Battle of Tanagra, 457 BC

The First Peloponnesian war was fought between Athens and Sparta in the mid fifth century. It involved a number of clashes that were fought in the classic hoplite style. The battle of Tanagra, fought to the north west of Athens, was one such battle. It is something of a wargamer’s classic as it pits two relatively even forces against one another in a classic Athenian versus Spartan hoplite match up that was a close run affair.

In this post we will outline a recent after action report fought using the Commands and Colors ancient (boardgame) system using miniatures. Commands and Colors is sometimes looked on rather disparagingly by ‘serious’ ancient gamers as being a light treatment of its subject matter. However it is this author’s view that it delivers believable top-down results, somewhat abstracted, that many other game systems struggle to achieve in an evening’s play, with elegance and relative simplicity. It also has that added ‘crunchy’ bottom-up tactical element to it that makes it so engaging and is one of the principal reasons it is hugely popular (now in its 7th printing) in its boardgame formfast, fun and believable results.

Background

After the defeat of the Persian invasions in the early part of the fifth century Athens continued to expand its power thereby antagonising Sparta and her allies with its increasing arrogance and heavy handedness with other Greek city states. This competition between an expanding Athenian (naval) empire and the preeminent land power of Sparta was to result in the First Peloponnesian war in the mid fifth century.

Following the alliance of Athens with Sparta‘s nemesis, the Argives of the Peloponnese, this changed the balance of power that resulted in an outbreak of hostilities in 462BC. This resulted in the initial encounter at the battle of Oenoe (461 B.C.), a rare Spartan defeat. Athens emboldened, this was followed by further actions in the so called Saronic War that resulted in a continuation of the conflict in the following years with the initial clashes of Halieis (459 B.C.) and Cimolia I and II (458 B.C.) setting the stage for the Battle of Tanagra a year later.

The twin battles of Cimolia resulted in the defeat of Sparta’s ally Corinth. These victories further encouraged the Athenians who turned their attention to the north whereby they established an alliance with the Thessalians in northern Greece.

Sparta’s ally Thebes (in Boeotia), became increasingly concerned being sandwiched between an expanding Athenian empire and their new ally Thessaly. However it was the Athenians’ Phocian allies who seized the Dorian (Spartan culturally aligned) town of Doris that triggered subsequent events.

A plea for assistance (by Doris) was met with a Spartan expeditionary force of Panhellenic and Peloponnesian hoplites along with a contingent of 1,500 Spartiates; 11,500 men in total led by the regent Nicomedes. This force was sent north as much to aid the Dorisians as well as calm the nerves of the Thebans and to let Athens know its continuing expansion would not go unchecked.

Athens challenged this movement with a sally north to counter the Spartan presence as it marched back from its northern operations. Under the command of Myronides the Athenians mustered a larger host of 14,000 hoplites made of a number of Panhellenic and Athenian hoplite contingents. Sitting astride the Spartan line of march the battle lines were set for a showdown in one of the largest hoplite engagments of the fifth century.


Commands & Colors Ancients (CCA)

In the CCA system in expansion six, the Spartans, the scenario for Tanagra already exists. A number of compromises were made in this scenario that resulted in a force structure that wasn’t entirely historically accurate. Specifically, Auxilia troops were used to represent lesser quality (medium infantry) hoplite troops.

In our re-fight we used hoplites exclusively and downgraded their abilities based on their type. In essence this meant that Panhellenic hoplites would still fight as normal however they would have one less block i.e. hit points before they broke, being reduced from 4 to 3. Peloponnesian and Athenian hoplites had the (standard) 4 hit points and Spartan hoplites had the (standard) 5.

In our game we consider the elite Spartiates to be superior to the way they are portrayed in the standard (expansion) game. Thus we enable the Spartiates the ability to inflict a hit on a helmet (as if a leader was present) and ignore one flag and sword hit – that does make them quite tough. Other than that we basically played the standard CCA game as published.

Note – those CCA players thinking this too much will be surprised by the outcome of the battle.

Standard CCA Tanagra 457BC scenario

In the following after action report I’ll try and keep the words to a minimum and let the pictures do the talking. I’ll just point out anything of note that might be of interest.

To Battle!

The Athenians on the left, the Spartans on the right. Notice the two dark brown lines running across the table centrally. They define the left, centre and right sectors of the battlefield as per CCA.

Looking from the Spartan left rear-flank. The Spartan Panhellenic hoplites are on their left flank and the Athenian Panhellenic hoplites are deployed opposite them. The Spartans have more Panhellenics than the Athenians.

Opening move by the ‘Athenian controlled’ Thessalian cavalry.

Note – there is no hex grid on the mat (which regulates movement/shooting in the game). Instead, the dots that can be seen represent the centre of each hex. Units move from dot-to-dot (ie hex to hex). In play the dots are barely visible and the table has a nice look overall.

Spartan left.

Spartan right flank initial clashes.

Spartan centre moves up and shores up their centre-right.

The Spartan left Panhellenic hoplites hold back with the Athenian right advancing.

Thessalian cavalry move onto the hill on the Athenian right flank, taking some javelin fire (1 hit) from the nearby Spartan skirmishers.

A lone Athenian hoplite unit ‘holds’ on the right of the line.

The main clash begins. Spartans supported by their Peloponnesian allies.

Athenian slingers occupy the high ground on the Athenian left.

(Spartan) panhellenic hoplites are driven back and the Athenian right flank advances.

Hoplites clash. The Spartans conduct a botched attack (poor combat roll) inflicting only moderate losses on the Athenians (2 hits each – yellow stars) over two turns of activation. The Spartiates take a whopping three hits from a brutal counterattack (battle-back) from the Athenians.

Note – hits are tracked with the colored stars – green (1), yellow (2) and red (3)…traffic lights!

Athenians hold the line.

Athenian othismos!….another concerted attack and the Spartiates break…first blood to the Athenian Myronides!

The Spartan hegemon, Nicomedes survives the combat and attaches to an adjacent unit (he had a 50/50 chance of being removed from the game).

On the Spartan right their battle line opens up. The Peloponnesian hoplites push forward to force a decision in their sector of the battlefield. This shot nicely shows up the ‘dot-grid’.

A pause as the lines shake out and redresses for the next clash. The Athenian panhellenics have taken a few hits and are themselves vulnerable (yellow stars=2 hits).

Peloponnesian hoplites, both 2 hits, prepare to advance for one more push.

Spartan hellenic javelinmen advance on the Thessalian cavalry on the rough ground/hill. The cavalry are driven back in the combat (they roll a flag).

The battleline starts to break up as combatants face off from one another seeking an advantage or decisive attack and/or breakthrough. This resulted in a number of combats along the line.

The Spartan right fails once again. Another brutal attack by the Athenians breaks a Peloponnesian unit, the one Nicodemes had joined! The unit collapses and the Spartan hegemon survives another rout and falls back on the nearby Javelinmen!

Whilst the Spartans have been having a hard time of it they have been chipping away at the Athenian line… a number of (Athenian right flank) units teeter on the brink of collapse.

Push and shove..units forward, units back. The Athenians ascendant.

Yet more Athenian success. Another Peloponnesian unit breaks.

…and another! The Athenian have four victory banners, the Spartans none…oh my…

4 victory banners (shields low right corner).

Thessalian cavalry take one more hit…another Athenian unit close to breaking….will they change sides?

The Spartan’s last roll of the dice…literally!

Two Athenian units break into the Spartan line (swinging left and right) and destroy another Spartan unit (5 banners!).

Break!

The Athenians, battered and bruised, roll forward and finish off one more unenthusiastic panhellenic hoplite contingent and sweep the enemy from the field…6 banners…victory!

6 victory banners to 0…a complete defeat for the Spartans under Nicomedes…game over!

Conclusion

An absolute lob-sided encounter with the Athenian (rolling) hot on this day. Even though it resulted in a complete Athenian victory the Athenian player actually had 4 units all within 1 hit of routing….it could have been alot closer than the ultimate outcome. The battles was tense and we were pushing 500+ figures around to conclusion in under 2 hours.

Of all the rules sets we’ve used only one, To the Strongest (TtS), employs a combat method that does not involve units being forced to retire from combat. Hail Caesar, Hoplomachia and DBA (to a lesser extent), all involve units moving forward and back at the coal-face of combat dependent on combat outcomes. The pictures above show that kind of effect.

Abstractly speaking what’s really happening is a continual line of troops that is buckling forward and back with the movement itself shown, and accentuated, on the tabletop. The slow disintegrating of units ‘on the line’ like TtS requires players to visually picture this effect..really, with fixed base miniatures, this is the only method possible.

To my mind this is not really an issue and keeps players engaged with units moving forward and back driving a narrative of the engagement as it unfolds. The game encourages supported units and the command cards drive the friction and fog of war that each player wrestles with to achieve it.

Notably, the duplicitous act of betrayal by the Thessalian horse, who changed sides in the real battle, did not occur in our refight…perhaps that would’ve changed the face of the battle completely and given the Spartans the victory they (historically) achieved…we will never know.

Historical Postscript

Even though the Athenians bested the Spartans in our refight this was not the actual outcome. Historically, it was the reverse result. It was a hard fought encounter, which this could have been, that resulted in a Spartan victory. However, within two months, the Athenians had regrouped and defeated the Thebans at the Battle of Oenophyta, winning so comprehensively as to take control of Boeotia for a decade or more. Our battle, in fact, replicated the result of that later contest but not for our Battle of Tanagra.

5 thoughts on “Battle of Tanagra, 457 BC

    • …my hoplites live in the big tent rules world…they say get us on the table any which way you can 😜 CCA to Hoplomachia and everything in between 🧐

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  1. This is fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed C&C, and a buddy and i have mused about possible adaptions – the dot system here seems to work really well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Have only played the ACW version a friend set up. I get the system is intended to be a game, but I like some less game than CC series – the cards are interesting, however. What has the group thought of Hoplomachia?

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