Skip to main content

The sortie in ancient Greek warfare is underappreciated in modern scholarship. In his magisterial five-volume work on ancient Greek warfare, W. K. Pritchett makes no mention of sorties (Pritchett 1971-91). There is no discussion of sorties in the recent volumes, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (Sabin et al. 2007) and The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Campbell and Tritle 2013). In his influential work, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Victor Davis Hanson devoted roughly six pages to sorties, but limited his study to highlighting the danger posed by sorties to troops ravaging a polis’ countryside (Hanson 1998). However, the Greeks undertook sorties not only when enemy troops ravaged and plundered their land but also, and especially, when a besieged polis was threatened with its very survival.

It has recently been demonstrated that the Greeks engaged in siege warfare far more often, and earlier in their history, than is commonly thought (Seaman 2013). Sorties were an essential strategy of defending against a siege. Despite facing superior numbers of forces, a sallying party could often turn the tide of a war (Thuc. 7.24.2-3) or convince an enemy to abandon a siege (Diod. 14.17.10-11). Night sorties were rare until the fourth century. The point is underscored by the brief treatment devoted to the topic of secret night sallies by Aeneas Tacticus. He limits the purpose of a covert night sortie to an attack “on the enemy encamped outside” and devotes most of his attention in the section to issuing warnings against various scenarios that might result in betrayal of the imminent attack (Aen. Tact. 23).

Thucydides informs us that battles fought at night between large armies were rare, with only one having taken place in the entire Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 7.44.1). At night, there was much greater difficulty in discerning who the enemy was and the darkness hindered the ability to communicate, all of which resulted in a heightened risk of killing one’s own men. Night battles, and night sorties whose goal was to engage the enemy in battle, were therefore rare in Greek warfare, given their inherent difficulties and risks. However, night sorties with a more limited objective, one that consisted of a quick attack on the besiegers’ siegeworks, followed by a swift return to the city, became a regular feature of siege warfare in the early fourth century, after the appearance of new forms of siege engines and towers. Sheds covering mines, large catapults, that needed to be fitted together, and towers that were cumbersome to move, not to mention mounds, may all have often been left in place outside the town walls at night (cf., e.g., Arr., Anab. 1.20.9) and consequently become targets for night sorties.

This paper will argue that the early fourth century witnessed a revolution in defensive siege techniques with the onset of night sorties in Greek warfare. By the mid-fourth century, night sorties and their attendant battles had become a regular feature in Greek siege warfare. This study traces the birth of this new form of sortie in the early fourth century BC and outlines the reasons for its development and widespread success in the Greek world.