Ancient History & Civilisation


The Night of the Three Armies

The army of the Boiotians was already crossing atop the mountain ridges between Argos and Mantineia. In the middle of the month of Boukatios, as Erinna sent more scouts to find the imprisoned Nêto, and as Nikôn returned with news of Chiôn and the silver to come, and even as Chiôn argued with Alkidamas on the beach near Delphi, two haggard Arkadian scouts ran into the north gate of Mantineia far to the south in the Peloponnesos. “He’s here—Epaminondas is well across the Isthmos. Break open your stores. The northerners—with others too to join—already are over the pass. A mob, an entire city from the north is coming down here.”

As the crowd swarmed, the taller ranger, Lykander, went on. “We heard singing, and men marching in their strange sounds of the sort they speak above the Isthmos. Two myriads and maybe more. Yes, yes, with the sound of Thebes in their voice, but almost as if they were Bacchants in their song and zeal rather than an army on the march to war. Now on the downward slopes of Parthenion, covering all the trails, they come—and their tramping is heard three stadia and more before they appear on the passes. Already the men of Tegea are out of grain from feeding that horde. We will need even bigger ramparts to house them all. Thousands of them are heading this way.”

But even these Mantineian scouts of crafty Lykomedes were not the first to hear of the arrival of the Boiotians into the south. The Arkadian shepherds of the high methoria had already seen an army far above on the ridges of Parthenion. Dim specks against the sky, distant thousands of shadows moving along the crests were enough for them—along with the butchering of their high flocks as hungry Boiotians took what they could. So with news of an entire polis on the move, the herders ran down from the eschatia with their wild stories to the homesteaders below. And these shouts of aroused farmers in turn warned the horse-owners farther below on the bottomlands that a phantasma of some sort, a fog of voices—with the clatter of bronze and wood—was coming off the high pass from Argos way.

Epaminondas had come after all—late, through the winter mists and with thousands more than promised. But there were more behind his army on the passes. No sooner had the high hill folk heard the clattering of the arms of thousands, than a half-day later another apparition rose behind them, on the sterna where the road crested on the high pass. This was the advance of another army, the Argives under their general Epitêles, that would spill likewise into the plain of Mantineia. A myriad of Argive hoplites were coming in on the coastal road, in shiny armor and with white clubs freshly painted on their shields.

These Argives were darker folk, with Spartan-sounding speech and old Korinthian helmets pulled over their faces. They wore the tall black-and-white horsehair crests in their fathers’ fashion, swarming into Mantineia, democrats all who looked like Spartans, but also looked far deadlier than Spartans. The Argives worshipped Artemis and marched in perfect step, but they wore no red capes and had full hair above their lips. Their great captain Epitêles at the fore was wilder looking than any scarred veteran of the peers. He was stalking, rather than limping as did the Spartan king. So on the night of the same day of Epitêles’s descent, after thousands of northerners had come in on the same road from Argos, there were two armies at Mantineia. But the sky was alight yet with torches, and more Hellenes of yet a third force were promised to come before sunup, still more from the west, the herdsmen and hunters swore.

Ainias and Proxenos had not been idle after they left Lykomedes at Mantineia, but at Megalopolis had found more Arkadian hoplites who hated Spartans enough to gamble on entering the vale of the Lakonia should thousands of Boiotians lead the way. The pair had promised to guide the Arkadians into Lakonia to join Epaminondas and end the threat from Sparta for good. This third and last army was larger, far larger than the muster of the Argives and maybe as big as the Boiotians’ as well. These folk led by Ainias were the Eleans and Arkadians, and those who dwelled along the coast of the Peloponnesos from north of Messenia to western Achaia, hoplites all who had followed the Alpheios River to the south. They had snaked all night over the pass from Megalopolis, and emptied that half-built city as they passed by. Now they chanted as they marched, “On to Lakonia! Death to the Spartans! Death to Agesilaos! On to the Eurotas!”

At sunrise these westerners poured into the great plain of new Mantineia. Finally Epaminondas and Mêlon ran up to meet the third army whose arrival baffled all, since the Eleans previously had sent only money, with no promise that an army from the western Peloponnesos would follow that gift. Only Epaminondas or perhaps Ainias as well knew that soon Tripolis, the so-called three-city polis, would see three armies, not just one, come filling the plain of Mantineia. Mêlon yelled to Melissos and Pelopidas as he saw this night cloud of shapes drift into their new camp outside the walls. “Whoa. I know these men. How did our friends become generals greater than our own?” Then a familiar voice yelled out.

“Ide. Thauma idesthai—hêde stratia, thauma mega. Look at it. A great wonder this army, a great wonder. Here is the one army at last, all three into one. We here are the men of Arkadia. Of the new Megalopolis, with the Eleans behind us. And more of the Achaians. All of the free Peloponnesos is on the move. We are the death sentence of Sparta.” It was Proxenos. He tramped in at the head of a column of thousands that now were scattering over the winter mud of Mantineia and filing into the city. With him came the Arkadian generals Archias and Philoxenos, and then Talos, stratêgos of Elis. Ainias started his own banter as he came into hearing range. “Hoa. Epaminondas. So you have three myriads? Well, we claim as many—no, more—from Elis and from the cities of western Arkadia. Keep your men back, for these bronze men of the Peloponnesos are snapping dogs, hungry for battle, and they might whet their fangs on your Boiotians, if you don’t let us head south right away. Be careful of our folk—we might taste the flesh of Epitêles and his men of Argos, if we don’t keep the leash tight and calm the men before the march into Sparta.”

Ainias was hoarse from his winter hectoring but went on even louder. “Well, then, we march southward to find Lichas and his brood. Yes, we have been working in the new city, this Megalê Polis—not idle at all with the musters of the Arkadians. You and your Pelopidas will have to figure out how to feed all of us. I reckon now that sixty thousands is your total, or are there more yet? Or is my numbering off?”

“No man has seen anything like this. I never have,” answered Epaminondas. “We are like Homer’s Achaians on the plain of Troy, as ships pulled in on the beach unloading even more. The entire flatland of Mantineia is already full and they are sleeping on the ramparts of the city. Go camp on the wheat land inside the walls, and outside too if you must. And remember our hosts, the Mantineians, have not yet shown us their muster. All of Hellas is afire and soon I see seventy thousands pouring into the Spartan plain.”

Mêlon tapped Ainias on his breastplate with the tip of his sword. “You will see the snout of Lykomedes shaking. Even his Phrynê could not warn him that his neighbors down here were massing to strike Sparta. His little boyfriend Aristôn is in tears. The boar-mouth walks around the camps with water running down his leg, mumbling, How to feed these? Where the wine? Like the tree caterpillars they’ll strip our chôra of even the leaves of the olives.”

“Lykomedes is nothing.” It was Proxenos who came up with an enormous pack on his back with his scrolls sticking out the side. “No worry. Our Arkadians already have three-day rations in our packs. They plan to march out at noon tomorrow to the south, if only Epaminondas promises to lead. We have plenty of food to get us into Lakonia. Once there the king will have to set our tables.”

Pelopidas broke in. “Well, then, you and your Arkadians will have to fight us for the road. We and the Argives claim the first right of way and leave earlier at daybreak. Why not? On our way we herded cattle and sheep and goats from the Nemeans and Korinthians and have eaten beef, no less—beef. And the whole way from Argos, with more on the hoof as we speak.”

Epaminondas stopped them. “No need for a stasis. Plenty of Spartans for all. There are many roads into Lakonia and we will use all of them. The generals meet tonight to debate the way in. They are angry that the Spartans left the plain of Mantineia in the fall and scampered back home across their river, Eurotas out of our reach. But nonetheless they will all vote to go south to follow them rather than disband. Ainias knows that. The Argives go in head-on through Sellasia, the narrow direct route. That honor of the first army goes to Epitêles. His Argives will have a flat walk on the plain of the Tegeans and keep Parnon and Taygetos on either side with a good view of the Eurotas. But from the west, these men of Elis and Megalopolis will swarm behind you. Yes, the second army of the Peloponnesians will hug the foothills of Taygetos, close to the river Nedôn. You Arkadians here in Mantineia will join them. We Boiotians, the third fist, will march on the west side of Parnon, with the tributaries of the Eurotas, and meet down around Sellasia. The gods will decide who gets into Lakonia first. The best plunder goes to the fastest foot. We will never be more than sixty stadia distant from each other.”

Ainias seconded that. “May the quickest army win.”

Mêlon kept quiet. The generals had already voted to enter Lakonia, and sent messengers home to their poleis that Agesilaos was no longer at Mantineia, so the armies would soon invade. Mêlon could not yet leave to the west to find Nêto when they all must fight in the plain of Lakonia, before they could do anything for the helots of Messenia. For now the best he could do was to kill Spartans in hopes the guards of Messenia to the west would flee back home to help their king and empty the prisons as they left—and, of course, hope that Chiôn and Alkidamas were already in Messenia.

In the morning, almost seventy thousand set out on the march in the bright winter sun of the Peloponnesos. It took past noon for the armies just to leave the plain of Tegea and hit the passes. Not until the dark of the next day were they above Lakonia. At early sunset on this second day from Mantineia, the Boiotians looked down from the last rocky outcroppings past Sellasia and readied themselves for a morning war with the men of Sparta. The Boiotians had come a thousand stadia from Helikon. Pelopidas climbed up a boulder along the road and looked down to Epaminondas. “Look. Look at Lakonia—Aporthêtos, aporthêtos—unplundered, untouched, for five hundred years and more. Free from attack, not a foreigner, not a stranger buried in their fatherland, never a Spartan killed in battle in all Lakonia. But not now, not now. These plains will be their cemeteries tomorrow. The Argives below are already coming down on the plain. Look, it is already burning.”

Then Epaminondas in response lifted his helmet off and turned to the officers of the lochoi: “It’s yours, Boiotians—farmers of Hellas. The valley of the Spartan overseer is all ours. Idete, stratiôtai mou, idete. Look—there is no phalanx, there are no pipes to meet us. The villagers, the half-helots, the neighbors have all fled or joined us. We will kill as many of the red-shirts as the number of their farms you torch. No Spartan, no Athenian—no Hellene—has ever seen the like of this army, and none will ever see such a thing again.” Epaminondas mounted his small red pony and rode among the ranks. He ordered his commanders to column his Boiotians four abreast as his third and last army headed down the final pass. It was easy following the lead army of the Argives under Epitêles, who was a master of taxis and showed all how to squeeze columns over the narrow road and out of bowshot of the Spartan garrisons.

Below, the advanced columns poured out onto the green winter fields of the Eurotas, like a herd of sheep that makes not even a grunt as it stuffs its mouth—and leaves behind stubble, and holes, and vomit and dung where there was once fresh tall grass. Soon smoke covered the vale. Later that day, the last of the Boiotians to descend saw nothing but a cloud of haze drifting toward the acropolis, the smoke of a thousand fires and more, as the army of Epaminondas did their work, tearing apart the farms and sheds in the plain to fuel their winter bonfires.

Where were the Spartans, Epaminondas wondered? Where was the dreaded Lichas? Where the lame Agesilaos? None was at the head of a phalanx on the field of battle. His great fight with the tall hoplites of Lichas was now a fantasy. What followed, Epaminondas shouted to his generals, was the greatest surprise in all the stories of the Hellenes. The invaders walked in unopposed to the supposedly impregnable vale of Lakonia. The perioikoi, the villagers who lived in subservience around the city of Spartans, either had drifted into the army of Epaminondas or had fled into the hills of Parnon. Either way, more than half the helots of Lakonia had left their farms. The rest ran to safety of the city across the Eurotas with their masters, all to the cries of the Spartan women in town.

Lichas had chosen not to send out his phalanx—not with the memory of the piles of dead at Leuktra still fresh. Myriads of these invaders, without fear of a Spartan spear or a sword, were burning even more houses and fencing, rounding up stock, killing—and always lapping up to the banks on the icy river. Finally King Agesilaos hobbled out to the banks of his side of the Eurotas and sent his guards to line the river and bar the way into the city for any of his latecomer refugees. Helot-lovers he called them—better to let them die than to let them slink as spies into the city. No more Spartans were to come across the river into the city. The peers were to kill anyone who neared the Eurotas once the bridges had been torched.

When the Boiotians at last reached flat ground a day after the allies of the Peloponnesos, Epaminondas pointed out to Mêlon the hillock, just six stadia from the the high shrines of the Menalaion, where the generals would camp. “We sleep there on that rise, not far from the Eurotas—there in the middle of this new sea of ravagers. Look, Mêlon, look how we cover the spurs of Taygetos to the west. We’re already lapping on Parnon far eastward.”

Mêlon could see that the countryside of Sparta was scarcely big enough for the thousands of men in the three armies. The next day they were plundering again, without the fog or even much dew to dampen their fires. Epaminondas came up with Proxenos, all in heavy woolen cloaks against the cold wind. Mêlon and Melissos fell in at the van with Epaminondas to head toward the city proper and the Eurotas, to scout the fords and plan the final assault. Mêlon shouted to Melissos above the yelling, “Epaminondas, dear boy, is an artist, you see, one better than Exekias himself; but his work is not to be found in painting clay, but in the wholesale destruction of his enemies—and the end of Sparta is his masterpiece, his ariston ergon.”

None of the Thebans around Epaminondas cared for the booty that drove on most of the coalition that had poured over the plain of Lakonia. Instead, battle was their desire, and so always they eyed the Spartans on the other side of the river. Red-capes were running about there, taunting and overturning wagons as they threw up a makeshift rampart at the fords and shook their spears. Their women on the rooftops yelled at the sight of the fires of Epaminondas—as angry at their own men who had let the unthinkable happen as they were at the Boiotian pigs across the water. A few of the younger girls had climbed the peaks of the roofs. They were prying up the roof-tiles with iron bars and handing them down to their mothers on the balconies, who stockpiled their weapons for the street-fighting to come.

“Hoa. You three. Hold up.”

It was Ainias again, marching in at dusk to the camp of Epaminondas. He was waving his hands in a way unlike the somber killer who usually stabbed first and spoke only later. “Come. Now get over here. Look at this. A Spartan party, a half lochos, maybe more. Look. They’re trapped on that farm over here just as the early sun sets. Some slow-coach Spartans are caught on our side on the river, the wrong side of the Eurotas. They will either go up in smoke with their shed or fight their way through us to their king across the water.”

Without waiting for a reply from his friends, Ainias pulled his helmet down over his face and headed back toward the Spartan holdouts.

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