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Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

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THE DEFENCE OF PLATĂA

[205] AT the foot of Mount CithŠron, one of the most beautiful of the mountains of Greece, winds the small river Asopus, and between, on a slope of the mountain, may to-day be seen the ruins of PlatŠa, one of the most memorable of the cities of ancient Greece. This city had its day of glory and its day of woe. Here, in the year 479 B.C., was fought that famous battle which drove the Persians forever from Greece. And here Pausanias declared that the territory on which the battle was fought should forever be sacred ground to all of Grecian birth. Forever is seldom a very long period in human history. In this case it lasted just fifty years.

War had broken out between Sparta and its allies and Athens and its dominion, and all Greece was in turmoil. Of the two leading cities of Bťotia, Thebes was an ally of the LacedŠmonians, PlatŠa of the Athenians. The war broke out by an attack of the Thebans upon PlatŠa. Two years afterwards, in the year 429 B.C., Archidamus, the Spartan king, led his whole force against this ally of Athens. In his army marched the Thebans, men of a city but two hours' journey from PlatŠa, and citizens of the same state, yet its bitterest foes. The PlatŠans were summoned to surrender, to consent to remain neutral, [206] or to leave their city and go where they would; all of which alternatives they declined. Thereupon the Spartan force invested the city, and prepared to take it by dint of arms. And thus Sparta kept the pledge of PlatŠan sacredness made by her king Pausanias half a century before.

PlatŠa was a small place, probably not very strongly fortified, and contained a garrison of only four hundred and eighty men, of whom eighty were Athenians. Fortunately, all the women and children had been sent to Athens, the only women remaining in the town being about a hundred slaves, who served as cooks. Around this small place gathered the entire army of Sparta and her allies, a force against which it seemed as if the few defenders could not hold out a week. But these faithful few were brave and resolute, and for a year and more they defied every effort of their foes.

The story of this siege is of interest as showing how the ancients assailed a fortified town. Defences which in our times would not stand a day, in those times took months and years to overcome. The army of Sparta, defied by the brave garrison, at first took steps to enclose the town. If the defenders would not let them in, they would not let the defenders out. They laid waste the cultivated land, cut down the fruit-trees, and used these to build a strong palisade around the entire city, with the determination that not a PlatŠan should escape. This done, they began to erect a great mound of wood, stones, and earth against the city wall, forming an inclined plane up which they proposed to rush and [207] take the city by assault. The sides of this mound were enclosed by cross-beams of wood, so as to hold its materials in place.

For seventy days and nights the whole army worked busily at this sloping mound, and at the end of this time it had reached nearly the height of the wall. But the PlatŠans had not been idle while their foes were thus at work. They raised the height of their old wall at this point by an additional wall of wood, backed up by brickwork, which they tore down houses to obtain. In front of this they suspended hides, so as to prevent fire-bearing arrows from setting the wood on fire. Then they made a hole through the lower part of the town wall, and through it pulled the earth from the bottom of the mound, so that the top fell in.

The besiegers now let down quantities of stiff clay rolled up in wattled reeds, which could not be thus pulled away. Yet their mound continued to sink, in spite of the new materials they heaped on top, and they could not tell why. In fact, the PlatŠans had dug an underground passage from within the town, and through this carried away the foundations of the mound. And thus for more than two months the besiegers built and the garrison destroyed their works.

Not content with this, the PlatŠans built a new portion of wall within the town, joining the old wall on both sides of the mound, so that if the besiegers should complete their mound and rush up it in assault, they would find a new wall staring them in the face, and all their labor lost.

[208] This was not all that was done. Battering engines were used against the walls to break them down. These the defenders caught by long ropes, pulling the heads of the engines upward or sideways. They also fixed heavy wooden beams in such a manner that when the head of an engine came near the wall they could drop a beam suddenly upon it, and break off its projecting beak.

In these rude ways the attack and defence went on, until three months had passed, and Archidamus and his army found themselves where they had begun, and the garrison still safe and defiant. The besiegers next tried to destroy the town by fire. From the top of the mound they hurled fagots as far as they could within the walls. They then threw in pitch and other quick-burning material, and finally set the whole on fire. In a brief time the flames burst out hotly, and burnt with so fierce a conflagration that the whole town was in imminent danger of destruction. Nothing could have saved it had the wind favored the flames. There is a story also that a thunder-storm came up to extinguish the fire,—but such opportune rains seem somewhat too common in ancient history. As it was, part of the town was destroyed, but the most of it remained, and the brave inmates continued defiant of their foes.

Archidamus was almost in despair. Was this small town, with its few hundred men, to defy and defeat his large army? He had tried the various ancient ways of attack in vain. The Spartans, with all their prowess in the field, lacked skill in the assault of walled towns, and were rarely successful [209] in the art of siege. The PlatŠans had proved more than their match, and there only remained to be tried the wearisome and costly process of blockade and famine.

Determined that PlatŠa should not escape, this plan was in the end adopted, and a wall built round the entire city, to prevent escape or the entrance of aid from without. In fact, two walls were built, sixteen feet apart, and these were covered in on top, so that they looked like one very thick wall. There were also two ditches, from which the bricks of the wall had been dug, one on the inside, and one without to prevent relief by a foreign force. The covered space within the walls served as quarters for the troops left on guard, its top as a convenient place for sentry duty. This done, the main army marched away. It needed no great host to keep the few PlatŠans within their walls until they should consume all their food and yield to famine, a slower but more irresistible foe than all the LacedŠmonian power.

Fortunately for the besieged, they were well provisioned, and for more than a year remained in peace within their city, not attacked by their foes and receiving no aid from friends. Besides the eighty Athenians within the walls no help came to the PlatŠans during the long siege. At length provisions began to fail. It was evident that they must die like rats in a cage, surrender to their foes, or make a desperate break for freedom.

The last expedient was proposed by their general. It was daring, and seemed desperate, to seek to [210] escape over the blockading wall with its armed guards. So desperate did it appear that half the garrison feared to attempt it, deeming that it would end in certain death. The other half, more than two hundred in number, decided that it was better to dare death in the field than to meet death in the streets.

The wall was furnished with frequent battlements and occasional towers, and its whole circuit was kept under watch day and night. But as time went on the besiegers grew more lax in discipline, and on wet nights sought the shelter of the towers, leaving the spaces between without guards. This left a chance for escape which the PlatŠans determined to embrace.

By counting the layers of bricks in the blockading wall they were able to estimate its height, and prepared ladders long enough to reach its top. Then they waited for a suitable time. At length it came, a cold, dark, stormy December night, with a roaring wind, and showers of rain and sleet.

The shivering guards cowered within their sheltering towers. Out from their gates marched the PlatŠans, lightly armed, and, to avoid any sound, with the right foot naked. The left was shod, that it might have firmer hold on the muddy ground. Moving with the wind in their faces, and so far apart that their arms could not strike and clatter, they reached and crossed the ditch and lifted their ladders against the wall. Eleven men, armed only with sword and breastplate, mounted first. Others bearing spears followed, leaving their shields for their [211] comrades below to carry up and hand to them. This first company was to attack and master the two towers right and left. This they did, surprising and slaying the guards without the alarm having spread. Then the others rapidly mounted the wall.

At this critical moment one of them struck a loose tile with his foot and sent it clattering down the wall. This unlucky accident gave the alarm. In an instant shouts came from the towers, and the garrison below sprang to arms and hurried to the top of the wall. But they knew not where to seek the foe, and their perplexity was increased by the garrison within the city, which made a false attack on the other side.

Not knowing what to do or where to go, the blockaders remained at their posts, except a body of three hundred men, who were kept in readiness to patrol the outside of the outer ditch. Fire-signals were raised to warn their allies in Thebes, but the garrison in the town also kindled fire-signals so as to destroy the meaning of those of the besiegers.

Meanwhile the escaping warriors were actively engaged. Some held with spear and javelin the towers they had captured. Others drew up the ladders and planted them against the outer wall. Then down the ladders they hurried, waded across the outer ditch, and reached level ground beyond. Each man, as he gained this space, stood ready with his weapons to repel assault from without. When all the others were down, the men who had held the towers fled to the ladders and safely descended.

The outer ditch was nearly full of water from the [212] rain and covered with thin ice. Yet they scrambled through it, and when the three hundred of the outer guard approached with torches, they suddenly found themselves assailed with arrows and javelins from a foe invisible in the darkness. They were thus kept back till the last PlatŠan had crossed the ditch, when the bold fugitives marched speedily away, leaving but one of their number a prisoner in the hands of the foe.

They first marched towards Thebes, while their pursuers took the opposite direction. Then they turned, struck eastward, entered the mountains, and finally—two hundred and twelve in number—made their way safely to Athens, to tell their families and allies the thrilling story of their escape.

A few who lost heart returned from the inner wall to the town, and told those within that the whole band had perished. The truth was only learned within the town when on the next morning a herald was sent out to solicit a truce for burial of the dead bodies. The herald brought back the glad tidings that there were no dead to bury, that the whole bold band had escaped.

Happy had it been for the remaining garrison had they also fled, even at the risk of death. With the provisions left they held out till the next summer, when they were forced to yield. In the end, after the form of a trial, they were all slaughtered by their foes, and the city itself was razed to the ground by its Theban enemies, only the HerŠum, or temple of HerÚ, being left. Such was the fate of a city to which eternal sacredness had been pledged.


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