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The siege of Plataea: 431-427 BC

Several factors have given the siege of Plataea a particular fame. In the pages of Thucydides it evolves as an exciting story, to which he returns for each new development. His account includes fascinating details of siege tactics, with a succession of interesting ruses and counter-ruses. And the saga has a shocking end, with a simple question leading to inevitable death.

The Thebans begin the siege in 431, but it only becomes dramatic with the arrival of the Spartans in 429. They attempt a succession of tactics to which the Plataeans find convincing responses.

The Spartans build a mound against the wall, on which their troops hope to surge over the top. The Plataeans respond in two ways. They build their wall gradually higher at that same point; and by burrowing beneath the wall they remove, inconspicuously, the earth which the Spartans are so laboriously piling up. The Spartans bring siege engines to batter the wall. The Plataeans drop beams on them to snap off their ends.

The besieging army is itself now enclosed within an outer wall, which the Spartans have built all the way round Plataea to prevent an outside force from raising the siege.

By 427 the remaining 200 defenders are too exhausted to continue (about the same number have made a dramatic escape in the previous year). They capitulate, on a Spartan promise that they will be treated justly. But the five Spartan judges merely ask each man one question: 'Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in the present war?'

After four years it is unlikely that anyone can convincingly answer 'yes'. As each says 'no', he is led away to his death. The women and children of Plataea are enslaved and the city destroyed. The stakes are high in a Greek siege.

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