Battle of Nemea (394 BC)
By Bill Sumruld
Nemea lies on the northern border of the Argolid (the Northeastern Peloponnese of Southern Greece). It lies at the head of a narrow but open valley. Nemea was the site of the Panhellenic games and home of the temple of the Nemean Zeus. Recent archaeological work has dispelled the idea that ancient Nemea was occupied year round. In a UCLA Berkeley press release, dated 12/8/99, archaelologist Stephen Miller points out that the valley was subject to flooding every winter and due to this was also unsuitable for farming. Nemea means "grazing" and there seems to be some evidence that Nemean Zeus may have been a pastoral god, not the old familiar guy with the thunderbolt. Miller thinks he might even find a statue with a scuptured lamb in its arms.
The battle at Nemea was part of the Corinthian War. After defeating Athens and stripping it of its empire, the Spartans proved to be particularly inept at holding together their victorious alliance or conciliating Athens former allies. Instead of conciliation, the Spartans tried discipline through military action.
The Persian king, always anxious to stir up trouble among the Greeks, sent Timocrates of Rhodes with fifty talents of precious metal to encourage the anti-Spartan politicians in Thebes, Corinth and Argos. Xenophon seems to think this was the main cause of the war that followed. But if it was a factor it was certainly not the only one. Most city states seemed to have both a pro-Spartan and an anti-Spartan faction. In Athens, however, there was no oligarchy to favor the Spartan brand of politics. At both Thebes and Argos the picture was much more complicated.
The war started when Androcleides and Ismenias at Thebes calculated that if they could involve Boetia in a war with Sparta, victory would be assured because of the financial backing of Persia and the animosity felt for Sparta at both Athens and Corinth. No direct appeal would prompt the Boetians to war so they had to be more indirect.
They persuaded some Phocians to raid the territory of the Locrians, with whom they had a long standing boundary dispute. When the Locrians retaliated, the Phocians began a full fledged invasion. The Locrians appealed to Boeotia for help and Ismenias and his friends persuaded the Boetians to support the Locrians. The Phocians then begged the Spartans to forbid the Boetians to make war on them. The Spartans demanded that the Boeotians submit to arbitration. The Boeotians refused and continued their efforts to invade Phocis.
Sparta welcomed a chance to discipline the Boeotians because they were still angry that, in 403 BC, the Boeotians had refused to join Pausanias' invasion of Attica (a territory dominated by Athens) and had even persuaded the Corinthians to remain aloof as well. Sparta miscalculated badly. They seem to have forgotten about the latent hostility of Athens, Argos, and Corinth. They were so pleased over King Agesilaus' victories Asia and were lulled by the unaccustomed calm in most of the rest of Greece.
Sparta sent Lysander to muster the Phocians and their local allies and to persuade Orchomenus to secede from the Boeotian League, while King Pausanias collected further allies at Tegea. In efforts to gather further support, Lysander and his men were suddenly attacked by a Theban force and killed near Haliartus. When Pausanias arrived, he found no gathered force with Lysander. Only Lysander's body in the possession of the Thebans and their new Athenian allies. Badly outnumbered, Pausanias felt compelled to accept a Theban truce and evacuate the area. Pausanias was blamed for not arriving soon enough and was condemned to death in his absence from Sparta. He retired to Tegea, where he later died.
The growing Theban alliance captured the Spartan colony of Heraclea, killed all the Spartans there and exiled all other Peloponnesians they found in the area. An alarmed Sparta recalled Agesilaus from his efforts in freeing the Asian Greeks from Persian domination and in Sparta a levy was held and Aristodemus declared commander of an expeditionary force.
Aristodemus concentrated his forces at Sicyon while the Corinthians and their allies (including contingents from the Thebans, Athenians, and Argives) occupied the athletic and religious complex at Nemea. Aristodemus had some 6000 Spartan trained Hoplites with allied contingents yielding another 7,500 or so. The Spartans also supplied 600 cavalry. 400 levy slingers were joined by 300 mercenary Cretan archers to give Aristodemus about 700 psiloi.
The force at Nemea consisted of Hoplites from Athens (6000), Argos (7000), Boeotia (5000), and Corinth (3000). Boeotia (800) and Athens (600) provided the bulk of the estimated 1550 cavalry present. No ancient estimate exists for the number of psiloi gathered at Nemea.
According to Xenophon, the Boeotians hesitated to start the battle until they were sure it was the Athenians that would be facing the Spartans and they would only have to fight the Spartans' allies. The Spartans were on the right of their battle line facing the Athenians and the Boeotians were on the extreme right of their own battle line facing Sparta's allies.
According to Xenophon, the Boeotians drew themselves up in an exceptionally deep formation (Can anyone out there say Leuctra?). They then inclined to the right in an attempt to outflank the force opposing them. The Athenians were forced to expose their own flank because they were reluctant to allow a gap in the line. The Spartans were slow in getting started. When they heard the enemies battle chant/song (the paean), the moved forward inclining to their right in an effort to outflank the Athenians. At a little less than 200 yards from the enemy, the Spartans charged. The men in a position to outflank the Athenians were ordered to wheel and take the Athenians in the rear.
Sparta's own outflanked allies were being defeated but Sparta was victorious on its flank and wheeled across the field struck the Argive contingent in the flank and destroyed it. They next encountered and decimated the Corinthians and finally they struck the Thebans.
The defeated Theban alliance fled to Corinth (really just a few miles away) but wound up having to camp outside that night since the people of Corinth closed the gates to them.
There are are a series of wooded mountain slopes on two sides of the board intruding up to at least two element widths on each side There is a large built up area on their base line that serves the Theban Alliance as a camp. An easily fordable river runs the length of the battlefield off to one side of center. All else is good going.
My basic understanding of the battle is gleaned from Xenophon's Hellenica, Book 4, Chapter 2; Plutarch's Sayings of Spartans, 47; A.H.M. Jones. Sparta. Basil, Blackwood and Mott, 1967, pages 106-107; and W. G. Forrest. A History of Sparta: 950-192 B.C., W.W. Norton and Company, 1968, pages 122-130.
My basic understanding of the terrain is gleaned from Michael Grant, A Guide to the Ancient World, 1986; and The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: Internet Edition, http://www.brybmawr.edu/Acads/.Arch/NEArch/Index.Html.
Last Update: June 24, 2000
My thanks to Bill Sumruld for this scenario. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.