Siege of Plataea
The long Second Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) between the Greek citystates was marked by cruelties and breaches of honor on both sides, particularly for the small states caught between the major powers in the conflict. The historian Thucydides, a contemporary, provides ample record of this in his chronicling of the war and especially his telling of the Spartan reduction of Plataea.
In 428 BCE, having already laid waste to Attica and fearing infection from the great plague that had swept Athens, the leaders of Sparta decided to attack Plataea. This Athenian ally and small Boeotian city-state was of no strategic value and had done nothing to invite attack. The invasion was undertaken instead on the insistence of Thebes, Sparta’s ally.
Plataea had been the only other Greek city-state to aid Athens during the Battle of Marathon against Persia in 490. Following the Battle of Plataea in 479 that ended the Greco-Persian Wars, the Spartans had administered an oath to all the Greeks who had taken part by which they restored to the Plataeans “their land and their city, holding them in independence,” and swore to see to it “that no one should march against them unjustly or for their enslavement; if any one did the allies who were present should defend them with all their might.” Thus, the Spartan attack on Plataea was a considerable embarrassment to and stain on the honor of the Spartans. King Archidamos of Sparta offered the Plaeaeans the choice of abandoning their alliance with Athens and joining Sparta or at least pledging neutrality. But Spartan promises rang hollow, for Thebes was determined to acquire Plataea.
The Plataeans asked for a truce so that they might request permission to surrender from Athens. Plataea hoped that Athens might allow it to strike some arrangement with the Spartans, since the city could not be rescued without an infantry battle that Athens could not win. Athens refused, urging the Plataeans to remain true to their alliance and promising assistance. Plataea therefore refused the Spartan demands, whereupon Archidamos announced that Plataea was responsible for what would ensue because it had rejected a reasonable offer.
A series of Spartan attempts to take Plataea by storm failed. Plataea was defended by only 400 of its own men and 80 Athenians, with 110 women to cook for them. The remainder of its citizenry, including all the children and the elderly, had been sent to Athens for safety. Despite the small number of defenders, Plataea’s walls were formidable and were sufficient to hold off a large enemy force.
Thus, in September 428 the Spartans laid siege, building a palisade around the city and manning it with troops. Archidamos ordered construction of an embankment behind the palisade that would equal the walls in height. Over a 70-day period, the Spartans created the embankment with earth, stones, and logs sufficient to support siege machines. During this time, however, the Plataeans used wood to add to the height of their own walls that faced the embankment. Most materials for the construction came from structures in the city, but at least some were secured from the enemy by means of a tunnel. The defenders also built a second wall inside the first so that if the latter was breached the attackers would have to begin the process anew.
The Spartans sent their battering rams against the outer wall but were unsuccessful; the defenders damaged a number by dropping large chained beams on the long metal-tipped rams. Archidamos then tried filling the short space between the embankment and wall with combustible materials and setting them afire. The Plataeans thought that the walls were lost, but a providential rain extinguished the flames.
In September 428 with winter coming on, Archidamos had his men build a more substantial double wall around the city and then ordered half his force home for the winter. That winter on a stormy night, 200 of the Plataeans managed to get across the Spartan wall by means of ladders without being detected. After a brief skirmish, they broke free and made their way to Athens.
The remaining defenders were simply starved into surrender in the summer of 427. The Spartans might easily have taken the city earlier by force, but they did not do so because if peace was to be concluded with Athens, Sparta could hold on to Plataea by claiming that defenders had gone over of their own free will.
The Spartans therefore promised that each of the defenders would receive a fair trial by a panel of 5 Spartan judges. The question put to each defender, however, was whether he had rendered assistance to Sparta or its allies in the war. All had to answer no. At least 200 Plataeans and 25 Athenian men were subsequently put to death. All of the women were sold into slavery.
Eventually the Spartans turned Plataea over to Thebes, which leveled it entirely and divided the land among its own citizens. Thereafter Thebes considered what had been Plataea to be part of its own territory. The siege of Plataea offered plenty of embarrassment for all sides. The Athenians might have released their loyal ally to conclude reasonable terms with the Spartans or rendered the military assistance promised but did neither. Granting Athenian citizenship to the surviving Plataeans was hardly adequate compensation.
Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking, 2003.
Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Crowell, 1972.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1984.