The Battle of Delium
by Legion of Hell
The battle of Delium in November 424 BCE was one of the first major land battles in the bloody Peloponnesian War that lasted between 431-404 BCE.
Prior to the battle of Delium the past eighteen months had been somewhat mixed for the Peloponnesian League. During the summer of 425 BCE the entire Spartan fleet was encircled and forced to surrender during the battle of Pylos. It trapped the Spartan garrison on the island of Sphacteria, south of Pylos. The garrison had under five hundred men of whom nearly two hundred were Spartiate: the elite of Spartan society. By the end of the year the depleted garrison at Sphacteria surrendered to the Athenians and caused shockwaves across the Greek world. Things got worse during the spring of 424 BCE when the Athenian general Nicias captured the island of Cythera.
This was a great blow to Sparta because Cythera was used as a trading post to Egypt where warships could be repaired. Now the lucrative trade route to the Egyptians was cut off and the Athenians could use Cythera to launch raids along the Peloponnesian coast. However during the summer months the Peloponnesian alliance managed to resist an attempted attack on Megara thanks to the Spartan general Brasidas, who had managed to prove a thorn for Athens during the Peloponnesian War. However the Athenians captured the port city of Nisaea, but their plans to take Megara by treachery failed.
The two generals who planned and executed the failed attack on Megara now looked towards Boeotia. They decided to mount a simultaneous attack on Boeotia along with pro democratic towns in Boeotia to betray Chaeronea. Demosthenes would land at Siphae to the west and Hippocrates would march the short distance across the Attica-Athenian border towards Delium where a fort would be constructed. It was hoped that with Demosthenes landing at Siphae the Boeotians would divert their resources to meet Demosthenes while Hippocrates moved into Delium.
However, things unravelled as Demosthenes took a few months to get his allied specialist troops from the northwest of Greece. By the time he landed at Siphae in November the Boeotians knew of their plans thanks to a traitor and bolstered Chaeronea. At Siphae Demosthenes was forced to pull back. The Boeotians now set their sights towards Hippocrates’ army that was at Delium. The numerous towns and cities of Boeotia were then called upon to send troops to meet the Athenian threat.
Hippocrates had no idea whatsoever that Demosthenes’ attack at Siphae had failed. The Athenian commander had entered Boeotia and with his army began to build a fort near the town of Delium. The fort’s purpose was to allow the Athenians to launch raids into the heart of Boeotia. However Delium was holy ground and by occupying it invaded the sanctuary of the god Apollo. It was a taboo that previous Greek armies would not dare abuse, but this war had gone against those rules of conflict with the killing of prisoners and breaking of treaties. Hippocrates’ army however was large with seven thousand hoplites, ten thousand light infantry made up from metics who were immigrants from outside Athens residing in the city. There were also a thousand cavalry and thousands of laborers who had come to build the fort. But as Hippocrates’ army moved towards Attica news came in of the Boeotians.
The Boeotian army was at Tanagra, a few miles to the west of Delium. They were slightly stronger than the Athenians with seven thousand hoplites, ten thousand light infantry, a thousand cavalry and five hundred peltasts. Despite this slight advantage in a council between the magistrates of the federal league of Boeotia nine of the eleven members voted against combat. The two who voted to engage the Athenians were Thebans. One of them Pagondas, son of Aeolidas, a respected sixty-year-old aristocrat, who was given command of the army felt the Athenians were vulnerable. He managed to persuade the magistrates to fight and expel the enemy from their lands.
By the afternoon the two armies were fielded against each other at Delium. The Athenians were placed at the foot of the ridge with the hoplites along the centre and the light infantry with cavalry on the wings. There were ravines on both sides of the battlefield, so any flanking movement would be limited at best. The Boeotians meanwhile were at the top of the ridge. Like the Athenians the cavalry and light infantry were on the wings, while to the left of their centre were the cities of Boeotia.
These towns were from Thespiae, (who valiantly stood and were slain alongside the Spartans at Thermpolaye in 480 BCE) Tanagra and Copaea among several other towns. But it was to the right of their centre where Pagondas deployed his Thebans in a modern way. Every Greek army during this period deployed their hoplites eight deep. However with Pagondas he placed the Thebans to a depth of twenty-five.
Among the Thebans was also a band of three hundred elite hoplites that were selected from the wealthiest class and specially trained. This was the first time where a professional corps of fighters under intense training was fielded in battle. Hoplites across Greece (excluding the Spartans who were a warrior society) were citizen soldiers and didn’t enjoy such intense training. They were required to bear arms for the defence of their land and fight during the summer months.
Pagondas’ intention was to use the large block of Thebans to strike towards the Athenian left and quickly outflank the Athenians before the enemy’s right flank could rip apart the allied Boeotian towns opposite them.
After Pagondas finished his battle speech he commenced the attack, while Hippocrates was trying to finish his own speech and make sure those people stretched across the line could hear him. As the Athenian scampered towards the right he noticed a flaw among the Boeotians who were marching down the ridge. With a concentrated blow towards the enemy’s right he could rout them off the field and outflank the enemy and cause chaos among the Boeotians. But because the ravines on the flanks meant the cavalry or light infantry couldn’t outmanoeuvre each other Hippocrates ordered his men to meet the Boeotians head on along the ridge.
The Athenians along the right were putting the allied towns of Boeotia under great pressure. Already some of the allied Boeotian contingents had already fled with the Thespians holding on grimly against the Athenian push. Meanwhile on the left the Thebans were not doing well as the Athenians were ceding ground very slowly and were adamant they wouldn’t break against the intense Theban push. Pagondas was now in a sticky situation as he surveyed the battlefield. If the Thebans didn’t break through then the Athenians who were pressuring the Thespians and allied towns then the enemy would break through and smash his army through the rear.
It was then that Pagondas displayed a brilliant moment of deception and tactics. He called two cavalry squadrons in reserve that were placed on the right wing. He ordered them to go around the large ridge where the Athenians wouldn’t see them and hit them in the rear. It would take a short while to traverse the ravines, but once they did the Athenians were shocked to find horsemen bearing down on their rear. The army across the line now panicked and this allowed the Thebans to break through. The Boeotian horsemen now pursued eagerly upon the Athenians who thought the flanking horsemen were part of a second army.
Chaos ensued as hoplites were hacked down and only nightfall prevented an even greater tragedy. When the Athenians were given permission to pick up their dead they saw that Delium had been a catastrophe. Over a thousand of their best hoplites killed, several thousand light infantry killed and their commander Hippocrates slain during the retreat. The Boeotians meanwhile just lost fewer than five hundred men.
Delium was a resounding victory for the Boeotians and Peloponnesian League. While it invigorated Boeotian pride the Spartans were encouraged at seeing an Athenian defeat and dispelled any chance of Sparta seeking a negotiated peace. For Athens the aura of invincibility after Pylos, Sphacteria and Cythera was shattered after the disaster at Delium. Many historians have looked towards the politician and strategos Cleon to blame for Athens turning towards a more hawkish strategy.
However after their stunning victories in 425 and early 424 the attempted attacks on Megara and Boeotia were justified. However their attempts to knock out Boeotia out of the war and force Sparta to seek peace had failed. Greece would be plunged into bloody war with intervals of peace until 404 BCE when the Peloponnesian army led by the Spartan commander Lysander forced the Athenians to capitulate and seek peace.
The Peloponnesian War: Athens and Sparta In Savage Conflict 431-404BC. Harper Perennial Books.