Brasidas Loses His Shield
In 425 b.c. , the seventh year of the war, an Athenian fleet of about forty ships, under an admiral named Eurymedon, was forced by stormy weather to seek shelter on the promontory of Pylos in Messenia. Pylos stood on the Bay of Pylos, which you now know as the Bay of Navarino.
To give the men something to do until the storm allowed them to sail, Demosthenes, an officer on board one of the ships, bade them begin to build a fort. But it was not only to employ the men that he did this, but because he believed that Pylos would make a good fortress from which to attack the western shore of Peloponnesus.
At first the men took little interest in the work, for they expected each day to leave Pylos. But as the storm continued, they began to work with a will, and soon a fortress that looked fit to defy an enemy was finished.
It had not been easy work, for the men had no iron tools. They could not cut stones, but were forced to pick out those that fitted into each other.
When mortar was needed they had to carry it on their backs, bending forward that it might not fall, and clasping their hands behind to help to keep it in place.
At length the storm was over and the fleet sailed away, leaving Demosthenes with five ships to hold the new fortress. Now the entrance to the Bay of Pylos was almost blocked by a narrow, thickly wooded island called Sphacteria.
The Spartans soon heard that the Athenians had taken possession of Pylos, which was on their territory. They determined to expel them, and an army under Epitadas was at once sent out and took possession of the wooded island of Sphacteria, while a Spartan fleet sailed into the Bay of Pylos. On board one of the ships was a famous Spartan named Brasidas.
Demosthenes had just time to send to Eurymedon to beg him to return with his forty ships, when the Spartans sailed up to the promontory, meaning to attack and capture the fort.
But it proved impossible to land. Again and again the Spartan admiral made the attempt, but each time he was forced to withdraw, lest his ships should be dashed upon the rocks.
Brasidas refused to give in, and he bade his men wreck their vessels rather than be beaten back. "Be not sparing of timber," he cried, "for the enemy has built a fortress in your country. Perish the ships and force a landing."
Spurred on by his words, the men drove their ship upon the beach, while Brasidas stood fearlessly on the gangway ready to leap upon the shore. But the Athenians saw the bold figure too well, and he became a target for every arrow.
As he fell back wounded, his left arm hung helpless over the side of the vessel and his shield slipped off and fell into the water. The waves washed it toward the shore, whereupon the enemy dashed down to the edge of the water and drew it in triumph up to the beach.
After a desperate struggle the Spartans were forced to withdraw, and the Athenians celebrated their victory by erecting a trophy of their spoils, placing, where every eye could see it, the shield of Brasidas.
For two days the Spartans still fought to gain the fortress but in vain. On the third day, Eurymedon returned with the Athenian fleet, and as the Spartan ships did not come to meet him he sailed in at the two entrances to the bay of Pylos: for the openings had not been secured by the enemy.
A desperate battle took place. Many of the Spartan ships were empty, as their crews were on shore. The Athenians tried to drag away these empty vessels, so that the enemy would have no way of escaping from Sphacteria.
But the Spartans knew that they must save their vessels at all costs, so they fought with redoubled fury and succeeded in rescuing most of the deserted ships. Yet their efforts proved of little use in the end, for though only five ships were captured, the rest of the fleet was so damaged that the Athenians were left in possession of the bay. They at once began to blockade Epitadas and his army in Sphacteria.