The Great Peloponnesian War was probably the most important of the many clashes between the Greek cities states, and eventually expanded to include just about the entire Greek world. However at its heart was a clash between the very different cities of Sparta and Athens. However despite their many differences, both of their armies were built around the standard Greek hoplite, spear armed heavy infantry that dominated the battlefield until the rise of Macedonia.
One thing these three battles do illustrate is that the stereotyped image of the hoplite battle as a formal clash of two formed lines of heavy infantry on an open plain isn’t always the case. Sphacteria was fought on a small island, and involved a surprise attack from the rear of the Spartan position. Amphipolis was fought just outside the city of the same name, and saw the Spartans take advantage of the city gates. Only Mantinea fits the standard image of these battles.
It is also worth pointing out that none of these battles only involved Spartan and Athenian hoplites. At Sphacteria the Athenians had allies, archers and peltasts, while the Spartans had helots and other Peloponnesians with them. At Amphipolis both sides had allies, cavalry and lighter infantry. At Mantinea both sides had allies, and the Athenian cavalry is said to have played a major role in the battle.
I’m not sure we can make many conclusions about the relative skill levels of just the Athenian and Spartan hoplites from these battles (or indeed from any of this period – Sparta and Athens didn’t actual clash directly on land very often). Even at Mantinea, where both sides formed up in a regular line of battle and clashed in a fairly typical way, the crucial part of the battle was a clash between Spartan and some of the other contingents, which left the Athenians in danger of being trapped and with no choice other than to retreat. However the author does a good job of examining the strengths and weaknesses of the two cities, looking at the Athenian tendency to over-estimate their strength and thus refusal to accept Spartan peace offers, and the increasingly dangerous drop in the number of full Spartans, which eventually played a part in the sudden collapse of Spartan power. We also get good accounts of these three significant battles, each of which is of interest in its own account, and help demonstrate that ancient Greek battles were actually rather more varied than is often believed.
The opposing Sides
Sphacteria 425 BC
Amphipolis, 422 BC
Mantinea, 418 BC
Author: Murray Dahm