Today in Military History: December 7, 424 BC:Battle of Delium: Boeotians Defeat Athenians; History’s First «Friendly Fire» Incident
Athens (Atenas), Thebes (Tebas), Delium (Delio)
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations/images are from Wikipedia)
Our mini-history lesson for today focuses on a battle from the Peloponessian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta and their allies. It was not a very big battle, but it is still an interesting conflict to examine.
After the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479, Athens gained much prestige as one of the leaders of the war. Athens had an impressive navy, which allowed the city-state to develop its merchant fleet and expand its colonies around the Aegean Sea. By contrast, Sparta was considered to have the finest land army in Greece.
However, the two city-states had a natural rivalry that was little diminished by their cooperation during the Greco-Persian Wars. Athens began treating its allies of the Delian League like subjects (many historians refer to this era as the «Athenian Empire). Spartan opposition to almost any Athenian moves increased. Finally, a number of incidents pushed the two antagonists into a full-fledged war.
In the summer before the battle the Athenian general Demosthenes had been in contact with some potential Boeotian rebels who were opposed to the policy of the Boeotian League (led by Thebes), allies of Sparta. The plan was for the rebels to seize Siphae, on the southern coast of Boeotian territory (the northern shore of the Corinthian Gulf) and Chaeronea, in the west of the area, and hand them over to the Athenians. At the same time the Athenians were to capture Delium, on the eastern edge of Boeotia. The rebels hoped that this would trigger democratic revolts across the region, and that the newly democratic cities would then support Athens.
The Athenian commander Hippocrates marched his forces overland to the city of Delium, 25 miles north of Athens. [This town was known throughout the Greek world for its fine temple to the god Apollo.] The Athenians arrived at Delium after a march of three days. Over the next two and a half days, the Athenians surrounded the temple district with wooden and stone fortifications.
The Athenians sent a seaborne force under command of Demosthenes. The projected rebellion by Boeotians rebels seeking to occupy Siphae and Chaeronea was discovered and stopped.The Athenian naval force was intercepted at Siphae and forced to retreat without achieving anything. Now realizing he was out on a limb without reinforcements, Hippocrates decided to garrison the temple precinct earthworks and send the remainder of his forces back to Athens, since the Boeotians did not attack him immediately. Between 300 and 500 Athenian cavalrymen were left to guard the temple.
Prelude to the Battle
However, the Boeotians had began to gather their forces at the nearby city of Tanagra to resist the Athenian aggression, when they recieved word of the capture of the Delium temple. The Boeotian coalition forces marched to the vicinity of Delium to resist the Athenian aggression. But many of the 9 Boeotian commanders – seeing the Athenian invasion force departing – thought it pointless to attack. However, Pagondas of Thebes, one of two Theban officers among the Boeotian offices, felt it imperative to attack and defeat the invaders, or else they would just return with more soldiers. As a result, the Boeotian forces began to deploy for battle.
The Two Armies
Greek warfare in this time period was still dominated by the hoplite, the heavily armored, spear-wielding soldier. Metal helmet, breastplate, and greaves to protect the legs were worn. These men fought in deep, rectangular formations (phalanxes) with 7 or 9-foot long spears (doru) bristling to their front, their heavy bronze-and-wood bowl-like shields functioning just as much a weapon as the spear [think of the 2006 movie «300» for an idea], with a short sword as a secondary weapon. While there were also lighter-armed footmen, peltasts (javelinmen, bowmen, and slingers) and small cavalry contingents, the hoplites dominated the battlefields of ancient Greece.
Greek hoplites, fifth century BC
The Boeotian coalition deployed about 7000 hoplites, 1000 cavalry, 500 peltasts and 10,000 light troops, while the Athenians numbered some 15,000 men altogether, with 7000 hoplites and perhaps 500 cavalry, and about 8000 light infantry. [The Athenian light infantry was the leading contingent in their order of march; most of their number were already out of range of the fight when it began.] Because of standard 8-ranks deep hoplite deployment, the Athenian battle line was longer than the Boeotian force. Both armies were divided roughly into a right and left division, a center, and wings. The right, left and center comprised the hoplites, the wings the light troops, peltasts, and cavalry. The phalanxes of both antagonists were roughly 8 ranks deep.
Typical 8-rank deep Greek hoplite phalanx
Artist unknown, image courtesy of http://www.ancientgreekbattles.net
However, developing a unique strategy to address the longer Athenian line, Pagondas formed his right flank entirely of his native Thebans, and organized them 25 ranks deep, with the front line consisting of the oath-bound Theban Sacred Band. He was essentially fighting with a loaded right glove. Also, Pagondas held his cavalry in a flying reserve, to be used at a time and place as dictated by the events of the battle. The Boeotian battle formation was shielded from the Athenians by a high hill and ridge. Prior to the battle, Pagondas addressed his men, saying in part, «[F]reedom means simply a determination to hold one’s own; and with neighbors like these [referring to the Athenians], who are trying to enslave near and far alike, there is nothing else but to fight it out to the last.»
Battle of Delium
Battle of Delium, First Phase
The battle began when the Boeotians charged over and down the ridge that shielded their dispositions. Athenian commander Hippocrates was giving a speech to his men, but they quickly counter-charged up the slope in the face of the Boeotian assault. The Theban right flank began pushing back the Athenian left, while the Attic right just as quickly overcame the Boeotian left, and the Athenian center began pushing back the Boeotion center.
Battle of Delium Second Phase
But one contingent of the Boeotian left, the Thespians, doggedly held their ground, allowing the Athenians to surround them. This act caused great confusion in the Athenian ranks, as friend and foe were not easily distinguishable in the heat of battle, and some Athenian units attacked each other in the fog of battle. [There were no «state» shield devices at this time, further adding to the confusion.]
Battle of Delium, Final Phase
Consequently, Pagondas sent a portion of his cavalry reserve into the fight on his left flank, and with their help the Athenian right, dazed and confused from the accidental killing of friend and foe alike, was now confronted with what they thought was a second Boeotian army. As the horsemen slammed into the Athenian right wing, it was routed from the field.
The Athenian left was buckling from the pressure of the oversized Theban left, and when the Athenian right began to stream to the rear in retreat, the Athenian left and center collapsed and joined their comrades in panicked flight. The Athenian army scattered, with some men making for Delium, while others fled towards the mountains or the coast. The Boeotians chased the Athenians, but because the fight had began in mid- to late afternoon, the pursuit only lasted until nightfall.
The Athenians losses were estimated at about 1200 men killed. The Boeotians lost about 500.
Footnote #1: The Boeotians now laid siege to the Athenian fortifications, saying that the Athenians were occupying sacred land and should leave. The cheeky Athenians replied, «Well, since *we* now occupy it, this is *our* sacred land, and we’re going to defend it.» A two-week siege ensued. The Boeotians received some reinforcements – 2000 hoplites from their allies from Corinth. Finally deciding to bring the blockade to an end, Thucydides furnished this odd description of a new siege weapon used against the Athenians and their fortifications:
«So [the Boeotians] took a large beam of wood, sawed it in half, and scooping out the centre made it into a hollow tube, which they joined together again, very exactly like a flute. To one end they fastened, by an iron chain, a huge cauldron. In the cauldron they placed charcoal and sulphur, while to the other end of the tube they tied bellows, by which a strong current of air could be blown through to the other end. When this was done the charcoal and the sulphur in the cauldron were fanned into a great blaze, and the fortifications of the temple were soon on fire.»
The Boeotians then assaulted the Athenian garrison, killing 200 men and allowing the rest to escape. Thus ended another chapter in the Peloponessian War…
Footnote #2: It seems that a famous philosopher was present at Delium: Socrates, aged 46, was a hoplite in the ranks of the Athenian army.
Footnote #3: Three years later, after losing two more major battles, Athens and Sparta were fairly exhausted after 10 years of war. A «Fifty-Year Peace» was concluded between the two antagonists. But disagreements over several of the provisions resulted in the peace breaking down in a mere seven years.
Footnote #4: The Temple of Apollo at Delium still exists, though now in ruins near the modern-day town of Dhilissi.
Ruins of the Temple to Apollo, near Dhilissi, Greece
Image courtesy of http://www.fanaticus.org/DBA/battles/Delium/