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The success of Cleon at Pylos

In 425 B.C. the Athenian general Cleon won an unprecedented victory by capturing some 120 Spartan Equals and about 170 allied troops in a battle at Pylos1 in the western Peloponnese. No Spartan soldiers had ever before surrendered under any circumstances. They had always taken as their martial creed the sentiment expressed by the legendary advice of a Spartan mother as she handed her son his shield as he went off to war: “Come home either with this or on it,” meaning he should return either as a victor carrying his shield or as a corpse carried upon it. By this date , however, the population of Spartan Equals had been so reduced that the loss of even such a small group was perceived as intolerable. The Spartan leaders therefore offered the Athenians favorable peace terms in return for the captives. Cleon's success at Pylos had vaulted him into a position of political leadership, and he advocated a hard line toward Sparta. Thucydides, who apparently had no love for Cleon, called him “the most violent of the citizens.”2 At Cleon's urging the Athenian assembly refused to make peace with Sparta.3

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