The Peloponnesian War began with an attack upon the little town of Plataea. Two years later, in the early summer of 429 b.c. , Plataea was again attacked, this time by the Spartans, who were led by their king Archidamus. The town, small though it was, was an Athenian fortress, so the Spartans were eager to raze it to the ground.
But Plataea stood on sacred territory; for Pausanias, after his great victory over the Persians, had declared that in time of war it should ever be left undisturbed.
The Plataeans reminded the king of the promise of the Spartan general, and begged him to withdraw his troops.
Archidamus would not lead his army away, but he promised to do the Plataeans no harm if they would become allies of Sparta, or if they would give up their alliance with Athens and fight on neither side. But the Plataeans would not agree to either of these plans.
Then the king offered to let them leave the town. He promised that their homes, their orchards, their fields would be kept in good order as long as the war lasted, and that they would be given back to them when peace was made.
It was a generous offer, and the Plataeans begged to be allowed to send to Athens to ask her advice. Her answer speedily settled the matter.
"Athens," so ran the message, "never deserted her allies, and would not now neglect the Plataeans, but succour them with all her might. Wherefore the alliance must stand and the attack of the Spartans be withstood."
When Archidamus heard what Athens had said to the Plataeans, he determined to besiege the town. The Thebans who were with the Spartan army rejoiced that war was to begin, for they were ever bitter enemies of the Plataeans.
The little town prepared to defend herself against the enemy, sending away the women and children to a place of safety. A hundred women slaves only were kept to cook and wash for the garrison, which was small. Yet few in number as they were, the doughty citizens withstood the attacks of the Spartans for two years.
When Archidamus ordered his men to raise a mound as high as the wall around the town, the Plataeans at once added to the height of their defences. They also dug beneath the mound of the enemy, and so undermined it that it was continually sliding down.
Then lest the walls should at length be scaled by the enemy, the citizens built an inner wall to protect the city yet more strongly.
Often the little garrison looked wistfully for the help that Athens had assured them would be sent, but month after month passed and no help came from the plague-stricken city. Yet the Plataeans did not dream of surrender.
Archidamus was in despair, for he knew that his soldiers were seldom able to take a walled town. His pride was hurt at the thought of being beaten by a mere handful of men. He had with him the whole Peloponnesian army, yet a garrison of five hundred had been able to defy all his efforts to capture the city.
The king determined, since he could not take the town by assault, to starve it into submission. So he now ordered two great walls to be built round the city, placing on them here and there towers or battlements. The walls were a certain space apart, and this space was covered over, so that the soldiers could live in it as in a camp, while armed sentinels paced up and down on the roof.
When the second year of the siege began, food grew scarce in Plataea. Either the little garrison must force its way out or die of hunger. To escape, the soldiers would have to scale the wall, without attracting the attention of the sentinels, and reach the ground on the other side.
More than half the garrison resolved to stay where it was, but about two hundred determined to make the perilous attempt.
So one cold, dark night in the month of December, when the sentinels had retreated into the towers for shelter, the brave two hundred stole out of the town, carrying ladders on their backs. They wore little clothing, that they might climb and run the easier. That they might step the more quietly their right feet were bare, while on the left each wore a shoe to keep him from slipping in the mud.
Stealthily they made their way across a ditch and reached the wall unseen, unheard. Twelve of the bravest scaled the wall and killed the sleepy sentinels, who had sought shelter in the towers from a storm of wind and rain.
The others then mounted the wall, fixed their ladders on the farther side and reached the ground in safety, while the twelve, who had waited to the last, began to descend.
All would have been well, had not one man slipped and knocked a tile off the top of the wall. It rattled and fell to the ground with a noise that roused the Spartans, who scrambled up the wall in great haste. But the darkness was so dense that they could see nothing.
Those of the garrison who had stayed in the city did all that they could to perplex the enemy, by making a sally on the side of the town farthest from that by which their friends had fled. And when the Spartans lit torches and flashed danger signals to the Thebans whose city was not far off, the Plataeans lit beacons, so that the signals were confused.
Meanwhile the fugitives, having reached the ground in safety, were met by a band of three hundred Spartans. These were carrying lights, so the Plataeans were able to send a shower of arrows among them with sure and deadly aim. In the confusion that followed, all save one archer succeeded in crossing a ditch, covered with ice, but too thin to bear the weight of the fugitives. They struggled through the icy water, and after many narrow escapes two hundred and twelve weary men reached Athens in safety.
Plataea held out gallantly until the summer of 427 b.c. , when famine at length forced her to surrender.
Five judges were sent from Sparta to decide the fate of the prisoners. But the trial was a mere form, for the Thebans had already persuaded the Spartans how to treat the unfortunate men.
Each prisoner as he was brought before the judges was asked if he had helped the Spartans in their war against Athens. As each one answered "No," he was led out and put to death. In this way two hundred Plataeans and twenty-five Athenians lost their lives, while the city they had so bravely defended was razed to the ground.