The Battle of Sphacteria: Light Versus Heavy Infantry in Maneuver Warfare
By: Jefferson P. Webb
Although there are a great number of battles that have taken place throughout the great spans of history whose names are so familiar, the name, Sphacteria, does not typically ring a bell with the average person. In spite of this the Battle of Sphacteria was a paramount military engagement of the classical world where the advantages of heavy versus light forces, and combined arms forces are concerned. This match-up took place on the island of Sphacteria in 425 BC during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens1. While it would be very easy to get involved in discussing everything culminating up to the point of this battle, it should suffice to state the fact that the Spartans were concerned that the Athenians would take the island and Sparta deployed a force of 420 hoplites (heavy infantry) to the island to occupy it. What the Spartans did not count on was the Athenian sea victory around the island that stranded the 420 hoplites, leaving them effectively cut off and isolated on the island.2 Next, the Athenian forces invaded the island in an attempt to smash the Spartans’ force and themselves occupy the island. What took place was a key point in the evolution of combined arms warfare.
The Athenian force that landed on the island outnumbered the Spartans force. The Athenians deployed 800 of its own hoplites onto the island along with approximately 300 Messenian heavy infantry, but along with these heavy infantry the Athenians deploy another 800 archers and 800 peltasts, light troops armed with slings.3 In the opening stages of this battle the Athenians were able to assault a small Spartan outpost, perhaps an observation post, and overrun the position, but the Spartan main force began to move forward towards the Athenians to push them off of the island.4 What took place next proved the worth of using combined arms warfare and maneuver warfare as opposed the head-on linear warfare that was phalanx warfare. The Athenian force would prove itself leaps and bounds more effective than the Spartan hoplite force of heavy infantry. While the Athenian hoplites advanced as if to meet the Spartans head-on, the Spartans found that the harassing fire from the Athenian light troops was beginning to take its toll. Furthermore, the heavily armored Spartan hoplites were unable to move quickly enough to catch the Athenian light troops who had little or no armor at all. The Athenian light troops had speed, maneuverability, and projectile weapons that could engage the Spartans at approximately 50 yards distance.5 This allowed more than enough time for the Athenian peltasts to reposition themselves when the Spartans attempted to reach them. What further complicated matters for the Spartans engaged with such an enemy is that a fire had destroyed nearly every tree on the island and left the Spartans with virtually no cover against the Athenian peltasts and archers.
The famed and world renowned Spartan hoplites in the Battle of Sphacteria found themselves outclassed and outmaneuvered by a combined armed force of Athenians made up of heavy and light forces, both infantry and projectile launching troops. The Spartans could not hope to move forward on the offensive without either of their flanks or formation rear being compromised by a more agile Athenian light force. It was the equal to getting caught in a L-shaped ambush. The Spartans were engaged at their front and yet lighter Athenian forces maneuvered to the Spartan flanks and began to fire into the side of their formations. The Spartan commander, Epitadas, was killed in action during the fighting and their deputy commander was nearly killed, being himself wounded in action.6 The Spartan force retreated and took cover in the ruins of an old fort on the top of a hill, but it was not long before the Athenians maneuvered upon an adjacent cliff and compromised the Spartans position in the fort.7 The Spartan force, presumably demoralized by the events taking place and almost surely exhausted from repeated charges that never actually lead to any close combat of consequence, surrendered to the Athenian force. Out of the 400 Spartan hoplites, 292 remained and were captured. The Athenian casualties are recorded as having been 50 killed in action.8Clearly this was a battle in which the Spartans were simply confounded and overwhelmed tactically by the Athenians. The peltasts would have been no match for the Spartans had they been able to close with them, but the peltasts were too fast and could hit the Spartans from a distance. Likewise the same holds similarly true for the Athenian archers.
What could the Spartans have done differently here? Thus far out of all of the options, there is but one that stands out and it is not something that took place very much, if at all during the era being discussed. It is a nighttime assault launched by the Spartans. Any ideas on how the Spartans may have been able to pull this off? What would have been the benefits of such a bold move by the Spartans? Could it have worked? What else might the Spartans have done in the campaign?
1.Pomeroy, Sarah B., Burstein, Stanley M., Donlan, Walter, Roberts, Jennifer T. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press 2008. 325
2. Pomeroy, Sarah B et al. Ancient Greece. 325
3.Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. OK: University of Oklahoma Press 2006. 53
4. Warry. Warfare in the Classical World. 53
5. Warry. 53
6. Warry. 53
7. Warry. 53
8. Warry. 53
Brian Todd Carey. Warfare in the Ancient World. UK: Pen and Sword 2009
Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burnstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer T. Roberts. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press 2008
John Warry. Warfare in the Classical World. OK: University of Oklahoma Press 2006