Why Was the First Battle of Mantinea So Significant? | History Hit

Why Was the First Battle of Mantinea So Significant?

Scene from the Peloponesisian War
Image Credit: Public Domain

By 418 BC, it had been over 60 years since the ‘Golden Age’ of Greek history – the time of famous victories over the Persian forces at Marathon, Salamis and Plataea. In the last quarter of the 5th century BC, the Greek World was once again at war. But this time, the Greeks weren’t pitted against an invader such as Persia, but other Greeks in a civil war.

The Greek world stretched from colonies in the Black Sea to Sicily and southern Italy. The idea of a unified Greece was non-existent. Instead, there consisted a multitude of proud independent city states. These states each had their own history and mythical origin stories which they took great pride in. Two cities outshone the rest.

Athens and Sparta

First there was Athens: the founding nation of democracy and home to famous Greeks such as Themistocles, Aristophanes and Socrates. By 418 BC, Athens’ power was magnificent,. It commanded a large naval empire in the central Mediterranean and was hungry to expand.

To counter Athens there was Sparta, the most influential city in the Peloponnese and home to the heroes of Thermopylae. Smaller city states, either by force, alliance or choice had to join with one of these major powers. This was the Greek world in the late 5th century BC: polarised, with peace between these two superpowers hanging by a thread.

Sparta was one of the most powerful cities in Greece at the time, but unlike Athens, it was in serious trouble. Their reputation had greatly diminished since the Persian Wars. The reason for this was this city’s new-found contempt for both its allies and its promises. This contempt had arisen due to events occurring nearly 15 years earlier. Sparta had vowed to its allies that it would liberate the Greek cities from the newest major power in the central Mediterranean; the newly formed Athenian Empire.

A new power

This empire was massive, stretching from modern day Istanbul to the critically strategic islands spread around the Aegean Sea. It had emerged directly from the aftermath of the Persian Wars over half a century earlier. What had started as a co-operative defensive league of Greek cities against any future Persian threat, gradually transformed into a subdued Athenian Empire.

Finally, the pretence of Athens commanding purely a defensive league wearied off. By 432 BC, other major Greek cities such as Corinth, Megara and Thebes started to see the true Imperial Athenian ambition. Thus, they turned to Sparta to remove this new power. After much debate this city vowed to crush Athenian power.

Yet despite this vow, 10 years of war passed and nothing changed; Athens still had their empire. By 421 BC, the allies’ patience and faith in Sparta that it could deliver was almost entirely spent. The Spartan decision to then make peace with Athens further damaged its reputation. These allies viewed peace, in no uncertain terms, as Sparta breaking its word.

Depiction of ancient Sparta.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Sparta’s allies had been further outraged that they had not even been consulted on the terms of the Peace of Nicias. These allies vehemently treasured their independence from any overlord city; Sparta was their leader, but it wasn’t their ruler. Sparta was not only seen as unreliable, but selfish.

Enough is enough

Whereas Athenian allies were more or less satisfied with Athenian leadership, Sparta was the captain of a team, dependent on its teammates’ support. Such a decision by Sparta to ignore its teammates at critical peace talks was thus a huge mistake. The allied cities looked for a replacement. They found it in Argos, a city famed for its neutrality in the Peloponnese.  Following 421 BC, the cities of Elis and Mantinea, formed a new league. Their objective, recalls Thucydides, was “to gain the leadership of the Peloponnese […] for this was the time when the reputation of Sparta had sunk very low indeed.”

To add insult to injury, in 419 BC, an alliance was formed between Athens and Argos. Although officially at peace, this Greek ‘Cold War’ left Sparta in a precarious position. It was competing with another league of cities, backed by their traditional enemy, for control of the Peloponnese.

The Athenian-Argive capture of Orchomenos was the final straw. Too long had Sparta’s king, Agis, tried to avoid war with appeasement and diplomacy. In the meantime, Argos and Athens kept taking land where they could. Following a decision by this Argive confederacy to conquer the city of Tegea, Sparta refused to give any more ground.

The Battle of Mantinea, 418 BC

Our main source for the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides. The detail in his description shows the importance of this battle. If Sparta lost this battle, any chance of it restoring its authority over the Peloponnese would disappear. The forces collided in the largest hoplite versus hoplite battle the Greek world had ever seen. Rows of thousands of armoured infantry engaged, wielding shield and spear and marching in tight formations.

‘The Acropolis from the West, with the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike, Athens’, Thomas Hartley Cromek, 1834.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The victor would be the side that could overwhelm their opponent through cohesion, discipline and training. Numbers and skill; the two things critical to winning a hoplite engagement. Eventually, the Spartan force emerged victorious. Thucydides notes that, of the 10,000 soldiers on either side, only around 1000 men were killed on the Argive side and barely 300 on the Spartans. It is understandable, therefore, why historians such as Owen Rees argue that this battle was neither crucial nor a turning point in the ancient world.

Sparta’s saving grace

But what if Sparta had lost? It was this victory that, according to Thucydides, reassured cities such as Corinth, Tegea and Thebes, of Sparta’s strength; a strength that convinced them Sparta was still the best leader to oppose Athens in the Greek world. In effect, this battle saved the reputation of Sparta. It ensured that effective opposition against Athenian expansion in mainland Greece was maintained. This contributed to Athens deciding to expand its empire elsewhere – to Sicily.

What followed would be a significant turning point in the Peloponnesian War. The annihilation of Athenian forces in Sicily, thanks partially to a Spartan force sent to aid the city of Syracuse, ensured Athens would thereafter fight a mainly defensive campaign. Athens was pushed onto the back foot until its eventual fall to Sparta and its allies in 404 BC.

Tristan Hughes