Zach Rabiroff at Open Letters Monthly:
Two and a half millennia ago, on the tiny Greek island of Sphacteria, something unthinkable happened. In the spring of 425 B.C., a small garrison of Athenian hoplites (heavily-armored spearmen who provided the staple of Greek fighting forces) landed on the sandy promontory of Pylos in the southern Peloponnese, and promptly began setting up camp for a long-term occupation. Their objective was to build a raiding base against the mighty Peloponnesian city of Sparta, against whom the Athenians had been waging war for six consecutive years, but the presence of an Athenian army within arm’s length of the Spartan homeland drew a swift response. Soon, a Spartan army was marching out to lay siege to Pylos. To block the entrance to the harbor, and prevent food and supplies from reaching the beleaguered fort, 420 Spartans took up position on the wooded island of Sphacteria just offshore. As Athenian stomachs grumbled, the Spartans settled in for certain victory.
But the they had made a dreadful miscalculation. The Athenians were the mightiest sea power of the ancient world, with a vastly larger and more experienced navy than the landlubbing Peloponnesians. Within days, a fleet of Athenian triremes had seized control of the harbor and encircled the tiny force of soldiers on Sphacteria. Now it was the Spartans’ turn to starve. For several weeks, intrepid smugglers supplied the stranded Sphacteria with food and water, tying waterproof sacks to the backs of helot slaves, who darted between Athenian patrol ships.