Just Make Sure It Will Burn


Words can make things seem far more dramatic than they actually are. For example, what do you think of when you read the following:

Ravaging and pillaging the countryside.

Words like these call up images of massive destruction, of colossal armies leaving nothing but unfettered and unfeeling havoc and pestilence in their wake, a nearly immediate obliteration of rolling farmlands and pristine vistas into a putrid bog fit for nothing but eternal desolation.

But how easy is it to actually ravage and pillage a countryside?

As the Spartans discovered for nearly seven years into the 27 year long Peloponnesian War with Athens: not easy at all.


In the ancient world of the Spartans and Athenians, most cities did not have standing professional armies. (Sparta being a notable exemption.) Rather, military service was based on class, and class was generally tied directly to land ownership. As such, when war came, the majority of the soldiers doing the actual fighting were not professionally trained or paid soldiers, but farmers.

As the ancient world was agrarian based, these land-owning farmers were proud of their class, their land and their ability to serve in the military. It is sometimes difficult for moderns to understand why men of the ancient world would be so willing to fight over land, but for them, land was not simply property to be bought or sold. Indeed, for many it would have been in their family for generations, taking on almost a sacred place in their lives. It was where their ancestors had lived and died and were buried- not something one simply gives up or walks away from without a fight.

Since notions such of these held such a deep place in the lives of Greeks everywhere, military tactics of conventional hoplite warfare were developed around this commonality. In this manner the Spartan army along with its allies marched 60,000 strong into Attica to confront Athens in what would be one of the longest, bloodiest, costliest and most pointless wars ever fought in the ancient world.


The Spartans had a simple and conventional (many contemporaries argued too conventional) strategy to force a pitched battle with the Athenians. They would march the army into enemy territory, ravage the countryside and wait for the angered farmer/soldiers to emerge from the walls and fight. At the time the Spartan phalanx was the most feared fighting force in Greece and they knew it. The Athenians knew it. Even though the Spartans comprised perhaps only 10 percent of the invading force, they were nevertheless the force to be reckoned with. Add to them the best cavalry in their allies the Boeotians, and a pitched battle meant that victory would be assured, even if the Athenians could marshall a larger army. The Athenians would fight bravely, would fight like men, but would lose. After the dust settled from an honorable battle, the Athenians would sue for peace, negotiations would be made, payments transacted, hostages released, and the war could be over within a year or two.


The difficulty was that the Athenians decided not to bite. Pericles, the de facto strategist of Athens’ war strategy, counseled against fighting a pitched battle. Rather, he gambled on evacuating the countryside and waiting inside the massive fortifications that Athens offered, biding their time and waiting for the invading Spartan force to eventually wear itself out. Besides, at the time Athens owned the seas, with its massive Long Walls that stretched to the harbors, so resupplying the city with grain and other necessities was something the Spartan league was not able to curtail.

Such a decision was not met with joy from all quarters. After all, for the farmers who were forced to evacuate to the city and hide behind the walls, the idea of an invading army destroying the upcoming harvest was not a pleasant one. Add to that the characteristic Greek hubris, and not going out to fight for one’s home was for some a nearly unbearable notion. However, the strategy was set in place and the Athenians managed to stay inside the walls even as they watched the Spartans and their allies bringing destruction to the surrounding countryside.


That’s where we come to ravaging the countryside. In the ancient world this could mean many things, but it usually involved cutting down olive trees, burning fields, sometimes destroying structures; trying to do as much damage to the land as possible.

In the end, the effect was often meant (if not in theory at least in actuality) to be more psychological than material, for a number of reasons. In the case of the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were woefully uninformed about the logistics of their project. (As they perennially seemed to be.) They were unaware of the sheer scope of the Attican hinterland, which had millions of trees. For an invading force of 60,000 to even put a dent into such a vast expanse was impossible.

Cutting down tress is not an easy task, especially olive trees which were plentiful throughout Attica. Burning them was equally challenging, depending on the time of year, how close together they are, and any number of other factors. The same is true with seemingly flammable things like wheat and barley fields. Sometimes they seem like they should light up and blaze, but only fizzle into embers without much destruction. Even in the modern era controlled and systematic burns are an intricate process.

Tearing or burning down structures was an equally dubious task. In the movies we are accustomed to see invaders tossing lighted brands onto thatched roofs which immediately burst into flames, consuming the house and all that surrounds it until the village is a pile of rubble and ashes. In the Attican countryside, no such scenario existed. Most dwellings were made of clay and tile which does not ignite easily and is equally difficult to tear down, requiring an incredible expenditure on the part of the soldiers who are there to fight, not demolish. Couple that with the fact that the landscape was so vast and spread out that one might find a house or dwelling every few miles meant that such targets were simply not worth the effort. Conventional warfare usually reserved structural destruction as a psychological blow, such as when Titus had the Temple in Jerusalem completely dismantled.

Finally, while an invading army was ravaging the land, the enemy was generally not idle. While the Athenians would avoid a pitched battle, that did not mean they did not send out light skirmishing parties to harass and demoralize the enemy.

There was also a sort of careful calculus one would have to perform during an invasion. A soldier loaded down with weapons could only carry about 2-3 days rations, so any additional food would have to be supplied from the very countryside one was going to be ravaging. An army of 60,000 (along with perhaps one-third additional noncombatants) would require immense supplies, and the only place to get them was from the fields and trees one was going to be burning and cutting down.

Thus, to ‘ravage’ the land generally meant to attempt to do as much destruction as possible, without actually doing that much. It was meant as a provocation, not as solution.

Make it Quick

In such a scenario, one can see why the Spartans were hoping that such a maneuver would compel the Athenians to quickly get enraged at the despoliation of their lands and engage in a pitched battle where things could be decided once and for all. Sieges take a long time, and one against Athens was doomed to failure without a supporting navy, so the Spartans wanted to get in and out. Otherwise, their own soldiers had fields of their own back home to tend to, (and probably knew in the back of their minds that the Athenians would be sending their fleets to do the very same thing in Laconia that they were presently doing in Attica) and it would only mean making the long trek back and then coming back the following year.

That is exactly what happened. The Athenians refused to engage in a pitched hoplite battle, and the Spartans were eventually forced to return home, only to try again the next year, and then the next, and then the next. Crops grew back, trees that had been chopped or burned were flourishing again, and it was completely exasperating to the Spartans, as their strategy of ravaging the land was being beaten back by time and the land itself. This war was not going to be a quick one they had hoped for.

If you’re going to ravage the land, just make sure it will burn.

At first glance it seemed that Pericles’ gamble had paid off. Since the Athenians could move their navies at will, they immediately launched relatively unopposed retaliatory strikes against Peloponnesian holdings, turning what the Spartans had hoped to be a quick encounter into a two-front war which Athens could afford but Sparta could not, and both knew it.

More Dramatic Words

Of course, within a few years the tide would turn dramatically in favor of the Spartans which had nothing to do with the oh-so-dramatic words of ‘ravaging the land.’

Because there are other dramatic words too.

Words like a plague that ravages a quarter of the population.

Unfortunately for the Athenians, it wasn’t a simple euphemism.

But that’s another story altogether.


*Much of the information in this post was gleaned from Victor Davis Hanson’s exceptional book A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. If you are interested in reading great books, this is one to check out.

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