December 14, 2007

Long Walls

The Long Walls (Greek: Μακρά Τείχη), in Ancient Greece, were walls built from a city to its port, providing a secure connection to the sea even during times of siege. Although long walls were built at several locations in Greece—Corinth and Megara being two of the best known examples[1]—the phrase "long walls" generally refers to the walls connecting Athens to its ports at Piraeus and Phalerum. Those walls were constructed in the mid 5th century BC, destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and rebuilt again with Persian support during the Corinthian War. They were a key element of Athenian strategy, since they provided the city with a constant link to the sea and prevented it from being besieged by land alone.


The original walls of Athens had been destroyed by the Persians during the occupations of Attica in 480 and 479 BC, part of the Greco-Persian Wars. After the Battle of Plataea, the Persian forces that had invaded Greece in 480 BC were safely removed, and the Athenians were free to reoccupy their land and begin rebuilding their city. Early in the process of rebuilding, construction was started on new walls around the city proper. This project drew opposition from the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies, who had been alarmed by the recent increase in the power of Athens. Spartan envoys urged the Athenians not to go through with the construction, arguing that a walled Athens would be a useful base for an invading army, and that the defenses of the isthmus of Corinth would provide a sufficient shield against invaders, however, despite these concerns the envoys did not strongly protest and did in fact give advice to the builders. The Athenians disregarded the arguments, fully aware that leaving their city unwalled would place them utterly at the mercy of the Peloponnesians;[2] Thucydides, in his account of these events, describes a series of complex machinations by Themistocles by which he distracted and delayed the Spartans until the walls had been built up to such a height as to be defensible [3]

In the late 450s BC, fighting began between Athens and various Peloponnesian allies of Sparta, particularly Corinth and Aegina. In the midst of this fighting, Athens began construction of two more walls, one running from the city to the old port at Phalerum, the other to the newer port at Piraeus. In 457 BC, a Spartan army defeated an Athenian army at Tanagra while attempting to prevent the construction, but work on the walls continued, and they were completed soon after the battle.[4] These new walls, the Long Walls, ensured that Athens would never be cut off from supplies as long as she controlled the sea.

In Athenian strategy and politics

The building of the Long Walls reflected a larger strategy that Athens had come to follow in the early 5th century. Unlike most Greek city states, which specialized in fielding hoplite armies, Athens, since the time of the building of her first fleet during a war with Aegina in the 480s BC, had focused on the navy as the center of its military. With the founding of the Delian League in 477 BC, Athens became committed to the long term prosecution of a naval war against the Persians. Over the following decades, the Athenian navy became the mainstay of an increasingly imperial league, and Athenian control of the sea allowed the city to be supplied with grain from the Hellespont and Black Sea regions. The naval policy was not seriously questioned by either democrats or oligarchs during the years between 480 and 462 BC, but later, after Thucydides son of Melesias had made opposition to an imperialist policy a rallying cry of the oligarchic faction, the writer known as the Old Oligarch would identify the navy and democracy as inextricably linked, an inference echoed by modern scholars.[5] The long walls were a critical factor in allowing the Athenian fleet to become the city's paramount strength.

With the building of the Long Walls, Athens essentially became an island within the mainland, in that no strictly land based force could hope to capture it.[6] (In ancient Greek warfare, it was all but impossible to take a walled city by any means other than starvation and surrender.) Thus, Athens could rely on her powerful fleet to keep her safe in any conflict with other cities on the Greek mainland. The walls were completed in the aftermath of the Athenian defeat at Tanagra, in which a Spartan army defeated the Athenians in the field but was unable to take the city because of the presence of the city walls; seeking to secure their city even against siege, the Athenians completed the long walls; and, hoping to prevent all invasions of Attica, they also seized Boeotia, which, as they already controlled Megara, put all approaches to Attica in friendly hands.[7] For most of the First Peloponnesian War, Athens was indeed unassailable by land, but the loss of Megara and Boeotia at the end of that war forced the Athenians to turn back to the long walls as their source of defense.

In the Peloponnesian War

In Athens' great conflict with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War of 432 BC to 404 BC, the walls came to be of paramount importance. Pericles, the leader of Athens from the start of the war until his death in 429 BC of the plague that swept Athens, based his strategy for the conflict around them. Knowing that the Spartans would attempt to draw the Athenians into a land battle by ravaging their crops, as they had in the 440s, he commanded the Athenians to remain behind the walls and rely on their navy to win the war for them. As a result, the campaigns of the first few years of the war followed a consistent pattern: The Spartans would send a land army to ravage Attica, hoping to draw the Athenians out; the Athenians would remain behind their walls, and send a fleet to sack cities and burn crops while sailing around the Peloponnese. The Athenians were successful in avoiding a land defeat, but suffered heavy losses of crops to the Peloponnesian raids, and their treasury was weakened by the expenditures on the naval expeditions and on import of grain. Furthermore, a plague ravaged the city in 430 BC and 429 BC, with its effects being worsened by the fact that the entire population of the city was concentrated inside the walls.

The Athenians continued to use the walls for protection through the first phase of the war until the seizure of Spartan hostages during the Athenian victory at Pylos. After that battle, the Spartans were forced to cease their yearly invasions, since the Athenians threatened to kill the hostages if an invasion was launched.

In the second phase of the war, the walls again became central to the strategy of both sides. The Spartans occupied a fort at Decelea in Attica in 413 BC, and placed a force there that posed a year-round threat to Athens. In the face of this army, the Athenians could only supply the city by sea. The Long Walls, and the access to a port that they provided, were by now the only thing protecting Athens from defeat. Realizing that they could not defeat the Athenians on land alone, the Spartans turned their attention to constructing a navy, and throughout the final phase of the war devoted themselves to trying to defeat the Athenians at sea. Their eventual success, in the victory at Aegospotami, cut the Athenians off from their supply routes and forced them to surrender. One of the most important terms of this surrender was the destruction of the long walls, which were dismantled in 404 BC. Xeno tells us that the long walls were torn down with much jubilation and to the song of flute girls.

Rebuilding of the Long Walls

Following their defeat in 404, the Athenians quickly regained some of their power and autonomy, and by 403 BC had overthrown the government that the Spartans had imposed on them. By 395 BC, the Athenians were strong enough to enter into the Corinthian War as co-belligerents with Argos, Corinth, and Thebes. For the Athenians, the most significant event of this war was the rebuilding of the Long Walls. In 394 BC, a Persian fleet under the Athenian admiral Conon decisively defeated the Spartan fleet at Cnidus, and, following this victory, he brought his fleet to Athens, where it provided aid and protection as the Long Walls were rebuilt. Thus, by the end of the war, the Athenians had regained the immunity from land assault that the Spartans had taken from them at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

The Long Walls in the 4th Century

From the Corinthian War down to the final defeat of the city by Philip of Macedon, the Long Walls continued to play a central role in Athenian strategy. The Decree of Aristoteles in 377 BC reestablished an Athenian league containing many former members of the Delian League. By the mid 4th century, Athens was again the preeminent naval power of the Greek world, and had reestablished the supply routes that allowed it to withstand a land-based siege.

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