The ancient city of Amphipolis, in eastern Macedonia bordering Thrace, had three founding attempts. The first by Miletus in 497 BC, and the second by the Athenians in 465 BC. Both failed as the settlers from both expeditions were wiped out by Thracian “barbarians”.

However, the third attempt succeeded when Hagnon, the son of the famous Athenian strategist Nicias, managed to establish a colony in 437 BC with Athenians and Greeks from other city-states. Thus, the city of Amphipolis was born, likely the most valuable Athenian colony of all, as it became the main source of wheat import for Athens.

Thirteen years later, it became the stage for one of the most notable episodes of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The Athenian general Thucydides, who was responsible for defending the city, was absent, which the Spartan general Brasidas exploited. With only 1,700 men, Brasidas marched north, besieged, and took the city.

The Spartans attacked Amphipolis by surprise at night, catching its defender Eucles off guard. Eucles desperately sought help from Thasos, about eighty kilometers away, where Thucydides, a wealthy aristocrat of the illustrious Philaid family commanding a fleet of seven triremes, was stationed.

Upon learning of the impending relief, the Spartan decided to play the empathy card and offered generous surrender terms to Amphipolis: those who wished could stay and keep their property; those who preferred to leave would not be hindered and could take their possessions. Thus, Eucles was powerless to resist, and when the relief fleet finally arrived, it found the city had just surrendered to the Spartans.

Thucydides didn’t attempt to reconquer it, choosing instead to defend Eion. He succeeded because Brasidas redirected his attention to the conquest of other cities, such as Torone. However, he was considered responsible for the fall of Amphipolis and upon his return to Athens, he was exiled. It was during this exile that he wrote his famous “History of the Peloponnesian War”, which was a loss for Athens but a gain for history.

Two years later, Athens attempted to recapture Amphipolis by sending Cleon with a fleet of thirty triremes carrying 1,250 hoplites, 300 cavalry, and other allied forces, including the philosopher Socrates.

The battle resulted in 600 Athenians dead, including Cleon himself, compared to only six Spartans. Brasidas was among the fallen. He survived long enough to learn of the Athenian defeat and was buried in Amphipolis with great ceremony.

The people of Amphipolis considered him a second founder of their city and thereafter honored him as a hero with annual games and sacrifices. Thucydides himself highlighted Brasidas’ qualities as a general, describing him as energetic, just, and moderate.

Amphipolis became an independent city, no longer a colony under Athenian rule, though it remained an ally. It entered a new phase of prosperity as a cosmopolitan center. Thanks to Brasidas, it remained independent for another 65 years until it was conquered by Philip II of Macedon in 357 BC.

Fast forward to the 20th century, after World War II, the first systematic excavations of the city began under archaeologist D. Lazaridis. Bit by bit, between 1956 and 1986, the walls, basilicas, acropolis, cemeteries, gymnasium, Greek and Roman villas, bridges, and more were unearthed.

In a privileged location, where the agora, the main square of the city, had been, very close to the current archaeological museum, a wooden larnax (coffin) with silver plates and lion-shaped feet, containing ashes and a laurel crown made of gold, was discovered. Alongside it, numerous vessel remains believed to be offerings were found.

There are only two documented cases in Amphipolis where an honorary burial similar to the one found was conducted within the city, both dating from the second half of the 5th century BC. The first is that of the city’s founder, Hagnon, between 437 and 424 BC. The second is that of General Brasidas in 422 BC.

Although the urn bears no inscription, most archaeologists believe it contains the remains of Brasidas. Thus, the general became one of the few cases in antiquity where a man was considered a hero in two distant cities. In his native Sparta, where a cenotaph (empty tomb) was erected for him near that of Leonidas, and in Amphipolis, as Tucydides recounts:

After this, all the allies came in arms and buried Brasidas at public expense in the city, opposite what is now the market-place; and the Amphipolitans, having enclosed his tomb, ever afterwards sacrifice to him as a hero, and have granted him the honor of games and annual offerings. They made him founder of their colony, pulled down the monuments of Hagnon, and erased all marks of their old relationship with Athens; for whereas once they had courted the alliance of Laconia for fear of Athens, in their present hostile relations with her they could no longer do so with the same advantage or satisfaction to Hagnon. They also gave back the dead to the Athenians. About six hundred of the Athenians had fallen, and only seven of the enemy, since there had been no regular engagement, but only the accident and panic which I have described. After taking up their dead, the Athenians sailed off home, while Clearidas and his men stayed to arrange matters in Amphipolis.

Tucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, V.11

Today, the urn can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Amphipolis. The tomb where it was found was a rock-cut cist grave, made with blocks of limestone and mortar.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 6, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La urna que contiene los restos de Brásidas, el general espartano considerado héroe en dos ciudades distintas

Sources

Chaido Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, Anagnostis P. Agelarakis, Excavating Classical Amphipolis & On the Lacedaemonian General Brasidas | Peter Sommer, The Ancient Urn of Brasidas at Amphipolis in Greece | Brasidas (Livius.org) | Wikipedia


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