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Pylos and Sphacteria 425 BC: Sparta's island of disaster (Campaign) [Paperback]

William Shepherd , Peter Dennis
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

12 Dec 2013 Campaign (Book 261)
During the Second Peloponnesian War the Athenians occupied the promontory of Pylos to counter Sparta's repeated invasions of Attica. Over two days of fighting the small garrison beat off the Spartan army and the returning Athenian fleet won a crushing victory in the nearby waters, stranding a contingent of elite Spartan hoplites on the island of Sphacteria. With the campaigning season drawing to a close the Athenians mounted an attack on the island using an unconventional amphibious night assault they overran the Spartan outpost covering the beaches and light-armed missile troops landed at daybreak in overwhelming numbers. The Spartans were slowly driven back to their stronghold, losing men steadily and never allowed to engage in the hand-to-hand fighting at which they excelled. With their commander dead and his deputy incapacitated by wounds, the 292 survivors surrendered. This was a huge and surprising blow to the Spartans' glorious and fearsome reputation, and these prestigious prisoners-of-war served the Athenians very well as bargaining counters in the diplomatic activity that punctuated the hostilities that continued for the next four years.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Osprey Publishing (12 Dec 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782002715
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782002710
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 18.3 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 90,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

William Shepherd studied classics at Clare College, Cambridge, in the 1960s and then embarked on a career in publishing, which finally brought him to Osprey, retiring from the position of chief executive in 2007. He is author of The Persian War (Cambridge, 1982), translated from Herodotus. He has also written reading books for children and articles in the Osprey Military Journal, of which he was joint editor, and makes regular contributions to the Osprey blog. He lives in the Cherwell Valley, north of Oxford. Peter Dennis was born in 1950. Inspired by contemporary magazines such as Look and Learn he studied illustration at Liverpool Art College. Peter has since contributed to hundreds of books, predominantly on historical subjects, including many Osprey titles. A keen wargamer and modelmaker, he is based in Nottinghamshire, UK.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best titles 29 Dec 2013
By JPS TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a very good, and often superb, Osprey campaign titles, with very few of the glitches and typos that can mar other similar titles.

For starters, it allocates enough space so that the context of the Pylos and Sphacteria campaign is clearly presented. To achieve this, it goes right back to 479 BC and the victory over the Persians, before summarizing the building up of the Athenian Empire, the first clash against Sparta and its allies, the resulting peace, the growing tensions and the first years of what we know of the Peloponnesian War (the Spartans and their allies would probably have called it "the War against Athens").

The time and space taken to present both the immediate and the wider context of the campaign brings several other advantages to this title. First, it can be read as the sequel to the author's other title "Plataea 479 BC." Second, it does provide enough material to understand why the Peloponnesian War between the two great alliances of Greek cities broke out. Although it does not discuss its causes in detail, it does show that this was the second such conflict (see the section very aptly titled "The First Peloponnesian War 459-446 BC) into which Sparta was drawn because of Athenian expansionism.

Third, it presents the first stages of the war (termed the Archidamian War, with the title borrowed from one of Donald Kagan's volumes) with sufficient detail to show what had been the main characteristics of the conflict before the beginning of the Pylos-Sphacteria campaign. The conflict had become a bit of a stalemate, with the Spartans and their allies raising Attica every year but unable to draw Athens into a decisive land battle where the superiority of their hoplites would allow them to prevail.
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5.0 out of 5 stars History brought to life 18 Mar 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A well written and researched book with excellent illustrations and photographs which make history come to life. A recommended read.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars RE: Spartan defeat and....GULP!...surrender! 26 Dec 2013
By Karolus Magnus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Another outstanding title from Osprey covering a little known episode of the Peloponnesian War - the twin battles of Pylos (a naval battle) and Sphacteria (a largely land battle on an island) fought between Athens and Sparta in what is now Navarino Bay in western Greece. Both ended in a humiliating Spartan defeat and - in the second one - a shocking and unthinkable surrender. The book opens with a rather long introduction on the origins of the conflict which can be hard to follow if you're not familiar with the war and/or the geography.

The book highlights the tactics used by the Athenian light infantry and missile troops that completely befuddled the fearsome Spartans (or Spartiates - if you want to be more specific) - the best heavy infantry in the world at that time, perhaps of all time. Greek naval and amphibious operations which were critical to the Athenian victory are also featured. The failed negotiations between battles and the preceeding Pylos naval battle is also covered very well. On other sources, Pylos is frequently glossed over due to the more dramatic ending of the Sphacteria battle.

The maps are more than adequate and the art (by the prolific Peter Dennis) is great - there are four (4) color plates in this one, most Osprey Campaign titles only have 2 or 3 on average.
Nice purchase and very recommended - obviously fighting to the death has its limits, even for the Spartans.
Also, makes you wonder if they would have surrendered if the opponent was non-Greek...
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best titles 29 Dec 2013
By JPS - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a very good, and often superb, Osprey campaign titles, with very few of the glitches and typos that can mar other similar titles.

For starters, it allocates enough space to clearly present the context of the Pylos and Sphacteria campaign. For this, it goes right back to 479 BC and the victory over the Persians, before summarizing the building up of the Athenian Empire, the first clash against Sparta and its allies, the resulting peace, the growing tensions and the first years of what we know of the Peloponnesian War (the Spartans and their allies would probably have called it "the War against Athens").

The time and space taken to present both the immediate and the wider context of the campaign brings several other advantages to this title. First, it can be read as the sequel to the author's other title "Plataea 479 BC." Second, it does provide enough material to understand why the Peloponnesian War between the two great alliances of Greek cities broke out. Although it does not discuss its causes in detail, it does show that this was the second such conflict (see the section very aptly titled "The First Peloponnesian War 459-446 BC) into which Sparta was drawn because of Athenian expansionism.

Third, it presents with the first stages of the war (termed the Archidamian War, with the title borrowed from one of Donald Kagan's volumes) with sufficient detail to show the main characteristics of the conflict by the time the Pylos-Sphacteria campaign was to start. The conflict had become a bit of a stalemate, with the Spartans and their allies raising Attica every year but unable to draw Athens into a decisive land battle where the superiority of their hoplites would allow them to prevail. Athens, on the other hand, despite huge losses to the plague was predominant at sea, and laying waste to the coastal territory of its enemies, of Sparta's allies in particular.

Another quality of this title is the care taken to present the components of Athens' naval superiority, with the author having made full use of the reports on the reconstructed Olympias trireme, its performances and its remarkable manoeuvrability. It also shows the limits of these warships which were crammed, largely "fair-weather" ships and had to make for the shore almost every evening for watering, if not for food.

The events of the campaign are clearly presented, including the strategy of the Athenians and the blunders (but also the courage) of the Spartans who, with the exception of Brasidas perhaps, were clearly out of their depth (no pun intended!), wrong footed, and bested at every stage. Full use is made of Thucydides which is often (and very aptly) quoted verbatim. The author is careful to show, however, that the campaign was not as one-sided as it is commonly believed to be, as the Athenians faced huge issues to supply their expeditionary force with food and water.

The title also includes a number of helpful maps, photos and plates that support the main text rather well. The four plates - the Spartan attack from the sea (where Brasidas was wounded), the Battle of the Harbour and the two showing the Battle of the Island - illustrate rather vividly the Spartan predicament. The bibliography is also quite good, although it might have been preferable to list Donald Kagan's four volumes on the Peloponnesian War (and, in particular, the one titled "The Archidamean War" which deals specifically with this period of the conflict and with the Pylos-Sphacteria campaign) rather than his one-volume summary. Another little glitch - clearly a typo - can be found in the chronology, where the dates for the disastrous Sicilian expedition of the Athenians are wrong (it took place 415-413 BC and not 417-415, as indicated).

One point that is a bit controversial is the interpretation according to which hoplites and Spartan ones in particular, started to fight without body armour and increasingly discarding it. The author and the illustrator have chosen to show them without such armour, not even leather, as early as 425 BC, making a case that this was a deliberate response to the increasing threat posed by specialised light infantry (archers and peltasts in particular). The Spartans did select some of their younger and faster hoplites (called ekdromoi, but also epilektoi if I remember correctly) and train them specifically to fight without body armour and sprint out of the phalanx to catch light infantry. It is however much less certain that the lack of body armour was as generalised as shown in the plates and mentioned in the text.

Finally, the title also addresses the aftermath of the campaign rather well. In particular, it shows to what length the Spartans were ready to go to get back their Spartiates prisoners. It also shows that the campaign was indeed a disaster for Sparta, at least in terms of reputation, although the Athenians, by refusing peace terms immediately after their victories, when they clearly had the upper hand, squandered in part the benefits of this campaign, allowing Brasidas to somewhat restore the balance by his own victories in Thrace.

Five stars for a rather superb title.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Introduction to the Conflict and Addition to Osprey's Campaign Series 19 Jan 2014
By Yoda - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Any review of this book would have to start by mentioning that it is part of the Osprey "Campaign" series and what this implies in terms of analysis. The length of books in this series is relatively short. They are only 96 pages, about a third of which consists of one type or another of illustration. Hence they are, usually, only good when they attempt to capture battles or campaigns that are relatively short and/or straight forward. As this battle is such the book, not surprisingly, succeeds.

Following the standard format of the Campaign series, the book starts off with an introduction to the overall strategic picture. This is, basically, how the how the war was progressing for both sides. At this the book does an excellent job. It shows that both sides were at a stalemate albeit suffering significant losses. The book, in this section, also does a good job at showing how tactics were changing from being based almost entirely on heavy infantry and the phalanx, to making more and more use of "light" and skirmishing infantry (i.e., peltests, etc.). This was so for a number of reasons. One was that the expansion of troops could not keep up with the ability to supply them armour and another that this expansion could not permit use of heavy infantry tactics as these were based on serious training and discipline.

Then the book goes on to discuss opposing commanders and armies. Here we learn that both side's leaders were very experienced and quite good at their craft. The reader also learns that, as stated previously, light infantry tactics were starting to come on their own. However, they were doing so in a very asymmetric manner. Even though both sides were using these tactics more than they did at the beginning of the war, the Athenians were making much more use of them than the Spartans were. One reason for this was that the Spartans more slavishly followed tradition. Another was that the Spartan army consisted of a much larger percentage of "professional" soldiers, so the opportunity to use light infantry and tactics, as opposed to heavy infantry and tactics, was much more limited.

The author then goes into each side's strategic goals. Both sides were, previous to this battle, attempting to capture territory near the hearts of their enemies, in order to use as staging grounds for either offensives into their enemy's territories or to tie down significant forces in defense. The Athenians goal was to establish such a zone. This would have the benefit of not only performing the two functions just stated, but to also support their Messian allies.

The Athenians made a surprise landing and very quickly fortified a very defensible beach head to implement this strategy. The Spartans, on the other hand, were slow to respond initially (like the Germans at D-Day) and even then did not bring the heavy siege equipment they would need to overcome the fortifications established. A series of battles then followed, that included amphibious forces, to dislodge the Athenians. These are discussed in very good detail with excellent maps (both 2-D and 3-D) and photographs showing the topology and what had to be overcome. In this process a large Spartan force was cut off on an island adjacent to the Athenian positions. The Spartan forces trapped there had the goal of holding off until the winter when the Athenians would no longer be able to maintain their forces and blockade due to winter weather which would have made resupply of their forces by naval power impossible. Hence the Athenians, to crush this trapped force, had to act quickly and decisively. Considering the topology of the island (i.e., very defensible with few landing areas and rear areas defended by cliffs) this was difficult. Yet the Athenians, through the use of light troops that climbed the cliffs, outflanked the Spartans. This lead to the never before heard of surrender of Spartan troops. These troops were to serve as very valuable pawns of the Athenians in negotiations. Nevertheless, the war's strategic picture did not change much. The balance of power did not change significantly and neither side had suffered irreplaceable losses. The war continued on.

The book is, in short, very well written, illustrated and researched. The reader not only obtains an excellent overview of how the battle itself played out but also what lead to the battle and both side's leaders, armies and strategies. All and all an excellent addition to Osprey's Campaign series.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice slender volume on a major defeat of Sparta by Athens 4 Jan 2014
By Steven A. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This slender volume, an addition to the Osprey Campaigns series, does an excellent job of describing a major battle in the later years of the war lasting from 431 to 421 B. C. (see the Chronology on pages 21 and 22 to place this battle into the larger historical context of the wars between Sparta (and her allies) and Athens (and her allies).

First, the volume covers key points in continuing warfare between the two city states, from 479 through 425 B. C. This time frame included events that precipitated the wars (pages 5-20). From my perspective, this is one of the best background discussions across the Campaigns series. Sometimes, in this series, the background to a battle ends up being a bit too brief or fuzzily described to allow a sense of the context. Surely, not so here.

Second, the work explores the campaign in its entirety, showing how Athenian and Spartan forces (and allies) maneuvered and developed their positions at Pylos and Sphacteria. Spartans' dispositions were flawed at a number of points, including naval forces and positions of land forces. The Spartans also were dilatory in preparing for the oncoming (and superior) Athenian naval forces, being very tardy in responding to the advancing fleet of the Athenians.

Third, the book discussed political elements during the entire time frame of the war and also at the time of the conclusion of this battle.

Fourth, as with other Osprey works in the series, one gets an introduction to the leaders of the battle, the opposing forces, and the plans of battle for each side.

In the end, this is a very strong entry in the Campaigns series.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Good Work, with some caveats 13 Feb 2014
By R. A Forczyk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
While the stand of the Spartans (and other lesser mortals) at Thermopylae is well known, the embarrassing Spartan defeat on Sphacteria in 425 BC during the Peloponnesian War is virtually unknown unless you have read Thucydides’ history. Yet reading Thucydides, as I have, it is difficult to really understand the disaster at Sphacteria based merely upon literary descriptions. It is the nature of the terrain, which decided the battle, which is missing. William Shepherd deftly solves that problem with his new volume in Osprey’s Campaign series, entitled Pylos and Sphacteria 425 BC. In addition to six 2-D maps and 1 3-D BEV map, Shepherd provides 30 modern color photographs of the island of Sphacteria and the adjoining harbor at Pylos. With these photos and maps, readers can fully grasp the difficult place that the Spartans had placed themselves and why they were defeated – that’s a good deliverable for any piece of military history. Adding to this, the brilliant artwork of Peter Dennis in four battle scenes really brings this campaign to life. Overall, a very good work, with some caveats.

That said, the author gets off to a shaky start, with a tedious and overblown 16-page introduction that goes all the war back to 479 BC, in order to provide a blow-by-blow description of what was going on in Greece five decades before the campaign began. I suggest that anyone who has already read Thucydides skip this introduction and go straight to the battle section. The section on opposing forces is good, but the plans and commanders section are basic. The campaign proper begins on page 35. In a nutshell, Athens decided on coastal raiding to distract Sparta, not expecting the Spartans to commit much forces against raiders. However, the Spartan ground operations against Athens were inconclusive, so they decided to commit some of their best Hoplites against a second-rate Athenian force that landed at Pylos. In an effort to be clever, the Spartans sent a large ground force onto the island of Sphacteria to outflank Pylos, then found themselves stranded when the Athenian fleet demolished their naval support. Although the author does not say it, it is clear that the Spartan tactical-level expertise was not matched with sound operational-level planning; in short, they put their own heads in the noose. The author’s description of the Athenian efforts to eliminate the stranded Spartan force on Sphacteria is the heart of this volume and is excellent. The terrain photos make quite apparent how Athenian light troops were able to isolate and destroy some of the best infantry in Greece in a day. After the Athenian victory though, the book sort of tapers off, with little assessment of the campaign’s impact. This volume provides a very dynamic look at an important campaign, but it could have done with less padding and more analysis/insight.
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