Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Fate of Plataea

There is something peculiarly pathetic in the story of Platæa, of its steadfast fidelity to Athens, and of its unhappy fate. Of course this fidelity was not a mere matter of sentiment. The smaller community had, or supposed itself to have, good reasons for throwing in its lot with its powerful neighbour. It profoundly disliked Thebes, the city which claimed its allegiance, but had no means of asserting its freedom, except by claiming the protection of Athens. The benefits which earned its gratitude were of a substantial kind, but the way in which the gratitude was shown can scarcely fail to affect us with both admiration and pity.

Platæa (the word has also a plural form "Platææ") was situated at the foot of the northern slopes of Mount Cithæron, near a branch of the river Asopus, by which its territory was separated from that of Thebes. The name appears in the Homeric catalogue of the Bœotian cities. It was claimed by Thebes as a colony; the Platæans themselves traced back their origin to a time more remote than the foundation of what called itself their mother city. While Thebes was built by the Phœnician Cadmus they claimed as their founder Platæa, daughter of the river God Asopus. Causes of quarrel about which we possess no special information arose between the two, and the Platæans watched for an opportunity of bringing about a change in their relation to the sovereign city. This came shortly after the expulsion of the family of Peisistratus from Athens. The Spartan army, which under the constraint of a divine bidding, but much against the popular feeling, had assisted in this work, was on its way home, when some envoys from Platæa sought an interview with king Cleomenes. They claimed the protection of Sparta against Thebes, surrendering at the same time both their city and their territory. Cleomenes declined the offer on behalf of his countrymen. Sparta, he said, was too remote from Platæa to give help as speedily as it might be wanted. They had better go and seek protection from Athens which was nearer and would give more effectual protection. The advice was good enough, but it was not meant in a friendly spirit, as far at least as Athens was concerned. The Spartan king was shrewd enough to see that an alliance with a Bœotian town, little more than five miles distant from Thebes, would give rise to perpetual quarrels, and would be a source of weakness rather than of strength; and this, indeed, was the result. To the Platæans, however, the advice was most welcome. They sent envoys to Athens, who, taking the opportunity of a public sacrifice, seated themselves as suppliants at the altar, surrendered their city and territory, and implored protection against Thebes. The appeal was successful, and when Thebes, resenting the defection of a dependent, sent a force to restore her authority, Athens marched to assist her new ally. The Corinthians offered their mediation, and the case was referred to their arbitration. Their decision was that the Thebans had no right to compel the Bœotian cities to remain in the league. The defeated party refused to abide by this judgment, which, indeed, was fatal to their position, and attacked the Athenians. They were defeated and were punished by the loss of some of their territory.

Nineteen years after the conclusion of the alliance (if we accept the date suggested below) Platæa rendered substantial help to Athens at the critical moment when she had to defend herself from the Persian invaders. The chance that in 479 made the Platæan territory the scene of the final defeat of the Persian army, turned out greatly to the advantage of the city. It was rebuilt at the expense of the allies; a special grant of eighty talents was made to it, which was expended in the erection of a temple to Athené, and its citizens were charged with the duty of maintaining the burial places of the Greeks who had fallen in the battle, of paying them funeral honour, and of celebrating, every fifth year, the festival of Freedom. In return for their services the allied Greeks guaranteed the independence and individuality of the city and of its surrounding territory. The Platæans continued to discharge their duties as custodians of the battle-field with sufficient regularity, though Herodotus charges them with having allowed for a consideration, cities which had really taken no part in the battle, to erect fictitious tombs. The victory was really won, as will be seen from Chapter VII, by the Spartans, Athenians and Arcadians.

The breaking out of the Peloponnesian war, had, as might have been expected, a fatal influence on the fortunes of Platæa. The town was, indeed, the scene of the first blow that was struck in this long and disastrous struggle. The occasion was remarkably characteristic of Greek life. Platæa, like almost all Greek towns, was divided between two factions, the aristocrats, who desired to re-enter the Bœotian League, under the supremacy of Thebes, and at the same time to establish their own supremacy, and the democrats who were in favour of maintaining the Athenian alliance. The former plotted with their friends at Thebes a coup d'etat.  The result was that one night about the end of March in the year 431—hostilities between Athens and Sparta being imminent but not yet commenced—a body of three hundred Theban heavy-armed, under the command of two chiefs of the Bœotian League, surprised the city. The gates were opened to them by their allies, and they took up a position in the market-place of the city. It had been arranged that a large force should follow from Thebes the next day. The traitorous Platæans urged on their Theban friends, the vigorous policy of seizing the chiefs of the opposite party. The Thebans, feeling some scruples against following this advice, contented themselves with proclaiming, that anyone who wished to see Platæa return to her ancient membership in the Bœotian League, should join their ranks. The first impulse of the democrats was to make terms. When, however, they found that the force which had occupied the city was but small, they resolved to attack it. The Thebans were taken at a disadvantage; they did not know the localities; they had been exposed all night to a drenching rain. They made, however, some resistance, and forming themselves in military order, repelled for a time their assailants. But the attack was repeated again and again, while the women threw tiles from the roofs. Then they attempted flight, but flight was difficult. The gate by which they had entered had been shut, a Platæan having jammed the place from which the bolt had been broken with the bar of a javelin. A few escaped by jumping down from the wall, many being killed in the attempt, others escaped by an unguarded gate, a woman supplying them with a hatchet with which to cut through the bolt, but the main body was compelled to capitulate.

Meanwhile the reinforcements from Thebes had been delayed by the rain which had so swollen the Asopus that it could scarcely be forded. Before they could arrive, their countrymen within the walls had been captured.

Of what followed we have two accounts. The Thebans declared that they received from the Platæans the assurance that if they would abstain from doing any harm to persons or property which might fall into their hands, the prisoners should be delivered up to them unharmed. The Platæans, on the other hand, denied that they gave any such engagement. All that they promised to do was to keep the fate of their captives in suspense till negotiations should have been opened.

This promise, unfortunately, they did not keep. They had sent a messenger to Athens, as soon as they became aware of the surprise of their city; and they had sent a second with an account of the capture of the Theban troops. Pericles at once grasped the situation, its possibilities and its dangers. He immediately despatched a herald who was to bid the Platæans take no steps about their prisoners, till they should have consulted their allies. Unhappily the injunction came too late. Carried away by resentment at a treacherous and unprovoked attack, the Platæans slaughtered their prisoners, one hundred and eighty in number. It was a cruel act though not transgressing any article in the Greek code of war, if any such code existed, and accounted for by a great provocation; and it was a fatal mistake. The prisoners would have been most valuable as hostages, for many of them belonged to the governing class in Thebes; to put them to death was at once to free the hands of their countrymen and to give them an inexpiable offence.

For two years the Platæans were left unmolested. The Thebans had not sufficient strength of their own to exact the revenge for which they longed, and their Peloponnesian allies were unwilling to act. The army could, it was thought, be more profitably employed, that is, in ravaging the territory of Athens, and there was probably some reluctance to attack a town that was protected by a common guarantee. In the third year of the war, however, when it had been determined not to repeat the invasion of Attica, the importunity of the Thebans prevailed, and Archidamus the Spartan king, at the head of the united Peloponnesian force, entered the Platæan territory, and began to lay it waste. A herald from the town, from which, of course, this proceeding had been watched, came forth, and addressed him: "Archidamus and ye men of Lacedæmon, ye are doing that which is unworthy both of you and of your fathers. Pausanias the son of Cleombrotus, having freed Greece from the Persians, assigned to the Platæans this city and territory to hold in their own right, so that none might injure them; and all the Greeks promised that if any should so do they would protect us, yet ye are come with these Thebans, who are our worst enemies, to enslave us."

To this appeal Archidamus replied: "We also are endeavouring to set free the Greeks from their oppressors, who are now not the Persians but the Athenians. In this endeavour ye ought by right to join, and to this we now invite you. But if ye cannot act thus, at the least remain quiet, and be friends to both, helping neither in matters that pertain to war."

This invitation to neutrality had already been made to the Platæans, and declined. The refusal was now repeated, two reasons being given, first, that they could not act without the consent of the Athenians, in whose charge they had put their wives and children; second, that if they should bind themselves to receive both parties as friends, there was reason to dread another treacherous attack from the Thebans.

The Spartan king replied with a liberal proposal which does the highest credit to his justice and desire for peace. "Hand over," he said, "your city and all that is in it to us; take an account of all your property, and then go wherever you please. When the war is over we will restore everything to you. Meanwhile we will use it in trust for you, and make you an annual allowance sufficient for your needs."

These terms were so attractive that a majority of the Platæans were disposed to accept. This, however, they could not do, without first obtaining the consent of the Athenians. A truce was obtained from Archidamus, and a messenger was sent to lay the facts before the authorities at Athens.

If the Athenians had been magnanimous, they would have consented to their old allies securing for themselves terms so favourable. But the temptation to refuse was too strong for them. Platæa, they knew, would hold out with steadfast determination, and so holding out, would divert the whole Peloponnesian force from any attack on Attica. This diversion would give them a breathing space, and would be otherwise of great advantage. Accordingly they answered the Platæans in some such terms as these: "Men of Platæa, we have never yet from the very beginning of our alliance, suffered you to be wrong, nor will we now suffer it. To the best of our power will we help you; do you therefore keep the oaths which your fathers swore to us and keep the alliance between us."

These were idle words, and the Athenians could hardly have failed to know that they were. They had never ventured to face the Peloponnesian army in the field, nor were they likely to venture now; and without so venturing they could give no efficient help. In making this promise they could have had nothing but the vaguest hope of some favourable chance occurring. As it turned out during the whole of the siege—and it lasted almost a year—they made no attempt to relieve the blockaded town.

The Platæans accepted the instructions of their ally with touching loyalty and confidence. Their herald proclaimed from the walls to the Spartan king, that they refused to accept his terms. Archidamus replied by a solemn invocation of the gods and heroes who were believed to inhabit the Platæan territory. He called them to bear witness to what had happened: that the Platæans had broken the oaths which were common to them and to Greece, and that they had refused the reasonable terms which had been offered; he implored the protecting power to punish the wrong doers, to help those who were contending for the cause of righteousness and justice.

The siege that followed is one of the most remarkable that have been recorded in history. Had not the narrative been told by one of the most exact of historians, a contemporary who must have heard the story from some of those who were actors in the scene, it might well have been pronounced incredible, at least in some of its details.

The Platæans had, as has been said above, sent away their families. The garrison numbered four hundred and eighty, of whom eighty were Athenians. The only non-combatants in the town were one hundred and ten women slaves, who acted as cooks.

The Peloponnesians began by constructing, out of the fruit-trees which they cut down in the neighbouring gardens and farms, a palisade, which enclosed the town. Their next proceeding was to make a mound of timber and earth against part of the town-wall, their object being to form a slope by which it might easily be scaled. The forests of Mount Cithæron furnished abundance of timber, which, together with quantities of stones and earth, was piled up in heaps, kept together by supports, attached to the wall. The army carried on this work for more than two weeks, labouring day and night in shifts which relieved each other. At the end of this time the mound was very nearly on a level with the top of the town-wall. The answering move of the Platæans was to erect on the part of the wall that was threatened by this attack, a superstructure of wood, strengthened by bricks behind it. The front was protected from fire by hides raw and dressed. The besiegers proceeded to raise the mound to the height of the additional defence; this was met by the Platæans excavating a hole in their own wall, and carrying away the earth from the lower part of the mound, thus causing it to fall in below as fast as it was raised above. The Peloponnesians filled up the excavated places with stiff clay, enclosed in wattled reeds, which could not be easily removed, the besieged mined the ground still lower down, so that the mound continued to sink underneath as fast as it was added to from above. At the same time, in anticipation of a time when their counterwork should cease to protect them, they built a new portion of town-wall, carrying it inwards from the extremities of the part against which the mound had been piled.

Battering rams were brought to bear against the fortifications, old and new, the latter being specially endangered by them. The besieged contrived to neutralize their effect. The heads of some they pulled out of the straight line by ropes, which they let down over them; others they broke off by heavy beams, which they let down upon them. Fire, of course, was tried. Combustibles, in large quantities, were thrown into the space between the mound and the concave wall, and also, as far as they could reach, into the city itself. A huge conflagration was raised, and for a time Platæa was in danger of being burnt to the ground. If the wind had continued to blow as strongly and from the same quarter as it did when the attempt was made, the result must have been fatal. But it either shifted or fell; according to one account, an opportune thunderstorm extinguished the flames.

The difficulties in this account are obvious. We may suppose, indeed, that the besieged found plenty of materials in the vacant portions of the town. Platæa had evidently shrunk greatly during the sixty odd years which had intervened between the day of Marathon, when they had sent a thousand warriors to join the Athenian army, and the siege, when their able-bodied men numbered but a few over four hundred. And now the departure of all the non-combatant population must have left available for the construction of new defences a large quantity of bricks, stone, and timber. But how could the strength of less than five hundred men have held out against the exertions of an enemy, which must have exceeded them twenty or thirty times at the very least? Why did not the Lacedæmonians attempt a direct assault? How could the great circuit of the walls have been defended by so scanty forces, occupied as these were, at the same time, by works so laborious?

The result of all these operations and counter operations was, that the besiegers abandoned all hope of taking the town either by assault or mine, and settled down to the tedious task of reducing it by blockade.

Two distinct walls were constructed, sixteen feet apart. The space between the two was covered and filled up for the reception of the besieging force, which consisted of Bœotian and Peloponnesian troops in equal parts. Two ditches were also excavated—the earth dug out furnished, in fact, the material out of which the bricks were made—one of them inside, the other outside the walls, and severally intended to prevent the exit of the enemy, or the entry of a relieving force. These lines of circumvallation were completed about the middle of September. In three months' time the object aimed at was accomplished. Famine had become so severe in the town that it was impossible to hold out any longer. Under these circumstances, the general in command proposed an attempt to escape, and was strongly backed by the prophet Theænetus, who may be described as the religious adviser of the garrison. This had been reduced by this time to four hundred and twenty-four men. A plan was concerted, but at the last moment, half of this number, overwhelmed by the difficulties in the way of its execution, renounced the attempt.

It has been said that the town was enclosed with a double wall, or rather two walls made into one by a covering. Each of these two was furnished with battlements, and at each tenth battlement there was a roofed tower, taking up the whole breadth of the wall structure, but with a passage in the centre. It was the custom of the besiegers to patrol the whole length of the walls at night, but the sentries sometimes used to retire under the shelter of the towers when the weather was wet or stormy. Such a night the Platæans chose for their attempt. It was nearly mid-winter; there was furious wind, carrying with it rain and sleet, and no moon. They carried with them ladders of a length calculated to the height of the investing wall (ascertained by repeated counting of the layers of bricks), and were lightly armed, some with shields and spears, others with breastplates, javelins, and bows and arrows. One foot only was shod, the other being naked, to give it a firmer hold on the muddy ground. They moved with the wind in their faces, so that any sound they might make might be carried away, and were careful not to be so close together as to let their arms clash. They crossed the inner ditch without being discovered. This done, some of them climbed the wall, took possession of two of the towers, the guards in which they surprised and slew without arousing their comrades, and so secured a place over which the whole body might pass. Almost all had mounted on the wall when one of them disturbed a tile, and so betrayed what was going on to the besiegers. An alarm was raised, and the garrison hurried up to the top of the wall, but did not know the precise spot to which they ought to turn. At the same time the remainder of the besieged made a diversion by a feigned sally on the opposite side of the town. Fire signals were raised to give notice at Thebes that help was wanted. But here also the besieged caused some perplexity by raising signals of their own.

Meanwhile the escaping Platæans had climbed the wall, crossed it, descended on the other side, and even crossed the outer ditch, though this they found covered with a thin coat of ice, unusually full of water. Reaching the other side, they drew themselves up in line, and kept in check with showers of arrows and javelins the only body of the enemy which found itself in a position to attack. This was a body of three hundred, which had been specially set apart for emergencies. It is probable that they had at first set off in a wrong direction; anyhow, when they came up they found the escape almost accomplished. There remained on the wall only those who had first mounted it, and had secured and held the towers, while their comrades were coming. The three hundred besiegers held torches in their hands, and so offered a fair mark to the Platæans. Confused by the missiles sent among them, and not seeing their adversaries, they remained stationary, giving time for the rest of the Platæans to join their comrades. Before they could recover themselves, the fugitives had disappeared in the darkness. They put their pursuers on a wrong scent by taking at first the road to Thebes; after pursuing this for something less than a mile, they turned off to the east, and taking a compass, made their way unharmed to Athens. One man was unlucky enough to be captured, three or four lost heart and turned back, the whole number that escaped was two hundred and twelve. Those who turned back reported to their countrymen in the town that their comrades had perished in the attempt. These accordingly sent a herald to beg their bodies for burial; it was from the answer which he received that they learnt for the first time, not, we may be sure, without feelings of regret for their own want of decision, the success of the enterprise.

For some six or seven months more the town continued to hold out. Then, the stock of provisions being entirely exhausted, it capitulated. The besiegers could, of course, have easily taken it by storm—indeed the garrison even in its full strength could hardly have resisted an assault—but the Spartan government gave strict orders that this should not be done. Their motive was this, that when peace came to be concluded, as it probably would, on the condition that towns and territory taken by either side should be restored, Platæa would not come under this description. A town voluntarily surrendered would not be considered to have been "taken." The distinction seems to us exceedingly sophistical, in view of such surrender being compelled by pressure of famine, but it was recognized by public opinion at the time.

The Thebans had now the opportunity of exacting their long-deferred vengeance. The prisoners were arraigned before five Spartan judges, who sat to try their cause. What followed, however, cannot be described as a trial. The prisoners were simply asked—such seems to have been the course arranged between the Lacedæmonians and the Thebans—"Have you during the present war rendered any service to the Lacedæmonians or their allies?" Such a question really prejudged the case. The only answer that was possible implied a condemnation of the accused. The prisoners begged that they might be allowed to plead their cause; and this request was granted, in spite of the opposition of their implacable enemies from Thebes. Two speakers were appointed on behalf of the whole body, and a speech which probably represents the substance of what they said has been preserved by Thucydides. They began by protesting against such a mockery of a trial, and appealed to the better feelings of their Spartan judges, as bound to try their cause on broader grounds. They told again the story of Theban oppression, and of their resort, suggested by the Spartans themselves, to the help and protection of Athens, of their patriotic conduct during the Persian War, so strongly contrasting with the treasonable compliance of Thebes, and of the unprovoked attack made on them by their neighbours, which had been the cause of all their troubles.

The speech made some impression, it would appear, on the judges, and the Thebans claimed the right to reply. They dwelt on the fact that Platæa had deserted the Bœotian confederacy to throw in her lot with a foreign city, defended their action in the matter of the attack, which had been suggested, they said, by some of the most patriotic citizens of Platæa, recalled the cruel breach of faith by which their countrymen had been put to death, and finally reminded the Spartans that Thebes was an important member of the Peloponnesian alliance, and was entitled to the gratitude of its chief.

The verdict was such as was expected, we may say, arranged. Each prisoner was separately asked the question put to the whole body. When he answered, as he could not but answer, in the negative, he was led off to execution. Two hundred Platæans thus perished, and twenty-five Athenians shared their fate. The survivors were hospitably treated at Athens and granted certain rights of citizenship. About seven years afterwards the town of Scione on the coast of Macedonia was handed over to them.