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The Battle of Haliartus

J.R. has been reading and writing about Greek history since he first started working for Wildfire Games' free RTS 0 AD in 2003.


At the dawn of the 4th Century BC, Sparta was the predominant power in Greece. Spartan imperialism and their high-handedness in dealing with both their allies and enemies alike prompted the outbreak of what is called the Corinthian War. The battle of Haliartus was the first land battle of the war, and the first major confrontation between the two major powers of this era: Sparta and Thebes.

A Persian tetradrachm of the period from 400 to 341. With coins like these, the Persians funded the anti-Spartan factions in the Greek poleis.

A Persian tetradrachm of the period from 400 to 341. With coins like these, the Persians funded the anti-Spartan factions in the Greek poleis.

The Spartan Hegemony

Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War allowed them to replace Athens as the leaders of the Greek world. But the Spartans had only emerged triumphant with the assistance of their allies in the Peloponnesian League, who received little in return for their contributions. In 402 Sparta turned on Elis, a member of the League, and attacked it over disputes left over from the war. Then, in 398 the Spartans embarked on a grand overseas adventure targeting the Achaemenid Persian Empire. By now the battle of Cunaxa had brought an end to the ambitions of Cyrus the Younger, who plotted to seize the Persian throne with Spartan aid.

The Persians then took measures against the Greek city-states (or poleis, singular polis) on the western coast of modern Turkey, which was called Ionia and had been Cyrus' supporters. Sparta took the opportunity presented by the Ionian call for aid to make war on Persia. But Sparta's allies were not unified in support for this foreign war: Corinth and Thebes made common cause with former enemy Athens in opposition. When the Persians proved unable to contain the Spartan advance militarily, they changed tactics. A Greek in Persian service, Timocrates of Rhodes, was dispatched with gold equal to 50 talents of silver to fund anti-Spartan activities in Greece. He found a willing audience in the anti-Spartan factions of Thebes, Corinth, and Argos. The Athenians refused the money but agreed to join the effort for a chance to get back at Sparta.

The Thebans Provoke Sparta

Thebes was the first to act. Cautious about challenging the Spartans directly and knowing they would not break the alliance treaties unless provoked, the Thebans looked to incite a war. They found an excuse in a land dispute between Eastern or Opuntian Locris and Phocis, Sparta's principal ally in Central Greece. Under Theban influence, the Locrians levied a land tax on the disputed territory. The Phocians responded predictably, invading Locris and carrying spoils. The Locrians appealed to Thebes for aid, as Opuntian Locris was a long-standing ally. They anti-Spartan faction carried the day, and Thebes mobilized the army of the Boeotian Confederacy, the loose federal body that united the region. The Boeotians invaded Phocis up through the Cephisus valley from Orochmenus in late summer, 395.

After ravaging the countryside, the Boeotians and Locrians returned home through the route passing through Hyampolis. The Phocians sent across the Gulf of Corinth for aid from Sparta. Within Sparta, the party of Lysander, one of the architects of the final Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and a major political and military force ever since, was in the ascendant. Lysander saw an opportunity to punish Thebes and Boeotia for what he saw as a decade's worth of insults and disdain. With the Spartans already meeting military success in Asia under King Agesilaus II, the Spartan leadership decided on war. They first sent heralds into Boeotia to demand the Thebans submit to their mediation, which they refused indignantly.

A 16th Century illustration of Lysander, one of Sparta's finest leaders.

A 16th Century illustration of Lysander, one of Sparta's finest leaders.

The Invasion Begins

Two armies were organized for this invasion. One force, under Lysander, was sent over the Gulf to Phocis. His objective was to raise troops from Sparta's allies in the region, which he did with speed: In short order, Lysander had passed through Phocis, Mt. Oeta, Heraclea, Malis, and Aenis, steadily building strength as he went to a total strength of 5,000 men. The second army was to be the main force, comprised of Spartan citizens and the full Peloponnesian League levy numbering around 6,000, commanded by Agesilaus' royal colleague (and Lysander's rival), King Pausanias. Haliartus was designated as their meeting place because of its strategic position on the southern shore of Lake Copais at the midpoint between Thebes and Orochmenus.

Once his forces were assembled, Lysander struck. Hoping to exploit internal Boeotian rivalries the Spartan leader persuaded Orochmenus to change sides with promises of autonomy, gaining a further 2,000 hoplites, 200 horsemen, and 700 light infantry in the bargain. Together they plundered the town of Lebadea. When the Thebans became aware of the invasion they sent envoys to Athens to ask for aid in early August. The Athenian Assembly agreed unanimously, spurned on by fears of a Spartan overseas empire in Asia, and forged a defensive alliance with the Boeotians. Meanwhile, King Pausanias set out for Haliartus, but with the notable absence of the Corinthians, who refused to mobilize.

Feeling antsy so deep in enemy territory without support, Lysander sent off a messenger towards Plataea where he thought Pausanias should be, eager to unite their forces. The Spartan leader had entrusted his messenger with written instructions that the king should meet him at dawn the following morning below the walls of Haliartus. But the messenger was captured by Theban scouts, active in the area trying to gain better intelligence of the invasion. The capture was a major coup for the allies. The decision was quickly made to leave the defense of Thebes to the newly arrived Athenians, while the Thebans mustered their levy and the levy of Haliartus to defeat Lysander.

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The Battle of Haliartus: Lysander Dies to an Ambush

As Lysander made his way to Haliartus, he passed Coronea and made the same promises of autonomy he made to Orochmenus. The city refused to heed him and remained loyal to the Boeotian Confederacy. When the Spartans arrived within view of the walls of Haliartus, they discovered the city would not switch sides and had been invested with a Theban garrison. Lysander moved his men south, still within sight of the walls, to a spur of nearby Mt. Helicon called "Fox-hill" by the locals. There he waited for several hours for King Pausanius to arrive with the rest of the Spartan forces, but grew nervous as the day dragged on. Eventually, he decided to make a show of force in front of the walls, but when they reached the bottom of the hill and prepared the cross the local river they were attacked from behind. The Thebans had sprung their trap.

Unbeknownst to Lysander, the Theban army had arrived before him and deployed most of their 5,000 or so men outside the walls and to the right of the town. They positioned themselves to be able to maneuver behind the Spartans as they advanced along the road. Watching the invaders stumble the Thebans and Haliartians sallied out from the town and fell on the Spartan front. Lysander, marching out in front of his army, was killed at first contact. With the commander dead, the rest of the front line buckled and collapsed. Without a core of veteran Spartan citizens to firm them up, the Spartan army broke and began retreating to Fox-hill. The Thebans took off in pursuit, killing 1,000 before the invaders reached the safety of the spur. Once on the high ground, the Spartans inflicted around 2-300 casualties on the pursuers before they withdrew for the day.

An 19th Century illustration of some ruins at Haliartus.

An 19th Century illustration of some ruins at Haliartus.

The Spartans Cut Their Losses and Retreat

The following morning revealed the Phocians and the rest of the local allies had fled during the night. Leaving only Lysander's starting core of troops to meet King Pausanias as he arrived on the field. The king had already received word of Lysander's death while he was on the road between Plataea and Thespiae. But the Spartan army did not attack. The following day the Athenian army arrived from Thebes and Pausanias called his regimental commanders and advisors together to form a plan of action. Eventually, the decision was reached to ask for a parley since Lysander was already dead, morale was low, and the opposing army could field greater numbers of cavalry. Not to mention Corinthian intransigence, which deprived the Spartans of their expected number of soldiers for this venture. What had been conceived as a short term campaign to punish an unruly ally had turned into an embarrassment.

The Spartans requested a truce to recover the corpses of their dead, which was the same thing as admitting defeat. As the Spartans usually granted this instead of asking for it, the allies understood what was happening. The Thebans granted the request, but only on the condition the Spartans retreat from Boeotia. They agreed, and the Spartans collected their dead and began a humiliating retreat, heckled and abused by the Thebans along the entire way until they reached the Phocian border. King Pausanias paused just long enough to bury Lysander on the allied territory of Panopea and resumed marching home. The first phase of the Corinthian War was over.

Platea, which King Pausanias passed after making his way into Boeotia via the route through Mt. Cithaeron.

Platea, which King Pausanias passed after making his way into Boeotia via the route through Mt. Cithaeron.


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