Honor, Virtus et Potestas

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


2 responses

  1. Little John

    First off, I wish the Spartans realized the importance of the combined arms force and had equipped themselves appropriately. Secondly, think that the way the Spartans could have pulled off the night assault would have been similar in a way to the WWII tactic of using a call to signal your brothers. I think that the best way to achieve a decided victory would have been to send a much smaller scouting force(about 100 or so men) into the Athenian camp and Have them quickly eliminate those who were on watch. To do so I would employ lightly or unarmored troops to move cautiously on a target, eliminate them, and then collect any ranged weapon that would give a better advantage to the Spartans, and then carry on using the appropriated weapons to speed things up. Then once that was completed I would send the rest of my forces in to clean up the rest of the Athenian forces. I figure they would be asleep or at the very least unprepared and the engagement would easily go the way of San Jacinto. I think the night assault would have been a very viable tactic considering that it would have been a first and thus a very unexpected maneuver. As well it would have limited the effectiveness of the ranged combatants given that they would need to close the gap between them and their target significantly to even identify them, much less actually attempt a shot at them. And then there is the general fact that the Athenians would have been asleep for the night and that would set them back greatly, requiring them to spend time preparing or lose combat effectiveness while the Spartans would have been fully prepared for the fight and most likely hyped up on adrenaline and gnawing at the bit to go wild. As for what they could have done to alter their end result during the fight, without a visual representation or any knowledge of the field, I would default to the idea of a full retreat and regroup and then stack shields two rows high and deep giving as much overlap as possible to absorb the force of the arrows. I would also try to fashion some kind of ranged element to use in my force, anything form a crude sling, bow, or atlatl to simply throwing a rock as far as you can. Anyway to reach out and touch those that touch my men. Without any better idea of the terrain I would have only that as an idea, with maybe a few ideas for ambush or distraction/flanking maneuvers.

    Little John

    May 11, 2011 at 5:11 am

  2. Little John, I believe your thought process and ideas are on the right track. Here are my thoughts on a night attack by the Spartans against the Athenians. The operation would have to be carried out without body armor to silence the approach as much as possible, and the give the Spartans speed. The Spartans would carry their Aspis (shields), Xiphos (sword) and their Kopis (dagger). Given the design of their helms, I would say that those should have been left behind too. One thing that is truly key in military operations is that the simpler the plan, the better the chances for a successful operation. Make it too complicated, and things get more confusing than they otherwise normally get in what is called the “fog of war” once combat actions begin. The night attack could allow enough surprise and cover to split the Spartan force and attack from two different aspects of the Athenians’ position, but not too far from each other. This could cause some added confusion and cause the Athenians a certain level of panic in the surprise. Targeting light troops or commanders in the attack would be ideal, but it may be a situation where you are forced to attack what you can where you can. The archers and peltasts would have certainly had a place at night fairly well protected by the Athenian hoplites. The numbers were very much stacked against the Spartans at Sphacteria, and even with such an attack, they still may have failed to break the Athenians. BUT, it beats surrendering on a hill which really does seem unlike the Spartans. The Spartan surrender really makes me want to know what was going on in the minds of the Spartan hoplites at Sphacteria.

    Could even the Spartan hoplites have been so demoralized by the Athenians’ combined arms force and their maneuverability? Possibly, but what of the Spartan leadership there? Was there some lack of confidence in leadership once the battle began, or perhaps after Epitadas was killed and the XO wounded? Who knows for sure? There are a lot of factors to consider and factors that we may never completely know about the battle. Something else to think about is how many of the surviving Spartan hoplites were wounded when they made it to the ruined fort. It is possible that they were a unit rendered combat ineffective due to a high number of wounded troops, with few able to fight or few that were uninjured. If I had to bet on it, I think this may have been the probable cause of the Spartan defeat and the capture of the force rather than a case where Spartans fought to the death. My theory of a Spartan force with a large number of wounded also gives cause for me to think that this is why they did not counter attack modifying their shield positioning to form much like what the Romans later called the Testudo (tortoise) to prevent as many projectiles from hitting them as possible and basically make their way to the enemy hoplites as best they could and finish the battle fighting to the death. So, I believe it was heavy numbers of wounded once on the hill fort, or failed leadership adding to the demoralization factor that caused the surrender.

    May 13, 2011 at 1:57 am


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