The Spartans Surrender
When Epitadas found that he was shut up on the island of Sphacteria, he sent a messenger to Sparta to tell what had befallen him. The ephors were so disturbed by his tidings that they at once sent some of their number to the Bay of Pylos to see what could be done to set free Epitadas and his men.
They soon saw that it would be too difficult a task to relieve the island, so they begged Eurymedon to grant a truce until they sent ambassadors to Athens to sue for peace.
Their request was granted, and the Spartan ambassadors at once set sail for Athens.
When they entered the assembly, Athens, had she but known it, might have ended the war with honour. But Pericles was no longer there to tell her that to do so would be well. Cleon still ruled the assembly with his rough eloquence. Nicias, the leader of those who desired peace, although he bitterly disliked Cleon, was not strong enough to overthrow him.
The assembly, urged by its leader, offered the Spartan ambassadors terms which it knew they would not accept. After rejecting them as the Athenians expected, the ambassadors returned indignant to Pylos, and the truce was at an end. But Sphacteria was not taken so easily as the Athenians had dreamed. In spite of the strict blockade, food was taken to the island, so that the Spartans were in no danger of starving.
Sometimes swimmers carrying with them linseed, poppy seeds and honey, reached the island. Sometimes Helots, tempted by promise of freedom, would manage, when the sky was dark and the sea stormy, to sail past the enemy's ships, taking cheese, meal and even wine to the Spartans.
In Athens, the people were growing impatient of the long blockade. When Demosthenes sent messengers to the city to ask for reinforcements, they began to be sorry that they had not offered more reasonable terms to the ambassadors. They looked darkly at Cleon, and began to whisper that but for his counsel peace would certainly have been made.
A meeting of the assembly was called, and Cleon, losing his temper when Nicias urged that peace should be arranged without delay, said, "It would be easy enough to take Sphacteria if our generals were men. If I were general I would do it at once."
Nicias was a quiet man, but these scornful words roused him to anger, and he retorted that if Cleon thought he was able to take the island it would be well that he should go and do so. He was himself a general, while Cleon was only a leather-merchant, but he was willing to resign in his favour.
At first Cleon thought that Nicias was but jesting, and he pretended that he really wished to go to the help of Demosthenes. But when he found that his opponent was in earnest, he declined the honour, saying that while Nicias was a general, he himself had no training in military affairs.
But the people were not willing to let the leather-merchant escape the consequences of his rash words. They shouted that he must go and prove that he could do as he had said.
When Cleon saw that there was no escape he grew reckless, and boasted that he would not only go to Sphacteria, but that he would take the island within twenty days, and either kill all the Spartans on it or bring them prisoners to Athens.
Some there were who mocked at his words, others laughed. But all were glad that the merchant should go, for they were tired of his rough ways and rougher speech. If he went he might return with his promise unfulfilled and his power with the people would then be lost. If he came back in triumph, the Spartans would have been defeated.
Before long, Cleon set out at the head of an army for Pylos. When he arrived he found Demosthenes already prepared to attack the island.
A large part of the forest on Sphacteria had just been burned down by some Athenian soldiers. They had been sent to the island to reconnoitre, and while making a fire to cook their dinner the trees were accidentally set alight.
The wood had sheltered the Spartans from the enemy, and the fire spoiled their chief defence, so that they were the less prepared to face the army of nearly fourteen thousand Athenians, which, led by Cleon and Demosthenes, now landed on the island.
Outnumbered as the Spartans were, for their army consisted of only abut four hundred and twenty soldiers and the same number of Helots, they fought bravely as was their custom.
But the arrows of the Athenians soon greatly reduced their number, while to add to the distress of the wounded, as well as of those who had escaped, the ground over which they marched was hot with still smouldering ashes of burnt wood.
At length Epitadas, the Spartan general, was slain, and the few soldiers who were still able to fight retreated to a hill on which was an old ruined fort. Here they took their stand, determined to keep the enemy at bay. And they did so until the Athenians found a path up a steep crag, from the top of which they could command the Spartan fort.
Unseen by the brave defenders, the enemy scaled the almost precipitous path, and when they reached the top they at once began to shoot arrows down upon the startled soldiers.
But soon Cleon bade them stay their arrows while he sent a herald to the Spartans to bid them surrender.
Spartan troops had never yet yielded to a foe. Ever they had conquered or fought to the death. Cleon believed that now, as their brave fellows at Thermopylae had done, they would rather die than yield.
But the Spartans dropped their shields and waved their hands above their heads to show that they would cease to fight. They begged to be allowed to ask the advice of their friends on the mainland. Their request was granted, and their friends bade them "to take counsel for themselves, but to do nothing disgraceful."
Two hundred and ninety-two Spartans, who were all that were still alive on Sphacteria, then surrendered, one hundred and twenty of these belonging to the noblest families in Sparta. Never after this surrender were the Spartans considered invincible.
Cleon was now able to return to Athens, which he reached within twenty days from the time he left the city, bringing with him, as he had boasted that he would do, his Spartan prisoners.
The Athenians rejoiced at the success of their army, but they laughed as they thought of the strange general who had led it to victory.
As for the prisoners, they were glad to hold them as hostages. The Spartans would be less likely to invade Attica while their comrades were in Athens.