon seems to have had the opposite opinion: [H]e did not want to risk a general battle until his reinforcements arrived.
It is hard to think that Brasidas was right.
According to Thucydides, his army consisted of 2000 hoplites, 300 Greek cavalry and many Thracians: 2500 plus the whole Edonian army and those [peltasts] in Amphipolis. This gives well over 4800 men.
Cleon’s army consisted of 1200 Athenian hoplites, 300 Athenian cavalry, a still larger force from the allies, and some of the 1000 Athenian hoplites which were besieging Scione in Chalkidiki. Even if still larger means almost double, and some means 90% – both unnatural readings – this gives a maximum of 4300 men, almost certainly fewer than that.
Solution for the refight
Thucydides sometimes seems to think in terms only of heavy spearmen (hoplites) and forget light troops.
There are good reasons to think that the Lemnians and Imbrians were hoplites. It could then be that most of the other allies were hoplites too.
I allotted 2000 hoplites to Sparta and 3000, of better average quality, to Athens.
Athens’ army was still weaker, by the points system used in the rules. But close enough that a hoplite-oriented eye could easily conclude the opposite.
Puzzling point 2: Why didn’t Cleon wait for reinforcements?
When he landed at Eion, Cleon sent messengers to the king of Macedonia and a Thracian king, asking for reinforcements. He might well have got them. Brasidas, after all, had increased his own initial army of 1700 to more than 4800 by recruiting local troops.
Thucydides says, For some time Cleon made no move, but finally he was forced to do what Brasidas had expected [march towards Amphipolis]. Inactivity made the soldiers discontented, and their thoughts began to turn to the comparison between the daring and skill of Brasidas and the incompetence and weakness of their own commander, whom, they remembered, they had been unwilling enough to follow even when they left home. Cleon was aware of this grumbling and, not wanting the army to get depressed by being constantly in the same position, he broke up his camp and moved forward.
Makes sense. Thucydides shows King Agis of Sparta as being under similar pressure before the battle of Mantinea. The problem is in the wargame, not the history. In the game, if you have a chance of reinforcements, why wouldn’t you take it?
Solution for the refight
You are Cleon. What do you choose?
- Stay in Eion and wait for reinforcements?
- Lead your army up the road towards Amphipolis?
If you choose 1, it’s not certain that the Macedonians or the Thracians will ever come – though there’s a decent chance that they will. For certain, your reputation as a leader will fall (from brilliant to competent). And it’s possible that while you wait, the Spartans will also get some reinforcements.
In our game, the Athenians chose to head up the road.
Puzzling point 3: How easy would it have been for Cleon to capture Amphipolis by assault?
Setting out up the road from Eion to Amphipolis, Cleon said that [T]he reason he was waiting for reinforcements was… so as to be able to surround the city entirely and then take it by assault.
Going north up the road towards the city, he saw Brasidas, with part of the Spartan army, on the Kerdylion hill to the city’s west. Believing this to be the whole of the Spartan army, it seemed to be a mistake not to have brought siege engines with him, as then he might have taken the city in its defenceless state.
Both these statements imply that Cleon thought that capturing the city by assault would have been quite easy.
By contrast Victor Davis Hanson (a man who is thoughtful about Greek warfare though misguided about history in general) analysed the data “about the besieging of cities in the Peloponnesian War” and concluded that “almost every assaulted city-state eventually capitulated, and yet almost none of them fell through storming the walls… [T]he art of defensive fortifications had far outstripped the science of offensive siegecraft” (A war like no other, 2005).
How did classical Greeks defend cities whose assailants outnumbered them? Did they (i) spread themselves thinly around the circumference of the walls or (ii) keep scouts on the walls and hold the main force ready to reinforce whatever points suffered attack?
How did they assault cities? Did they (i) spread their force thinly all around the wall, close in on all sides simultaneously, and hop over the wall at places where there were no defenders; or (ii) concentrate their force at one point and use weight of numbers to offset the defenders’ advantage?
In Battles and battlefields of ancient Greece (Jacob Butera and Matthew Sears, 2019) there is a map showing Amphipolis’ city walls. The inner wall has a perimeter of more than 3 km. Last summer Travelling Companion and I visited the excavated city of Messene in the Peloponnese, which was founded a few decades after this battle. Its wall had a perimeter of 9 km.
It looks as if Greek city walls were long and hard to defend. If hopping over them was possible, it would have been easy.
I think there can’t have been much hopping. Greek city walls, even undefended, were formidable enough to impose long delays on aspirant hoppers.
Solution for the refight
“Fortifications”, in the AdlG rules, means “ditches, embankments, palisades or a wagon laager” – not city walls. If these fortifications are not defended, you can hop over them at the mere cost of half your movement allowance or so. If they are defended, the defenders get a small advantage in combat.
We used these rules – going along not with Hanson’s analysis, but with Cleon’s view that it would have been easy to capture the city by assault.
Puzzling point 4: Did Brasidas win because his tactics were good?
From Thucydides’ account it seems that Cleon’s force climbed the hill to the east of Amphipolis (the Hill of the Macedonian Tombs) and lined up facing the city. From there, they saw into the city and saw they were outnumbered. Cleon ordered them to go back to Eion and wait for reinforcements. The soldiers turned to their left, thus making a column facing south, and set off.
They had seen the gate on the city’s east side, the Thracian gates, but didn’t know about a hidden gate at the southeast corner. Brasidas sallied out of that gate with 150 hoplites. [H]e fell upon the Athenians, who were at the same time terrified by their own disorganised state and thrown off balance by the audacity of his action. Here he routed the Athenian centre. Clearidas then charged out from the Thracian gates with the rest of the army, fell on the Athenian right and beat them too.
It is difficult to make sense of this. Ordering a line to make a quarter turn to the left and become a column ought not to disorganise regular soldiers. And it ought also to have been easy for the Athenian right wing to make a right turn and turn back into a line when they saw Clearidas coming.
By contrast, the thousands of soldiers under Clearidas’ command would have had to come through the Thracian gates in column. Turning that column into a line, with units from the rear having to be put in place to the right and to the left, would presumably have been more difficult and taken more time.
Perhaps Brasidas won because his army was stronger, not, as Thucydides narrates, because his tactics were better.
Solution for the refight
I depicted the city with roads coming in from the north, east and south, each with a gate. If the pre-game had led to the same situation as historically, I would have told the Spartan commander about the hidden SE gate and let him sally from it if he wished. But in practice:
||In the refight
|When Brasidas saw Cleon marching his army up the road from Eion towards Amphipolis he gave up his position on the Kerydilion hill and joined Clearidas in Amphipolis
||When Brasidas saw Cleon marching his army up the road from Eion towards Amphipolis he kept his position on the Kerydilion hill
|When Cleon climbed the Hill of the Macedonian tombs and saw how strong the Spartan force in Amphipolis was (Brasidas + Clearidas), he decided to withdraw to Eion
||When Cleon climbed the Hill of the Macedonian tombs and saw how strong the Spartan force in Amphipolis was (Clearidas only), he decided to assault the city
|The Spartan defenders sallied from the city
||The Spartan defenders stayed in the city
– so we didn’t find out how the “historical” battle would have played out.
Four of us played: H and M (Cleon), R (Brasidas) and me (Clearidas).
Cleon’s army was united. Brasidas split his. A third of his army, with the best infantry, was in the city with Clearidas. The remainder, with the weaker infantry and all the mounted, was on the Kerdylion hill with Brasidas.
That hill was quite far from Amphipolis: 1½ km by crow’s flight, 2 km by the bridge over the River Strymon. The hill occupied by the Athenian army was only ¾ km from the city’s walls. The Athenians were stronger than Clearidas, though they were weaker than Clearidas and Brasidas combined.
The town of Amphipolis lay inside the walls. Athens could win by occupying it. Their infantry charged down the hill and attacked the city walls. Their cavalry marauded to the north, outside the city.
The AdlG fortification rules worked nicely. After a couple of rounds of biffing a single Athenian unit, on their left, got over the wall, opening a breach. More Athenians got over the wall on that side, forcing the Spartan garrison to fall back and open a path for the Athenians to get troops into the town and win the game.
Meanwhile the main Spartan force marched, after a delay, from Kerdylion. Luckily the river was dry (a 1 in 5 chance) so they didn’t need to go the long way round by the bridge. They split up: light horse ahead, cavalry, led by Brasidas, some way behind, then the infantry, which never reached the battlefield.
The Spartan light horse attacked the Athenian cavalry. They had the worse of it, but stopped their enemy’s advance.
Now the main Spartan cavalry came on. With the remnants of the light horse they pushed the Athenian mounted back.
A few hundred of them then had room to turn right and hop over the city wall, ready to block the Athenian infantry’s march into Amphipolis.
At this point, under the rules, the Athenians had to give up because they had taken too many casualties. Probably their drive on the town, which would have given them victory, was in any case blocked.
We enjoyed the game. The assault on the city looked good, the Athenian race against time (the Spartan reinforcements) made it exciting. Another time, I would make the sketch map (shown at the beginning of this blog) more to scale. The hills were further from the city walls than the sketch showed. Cleon and Brasidas were both misled by this.
This is the third time I’ve organised a historical battle that includes a pre-game. The others were Pinkie (1547 AD, DBR rules) and Mantinea (418 BC, DBA). With a pre-game, players have choices during their approach to the battlefield. They have to fight – otherwise we would have a boring afternoon – but they don’t have to do it where and when they did historically. I find pre-games satisfying. H, M and R said they liked it too.
Organising a pre-game makes me the game master as well as a player. This didn’t matter at Mantinea. We had small armies on a large battlefield. Our armies started far apart and we moved them freely, as we thought best. It only had a small effect at Pinkie. There was a Q&A cavalry skirmish (the night before the main action) then off we went, again on a large battlefield allowing us to choose our approach moves. It had a bigger effect in this refight of Amphipolis, because there was lots of Q&A. Cleon and Brasidas each had two or three choices, managed in exchanges with me, before we got to the eventually chosen battlefield. And when we got there, questions such as the exact distance from each hill to the fort and the exact criteria for capturing Amphipolis turned out to still need settling.
As I settled them, I knew I was going to play the game as Clearidas, the junior Spartan commander.
I believe I settled them objectively. Next time, though, I will propose that the decision of who is the junior Spartan commander and who the junior Athenian (mutatis mutandis) be decided only after the table is set up and all questions are answered.
1 Thucydides is like Shakespeare, Elvis Presley, and Serena Williams. He didn’t do one thing better than those who came before, he did many things differently and many things better.