Skip to main content

Spartan-led Peloponnesian forces devastated the countryside of Attica in five of the first seven years of the Peloponnesian War (Thucy. 2.10-14, 2.18-23, 2.31, 2.47, 2.55-7, 3.1, 3.26, 4.2.1, 4.6), and would have done so in 429 and 426, too, were it not for a plague in Athens and a series of earthquake in those years (Thucy. 2.71.1, 3.89). The modern debate on the causes for the Spartan adoption of devastation of Athenian territory as their strategy (to the exclusion of all other strategies) in the first years of the Peloponnesian War has been limited to controversy over the extent of the damage that Peloponnesian forces were able to inflict on Athenian crops and property. Most scholars have believed that, since Greek infantry forces were, in general, relatively ineffective ravagers of their enemies’ farmlands, the desire to pressure the Athenians economically could not have been the reason behind the consistent use by the Spartan-led armies of the strategy of agricultural devastation. These scholars have instead tried to explain the short-term, raiding nature of the Spartan campaigns in one of two ways: firstly, by positing that the Spartans were operating within a culture of ‘agonal’ warfare, in which classical Greek city-states curtailed the duration of their land wars by choice, in order to limit both war casualties and social change (Hanson, 1998; Ober, 1996); and secondly, by arguing that the Spartans were aiming not to cause permanent damage in Attica, but rather to bring about internal dissension within the city of Athens (Foxhall, 1993). Recently, however, it has been argued that the Spartan devastation of Athenian territory could have caused severe economic damage and was therefore justified as an end in itself (Thorne, 2001).

But all previous treatments of the strategy of the Spartans in these years have missed the fact that military strategy “combines tactics and logistics to shape the conduct of operations” (Jones, 1987: 54 (my emphasis)). By building on this insight and placing the Spartan ravaging operations within a comparative historical framework – by considering the Spartan-led invasions of Attica within the context of work done by scholars on the interplay between strategy and supply in later periods of European warfare – one can gain insight into what really caused the Spartans to devastate Athenian territory. The Spartans had no other strategic option than brief, ravaging expeditions since lengthy operations in enemy territory required the formation of continuous supply lines (cf. Harari, 1998: 300-301). Unlike states in other times and places in pre-industrial Europe which could use a combination of mechanisms (such as requisitioning, allied and enemy contributions, taxation-in-kind, and private contractors with large amounts of capital and access to widespread produce networks) to acquire the provisions needed to build and maintain supply-lines (Erdkamp, 1998: 12-18), the Spartans and their allies (in common with all other classical Greek city-states) did not have the resources to provision continuous overland supply lines and therefore had to rely on foraging for their provisioning. But foraging could not offer the security of supply needed for their armies to mount persisting campaigns in Athenian territory (cf. Erdkamp, 1998: 150; Harari, 2000: 300-301, 330); consuming all of the resources in their area of operations, the Peloponnesian armies dependent on foraging had to be constantly on the move and thus could only remain in Attica for short periods of time. The option of a sustained assault on the city-walls of Athens, or a siege of the city, was therefore not available to them. The Spartans, in other words, did not choose to devastate the countryside of Attica; they did so because the sole method of supply they could employ to feed their armies forced them to.